News and views
Just Gripping: The Last Pilot Reviewed
Sarah Salmon, Brave New Reads Readers' Circle member and librarian, reviews her favourite book of 2015: The Last Pilot. See what she thinks...
I am so happy that this book made it into the 2016 Brave New Reads as I’ve loved it for over a year and in fact it was my favourite book of 2015 – and I read over 200 books last year so this is quite a feat!
I knew this book was coming - the author Benjamin Johncock wrote it in the library where I work. We’d met, chatted, and discussed the book in advance of its release and I was haunting the Net Galley website* daily looking for the chance to read an advance copy. I was worried that this much expectation would only result in disappointment...
The Last Pilot follows the life of Jim Harrison, who doesn’t just fly planes – he tests them (to destruction). Jim is working in a famous test pilot school in the Californian Desert when he is picked to join the Astronaut corps. This, however, is during the time of the early space programme, when being an astronaut really meant you had to have “the right stuff”. Emotional weakness meant that at best you’d wash out of the programme and at worst the distraction could kill you. Jim is about to be tested to his limits.
I’m not going to say more about the plot because I want everyone to have the excitement of reading this book for the first time. Instead I’m going to say why I loved it so much.
I am a space nerd (I’m not hugely into the technology and the big rockets but I love the human stories). I’ve read numerous biographies, autobiographies and history books about the early manned space programme (and the later ones) and I’ve been privileged enough to meet, listen, and talk with these personal heroes. They were brave men (women didn’t join the programme until 1978) and they were foolhardy. They were also flawed, despite being presented as infallible heroes to the public.
The Last Pilot conveys all of this, and despite being fiction I was constantly convinced that Jim was one of the original astronauts from the era. The details were all so much in tune with what I’ve read and heard that as I was reading the book, I was walking in the same places and ‘seeing’ the action unfurl. I’ve read other novels set around the space race and they’ve either missed the feel completely or read like a history book – The Last Pilot was just a gripping read, and one that you can enjoy without being a space nerd like me (I can prove this as I lent my copy to a non-space-enthusiast family member and they read the book in just two sittings).
If you wonder if all of the elements in this book could happen—and there are some events that I thought did stretch credibility a touch—further reading and watching assured me that such scenarios could and do take place. This book is an incredible reconstruction of the heady early space program.
If you’ve read the book and want to read or see more about the space race then these are my top books and films:Last Man on the Moon
(film) – currently available to download from iTunes and other platforms, DVD due soon.A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin
(book)The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
(book and film)Moondust by Andrew Smith
(book)Carrying the Fire by Mike Collins
(book)An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
The astronauts from this era are all in their late 70's and older now but they do still travel to the UK, along with men and women from later missions. If you’d like to hear them speak then I recommend looking at the Science Museum events page, the National Space Centre in Leicester and also the wonderful team who run Space Lectures
who really take the motto ‘Failure is not an option’ to heart!
Benjamin Johncock launched Brave New Reads in Norwich with Colette Snowden (author of The Secret to Not Drowning). Listen to a podcast of the event below.
Read an extract of The Last Pilot to get a taster of the novel.Find out more about The Last Pilot.
Meet Benjamin Johncock at Wisbech Library on the 16th June or at Woodbridge Library on the 19th July.
Borrow The Last Pilot from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries, or Suffolk Libraries.
Find out more about Brave New Reads.
About Sarah Salmon
I am an avid reader and self-professed space nerd who will travel silly distances to meet these pioneering icons. One of my proudest moments is getting a tweet liked by astronaut Tim Peake while he was serving on the ISS!
When not reading about the space program I can often be found at the theatre which is another passion, or out and about with my camera trying to capture photo of a barn owl. Despite the love of all things space and astronomy I have no wish to actually travel in space myself – I know I’d get space sick and not enjoy the ride!
*NetGalley is a site where book reviewers and other professional readers can read books before they are published, in e-galley or digital galley form
Hurrah! Brave New Reads 2016 is here!
May heralds the start of summer and the beginning of the bank holiday season. But most importantly, May brings Brave New Reads
back to libraries in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.
What’s Brave New Reads, I hear you cry!
As I said earlier, Brave New Reads is special because the books were chosen by readers. We call these literature lovers the Reader’s Circle
, and they hail from all walks of life and all parts of East Anglia. To choose the final six, this dedicated crew read a longlist of over 120 books and whittled down the selection again and again until we ended up with the crème de la crème of modern publications.
Without further ado, the books are:
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock‘First light was a diesel spill across the sky. The ground was gray. The hard silence of the desert sung.’
Technically brilliant and emotionally charged, this novel will transport you to America in the early days of the space race. Jim Harrison is in training to break the sound barrier, poised to become one of the very first astronauts, but his promise will be tested by a family crisis of stellar proportions. Discover a different world in this economic, elegant, and hugely powerful book.
‘An outstanding read: riveting, snappy, and very very cool.’ – Sam, Norwich Readers’ Circle
The Secret to Not Drowning by Colette Snowden‘“The secret to not drowning,” she says, “is to get out of the pool before you get too tired to keep swimming.”’
Marion can’t do anything without Him
knowing. Her only escape is her weekly swimming trip, but soon she’ll learn that taking the plunge creates far-reaching ripples. An intimate and immersive glimpse into emotional abuse, The Secret to Not Drowning
shows how the smallest of acts can be the bravest. Take a chance with this compelling and quietly wonderful novel.
‘A humorous and imaginative page turner, written with a terrifying sense of menace and discomfort.’ – Ruth, Cambridge Readers’ Circle
Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume‘I was wrong to try and impose something of my humanness upon you, when being human never did me any good.’
The story of a lonely man, and his one-eyed rescue dog. One Eye and his owner are both outcasts from society, clumsily navigating the world as best they can, each completely dependent on the other. Simultaneously tender and tragic, this is a compassionate and claustrophobic tale of loneliness and friendship. Dog-lover or not, this poetically poignant novel is sure to touch your heart.
‘I found myself engrossed in this jewel of a story. Sensitive, funny and hugely affecting, Baume’s language ribbons naturally out onto the page.’ – Alvina, Ely Readers’ Circle
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson‘We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.’
This crucial and devastating non-fiction book takes us to death row, showing the heartbreaking histories of the prisoners and revealing the inherent prejudices of modern-day America. A scathing, virulent, and utterly necessary condemnation of the US justice system, this book is sure to leave you gasping, crying and raging, but also filled with gratitude and hope. Absolutely not to be missed.
