Tag Archives: Manchester Literature Festival

A new laureate

At first I was a little disappointed that Imtiaz Dharker declined becoming our next poet laureate. I half felt I knew her – after a meeting over a signing table! – so that would have been good. Another woman, and one from an outsider kind of background. But I can see why she felt she couldn’t accept.

Carol Ann Duffy has over the years become a very familiar figure, through our shared Manchester connection, MMU and the Edinburgh Book Festival.

But Simon Armitage is the next best thing. At least he will be when I can manage to remember his name and not call him Richard. We have a ‘connection’ to Simon as well. Daughter really liked his poetry at school, so I bought tickets for us to see him at the Manchester Literature Festival one year. We got as far as our home station, by which I mean the platform opposite the former Bookwitch Towers. There we decided not to go after all, so turned round and trotted home again.

[According to the Guardian] it seems that Simon comes from a witty family. His parents burst into tears when they heard the news about him being the new poet laureate. ‘I got a text from my dad later saying “We’ve stopped crying now. — If your grandad had been alive today, this would have killed him”.’

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Water with Elen

‘I’m wearing orange and white stripes and I’m standing by the departures board. Please come and rescue me.’ That’s not quite what Elen Caldecott said in her text message, but it was close. She had asked if I wanted to meet up when she came to Manchester on book business (talking to young, and very reluctant, readers in Moss Side), and I said yes and suggested one of the usual coffee chains near Piccadilly, which had her local guide from the Manchester Literature Festival try every coffee-ish place in Piccadilly.

Elen Caldecott

Since it was raining and Elen had a train to catch, I’d already changed my mind about the venue, anyway. After a brief recce for a suitable place to sit and chat I had, rather uncharacteristically, settled on a bar in the station. It turned out to be reasonably good, and with no bottled water for witches, I became a very cheap date. Elen herself drank what looked like a large soup bowl of weak coffee, but apparently it was a large bowl of tea. Same difference.

Elen writes marvellous, and very readable, books for younger children, and she’s an obvious choice to introduce reluctant readers to. They had all been given her book beforehand, and some had read it – or tried to – which is what matters. I’m always impressed when organisations like the Manchester LitFest work so hard at introducing children to books.

So what did we talk about? How excellent Wales is at the promotion of literature. Elen is Welsh. Did I say? She even speaks Welsh. Not to me, thankfully (although I could obviously have retaliated). How Bath is too beautiful to live in. The pride northern towns take in their children’s book awards, complete with Town Halls and Mayors and stuff.

And, I really hope Elen hadn’t read my moan that morning about what (not) to ask me, because she had some pretty good conversation starters. (I didn’t even need to mention the three keyrings I was almost given at Piccadilly. Or the free plastic wallet for train tickets.)

We agreed on the excellence of Bloomsbury’s Emma, who arranges book tours for authors with new books out. Elen has written a play, Corina Pavlova (yummy name), which is a dual language production, and it sounds fantastic!

Seemingly suffering from none of the travel nerves some of us cultivate, we only rose from our bowl of tea and free tap water when Elen’s train was just about ready to leave without her. I even permitted myself to be train-napped and joined her on the Bournemouth train. Needless to say, neither of us was going to Bournemouth.

I had to get off pretty soon again, but thanks to this clever move I caught a train home that left Piccadilly while we were still in the bar…

Now, if anyone else would like to buy me free water I might just be available.

Fortunately, the… whatever

Guinea pig?! I felt more like a cow. (No, don’t say it.)

Unfortunately I had been reading about cows on my way in to Manchester, on a most unwitch-like train, i.e. one that didn’t leave hours in advance. I felt so little inclination to go and hear Neil Gaiman yesterday afternoon, that I cut it finer than one should with British style rail travel.

Unfortunately, that was totally fine. I arrived at the Dancehouse theatre with 15 minutes to spare and thought it was going swimmingly. After which thought we ended up penned in rather like cattle, waiting forever to be allowed in. Stairs and reception and café filled up with eager Gaiman fans, plus a few small children (whose event this really was).

I decided that if things got any worse I’d just go home again, wondering why I’d come in the first place. I like Neil Gaiman. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like crowds, and he collects them. But I can put up with crowds if treated humanely. I wasn’t alone in waiting it out on the other side of the doors, near the toilets. Fortunately, once we were allowed up the stairs, my number seat was the right number seat and so I was allowed in. (But we still had to wait for everyone to be seated, and the whole event was train-like in running half an hour late.)

