Time to catch my breath…

Well it is now 11th July and the Bradford Literature Festival has been and gone. The Festival Hub (aka the ‘tent’ or the ‘bouncy book castle’) has been deflated, we’ve waved goodbye to our coffee cart (leaky drip-tray and all) and the tactical paddling pool outside the back in the shade and moved all the blue crates of books back to the store. Where they are now being made into a big, blue fort as is traditional…There will be a lot more work to do before everything is back to normal but, in the meantime, here are a few of the events I managed to get pictures of.

First up was A A Dhand’s book launch for City of Sinners. I’ve already reviewed the book so here is a shot of the crowd (I didn’t get one of the moment where Amit’s young son crawled onto his lap during a description of a body hanging from our lovely roof ) and one of the chocolates he left us to give away with signed copies over the rest of the weekend. We’ve done launch events for all three books now and each one just gets better.

On the first Saturday I did a bookstall at the University for an event with David Starkey – a very interesting and well-attended talk on Henry VIII as the first Brexiteer. Sunday was spent in the store where we had a variety of children’s events. They featured dinosaurs and astronauts but our favourite, as you can see, was The Wilbies go to the Moon because we got to meet Minnie Winnie – the heroine of the story. She may be a wonder of science, being Britain’s first cloned dog, but she also loved cuddles and was wonderful with the children as well as with booksellers…

Sadly our main event on Monday was cancelled since the author had been unable to board a flight from Canada. I had planned to do a bookstall on Tuesday too – for the splendid Suzi Quatro – but she had her own merchandiser with her (after all, she’s been touring for years…) so I was able to get home and watch the football. From between my fingers but I still watched it! I had a couple of days off so missed a great CND event in the shop on Wednesday – jazz band and all!

20180707_113431The second Saturday was a combination of ‘Under the Sea’ day in City Park (which probably explains the giant lobster) and Brontës in the Midland Hotel. I was at the Midland but didn’t get inside the events until the evening when I totally failed to get any photos of Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Michael Stewart talking about the Brontë Stones Project. Far too busy trying to keep up with demand for book sales – what did I expect with that line-up!


Finally, on the last day we had another round of children’s authors in the shop – featuring a monster who was afraid of a scary story, some puffins called Steve, a Fairytale Hairdresser and a spider called Sarah. But we finished off with the excellent Matty Long in the Super Happy Magic Forest. Or, in my case, a Super Happy Magic Literature Festival!

It was all brilliant and, once we’ve all had a rest, we’ll start looking forward to next year…




Natives – Akala

It’s coming up to that time of year again: Bradford Literature Festival will be starting in a week. Which means ten days of authors (500 of the clever little chaps and chapesses), events (400, because authors are pretty social and like to do events in little groups sometimes) and books (don’t ask – not every event or author has a book which we can get hold of and some have multiples: let’s just say the stock deliveries will be vast and we will all be putting our manual handling training to good use). Exhausting but so much fun! Of course part of the fun is reading some of the books beforehand and getting to try lots of new and new to me writers. It is a great festival because the audience and authors are hugely diverse – it covers politics, religion, race and sport as well as a wide range of fiction and children’s events. This year we are being treated to everything from 1970’s rock-chick Suzi Quatro to David Starkey talking about Henry VIII. Like I said, diverse…Of course the demographic I form part of – white, middle-aged, female – is represented but I wanted to read about the experience of people who are ‘not-me’. Akala’s book, on race and class, seemed to fit the bill.

9781473661219Akala is a musician and poet who has won MOBO awards and founded the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company. He was born in the 1980s into a world where casual (and institutional) racism was common – bananas thrown at black footballers, the National Front had just spawned the BNP, and the British Nationality Act 1981 decreed that people from our former colonies, including the Windrush generation, became Commonwealth citizens rather than British subjects. While my white contemporaries were singing about Feeding the World Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned in a South Africa built on apartheid and parts of Britain experienced riots in predominantly black areas – life was not as fair as it seemed to me. In this book Akala talks about what life was like growing up in multicultural Camden in a single-parent family – the good as well as the bad. He witnessed violence and prejudice but was also supported by the wider Afro-Carribean community. He was an intelligent, enquiring child (a fact which often seemed to disturb some teachers – which was, oddly, the part which I found the most upsetting) and is now an intelligent writer. This is not just an account of Akala’s own life but also that of that wider community – the history of British Imperialism, the Commonwealth and worldwide racial issues – and it doesn’t just look at attitudes to race. Akala is mixed race – his mother is Scottish – and is now part of the middle classes but he had a working class upbringing. His assertion seems to be that while there is some sense of ‘otherness’ about people of different races racism is not innate. But this otherness is often used by those in positions of power (either real or assumed) to focus the fears of those who have no power.

