Monday, 2 June 2014

Writing on the Wall Festival 2014

Festival, a gathering to celebrate maybe a harvest, or a particular day or week in a religious cycle, derives from Feast. This year we have had our fill. To be honest, in a very content and drowsy ‘we’ve ordered too many dishes in a curry house on Bold Street’ sort of way, we’re all stuffed.

As ever, after delivering thirty six events in the space of a month, the beginning of the WoW Festival seems such a long time ago. And though tired we are today, and to be candid, with times during the month when, with legs, back, head, aching, sometimes simultaneously, you do look either to the skies or within yourself and wonder ‘Are we mad?’, it’s worth having a quick look back at what we have achieved this month, and look again at why we do it.

We bookended our month with new writing; launching ‘Make Doves Not War’ a writing competition for young people by releasing ten doves into the skies above The Bluecoat, ending with our annual Pulp Idol Competition, crowning the winner of 2014/15, Craig Whittle, a writer who looks set to be published if he gets himself tied to his desk for the next few months.

I’m not sure there’s another festival so intent on creating, supporting and publishing new writing, either by ourselves or bringing writers before publishers and agents who can take them further than we can at the moment.

Some of the biggest names in literature have entertained packed venues – Irvine Welsh springs to mind immediately, chatting to Kevin Sampson in Oh Me Oh My to an audience of 200, and then Levi Tafari, with poetry we commissioned (a first for WoW), telling the news of the seamen and servicemen stranded in Liverpool in 1919-21, to an audience that filled Toxteth Library.

We like our themes, and getting into issues that affect us and our audience. So what did we cover this year? Well, we can mention The War – WW1 specifically, and we did – firstly by talking about peace (that’ll be the doves mentioned earlier), and then by talking about the effect on the war of those who stayed at home and those that returned expecting some kind of heroes welcome, or even just a nice sarnie with a cup of tea, sugared. We had George Garrett at war and peace, then a panel of writers discussing the war through the lens of journalism contemporary to 1914-18, its effect on women, and the importance of gathering the memories of those gone before.

We returned to Garrett with the incredible debut night of his play Two Tides, set in war time Liverpool, with feathers given to shirkers and, feisty window cleaners who ditch their skirts for trousers and take no lip from anyone. We packed out the Unity Theatre for that one and gained a Four Star review – not bad for a rehearsed reading. Levi’s event was all about the war on blacks in Liverpool after the war for freedom had been fought, and how prescient it was that UKIP’s charge to becoming the biggest party in the Euro elections was taking place at the same time – a campaign based on bigotry that makes you wonder how one hundred years have passed by with some of the population experiencing a perpetual groundhog day with no thought back to how these movements have played out in our recent past.

But the war theme – the Shell Shock, wasn’t just about 1914-18. The war against our privacy came into focus with Luke Harding talking about NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, and the continuing war on The Enemy Within, with journalist Seamus Milne enthralling a packed, and admittedly hot and sweaty house up at Frederiks Bar, about an event that happened thirty years ago – The Miners Strike. The strike changed my life, it gave me a political consciousness that a thousand books could not have achieved. I remember well seeing the scenes of the police attacking the strikers at Orgreave, but I never imagined we’d be discussing it now. The issue has been kept alive, in ways similar to Hillsborough, with a combination of the campaign for justice for those caught up in the events, arrested, injured, etc., but also by the continuing revelations of the role of the secret services, surveillance and targeting of activists and others, both at the time and subsequently.

Talking about spies, the event that delivered the most spontaneous response from an audience was during Spy in the Camp featuring Phil Scraton (a long time Festival Favourite who again delivered a salutary reminder of the need to Speak Truth to Power), and journalist Rob Evans who spoke on the undercover police who formed relationships and had children with environmental activists, while concealing their true identities. But as good as these two were the night belonged to Janet Alder speaking about the death of her brother,Christopher.

Christopher Alder, died on the floor of a police cell with officers standing around joking and making racist remarks. He was handcuffed and struggling to breathe. They let him die. How many charged, how many arrested? Take a wild guess. It’s not often you hear audiences gasp at an event. We feel like we’ve heard it all, seen it all. Janet Alder relating how she went to the police station to find out the cause of her brother’s death only to find herself being followed by the police through the local shopping centre after she left the station, drew just the first of many such gasps from us all. But it was just devastating when she said she found out, two years after they had buried Christopher, that not only had they not buried him (an older woman’s body was in the coffin) but that he was in a mortuary wrapped within five or six body bags, and that his body had been used to train police recruits in forensics. Her campaign for justice continues. Contact Sharon, give her a platform to Speak Truth to Power. She, and Christopher deserve your support.

