Local author Richard Smyth Previews Leeds Big Bookend 2014, a Rock Festival for Words! …
Leeds has a thriving literary scene – but so what? Everywhere has a thriving literary scene. You can’t throw a half-brick in this country without hitting an author. A good literary festival – which is what the Leeds Big Bookend is, in spite of its faintly bewildering claim to be a ‘rock festival of words’ – isn’t about the scene; it’s about what that scene is prepared to bring along in terms of knock-your-socks off books events. Tossing your prizewinning paperback on to the table and shrugging ‘Well, there’s this,’ isn’t going to cut it. You have to – buzzword alert! – engage. With real, actual people.
And on this metric, Leeds Big Bookend 2014 looks set to deliver in spades.
What’s especially marvellous about this year’s programme is its breadth and its balance. For each literary celeb ‘audience with…’ (which we’ll come to in a moment) there’s a Young Adults short-story workshop (Aissa Gallie on June 7 at Leeds Church Institute). For every heavy-hitting debate (Index On Censorship on Propaganda & War, June 7 at Leeds Central Library) there’s a kids’ storytelling yurt (June 7, again at the Church Institute).
Fiction is well represented (that ‘thriving literary scene’ really does pull its weight). Local novelist John Lake reads from his new book Speed Bomb and a trio of historical crime-writers convene to mutter darkly about their work at the library on June 7; later that day, SJ Bradley, author of Brick Mother, is one of two local novelists launched by buzzy new publisher Dead Ink (Leeds Central Library).
And the festival isn’t afraid to broaden the debates raised by its featured authors: Sufiya Ahmed’s Secrets Of The Henna Girl and Amy Keen’s The Firesight Series, for instance, will act as a springboard for a fascinating discussion of the pressures faced by young women in our society (Waterstone’s, June 7).
Two events at the West Yorkshire Playhouse play to the city’s strengths. On June 8, the theatre will host writers Anthony Clavane, Nick Quantrill and Roger Domeneghetti in a Q&A and panel discussion of the ways in which Leeds’ rich sporting heritage has been presented in arts and the media.
And at the same theatre later that afternoon, of course, we get the great Alan Bennett (presumably after he has sailed into the city up the Leeds-Liverpool on a canopied barge, like a burnish’d throne, the poop beaten gold, purple the sails, and so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them – I joke, of course, but people do get quite over-excited when a celebrity comes to visit, even one from Armley). Bennett will be a treat: over-familiarity with Talking Heads – Thora and Patricia and Penelope and the rest – has brought him a rather-too-comfy popular reputation, but this, remember, is a man who held his own with Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller back in the Beyond The Fringe days (ask your parents, kids!), a dramatist of serious weight and, at 80, a bona fide giant of 20th-century English literature.
But he doesn’t win the Best Title Of The Festival Award, which goes to Max Farrar’s ‘Where Is Chapeltown, And What Does It Do?’ (Leeds Central Library, June 7).
In and amongst all this bookishness, of course, will be all the earthly joys a city festival has to offer: busy with flavour, alive with music, sloshing with wine and roaring with conversation. It’s not a rock festival, of words or otherwise. It’s something much better than that.