This book is a powerfully argued plea for a fairer world. One where nobody is judged by the circumstances of their birth – either by class, race, religion or skin colour – and everyone has a chance to realise their potential. I was, once again, reminded of the privileges I enjoy but was never made to feel that I didn’t have the right to make the most of them. What I was left with was a desire to work with and for those who are less fortunate and the reminder that what that work should involve isn’t my decision to make. Now I’m just looking forward to finding out which events at the Literature Festival I will be doing bookstalls for – Akala’s is one I’d be very keen to be able to attend…



City of Sinners – A A Dhand

I’ve never had an urge to be famous. I enjoyed acting when I was at school and university but the whole idea of being recognised wherever I went sounds horrid, to be honest. I’m happy that my friends, family and colleagues know who I am and, maybe, that the posts I do for my place of work’s social media (under the store name, not mine) make people laugh, think or want to read a particular book: anything more would be a bit much. But, when a local author opens his latest crime thriller with a body discovered in my actual place of work and asks if it is okay to call the bookseller who discover the body ‘Jane’ then, of course, it would be rude not to say ‘yes’….

36634147City of Sinners is the third outing for unconventional Bradford detective Harry Virdee. He’s used to dealing with murders but this time there are some very odd things about the body – how did a young female bookseller end up hanging from the rafters of a bookshop set in a Victorian wool trading hall, who killed her and why are her eyes both sewn closed and yet still moving….Soon there are more bodies (all female) and Harry can’t work out how they are linked. But when a young student goes missing it soon becomes apparent that she is not yet dead because she is the daughter of the Home Secretary. Harry’s boss needs to transfer the case to a specialist unit but the killer declares he will only deal with Harry: it seems that this case is very, very personal.

This is Bradford Noir at its best. With a real sting in the tail and twistier than barbed wire – don’t miss it (even if just for the cameo role by a real live bookseller….).


P.S. If you want to meet the creator of Harry Virdee the book will be launched as part of Bradford Literature Festival on Friday 29th June. If you are very good maybe I’ll sign the book for you too – after all, I’m famous now…


Bradford Literature Festival – the beginning

This year’s literature festival is well underway now – I think we have all been working flat-out since Monday when the first 80 totes of stock arrived in the shop. Since then we have booked in huge amounts of stock, built a whole pop-up bookshop in an inflatable tent, hosted a sold-out event in store and done two full days of bookstalls to support author events at up to three different sites a day. Phew. I’ve not been able to see many of the talks – having to man the bookstall – but so far the festival has discussed Jane Austen (her life and times, influences on contemporary literature around the world and the delightfully titled ‘Disrobing Mr Darcy. I did sneak in and listen to a few minutes of that last one…), monogamy, djinns in fiction and psychology, geo-engineering, politics, mythologies and fairy tales and cricket. When they say this festival has something for everyone they really mean it….

20170630_190826As I say I haven’t been able to see many events but I was working for the sold-out event with David Crystal on Friday night – there was certainly a lot of love for a man described as the foremost writer and lecturer on the English Language – and he was a very lovely chap with an impressive beard. There were a lot of younger audience members and I suspect that Crystal’s own eloquence (the subject of his talk) and ability to make grammar, punctuation and the english language generally clear mean that he has helped a lot of young people make it through GCSE and A Level exams…

What makes the Bradford Literature Festival special to me is a combination of the audiences – who are as diverse and engaging as the speakers – the authors and the volunteers. Yesterday I met one of the helpers, a young Italian girl called Ciara, who has come to the UK just to volunteer for this festival. She is staying with a host family and enjoying using her excellent english language skills. I was in awe – I don’t think I could have done that at 18! It has also been amazing to watch some of the local authors move on from small panel events last year (four panelists and about a dozen attendees) to filling the biggest venues this year. Just watch out for A. A. Dhand’s Harry Virdee novels is all I’m saying…

20170702_180217.jpgFinally I did get into a bit of a discussion with some of the authors appearing at events in Bradford college yesterday. What is the correct collective noun for a group of authors? 20170702_180228.jpgAnd is it different from the one for a group of authors doing their best dinosaur impressions (it had been a long day by then…)? Any ideas? Or maybe we should ask David Crystal? – I bet he’s cool enough to know…


Is Monogamy Dead? – Rosie Wilby

35329332Let’s try something a bit different. Instead of just posting my review of this book – comedian Rosie Wilby’s account of her thoughts on love, life and whether monogamy is still valid in modern society – I’ve been having a chat with the author herself.  We’ve done a bit of a question and answer session covering things which occurred to me while I was reading the book. They may not be the questions you’d ask but, if you are in the vicinity of Bradford on Saturday 1st you can go along to an event with Rosie and Mona Eltahawy and ask your own!

