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Three Seasons in China: Reflections before the year of the Fire Monkey

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 03 February 2016

In celebration of the Chinese New Year on Monday , WCN commissioned a guest blog from former Escalator winner and poet Eileen Pun, who recently spent time at The Sun Yat-Sen Center for English-language Creative Writing in Guangzhou, China.WCN is proud to work with The Sun Yat-sen Center for English-language Creative Writing, to advise and support them in developing their International Writers’ Residency programme.

WCN Programme Director Jon Morley attended the 2014 Consultation where potential sites and schedules were tested, helping to shape a generous month-long package of support for 18 international writers each year. Following SYSU Center Director Dai Fan’s exchange visit to Norwich as a delegate to the International Literature Showcase in 2015, WCN decided to assist a small cohort of UK writers to benefit from this unique opportunity. Philip Langeskov of UEA and poet Eileen Pun have been the UK participants to date.





Picture: Wudang Mountains, view from Hui Long Guan, Temple

Eight years ago, before I knew I wanted to write poetry, I travelled to China with the idea that I was still young and sound in body enough to really learn martial arts. I enrolled at The Capital University of Physical Education (CUPE) and lived in the Haidian District, a corner of Beijing with several universities and a pleasant student vibe. The backdrop of the forthcoming Olympics was energising, and I felt welcomed as people seemed to embrace the idea of China opening itself to the globe.   

My daily schedule, which began at dawn was vigorous, exhausting and satisfying. I ate at the canteen at fixed times, socialised very little, wrote voraciously in my diary and always slept incredibly well. Outside of my studies and training, I joined a small, grass-roots poetry group and gravitated to places like The Bookworm Library and attended their International Literature Festival.

Picture: Chengdu Bookworm Library

Eventually, these small connections landed me a job in revising translations for the New World Press. In fact, I did this work remotely with the expectation that I would join their Beijing offices the following year. The plan was: return to the UK, amass some savings and within a year, begin living, training, and working in China's capital city.

These plans never materialised. After I returned to England, my life took an unexpected direction. Like many unfledged writers, I had been a casual diarist and simply wrote for leisure. Somehow, in another geography, my musings whilst in China felt loaded. I was overcome by a keenness to push my own writing in the way I had pushed myself physically. Fast-forward slightly and I was thanking my lucky stars to be a 2010 Writers' Centre Norwich Escalator Prize Winner. Fast-forward a little further, and I am fully relocated to England's heart of Romanticism, Grasmere in the Lake District.


Picture: Eileen Pun training Wudang Sanfeng Taiji Jian (Sword)

Sometimes, I wonder after the me that went back to Beijing. Naturally, she became superbly trained, fluent in Mandarin and careered in the fast-growing Chinese publishing industry. Deep down, I know that things went the way they should have. I'm a softie, I'm still trying to master the English language, I have a strong affinity to the outdoors, and the pace that suits me best is slow, real slow.

Nevertheless, I haven't let go of the memory of a well articulated sequence, pivot or kick. There isn't really a match to these satisfactions, expect perhaps in poetry. Say, the way I feel when I manage to write something that strikes me. The frustrations too are a bit similar, most of the time there is just self-correction, calibration and ache. I've struggled to find a way to connect these art-forms, mostly it feels too idiosyncratic, too eccentric.

Last year, I expressed this yearning in an application to The Lisa Ullmann Travelling Scholarship Foundation LUTSF:

As a mature practitioner I must admit that I feel a certain physiological pressure to prioritise the development of my own movement practice. As a poet, I have been working on a sequence based on a dancer in Chinese history, Lady Gongsun. These are based on translations from the Classical Chinese poet Du Fu. A segment has already been published in the important anthology of new British poetry, 'Ten, The New Wave' by Bloodaxe Books. Not only do I feel this project will determine my path as a poet, it will also inform how effectively I can advocate art across disciplines as transformative and enriching - experiential values I deeply believe in.


Picture: Painting & Calligraphy of 'Song of Dagger Dancing to the Pupil of Lady Gongsun' by Du Fu.  Located in Tao Ker Inn Youth Hostel, Wudang Shan.

In the spring of 2015 I received news that my LUTSF scholarship application was successful. A short time later, I also found out that I had won a Northern Writers' Award. Holy green lights! This was exactly the permission I needed to bridge the poetry that I had found, with the kungfu (skills) that I had lost. I composed a project that would span over six months, ambitiously covering: training in Wudang Shan (mountains in Hubei Province); a visit to the DuFu Research Centre and Thatched Cottage in Chengdu (Sichuan Province); taking part in a writers' residency (Guangxi/Guangdong Provinces); and connecting with many scholars and artists, wanting my work to be as researched, informed, rigorous and creative as possible.

I arrived into China in July last year, at the peak of Beijing's hot summer and spent to two weeks visiting old haunts, friends and making new contacts. Unbelievably, my bank account was still valid, money from my editorial work - all those years ago - still available. China had welcomed me back.


Picture: Wudang Mountains, trail to The Five Dragon Temple  

Wudang Shan is a place that has captured the Chinese imagination for hundreds of years. It is steeped in legends, Daoist temples and stunning landscape of lush, tree covered mountains. Certain regions of Wudang and its monasteries received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1994 and can trace a long lineage of philosophy, martial arts and spirituality. This particular fusion is the reason it is considered one of the birthplaces of Taiji, a history that contains its share of heroes, hermits and outlaws.  

Considering my Romantic leanings, I'm not at all surprised by how at home I feel in these surroundings. At the martial arts school, I have a love-hate relationship with the rusty bell that dangles from the courtyard tree, constantly chiming us into training (discipline) and meals (carrots) in alternation. During these hot, two and half months I learn the extent of my physical regression - my rigid Western body. Eventually, I succumb to all this. Slow learning, slow recovery and even slower writing are all OK. I take some comfort from the reliable sunshine and the few books I have with me: The Rough Guide to China, Spleen by Nicholas Moore, Yellow Iris by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo and an e-reader with all of the works of Mavis Gallant.


Picture: Chengdu DuFu Thatched Cottage Museum

CHENGDU
By: DuFu

Sunset makes even my travel clothing
A little brighter; I have covered
Many roads and now arrive in a new
World for me; meeting new people,
Unable to say if ever I shall see 
My old home again; now the great river
Flows east, never halting, as indeed
My days of wandering have been; […]
Always there have been travellers,
Why should I lament?

Translated by: Rewi Alley
Foreign Languages Press

With my heart set to visit The DuFu Research Center and Thatched Cottage, I didn't need any extra reasons to visit Chengdu. However, its reputation as an exquisite centre for art, poetry, tea houses, pandas and 'delicious food', make it a welcome foray into a city. Nevertheless, the visit is a research trip and I wilfully keep myself focused on the reasons I am there. I need help to better understand Du Fu's work, and I want to connect with contemporary Chinese Art in some way.


Picture: Liu Yutong (Musician, Translator), Zhao Mi (Artist), Eileen Pun

After getting in touch with a number of arts related organisations, Catherine Platt, manager of the Chengdu Festival (BLF) and Liu Yutong, musician and event manager of the Chengdu Bookworm took it upon themselves to make me feel welcome and organise local introductions. One of which included a wonderfully dynamic afternoon with Zhao Mi, a well known calligrapher, painter and visual artist. We shared ideas about martiality, experimentation, the practice of art itself and the hope that we would extend our meeting into future collaborative work.  

I’m able to emerge myself in the happiness of thinking. When I’m painting, there’s a complex feeling of love and hatred. There are even moments where I have thoughts of escaping, and that is the ultimate of my emotions.  Zhao Mi, Artist

There is much too much to write here about how my visit allowed me to get a bit closer to Du Fu in my own work, or to convey the richness of conversations over tea and meals. I left Chengdu with renewed sense of purpose about my translation work, poetry, and very welcome new reading material; Du Fu Selected Poems from Foreign Languages Press and a copy of MaLa, The Chengdu Bookworm Literary Journal, Issue 3.  


Picture: Yangshuo karst mountains, strolling distance from residency quarters

Taking part in the inaugural Sun Yat-Sen International Writers' Residency (18 Oct – 16 Nov) was pivotal, dividing my time in China neatly in half. Professor Dai Fan, the programme director - also a writer  - met me and my partner at the Guilin train station in Guangxi Province after travelling over a 1000 km with all our belongings. I thought we must have looked a rabble, but if she thought so, it appeared she didn't mind. She was sleek and articulate, efficiently sweeping us into an organised car towards Yangshuo and explained the residency (a first for me) in great detail.  

Fifteen writers, as well as two documentary makers from eleven countries took part in a month long residency over three main locations in South China. These figures don't, however, give the correct sense of the territory that we covered, nor the number of people with whom we interacted. Translators, student volunteers, invited artists, academics, members of the community and the bureau of tourism joined at various points throughout.


Picture: Roberto Frias (Novelist, Translator), Professor Dai Fan (Programme Director,Writer), Lieve Joris (Writer), Catherine Cole (Writer, Poet), local calligrapher & poem by Wang Wei, Eileen Pun, Hu XiuZhu (Chairman of the Yangshuo Art Association)

The first phase was set in Yangshuo, a popular eco-tourism destination, surrounded by beautiful karst mountains. Choosing between, privacy for head space or, cultural activities (meeting mountain singers, musicians, calligraphers, painters to name a few) for stimulation was difficult, but possible. I had the annoyance of my laptop charger breaking, and needing plenty of solitude to write in long-hand and compensate for the inefficiency. Nevertheless, the setting was conducive for falling into interesting conversations, and the sharing of experience and craft. This shared link was particularly helpful to me, giving me courage and material for my poetry seminar, See Poetry Move that would take place the following week in Guangzhou.