‘An autobiography, a social history, a treatise on the importance of equal justice, and a gripping thriller.’ – Kathryn, Norwich Readers’ Circle
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (Translated by Lisa Dillman)‘They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.’
Makina is gutsy, determined and not frightened of anything. When her mother asks her to travel from Mexico to the US to find her brother, she sets off almost immediately, pausing only to meet the local underlords. Carrying an unknown package from a kingpin, she traverses underworlds, borders, and boundaries, crossing dreamy lands. Echoing Greek myths, this breath-taking novella will move you to other planes of existence.
‘Full of heart and guts, poetic, brief and rich – nothing short of stunning.’ – Roland, Norwich Readers’ CircleThe Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy‘He did what they told him to do. He would have done anything they told him to do. He hid inside the pronoun
An uplifting tale of interconnection, coincidence, and the strangeness of life, this striking novel explores the impact of small actions. Moving across time and space, from wartime Britain to modern-day California, The Illusion of Separateness
shows the tenderness of people, and how seemingly simple actions have great consequences. Haunting, luminous, and totally absorbing, this book will give you a fresh perspective on what it means to be human.
‘Beautifully written. A magical read, which kept me captivated until the very last page!’ – Joy, Huntingdon Readers’ Circle
In Memory of Lakshmi Holmström
Associate Programme Director Kate Griffin pays tribute to Lakshmi Holmström, the preeminent translator of Tamil literature, who passed away this week.
I first came to know Lakshmi Holmström when she took part in the Worlds literary festival, with the writer Ambai. Lakshmi had been translating Ambai’s work from Tamil into English since the early 1990s. As well as giving readings, they visited groups in local libraries and shared with them Ambai’s short stories, an unusual opportunity for readers in Norfolk to learn about the lives of Tamil women in India. And it is for this that Lakshmi will be remembered, for bringing contemporary Tamil writing to world readers. The editor R. Sivapriya has written a tribute to Lakshmi Holmström and her translations in Scroll.in
In recent years, Lakshmi focused on translating poetry, particularly poetry from Sri Lanka during and after the war. At the British Centre for Literary Translation, Lakshmi gave a workshop with acclaimed Sri Lankan poet R. Cheran; her translation of his collection of poetry is published by Arc Publications. And in February this year, we were delighted to host at Dragon Hall the launch of Lost Evenings Lost Live
s, a bilingual anthology of Sri Lankan war poetry edited and translated by Lakshmi Holmström and Sascha Ebeling. It’s a powerful anthology, with a range of poets and styles, and many poems by women. You can listen to a recording of this very moving event here
Lakshmi was particularly dedicated to bringing into English the work of Dalit (formerly known as ‘Untouchable’) writers such as Bama, and the voices of young women poets. Her anthology Wild Girls, Wicked Words
, featuring Kutti Revathi, Sukirtharani, Malathi Maitri and Salma, was last month included in the Best Translated Book Award poetry longlist. One of the judges, Deborah Smith, wrote about the significance of this controversial collection here
Lakshmi Holmström was widely recognised as the preeminent translator of Tamil literature, receiving a number of prizes, including the prestigious AK Ramanujan Prize for Translation in South Asia in spring this year. She was also a dedicated teacher and mentor, generous with her time and keen to nurture the next generation of Tamil translators. For the last year or so, she taught (with Subashree Krishnaswamy) the Tamil strand of our Translators Lab
, determinedly balancing her bouts of chemotherapy with the more enjoyable demands of the online course, and encouraging her students, of whom she was proud.
Lakshmi was an inspiration to all of us who knew her, and we will miss her very much.
Our Communications Intern Jo Thompson picks her highlights from the City of Literature programme
Simon Armitage, Irvine Welsh, Jackie Kay; our new Communications Intern Jo Thompson picks favourites from the City of Literature line-up at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016.
Seeing Simon Armitage and Daljit Nagra billed for appearance, I booked two tickets for Fierce Light
before I’d started at WCN, or checked whether my partner had the night off. I now know this world-premier event commemorating the Battle of Somme is a part of the City of Literature Programme
. The programme is the biggest it’s ever been, and working to prepare this bumper crop of big names and exciting events has, needless to say, resulted in buying more tickets.
It’s also meant bothering my friends. Every event is likely to appeal to someone. Fans of Trainspotting
have been alerted to an evening with Irvine Wels
h in the Adnams Spiegeltent. My fellow medievalists were made aware of the discussions on Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe
, two of the first women ever published. With Ben Rawlence
talking from experience about life in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, bestselling authors like Kate Summerscale
sharing their latest novels, graphic novelists
discussing their craft, and the biggest names in poetry
performing, the festival really packs a punch. Browsing the events is a joy, and real confirmation, if any were still needed, that Norwich deserves its UNESCO City of Literature status.
remains a standout event for me. New work has been produced by the poets to think seriously about war, its immediate complexities and what it can mean to us now, 100 years on. Accompanying the poetry are short films, specially commissioned. In one of her poems for the event Jackie Kay writes ‘the past is lively, impossible to pin down’. Perhaps this is why mixing film, poetry and images in an attempt to in some way recapture World War feels so appropriate. Jackie has worked with her father, discussing his experiences of war, as well as her son, a filmmaker, to create the multi-media work that will be showcased at Fierce Light. It all promises to be something really special, and I’m glad I’ll be there for it.
I was less immediately sure what to make of The Story Machine
. It’s enigmatic, advertised as a literary event like nothing you’ve experienced before, powered by literature and oiled by theatre, and has become the feature I’m most excited about. The participants hear live stories from world-renowned writers, but not from the usual distance, sitting in rows with an author at a microphone. The Story Machine will be held at Dragon Hall, the stunning medieval home of WCN. Attendees are encouraged to wander through its rooms, garden, cellars at their leisure, making use of the street food pop-ups and specially-curated bar
, taking in short stories in unexpected, intimate, immersive, truly one-off ways.
It feels unusual to not know exactly what you’re in for with this event, the charming twists held back to genuinely surprise and enchant on the day, but the more I think about it the truer it seems to storytelling. Hearing about the plans in the office feels like a spoiler.
The Story Machine
is full of surprises, delights that must be discovered, live literature truly alive. It asks the audience to shift gear, let their cogs turn over in fresh ways, and put a little trust in an innovative literary festival bound to please.
Click to see the full City of Literature programme.
French Tear, Red Lotus, Mr Jameson...our literary themed taster cocktails for The Story Machine
Things are stepping up a gear at Writers' Centre Norwich, Dragon Hall as we begin preparations for the immersive, interactive, multi-sensory Story Machine.
