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Fierce Light

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 07 April 2016




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.

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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 He’s remembered in Jackie’s poem as a ‘shy man, bit withdrawn, shrapnel in his arm’, singing the miners lullaby Coorie Doon in the pre-dawn light.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
hero.

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.

  

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Spring Short Story Competitions 2016

Posted By: Anna Scrafield, 05 April 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.

Deadline: 10 June 2016
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. 

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A Factory of Art; Bringing The Story Machine to Life

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 30 March 2016




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. 


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The Best of Brave New Reads

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 29 March 2016


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
Kei Miller

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
Evie Wyld

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
Katherine Boo

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
Véronique Olmi

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
Patrick Flanery

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

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
Jon McGregor


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.

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The Story Machine

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 02 March 2016

 

 

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. 

Happy Reading.

Sam

Tickets for The Story Machine will go on-sale on Thursday 3 March 2016 from the Norfolk & Norwich Festival website www.nnfestival.org.uk

Illustrations by Adam Avery.


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The Dilemma of Choice: Deciding on the Final Brave New Reads Books

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 23 February 2016




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.

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Postcard from Prague

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 18 February 2016

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.

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The Library: Developing the Readers of Tomorrow

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 17 February 2016

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).

Promotions
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 and Twitter 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.

Happy reading!

Alison

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.

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Re-imagine India: WCN staff and Norwich writers form cultural connections with Kolkata, India

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 16 February 2016

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!


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Stuart Hobday: Encounters with Harriet Martineau

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 10 February 2016

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.

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(tags: Non fiction)


Libraries: A Tremendous Gift

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 09 February 2016

The fifth in our 'Love Your Library' blogs is by Ruth Cowan, a Cambridgeshire librarian, and explores the wonderful gift of a library.


 

My name is Ruth and I am a librarian. I have worked for Cambridgeshire Libraries since 1987 in various roles and in all these years I can honestly say that I have not experienced a day which was less than interesting, enlivening, stimulating, creative, worthwhile and fun. I feel privileged to work for a service which helps people and makes a difference in their lives. I would like to talk about libraries and what they and the staff who work in them offer to customers every single day.

Libraries are a tremendous gift to individuals, families, communities and society. They provide a magic door into the world of literature, knowledge and information of every kind and to meet all needs. It is free to join the library and go through that magic door.

You can browse the shelves and may find a poem originally written by a woman in China in the 9th century or in Africa last year. You may wish to explore the lush and beautiful trees of New Zealand. You may be wondering about fruit bats or the love life of King Henry the Eighth. You may need to read a book on adopting a rescue dog! Library staff will help you with your curiosity and your quest for knowledge or you can happily explore on your own if you wish. A library is infinitely more than just a building full of books.

We help people who are terrified of computers to be less terrified of computers by offering support with ipads, pcs, laptops and e-services. It is great to see their confidence grow. We sing rhymes with groups of babies and their parents/carers. Over the years we see those children grow up into people who love to read. We organise reading groups where you can read poems and explore exciting new books together, discuss them and help each other to enjoy them even more. We help children to find books to help with the urgent homework they need to finish by tomorrow (often on the last day of the school holidays). 

We can help people book plane tickets, find out about health and benefits and housing and jobs. The library is a place where you can meet your friends and do colourful knitting and laugh and drink tea. We host visits from schools in the library to share the joy of books and reading and support young people with their literacy skills. Local collections and their staff provide a treasure trove of information on your town or village with maps, newspapers, photographs, albums, histories, help, support and advice.

Collections of Mood Boosting Books offer solace from the January blues. Library staff and volunteers take library services out into the community with Library@Home for people who are housebound. One day you may visit your local library and find that your favourite author or illustrator is there or you may jump at the chance to join a Coding Club or a Creative Writing Group.

I know from my interest in history that literacy is a gift and even a generation or so ago many poor and working class people did not have the opportunity to learn to read and write. It is easy to forget this. When you are using the library you can read for the sake of reading itself and learn for the sheer joy of learning. The choice is yours.

 

Ruth Cowan is a librarian who has worked for Cambridgeshire Libraries since 1987 in various roles. Her first job was as an assistant in the Cambridgeshire Collection, the Local Studies department at Cambridge Central Library. She has also worked as a children’s librarian and more recently as a Community Engagement Librarian (Adult Focus) in Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire.

 

 

Thankfully at this present time there are no planned library closures in Cambridgeshire.

 

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

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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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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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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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