Picture:  English Poetry Studies Institute (EPSI) Listed in no particular order Professor Tong Qingsheng, Professor Gao Wenping, Professor Li Zhimin, Associate professor Zhu Yu, Associate professor Lei Yanni and students at SYSU

The second phase took place in the garden-like campuses of Sun Yat-Sen's main campus, Zhuhai Campus, Xinhua College and Wuyi University where the residency had morphed into a conference. Here, more international writers joined the group. The number of ambassadorial students (all bright and heartwarming) grew and our timetable was packed with panel discussions, talks, seminars, workshops, readings, community presentations, tours, ceremony and banquets.

The discussions grappled with difficult issues, raising questions about censorship, the politics of publishing, identity, diaspora literature, feminism, language and the subversive. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. It was great to find ourselves stimulated, slowly drifting out of the lecture halls still talking about what had been discussed and exchanging reading material such as this article in the New Yorker.

By the time of the final phase, the rejuvenation promised by the hot springs of Jiangmen was needed. The region is known for its Chinese overseas ties and internationally recognised museum-villages with UNESCO world cultural heritage status. These have become architectural reminders of the social and global history of Chinese migration, of which, my own heritage is a part. More conversations happen and more sharing of personal stories, show how our talks have become deeper, warmer. One such exchange led to this touching documentary.  Maybe this is because we all know each other better, or maybe it is to do with the fact that a lot of our conversations are now taking place in our bathing suits in hot springs – it is hard to tell.   


Picture: My private hot spring! Gudou Hot Springs Resort, Jiangmen

Before emotional goodbyes, I am unable to resist some pretty amazing reading material and ignore my back-breaking luggage: A Cultural and Natural Jiangmen; The Art of the Knock, Short Stories by Philip Graham; Honeypants, poetry by Lynda Chanwai-Earle; Even the Hollow My Body Made is Gone and The Hands of Strangers by Janice Harrington.

There is a great deal more that can be said about the residency, and anyone with an interest about China, international literature and where these intersect might enjoy keeping abreast of the following: The School of Foreign Languages at Sun Yat-Sen University have written an in-depth article about the residency; The Ninth Letter, literary journal of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will publish work by participating writers in a forthcoming online issue; Radio New Zealand will also feature a programme about the residency; a documentary is currently under production by film-makers Wei Donghua and John Hughes.

When I returned to Wudang it seemed to receive me cooly, but is not to be blamed. I left in one season and returned in another. My favourite street corner, usually busy with mahjong and card players had dwindled. The air was now cold, the light wintery.

I also hadn't foreseen that in a month's time, the school would close for its winter break and everyone would disperse to their families and hometowns for the new year. The question, 'where will you spend your Spring Festival (Chinese New Year)?' entered every conversation, and each time, I didn't know how to answer.  


Picture: Ice-skating in the park, Sujiatun District, Shenyang 

Eventually, the answer did come. An unexpected move to Shenyang, a large historical city in northeast China not far from Russian and North Korean borders. A teacher of Daoist philosophy and published translator, Hu Xuezhi was in search of an editor to help with a new and annotated translation of Chuang Tzu (Zhuang Zi); I was in search of help with translating my research material and getting better access to ancient Chinese language and Classic literature – a worthy exchange.

These days, in the run up to the Spring Festival, the daytime temperatures are about -15, dropping to as low as -25 at night. Reflecting now - having made good on this long-awaited return to China - mostly, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to be here. I'm also chuffed that if I can handle temperatures like this, it probably means I'll not be such a softie when I get back.  








With thanks to the Lisa Ullman Travelling Scholarship Fund.

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The Lighthouse of a Library

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 03 February 2016


 

Benjamin Johncock, author of The Last Pilot, writes on the practical function of a library, for the fourth of our 'Love Your Library' blogs:

Libraries have enduring associations. The hush, the stamps, the smell of old paper; knowledge, learning, the dewey decimal (whatever the hell that is).

Writers like to romanticise the library. I can see why. For children, for adults, libraries are airports for the imagination: ten thousand paper terminals waiting to transport your mind to any where and any when. The library can blast open the doors of your life. The library has the power to transform.

This is all very romantic.

However, there is a reality often overlooked in all this heady nostalgia and pontification, and it has little to do with books.

The library is the closest thing we have a to a universal hub for the community. It’s safe, warm, and free. And because of those things, it’s a lighthouse for people you don’t often notice; the people who exist on the edge, on the corners; the marginalised, the lonely, the unemployed, the mentally unwell, the poor.

They come to read the newspaper, check Facebook, send email, learn to use a computer, look for a job, apply for a job, play games, watch movies on YouTube, talk to their families on Skype, charge their phones, keep warm, eat in the dry. The library is a place to go, to see people, to be seen; to feel you exist beyond the four walls of your house. Guess what? There’s more to life than books. I see the regulars every day, often waiting at the glass doors for it to open.

Hannah Woodhall, a Library and Information Assistant at the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library recently said:

“I’ve worked at the Millennium Library for fourteen years. In that time I have seen lives changed and enhanced by the services we offer. A lady came in recently who was looking for help for her husband who has dementia. She was utterly alone and so desperate for help. I sat with her and talked about what we could do. I helped a lady who was fleeing domestic violence and needed to access the Council House listings somewhere she felt safe. I’ve helped a partially-sighted man get his bus pass renewed—he nearly cried he was so grateful. I serve people who have been made redundant after many years in the same job who are utterly petrified of applying for a new job. And in light of the current refugee crisis, I’m reminded of when we enrolled Congolese families—I still see them using the library today, integrated into our community, enriching it.”

The public library is a destination, a haven, a harbour, an asylum, a sanctuary, a port in the storm. It is so much more than the sum of its books.

 

Benjamin Johncock was born in England in 1978. His short stories have been published by The Fiction Desk and The Junket. He is the recipient of an Arts Council England grant and the American Literary Merit Award, and is a winner of Comma Press's National Short Story Day competition. He also writes for the Guardian. He lives in Norwich, England, with his wife, his daughter, and his son. The Last Pilot is his first novel.

 

 


Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books.


Read WCN Development Manager Conor McGeown's blog The Treasure of Libraries.

Read Assistant Manager of Haverhill Library, Kate Ashton's blog The Library as Lifeline.

Read eight year old Morgan's blog on why Libraries are Cool

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Ed Parnell, author of 'The Listeners', on the long-standing friendships gained from Escalator

Posted By: Anonymous, 27 January 2016























Award-winning author Ed Parnell took part in the Escalator writing competition in 2007. One of its greatest benefits, he says, is the friendships he made with fellow writers, which still continue to this day.




It seems a long time ago now. September 2007, in fact, when an email from WCN’s (then the New Writing Partnership) Chris Gribble dropped into my inbox, saying that he was delighted to inform me that I’d been selected for inclusion on the Escalator Literature programme. I was delighted too.

At the time I’d just handed in the dissertation for my MA in Creative Writing at UEA, and was three-quarters of the way through a draft of my first novel, The Listeners. Things seemed good. I was writing daily, gradually creeping towards the book’s finish line (so I thought), and, having been buoyed up by talks from eager-sounding agents, the world of publishing was awash with possibility.

Things moved fast. I went on a long-planned holiday to Cornwall, getting back the day before the inaugural Escalator event at The Maid’s Head in early October. Here, I met the other Escalatees, and the biographer Midge Gillies, who was to be my mentor for the programme. Looking back, I can’t remember too much of the day itself, but my fellow winners –who’d descended on Norwich from north London, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk and Norfolk – all seemed very pleasant, as did Midge. I had a good feeling about things.

First impressions were entirely correct. Over the next few months we had several more get-togethers, all equally convivial. I also met Midge for a number of mentoring sessions in Ely. Her most recent book was the excellent, non-fiction Waiting For Hitler: Voices from Britain on the Brink of Invasion, and as The Listeners was set in rural Norfolk in May 1940 – the end of the phony war up to which point nothing much had seemingly taken place, at least that affected the lives of people back home –we had much to discuss. It was also great just to get to talk to a published professional writer about the day-to-day practicalities of trying to make a living from writing, something I was discovering as a now-freelance copywriter(alongside ploughing on with The Listeners).

As well as the invaluable advice from Midge, and a very welcome grant from the Arts Council to buy writing-time for the novel, the main thing that I gained from Escalator was a long-standing friendship with my nine other fellow Escalatees. From the beginning we all got on famously and over thecourse of the next year met several times at WCN events, culminating in a reading we gave at Foyle’s bookshop in London (having been drilled by the poet Aoifie Mannix in the art of how to conduct a good public performance).

Beyond the year, we continued (and indeed still do) to keep in touch, forming an ad hoc literature collective called Absolute Fiction for awhile, where we performed other joint readings at Cambridge Wordfest among others. It was good to have a group of like-minded new writers for moral – and editorial – support, something I was finding particularly useful now I’d finished The Listeners and was in the drawn-out process of editing and rewriting, trying to get an agent and,ultimately, a book deal.

That story takes a little longer to conclude. Having finally found representation in 2010 – after a series of flirtations with three other agents who concluded, eventually, that my novel wasn’t commercial enough for them – The Listeners did the rounds of various publishers, gaining some encouraging positive feedback, but no publishing deal.

