Reader event: Penny Readings

Penny Readings
St. George’s Hall, Liverpool
December 9th, 2007

By Chris High

In the annual Penny Readings, now in its fourth year of emulating Charles Dickens’s event of 1862 in which the great author described the room as “simply perfect”, The Reader Organisation have managed to encapsulate not only the very essence of Christmas, but also the very heartbeat of what Liverpool ’08 should be about. What better way to herald the arrival of Christmas than to spend a somewhat chilly Sunday evening in the luxurious surroundings of the Small Concert Room to listen to some of the city’s finest exponents of the spoken word reading festive extracts from Hardy, Dickens and Shakespeare?

Introducing some of the city’s musical foundations such as the Life Changers Empowering Ministries Gospel Choir – incorporating singers from seven different countries – and the Merseyside Dance Initiative’s, African Youth Dance, whose performance was filled with colour and unrestrained enthusiasm, BBC Radio 4 presenter, David McFetridge, held proceedings together as MC, reading extracts from Capsica’s Mersey Minis anthologies.

But it is the guest readers who make the event what it is and not least this year was Annabelle Dowler – Kirtsy Millar in The Archers and The Shepherd in The Liverpool Playhouse production of The Flint Street Nativity – who read from The Winter’s Tale and As You Like It, bringing scenes vividly to life with great energy.

Equally as eloquent were the University of Liverpool’s Brian Nellist MBE, who read from Thomas Hardy’s Under The Greenwood Tree and poet Jenny Joseph, reading from Bleak House and her own work, Led By The Nose, A Garden Of Smells.

As is traditional at the this event, however, it is the chosen passage from A Christmas Carol read by Philip Davis, Editor of The Reader magazine, that closed the show and so released the five hundred strong audience into the chilly night air with a lighter heart and a renewed sense of what the meaning of Christmas should be.

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Chris High is an author and freelance journalist. He also writes crime fiction book reviews, theatre, music and film reviews, and interviews writers, media personalities and musicians. We are not entirely sure what his tastes in cake are. Or if he even likes cake.

(Festival Girl is away)

Reader event: The Penny Readings

On the evening of Sunday 9th December, at St George’s Hall in Liverpool, The Reader is hosting its fourth annual Penny Readings event.

This year, the event features renowned UK poet Jenny Joseph; The Archers star Annabelle Dowler; and BBC Radio 4 and CBeebies presenter, David McFetridge; the 500-strong audience will hear readings from such famous classics as Bleak House, A Christmas Carol and A Winter’s Tale.  Other highlights of the evening include performances by the Liverpool African Youth Dance group, three community choirs, a Dickensian trumpet player and a string quartet.

The Reader exists to promote the good in literature, believing that reading can be fun, life-enhancing and creative for everyone, and this is why we host The Penny Readings. As in Dickens’ day – when he would travel around the potteries and Liverpool, reading to thousands of people for only one penny – we too only charge one penny for this event, so that it is inclusive and available to all. We want everyone to benefit from the positive impact that literature can bring to people’s lives and this is one thoroughly enjoyable way that we are able to do it.

You can read the full press release on the University of Liverpool’s website. Tickets are now sold out for this year’s event but you are can place your name on a list at Liverpool Central Library to ensure you are amongst the first to know when tickets go on sale for 2008.

Next year we are thinking of putting one hundred of the tickets on ebay in order to add excitement to the scramble for tickets and raise money to support the event. A penny for your thoughts, please.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

BBC Free Thinking Festival: Going Sane

Hands up… are you sane? (A few hands hover in the air)… Insane? (A similar number of hands are thrusted more vivaciously)… Bit of both? (The ‘masses’ raise their hands now). What is it that constitutes these notions? As part of the BBC Free Thinking festival, Adam Phillips joined Philip Davis and sixty hungry readers for The Reader‘s ‘Book at Breakfast’ event in a conversation about the concepts of ‘sanity’ and ‘insanity’ arising from Phillip’s book Going Sane. In a world that is preoccupied with insanity, or a world that is perhaps itself insane, we show little interest in sanity. Why is this? Is it too boring? Is there not enough excitement around the ‘sane’ to appeal to our inquisitiveness? Sanity could be considered something inherent, a ‘true sanity’, that gets lost as external surroundings infiltrate our consciousness and that we therefore need to rediscover, or it could be that sanity is a fluid and adaptable notion that changes with social expectations. It is Laing’s view that we are fundamentally sane beings estranged into a false sanity by societies to which we are obliged, ‘against the grain’, to adjust. Our ‘true’ sanity is not one of compliance or submission but being “more of a piece with our ‘deeper’, ‘truer’, inner selves”, less alienated from what gives life its real value.

