Category Archives: Durham Book Festival 2015

Durham Book Festival; It’s Been A Bookish Blast

So. That. Is. It. Durham Book Festival has come to an end for me. It has been an absolute bookish blast with over two days of non-stop bookish delight. I have been introduced to authors old and new (to me or debuts) and enjoyed every minute. From the Gordon Burn Prize (which I have now decided I want to judge one day), to the finale event discussing Wearside Jack it has been brilliant. Pat Barker thoroughly entertained me and made me want to read everything that she has ever written, I got to join in with a fascinating debate on hard evidence, I saw Lauren Laverne talking fashion, got to take part in Read Y’Self Fitter giggling away with our tutor Andy Miller, be thoroughly freaked out about the state of modern Russia and heard Patrick Gale and Liza Klaussmann talking about sexuality and sexual secrets. What more could you want and where else could you get all of this other than a literary festival?

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It has also been a real hoot (as you can see from my naughty gleeful look captured above brilliantly by Picador’s Emma Bravo) and the lovely team at New Writing North and Durham Book Festival have been wonderful hosts and putting up with diva demands, well they probably would have if I had made any. I didn’t honest. I got to meet lots of lovely people who I have not met before but I have spoken to for ages on Twitter, like the brilliant Ben Myers and Andy Miller, as well as some lovely faces that I have met before including some of the lovely young talented reviewers that myself and Lauren Laverne have given masterclasses to and who I had some ace chats with at the events…

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And they will be the lovely folk who will be blogging and reviewing for the rest of Durham Book Festival on the Cuckoo Review website and on the festival’s blog BECAUSE THE FESTIVAL IS NOT OVER and you can still go and see some corking events (Philip Pullman, Carys Davies, Stuart Evers, Mary Portas, Bill Bryson and more) over the next week, which they will all be reviewing on the site along with some of the books discussed and more. All good stuff!

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Durham Book Festival; The Story of Wearside Jack, with Mark Blacklock and Northumbria University

And so we come to my final event at Durham Book Festival at the end of what was a wonderful, wonderful weekend. Last certainly did not mean least. In fact the final event I went to was all about Wearside Jack and actually turned out to be one of the highlight events of the whole weekend so I went out with a bang, as it were.

For those of you who don’t know anything about Wearside Jack (and even though I had Mark Blacklock’s novel I’m Jack I didn’t, I just bought it because Benjamin Myers said I must, that is how easy I can be swayed) let me explain. Wearside Jack was the nickname given to John Humble who pretended to be the Yorkshire Ripper in a number of hoaxes. Humble sent letters, taunting the authorities for failing to catch him, as well as an audio-message spoken in a Wearside accent, causing the investigation to be moved away from West Yorkshire area, home of the real killer Peter Sutcliffe, and thereby helping prolong his attacks on women and hinder his potential arrest by two years. Some 25 years after the event, a fragment from one of Humble’s envelopes was traced to him through DNA, and in 2006 Humble was sentenced to eight years in prison for perverting the course of justice. And yes, I did just steal that whole explanation from Wikipedia. But you get the gist and it sounds fascinating, grimly so, doesn’t it?

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The session held up in the Burlison Gallery of the Town Hall was a rather wonderful event, especially if you love crime fiction and criminology. Mark Blacklock, who has written a fictional account of the tale of John Humble in I’m Jack, was joined by a panel of real life crime experts from Northumbria University to talk about the case. We had Professor of Criminology Mike Row, court expert Dr Michael Stockdale and law expert Adam Jackson who all talked about how the case worked, or in many ways didn’t, and how on earth someone could hoax a police force for so long – we soon learned that hoaxes are now put into an investigations frame work as oddly lots of people like to claim they have committed crimes they have nothing to do with.

It was utterly fascinating. The whole set up of the event with the fact and the fiction only made it all the more so. We heard all about the reality of how the courts worked at the time and how they work now, how evidence can be used and withheld, how a plea can change everything and how someone could completely baffle an investigation team and, horrifyingly, how that could lead to further horrendous crimes elsewhere. We also discovered how Mark went about turning history into fiction, the research he did, the sources he used and the way he brings in real and faked evidence to confuse the reader and make them wonder just what is real and what isn’t. I came away even more fascinated by criminology than I was before and, most aptly as it is what book festivals are all about, I couldn’t wait to read I’m Jack which will be my next read as soon as I have finished my rather cosy British Library Crime Classic. A brilliant finale to the festival for me to leave on, wanting more.

