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States of Independence

March 27, 2014 Leave a comment

This is a kind of a late review because the States of Independence event was a couple of weeks ago, on 15th March. It’s a free annual one-day book festival in Leicester that I went to for the first couple of years it ran, then missed it for a couple of years, and got back to it again this year.

First impressions: lots of stalls, and there are clearly still plenty of people out there wanting to be independent publishers. Some are producing full-sized paperback books, some are selling short collections of flash fiction and poems in a pamphlet-type format. But there are a lot of them.

Many are the same ones I remember from 3-4 years ago, though some have started to find different niches to fill. For example one  is now busy doing political nonfiction, looking at the background to recent scandals and documenting the extent to which the police and other security services have been involved in dubious practices. None of that’s particularly ‘news’ – a great deal of it has been admitted to and debated in parliament in the last year or two, and some of it has emerged in a ‘look, I told you so’ way when Cabinet papers were published in January having reached the end of their 30-year period of being kept secret (and essentially proved that the government of 1984 was in the business of provoking a miners’ strike in order to break the trades union movement, of which more below).

But there are plenty of other niches to fill and ‘tribes’ to satisfy. I’m really not sure how a market research company would classify all of them, but you could have a go at ’20-something students into horror fiction’, ‘people interested in poetry by local poets’, or ‘people from immigrant or minority communities who want to read stories based on their own cultural history, in English’.

I went to three seminars.

The first was on the 1984 miners’ strike, seen from 30 years on. This was interesting for a range of reasons. The wounds created at that time have still not healed, and because the police were in the front line in breaking the strike it’s pretty clear that there’s still a bitter aftertaste and a complete lack of trust in the police in many areas. There’s also a sense of outrage that some of the senior figures in the union ‘sold out’ and were, by their own later admission, giving information to the police Special Branch and MI5. Which also, incidentally, suggests that the remit of those agencies had a lot of grey areas that were rapidly redefined as areas where they should be quite active. That opens up a whole can of worms about the idea of the ‘police state’ and the way we should approach security issues in a democracy, but that’ll all have to wait for another blog. I will say, though, that I was active in police research in the 1980s and I can remember many very senior police officers in 1984-5 were extremely unhappy about the way they felt policing was being politicised. And what happened around that time, now we have some of the government papers published, does tend to reinforce the notion that if you’re feeling paranoid it’s because they’re coming to get you.

The pity of it all was that the basic problem the government faced was this: why have a coal industry in the UK if globalisation meant we could import coal more cheaply from China? How could coal produced at relatively high cost in the UK be run as a profitable industry? The government response was pretty brutal – close down the mines (and the hidden agenda was there too; smash the unions because they stand in the way of ‘progress’). And the union response was old-school and straight out of the 1800s. No one involved in any of this seemed to be prepared to talk sensibly about the wider context and find more constructive solutions.

The second seminar was about Indian writing today being published in English. From this I got some insights into the regionalism of Indian writers, since many are published in languages other than Hindi or Urdu; and the continuing influence of the caste system, with people often reading about the culture of their own caste. This segued for me into a bunch of issues about what the caste system really is and does, but if you need a quick rundown of this one starting point is Wikipedia. Plus it’s a little alarming (given how poorly my own horror collection sells) to hear about a country where an author is considered a failure if they haven’t sold at least 100,000 copies of their latest novel…

The third one I went to was about digital literature. I walked in late, at the point the speaker was (I think) quoting someone else. I caught the end of their sentence: ‘…if it doesn’t use random numbers it’s not literature’. That said, it was thought-provoking on areas such as ‘what counts as avant-garde?’, ‘to what extent can code be read as literature?’ and ‘are there parallels between the market for computer games and the market for fiction?’.

I won’t go into details. But if digital fiction or e-fiction interest you, a useful place to start is probably this collection at eliterature.org.

