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This book will change your life…

Berwick Literary Festival runs from the evening of Thursday 19th October to the afternoon of Sunday 22nd October 2017. There’s a wonderful array of events and speakers. I’m lucky enough to be doing a bit of blogging for the Festival. I thought I’d share my posts here but you’ll also find them over on the Festival website along with loads of other useful programme information.

What’s so great about books and literary festivals?

Well, books really do have the power to change lives and influence the reader in both subtle and startling ways. They also help us set down markers in time: what were you reading thirty-one years ago?

Thirty-one years ago, I was engrossed in Olivia Manning’s The Balkan and Levant Trilogies, collectively known as The Fortunes of War. The BBC was planning to make a series of Manning’s fabulous and complex tale of war-torn Europe. My job back then was to write pre-publicity for potential BBC TV programmes to attract co-production investment.  The Beeb’s serialisation of Fortunes of War was broadcast in 1987. Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson starred as Guy and Harriet Pringle (Ken and Em later married and subsequently divorced).

Wind the clock forward to the year 2000 and I was reading Secrets of the flesh: A Life of Colette by Judith Thurman. Not for work this time, but for sheer pleasure. When I did my French A level, one of our set books was Colette’s Le blé on herbe. I loved the book and was fascinated by Colette’s racy life and works.

 

My eldest daughter was born in 1987. Her name is Harriet. My younger daughter was born 14 years later in 2001. Her name is Colette.

Hence, my daughters both carry monikers from my literary influences (actually, Colette’s middle name is Nancy because the Husband loved Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons). We were moved by these stories, these writers, to such a degree that we incorporated them into our family’s heritage.

A good writer shines a light on the tangible and intangible in a way that can frequently become more meaningful to you, the reader, than the sum of their written words. A good writer tells a story – whether it be fictional or factual – in a way that has you rolling the story around in your mind. A good writer leaves you wanting to know why they chose a subject and why and how they structured it the way they did. In short, good writing leaves you a little bit (and sometimes a lot) changed. And sometimes, when you really think about it, you can trace thoughts, ideas and even actions back to something you read way back when. This is why I love literary festivals and hearing the ins and outs of others’ writing processes.

One of the reasons the Berwick Literary Festival is such a great weekend is that it recognises the importance of reading and writing across the community. And, even if you’re not involved in some elements of the Festival, you can feel its wide-reaching inclusivity and accessibility in the way it’s organised. There are events and competitions specifically for local schools, poetry readings in care homes for the elderly, workshops for aspiring writers and, of course, local and national writers for your delectation and entertainment.

You’ll find information on topics and speakers at our fourth Berwick Literary Festival here and you can book events on The Maltings’ website. Don’t forget to visit our Facebook page, find us on Instagram and follow us on Twitter.

Over the next couple of months I intend to catch up with some of our contributors and give you the lowdown on what they’ll be up to at the festival. I shall also be posting about our lovely town of Berwick and some of the spaces and places you might check out on your visit here.

So, don’t be strangers: there’s plenty to chat about.  why not read a book by one of this year’s writers before the festival kicks off in October? It might just be something you remember years from now. Here’s a selection of books by festival contributors you might like to read before your visit (check out the full programme for more books and authors):

 

 

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A force to be reckoned with: Iain Lowson on how not to do things properly

Berwick Literary Festival runs from the evening of Thursday 19th October to the afternoon of Sunday 22nd October 2017. There’s a wonderful array of events and speakers. I’m lucky enough to be doing a bit of blogging for the Festival. I thought I’d share my posts here but you’ll also find them over on the Festival website along with loads of other useful programme information.

Iain Lowson will be chatting about his career as a freelance writer at the Festival and I caught up with him for a preview – and cake, of course!

Iain Lowson says he’s a case study in ‘how not to do things properly’. Considering Iain makes his living as a freelance commercial writer, largely producing work for the Disney Star Wars franchise, it’s an interesting self-analysis. I caught up with Iain at The Corner House café, the Literary Festival Hub.