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Durham Book Festival; Style is Eternal with Lauren Laverne and Laura Craik

The problem with reviewing live events is that sometimes you get so engrossed in them that you forget to make your notes. This was the case with the Style is Eternal event which saw Lauren Laverne and Laura Craik in conversation with Chris Hodge and focuses around Yves Saint Laurent and an exhibition that’s been on at the Bowes Museum just outside Durham! 
Now part of this was to do with the fact that I am quite a fan of Lauren Laverne, I won’t lie and had a small fan boy moment that we were in the same room. The other reason, which you may not be aware of, is because as a child and in my early teens I was obsessed with fashion. In fact for years I was pretty determined that I would be a fashion designer (it then changed to a vet and then a forensic scientist, the latter which links into the next session I’m going to) to the point where I would spend hours and hours designing dresses, I wasn’t fussed about men’s fashion. So to be honest I got a bit lost in the event which focuses on Yves Saint Laurent’s life from taking over Dior at 21 to how he has informed fashion since. 
What I can say was that I had no idea how much YSL (sorry to shorten it but my poor thumbs) had influenced fashion and yet how much of his love for fashion and style seems to have left the industry in some ways. He created the first real line of day to day where but he would have been shocked to see how his influence has reached the high street as far as Zara and even Primark, yet how quality seems to be leaving the equation as fashion becomes ever more fickle and throw away.

I found this idea of YSL being horrified by the idea or even involvement of the ‘sidebar of shame’ for weeks with some of his designs, which both Lauren and Laura mentions on occasion. It was also interesting to hear the idea that with YSL it was an art but with female designers it’s seen as a craft, which could open a whole can of worms but is a really interesting opinion.

Other things that came up were the Sophie Dahl advert, how older women are becoming the faces of designer labels (and not just the surgically enhanced ones), whether couture fashion is dying or reviving, the difference between fashion and style and where fashion is going – good news guys, the exciting stuff seems to be in menswear.

All in all a corking event. Sorry I couldn’t write more. I was just enjoying it too much.

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Durham Book Festival; Read Y’Self Fitter with Andy Miller

The word ‘giggles’ might not be one that you would associate with a literary festival event. In general this perception would be wrong but even more so in the case of Andy Miller’s Read Y’Self Fitter event which is based around his brilliant book The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life.

  

On entering Durham University Library’s event space we were all asked to write down our names, a book we’ve always meant to read and sign it (for legal reasons, ha!) I’m not telling you what mine was, so there, you can all guess. Then Andy took to the stage for a devised Ten Step Programme on how we can read ourselves fitter! This involved much audience participation.

I won’t give away Andy’s programme, though I think it should be complusery for anyone who reads a lot and who will laugh a lot, but I can share some highlights. Especially as some of the points really resonated with me amongst all the giggling. Two seemingly apposing tips were that ‘we are not as clever as George Eliot’ and also ‘we are not as clever as Dan Brown’ the latter got some snorts and some nervous giggles. Now the George Eliot part makes instant sense in many ways but Dan Brown, really?!? Well using a similarly brilliant method as he does in the book, Andy compares The Da Vinci Code with Moby Dick, no really is brilliant, and makes everyone laugh and also think. Brilliant.

There were two particular parts of the talk resonated with me personally in a way that made me think more than laugh, which I was going most of the time. The first of those was the step There is No Subsititure for Reading the Book, Than Reading the Book. (I paraphrase there!) Andy talked about how we always say we are too busy for difficult books. Ironically I had said this very thing to him at breakfast in the hotel when he came with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest under his arm and my eyes widened in horror. But he’s true we do say it and it’s bonkers. As Andy, and his wife we are told, say it’s as simple as reading 59 pages a day. He then added how he was blogging at the start of his quest he blogged and then realised he was blogging more than reading, and that struck a chord with me around what I’ve been thinking for a while. So I have that to mull more, how do we get the balance right? All of us, not just me. Read more is the answer, just crack on with it.

 

The other part that made me think, and apparently has caused boo’s in some sessions, was Always (Try To) Finish A Book. There were no boo’s but there were some definite murmurs at this because, rightly or wrongly and I am in this boat, we all say that ‘life is too short for bad books’ or ‘a book should hold me the whole way through’. And I think it’s true. BUT, and there is a but, Andy said if you don’t finish a book how do you know? Good question. He used the example of The Goldfinch at which I rolled my eyes and then thought ‘hang on a sec, I haven’t even read that!’ See. Andy Miller. You’re point was proved, kind of.