Jane – If I were doing the classic bookseller ‘if you liked x try y’ I would compare you to the likes of Sara Pascoe and Caitlin Moran? Educated, well-researched feminist humour with a serious edge. Does this sound fair? 

Rosie – Thank you! I’m pleased you say that. How To Be A Woman was very much a stylistic reference point in terms of tackling a societal issue through a combination of peering through a personal lens and then breaking into a broader passionate polemic. What Caitlin Moran does well is to seamlessly flow from one to the other within a chapter. I modelled my formatting, particularly for the first half, a bit more on a book I read last year: Trans by Juliet Jacques. Juliet introduces separate chapters for the factual and science-y sections that occasionally interrupt (and I mean that in good way!) the compelling memoir. When you read one, they illustrate some of the historical, political and sociological personal elements that have come up in the chapters you’ve just been reading. When I was on the LAMBDA queer writers’ retreat last Summer, Sarah Schulman, the non-fiction tutor said an amazing thing: ‘Nonfiction is the story of an idea’. It was the moment that influenced my decision to embed my own thinking and research in a memoir that illuminated why I had come to a point in my life to be questioning monogamy.

Jane – You say that when you first met Sarah you may, in hindsight, have met the wrong person to love but you did meet her at the right time. You were ready to fall in love. How many people do you think end up in bad relationships because they are ripe to fall in love at 16, 17, 18…..?

Rosie – I’m sure it’s an incredibly common phenomenon. We fall in love with the idea of being in love and who we pick as our object is really just random. 

Jane – Jane Austen is often criticised for making love and marriage all about money. Nowadays we are completely focussed on the ‘sex and passion’ side of the equation. Do we need to rebalance the passion and the practicalities of actually being with another person?

Rosie – Yes, that’s very much my argument. The science shows that sex and passion wane. So to just expect them to stay at the same high intensity level is to immediately open yourself up to disappointment and probably impose a shorter life span on your partnership. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try and keep those things going. My friends, Jac and Angie, who are interviewed towards the very end of the book are, to some extent, my own saviours of monogamy. Angie said to me the other day, ‘we’ve always agreed that it’s never okay to not have sex.’ So they have pretty strict rules about keeping things sexual and not letting intimacy go for more than two weeks. 

Jane – The book is about finding the right woman but also about finding the woman you want to be. Do you think you’ve ‘found yourself’ yet? 

Rosie – I think humans are in constant state of evolving and rewiring. I’m very defined by what I do professionally: performance and creativity. That’s the one part that feels invincible. Nobody could ever tell me to give up my career.

Whereas shaping myself as a human in terms of compassion, listening, interacting in the world etc is something I’m happy to take constant advice from a partner on. We can never have all the answers to that.

Jane – The relationship escalator you describe is a scary thing – and very real – I had to have a menopause before people stopped asking me if I was sure we didn’t want to have kids. Do we need to find the big red emergency stop button (and hang on so we don’t get thrown off)? If so, what do you think it is?

Rosie – It is indeed a scary thing, particularly for women perhaps. I’m watching the terrifying Handmaid’s Tale on TV at the moment. It’s interesting how even such an extreme story has such a ring of truth. Maybe a woman’s destiny really is still viewed globally as giving birth. And that’s it. 

Jane – Comedy seems like a very isolated way of performing. Is it harder than being in a band or easier (because you only have yourself to rely on)?

Rosie – Exactly as you say, it’s both. I am a fiercely independent person. It’s typical for only children. I think comedy starts off incredibly social when you make friendships with other acts and you’re all in the same boat as new acts who nobody has heard of. Nobody knows who’s going to do well. I’ve done gigs a decade ago with Sara Pascoe, Bridget Christie, Susan Calman, Sarah Millican and more where we were all doing five minutes in some terrible pub to ten people and a dog. There’s a camaraderie to it. But when people start to become mega famous, you don’t really meet them much on the circuit any more. All the above are very friendly whenever I do.

However, I would say that writing is probably even lonelier than either thing. I’ve been quite struck by that. Even if you have a publisher and a nice agent and editor, it’s really all down to you. In comedy, you have the opportunity to constantly test your writing out on a real, live audience. And you can shape it accordingly by gauging their response and chatting to fellow acts afterwards. There’s no real equivalent in writing.

Jane – Loving the amount of scientific research you’ve done on monogamy. Anthropologically speaking do you think we are hard-wired for monogamy? Or are we still trying to fit into what we think society demands?