Why was I not keen? Everything about this book has gone not to plan. Publisher didn’t send me a copy. I had to buy my own when that became evident. The complimentary ticket for the event didn’t materialise, so I had to buy my own at the 11th hour. The crowds, as I said. The fact that there is no way I’ll stand in a queue for three hours to have a book signed. The fact that I’m old and grumpy. And a cow.

You could say that the whole thing was threatening to curdle. I decided not to get my camera out. I’d just sit there and ‘not be on duty.’

But, you know, once Neil came on stage he worked his usual magic. He is a born entertainer, and he does events so effortlessly that even I started to feel all calm and relaxed and almost happy. His voice is nice to listen to.

Neil Gaiman

(This is a photo of Neil. Try to imagine a red curtain in the background, and that his hair doesn’t hang down across his eyes quite so much. In which case he almost looked like this.)

He said we’d be guinea pigs. He wanted to test read a longer piece from Fortunately, the Milk… than he usually does. Lying in training for Westminster on Tuesday, when he has to read it all.

As for himself he is obviously a goldfish. Or two. He’s the dad who was exchanged for two goldfish. In a way the milk book is simply a continuation of the goldfish book, and an attempt to come up with a positive book for dads.

Neil talked about his very young book, Chu’s Day. Cute pandas who sneeze, apparently. Only, I didn’t hear – didn’t know – the title, so when he asked what we thought the next book would be called, I felt Wednesday seemed appropriate.

Btw, I didn’t take notes.

He recounted how it came about that Chris Riddell would illustrate Fortunately, the Milk…, this the shiniest book in history. And Neil is about the only one who doesn’t find the charicature of himself all that amusing.

Then it was question time. Say what you want about his fans, but they ask good questions. Not all of them were fans, however, so a pattern developed where the person doing the asking qualified how fan-like they considered themselves to be.

One question was about Terry Pratchett, and in the end we all felt we were privy to some personal secret (and I don’t mean ‘when Terry slept with Neil,’ which he did, when they were both younger and poorer and didn’t buy the hotel first if they had to stay somewhere), and that’s a great skill to have. Neil even made the last rather pedestrian question sound exciting, because he was able to make the answer really special.

At the end of all that, ‘we will do some signing.’ Though Neil reckoned it would be best if he signed, until his head fell off, and the rest of us waited patiently in line.

Well, I didn’t do that, so I have no idea how long his head stayed put. Here is a photo someone took earlier, showing what Neil looks like when signing.

Neil Gaiman

‘Did you enjoy that?’ said the adult to the small child behind me. Small child said nothing. This was not a small child event, whatever the organisers say.

Now me, I did enjoy it. In the end. Neil always delivers. But I’d be happier without the crowds.

‘Children have the right to read rubbish’

Malorie Blackman

The children’s laureate was in Manchester yesterday. If anyone has the right to say something like that about children’s reading, it must be Malorie Blackman. And she was only saying what Patrick Ness said the other evening. I think we can all (well, most of us, anyway) agree that reading everything can only be good.

This was another school event organised by the Manchester Literature Festival and Manchester Children’s Book Festival, and Malorie was talking to Jackie Roy, who is a favourite chair of mine, someone who asks all the right questions. The event was at Z-arts in Hulme, which is a suitable venue for children of immigrant background in particular to find out how far you can get in life, and that it’s got nothing to do with what colour you are.

Malorie Blackman behind fans

The place was packed, and they even Livestreamed the whole thing to interested parties who were unable to attend. Until this year Malorie has also been unable to come, despite being asked by MLF every year, but as they say in Sweden, trägen vinner.

Malorie spoke about how far equality has come, but pointing out there is a long way still to go before fiction is ethnically diverse, with books featuring disabled characters without being disability books, and where people have a place regardless of sex, race, culture, and so on.

She read very little fiction at home, as her father said it wasn’t real and you ‘never learn anything from fiction.’ So Malorie practically lived at her local library from the age of seven until she was 14 and got a job and could buy her own books. She’d take a packed lunch every Saturday and spend the day, returning home with as many books as she could take, hoping they’d last until the following Saturday.

There were no black children in those books, and it might have been this which made Malorie write on, despite receiving 82 rejection letters from publishers. (She said that she almost gave up after no. 60, but vowed to carry on until the 1000th.) She wrote what she would have wanted to read as a child.

Malorie Blackman

While trying not to tell her readers what to think, Malorie presents a dilemma, and then asks questions to make her characters explore the things she herself is wondering about. It could be animal organ transplants as in Pig Heart Boy, or being a whistle blower versus allowing some things ‘for the greater good,’ like in Noble Conflict.