At the end of the session we all joined in as Andy pulled out people’s book choices out and made the stand up. This was particularly funny when the first was a choice of 100 Years of Solitude which Andy had had a small rant about earlier and we all laughed before chanting that the reader would and must read that book. It felt like a huge bookish healing session with lots and lots of laughing. I think Andy should go and visit every book group spreading Read Y’Self Fitter everywhere. So there.

If you haven’t read Andy’s book you must. I will pop up my review very soon, I’m not sure why I haven’t before. In the meantime if you want to hear Andy talking about his book, other books and reading dangerously you can hear him on You Wrote The Book with me here. Who has seen his show and who has read his book?

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Durham Book Festival; Patrick Gale & Liza Klaussmann

The audiences of the Durham Book Festival are a saucy lot if two of the events I have been to are anything to go buy. It seems that the subject of *whispers* sex, sexual secrets and sexuality gets the forces out in their droves. I know it is early on a Sunday, do forgive me but ‘shenanigans’ (which seems much more of a Sunday word for it all) came up in Pat Barker’s session within  few moments of her being on stage. The same happened when Patrick Gale and Liza Klaussmann were in conversation with Caroline Beck late yesterday afternoon, as sexuality and sexual secrecy (and shame) seem to be at the hearts of both their books – which of course makes us all want to read them instantly.

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Lots of you will have heard me rave on and on about the brilliance of Patrick Gale’s work and in particular his latest, A Place Called Winter which is one of my favourite books of the year. You can read my review here for a more in depth look at it, but a brief summarisation is that it tells of a man who leaves Edwardian Britain under a cloud of shame and in some form of penance, and in some ways survival, heads to outback Canada where of course he still can’t hide from his true human nature. I just realised that makes it sound like a murder mystery, rather than a love story and tale of friendship. Can you see why I am not in book publicity? Anyway, it’s brimming with secrets, sexuality and bear grease – well maybe not the latter but it sounds fun, see totally not appropriate as a book marketer am I?

Alongside Patrick was Liza Klaussmann whose latest novel, Villa America, I have not read yet (there is a theme at the events I have been to so far on unread yet books, but as Patrick told me yesterday re Pat Barker ‘if it is a brilliant book, it will keep’ which is now my new life motto) sounds like an absolute corker. It tells the tale of Sara and Gerald Murphy who it’s said were inspirations for Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and who seemed to have the perfect lives, which Liza said ‘seemed to perfect, so I knew something was going on there’ and so she looks at what could have been going on behind the scenes of a perfect seeming marriage and reveals some sensational secrets. Come on, admit it, you want to read both of these. I told you so.

What is great about a live event is seeing how much some books, no matter how different the setting or indeed the authors are, can link together in so many ways. Obviously there is the subject of sexuality (I don’t think I have written the word sex so much in a post ever, what have you done to me Durham Book Festival?)and sex, plus secrets, lies and facades. There was more.

Both books are written about real people; Patrick’s is very much based on his great great Grandfather and what might have been his story and reasons for heading to Canada, Liza’s about the Murphy’s and the Fitzgerald’s and the whole whirlwind that went around them in that time. When asked about the responsibility and what these people thought Patrick said he felt now that most of the people who knew his great great Grandfather were dead he felt he could be freer, but he knew they might have disapproved, Liza too felt the Murphy’s might be unimpressed (as they were with Tender is the Night) but as they were dead it was alright. There was much laughing throughout and many a book was sold and signed afterwards.

Lovely stuff, a couple more books to add to your TBR’s if you haven’t already. If you have read either or both books I would love your thoughts on them. I had a corking first day at Durham Book Festival and now have Andy Miller, Louise Welsh, Lauren Laverne and Mark Blacklock ahead of me today, its almost too much bookish delight!

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Durham Book Festival; Modern Russia

As many regular readers of my blog will know I can sometimes struggle with non-fiction. However, this is something that I am keen to address, or even redress, as I think that sometimes non-fiction (when done right) can have an incredibly deep and resonating impact with you as you know it’s real. It can also make it all the more uncomfortable, in all the right ways, because you can’t read some of the things going on in the world, past or present, and simply say ‘oh but it’s fiction’ even when it seems to be stranger than.