Jane – Our human lifespan is getting so much longer. Marriage for life used to mean for 30 or 40 years but soon it could mean 70 or 80 or more – is this exposing us to the ultimate limits of how long a monogamous relationship can last? 

Rosie – These two questions very much fit together and your second question here identifies why it has become so much harder to stay exclusive for life. It’s so long now. 

There are lots of interesting books like Sex at Dawn that argue that we are very much built for non-monogamy and that that has evolutionary benefits. In that book, there’s a diagram showing relative penis size of males in various species. Because the human male has such a relatively large penis, the authors argue that he’s showing off and trying to attract multiple mates.

Jane – You obviously do loads of research for your shows, including crowd-sourcing opinion via social media. How long does it take for a show to take shape? And do you tweak it during a tour?

Rosie – Again, thank you. I sometimes think if I actually costed all the hours I spend researching shows, I’d be in a huge financial deficit on every one of them, even the ones that have won awards, been programmed internationally, sold out venues and got five-star reviews. So it’s really rewarding when someone recognises the effort that has gone in. As I often use my own life, body, brain and heart as a science lab and experiment, I’m often living out the question in order to illustrate what is going on through my own experience. If you work in that way of deliberately provoking a life and art mirroring, then there can be an emotionally exhausting toll too. Fortunately, I find it all really fascinating. This book, in particular, has had a wider significance than just providing an interesting topic to write about. It’s crystallised ideas and thoughts about how I would like to exist in the world and what sort of people I want to keep close.

Jane – And finally, chocolate salad? Dark, milk, white or a bit of each?*

Rosie – Ha! Milk is my favourite. I know dark is healthier but if we also have the salad… 

Hope you enjoyed this discussion. Don’t forget if you are keen to hear more you can catch Rosie at the Bradford Literature Festival on Saturday 1st July ( with a second event on Thursday 6th July).


*I could explain the chocolate salad but you’ll need to read the book to find out…


Bradford Literature Festival 2017

I’m currently having a day off and gathering my strength in preparation for this year’s Bradford Literature Festival. The tagline is 400 Writers, 300 Events, 10 Days, 1 City. Since there is also only one bookshop with a limited number of booksellers this will be a flat-out and exhausting 10 days for me but, if it is even half as good as previous years, it will be well worth it. (And, let’s face it, it could well be even better – there’s a Harry Potter potions event at a local cocktail bar for goodness sake….).

I’ve already read books by some of the authors attending, (Amit Dhand, Ayisha Malik, David Barnett, Jeanette Winterson, Jo Baker, Sophia Tobin, Ross Raisin, Wray Delaney among others),  and have loads of other on my to-read pile. I’ve got a review and Q&A coming up in a day or two with comedian and author Rosie Wilby who is also doing a couple of events at the festival. I may, or may not, find the time and energy to blog over the next couple of weeks but I promise to try and get some photos and impressions of the events I’m able to see. And, of course, if you are in the area check out the festival programme. There are events to suit just about everyone, loads for children (many free too) and even some on cricket and motor-sports for those who don’t think they’re ‘book-festival people’. Come along. Say hi. Experience one of the most exciting, welcoming and vibrant literary festivals going.


Plum – Hollie McNish

I don’t really remember when I stopped reading poetry. When I was a child my Mum and I used to read through our Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (favourites were Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning and Dylan Thomas Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night) and I especially loved it when we read Under Milk Wood (Mum’s Welsh accent is a bit rubbish but I still enjoyed it). I would learn poems off by heart – both long and short, but mostly ones I found funny – and I wrote a lot of what can only be described as doggerel.  Some of the most enjoyable events I have been to when working bookstalls at Literature Festivals have been with poets (although I am ashamed to say I found Simon Armitage’s voice so soothing I nearly nodded off listening to him – in my defence it was the last event of the festival and ran until gone 9pm….) but I just don’t read poetry. I will read a verse or two but I wouldn’t think to pick up a volume of poems and just read it…

plumHollie McNish is a young poet and spoken word artist who could bring me back into the world of poetry readers. This collection looks at subjects close to her heart – feminism, motherhood, the trials of adolescence – but also includes some poems she wrote as a very young child. To be fair I think her poems written at 8-10 years old are better than anything I could produce now and they have the charm of a youngster’s view of the world as well as value as verse. Interestingly McNish is still young but one of the poems which spoke to me most strongly was one about grey hairs (and how so many never get to have them) – as Jo Cox said, we really do have more in common than that which divides us…

I may not become a real poetry reader again – prose fiction and non-fiction still has so many temptations for me and there continue to be only 24 hours in the day – but this book has reminded me that I do enjoy the genre. Which means I have loads to look forward to in this year’s Bradford Literature Festival again…