‘Oh my god, I thought that was an enormous spider!’ I’m not sure what she saw, but something almost made our laureate jump out of the sofa and run…

As a child – and still, actually – she loved comics, using her pocket money to buy them. Their use of cliffhangers has influenced the way she writes. Malorie describes how a teacher at school took her comic away from her and tore it to pieces, because it was ‘rubbish.’ The fact that Noughts & Crosses is about to become a graphic novel gives her great pleasure.

Her careers teacher told Malorie that blacks don’t become teachers, and that she would not pass her English A-level. She laughed as she described walking away from that advice session thinking ‘I’ll show you, you old cow!’

The young Malorie got hooked on computers instead and her first novel was Hacker, which Transworld took on, despite ‘all of it’ needing re-writing. This taught her how to plan, so she wouldn’t waste time writing, and it won her an award, which turned into a wonderful holiday to Barbados.

Malorie Blackman

‘Is that water for me, or has it been here for a long time?’ Malorie pointed to the water next to her when her throat felt dry. (It was for her…)

She’s currently writing her 61st book, and hopes to go on until at least her 100th. And if she didn’t write, she’d have some other book related job. Or maybe she’d be an English teacher. She laughed at that.

When asked if she’d be willing to become the next children’s laureate, her gut reaction was to ask if they had the right person. They were very big shoes to fill, with so many great authors who had done it before her. But she knew she wanted to do it, and it’s an honour to be able to spread her passion for books and reading.

Her mother would be very upset if she didn’t say she supports Arsenal, but to tell the truth she is not a football fan. She has rarely been recognised when out, except for one stalker incident in Sainsbury’s which was ‘well creepy.’

This lovely children’s laureate got the audience to sing Happy Birthday, when a girl asked if she could wish her friend a happy birthday. Our laureate also admitted to having carried around a leotard and tights and a utility belt for a couple of years in secondary school, just in case she ever needed to turn into a super hero in a school kidnapping scenario…

Malorie Blackman

Every book is like opening a new door to somewhere. Malorie loves crime and Jane Austen and can quote most of the first Narnia book. She admires many writers, including Benjamin Zephaniah, Melvin Burgess, Anne Fine, Patrick Ness, Jacqueline Wilson and Jackies Kay and Roy.

The character she feels is mostly her is Callum, and much of what happens to him in Noughts & Crosses has happened to Malorie in real life. As a teenager she was once told to go back to where she came from, so she asked for the bus fare back to Clapham.

Spookily, the launch for Checkmate was on 7/7 seven years ago, and she was having her hair done in central London, when the whole city shut down, and Malorie felt as if she was almost inside one of her own books. She doesn’t condone terrorism, but she can see why people become terrorists. Because of the book connection, she was interviewed on television that time, and there were even people who wanted to ban her book.

Malorie Blackman and Jackie Roy

I’d say that by now Malorie has shown that ‘cow’ a thing or two. The fact that there were two black women on that sofa yesterday made me very happy. One of them is a university lecturer and the other is the children’s laureate.

As I was waiting to go in to the event (gobbling down sandwiches again, having been driven there by the Resident IT Consultant, and trying not to drown in the incredibly deep sofa we hid in) I noticed Malorie disappearing off in the company of a young lady. I was introduced to Sophie (that’s her name) a few minutes later, and she turned out to want to interview me. Yikes. First Malorie. Then me. (Good taste, I have to say.)

Malorie Blackman

And now that Malorie has finally been, she promised she’d be back if the MLF would let her have one of their t-shirts. That seems like A Very Good Deal, so please don’t forget to put one in the post!

Malorie Blackman can be our superhero in a literary T-shirt. No leotard necessary.

Kind or nice, or both?

The reason I thought the people with the drinks and the canapés looked a bit too posh for me might have been because they were. I strongly suspect I gatecrashed the pre-Patrick Ness hospitality session at Manchester Town Hall on Tuesday night. (But I brought my own food and drink which, while not very posh, at least meant I wasn’t a burden on anyone.)

Patrick was appearing at the Manchester Literature Festival in his adult guise (mostly, anyway), talking about The Crane Wife with Katherine Beacon, who like all of us is a great fan. At least as long as there are no jokes about David Bowie.

The Bookshop Band

While ‘my’ lot had wine and listened to a speaker whose name I didn’t catch, the rest of the audience was being entertained by The Bookshop Band in the next room. Beautiful singing in what I would label the best of English traditional style. And what could be more appropriate than singing about books at a literature festival?