As I munched my way through a slab of Nutella and Peanut Butter cake (obscenity laws mean I cannot post a pic), Iain explained just how he’s not done things properly all his life. He’s a wannabe actor and university dropout, a drifter who left serial jobs in retail to start writing, a blagger who talked his way into writing a Star Wars column 25 years back, a graduate in Egyptology, a grafter who believes that the only route into writing is to write.

Iain is also extremely droll and, with his twirly moustache, twinkly eyes, trademark waistcoat and warm Scottish burr, pretty much personifies one of the many fictional characters he has helped style over the years. Once upon a time, Iain leapt aboard a Silver Fox Coach (‘like Trainspotting on wheels’) to travel overnight from Edinburgh to London to place his copy into the right hands and ensure he was ‘visible’ to the right people. Nowadays, he leaves his house each morning and walks 15 steps to the garden shed.

In this wooden Tardis, Iain pores over his cornucopia of books, merchandise, papers, trinkets and paraphernalia and develops the ‘in universe’ stories of Star Wars. That is to say, the behind-the-scenes tales, the explorations of character backstories and storylines, and the production narratives. All of his research and creative insight is refined into features for Star Wars partwork subscriber magazines. Yes, from this small shed in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Iain’s work travels all over Europe, Japan, Russia, the States, Argentina… outer space.

Iain’s had the nod that the work from the Star Wars franchise will keep rolling his way to 2020 and beyond. He has good reason to feel confident: Disney (who bought Lucas Film in 2012) gave a Product Innovation Award to a recent project. The huge scale model of the Millennium Falcon, which ran across 100 magazine issues, was one of the most successful partwork series ever.

The Millennium Falcon

Iain’s enjoyed several Star Wars-related magic moments. A favourite is the time the fabulous Christopher Lee (Sith Lord Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005)) was handed an Iain Lowson article to help him build his characterisation pre-filming. Iain says, ‘To think that Christopher Lee studied my stuff… that’s a real buzz’.

So, as I say, it’s difficult to see how all this can be construed as ‘not doing things properly’.  Iain thinks that walking away from his job at Wonderland Models in Edinburgh, after a particularly grim Christmas in the early 90s, was maybe not the wisest move. He subsequently endured ‘abject poverty for four years’.

Nevertheless, Iain is pretty much the living embodiment of his own adage: if you want to write, write.  He says you need to ‘Hone your craft by doing it: If you’re not practising, you’re not getting better’.  Iain subscribes to Spy Kids’ creator Robert Rodriguez’ approach of  leaving the big guns to do what they do; while you get on with creative life, make a living doing what you’re good at – and enjoy doing it.

Coincidentally, Iain is currently reading David Mamet: On Directing Film and is working on a project with local improv comedy group Damp Knight. Iain’s written a script (‘I don’t write comedy, I write stuff that’s funny. Drama and comedy improve each other’). I can’t help feeling that the resulting work will be worth looking out for.

Festival info on Iain Lowson (check programme for full details):

At the Festival: Iain  will be chatting about his life as a freelance writer – with a focus on the force that is the Star Wars franchise – with Mark Vevers, a local actor, comedian and performer.

Where: St Paul’s, Spittal

When: Friday 20th October, 12 noon

 

Poetry and tea and cake! A perfect day.

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Do rhyming couplets thrill you? Does blank verse sooth your soul? Does Haiku make you happy? And iambic pentameter lift your senses? Check out the Berwick Literary Festival’s Poetry Café which will be humming with fun, tea, coffee and snacks at St Aidan’s Hall, Saturday 22nd October, 10am to 3pmfree entry. The hall is bang opposite Festival hub, The Corner House Café on Church Street.

Poetry Café – what’s on when:

1. 10am-12pm: Fun workshop for all ages

Colin Fleetwood, poet and primary school head teacher, will be leading an all-age workshop on creating and writing poetry with the emphasis on enjoying words and engaging in poetry together – whilst ensuring you have the opportunity to wrestle with your own poetry.

highwayman

Finding the right word is vital!