Overall, I had a good time. Once of the independent publishers is about to open its own bookshop (and also sells coffee); the masked booksellers were there and I bought stuff from them. The only thing that struck me as odd was that I didn’t see any of the people who are normally active on the local literary scene. Doesn’t mean there weren’t there, and while I went to three seminars there were another 20-odd running. Never mind, no doubt I’ll catch up with them another time.

Leicester street art

I’ve been having a quiet time. Actually a noisy quiet time since much of it has been spent doing things like putting in a new garden fence (much hammering, sawing and swearing). But I thought I’d share these, following a recent visit to Leicester. Materials: chalk on paving slabs. Artist: I have no idea, but I hope he – it was a guy working on them, anyway – does well.

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Street art, Leicester, May 2013

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Street art, leicester, May 2013

States of Independence

March 19, 2011 1 comment

Went to States of Independence today. This was an event with independent small presses, workshops, readings and the like. I wasn’t involved in any of the readings but thought I’d scope it out. There were three sessions I wanted to go to but as usual (for me anyway) they were all running at the same time. Oh well… I have the programme, I have the links to the other things I wanted to investigate and I can follow them up later.

I went to the Shortfuse readings, which this time were short stories and flash fiction (and a haiku) by people who’ve been in a recent creative writing workshop series. They were all good. I personally liked some more than others (unsurprising) but the surprising thing to me was that the pieces dealing with topics like old age and housework were the most interesting. Huh? Quality of writing or because I feel I’m getting old? Both, maybe.

Went round the fairly extensive display of stalls. Only bought one book – well, I have about a yard of books at home waiting to be read. The one that caught my attention and where I bought a history of the Vikings was run by the Masked Booksellers. They’re charmingly eccentric but with a serious point at the same time.

The Masked Booksellers perpetuate the work of Josiah Saithwaite, a small-time Manchester businessman of the late 1800s, also a non-conformist preacher and socialist who believed that everyone was entitled to education as a right. Among other activities he sold second-hand books cheaply to the working classes, on the basis that books were a means of self-improvement. His strategy was that “Working people need to take pride in the purchase of their personal libraries by their own efforts” while the profits from sales went to charitable causes.

The masks came about because Saithwaite’s belief was that doing good should not be a matter of personal aggrandisement, and hence should be done anonymously. Apparently – and I didn’t know this until today – there are still groups of Masked Booksellers up and down the country, and indeed in several other countries as well. The money they made at States of Independence was going to a charity dealing with the needs of refugees. So given my own principles how could I not buy something from them?

Good day all round, except I managed to miss someone I was going to meet there because I didn’t check my email first and figure out where I was supposed to meet them. But I did meet one of the Speculators there. I should go more often to the meetings, but they run at the same time as other stuff I’m involved in so I rarely get the chance. Looks like my relationship with the group will continue to be largely by email rather than in person. Such is life.

Hearing Voices this evening

January 10, 2011 3 comments

No, I’m not mad. No, it wasn’t really my thing. But neither of these opinions is important.

What is important is that on a rainy Monday evening in January, without very much in the way of publicity, it was possible to get 70-80 people to a pub in Leicester to attend a poetry event. I only found out about it a couple of hours before it happened – the event was Hearing Voices and here’s the Facebook notification I got. There’s almost nothing about it on the web yet (pages still being developed) but the overall one-year project is for three issues of a magazine, of which the first is now out (at least I think it was the first, in which case their stated timetable appears to have slipped?). Hence the event which was a kind of launch party.

The event included scheduled poetry readings, some open-mic poetry and a few short stories though poetry dominated the event.

Two quick thoughts.

First, massive congratulations to the organisers, the not-for-profit group Crystal Clear Creators, on a really successful event.

Second, given the evident popularity of poetry and the fact I’m struggling away writing horror and SF and ‘urban’ and ‘alternative’ stories, I’m obviously in the wrong game. I shall have to study this poetry thing more carefully!