(And you know, the evening was sign interpreted, which included the singing. I’ve never seen songs like that. Sensual.)

Patrick has strong opinions on all sorts of things, including wanting us to come and sit on the front row (I wouldn’t dream of it!) and asking for the houselights to come on a bit more. He asked for this more than once, claiming he felt hot up there in the spotlight. Or was it warm? Let’s go for hot.

He’d had the inspiration for The Crane Wife since he was five, but it was while he was writing More Than This that the story insisted on being heard, and he ended up writing both books simultaneously, occasionally switching books in the middle of the day. Never again!

Patrick Ness

Patrick read a few pages from the book, with asides whenever we needed to know more. That’s where the ‘kind or nice’ conundrum comes in. He reckons you are either one or the other. And people need to know they are loved. With teenagers feelings can fill the whole room, whether good or bad. And the reason dystopias are so popular is that they are high school!

People invented religion to deal with fear of death, and comedy for fear of life. All writers are outsiders, and being an expat just adds to it. George in The Crane Wife and Seth in More Than This are both examples of this. And here the lights finally made an appearance and we could see!

Asked about Todd’s voice in The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick said it just came, and that the voice in a story ‘is what it has to be.’ Someone wanted to know why he killed the dog, and he replied that he knew it was right, and that even a hero has to go sometimes.

Patrick Ness

When he writes, Patrick has the last words ready and uses them to write towards, as well as a few scenes on the way to guide him. He doesn’t believe in wasting time on building a fictional world before starting, but relies on friends to read early drafts and ask questions to let him know what needs more description. And an empty world would be paradise!

People should read everything, classics, new stuff, and rubbish. The young Patrick devoured Stephen King’s IT, and he also read Judy Blume, whereas he felt that Enid Blyton was mainly about food. (Too right!)

Before we could go to the ‘signing corridor’ Patrick was whisked out and subjected to more photos, leaning nonchalantly against some pillar or other. (For me it was too dark, hence my use of ‘one we took earlier’ which has his approval.) The rest of us were serenaded some more by The Bookshop Band, and then it was everyone for themself in buying books and queueing up.

Patrick Ness

I had abandoned restraint this time, so brought the lot with me. When I was approached by the publicist clutching the post-its, I was most gratified that she had heard of me, despite us never having met (I know, this is getting repetitive), and Patrick informed me he certainly didn’t require a post-it for my books. Which was nice. And since he is kind, too, I’m guessing it’s possible to be both. Along with opinionated, obviously.

But he was right; adult events have far fewer people willing to admit to either writing stuff themselves, or asking questions. I did have a question, but unfortunately I forgot what it was. And most of Tuesday evening’s questions came from writers and people associated with the local book festivals…

It was a dark – yes, I know we have mentioned this already – and balmy night. It’s nice when October evenings are warm (OK, so it was warm. Patrick was hot.) Outside the Midland Hotel I almost ran into Manchester Children’s Book Festival’s Kaye and James, but it was dark and I was invisible. At the Town Hall it was dark, and they were invisible.

That’s life. And I am kind. More than nice, anyway.

You’re never too young to write a book

And then they all turned around and looked at me.

Yes, you!

(That should teach me to sit by the emergency exit.)

I had just enough time to leave the Royal Exchange on Monday and make my way to the People’s History Museum for an afternoon with Eoin Colfer. It was for schools only, so don’t fret if you feel you’ve missed it. Well, you obviously have missed it, but unlike me you are not a school. Just outside Kendals (House of Fraser) I encountered the Waterstones team bound for the same place. The boxes of books almost fell off their trolley, but righted themselves at the last moment.

At the museum a very nice helper asked me to pick a stool (adults had to rough it, as it was fully booked) and to sit at the back (like by the emergency exit), and then as I went to look at the book display I returned to find my stool almost walking away. (You’ll be pleased to hear I wrestled it back.) Left my stool again for ‘other business’ and was rewarded by meeting Eoin’s publicist Adele. (I know her. I don’t have to ask stupid questions like I did the other day.)

Eoin Colfer

In case any of the children were upset to miss an afternoon of school, Eoin mentioned that as a teacher he is legally qualified to hand out homework. He sounded very Irish when he said that.