With three hours of video projects, illuminations, live performances and more set within the (hopefully) sunny grounds of our beautiful medieval building, we're expecting you to get a little thirsty. So what's on the menu you ask? Take a peek...
COCKTAIL TASTING MENU
Our taster menu - kindly invented by the cocktail connoisseurs at 42 King Street
- corresponds with some of the stories taking place during the day.
‘Theatre Six’ by Sarah Hall
French Tear: spiced rum, orange liquor, and fruit juice provide a tart accompaniment to this troubling picture of the near future.
‘Here We Are’ by Lucy Caldwell
Red Lotus: a romantic combination of lychee liqueur, vodka, cranberry juice and fresh lime. A drinkable, fruity cocktail with a bright pink colouring resembling the neon of the early 1990s.
‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield
Rum and Raisin Old Fashioned: a modern take on an old whiskey classic.
‘Mr Salary’ by Sally Rooney
Mr Jameson: whiskey with a mixture of melon liquor and fresh kiwi to create a unique and unexpected mix.
‘A Cruelty’ by Kevin Barry
Unexpected Classics: a choice between a rum based classic and a popular tequila cocktail served with an unexpected twist. Breaking the routine of classic cocktail drinking.
‘Still’ by Anna Metcalfe
Plum Negroni: a fitting twist on the timeless classic using plum liqueur to resemble the plum tree and creating a glorious culmination to the evening.
Cocktails are £5 each, or you can have a taste of all six over the course of the event for £20. Steady on now, though...these will be smaller measures!
We've also got food available from the lovely Purple Plum Catering
, including vegetarian and vegan options. Each meal comes with your choice of story: 'The Reader' or 'The Writer' by Etgar Keret.
Just over a month remains until the world premiere of Fierce Light, a major national co-commission from 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers' Centre Norwich. Below, WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock allows us to peek behind the curtain at what lies in store at this very special commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. /
The past is lively, impossible to pin down.
So writes Jackie Kay in the brand new commissioned poem she has produced for Fierce Light
, a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. And it’s this challenge of how we make sense of such vast and indescribably bloody events as the Battle of the Somme – casualty figures numbered around 57,000 for the British on the first day alone, of which nearly 19,000 were deaths – that inspired the idea for Fierce Light in the first place. The changes wreaked on our world by World War One reached beyond politics, economics and technology into the very fabric of our daily lives, our communities and relationships. It was the artists of that war – perhaps the poets above all – who took on the challenge to make sense of a world transformed almost beyond recognition.
So, to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Fierce Light has brought together outstanding poets from the UK and around the world to look once more at the legacy of battle, the forces changing our world, and the struggles we face to make sense of them.
Jackie Kay has gone back to explore the story of her grandfather, Joseph Kay, who fought in the second Battle of the Somme, was captured, and injured, and survived the conflict. She visited Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and with an historian tracked down the records of her grandfather – including the date he was captured as a prisoner of war and the names of the medals he was awarded. He’s remembered in Jackie’s poem as a ‘shy man, bit withdrawn, shrapnel in his arm’, singing the miners lullaby Coorie Doon in the pre-dawn light.
On telling her ninety year old dad about this, Jackie reported that he was overcome with new knowledge and memories of his father. He appears in Jackie’s poem, too, remembering seeing his father up early to polish the buttons on his tram drivers uniform, and he, still singing Coorie Doon, ‘still singing his father.’
Jackie has subsequently worked with her filmmaker son, Matthew, on the film of Fierce Light, meaning that in one way or another, four generations have been involved in what you will see at Fierce Light.
The psychological fallout of war, which can be explored in our event with Matthew Green, author of Aftershock: Surviving War, Surviving Peace, is also mined by Daljit Nagra, in his response to Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A 1940 Memory’. There’s a passage in Nagra’s piece which I find almost unbearably moving and utterly poignant to the memory of war, impossible as it is to pin down.
Dear Jack, what blurs you most
so great words forever moral
your mind to war recall?
Is it the soldier smithereens
at your arm, the Hun dispersed
by your pluck that day you lay
in their bunker to read sonnets?
Or how you just couldn’t die?
Look at you now, our haunted
Elsewhere, Paul Muldoon’s takes us into the mind of a young infantryman from the Ulster Division, on July 1st 1916 - the first Day of the Battle of the Somme. It’s barely three months since the Easter Rising, and he finds himself ‘entrenched/no less physically than politically’ in the struggle for Irish independence. But he’s also a young soldier, big questions of national struggles and the world, take a backseat when compared to memories of home, and of Giselle, the girl he met just before departing for the front. It’s classic Muldoon, and the pastoral offers a contrast to what we know is coming in the forthcoming battle. This contrast, and what it opens up in contextualising the destruction of the battle and the fall of man, is also at the heart of Simon Armitage’s ‘Still’ that will be presented alongside Fierce Light. I’ll write more about that – and Yrsa Daley-Ward and Bill Manhire’s work in the coming weeks, as well as the wonderful filmmakers, who have been adapting these great new works of poetry.
We hope to see you at the Fierce Light
event at Norwich Playhouse on Friday 13 May, and the exhibition that runs at East Gallery
throughout the Festival.
Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers’ Centre Norwich.
Spring Short Story Competitions 2016
Spring is the time of plans and projects, according to Tolstoy, and who are we to disagree?
Forget the spring cleaning, and get stuck into these short story competitions. With prizes ranging from cash, to publication, (and even a rather quirky competition for those interested in writing the future!) there's a lot to keep you away from the hoover and focused firmly on the keyboard!
Happy writing, and do let us know if you are successful!
Deadline: 25 April 2016
Open to publish and unpublished writers from the UK and abroad, this competition accepts short stories up 2200 words, and has an £8 entry fee. First prize is £1000, and winners will be published in the anthology.
Deadline: 29 April 2016
This year, the festival is seeking stories of up to 1000 words written by or for children. Winners will read their work at Oxford Festival of the Arts in June.
Deadline: 30 April 2016
Open to published and unpublished writers, both UK and overseas, this competition is very open with entries welcomed from any genre. There's an entry fee of £8, and a first prize of £1000 available.
The Cardiff Review Short Story Award
Deadline: 15 May 2016
Open to new and unpublished writers, this competition seeks short stories of between 1000-5000 words, and winners will be awarded a cash prize of £150. Entry fee £2.