 

2. 12pm-2pm: Bookable ten-minute performance slots

For those who love to listen to poetry and/or read it aloud. Poets can pop in to the Café and reserve a slot to read their own work or a selection of their favourite poems. So, sit back, relax and enjoy an eclectic selection of poetry, conversation, snacks, and a nice cuppa tea!

Loss
by Wendy Cope

The day he moved out was terrible –
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn’t a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well

3. 2pm-3pm: Children’s hour

A special time for children to read their own verse or a favourite poem and for adults to read to children – my own current favourites to read to children are ‘Trouble at the Dinosaur Café’ by Brian Moses and ‘An Aussie night before Christmas’ by Yvonne Morrison. What are yours?

dinosaur-cafe

 

Ref: Cope, W., 1992, Serious Concerns, Faber and Faber, London

Literary Festival with a heart (2)

Engaging children and young people in the written and illustrated word has to be a key goal of any literary festival – after all, young people are the festival attendees of the future. Of course, it’s not always easy to lure youngsters along to events. That’s why the Berwick Literary Festival aims to meet children and young people where they are. This year’s schools programmes will do this in three key ways:

1. Primary Schools.

Workshops on Friday 21st October will be led by celebrated local author/illustrator/sketchbooker, Helen Stephens. Four local primary schools will attend morning and afternoon sessions with Helen in the town’s historic Guildhall. Helen will be aiming to enthuse, delight and inspire the children with reference to her latest book: How to find a Lion at School. *


2. Middle Schools & the Academy

The popular ‘illustrate a poem’ competition is also returning in 2016. Readings of Edward Lear’s The Jumblies will take place in the Academy and all local middle schools. Young people will be invited to submit their illustrations inspired by the poem and the winners will be displayed at the Guildhall. For the third year, the Rotary Club of Berwick-upon-Tweed will also be running its successful short story competition in schools around the area.

3. The Grove School

Newcastle-based Seven Stories – The National Centre for Children’s Books – will be leading a multi-sensory literary experience at Grove School, tailored specifically to the pupils at the school.

The overall aim of all three events is to ensure that all local young people, including those unlikely or unable to attend Festival events, will have the opportunity to get hands-on with words in ways that intrigue, inspire and entertain them.

*Helen Stephens will also be running a session open to all children on the morning of Saturday 22nd at 10am – tickets and more information are available for this event from the Maltings Theatre.

‘The Confessions of Stella Moon’ by Shelley Day: review by Vic Watson

Here’s a good taste of one of our Festival authors’ work – Shelley Day’s ‘Stella Moon’ – from Vic Watson (aka Elementary Watson). Vic’s a Newcastle-based writer, blogger, creative writing tutor, copyeditor and proofreader. Her blog is crammed with insightful and thoughtful reviews. She’s very kindly given me permission to reproduce today’s offering below. This really makes me want to hear Shelley Day being interviewed by former ITV Tyne Tees and Border News Political Editor, Gerry Foley, on Saturday 22nd October at 4pm here in Berwick.

Don’t forget, tickets are available for all events at the Festival from The Maltings, Berwick.

Here’s Vic’s review:

Shelley Day’s debut novel, The Confession of Stella Moon, pulls you in from the first page and doesn’t let you go, even after the final page has been turned.

Stella Moon confessed to killing her mother on her eighteenth birthday. Now she’s served her time and is determined to start over but some things need to be put to rest before Stella can begin to think about her future.

A sense of claustrophobia pervades this novel, cloying and at times unbearable. I rushed through this story, partly because I couldn’t bear the tension! Day conjures up a strong sense of Stella’s rattled state of mind. The juxtaposition between the beautiful scenery of Northumberland and the hideous acts that occur is very well developed.

I was completely immersed in the story which is no mean feat. No wonder ‘The Confessions of Stella Moon’ was on the longlist for Not the Man Booker prize. I can’t wait to read what Shelley Day produces next.

