Leicester/shire City and County of Literature II

This was the follow up event after the first event in December 2017. Co-host CivicLeicester stated, “The series brings together people from many different backgrounds for an evening of ideas, great literature and conversation. The series also invites people to look at literary work that is being done in Leicester and Leicestershire and see what can be done to raise the profile of the scene.” Co-host Everybody’s Reading stated, “Increasingly Leicester and Leicestershire are a hub of creativity in the arts. Our literary scene is enormously vibrant as shown by the breadth of talent that we have and by the range and scale of literary festivals we host in the city and county.”

The panel for this event was advertised as

  • Hugo Worthy – art curator The Gallery De Montfort University
  • Rod Duncan – writer
  • Corinne Fowler – Director for the Centre of New Writing Leicester University
  • Monodou Sallah – Global Hands Publishing
  • Lydia Towsey – poet, performer and literary activist
  • Debbie James – The Bookshop, Kibworth, Leicestershire
  • Katherine Oughton – Heritage Lottery Fund Development Officer for East Midlands

Corinne Fowler and Debbie James sent apologies. Lydia Towsey’s absence was not explained. On the night, Matthew Pegg of Mantle Lane Arts and Press joined the somewhat depleted panel.

Corinne Fowler did send an article in advance. She had been involved in a project called Moving Manchester which catalogued the city’s literary output since 1970. On moving to work in Leicester, she initiated a similar project for Leicester’s literary output since 1980, catalogued at Leicester University’s Grassroutes site. She found more titles in one year than she did for 3 years in Manchester. Leicester has an abundant literary community that should be celebrated.

Debbie James also sent an advance article. The Bookshop at Kibworth celebrates its 10th anniversary next year, has worked with over 20 schools, set up 8 local bookclubs and founded a book festival. The shop works closed with Kibworth Community Library to host author talks and has provided pop-up bookstalls at Curve, Y-Theatre, the Sue Townsend Theatre, Leicester University, De Montfort University, Phoenix Square, the LCB Depot, Loogabrooga Children’s Book festival, Leicester Writes, Cotesbach Educational Trust and Leicester Print Workshop and worked on events with libraries in Belgrave, Countesthorpe, Evington, Knighton, Loughborough, Oadby and Leicester’s Central Library. The Bookshop has been awarded Regional Independent Bookshop of the Year, Vintage Independent Bookshop of the Year and 3 James Patterson grants for its work in schools. Debbie James is ambassador to the Booksellers Association’s Bookseller Network and has judged the Independent Bookshop Week Award, East Midlands Book Award and the Leicester Short Story Award. A recent initiative is to get a copy of “The Lost Words” by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Kay into every primary school in Leicester and Leicestershire by the bookshop subsidising customer donations, a project that could be helped by the bookshop working with the city council and school academy trusts. Creating and sustaining connections is vital for a thriving literary scene.

Hugo Worthy, panel chair, introduced the event and said he was here to learn.

Rod Duncan said he’d returned to Leicester around 25 years ago when he also started writing seriously. He was surprised at how rich the ecosystem was, e.g. libraries, literature development officers, support from the universities, writers’ groups and festivals. He joined Leicester Writers’ Club and felt he learned most of what he knew about writing from Leicester Writers’ Club and gained successes through publication deals and being shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award. He was also surprised to learn not every city has Leicester’s great support networks or culture of celebrating the successes of other writers. Leicester is extraordinarily vibrant, e.g. Mahsuda Snaith’s debut novel made her one of The Observer’s ‘writers to watch’, Andrew Bannister’s science fiction trilogy snapped up by a major publisher and Jacob Ross’s Jhalak prize-winning “The Bone Reader”, although set in Grenada was written in Leicester and is now about to be re-issued by Little Brown after initial publication by Peepal Tree. Rod also teaches creative writing at De Montfort University and sees many works in the pipeline which gives him hope for the future. He felt nervous about Leicester applying for a UNESCO City of Literature Status as he was concerned for the impact on existing literary ecosystems and felt the key advantage of Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature status was a raised awareness of literature in Nottingham amongst the general public that Leicester lacks.

Katherine Oughton talked about the Heritage Lottery Fund and focus on projects with specific aims, a time frame for achievement and strong public engagement, particularly from hard-to-reach audiences. Heritage is not strictly defined and can include oral histories and people-based projects, not just buildings and artefacts. She mentioned Nottingham’s Bromley House Library’s online catalogue, which builds a picture of what people in Nottinghamshire have been reading for the last two centuries.

Matthew Pegg, who had not been expecting to speak but stepped in on the night, gave an update on what Mantle Lane Arts are doing. Mantle Lane Press has published two more novellas, an anthology of sea-related prose, including a piece by Joanna Harris who had spoken at the first Coalville Literary Festival. A second festival is planned for May 2019. Mantle Lane Press has also produced an anthology of plays written by children in years 7 and 8 from four schools in Leicestershire. The plays were also produced at Curve Theatre. A Wolves and Apples event for writers for children is planned for 29 September. He mentioned being based in the county with a declining bus service meant it was easy for county-based groups to feel isolated from city-based groups and events, but occasions like tonight helped build links.

Momodou Sallah started Global Hands Publishing around a day-job teaching at De Montfort University with aims of international development, public engagement and promoting voices on the margins, especially from Gambia. Global Hands Publishing has so far produced 12 books, some of which are used as textbooks in Gambian universities as well as being used in his own teaching, with worldwide sales. He sees himself as a scholar activist using literature to disrupt normality. Some of the writers he’d worked with didn’t perceive themselves as worthy of publication and needed confidence-building. Global Hands Publishing had been involved with festivals in Gambia and was looking to bringing something similar to Leicester.

Hugo Worthy started audience discussion by asking about other groups in Leicester/shire. The Speculators, Leicester Writes, Word! and Bradgate Writers were mentioned. It was suggested there were 150 poetry groups in Leicestershire. In response to a question about recruitment, Leicester Writers’ Club was used as an example whereby club members are also members of other groups and attend live literature events so effectively act as ambassadors for the Club. The Club also runs summer open evenings so non-members can attend as guests and get a feel for what the club does without committing to join. Leicester Writers’ Club is 60 years old, has 62 members, their ages range from 16-80+ and members include poets, novelists, scriptwriters, short story writers, non-fiction writers, bloggers and writers who are close to seeing their first publication.

Audience outreach and lack of general awareness of literary figures in Leicestershire was discussed as an issue. The Leicester Mercury do not support local writers. BBC Radio Leicester joined the national BBC’s bookclub but chose to support the national choices and ignore local writers. The monthly Leicester Writers’ Showcase event at Central Library would like to increase the audience who want to come along and meet, hear from and ask questions of local writers.

Discussion turned to the publishing industry. As the bigger publishing houses turned more commercial and sales-oriented, ditching mid-list authors who were selling enough to make a living but weren’t bestsellers, it opened a gap for self-publishing and ebook and print-on-demand technologies made it easier for niche publishers and authors to get into print. It’s becoming increasingly common to see hybrid authors who use both traditional and self/indie-publishing routes to readers. The power of traditional gatekeepers (agents/publishers) has been reduced. Momodou Sallah talked about literature being an act of resistance, a vehicle for countering the dominant cultural narrative, important to those excluded from mainstream cultures, and giving writers the confidence to challenge perceived cultural norms and stereotypes.

As with the December 2017 event, there was agreement that there is plenty of literary talent in Leicester and Leicestershire, a healthy literary ecosystem of groups, festivals, universities and support from writers for other writers. However, no real ideas for how to counter the silence from local media or increase the audiences for local literary events.