The Sunderland Short Story Award
Deadline: 1 June 2016
Open to younger writers too, with categories for 11- 16 as well as Adults, this competition not only has a cash prize, but those shortlisted will have their work read by a literary agent and by publisher Unthank Books, who will consider work for publication in their anthology.
A prize for both short stories and flash fiction, The Brighton Prize folk have asked to be challenged and excited. Prizes of up to £500 available.
Deadline: 20 June 2016
A prize founded in commemoration of the centenary of one of our finest short story writers of the 20th Century, the annual prize of £1000 goes to the best unpublished short story and is published in Prospect, and RLS Review.
Deadline: 30 June 2016
A new short story competition, with a little bit of a twist! Entrants are asked to submit poems or short stories on the theme of an imagined future England, and the competition features a twist... but we'll let you find out about that yourself! Winners will be published online, and there's no entry fee.
A Factory of Art; Bringing The Story Machine to Life
In our second Story Machine blog from WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock, we're given a sneak preview of the accompanying sculptures, drawings and soundtracks that have been commissioned by talented artists in order to bring the Story Machine to life.
One of the great and unexpected joys of producing The Story Machine has been the other art works we’ve helped bring to life. Illustrations, drawings, sculptures, soundtracks, audio recordings, and more, all commissioned, designed, and developed to help explode the eighteen amazing stories off the page.
Our first task was to acquire a leg. And not just any leg, either. This leg had to represent the severed limb of a Poet Laureate who has been hung, drawn and quartered and is now being dragged to Scotland as a demonstration of England’s power! Given the illustrious subject matter, a manikin simply wouldn’t suffice. Film prosthetics proved a little lifeless, and not sadly in the way we wanted. We thought about trompe l’oeil painting to see if we could recreate the rotting look on a manikin. But nothing felt quite right.
That was until we came upon the work of Martha Todd
, a ceramic artist. Although not produced to imitate flesh, there was something in the angles of her feet that gave them a deeply human look. In one, the toes were curled underneath the foot, as though the entire weight of the body was crushing down upon it. In another, the toes were pointed, calling to mind crucifixion or other long-abandoned methods of execution. There was suffering in these sculptures, and something almost painted and metaphorical about their composition. We were enthralled and - after much hard work to source materials so that we could afford this beautiful, troubling limb – commissioned Martha to sculpt it for us. This is the first glimpse of that limb, ghostly white, spectral, shockingly disembodied.
Next up, Adam Avery AKA The Suffolk Punch Press
, was invited to produce a show poster to help visualise the extravaganza. We wanted to capture both the feel and textures of Dragon Hall, – essentially the canvas we are painting The Story Machine upon - and the sheer multiplicity of stories that are being produced. His response is one you will be familiar with: the wooden beams of the Great Hall adding texture to a series of icons that represent themes across the different stories. There’s a quirky feel to them, a sense that nothing may be quite as it seems. I love it and we’re hoping to have limited edition prints for sale on the day. I’ve already reserved one for me!
Elsewhere Beverley Coraldean of Geneality Art
came on board to produce pencil drawings to accompany our grand climax to the show: Anna Metcalfe’s transcendent exploration of the power of art to transform the everyday into the universal. I don’t want to give too much away about the story itself, other than to say that it revolves around the pictures that a boy and his father take each year as the last leaf of the plum tree in their garden falls to the ground. Beverley is producing thirty-two new images to accompany the show, and we have plans for them to become something altogether more dramatic in the final crescendo.
No tale of the lengths we’ve gone to for The Story Machine would be complete without the international exploits to record Etgar Keret reading his stories. He has done so, directly and specifically for The Story Machine. Huge thanks for this to Yochai Maital and Mishy Harman who produce and present Israeli Story
, modern stories about the ancient land of Israel and the people who live there. Without their assistance, Etgar’s remote involvement would not have been possible.
This has been a multimedia experience like nothing I’ve done before. It’s been a thrill to have new pieces of art float across my desk on a weekly basis, and I can’t wait to see them come together with the audience in May.
Come and be part of our grand experiment.
The Best of Brave New Reads
For seven years, Brave New Reads (formerly known as Summer Reads), has been recommending brilliant books to the people of East Anglia (and those further afield too). We’ve suggested intriguing works in translation, scintillating non-fiction, stunning poetry collections, amazing novels, and fantastic short story collections. We’ve included recommendations from all around the globe; from Australia to Kazakhstan, Jamaica to Mexico, Japan to India.
Over those seven years, we’ve advocated for almost forty titles, encouraging people to try something new and exciting. We’ve heard from many readers, saying how much they’d enjoyed the books and the programme, how they’d discovered new authors because of Brave New Reads and found new genres and styles to enjoy.
So, to celebrate seven years of brilliant books, we asked the Readers’ Circle
and the WCN staff to tell us their favourite books from Brave New Reads gone by. After many suggestions, much deliberation, and lots of enthusiastic exclamations and comparisons, we’ve settled on nine books which we think showcase some of the best of Brave New Reads.
Without further ado, they are:
A Light Song of Light
Jamaican poet Kei Miller’s poems are presented in two parts; Day Time and Night Time. Day Time is soon undermined by a Night Time place where cool caves and bat wings tickle the neck. This collection faces the tough stuff of life but through it all the Singerman calls as Miller uses rhythm and song to pull you through his laments towards a praise of light in language that truly sings.
“I’ve always proclaimed not to understand poetry... but the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I loved this book.” - Readers’ Circle
All the Birds, Singing
Jake Whyte is running from something. But what?
Living alone on a British island, her only companion is Dog, who helps her tend her sheep. Dog’s whimpering and scared though; something is coming. Something that’s picking off the sheep one by one, creeping through the evening as a stranger lurks by the trees over the field...
Flashing through it all there’s Jake’s former life in the heat and rough of Australian sheep farms, the life she ran away from overseas. Why?
“A star of a book! Gritty, brutal and strangely witty in parts.” - Readers’ Circle
Behind the Beautiful Forevers
What is it really like to be poor in Mumbai? Follow the daily lives of slum-residents Abdul, Manju, Sunil, One Leg and Asha who live next to a toxic pond facing Mumbai Airport and its luxury hotels.
Pulitzer prize-winning Boo gets behind the statistics to give lively voice to these slum-dwellers and their stories; the different ways that they deal with thwarted hope, envy, corruption and religious divide in a new India full of possibilities that are constantly just out of reach.
