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…


Lubetkin Legacy – Marina Lewycka (Bradford Literature Festival pt2)

9780241249215xlContinuing with my attempts to make sure I’ve read the books covered in events at the Bradford Literature Festival (or at least some of those of authors I may well get to meet – could be embarrassing otherwise) I next turned to the Lubetkin Legacy, the fifth novel by Marina Lewycka, and a setting which was much more familiar to me. It also contains many of the elements which made A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (and Lewycka’s other books) so successful – a cast of characters from around the world but with an emphasis of Eastern Europe, bittersweet humour and a firm basis in the difficulties faced in modern life.

The story revolves around actor Berthold Sidebottom (stage name Bert Side, obviously…), the slightly demented Inna who moves in with him to impersonate his mother for the benefit of the housing department, the beautiful Violet who has to decide between a career in ‘wealth management’ or something which allows her to sleep at night, a parrot called Flossie and a middle-aged Council housing officer called Mrs Penny. And the star of the show is the modernist block of flats where much of the action takes place – designed by architect Berthold Lubetkin in that post war period when anything seemed possible in terms of building communities worth living in. In the middle of the rather complex plot – featuring the tenancy of the Lubetkin-built flat, Berthold’s quest for love, coffee and a paying acting job and the fate of a cherry grove – you are invited to contemplate some aspects of modern life which are, currently, hard to ignore: zero-hours contracts, corporate greed, the bedroom tax and planning policy. Although there is a lot of wit and humour in this story there is also some anger at the way that modern life has betrayed the principles of the post war politicians.

I’m looking forward to Lewycka’s event at the Literature Festival. There will be plenty to raise a laugh and maybe also something to think more seriously about.


Bones of Grace – Tahmima Anam (Bradford Literature Festival pt1)

Waterstones (Bradford)

Waterstones, The Wool Exchange, Hustlergate, Bradford, West Yorkshire, 2014 • I assumed this was an ex-church, but in fact it’s Bradford’s old wool exchange. Now that bookshops are going the way of wool exchanges, it’s nice to see such a grand one hanging on…

Bradford is known for many things. Some are more along the lines of ‘things you’d rather people didn’t associate with your home town’ – stuff like the Bradford City stadium fire, the odd riot, George Galloway – but others are definitely things to be proud of. We’ve been crowned Curry Capital of Britain for a record-breaking five consecutive years (in your face Birmingham!), Bradford City’s memorable 2015 FA Cup run (in your face Chelsea!) and our hole in the ground is now a shiny new shopping centre which is big enough to start attracting a whole new group of people to the city but small enough not to be the only part of town they visit. All in all I’m proud to be from Bradford, and I’m particularly proud to work in one of its finest buildings. And the icing on the cake (sold in our Cafe W, made locally, just saying…) in May is the Bradford Literature Festival.

The Festival began with a weekend event in 2014 and has swiftly developed into a 10 day extravaganza featuring literature, drama, comedy, theatre, art, dance and political and philosophical thought from around the world. There are authors writing for children, famous names from Bradford itself, people you’ve seen on the telly and writers from around the world. My only problems are going to be how to get to all the events I’m interested in and the fact that, obviously, I’ll have to work for the period of the festival. Oh well, there is still a week or two to invent my cloning machine…In the meantime I have been reading up on some of the featured authors. Well, it’s only polite surely!

9200000050485693My first festival read is by Tahmima Anam, who will be part of a panel discussing foundlings, orphans and adopted children in literature, so it should come as no surprise that her novel Bones of Grace features a central character who is searching for both her birth mother and her identity. Zubaida is a Bangladeshi paleontologist studying an extinct species of whale in an area ruled by religion and warlords,  falling in love with an American and struggling to please her family. This includes both her adoptive parents and her husband’s family; oddly she seems to have no problems with the relatives of Elijah, the American, although they are no less complicated than the South Asian contingent. She doesn’t seem to be a traditional and submissive woman which is unsurprising as the parents who raised her were both heavily involved in the fight for Bangladesh’s independence but she does end up marrying the childhood sweetheart her family would have chosen for her anyway. The story takes us to the ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh and into the world of those who live, and die, there.

This is a beautifully written book and a heartbreakingly sad story. It is the tale of a love story and of a young woman’s search for who she really is. It feels quite literary but was a compelling read – it never felt ‘worthy’ or hard work. I was, in turns, charmed by descriptive passages, fascinated by the thought of the evolutionary development of prehistoric whales and angered by the lives of the poor in Bangladesh. I hope I am able to hear Tahmima speak at Bradford Literature Festival as she seems to have plenty to say and says it beautifully.