A feast of literature in the Dales
Each autumn, the pretty spa town of Ilkley in the Yorkshire Dales hosts the largest literature festival in the North of England. With its steep, cobbled streets framing spectacular moorland views, and its many graceful public buildings, it’s the perfect setting, and the festival, which spreads over a fortnight, is one of the richest and most varied in the country. The themes under discussion this year include empire, the future of the book, and writing on sport, music and the visual arts, and the list of speakers is stellar.
On Saturday, atop a dizzyingly steep hill, St Margaret’s Hall hosted a stimulating discussion of contemporary Black British writing. Three brilliant women, Dorothea Smartt and Kadija Sesay, Associate Editor and Publisher respectively of SABLE LitMag, and Sheree Mack of the Open University examined the distinction between “Black British” and “post-colonial” writing, and discussed whether the former is standing up on its own and gaining credibility.
They discussed literary prizes and how, despite the success of a number of distinguished Black British writers, there is little literary hinterland to support them. The Saga Prize for Black British writing (won by Diran Adebayo and Andrea Levy) only ran for four years in the 1990s, and there is no equivalent today.
Part of the problem is that there is still a dearth of Black publishers and agents, which can be very isolating even for Black writers who get through. As Kadija Sesay put it, “If you ring a publisher’s office and ask for Sarah or Emily, you’re bound to get put on to someone…”
Prose writers, too, get more recognition than poets. Sheree Mack was gentle, honest and incisive, and spoke of how valuable she had found a creative writing PhD course for her poetry, in providing a forum for discussion and critiques of her and other Black writers’ work. This invigorating discussion was sadly all too short, though the themes it raised will continue to be debated throughout the festival.
Another very pertinent topic was addressed the next day at the Playhouse, where, in a debate moderated by Andrew Wilson, a panel discussed the vexed subject of Books v. Kindles. (It will not please many independent booksellers that the trade name of the Amazon product seems to have become generic, in the way that all vacuum cleaners are called Hoovers.)
Wilson began by asking how many of the audience owned an e-reader. More than half of us put our hands up. Of the minority who didn’t, most said they would be happy to use one if they were given one as a present.
Alysoun Owen, editor of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and an enthusiastic adopter of new technology, pointed out that much of the passion generated by the subject was due to the fact that books were so closely tied up with cultural identity, adding that “maybe that’s because I’m a product of my generation”.
Colin Grant (a producer for the BBC’s World Service, but speaking here in a personal capacity as an author and technology fan), admired the “utilitarian simplicity” of e-books, emitting – I thought – a whiff of puritan disdain for those frivolous enough to love the feel and smell of traditional bindings.
It was left to the poet Andrew McMillan – at 23 the token young fogey – to speak up for the Luddite tendency. He bemoaned the anonymity of e-readers, recalling how he was reading Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion on a train when a woman further down the carriage spotted him and raised her copy, initiating a discussion about the book. As the debate moved on to e-books’ potential for self-publishing, he bravely asserted the unfashionable view that “getting published should be really hard.”
After ranging across topics including the future of small publishers and independent booksellers, the discussion closed on a light note with a member of the audience asking if anyone wanted to buy some secondhand IKEA bookcases.
Later on Sunday, at the Playhouse, Jake Arnott spoke entertainingly about his new novel House of Rumour, a mind-bending journey into 20th-century history that brings together Aleister Crowley, Ian Fleming, Rudolf Hess and L Ron Hubbard. His interviewer, the author Neil Hanson, cited a review that described it memorably as “The Da Vinci Code rewritten by a person with the gifts of characterisation, wit and literacy.”
Those gifts were abundantly in evidence in Arnott’s reading and discussion, as were his humour and charm. A wickedly funny pastiche of a Bond novel that pitched his creator against the villainous Crowley was followed by the perceptive observation that “Fleming was the opposite of Bond – in his anxieties and neuroses, he had more in common with his villains. All Bond feels is pleasure and pain, which makes him the perfect vehicle for modern consumer society.”
The lkley Literature Festival runs until October 14, and the many speakers still to come include Patience Agbabi, Simon Armitage, Paddy Ashdown, Bonnie Greer, Jackie Kay, Pawel Huelle, Andrew Motion, Chris Mullin, Daljit Nagra, Michael Rosen, Lemn Sissay, Gillian Slovo, Jack Straw, Harriet Walter, Hugh Fearnley Whittingtstall, Louisa Young and Benjamin Zepaniah.Tagged in: Black British writing, books, e-reader, Ilkley Literature Festival, Jake Arnott, Kindle
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