A second wind for The Living Library

About a year ago, I thought I had given my final live reading from The Living Library. What a journey it had been: 2 years of working on a personal project, in between writing, researching and training full time was an ordeal. What started as a simple ‘might be nice to do this’ activity after work had mushroomed into a mammoth project spawning blogs and features on my residency, a prologue to my book, over 400 pictures, interviews with dozens of people, over 30,000 words in notes, a book proposal, a couple of live readings and me becoming a volunteer news reader for KR Talking News. In short, Kirklees took a punt on me, and the punt has paid off. It’s been a fruitful relationship, not least because I think the library service relies on my fines to keep the lending library ticking over.

Just after I did my last reading, I attended a meeting of the Society of Chief Librarians (Northern region) where we all discussed what we could do with the pile of information I had gathered. We’d been unsuccessful in an Arts Council application, which in a way freed us to be as creative as we wanted with the material. The Chiefs were hungry for something to use, so we thought about producing podcasts from the stories I had gathered. But we needed money to hire the studio and pay the technicians to record them. After doing the equivalent of looking down the back of the sofa for loose change, the Chiefs found some money. It was the tiniest sprinkling of pixie dust sent from the heavens.

Life and my new job took over and, to my shame, I haven’t touched the manuscript since that meeting last December, so the podcasts have taken a back seat. That was until I was invited back as a guest speaker at an annual library event celebrating the contribution young volunteers make to library projects. I shared my experiences of volunteering overseas, as well as extracts from my dusty manuscript, and the brilliant response from the audience, as well as the kindness, humour and support of the library staff reminded me why I started this project in the first place. My daily mantra is: I will finish those podcasts and get them recorded. So now I have a second wind, and I hope it helps me finish what I started. Of course, the real moral of this story is how pixies are so very generous with their dust and how they never lose faith in you.

“Can you say something inspiring?” said the lovely lady from the library.

“Can you say something inspiring?” said the lovely lady from the library.

“Er…inspiring? Er…”

“Yes! You know, about your volunteering experience, and your library project and how it’s helped your career?”

“Er…I’ll do my best.” And here it is, an edited version of my 20 minute keynote speech at an event celebrating the achievements of young volunteers who have helped Kirklees libraries in recent weeks:

Can I start by saying what a great thing it is that you’ve done by volunteering at the library. Volunteering can be hard. I know, I’ve done it. You give your time, your energy, your passion for the subject and your skills to an organisation who, in this case, really couldn’t have done that particular thing without you. Sometimes, in the chaos of the day, it feels as if you get very little recognition in return, but that’s only if you end up volunteering in a company that doesn’t really understand what you can bring to an organisation, or how best to nurture you. I happen to think that you’ve hit the jackpot by volunteering at the library, but then I’m biased. Continue reading

A small, excited audience with Jhumpa Lahiri

You could feel the excitement contained in the tiny 8th floor lobby at Broadcasting House. Thirty of us had gathered to listen to the Pulitzer prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri – a woman whose short stories are so powerful and evocative that you believe she is writing about your own life – being interviewed by Harriett Gilbert for the World Book Club. The experience taught me one thing: be careful about putting someone on a pedestal.

Harriett Gilbert was a delight; animated and gracious and sporting a very cool tie. It’s a shame that her warmth wasn’t matched by her interviewee. It’s not unusual to read about Jhumpa Lahiri being reserved or distant and luckily this doesn’t take away from her exceptional talent and maturity as a writer (and she’s only human, after all). In spite of her coolness in demeanour, there is a genuine depth in her explanations. She spoke of writing about profound shifts and of growth and loss, nodding once again to her two favourite authors William Trevor (she is nourished by his short stories) and Flannery O’Connor. Writing for Jhumpa Lahiri is seldom an intellectual process, but rather intuitive. In the interview she describes vividly how she inhabited Ruma’s father (in Unaccustomed Earth) and wanted to know and write his side of the story.

The questions from the audience were great, but she neatly sidestepped any real discussion on writing about wealthy, academic migrant experiences, instead of writing about the skilled, educated migrants who end up ‘driving taxis and cleaning’. I guess she’s earned the privilege of never really having to justify what she chooses to write about, as her writing is no longer ‘young’. What’s clear is that she understands her craft, not the craft of writing and owns it wholeheartedly and unapologetically. Such is the conviction of a seasoned award-winning writer – listen for yourself.