In early 2014, having effectively given up on it ever making the journey into print, I entered the Rethink New Novels Competition; The Listeners won and was published at the end of the year. To steal from Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, as the book came out just a couple of weeks after my brother Chris lost his too-short battle with cancer. The Listeners had its launch in December at an event hosted by WCN, where I read alongside Patrick Barkham and Sarah Perry. Given Escalator’s and WCN’s input into the book’s long road to publication,it seemed a fitting, albeit for me bitter sweet, occasion.

The Listeners is a novel about grief, and how we try to come to terms with the things we’ve lost –it’s dedicated to my brother, who was an untiring supporter of the book during its drafting process. I’m sure he’d be proud to see it on the shelf, though I have no doubt that he would take enormous delight in poking constant fun at the smirking face that gurns out from the back cover.

Edward Parnell is the author of The Listeners. Winner of the Rethink New Novels Competition 2014. Available in paperback, hardback, and on Kindle.

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Libraries are Cool

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 27 January 2016

For the third of our 'Love Your Library' blog series, which celebrates libraries, Morgan, aged eight, writes about how libraries are cool and why he loves them:

The library is cool, because it has computer games. I’ve borrowed loads of games such as Lego ones for my DS, you can get games for Wiis and Playstation too.

There's an amazing amount of books. There's lots of good sections of books like video games, tv shows, poetry, history, gardening, cookery, adventure stories, a dragon story or two.

I've borrowed Doctor Who books in the past and books on Minecraft.  I first went to the library about five years ago when I got Percy Jackson; a sort of adventure story.

They run clubs at the library too like gaming clubs and programming clubs and craft club which I’ve been to lots with my mum. My granny goes to knitting club in the library.

Everyone in my school goes to the library, it's the most popular library in the country!

Sometimes in the kids section they have people dressing up like as Maisy Mouse.

It's good they have computers there so you can look up stuff if you don't have a computer or tablet or phone at home.

They have lots of exhibitions in the Forum like a theatre exhibition, you can win a tablet there now!

Another good thing is Pizza Express and all the cafes and toilets. There is good parking if you want to go to Chapelfield Mall or the Theatre Royal or a cinema.

And it's good for students if they want to look up information.

Morgan is eight years old and loves libraries, Minecraft and the How to Train Your Dragon books. Cats are his favourite animals and when he grows up he'd like to design computer games. 

 

 

 


Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books.


Read WCN Development Manager Conor McGeown's blog The Treasure of Libraries.

Read Assistant Manager of Haverhill Library, Kate Ashton's blog The Library as Lifeline.

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Former Escalator winner Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown publishes her debut novel

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 25 January 2016



With a month left to apply for Escalator, our former Escalatee Guinevere Glasfurd-Brown explains why the talent development programme was so important for her. Guinevere recently published her first novel The Words in My Hand, described as a 'startling debut' by The Sunday Times.



In the week that my debut novel The Words in My Hand was published in the UK, Writers' Centre Norwich launched the Escalator writing competition for 2016. I want to encourage all who are serious about their writing to apply.

I was one of ten new writers mentored on the 2011/12 intake. The year-long programme and Arts Council England funding secured as part of it gave me time and space to develop my novel from an initial sketchy outline to a full first draft. The Arts Council grant funded two research trips to the Netherlands – research trips I could not have afforded by myself – and provided paid time to write. One-to-one mentoring sessions challenged me to produce work to a series of deadlines and showed me what life as a writer was like.

Something shifted in me as I went through the year. I no longer saw my writing as a hobby, but work. Bit-by-bit, Escalator enabled me to move writing from the periphery to the centre of my life.

The extraordinary thing is, I very nearly didn't apply. I didn't think my writing was good enough or that I had a novel in me, not then. I couldn't claim that I'd wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I'd had a couple of short stories published, but had no track record as a novelist. In the end I realised I definitely wouldn't get it if I didn't apply. So, doing my best to banish my inner critic, I gathered my thoughts, put together the best application I could, sent it off and then put it out of my mind.

The WCN Escalator programme is such a rare opportunity. Take it. Apply.




The Words in My Hand tells the story of the affair between Dutch maid, Helena Jans and French philosopher René Descartes. It is a story that was hidden at the time and almost entirely lost from history since. Published by Two Roads Books (an imprint of John Murray Press), it is The Times' Book of the Month. Foreign language rights have sold in five countries outside the UK, and an edition has been published in Australia and New Zealand.



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The Kindness of Strangers – a reading in support of Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 21 January 2016

















On Thursday 14 January, writers and literature enthusiasts from across the region gathered at Norwich Arts Centre for an evening of readings in support of justice, freedom and Palestinian Poet Ashraf Fayadh. The event, which simultaneously took place at 122 locations in 44 countries worldwide, answered an international call for solidarity from the International Literature Festival Berlin. Fayadh, a poet and curator who is the son of Palestinian refugees and legally a stateless person, has been found guilty by a court in Saudi Arabia of spreading atheism and threatening the morals of society. His sentence is death.

Novelist and short story writer Sarah Bower gave a reading that evening which reflected on her time spent in Palestine - Fayadh’s birthplace - whilst researching for her new novel, Love Can Kill People, Can't It? During this time, she travelled to the West Bank to act as a protective presence to local people during the olive harvest, and to record any disruptive incidents by illegal settlers for the UN. 





The Kindness of Strangers

Image © Jenny Kassman

‘How can I charge you, after everything you have done for us?’ The doctor smiles at me across his desk. His smile is grave, and seems to lack practice. 

The doctor is a chest specialist, to whom I have been taken, bumping crazily over potholes, by my concerned host, Ahmed, the headmaster of the local boys’ school. I have a fever and a hacking cough which has been keeping everyone in our dormitory, including me, awake for nights on end. Call to prayer, barking dog, cough, occasional bray of an insomniac donkey. Litany of the night hours. Ahmed says he can feel the fever in my hands. Ahmed knows about illness; his wife, at 49, suffers from a heart condition for which she could be treated in Israel or Jordan, but not here, in the Occupied West Bank.

I cough out my gratitude and self-deprecation and hope the doctor will attribute the tears in my eyes to the coughing. For here he sits, among the diplomas on his bare concrete walls, dispensing what assistance he can to chronically catarrhal children, young men consumed by TB and hopelessness, and their fathers whose lungs are already filling up with tar by the time they reach their mid-forties. He has limited facilities and not much in the way of medicines, and the best hospitals are in Amman, which is about as much use to his patients as if they were on the Moon. 

Nor can most of his patients pay him for his services. Not for the first time on this trip, I’m caught in the bind of what the Palestinian Dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Jerusalem calls ‘aggressive Arab hospitality’. I want to pay the doctor. I want to pay him twice what he would charge me, because it’s hardly anything to me and might enable him to treat someone else for free, but, if I offer, he will be insulted. Especially as I’m a woman. There’s that too.

The doctor has his practice in a small town near Nablus. I won’t name it, partly for the protection of the people who can’t leave, even to get medical treatment, or an education, or a job, because they are deemed stateless and cannot, therefore, obtain passports. Partly, also, because I want to let this town, and the villages surrounding it, stand for all the small towns and villages in the occupied areas, carrying on their lives in defiance of the State of Israel which is trying to strangle them.

It’s dusk when we leave the chest specialist’s house, on our way to the pharmacy run by Ahmed’s son. The stars are no doubt spread across the sky, those iconic stars that shone on the shepherds watching their flocks and the wise men coming from the east, and Herod fretting in his palace, but we can’t see them because the hilltops are flooded with halogen blue.

This spills from the security lights surrounding the illegal Jewish settlements that stand, like latterday crusader fortresses, on almost every hilltop. The settlements themselves are oddly elusive; at night all you see are the blinding lights, threaded through with troubling impressions of razor wire and guard towers. During the day, you might catch a glimpse of sugar-white concrete apartment blocks; and there are always the access roads, freshly cut and smoothly tarmaced, signposted only in Hebrew, great surgical scars that have transformed these hillsides into a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, head and heart and limbs severed one from the other. Palestinians are not permitted to drive on these roads, even where they cut right through their own farms. Palestinians get stoned, or even shot, for using these roads.

The Dean of St. George’s, who might have stepped out of The Barchester Chronicles or The Vicar of Dibley, was giving a talk to a group of us who were travelling to the West Bank to act as a protective presence during the olive harvest. Olive harvesting in the West Bank can be a dangerous business because the illegal settlers begrudge the local people even what little is left to them of their traditional agriculture. The hills used to be covered with wild flowers in the spring, and terraces of vines and wheat during summer and autumn. The higher slopes were grazed by herds of lean sheep with floppy ears and sly, resourceful faces. But the settlers have diverted the springs that fed this agronomy, in some cases, if they don’t need the water themselves, merely smashing or poisoning the springs so the Palestinians can’t have it. They rustle the sheep, which means only those families who own enough land within their villages to pen the sheep can still keep a herd. 

They also burn olive trees, the one remaining crop which is tough enough to survive in the impoverished soil and with scarce water. There are trees in the olive groves which are hundreds, maybe thousands, of years old, in whose gnarled trunks and arthritic branches our entire history is locked. Destroy these trees and you destroy – just as much as American soldiers looting the Baghdad Museum or Daesh blowing up Palmyra – the history of all of us.