Vic x

 

Berwick Literary Festival: a storyjar of delights

My festival co-blogger Dawn and I toured Berwick today and chewed on some Berwick Literary Festival fodder – as well as a delicious Foreman’s pork pie at the Curfew Micropub on Bridge Street. We also enjoyed fab coffee at The Corner House on Church Street. The Corner House will be the Festival Hub: if we’re not out listening to authors, Dawn and I will be there blogging, refuelling on cake, and chatting to fellow festival goers.

As Dawn and I walked and talked, I re-enjoyed the fact that Berwick is an extraordinary town rammed with culture, history and, of course, politics. The Literary Festival itself is also a cornucopia of delights. It reminds me a little of this storyjar made in preparation for a storytelling slot at this weekend’s Berwick Food & Beer Festival.

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Like the jar, the Literary Festival holds many surprises and treasures – something to inspire and entertain you, whatever your interests:

If you want to learn more about writing…

On Friday 21st October local schools will be humming with writerly activity and creative inspiration for young people around Berwick. Barbara Morris will be talking about novel writing v screenwriting and Bea Davenport will be running a creative writing workshop. On Saturday Margaret Skea will talk about writing short stories and Alistair McCleery what authors are worth and Louise Ross will take us from scenery to storyline. On Sunday Sheila Wakefield of Red Squirrel Press will be sharing tips on how to get published, whilst Eve Ainsworth will be tackling challenging issues in young adult fiction. Also on Sunday you can enjoy The Vane Collective –  a writing, performing and publishing collective that specialises in writing workshops for women.

If you’re into history…

Alongside big guns David Starkey and Alistair Moffat you’ll find Richard Hingley talking about his book The Cultural History of Hadrian’s Wall, local historian and retired lecturer Mike Fraser on Sir Charles Trevlyan – Northumberland’s Upper Class Socialist MP (Mike’s session was standing room only last year), and Berwick’s wonderful archivist, Linda Bankier, will uncover hidden treasures and inspiration through some compelling human interest stories from the archives.

If you’re into ways of writing the self…

Former military man Matt Johnson will take us from PTSD to publication, journalist Andrew Hankinson will be interviewed by Bea Davenport about how he took himself into the mind of Newcastle bodybuilder Raoul Moat, who shot three people in 2010 and then took his own life. Former Labour MP Chris Mullen will talk about his critically acclaimed Hinterland – A Memoir, and Berwick-based Stuart Faed will explore how the thread of art has connected his family across generations and continents.

And there’s crime fiction, children’s books, the graphic novel, and much more besides…

The full programme is available here and my fellow blogger Dawn and I will be offering more information as we get to chat with authors and speakers. And, guess what? Tickets are now available for events from The Maltings. Meanwhile, do join the Berwick Literary Festival conversation by leaving a thought below, liking the Facebook page, and following us on Twitter and Instagram.

It's all about the books (nearly). Dawn enjoys a lunchtime pie and pint at Berwick's Curfew Micropub.

It’s all about the books (nearly). Dawn enjoys a lunchtime pie and pint at Berwick’s Curfew Micropub.

Why listen to writers talking about their work? I prepare to blog for 2016’s Berwick Literary Festival in October.

There’s something about sitting at the feet of published authors that is totally compelling. But what is it? Why do we scootle along to literary festivals, writing workshops and book events in droves? Is it for the pearls of wisdom gleaned from authors about the writing process – when they write, where they write, what implements they use to write, how much research they do, where their ideas come from, what they think about point of view, what they eat while they’re writing….? Maybe if we copy them, we’ll get the same results? Or maybe we’ll be inspired… or maybe we simply like to bask in a little celebrity sparkle dust?

Often we invest writers with a kind of mystique – a special insight – over and above the not inconsiderable skill of being able to articulate opinions and stories in a compelling way. Certainly, Victorian poets Wordsworth and Shelley felt they had a calling – had been singled out, if you like – to express the human condition with an almost prophetic perception. I’m not saying this is the case for every writer – but we’ve all read things that have touched us in a way that feels beyond expression.