Bloody hell, cheer up will you WoW. Ok, there’s funny stuff on the way. The truth is that even in the above events there was plenty of humour – even though a bit dark at times.

The women score high this year on being both funny and uplifting. If you ever meet Silent Witness actor Liz Carr ask her to demonstrate her ‘ugly smile’. It’s not that Liz’s smile is ugly, far from it, but in her Funny Girls act at Leaf she treated us to the smile she keeps in reserve for people she politely wants to get to bog off. It cracked everyone up, and, as we all found out at Magnet on our last night, the whole WoW team have ‘Ugly Smiles’ too. Caroline Clegg, Helen Walsh and Marai Larasi, at three ‘Top Girls’ themed events, connected with our audience in a way that people at the top of their game sometimes do, when, as they all were, they are generous with their time and their thoughts, and want to commune with people rather than just speak to them.

The man from the telly, Phil Jupitus AKA Porky the Poet, and working class wordsmith Phil Wells endeared themselves to me for life when they asked, ‘Can we go for a Chinese later?’ before the gig had even started. These two could well be my favourite ever act. They performed Proletarian Poetry from Two Stout Lads and yes, they were rather good. Ping Pong poetry was a treat, and they were good fun all night on and off stage. The Chinese was decent too.

We continued our legendary Rebel Rant series with Owen Jones and ‘People Power’. A full house, 300 and more, listened to a mix of history lesson – going back to the Chartists and other radical movements, arguments around contemporary issues including the bedroom tax, and a discussion about what people can do now to organise and campaign for change. An audience member said that after reading Chavs he’d formed a band ‘The Chavistas’ and Owen was now their manager. Owen seemed pleased to have an alternative career if the journalism and politics goes pear shaped.

One of the dynamic aspects of our festival is the way it gives a big platform for new writers and performers from the projects we run throughout the year. The participants from three of these appeared. Our young writers ‘Word Up’ performed an incredibly strong gig on the Central Library roof during Light Night, while our older young writers from Well Spoke wowed audiences in The Brink on the same night. We brought old and new together for a right old tasty poetry bake-off between Manchester CommonWord poets and the writers from our ‘What’s Your Story?’ project we ran with The Stroke Association. The food they cooked together was very, very good, and the poetry wasn’t too shabby either. The Stroke Survivors also provided inspiration in Manchester as they ‘performed’ as Living Books in The John Ryland Library following a project run by performance artist Curtis Watts.

There were plenty of touching moments during the festival. One was when we released the ten doves at the launch. I’d feared it may be a bit of a cheesy event, but it was anything but. The main event with the school pupils writing messages of peace on paper doves and then holding them aloft while the doves were released was surprisingly moving. The second was when Malcolm X spoke. Even though I knew it was superb and very nice guy Elliot Barnes-Worrell dressed up as Malcolm, the moment he began speaking was the cue for hairs on the back of the neck for many of us in the audience.

History can be brought alive when you approach it creatively. Never more so than in our George Garrett Archive Project. In May we delivered a major launch and exhibition of the Garrett archive at Central Library, a short, high quality film narrated by Alexei Sayle, a major installation built by Liverpool John Moores University students that has appeared in various venues across the city, a series of public talks by our tutors and volunteers, published an introduction to Garrett’s work and two of his best stories, launched a major website that contains an excellent collection of articles, archive and a timeline of his life, and held a sold out debut performance of his first play, Two Tides. Not bad for one month. We can safely say Garrett’s name is some way better known that ever before. We’re not finished yet though – check out the Garrett blog for future plans.

I haven’t mentioned every festival event – we’ll update later about Ronan Bennett, the BlackDrop writers, Tim Brannigan, Danny Morrison, Kevin Higgins, Lindsey German, Rosie Wilby, Niall Griffiths and Kelly & Victor, Jazz Time, Adam Lee and Jay Griffiths. All superb events though, sometimes humorous, a little bit of argument here and there, but always inspirational meeting and listening to these world class writers.

As I said earlier, tired now, but already looking forward to WoWFest 2015.

I said I’d say something about why we do it. See above.

By Mike Morris
Project Manager of Writing on the Wall

For more photos go to our Facebook Page.

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