Our protective presence is intended to discourage the settlers from trying to disrupt the olive harvest, and to record any incidents which do take place for the UN. This is not merely a matter of spite or ethnic tension, it is strategic. Under Israeli land law, if a farmer 
fails to complete his harvest for three years in a row, the land will revert to the government because it is ‘abandoned’. Under this law, Israel has ‘legitimately’ seized thousands of acres of Palestinian land, squeezing the Palestinians into what will soon be little more than reservations.

So, every October, groups of brave and principled people travel to the occupied territories to help get the olive harvest in and to protect their Palestinian hosts from attack, because even the settlers will think twice about the adverse publicity they’d gain from stoning a rabbi or a genteel Quaker lady from the home counties. I was an interloper, of course; I was researching a book, and ended up being too ill to harvest many olives. I saw little, personally, of settler violence. 

What I remember are eloquent silences: the state of the art Italian olive press, for example, which Ahmed proudly detoured to show me on our way back from the chest doctor’s; the men sitting idle beside its empty conveyors because there are no olives to process. Ahmed’s son’s pharmacy, on whose shelves the medicines are gathering dust because no-one has the money to buy them. Hana’, the daughter of our village head man, who aspires to become a literary translator, but cannot get a passport to travel to London to study. 

Ashraf Fayadh is unjustly imprisoned and should be released. But he was imprisoned on account of his own conscience and creativity, unlike his fellow countrymen in the occupied territories who are imprisoned merely by an accident of birth and history. They, too, should be released and we citizens of western democracies should ask ourselves hard questions about the company we keep, the wretched irony of allying ourselves with states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia for the protection of our freedoms.



About Sarah Bower

Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. She is also a regular contributor to Words With Jam and the Historical Novels Review (which she edited for two years). She works as a mentor to other writers, and has taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia, the Open University and the Unthank School of Writing. She holds an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia where she is currently based in her role as manager of the mentorship scheme for emerging literary translators run by the British Centre for Literary Translation. In 2014, she spent a semester as writer in residence at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Sarah is the author of three novels. Her first, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007. Her third, Erosion has an East Anglian setting, was published in 2014. Her work has been translated into nine languages.

‘My new novel-in-progress, Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? tells two stories, that of a Palestinian fisherman called Amal and of Rose, an Englishwoman from an outwardly conventional but inwardly dysfunctional family, whose father’s experience of Palestine in 1947/48 formulates her interest in the region. Though their lives are linked much more closely than either knows, it is through their shared experience of key historical events from the Munich Olympics in 1972 to the civil war in Syria that I try to show how our history is informed by that of Palestine and vice versa.’

I’m indebted to Arts Council England for the grant which enabled me to travel to Palestine to research the book.’

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Fierce Light

Posted By: Anna Scrafield, 19 January 2016

As the centenary of the Battle of the Somme draws near, Writers' Centre Norwich, 14-18 NOW and Norfolk & Norwich Festival have co-commissioned a major new piece of work from internationally renowned poets and visual artists, to commemorate and respond to this devastating event. The work will open Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016 and brings together poets and film makers to create Fierce Light.


‘Hide in this battered crumbling line
Hide in these rude promiscuous graves,
Till one shall make our story shine
In the fierce light it craves.’

‘The Fierce Light’
Major John Ebenezer Stewart, M.C.


Fierce Light
Friday 13 May, 7.30pm
Norwich Playhouse

This world-premier and major national commission by Writers’ Centre Norwich and the Imperial War Museum, kicks off the City of Literature programme at Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
Perhaps no art form captured the complexity and terror of the First World War more acutely than poetry. As we approach 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, Fierce Light brings together outstanding international poets and visual artists to explore the war and its legacy in the 21st century. Join Simon Armitage, Daljit Nagra and others for a live audio-visual experience which premiers their new poetry alongside work by Bill Manhire, Jackie Kay and Paul Muldoon and a series of specially commissioned short films. 

Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

Fierce Light exhibition
10-13 May Tuesday – Saturday midday-5pm
14-28 May Tuesday – Saturday midday-7pm
East Gallery, NUA

As part of the word premier of Fierce Light, this exhibition features specially commissioned poetry and short films reflecting on the Battle of the Somme. The exhibition encompasses the commissioned project Still which features six poems produced by internationally renowned poet Simon Armitage in response to aerial photographs of WWI battlefields. 

Hear the poems performed in person at the Fierce Light audio-visual event at Norwich Playhouse on Friday 13 May.

Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers’ Centre Norwich.


Simon Armitage was born in West Yorkshire and is Professor of Poetry at the University of Sheffield. He has published ten collections of poetry, is the author of two novels as well as the best-selling memoir, All Points North. In 2010 he received the CBE for his services to poetry.






Daljit Nagra was born and raised in West London, then Sheffield. He currently lives in Harrow with his wife and daughters and works in a secondary school. His first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, won the 2007 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award. In 2008 he won the South Bank Show/Arts Council Decibel Award. Tippoo Sultan's Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2011.



Bill Manhire (b 1946) grew up in small country pubs at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island. He was educated at the University of Otago and at University College London, where he almost became an Old Norse scholar. For many years he taught at Victoria University, where he founded the International Institute of Modern Letters, home to New Zealand’s leading creative writing program. Bill was New Zealand’s inaugural Poet Laureate. His most recent collections are the prize-winning Lifted, The Victims of Lightning, and a Selected Poems. He has also published short fiction, most of which was recently collected in The Stories of Bill Manhire (VUP, 2015).


Jackie Kay was born and brought up in Scotland. She has published five collections of poetry for adults (The Adoption Papers won the Forward Prize, a Saltire Award and a Scottish Arts Council Book Award) and several for children. She was awarded an MBE in 2006.






Paul Muldoon is one of Ireland's leading contemporary poets, along with being a professor of poetry, an editor, critic and translator. 
The author of twelve major collections of poetry, he has also published innumerable smaller collections, works of criticism, opera libretti, books for children, song lyrics and radio and television drama. His poetry has been translated into twenty languages and has won numerous awards.
Muldoon served as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University from 1999 to 2004. He has taught at Princeton University since 1987 and currently occupies the Howard G.B. Clark ’21 chair in the Humanities. He has been poetry editor of The New Yorker since 2007.


Jo Shapcott was born and continues to live in London. Twice winner of the National Poetry Competition, she has published seven collections with Faber including Her Book: Poems 1988–1998 which selects from three earlier volumes: Electroplating the Baby (1988) which won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, Phrase Book (1992) and My Life Asleep (1998) which won the Forward Poetry Prize. Her most recent collection Of Mutability (2010) won the Costa Book Award and in 2011 she was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry.



Yrsa Daley-Ward is a writer and poet of mixed West Indian and West African heritage. Born to a Jamaican mother and a Nigerian father, Yrsa was raised by her devout Seventh Day Adventist grandparents in the small town of Chorley in the North of England. Her first collection of stories On Snakes and Other Stories was published by 3:AM Press.

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The Library as a Lifeline

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 19 January 2016

For the second of our 'Love Your Library' blog series, Kate Ashton, Assistant Manager of Haverhill Library of Suffolk Libraries writes about how libraries are more than just a sum of their books; they are a destination, a place where communities come together. 

When the Writers’ Centre asked me to write a blog on what libraries mean to me, I was flattered, then I thought, help, where do I begin? And so, I’ve shamelessly borrowed the following idea ‘thunk of the day’ from my colleague, Matt Shenton, our Literacy Ambassador. My thunk (also borrowed from Matt, thanks Matt by the way):

'Is a library still a library when all of the books have been taken out and borrowed?'

Take a moment to think about it, and then read on.

Ask this of me or any of my colleagues in the library service and you’ll get a resounding ‘yes, of course!’ but I’ll explain our thinking.

A library is so much more than just borrowing books (although as a confirmed bibliophile they are still hugely important). Your local library, regardless of whether it’s a big town library open all day every day, or a small village library open for a few hours most days, will offer you books, DVDs, CDs, games, free computer access, free wi-fi access, printing and faxing facilities (for a small charge), Bookstart activities for pre-school children, book groups, craft activities on a Sunday, activities for older people and of course the Summer Reading Challenge. From all of these activities, we have seen friendship groups form; there’s now a regular group who come to our Bookstart sessions and then go for a coffee and cake in the coffee shop next door once the session has ended.

Since we moved out of the county council in August 2012, our repertoire as a service has expanded. Take a look at our website, and you’ll find that you can download and borrow ebooks, eaudio and download and keep magazines and music – all of this is free. There’s also a whole range of activities going on, from music gigs to crime festivals, writing groups to tablet courses, and magic shows to visits by owls. All of this is provided by enthusiastic and passionate library staff with the support and assistance of committed volunteers from community Friends groups.

Increasingly, libraries are one of the remaining few safe, welcoming, non-judgemental and free spaces that you can visit regardless of who you are. We really are here for everyone!

Our ethos hasn’t changed from the time when Andrew Carnegie’s programme for founding libraries took off, although our purpose and function may have altered slightly, and as you can see, we do more than just books now. Libraries remain an integral part of society, we provide you with information and access to support services, such as our Warm Handover scheme, which helps people with specific needs to access support services in Suffolk with just one referral. This is a fantastic service which I think should be picked up and used in other authorities, and libraries are an ideal focal point from which such referrals can be made.