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For this reason I already had my sights on attending the Modern Russia event at the festival today with journalists Arkady Ostrovsky and Luke Harding at the Town Hall. I don’t think I was quite ready for the event that unfolded before me and how much it has bothered me and stayed with me several hours (sorry my phone died) since.

Arkady is a Russian born journalist, who has only recently left Russia again after being a foreign correspondent for the UK within his own country – which he made a joke of the irony of. His book The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War looks at just that period and what on earth has happened to his own country since one president left things in a time of potential positive change for the country to one that seems at its most fragile and dangerous. Luke Harding is a writer for the Guardian, where he has been Moscow bureau chief, and lived there and endured subtle and not so subtle threats whilst in his job there along with his house being bugged and all sorts (which he described like being in a really bad Bond movie) before being expelled from the country by the Kremlin. His book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia looks at those times. The question both of them were to discuss was ‘how did we get here?’ and their answers were fascinating.

Now I am not going to divulge every single thing they said, as why would you need to read the book, though actually (as I am sure anyone else who was at the event will agree) you were left in no doubt that their books were very much required reading for us to understand the news at the moment, how we have got here and what it could all mean. I can say that I didn’t realise the impact of the propaganda that is going on in the country, war is made to look like a blockbuster and the only possible answer, people only tend to get political roles if they are corrupt because then the powers that be have a hold over them, the KGB is back in full force, the fact it is one man not many that rules, etc. The other part I found chilling was when they both spoke about Russia now, at its fragile and most dangerous, and that Putin is a man with nothing to lose and a nuclear arsenal at his finger tips. There is a new cold war already; no one is daring to say the words yet though.

I found their thoughts and opinions grimly fascinating occasionally jaw dropping and in the end deeply disturbing, yet thought provoking in all the right ways. I think what has stayed with me most is the hope that Arkady had after Gorbachev left and the fact that he has now left the country with his family because he finds the whole atmosphere and attitude simply too toxic to bring his own children up in. Haunting, what a session, a truly impacting hour!

After this event and hearing Peter Pomerantsev yesterday, I need to be reading much more non fiction about Russia – if you have any recommendations in that field, or indeed modern Russian fiction (unlikely with the way the country is being run, but not impossible) that looks at the country now, I would love to hear about them.

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Durham Book Festival; Pat Barker

There is probably going to be a collective intake of breath, some shock and horror and disapproval when I tell you that I have not yet read a novel by Pat Barker. Granny Savidge was a fan, many people whose opinions I hold highly have told me… It is the war thing, too many books about WWI or WWII have left me cold. That said, since visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, my mind has turned of late to returning to it and trying again – especially as I will be working on the Tower of London Poppies coming to Liverpool. So when I saw Pat Barker was on at the festival it was a no brainer. The fact she said ‘I like to give my readers stories, humour… and lots of vigorous sex’ within a few minutes of getting on stage made me think Barker might just be the author to get me back into fiction around the world wars.  

This was further proved over the following hour that Pat Barker was on stage with Professor Sharon Monteith discussing her latest novel Noonday and the novels leading up to it. During the conversation she talked about sex, a bit more, and how characters sex lives can tell you all about them. She also discussed on of my favourite things in fiction, secrets. In fact it seemed a lot of her latest trilogy is about the secrets we have from ourselves and others as well as the lies we do the same with.

Another thing which held her in all the higher esteem was that she likes to write about us northerners. It was really interesting when she talked about her northern roots and said was not artistic fusion just language she grew up with and the way women spoke when she was growing up. As someone who grew up with a lot of northern women around him… Tick, tick tick.

She also discussed her thoughts on historical fiction and fiction itself. She said she is definitely not a historian, while she it at university she was never very good.  (We all laughed a lot through the session, she was very warm and very funny.) she was emphatic that historical fiction is not history. It can be a false take, if fits the character it’s the right take. You just can’t move history about or change the facts to suit your fiction but often you don’t need to!

In terms of fiction in general she talked about its power. She said she is reluctant to write from single perspective as what’s brilliant about fiction is that it can give sympathetic portraits of groups of people who differ on opinion, politics and morals. In doing so it also means readers are invited to empathise with differing point of views. In fact she is now proud of fiction for making people more empathetic. So she loves readers and reading too. Tick. Tick.
So all in all I was sold. Would I read Pat Barker? Yes. Was I fool for not buying a book? Yes! And so book was bought. I almost bought all the copies I could to compensate but held back for now.  

So who else has read Pat Barker and what did you think? Thoughts welcome as always!

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