Hölderlin, Clare, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Artaud are exemplary because they remind us of our ‘true’ sanity (of course, in actuality, most artists don’t, and never have, gone mad). True sanity is whatever it is about us that refuses to sacrifice our inner worlds, our singular visions, in order to get on in the outer world, the world as it is. True sanity transforms the world as it is to make room for the unique vision that each individual person contains inside them. These artists were truly sane because they never sold out; they never tried to make themselves acceptable or winning.

Or is this just madness? Does sanity need to be something that is socially acceptable and therefore, mean that social unacceptability is an indication of insanity? Madness is often romanticised in our cultural arts, in the sense of the ‘tortured artist’ and the people that are ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ but what in fact does this label ‘madness’ mean? Is there an inherent connection between creativity and madness? Or is this form of madness actually saneness?

Insanity is as hard to categorise as sanity but we pay it far more attention. To admit to being ‘sane’ seems to somehow admit to being ‘boring’, which is something that Phillips is disparaging of. Phillips wants to bring sanity out of the shadows and in his book, he begins to investigate what in fact it means to be sane, what the characteristics of sanity are and to what extent we meet them (if at all).

The event began with Phillips and Davis in discussion, followed by the audience gathered in groups around tables (with coffee and cake) to consider the issues arising from the book, talk about their own views of sanity and insanity, and culminating with a question and answer session. The group that I was in consisted of (amongst others) a mental health professional, the wife of a man with Asperger’s Syndrome, a recovering drug addict, an alcoholic, and an elderly lady. Each of us had our own ‘insane’ or ‘mad’ personal experiences but for such a diverse collection of people, we were all able to find resonances in what each was saying (as well as reassure one another that we were indeed ‘sane’) and come to a few conclusions about what we believed sanity could be: a form of acceptance, in which we realise that our ‘mad’ actions were just that, means that we possess a certain level of sanity. For instance, the detrimental effects of taking drugs are not seen as such until a sense of awareness, has occurred in the abuser. Of course it cannot be said that acceptance is all that constitutes ‘sanity’, in fact the morning’s discussion made us all aware that sanity is actually indefinable. Phillips argued against the notion that sanity is another word for conformity, this is too dry and far too simple, instead he thought that sanity was partly ‘excitement rather than anxiety about what crosses your life’s path’.

Although madness is far too often glamorised, to get to the root of ‘true sanity’ seems itself a crazy task, an act that would lead to such intense introspection to probably render all attempts of saneness useless. Language itself is liberating in one capacity and constricting in another: we can only explain our sanity in terms of our language but the means of expressing insanity are unbounded. We can show that we’re mad but we have to explain that we’re sane.

For the last word here’s Borges, as delivered by Mick Jagger: ‘The only performance that really makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that leads to madness’ (from ‘Performance’, 1968). A true performer becomes true only to himself, residing only in his own skull.’

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Book Group at FACT Liverpool

Ella Jolly has been in touch to mention the book group she runs at FACT in Liverpool. The group reads books that have been made into films and discusses them in that context. The next meeting is on November 22. Ella writes:

Thursday 22nd November 2007
6.30pm in the FACT Café
A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines

Hines’ 1968 novel explores the life of troubled teenager Billy Casper, who lives in a bleak Yorkshire mining town, with little scope for romance or hope. Billy’s life holds no interest or meaning for him until he finds a kestrel hawk and teaches himself falconry. In doing so, he learns unforgettable life lessons of trust, responsibility and love. Ken Loach’s 1969 film adaptation Kes is a classic of modern British cinema and a film that is still talked about by people who remember its original release. Film fans and readers should come and join the debate on what makes this such a special story.

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BBC Free Thinking Festival: A Festival of Ideas

Free Thinking 07, BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio Merseyside‘s unique festival of ideas launches in Liverpool this Friday (November 9). With events at Fact and BBC Radio Merseyside, Free Thinking brings you face-to-face with today’s leading artists, scientists and other thinkers. Over the weekend, you can join them and many others considering ideas through interviews, debates, talks, poetry and performances. The Reader is hosting ‘Book at Breakfast’ on Saturday and Sunday (still a few tickets left for Sunday, so book now if you want to come) and Ian McMillan, new regular contributor to The Reader, will record The Verb live on Friday evening.

With freedom as a major theme at this year’s festival, there are events that tackle issues of freedom in education, the ownership of our own freedom, prisons and society, the changing perspectives of childhood and concepts of equality. The full list of events can be found here and even if you are unable to attend, there are opportunities for everyone to tackle the issues raised. Most of the events over the weekend will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Radio Merseyside, as well as being available to listen for up to a week on the Free Thinking website; there are polls and comments awaiting your responses and the chance to write haiku on any debate or theme from this year’s festival (also, don’t forget to vote for Jane as part of the People’s Choice debate!).