So, WARP, the new book, is about time travel, and the reason Eoin picked this ‘original’ subject is all to do with Ireland in the 1970s. They had nothing (although Eoin had – still has – three younger brothers, and he hates younger brothers). Television offered only the bible channel and the farming channel, until a friend got BBC, which had wonderful things like Doctor Who, which they could watch through the window…

Eoin Colfer

There were more tall stories about how Eoin came to watch BBC and Doctor Who, which had to do with semi-nudity, a fierce dog and an air rifle. But anyway, this confirmed his determination to write about time travel one day.

Then he told us some rubbish about trying to scare his sons with his writing, but they have watched the Powerpuff Girls, so don’t scare easily. His eldest son is a cruel teenager who flicks his hair and no longer tells his father, who is in charge of all the money, that he loves him. Or whatever.

(For that kind of money I’d be more than willing to tell Eoin I love him.)

The younger one has a wrestler’s death move he uses on his defenseless dad, and there was a long story about the little one’s toilet habits. It sort of makes you want to go, but you can’t very well amidst all the peepee and poopoo and old Frenchmen.

Eoin Colfer

When Eoin returned to his teen disco experience, I knew I’d heard it before and recently. But where? I remembered after a while only to forget it almost immediately. (Preston.) Then remembered again.

There were more dancing memories. Someone very sweetly asked how he met his wife. At a ceilidh, at a very young age. His wife was also responsible for getting Eoin writing, because he was forever saying things like ‘he could do it better’ until she snapped and told him to do it then. Thank you, Mrs C.

His goal is to write fifty books. Current tally is 24. Eoin loves books, but has no plans to marry one. The second WARP instalment will be Hangman’s Revolution which will be published in April.

Kaye Tew for mcbf

Eoin Colfer

Eoin Colfer

Before Eoin went over to the signing table, he signed some books standing up. They were prizes for the winners of the various categories of the Postcards from the Past competition, launched a year ago. I rather liked the one from the iceberg that did for the Titanic. I didn’t know icebergs could write postcards.

Eoin Colfer with Adele Minchin

This time I almost succeeded in being last in the signing queue, and I’d brought my adult Eoin Colfer books along, seeing as I missed him a few weeks ago. I hope none of the short ten-year-olds in the audience has even an inkling as to what they are about. But they’ll grow up one day, and then they will be allowed to read them, and they will be taller than they are now, and Eoin will be forced to hate them. (I am very short, btw.)

Eoin Colfer

Jackie’s Royal Exchange gig

She does get oot and aboot, that Jackie Kay. Although someone tried to pull the wool over her eyes by making her think she was doing a gig in front of thirty children. It was more like 500, including me. I sat next to the screamers from Whalley Range. Those girls have got good lungs.

Thirty indeed! It was the Children’s Bookshow at the Royal Exchange, and it was full to bursting. Poetry isn’t dead yet.

This was another great gig (Jackie’s choice of word…) with a nice mix of poems and questions from the audience. She started with a poem based on her (12-year-old) brother’s tricks, went on to Dracula, in whom she believed when she was eleven and visited Romania. Jackie made the audience shout Mississippi for a sad poem about a slave who was forced to sell her child, and clap hands for ‘attention.’

Jackie Kay

When she asked if anyone knew what a Sassenach is I didn’t dare raise my hand unlike last time, but once we’d had some pretty imaginative suggestions, someone seemed to know it means a non-Scottish person. Audience participation in the Sassenach poem definitely dealt with any problems a person on too little sleep might have had. (I’m not saying there actually was such a person present.)

Miaowing along with The Nine Lives of the Cat Mandu, this not-so-posh audience gave vent to lots of noise. And to finish off we got the poem about Jackie’s imaginary friend, Brendan Gallagher. He seemed nice.

The questions were everything from fairly ordinary ones, to the more unusual. Jackie was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Glasgow. Her parents adopted her brother (the one with the tricks) first, and managed to get him as a baby by having no colour preference. Jackie was bullied in primary school, and one of her heroes is Martin Luther King. She likes music, reading and cooking.

Jackie Kay

Her favourite children’s book is Anne of Green Gables, she’s not as old as the audience seemed to think (not sure they quite got her plea for age flattery…), and when he was small her son thought Poetry was a place, because she often seemed to go there. Being a poet is both lonely, when you write, and social, when you do gigs. She is happy when writing, but the editing can take a lot of time.

What with the Exchange being a theatre in the round, it pleased me that Jackie kept turning round the whole time, so there was no front or back. Just hard work taking pictures of this whirlwind.

Jackie Kay

The copies of Red, Cherry Red seemed to sell like hot cakes and the signing queue was long. Jackie said she had never signed anything to a Bookwitch before, and I should jolly well think not!