“A spectacular book that deserves each and every accolade it has received.” - Readers’ Circle
Beside the Sea
A single mother takes her children on their first trip to the seaside. As they run from rain to hot chocolate to the fun-fair we see the woman’s close and complex relationship with the two little boys unfold. These are precious children whom she wants so badly to protect from the very unkind world, from hunger and pain. But we find that the severest danger can lurk much closer to home in this emotionally tough but brilliantly written read.
“Bleak yet riveting. Be brave: this is life at its harshest and writing at its most affecting.” - Readers’ Circle
Down The Rabbit Hole
Juan Pablo Villalobos
Holed up in his Mexican castle, Tochtli is getting along playing with his collection of hats and taking daily lessons. But when his teacher disappears and Tochtli finds out that his gangster father has been lying to him, even the promise of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus doesn’t help.
This delicious, neatly written short novel reveals the hectic world of precocious, likeable seven-year old Tochtli just as it starts to unravel.
“Tochtli is a brilliant narrator. I defy you not to be charmed by his tale of a world that, for all his young awe, is far from innocent.” - Readers' Circle
Fallen Land charts the downfall of three generations of land-owners and the disintegration of their American dream. Louise reluctantly sells her family land, property developer Krovik builds on it and goes bankrupt, and the Noallies family move in, ready for an untainted future but unprepared for what’s to come. Saturated with an eerie menace, the prose shifts and mutates to create an unsettling and gripping novel.
"A chilling portrait of obsession and how it can get out of control. Fallen Land is a brilliant and compelling read." - Readers' Circle
Strange Weather in Tokyo Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell)
Tsukiko navigates the Tokyo of her thirties in a solitary path from her flat to work to the local bar. One evening she comes across her old school teacher there, the upright, quiet ‘Sensei’. A gentle relationship develops over good beer and delicious morsels and they end up gravitating towards each other more and more. They attend a cherry-blossom party together, but both end up leaving with other people, and silence ensues. Will they ever get past their mutual loneliness and fear?
“A wonderful, beautiful, slowly engulfing novel” - The Readers’ Circle
The Beautiful Indifference
Sarah Hall’s stories are a portal into the fascinating inner lives of women who are often hiding or recovering from something untold. From one women in search of excitement, to another waiting for her lover to leave so she can make the biggest decision of her life, this collection of carefully crafted moments engages all of the senses, using the rhythms of body and landscape to tell beautiful stories that will stay with you.
“These fabulously written, looming and austere stories are beautiful and a joy to read.” - Readers’ Circle
This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You
You never thought that kind of thing could happen to somebody like you. But then it does. Set in the lowlands of the fens, these brooding stories evoke quiet menace – from the drama of buried bodies that risk being dug up, to the buried crisis of an everyday break-up. The book’s very readable style masks fierce technical skill as McGregor builds tension and plays with your expectations to keep you hooked all the way through.
“These stories are creative, strange, sometimes genius, reflections on life. Read them, you won’t be disappointed.” - Readers’ Circle
Let us know your favourites in the comments, or tweet us @WritersCentre using #BraveNewReads.
All of these books are available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Library Services.
The 2016 Brave New Reads books will be announced at the start of May. Sign up to the Writers’ Centre Norwich e-news
to be the first to know which six made it through!Find out more about Brave New Reads.
The Story Machine
This year's City of Literature programme at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016 features a brand new style of event for the literature sector - The Story Machine. Powered by literature and oiled by theatre, this is a unique interactive and immersive experience where stories from world-renowned writers seduce participants at every turn.
As a brand new event with a lot of surprises planned for the day, what can we expect in advance? Sam Ruddock, WCN Programme Manager and the driving force behind The Story Machine, will present a series of blogs over the coming weeks that helps to shed light on how he will bring The Story Machine to life and why it's such a ground breaking literary event.
The Story Machine is the literary festival I have always wanted to produce: a funhouse jam-packed with interactive, immersive, and brilliant short stories. There will be no lecterns, no audience sat quietly in ordered rows, no discussion about the author’s childhood or where – and on what – they write. Nothing but brilliant stories given the space and time to shine as brightly as they do on the page.
In the first of a series of blogs about The Story Machine, I want to share some of how we came to produce it, and what you might expect if you come along to its premier in May.
It all started with a team discussion of the art that’s made our hearts sing and our brains fizz over recent years. As we talked, what became apparent was that we all loved immersive experiences : theatre that asks the audience to get involved and shape it alongside the actors, Secret Cinema showings that let you step inside the world of the film, exhibitions that you can touch and feel and sometimes even taste.
Why, we asked ourselves, had we not encountered a literature festival experience like that? One answer that came immediately to mind was that we don’t need festivals for that. We’ve long believed that the reader is an active co-curator, conjuring the story in their mind every time they open a book. Recent research into the neurology of reading has even suggested that there is little more immersive for our brains than deeply settling in to read a book. So we changed the question: how we might recreate that immersive feeling of reading in a literature festival?
In searching for the answer, two things came in handy: the mass production of Moby Dick at the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival and Iliad by National Theatre Wales. I had never seen any literature festival treat a text with such dedication, respect, or joy as these did. In doing so, each showed that great literature, great writing, and great stories might be right at the centre of an event, rather than a small add-on as it so often is. Back at work I sat in the glorious glass-fronted gallery at Dragon Hall pondering these questions and came across an article about those amazing short story vending machine that had appeared in Grenoble. In that moment, it all came together in my mind.
This building might become a machine for discovering and engaging with great stories. An idea was born.
Stepping into The Story Machine will feel like you are entering a secret garden, or disappearing down Alice’s rabbit hole. There might not be a magic potion that shrinks you down to size – or for that matter a talking Mock Turtle (one day, one day!) – but as you explore our 15th century Grade 1 Listed home at Dragon Hall, you’ll encounter all sorts of beguiling characters and tales taking place in nooks and crannies in, outside, and under, this wonderful building. Over the course of three hours you’ll plot your way through stories by thirteen hand-picked writers from all over the world, sample story-themed food and cocktails, and uncover secret stories where you’d least expect them.
Jon McGregor – whose provocation
at the National Conversation also helped shape some of our thinking – will tell a story from the driver’s seat of a car. Israeli superstar Etgar Keret – one of the most cheekily playful writers I know – will whisper true stories across space and time in the dark of our cellars. In the Great Hall an unpublished new story by Sarah Hall kicks off a series exploring the relationship between humans and nature, that which we can create and that which we cannot control even in ourselves, life and art. We finish with a glorious crescendo as Norwich-based writer Anna Metcalfe’s debut collection blinds us with a moment of pure transcendence.