As societies and communities become more fragmented and isolated, libraries need to remain at the heart of their local community and become a focal point for people to come together and engage with others. We are all aware of people within our community who are isolated for many reasons, they live alone, language is a barrier, limited mobility,  and their weekly visit to a library is a lifeline, an opportunity to interact and engage with another person or group of people. We cannot record or quantify what that interaction means to someone but it is immeasurable.

As libraries, we want to sit at the heart of our local community and in Suffolk we now have greater flexibility to respond directly to the needs of our local community but we need you, to come in,  use us and tell us what you need. If you haven’t been in your local library for a while, pop in and take a look around… you’ll be surprised at what you will find!



Kate Ashton is an Assistant Manager at Haverhill Library in Suffolk.

I joined the library service back in September 2006 as a relief member of staff and have been Assistant Manager at Haverhill Library for almost 7 years. In my time at the library, I have dressed up as Max from Where the Wild Things Are for the Big Wild Rumpus and Tonks for Harry Potter Night. Outside of work I like to read and run, although I cannot run as fast as I can read. My literary heroine is Matilda Wormwood from Matilda – who wouldn’t want to be her? She could spell Mississippi by the age of 5 and outwit adults without breaking sweat.

 

 

Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books. 

Read WCN Development Manager Conor McGeown's blog The Treasure of Libraries

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The Treasure of a Library

Posted By: Conor McGeown, 13 January 2016

Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books.

Here, WCN's Conor McGeown muses on the role of libraries in society, and his daughter's love for the Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library, the country's busiest library for eight years in a row:


Talking about the importance of saving libraries makes me think of earlier discussions about our similarly endangered record shops. Both tend to bring up images of the thrill of hunting through the stacks for the perfect treasure, the tactile experience of handling physical objects, or the enticing cover art with its hints of the mysteries contained within.

These are warm, nostalgic thoughts, but they also make me a shade uncomfortable. For just as I was lured by the convenience of CDs and later mp3s, so too have I been guilty, like many of my generation, of favouring the armchair ease of cheap Amazon deals and digital formats (or, if I'm being brutally honest , just numbly swishing through the internet with my thumb). I'm still reading, I told myself. That's the important thing. Right?

Well okay, probably not. But I'm currently making amends by taking my 16 month old daughter to the Millennium Library in Norwich at least twice a week.

You can tell libraries are cool because babies love them, and they haven't learned to bullshit you yet. At home, my daughter is fascinated by books of all types, so at first I was confused and possibly a bit embarrassed that in this great cathedral of information she preferred instead to joyfully careen about the place with her hands aloft, cheering enthusiastically. She takes books off the shelf, not to read, but to deposit in the drawers of the automatic lending kiosks. She seems to be more engaged in the rituals of the library than the books themselves.

But as I watched her merrily bumble from one section to the next, heralding the friendly staff with upraised arms, stumbling on a fantastic staff-led sing-along in the children's section, or stubbornly insisting on picking up a huge pile of community information leaflets from one of the rotundas with both of her tiny hands, I suddenly realised: I didn't spend all those countless hours as a kid in a tiny library in small town Northern Ireland just because I loved books.

In the kid's section, where you will find me most often these days, there are stacks of colourful books promising to spill the beans on the Vikings, the Mayans, Ancient Egypt, paranormal phenomena and UFOs. There are horror stories, anatomy books, science books, astronomy books and much more. I remember, as a child, hoovering up the information contained in books exactly like these, and it dawns on me that the library was my real school, where I had the freedom and opportunity to learn about whatever I wanted, at my own pace, without censorship by parents or authority figures, and subject only to the weird whims of my own curiosity.

Obviously books are amazing, and a library would be pretty odd without them. But watching my daughter has reminded me that the real treasure is not the books on the racks, it's the space itself.

Comparison with record shops may suggest that there is no real reason to be concerned. After all, record shops managed to survive and even bounce back, despite our hand-wringing. But does a publicly funded institution enjoy the same resilience as private enterprise? I'm sure there will always be books to buy, but where is the business angle in providing free access to information that generates no advertising clicks, or in providing a space where we can come together to experience culture together at no cost, or where we can educate ourselves as we see fit? Where we can organise to campaign against the very interests that would seek to squeeze a profit out of such activities?

They say that it’s only when we lose something that we realise what we had. But wouldn’t it be great to skip the losing part for once? It might not be so easy to get it back.

 

Conor McGeown is the Development Manager at Writers’ Centre Norwich. After studying law at Trinity College Dublin, Conor toyed with the idea of pursuing a legal career in London before taking a left turn into fundraising, initially for the cause of animal welfare. A resident of the fine city of Norwich since as far back as early 2014, he is excited to be able to play a part in WCN’s vital work to develop and promote the social and artistic impacts of literature and reading. At home, Conor’s main interests in music, movies and books fight it out for his spare time, the ultimate winner depending on when you ask.

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(tags: Libraries, Reading)


More hand-picked writing opportunities for the New Year

Posted By: Anonymous, 07 January 2016



January’s a bit of a bummer isn’t it? What better way to raise your spirits and boost your productivity than by knuckling down with some serious writing! We’ve hand-picked our current favourites – from stunning residencies to screenwriting or a dip into the Romantic – so why not put on the kettle and get started?

An annual competition for essays and poems on Romantic themes, the Prize encourages writers to respond creatively to the work of the Romantics, and offers £4000 in prize money across various categories.
Closing date: w/c 1 February 2016

Birbeck University of London is offering a fully funded scholarship on their two year creative writing MA. Applicants to not need a first degree, and will benefit from in-depth support and mentoring, plus £1000 to purchase a laptop.
Closing date: 15 February 2016

A sort story competition, on the theme of “Ageing”. The winner receives £500, a place on an Arvon residential writing course of  their choice, and publication of their story on the Writers & Artists website.
Closing date: 15 February 2016

Escalator is WCN's popular talent development scheme open to all prose fiction writers in the Eastern Region of England. 10 successful applicants will win a professional development package which includes mentoring, workshops and meeting agents. 
Closing date: 26 February 2016

Celebrating the best writing for stage, screen and radio, the Nick Darke Writers' Award offers writers £6000 to provide the financial stability and free time necessary to focus on writing. This year’s category is Stage Play.
Closing date: 30 May 2016

Spend a month staying at Gladstone’s Library, reading and of course, writing. Lead a workshop and take the opportunity to focus on your writing.
Closing date: 1 June 2016

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Congratulations to our TLC Free Reads winners!

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 14 December 2015

In October we partnered with The Literary Consultancy to offer an exciting opportunity to writers in the East of England who felt that their writing needed some tender love and care. TLC Free Reads gives talented writers honest, constructive feedback on their work from industry professionals for free; providing them with a framework for improvement and helping them to progress their writing.

The Literary Consultancy is the UK’s leading manuscript appraisal service. They can advise writers whether their piece of work is suitable for a commercial literary marketplace, and if so, will help them to discover a suitable agent and publisher. TLC can also provide information about self-publishing and the alternatives that online publishing can provide.  
 
TLC Free Reads is open to writers of prose (fiction, children’s, narrative non-fiction and short stories), poetry, and scripts for TV, Film, Radio or Theatre. 

Our winners are announced below –congratulations to all and we look forward to hearing more from you in future!

If you would like to receive notice of our next TLC Free Reads scheme, please subscribe to our e-newsletter mailing list here.

TLC is funded by Arts Council England.


TLC Free Reads 2015 winners

Rick Roydes, Patriot (short story) 
I am a young writer from Norwich. My writing vocation was 'guaranteed' just  moments into a science fiction radio programme early into my Primary School career. In Middle School teachers would joke that I was not so good at maths but I could tell a story' Migrating from city to small town, I began reading fiction and studying geography including New Literatures in English such as Sam Selvon.

I have been described as modern with raw talent. I believe that stories are everything from politics to moral fables, to fairy tales. To quote Sheryl Crow I am searching for 'an intimate moment with the [reader].' 

There have always been story tellers and thank God there always will be. 

Patriot
Patriot is an intriguing story exploring paranoia in an unnamed, future country approaching two minutes to midnight on the nuclear  doomsday clock. The main character, Kyle, is employed as a computer technician in a military silo housing 100 nuclear missiles. The story explores Kyle rising above the nationalism of the post war state through the world size love that he feels for his daughter. 

Highlights of the story include a rebellious  psychiatrist, plus Kyle and his daughter confronting the dangerously political Patriots and his careful explanation that the men were 'good really' but often 'got it wrong' arresting innocent people.


Anthony Nash, A Handful of Destiny (prose fiction) 
Tony Nash is a born and bred Norfolk ‘Swedebasher’ and has shown his love of his home county by using it as the setting for twelve of his novels. He began his career as a navigator in the Royal Air Force, later re-training at Bletchley Park to become an electronic spy, working for GCHQ intercepting Russian and East German agent transmissions, during which time he studied many languages and achieved a BA Honours Degree from London University. Many diverse occupations followed: Head of Modern Languages in a large comprehensive school, ocean-going yacht skipper, deep sea fisher, fly tyer, antique dealer, furniture maker, restorer and French polisher, professional deer stalker and author of 24 murder mysteries and historical novels to date.

A Handful of Destiny
On Michaelmas Day 1786, Thomas Nash, a contented Norfolk farmer, is to restore the family’s fortunes by paying the final instalment of a long-term loan. Instead, on that day he is falsely accused and sentenced to transportation to New Holland.

Far worse, killers have been sent to ensure that neither he nor his wife, Martha, can ever return to reclaim his land.

Lashings, deprivation, flying bullets and severe disfigurement attempt to crush his spirit, but never dampen his desire for vengeance. 