Fabrika, Leicester – Critical Mass

November 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Fabrika recently announced ‘Critical Mass’, an open submission exhibition and earlier in the week I dropped off four of Chris Cafferkey’s photos there. Earlier today we were in Leicester together and nipped in for a coffee, to discover they (and quite a few others, obviously) were in the process of being hung. Her pics are of course brilliant, though my pics of her pics, taken on my mobile phone, are rather lower quality…

Pics waiting to be hung

Someone else’s pic is at the back of the stack, behind the square ‘owl’ photo – no idea whose it is but it looked interesting.

Three flower pics

Three flower pics

Owl pic, still wrapped

Owl pic, still wrapped

Fabrika, outside

Fabrika, exterior

The pics should be up later today (Friday) and the exhibition runs, I think, until the end of next week.

Out soon – The Speculator

June 5, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m an occasional, inconstant member of The Speculators, a Leicester-based SF/fantasy writing group that came up with the idea of an occasional newspaper-format publication with members’ stories.

Issue 1 of The Speculator is now printed, I’m pleased to say including one of my stories.

The newspaper as a whole has 17 short stories, a news article, editorial and a bunch of artwork, which is a lot for 12 pages.

The plan is to distribute the paper free at the upcoming Alt.Fiction event on 12 June, a one-day festival of alternative fiction including horror, fantasy and SF in Derby (UK). Thereafter, I think the idea is that the PDF will be available online from the Speculators website (no, it’s not there right now – be patient!).

Shortfuse last night (and a rant)

May 19, 2010 Leave a comment

We got there late, unfortunately, but it turned out to be something of a miracle we got there at all.

Intriguing collection of stuff – a range of semi-autobiography, well-crafted tales and wonderfully evocative language. Also, unusually, some live music from The Orange and then from the First Monday Ukulele Club, which was as unlikely as it sounds – a stage filled with people playing rock’n’roll on ukeleles… a sight to behold and extraordinary (in a good way) to hear.

Shortfuse is next on 18 June, I believe (their website should soon have updated information – shortfusefiction.com). The theme for that night will be ‘taboo’. Then it’ll be taking a long break for the summer, so it’ll be a case of ‘get there or miss out for the next 4 months or so’.

Discussions afterwards were interesting and left me musing on how hard it is to organise any kind of arts event – and how much harder it’s likely to become in future in the current financial climate. So this is the ‘rant’ part of this post.

I don’t just mean things like literary readings, but art exhibitions, dance performance, theatre… we’re already at a stage where a huge amount of cultural activity is done for free, or for pennies, because the people who do it have some longer-range vision or dedication and are essentially prepared to put time and effort into making it happen.

This is so even in ‘popular’ culture – I’ve been to places like goth/industrial music events where the DJs organise the event, put in huge amounts of time flyering and advertising on social websites, etc., all for a split of the door takings after they’ve paid venue costs. They do it because they’re dedicated, which they have to be to put in the number of hours it takes in background work to make something happen and walk away at the end with less money than it will cost to get a taxi home.

And that’s just for an event with DJs. If you have a PA system, props, admin costs, or any of the myriad of other things it takes to get some kind of performance together, anything that might be called ‘alternative arts’ is going to struggle. Sure, it always has. Think for example of the number of artists whose paintings now sell for small fortunes, but who never saw a penny from their work in their own lifetimes (and whose work wasn’t even thought to have artistic merit in their own lifetimes!). And there are plenty of writers with experiences on similar lines…

But it does leave me wondering if there’s any financial model (other than working off arts grants) that would help keep ‘marginal’ events alive, because so much of what they do can’t be valued economically. I’m just thinking here of the many painters, dancers, actors, and writers whose work starts off in the margins of culture and develops there until the mainstream is ready for it…

Well, ok economists will usually say everything has an economic value; what I’m arguing here is that the value of fringe cultural events doesn’t lie in the present but the future, and usually exceeds the extent to which it can be monetised in the present. Does that make sense?

If anyone wants to start a debate or discussion about this, I’m up for it.

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