In curating the Story Machine we read hundreds of stories to find the ones that thrilled us. We weren’t short of talent, and I emerge with a renewed belief in the vitality, creativity and heart in the writing of this most difficult of forms. Along the way, we’ve been delighted to work with The Special Relationship who produced Moby Dick at the Southbank Centre, Granta’s exceptional New Irish Writing edition, our good friends at Galley Beggar Press, and Cathy Galvin’s Word Factory.
What is literature when it steps off the page to dance with us? What are stories when we find them to be so much more, or less, than we imagined? Come along to The Story Machine, and you might just start to find out.
Tickets for The Story Machine will go on-sale on Thursday 3 March 2016 from the Norfolk & Norwich Festival website www.nnfestival.org.uk
The Dilemma of Choice: Deciding on the Final Brave New Reads Books
Way back in September, with the 2015 Brave New Reads still fresh in our minds, we (that’s the WCN staff and the Readers’ Circle) began to read for the 2016 books. We started off with a list of over 120 books, including poetry, short stories, non-fiction, works in translation, and—of course—novels.
What came next involved a symphony of organisation – copies of the 120-odd books needed to be sent around East Anglia to Readers’ Circle members in Norfolk, Cambridge and Suffolk, spreadsheets were designed, and surveys were created. Then the Readers’ Circle
, our hundred plus eager volunteer readers, began to read and review the books.
When we read to choose the Brave New Reads books, we look for originality, brilliance (of prose and plot), and excitement. We ask the Readers’ Circle to rate the books according to green, amber, red and to send us short reviews too. And then we create huge spreadsheets using the data, marking top choices and average ratings. (Find out more about the process in this blog on Cutting the Longlist
or in Recommended by the Readers’ Circle
After five months of reading, we’d collected over one thousand reviews, and managed to cut down the very long list to a shortlist of just under forty books. We’d heard from readers in Ely, Swaffham, Cambridge, Huntingdon, and from many other towns and cities across East Anglia. And then it was time for us to meet and make a decision.
The Brave New Reads team travelled to Suffolk, enjoyed a phone conference with Cambridgeshire readers, and welcomed readers to WCN’s new home of Dragon Hall. Over all the conversations, we explored the titles which stood out for people and asked why they thought that this book should be recommended to the people of East Anglia. At the end of each meeting we asked for six top choices and two reserves. Unsurprisingly competition was extremely fierce, with much extended deliberation and cries of cruelty when a top six was insisted on.
The next day, armed with each county's Readers’ Circle final choices, some complicated statistics, a bundle of the 1000+ reviews, and two large bags of books, the BNR team travelled to meet the Steering Group (representatives of each library service). Our mission was to settle on a final six.
Over the next few hours the Steering Group and the BNR team discussed our short-shortlist, of about 20 books, looking at the reviews and the top choices for each county. We examined the statistics (the average rating for each title, the number of reviews, the number of top choices) and discussed the content, style, and themes of the book. We thought about whether the books were ‘brave’, startling and exciting; whether they would appeal to a wide range of readers; whether they tackled important topics. We talked about the things the Readers’ Circle had said about each book; and discussed the titles we’d read ourselves.
Finally, we were left with ten books, all of which we thought were equally brilliant, with different strengths and weaknesses. At which point we began to look at practical issues: the date of publication, the format availability of the titles, the gender and nationality of the writers, the spread of subject matter, the publisher, the setting of the book and more. We wanted the “package” of Brave New Reads to entice readers and library users, so we looked at jacket design too, wanting an aesthetically pleasing combination.
After another protracted discussion and further scrutinising of the Readers’ Circle opinions, we eventually decided on a final six. The result: six brilliant books, recommended by readers, which explore important contemporary issues and showcase fantastic writings.
And what are they? Well, you’ll find out in May....
Find out more about Brave New Reads
Sign up to our e-news to be the first to hear about the May selection
Postcard from Prague
In January, Norfolk writer and novelist Sarah Perry travelled to Prague, City of Literature, to begin her writing residency. As the end of this exciting experience draws near, she reflects on her early expectations and the reality of what she has gained - has she achieved all that she'd wanted to?
I'm nearing the end of a stint in Prague as a UNESCO Writer-in-Residence, representing (as ever!) Norwich. Both Prague and Norwich are UNESCO Cities of Literature, a status conferred on 20 cities worldwide in recognition of their active and richly diverse literary scenes. From my bed I look into the windows of a baroque opera house that wears a golden crown; now and then swans fly upriver through the snow. I've been eating date syrup on pumpernickel bread.
Before I left, I promised myself, my husband and my cat that I’d use these two months wisely. I would (I said) return a better and a wiser woman, with a good grasp of conversational Czech and 20,000 words of a third novel.
Reader, you’ll not be surprised to hear I achieved little of this. But much of what I've gained I could not possibly have predicted, and I've learned a good many things I’d no idea I didn't know.
I had no idea, for instance, of the extraordinary complexity of Czech history – of how its borders have shifted and changed like a cloud-bank in a high wind. No sooner did I grasp something (it was lost to Germany in the Munich Treaty) I’d immediately be wrong-footed (they call it, here, the Munich Betrayal). If I researched an event I’d find I’d only gone two inches into a rabbit-hole several fathoms deep and with many blind corners. Ask me, and I’ll tell you what little I know about Forest Glass, about the Moldavite gemstones found in the river Vltava, about the student who burned himself alive, about Master Jan Huss and the devils on his paper hat.
I visited Terezin, a ghetto for Czech Jews and a stopping-place on the way to the death-camps – but learned that here, too, German-speaking Czechs were detained at the end of the war. I discovered that the past here is not long-buried: I stayed in a flat where my friend prepared breakfast in a 1983 Communist kitchen, which was one of precisely two styles available to the citizens.
I've discovered what it is to live in a city that prizes its cultural heritage – even more, though I blush to say it, than Norwich. Take breakfast (a basket of bread, eggs with chives, pastries, hot chocolate and coffee) in one of the nearby cafes and you’ll be supplied, also, with a notepad and pencil. In my local café the walls are emblazoned with excerpts from Czech literature; it was here I met a retired Jewish scholar of linguistics and his Muslim friend, a professor of sociology in Arizona (the following day the professor emailed to let me know he’d bought my novel, and looked forward to my second). I've seen seven operas, most of them Czech: here, opera is taken seriously, but is not the preserve of the wealthy and is frequently attended by children in their party clothes.