James Anderson, Marsh Low Road (prose fiction) 
I wrote novels, short stories and poems for years, and parked everything in a drawer. Eventually I sent off a short story (I think the drawer was full), and won the Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. I had an Escalator Award, and that helped get me an agent for my (‘unrelentingly depressing’, Cannongate) The Dangerous Edge of Things, but no acceptance. I was encouraged by an earlier Free Read to finish, and later enter, the Rethink New Novel Award, which I won with The River and The Sea, published soon after. My follow-up novel, Terminal City, has vanished into agent/publisher limbo (no Free Read, see?). But I scrape along, I scrape along...

Marsh Low Road
It’s 1959, Norwich. A taxi driver takes a young woman home late at night. Her house open and searched, he stays with her until morning. Two days later she is murdered. Letting his everyday life slip away more and more, he investigates, until he is in over his head. Marsh Low Road is as much about the lure of the unusual in a dull life, and the ignoring of what is real for the fantasy of what might have been, as it is about who killed Greta Polhemus.



Anne Olivant, Warzone (prose fiction)
I live on the edge of the beautiful Blickling Estate in North Norfolk. I have always written- usually in the form of short stories and drama. I have written two children’s novels. The second, Warzone was born from a UEA ‘Constructing a Novel Workshop’ course. 

Wherever I have lived I have been part of a writers’ group – every writer should have one. My present group, The North Norfolk Writers’ encouragement has been  priceless – hence being pointed in the direction of this opportunity. 

The prospect of a professional critique is very exciting. Once you have re-read your own work it becomes an object of loathing. All your supportive friends think it is ‘wonderful’. I'm hoping the result will be somewhere between!

Warzone
Warzone is a story set in a not too distant dystopian future where the UK is under the harsh rule of a dictatorial regime. It is about Tamsin and her dissident parents who live in hiding in the outlands of Cornwall but who form part of the leadership of the resistance movement. When her parents are captured she sets out with her dog and horse on a quest to find and rescue them. On the way she finds friend and foe in a travelling band of horse stunt riders and finally the truth about her own identity.



Anita Belli, From the Diary of Kit Brown (prose fiction) 
I caught the writing habit as a child and have become a compulsive writer and creative tutor. I currently write fiction about women, love, war and art, exploring how the past ripples through the generations with unintended consequences. My first novel The Art Forger’s Daughter was self-published 2014 on Amazon and Kindle. I have also published short stories in women’s magazines and Writing Magazine.

A former filmmaker, dancer, and arts manager my career trademark has been to develop and nurture creative talent amongst artists, local communities and children by providing access to media, literature and performing arts. I am currently delivering workshops in London and Harwich which encourage and enable more people to write and publish. 

I live in Harwich, Essex.

From the Diary of Kit Brown
It is the summer of 1936 and in the tranquil Andalucían village of Santa Carmen, deep divisions are exposed by the arrival of an English stranger.

Loyalty keeps him in Spain for too long and he is swept up in a war which tears families and friendships apart; he must risk his own life to rescue those he loves.

World War Two picks up where the Spanish Civil War ends and he has not returned. Friends and loved ones scattered across Europe will never give up seeking the truth. In Franco’s Spain, however, shocking events prove difficult to uncover.



Matt Richards, Reuben and the case of the Magnificent Bogey (short story)

Like most eccentric writers Matt Richards has an interesting past; working as a Mental Health Nurse for in excess of ten years and then a further ten years with those with alcohol and drug addictions. the last couple of years Matt has accepted the challenge to pioneer a church reaching out to the marginalised in society; working predominantly with the homeless locally.

This has absolutely nothing to do with this book, however, which he wrote six years ago for his son Reuben. All his previous experience included in the above did not prepare him for that of having children.  His purpose for writing this was just to make his son happy and because it was an itch he felt he needed to scratch.

Matt’s only fans are that of his four children and wife Beth.  And that’s only because Beth is loyal and the book content is gross enough to hold the children’s interest. Matt would like someone impartial, yet professional to decide if this could be published and how.

It’s important to state, however, that no children were harmed in the writing or reading of this children’s story: Reuben and the Case of the Magnificent Bogey. If you’ve ever picked your nose then this book is for you.

Reuben and the case of the Magnificent Bogey 
Have you ever picked your nose?
I hope not.  But if you have, or if you do, beware!  
You too, like Reuben, could try to pick an unending, unpickable, unstoppable, 
MAGNIFICENT BOGEY.
This is a lesson to all little boys (and girls) that what you do in secret could end up surprising you and the world.
For Reuben tried to pick what he thought was a normal bogey, but as he pulled and pulled, the bogey just grew and grew until his family, village, fire brigade and even the TV news people were involved and got a very unpleasant surprise...


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(tags: TLC Free Reads)


#LibraryAdvent

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 12 December 2015

A library is many things to many people. It's a place of potential, of discovery. It's a land of dreams: of adventure and magic, of friendly dragons and other planets. It's a land of hope: of finding a new job or a new home, of learning a new skill or making a new friend. A library is many things to many people, so this Christmas WCN decided to celebrate libraries all around the world.

Every day of advent we shared a photo of a library alongside a quote from a brilliant writer, celebrating the gift that just keeps giving. You can take a look at all the quotes here, catch up with all the goings-on with Storify, or just scroll down.


#LibraryAdvent 2016 complete round-up



25th of December
Norfolk & Norwich Millennium Library



'What a gift: democracy of reading, democracy of space. A library is for life, not just for Christmas.'

- Ali Smith


24th of December
Krakow Regional Public Library



'My first job was in a public library and I recognised, even at 16, how much of a haven it was for local people, somewhere for them to get away from the noise of the outside world as well as a place to educate themselves and their children.'

- Emma Healey


23rd of December
Norwich City of Literature



'Libraryness - it's a unique quality, only possessed by our libraries: the alchemy of a free place where people of all ages and all classes come together, seeking the adventures, discoveries, solace and sheer joy found in books. We must keep them open and cherish them, for they nourish us.'

- Patrick Barkham


22nd of December
Dunedin Public Libraries



'It was in libraries that I really explored reading. They are open to all and they cater for all. They never judge. You can pick something up on a whim, and find yourself with a new favourite book. Libraries contain wonders, they should be preserved.'

- Sally Craythorne


21st of December



'Under these leaf-libraries where
Melodious lost literature
Remembers itself!'

- 'Abernethy', Douglas Dunn


20th of December
Edinburgh Central Library


'Edinburgh is a city of books and learning, open to all knowledge.'

– Dame Muriel Spark 




19th of December
Norwich Cathedral Library



(Image Courtesy of Paul Hurst ARPS) 

'Latterly it has been used as a lumber room. I hope no one will be so unkind as to say it will be so used still.' 

– Henry Beeching, Dean of Norwich, 1913


18th of December
Norfolk Heritage Library



'We need libraries and their wonderful staff. They are part of the lifeblood of British culture. Libraries are indispensable to me and to us all.'

- Mark Cocker


17th of December
Municipal Library of Prague



'A house without books is like a body without a soul.'

- Julius Zeyer


16th of December
School Library
Angel Road Junior School




'Our library is a box of wonders that opens and lets me experience different worlds, meet different people, and explore my imagination.'

– Year 6 Pupil, Angel Road Junior




15th of December
Gainsborough Library
Suffolk Libraries


'What a sad adolescence I would have had without a library to escape to! And what a very different life since then: the library opened the door to my future.'

- Andrew Cowan


14th of December
Ballyfermot Library
Dublin City of Literature

 

 (Image Courtesy Patricio Cassinoni)

'The expected and the unexpected are always to be found in Dublin's libraries; the jewels in the city's crown.'

 

 

13th of December
Plumstead Road Library
Norfolk Libraries



'As a child, the library was my gateway - the only gateway available - to the world opened up by books. I read my way around every single shelf in the children's room of my local library, and was hooked. I am still today enthralled by the possibility for new discoveries which a library holds; the thought that you can discover something quite unexpected, and walk away with it tucked under your arm. I think in these days of tailored recommendation algorithms and curated digital experiences, the sense of rampant intellectual opportunity a library represents is needed more than ever.'

– Jon McGregor



12th of December
BCLT Library



'Free public libraries are one of the traditional guarantors of freedom, places where anyone may start to explore all that humanity has thought and recorded in words. The burning of books and libraries is one of the great barbaric acts: the closing down of libraries is a step towards the same barbarism.' 

George Szirtes



11th of December


'You made me feel at home, so far from home.'

- guestbook entry by Marcelo Figueras, author from Argentina, October 2010


10th of December



'it shone like a boxful of butterflies
it shone like a web at the wood's edge
it shone like blazing hilltop victory
it shone like the valley of last resort
it shone like the story of you and me

it shone all night'

- on the library, Alasdair Paterson


9th of December
Gladstone's Library

'Heaven, I am certain, looks like Gladstone's Library: Britain's only residential library, where you can live and study surrounded by a world-class collection of books and glorious Gothic architecture. You can choose to be alone, or converse with other visitors - a bishop at breakfast, and a poet at teatime. If inspiration fails (which it won't), you can venture outdoors to a cemetery, a valley, a ruined castle, a forest and a river.’

- Sarah Perry


8th of December
Library at the Dock
Melbourne City of Literature

 

(Image Courtesy Timothy Herbert)

'There was a tree outside the window where I worked, with a face in it, and I came to know it as my “permission” tree.