Posted by Jen Tomkins

Poetry Launch: Life Lines 2

Last night, amongst the hustle and bustle of London’s Tottenham Court Road and Soho, the launch of Life Lines 2 was held in the tranquil surroundings of The Poets’ Church, St Giles in the Field. Hosted by Todd Swift (whom I had met on the first day of the Cheltenham Literature Festival), the evening consisted of readings by featured poets in this anthology which has been created to raise funds for Oxfam‘s Darfur appeal. Admitting to me before the event started, “I’m very nervous”, Todd hosted the event in his unasuming and witty manner to great success. He needn’t have been worried: this audio anthology is superb, it’s a joy to be able to listen to poets reading their own work and to hear such different timbres of voice in one collection. It’s credit to his position as Oxfam’s Poet in Residence and the evening’s readings were an impressive representation of the work that is featured on the collection.

The readings last night came from a collection of  distinct and original poetic voices: Dannie Abse, Sujata Bhatt, Siobhan Campbell, Elaine Feinstein, Atilla the Stockbroker, Wayne Smith and John Hartley Williams. Todd himself read the memory-laden ‘The Man Who Killed Houdini’ from Winter Tennis (a collection that I admire very much), an emotional Elain Feinstein recitied poems  from her latest collection explaining the difficulties and joys of marraige to her late husband Arnold (‘Wheelchair’ is featured on Life Lines 2), and Dannie Abse read some of his heartfelt and emphatic poetry: “a liturgy to literature”, my dear friend Ruth noted whilst we were sat in the pews of the beautiful Poets’ Church. This is not to say that it was a sombre and serious event, humour came from Atilla the Stockbroker and from the anthology’s youngest poet, Wayne Smith (who, unlike me, has no shame that he was born in Swindon). I wish every success for the Life Lines anthologies and hope there to be a third; fantastic poetry by original voices for a commendable cause.

Posted by Jen Tomkins

BBC Radio Merseyside Event: Liverpool Black Pioneers

Ray Costello, the author of the new book on the Liverpool black community, Liverpool Black Pioneers, published by Bluecoat Press, will be talking about his work and taking a questions and answers session in front of a live audience in the Performance Space, Radio Merseyside, on Friday 12th October starting at 2pm.  The event will be advertised on air over the coming week. All are welcome but only 50 can be seated.

More information here.

Author Readings and Workshops Near Liverpool

Manchester-based publisher Comma Press is promoting a new book of short stories entitled Elsewhere: Stories From Small Town Europe and is organising a series of events that may be of interest to readers in Liverpool and the surrounding area.

The first event is at Southport Library (Southport Library, Lord Street, Southport, PR8 1DJ) on Wed 10th October, and features Micheál Ó Conghaile (Ireland), Jean Sprackland (UK), and Zoe Lambert (UK). The second is on the following day at Bebington Civic Centre, Wirral (Civic Way, Bebington, Wirral, CH63 7PN), and features Micheál Ó Conghaile (Ireland) and Zoe Lambert (UK).

Both events will feature ‘simultaneous translation’ readings – as Micheál reads in the Irish, with a translation scrolling on screen beside him – allowing audiences to experience the cadences of the original. The events will be preceded by a workshop on approaches to writing the ‘small town story’, with Forward Prize nominated poet Eleanor Rees, offering up-and-coming writers a chance to share Micheál and Zoe’s wealth of practical experience and advice.

Anyone interested should contact Jim Hinks via the Comma Press website.

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Sefton Festival of Literature 2007

Running from Wednesday, 19th September until Sunday, 30th September, Sefton Festival for Literature 2007 has a programme appealing to anyone interested in various aspects of writing. Performances, poetry readings, exhibitions, workshops, writing surgeries and competitons are amongst the highlights of a packed schedule, which includes an appearance from Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, screenwriter and novelist John Mortimer, and poet and novelist Jackie Kay.

Here’s what Cllr Lord Ronnie Fearn, Sefton’s Council Member for Leisure and Tourism, has to say about the festival:

The Sefton Festival of Literature will be a fantastic celebration of all things literary and show that creative writing, poetry and performance offer something for everyone to enjoy. Experts on fiction writing, publishing and poetry will be on hand to offer free advice to budding writers, while artists will be leading bookmaking workshops.

The Sefton Festival of Literature is a two-year project and this year’s inaugural event will set the scene for the 2008 celebration. I’m sure this will be a wonderful event and I hope that everyone takes the opportunity to get involved.

The events will be held at Southport Arts Centre, Atkinson Art Gallery and, Crosby Civic Hall and Plaza Community Cinema in Waterloo. To find out more information and book tickets, visit the Sefton Arts website.

Rebel Girls

Rebel Girls: their fight for the vote is a new book by Jill Liddington, about the forgotten suffragettes across the north of England. Published by Virago it tracks the story of those who took their message out to the remotest Yorkshire dales to win Edwardian hearts and minds.

Jill Liddington will be speaking about the book at a host of events across the country this autumn, and is visiting Liverpool on Saturday 6th October. For full details of these events click here