My Czech constitutes a paltry handful of phrases, though by some fluke I pronounce them, I'm told, with so convincing a native accent I'm often met with streams of Slavic conversation I can never hope to understand. I have made friends with two Sarah's: an owl, and a musician. On the great Charles Bridge I've been warmly welcomed by a homeless man and his dog, Tiger: it was from them I learned how to say, “How are you?” I have discovered that jackdaws have eyes like blue shards of glass, and that if you keep your pockets supplied with biscuits they’ll come to know you by sight.
I am the proud owner of a membership card to the Prague Municipal Library, where I sit always at desk 209, beneath a vaulted plaster ceiling from which plaster cherubs daily struggle to escape. I do not have 20,000 words of a new book; but the novel in my head now is not the one hazily forming there in the security queue at Stansted - because I am not, quite, that writer.
Sarah Perry was born in Essex. She gained a PhD in Creative Writing & the Gothic from Royal Holloway in 2012, having been supervised by Andrew Motion. A winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize & a Royal Holloway doctoral studentship, she was Writer-in-Residence at Gladstone's Library, January 2013. She is currently the UNESCO City of Literature Writer-in-Residence in Prague.
She has written for a number of publications including the Guardian, the Independent, Slightly Foxed and the Spectator. Her work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and RTE 1.
Her debut novel After Me Comes the Flood won the East Anglian Book of the Year award 2014, and was longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2014 and the Folio Prize 2015. Her second novel, The Essex Serpent, will be published in June 2016.
The Library: Developing the Readers of Tomorrow
The sixth in our 'Love Your Library' blogs is by Alison Thorne, a Norfolk librarian, and shares all the brilliant things you could do in a library; from borrowing books to making new friends.
I love books. No really …I LOVE BOOKS! I listen to them in the car, I’m surrounded by them at work, I spend a huge proportion of my work time talking about and promoting them, and in my free time nothing makes me happier than reading more of them. It has been that way for as long as I remember and working in a library really is the dream job! I am passionate about libraries, library use and how libraries play a vital role in developing the readers of tomorrow.
I’m a huge fan of crime fiction but I often get bored reading the same thing. The Brave New Reads
promotion has got me reading different genres and one of the longlist for 2016 became one of my Top 10 reads of 2015. Thank you WCN! I’ve even become a poetry reader – although I confess to finding most poetry a struggle. I’m in three book clubs, love having recommendations from other people and finding new authors who then have a backlist of titles I can look forward to.
So why should readers use libraries?
• Places to explore
Libraries are a safe environment for you to explore whatever your reading tastes might be – and the perfect place to try new things. It’s free to use and to borrow books. By borrowing, you’re not committing as you do when you buy a book. Try a few chapters and if you’re not hooked, just return the book on your next visit. For as little as 60p you can request any title in library stock and have it delivered to your local library.
• Books, books and more books
Libraries have thousands of books on an amazing amount of subjects; from vegan cooking to setting up your own business! You can search for things online
. Norfolk Libraries also have special collections of books which support your wellbeing (Books on Prescription/Dementia Collection/Macmillan Cancer Collection) and support job seeking (Jobseekers/Enterprise collections).
We are all busier than ever and all libraries have attractive displays that change regularly so that you can more easily find something to tempt you. Libraries have regular promotions throughout the year and these include Norfolk’s Great Big Read in the Spring, and Brave New Reads of course. In 2016 Norfolk will be adopting a Shakespeare theme, with a range of titles which echo Shakespearian themes. Many libraries run regular community reads encouraging readers to try the same title and then share their views with others.
• Book clubs
Perfect for readers in a rut! Where better to try new things than with a group of like-minded readers who want to try new things too. It doesn’t matter if you loved or hated the book, a book club is the perfect place to see something from another reader's point of view. Your local library may have a book group you could join, or if not, Norfolk Libraries can give you tips on setting up a book club of your own
. Libraries also run shared reading sessions – opportunities to listen to prose or poetry being read aloud and then share your response to it. Dersingham Library had a shared reading session for Brave New Reads last year, and hearing the extracts definitely encouraged more people to then borrow the book.
• Social media
You can find Norfolk Libraries on Facebook
promoting new books, library events and all things bookish. I’m a huge fan of Pinterest (if you don’t know it it’s a place where you can PIN images onto virtual boards for future reference) and you can find Norfolk Libraries on Pinterest too
. Each month we create boards to promote new titles, and each book jacket image links directly to our library catalogue so that you can request that book. I keep a Pinterest board of ‘Books to read’ and browse it from time to time for a little inspiration.
• Digital media
Did you know that you can download ebooks, eMagazines, and eAudio from Norfolk Libraries
• Library staff
We read lots of things, are very happy to make recommendations and really love it when you like something we recommend! You can also read and send in your reviews to our book blog
I have worked in Norfolk Libraries for 26 years and so much has changed during this time that I barely know where to start! When I first began at Lynn Library they were just in the process of introducing computers and doing away with the old system of cards in trays. The way people read and find information has changed so much and libraries have adapted well. I now work in 3 libraries – Dersingham, Hunstanton and Lynn. We run computer courses, offer tablet help, promote e-books, run adult colouring classes and more, and keep everyone up to date with what we are doing on Facebook! I never knew libraries could be such exciting places to work.
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.
Read The Last Pilot author Benjamin Johncock's blog on The Lighthouse of a Library.
Read Cambridgeshire Librarian Ruth Cowan's blog on The Tremendous Gift of Libraries.
Re-imagine India: WCN staff and Norwich writers form cultural connections with Kolkata, India
In January writers Patrick Barkham, Vesna Goldsworthy and Anjali Joseph were accompanied by WCN's Melanie Kidd, (Programme Coordinator) and Kate Griffin (Associate Programme Director) on a five day research and development trip to Kolkata, India. This marked the start of a partnership to form cultural connections between England’s first UNESCO City of Literature and East India’s educational and cultural centre.
Funded by Arts Council England and British Council the trip aimed to develop artistic links between the two countries, paving the way for a more substantial and sustainable project under ACE’s ‘Re-imagine India’ umbrella.
Melanie Kidd, Programme Coordinator at Writers’ Centre Norwich, shares her highlights from the trip below...
(l-r, Vesna Goldsworthy, Melanie Kidd, Patrick Barkham)
On Saturday the 9th January three writers, all with a strong connection to Norwich, along with myself and my colleague Kate, all met in Kolkata for a swift, exhilarating, petrol-fuelled, ride of India’s former capital. The colours of Kolkata are sweet and zingy, celebrating its vibrancy, and the rich, spicy smells of street food fight against the health-hazardous stench of exhaust fumes. Kolkata is busy. But it’s not chaotic. It’s very easy to inhale its rhythmic buzz and float down its smog-drenched streets.