These are the thoughts and questions I’ve been pondering since I volunteered to be co-blogger for the third Berwick Literary Festival in October this year (21st-23rd). I’m looking forward to working alongside my blogging partner, Dawn Tindle, a tea and book addict from Newcastle. And I’m keen to hang out with fellow writers and festival goers alike to hear their take on the meaning of life, the universe and, of course, books and writing. Maybe I’ll also get to answer some of the many questions I have! In my experience, where there are writers and readers in the same room, fascinating conversations are guaranteed. Whatever the gen, I shall share all on the Festival blog. Some of this I’ll be doing from my home in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and some from the Festival hub: The Corner House Café.

I love chatting to fellow writers and authors and hearing them speak about their work. One of my biggest thrills was popping along to the Cheltenham Literary Festival a few years back and bagging an interview with Radio 4’s James Naughtie (read about that experience here). Naughtie was discussing The Great Tapestry of Scotland with novelist Alexander McCall Smith and historian Alistair Moffatt. By coincidence, Alistair Moffatt (born in Kelso, he is former director of the Edinburgh Fringe) will be closing the first day’s events at this year’s Festival, no doubt chatting about his History of Scotland which The Scotsman dubs ‘commendable’ and ‘a very readable, well-researched and fluent account’. Moffat’s recent appearance at the Borders Book Festival – and impromptu solo talk after Gordon Brown had to pull out following the tragic murder of MP Jo Cox – has been described as a ‘tour de force’. On the Saturday evening here in Berwick, controversial historian David Starkey will take centre stage with his views on the very British Magna Carta – whatever your take on Mr Starkey, it’s not likely to be a dull evening.

David Starkey1David Starkey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berwick also has a plethora of local writers, historians and illustrators to call upon. The blend of visiting speakers, local/community historians and authors (such as poet Katrina Porteous who’ll be doing a recital with Northumbrian piper Alice Burn, novelist Margaret Skea, and children’s writer/illustrator Helen Stephens), informal events such as the drop-in poetry café, and schools talks, is a huge strength. I shall be tracking down Festival organisers and authors and anticipate sharing more details about writers and events between now and October on the Festival blog.

Meanwhile, what about my literary (or not so literary) credentials? In my mid-20s I was a copywriter at the BBC and wannabee author. I read ‘How to’ books about writing poetry, children’s fiction, novels, radio plays. I wrote copiously in tiny notebooks. My jottings were barely legible. I scribbled down thoughts about the man on the tube with ‘the trellised face and bubblegum nose’; anecdotes about what my toddler said; and details of the habits of the rakish blackbird in the back garden. I went regularly to Swanwick Writers’ Summer School – now in its 68th year. I met fabulous people there – some of whom I’m still in touch with 30 years on. I listened to and questioned many authors – from Mills & Boon writers, to historians, to poets, to children’s authors – some well-known, others less so. Swanwick week was littered with interesting conversations, plenty of beers, much hilarity and some heartache. The return home was marked by fevered writing sessions late into the night and the rustle of ‘The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook’ pages for ‘when the time came’.

By some miracle, in 1991 at the age of 29 I had a deal with Blackie Books (an imprint of Penguin) to publish my first children’s picture book. I’d made it!

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In fact, I hadn’t. Getting number two book accepted proved difficult – okay impossible. Despite the haste with which I’d joined the Society of Authors and got myself a literary agent, my first picture book proved to be my last (so far!). A few years passed and I was contracted to write a couple of pre-teen novels – one of which never saw the light of day because the publisher was bought out just before ‘Star Crossed’ (yep, highbrow stuff) went to press.

Getting books published was hard then and still is today. That’s one of the reasons it’s so fascinating to meet and listen to people who’ve done it. It’s as if for just a moment we step through the magical membrane that separates us the readers from them the writers. As we read a book, we might be touched by its themes or subjects, we may believe we could have done a better job or simply wonder at the cleverness of it all. Through the act of reading and engaging with the work we become part of the story – but the story is not ‘ours’. It’s engaging with the author that somehow gives us a greater stake in their work and their lives as writers. And that’s why I can’t wait to meet the story tellers who will share their work and their selves with us in Berwick during three all too brief days in October. I hope you’ll join us.

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