I did nothing in the library except write in front of that tree, and so every time I saw it, I was inspired to write.

Besides which, it is a beautiful, light library with minimal screaming. It was also during study week, so there were many other people working there, but all separately and silently. I felt part of a community, but not interrupted or under pressure to perform.'

- Anna Spargo-Ryan


7th of December
UEA Library
University of East Anglia



'Libraries are oases of quiet and learning in a distracted and noisy world, a human refuge, which should not be denied to us.'

- Rose Tremain



6th of December
Norfolk Mobile Library
Norfolk Libraries 



'On moving to a new town or city, the first place I seek out is the library because the library is the heart of a community. I grew up in the Norfolk countryside, but, because I had regular access to a library (in fact, many libraries: the library in my school, the library in a nearby village, a mobile library and the main public library in Norwich), I was able to learn about the world. Children who grow up with access to a library grow up with the understanding that access to knowledge is a right, and this gives them power. Books allow people to dream. I’ve been lucky enough to have had access to a library throughout my life. Had this not been the case, I would be an entirely different person.' 

- Megan Bradbury


5th of December
Huntingdon Library
Cambridgeshire Libraries


'Growing up, my local library was a place of wonder, imagination, excitement and safety. Ours had two floors: downstairs for adults, upstairs for kids. I both longed for the day I could stay downstairs and dreaded it. As a kid, I snuck books out of the adults’ section; as an adult I sneak them out of the kids’ section. Such are the contradictions of a reading life and the pure joy of a library.'

- John Boyne


4th of December
Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library
Norfolk Libraries



‘I wrote the vast majority of The Last Pilot in Norwich's Millennium Library and I saw first hand, day after day, how libraries are refuges for the most vulnerable members of society, from the lonely to the elderly; the unemployed to the unwell. The public library is so much more than the sum of its books: it’s a community hub, a place to go, to see people, to be seen; to feel you exist beyond the four walls of your house. The library is a destination, a haven, a harbour, an asylum, a sanctuary, a port in the storm.’

- Benjamin Johncock


3rd of December
Iowa City Public Library
Iowa City of Literature

'A library is where they live - words that burn
or freeze, cajole and tease, that sound of
barks, bawls, hollers, whispers, mutters
and storms...

May this, our library prosper, for
life without it would be smaller.'

- This Library, Marvin Bell


2nd of December
NUA Library,
Norwich University of the Arts

 

 ‘In their unique atmosphere there are portals to all kinds of worlds, knowledge, ideas, inspiration, it’s all there; brilliant reminders of the best and worst we can be as humans. The Whole Earth Catalogue 1972, where else could you see it? NUA library, small but perfectly formed.’
- Peter Martin, Course Leader BA Animation


1st of December
National and University Library of Iceland,
Reyjkavik City of Literature

(Image courtesy Indro Candi)

‘And there stood the library, waiting for him like an illuminated spaceship ready to whisk him away to distant planets.’
- Óskar Árni Óskarsson


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Recommended by the Readers’ Circle: A Selection of Brilliant Books

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 08 December 2015



Our fantastic Readers’ Circle (a collection of dedicated volunteers from around the East of England) have been devouring books from our Brave New Reads medium list. They’re reading, reviewing, and chatting about brilliant titles, from short story collections to non-fiction to poetry, to help us choose the six astounding books for Brave New Reads 2016.

Sadly, not every book can be included in the final six, so we’re featuring reviews of some of those which didn’t quite make it. Take a look below, and tempt yourself with some highly-acclaimed books (or find a perfect Christmas present!).

Interested in how we choose the featured Brave New Reads titles? Check out this earlier blog, explaining the very complicated process.

Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.


The Listeners – Edward Parnell

(Fiction)

This book is set in the woods and fields of Norfolk, starting in the summer of 1940, just as Britain was sliding into war. William Abrehart, an odd nature-loving boy, has remained silent since the death of his father but has promised to look after his two beautiful sisters and very withdrawn mother. The narrator shifts from person to person and William, Kate, Rachel and Louise all take a turn in speaking to us with their own interpretation of events and emotions present and past.  

This book is incredibly beautiful and desperately sad.  Beautifully written, with tender and lyrical descriptions of crumbling, haunted buildings and Norfolk flora and fauna. It is just as eerie and haunting as the poem by Walter de la Mare.  

Family secrets, self deception and lies sit at the heart of this novel, which depicts the heartbreaking and tragic destruction of a family over the course of a few days in a summer long ago. The depiction of the flourishing world of nature is a backdrop to the pain endured by the main characters in the book.  There are no lighthearted or amusing moments whatsoever, yet somehow it avoids being a depressing read. Wonderful sense of place and time. Takes you back to the 1940s!
- Reviewed by Cambridgeshire librarian Ruth Cowan


Beautiful Girls – Melissa Houghton

(Poetry)

Beautiful Girls is a compelling collection in which heartbreak shimmers along every line of its hauntingly exquisite and often masterful prose. Its tragedy-ridden tellings express a grim reality; how ripples from the core of grief radiate further darknesses into the girls' lives. Whilst it would prove a difficult read for some due to disturbing subject content, this really is quite a staggeringly stunning, albeit gut wrenching, collection that one should take the time out to consume.
- Reviewed by Readers' Circle member Zeena Thompson

 

 

 

Lay Me Down – Nicci Cloke

(Fiction)

I really enjoyed this haunting book; dark and heavy yet delicately threaded together. I was drawn in by a feeling of closeness which was almost claustrophobic, with the protagonists’ intimate first meeting and descriptions of their movements as witnessed by the other. There was a sense of uneasiness conveyed by the rapidity of Elsa and Jack’s first meeting to their moving to America, the fact they can’t see the Golden Gate Bridge (the reason for their moving) from the air, and the constant chasing away of memories. The more we come to know them as individuals the less they seem a couple.

This book is about the histories that people carry with them and the way these histories work their way to the surface. Jack and Elsa jumped into their relationship as it was a happy release from their past problems, but then the ripples of that choice begin to be felt. Understated but beautiful.
- Reviewed by Kathryn Elliot of the Readers' Circle

 

The Lives of Women – Christine Dwyer Hickey

(Fiction)

This was easily the best of the novels I have read so far. Christine Dwyer Hickey, like all of the great Irish writers, has the ability to say such a lot in a few words.

The story is excellent. It is divided into two halves with part in the past told by Elaine Nichol's sixteen year old self, and part in the present where she is a fifty year old woman returning to Ireland ostensibly to look after her aging father. The reader is aware almost from the outset that a traumatic event occurred which resulted in Elaine, our main character, being sent off, exiled, to New York.

The writing has such clarity: I remember when the women, who seem to live very meaningless and powerless lives, get together and one of them who has obviously been drinking is described "words sticky from her mouth" when she speaks. Brilliant!
- Reviewed by Tricia Andrews of the Readers' Circle


Reader for Hire – Raymond Jean, translated by Adriana Hunter

(Translated fiction)

I enjoyed this novella greatly. The idea that the female protagonist provides the commercial services of a reader to all and sundry sparked my interest. It may contain elements of a male fantasy but is also the exploration of the power of reading and listening, what we read and why we read it.

Marie-Constance trips through the looking glass into readerland; seemingly unaware of the effect she has on a range of listeners or at least believing that she can manage or control the expectations that they have. In the course of the novella political activism, crime, adultery, the corruption of minors (and possibly majors) whoosh by leaving her practically unscathed. Clearly, she has a determination to carry on reading on her own terms. I was very comfortable with the language of the translation. I found it enjoyable and mildly subversive!
- Reviewed by Jim Murray of the Readers' Circle

 

Check to see if the books are available from Norfolk, Cambridgeshire or Suffolk libraries.

Take a look at the Brave New Reads medium list
.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

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Our hand-pick of writing competitions to keep you busy over the Christmas holidays

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 03 December 2015



Got some time to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) over the festive season? We’ve complied a list of writing competitions coming up over the next few months – and there’s something or everyone.

A new writer development scheme specifically aimed at Black, Asian and other Minority Ethnic writers who would like sustained support to write their first novel for children or teenagers. 
Closing date: Thursday 24 December 2015

Do you live, work or study in Fenland? Enter this free competition for a chance to win the coveted title of Fenland Poet Laureate, and share your passion for poetry.
Closing date: Friday 29 January 2016

Entrants are invited to submit short collections of 12 pages of poems, with four outstanding collections going on to receive a year of support and mentoring.
Closing date: Friday 29 January 2016

Brought to you by the BBC World Service and British Council. Open to anyone over the age of 18, living outside the UK, whether you're a new or established writer.
Closing date: Sunday 31 January 2016

The longest established book award based in the UK for independent and self published books. Overall cash prize of £1,000 to be won.
Closing date: Thursday 31 March 2016

Submit as many poems and short stories as you want. Judges are renowned poet Pascale Petit and short fiction writer and novelist Paul McVeigh. 
Closing date: Monday 1 February 2016

Coming soon...Escalator
Coming soon in the New Year, Escalator is WCN's popular talent development scheme open to all prose fiction writers in the Eastern Region of England. Stay tuned for application details and further details in January.