Accompanying the writers nearly 5,000 miles on a smooth Air India flight, I spent much of my time simply wondering - why Kolkata? Once our extensive itinerary began, it soon became apparent why this Indian city was a one-stop-shop for literary inspiration and heritage!
Barely shaking off the jet lag, Monday morning saw our coffee-fuelled writers thrown into an eight hour literary symposium on ‘de-professionalisation’ at Presidency University. During the symposium I was inspired by the engagement and response of the students, darting between their lectures and the symposium, leaping from their seats to add ideas and opinions to the debate.
Later in the trip, during our literary walking tour our tour guide, Ramanuj, introduced us to Henry Louis Vivian Derozio in South Park Cemetery (well, his grave at least). Derozio was an Anglo-Indian radical thinker that in 1826, at the under-ripe-age of 17, became an English Literature teacher at Presidency, introducing the concepts of free thinking and learning through debate. During the symposium one of the students offered the opinion that universities should continue ‘opening their doors’ to other ideas, disciplines, training and values. I couldn’t help but think that Derozio would be ‘whooping’ in his grave, chuffed to bits that his teachings live on in those energetic students, challenging the ways in which they learn.
As my interests lie heavily in social development and community projects, one of the most inspiring moments of the trip for me is when we went for lunch with Naveen Kishore, founder of Seagull Books. Seagull is a small publishing company with a large reputation. Alongside publishing, Seagull also deliver projects such as The Seagull School of Publishing
, a heavily subsidised professional course in editing and book design for young people; and PeaceWorks
, using the arts to promote social change. Both of these projects are what I would call ‘investment’ projects; investing in the education, creativity and social development of young people and the community. What an inspiring publishing company, leaping down the path of social impact, investing in Kolkata’s cultural personality and future.
Towards the end of the trip, our literary tour guide, Ramanju, proudly said he believed that the people of Kolkata were less financially driven than in other parts of India, and more influenced by their passions. I had met several Bengalis on my trip that confirmed this, who had studied or trained to be scientists, mathematicians or accountants, but had dropped it all to follow a less financially driven career in culture and the arts. Something else that Ramanju had said got me thinking: ‘Everything in Kolkata can be fixed’. He was referring to the industrious nature of Kolkata, where everything that had been made by human hands could be fixed or changed by human hands. Nothing from the past goes to waste. Ramanju’s words meant something different for me, echoing a wider sense of cultural renovation.
That last evening those words stuck in my mind, as we watched the Appejay Literary Festival’s ceremonious launch; a festival that revitalises spaces entrenched in Kolkata’s cultural heritage using new writing and ideas. Kolkata was by no means slow-paced. However, it had a strong sense of reflection and pride. It is city that is comfortable in its skin; proud of its past which shapes its present, and inspiringly excited about its future.
Although our visit to Kolkata was brief, I took home the sense that culture is a ‘door way’; opening up a place for others to explore, unlocking a past, providing a path of opportunity and letting in other cultures and influences. The other thing I took home? A mountain of books from Seagull’s spider-web of a book shop! If you ever make it to Kolkata, take an extra suitcase for book shopping. It’s not called a literary city for nothing!
Stuart Hobday: Encounters with Harriet Martineau
Writer Stuart Hobday is in the midst of fundraising for his biography of Harriet Martineau, the first female journalist. Below, he recounts what first drew him to Martineau as a historical figure and the reasons why she should be remembered.
Writing a book about Harriet Martineau is the culmination of 15 years of reading and researching into this fascinating nineteenth-century writer. I stumbled across Martineau whilst studying for my History Masters and looking into the context in which Darwin announced his evolutionary ideas. In particular, James Moore and Adrian Desmond gave Martineau much credit for radicalising the young Darwin. I then found out that we shared a home city of Norwich and I realised she was not well remembered there. In fact she was better remembered as a founder of social science and as a first wave feminist particularly in America. Of the nine biographies written about Martineau, seven have been penned by Americans.
Harriet was born in 1802 and shares the same birthplace - Gurney Court on Magdalen Street in Norwich - as Elizabeth Fry. As a teenager she became increasingly deaf and inhibited by shyness and illness. To compensate she educated herself through reading, encouraged by a free thinking Unitarian family and community around the Octagon Chapel on Colegate. In her 20s she began to write. The failure of her father’s textile business and his subsequent death affected her greatly, not least in leaving her having to make a living through her writing and embroidery. She had also seen first-hand how economics affects people’s lives and in the late 1820s she began to write fictional tales illustrating economic and political factors. Within two years these tales were widely read and influential. Her economic creed, as outlined in the tales, was one that would resonate today. She favoured free markets but with responsibility and wrote of the benefits of mutualism, cooperatives and was vehemently outspoken against injustice particularly slavery.
In 1830 she moved to London and her large readership meant that politicians courted her favour and writers and artists sought her company. She quickly became known for her ear trumpet which helped her overcome her deafness and to hold regular meetings with the great and the good. In 1834, at the height of her fame, she embarked on an intrepid tour of America. She was well known there for her anti-slavery writings but at first she kept quiet on the issue. The sight of the slave system in action abhorred her though and eventually, at a meeting in Boston, she spoke out against the still entrenched system. This made her a great ally of the abolitionist movement and the friends she made in the US were to inform her later journalism in the lead up to the American Civil War.
On her return she wrote several influential books. Society in America was one of the first books to closely analyse a society and its structures and was outspoken in its ridicule of religious dogma. She openly condemned the sexual motivations of slave owners and the chapter entitled ‘The Political Non-Existence of Women’ applied equally to Britain as the US. The book was widely reviewed in Britain and America and was widely condemned for its insolence.
It wasn’t just Darwin that she influenced; she was a free spirited, radical influence on George Eliot, Elisabeth Gaskell, Elisabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Bronte amongst others blazing a trail that they followed. In later years she became a strategic journalistic partner for Florence Nightingale’s campaign for cleaner, better hospitals and training for nurses and Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts.
Many written words have been expended providing sociological and gender analysis of Martineau’s career. In my book I wanted to portray the real human stories of her life and have devoted a chapter each to her encounters and relationships with these other nineteenth-century luminaries, many of whom she infused with defiant courage and causal determination. It was selected by Unbound for publication and I would be really grateful if you are able to support the crowd funding effort and help me get Harriet Martineau some of the recognition she deserves.