Review: Danny Bhoy’s boutique gig, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Oct 2012

“Wow, this is intimate. More of a workshop. A boutique gig,” said the smiley, gangly comedian as he sauntered onto the stage. True enough, this wasn’t the sell out crowd that he’s used to, but then “Tuesday’s always a bad day for comedy.”

We first saw Danny Bhoy 11 years ago, at his first Edinburgh Fringe show, where he made us laugh until our stomachs ached. He even made himself laugh, a sign that he really enjoys what he does. Since then, his success in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America shows that he hasn’t rested on his laurels, but used the ticks and foibles of these cultures to form the bedrock of his polished performances.

This tour is a departure from what he’s done before. In this, his Dear Epson tour (specially prepared for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe), he draws on the comedic well of ‘letters to corporations that have pissed you off.’ The letters are clever, and there’s a loose storyline that connects them, but his strongest material is still his observational comedy based on his upbringing and Scottish culture.

He’s amiable, with a gentle and subtle delivery, and an easy patter with his audience. And he hasn’t aged one bit; he still has a boyish, handsome face. The gaggle of Asian girls behind us were clearly trying to catch his attention with crap heckles. “I like these hit and run heckles,” he said, not realising that it was their attempt at flirting. A lucky escape for Bhoy.

Seen But Seldom Heard need you!

Last month, I wrote about how the Paralympians left us breathless with awe. Now, a group aided by Bournemouth University has used the Paralympic themes of Courage, Determination, Inspiration and Equality as jumping off points for Seen But Seldom Heard. This project uses poetry to explore the experience of disability and aspiration amongst a group of teenagers with disabilities. They are in the midst of producing a documentary, but have released this taster and want your comments to help edit the full documentary, which should be out by the end of the year.

The Paralympic themes provide a solid foundation for the teenagers to voice their experiences without fear or judgement, and to express what they would like to see changed in society. Judging by the taster, the project has given space for some powerful messages to come to the fore already. At 3.46 minutes into the video, there is a beautiful shot of someone writing their poem and the words, half concealed, hint at something raw and untapped bubbling underneath. But if you want the full power of raw emotion, watch this young poet perform My Name is Jagdev Singh.

As Jonny Fluffypunk, one of the performance poets working with the group, says, “It’s beautiful what human beings can do regardless of perceived setbacks.”

Please forward this link to anyone you know in broadcasting, and help give this documentary the mainstream coverage it deserves.

Book review: The Library Book (published by Profile Books in support of The Reading Agency)

Confession: when I read the press release about The Library Book last year, I approached Profile Books on a whim, hoping they would be interested in including extracts of my Living Library research as an ‘epilogue.’ I knew I was living in la-la-land just clicking the SEND button, but to quote my brilliant mum ‘if you not ask, then you won’t be getting…” I got my quickest rejection to date: 3 minutes for a ‘no thank you and good luck’ (I posted an extract here instead, and found out last month that it got a readership of over 3500).

So, when The Library Book finally made it to the shelves of my local library, I couldn’t wait to review it. The library, of course, had to jump through hoops to get it: justify the spend on this book, approve the spend, order it, receive the order, catalogue it, ring me to tell me it’s arrived, put it somewhere for me to pick up. This process took 4 months. Good grief, I could have handmade a copy in that time. But I have it now, and it was worth the wait. Continue reading

Book review: Get Her Off The Pitch! by Lynne Truss

For four years, Lynne Truss was a sports writer for The Times. Plucked from her comfort zone of writing theatre reviews, she launched into the worlds of boxing, tennis, golf and football. Navigating each world brought its own particular tensions, and she recalls her experiences with an enthusiasm that eventually ebbed away. As she moves through her four year journey, her exhaustion becomes palpable, and her stoicism against the cold-shouldering of colleagues is admirable. I’m guessing that the temptation to punch the gits who made her life miserable must have been ever-present.

It’s a touching tribute to an important part of her life. She says goodbye to this part of her career with a sentiment one would reserve for an ex-boyfriend who was tolerated for too long and turned out to be a pain in the arse. When she leaves sports writing, she is free again.

It is told with humour and she becomes more open about her frustrations as she continues her narrative through the different events she covered. Chapters are peppered with detailed statistics on sporting particulars, and her rants about Alan Shearer and the football fraternity are priceless.

It’s worth picking up this book just to scrutinise the cover photo of Truss with Lineker (that’s Gary, in case you didn’t know). Funny, frank, and a good holiday read.