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The Blank Page by Jon McGregor: National Conversation

Posted By: Anonymous, 28 November 2015

An original provocation from Jon McGregor for the finale event of WCN's National Conversation, Cambridge Literary Festival, 29th November 2015

All writing begins with a blank page, and with the fear of the blank page. The silence before we begin to speak. The silence into which we can say anything we like. Telling stories with words on a page – or words in the air, or words on a screen, or words whispered into ears – is a very flexible form. There are no budget constraints or logistical hurdles or collaborative compromises. The page really is blank. We can say anything we like. And it's that 'anything' which often proves so terrifying – so intimidating – and which, instead of feeling like a wonderful opportunity, provokes a kind of paralysis of the imagination.

Often, not just as writers but as anyone involved in literary culture, we can forget what a privilege it is to start with these blank pages. It can be easier to retreat to the comfort zone of familiar templates, well-worn paths, the successful habits of successful people: If I write this story in numbered chapters then when I get to 70,000 words I'll have written a novel. If I publish this manuscript which reminds me of a book that sold well last year, I can count on the support of the sales department. If this Cambridge graduate works as well as this for free all summer, it makes sense to give her the job without advertising it. If we broke even on these festival events last year, then let's stick to the same format this time around. 

We do things the way they've been done before, because they seem to work. To not want to err is human, after all.

But what if we look at these blank pages for a moment longer? What if there are other ways of doing things? What are we losing by not more fully considering our options? What are we missing out on? Who are we leaving out?

Let me look at one example in detail, one to which I've given a lot of thought precisely because it has often seemed so alien to me and yet seems so taken for granted: the public reading, or 'author event'. Note, just for starters, how at a public event the writer becomes an 'author'.

Picture the typical literary event: There will be a long, narrow room, with chairs set out in straight rows. The audience members will gather in attentive silence. The writer will stride confidently to the front of the room, be introduced by an event organiser, pour himself – and the default image is, still, of a him – pour himself a glass of water from a jug on a low table, and move across to the lectern to begin.

From this lectern, the writer will talk for a time about their latest novel: how the research was done, where the idea came from, how the idea was developed, what a personal struggle it was to wrestle this beast into being ... they will give a lecture about themselves, essentially, often for many long minutes. 

They will then read some pages from their novel, with much harrumphing and mumbling and fiddling with bifocals.
This reading may go on for some time.

The audience will politely pay attention.

The author will then be ushered over to a comfortable chair on the stage, and joined by one or two others on equally comfortable chairs, there to have a conversation with each other to which the audience is expected to listen. 

The conversation will be about the writing of the novel, or the argument of the novel; the author will be given the opportunity to very gently defend or justify what they have written. The conversation will then be 'opened up' to the audience; meaning that the more confident members of the audience will call out questions to which the writer is expected to respond instinctively.

Afterwards, there will be glasses of wine set out at a table. Always wine, notice. Sometimes there will be smartly dressed young women handing out these glasses of wine. The author will make small talk with individual members of the audience, and then leave to eat M&S sandwiches in a hotel room or on a late train, spending the next forty-eight hours crippled by doubts and insecurities about what he said or how he answered the questions or whether he could be heard or why no-one bought copies of the book afterwards.

There are variations to this broad template, but not many. Sometimes the room will be a marquee; sometimes the chairs will be set out in slightly curved rows; sometimes the crippling self-doubt will only last for twenty-four hours.

And there's nothing inherently wrong with this format; it is evidently an appealing format for some, and an entire industry of literary festivals is built around it. But why is it more or less the only format? What does that mean? Allow me to unpick the semiotics just a little. Let's start with the lectern.

Why do so many writers give their readings from a lectern, as though standing in a lecture theatre, or a pulpit? Do we really expect our writers to be teachers and priests? And then there's this business with the comfortable chairs and the staged conversation – the low table, the vase of flowers, the jugs of water; would it be fair to say that this staging is designed to mimic the Oxbridge student meeting with a tutor to defend an essay? And the audience members calling out questions; can we say these are the members of a debating society, or an academic committee?

I would argue that the entire format is based on a 19th century idea of the public intellectual: the lectern, the lecture, the silent audience, the spirited conversation, the debate; even the wine. 

It's a format which deliberately privileges those from a specific cultural and educational background – the privately educated, the Oxbridge educated, those who have grown up with dinner parties and salons and debating clubs, those who feel comfortable and confident holding forth, those who expect to be listened to.

This all makes sense, of course. It's entirely fitting that the novel should be presented and discussed in settings such as these. Because the novel itself is a peculiar artefact, a product of a very particular socio-economic class. That the telling of stories was devolved to the object we call the novel is an historical anomaly born out of a particular set of technological and economic circumstances: printing technology, the availability of a specific size of leather binding, the educational shift from Latin to English, and the growth of a leisure class with the time to read long novels and the disposable income to collect them. And wasn't that leisure class itself founded on the wealth drawn directly from the exploitation of the labouring classes, from the pillage of empire, from slavery? Shouldn't we consider the novel itself to be a freakish indulgence, forever tainted by the stain of colonialism and slavery, as ugly in its way as the stately homes and gilded statues which shame our landscape?

Just a thought.

We've heard a lot, in previous contributions to the National Conversation, particularly from Kamila Shamsie and Kerry Hudson, about the lack of diversity in publishing, and about the stifling of voices which results. But this lack of diversity is more pervasive than even these previous contributions to the National Conversation have suggested. The problem is one of structure. The problem is one of form. The entire culture and apparatus of the published novel was developed by an economic elite with leisure time on its hands, and the descendants of that class work to perpetuate an environment in which their own sort feel at home, while others are accepted only as hyphenated anomalies: the working-class-writer, the black-writer, the gay-writer, the disabled-writer, the woman-writer.

Here's my suggestion: if we want to open literature up to a much wider range of voices, and if we really want to hear the stories our fellow citizens have to share, we could start by entirely revising our idea of how we expect writers to behave; how we expect them to look; how we expect them to present their work to us when we ask them to perform. We could remind ourselves that we do have these blank pages from which to work.

We could start by getting rid of the lecterns.

We could start by asking some simple questions about what it is an audience might gain from experiencing a piece of writing in a live context, or from an encounter with a writer.

Why, for example, do we expect writers – those who have chosen to spend their working lives alone with the voices in their head, and who by definition are likely not to be comfortable in company and certainly not articulate at volume – to be convincing performers of their own work, or advocates for it? Is it a coincidence that we have such apparently low expectations for an author reading? Have you ever read a review of an author giving a reading? Why are we expected to find it charming or endearing when a writer can't find their place in the book they're reading from, or doesn't know how to use a microphone, or reads for too long, or shuffles through their papers asking if they have time for just a little bit more? Isn't it time we dropped this cult of cheerful amateurism, this embarrassment about being seen to make an effort? An embarrassment that comes, again, from the Victorian tradition of the Gentleman Amateur?

Why, having asked the writer to stage a performance of sorts, do we require them to lecture and debate on their own work immediately afterwards?
When was the last time you went to a gig which concluded with a Q&A? Can we not just knock it on the head with the Q&A? And whose idea, incidentally, was the open-mic?

Why does the audience have to sit still for an hour? Can we not have a break to go to the bar, to absorb what we've just heard, to talk to the friends we came with? Why does the audience need to look at the writer at all? Could the writer stand at the back of the room? Could we all sit in a circle, around a fire? Could we just go to the pub, or back to someone's house? 

Why don't writers go on tours of book clubs, where there's a ready-made and enthusiastic audience, where the chairs are more comfortable and the wine is better? It couldn't be because book groups are mostly made up of women in a domestic setting could it? Why don't more writers go on tours of libraries, or prisons, or schools?

And when giving a reading, why do writers insist on reading from a book at all, when it's just one more barrier between them and the audience? Why not make the effort to prepare, all the better to connect with an audience?

Why do we want to hear writers reading their own work at all? Might it sometimes sound better when read by someone else? Why do we want to meet the writer in person at all? Might their work come across better on film, or in audio? On headphones? Between the pages of a book?

I'm not asking for the wheel to be reinvented every time a writer appears in public. Some events in the traditional format can be wonderful: captivating, surprising, engaging, revelatory. Some writers are comfortable reading at a lectern, and holding forth from a stage; some of those are even quite good at it.

But other writers are better at small talk, in small groups. Some writers benefit from preparation and rehearsal and can perform their work wonderfully, but not talk about it coherently afterwards. Some writers can work with musicians, or theatre-makers; some can work well alone; some prefer the intimacy of a bookshop; others, the privacy of a brightly-lit stage. Some writers can communicate wonderfully through social media, while an actor performs their work. Some events in the traditional format suit some of the writers, some of the time. But they exclude many writers – or, at least, squeeze them into uncomfortable positions in which they struggle to thrive – and they exclude great swathes of potential audiences.

This exclusion – this exclusivity – should be a matter of urgency for all of us who care about literature.

In her contribution to the National Conversation, Erica Wagner said: 'Books may vanish, but literature will survive.' She was talking about the forms of storytelling which long predate the printed book, and will outlive it. There are many ways of telling a story; there are many ways of presenting a book in a live setting; there are many different writers who have many different things to say in many different styles and many different settings. 

It's time to open the doors to these many different writers. 

If we're serious about diversity, and about wanting to hear the great stories that we're currently missing out on, then it's time to do things differently. 

It's time to stop asking our writers to conform to a Victorian idea of the public intellectual. Time to get rid of the lectern, to move the chairs around, to celebrate the art of the storyteller. Let's take literature out of the lecture theatre, out of the drawing room, and away from the pulpit; let's set it loose from the soiree and the salon. Let's start with a blank page, and open the door to new audiences; and to the new writers who will come from those new audiences.

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