The Durham Book Festival Preview

Festival excitement

With the Durham Book Festival taking place between 18th and 28th October, the Literature section is going to spend the next three weeks devoting itself to previewing, reviewing and giving you full coverage of the festival. Having previously welcomed acclaimed writers such as Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion and David Nichols, this year the festival sees a whole host of talented and successful writers including the Festival Laureate Simon Armitage, Jonathan Coe, Jo Shapcott, and Durham University’s own Prof. Michael Prestwich. Covering everything from medieval knighthood, Ordinance Survey maps to political inequality and with a good deal of poetry thrown in, the festival is shaping up to be one of the biggest Durham events of the year.

To give you a taste of things to come, we asked some of The Bubble’s literature writers to give us a preview of their prospective favourite events:

Festival Launch Night

Set in the heart of our town, in the beautiful Durham Cathedral, the Durham Book Festival launch night is lining up to be amazing. Following in the footsteps of last year’s Andrew Motion, this year’s Festival Laureate Simon Armitage will be unveiling a specially commissioned poem to commemorate the event. Armitage, one of the most popular contemporary British poets, has just published the new collection Seeing Stars, and will be joined by performers Amy Mackelden and Dan Walsh. The hour-long opening includes refreshments and will kick off the festival with literary glamour. Sohinee Sen

Peter Snow – To War with Wellington

The veteran BBC presenter and journalist Peter Snow visits Durham on Monday 18 October to discuss his new book, To War with Wellington, in the appropriately stately surroundings of Durham cathedral. This acclaimed new work charts the development of Arthur Wellesley from an introverted schoolboy into the commanding personality who oversaw the final destruction of Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo. Snow’s narrative focuses on the pivotal years of Wellington’s career, the Peninsular War (1808–15), a campaign which cemented his reputation as one of Britain’s foremost military heroes. Wellington transformed his army from a motley band of fighters into the world’s most sophisticated fighting force. He may have called them the “scum of the earth”, but he was also one of the first to realise the importance of welfare as a means to improve performance and sustain morale. Snow also examines Wellington’s relationship with lesser-known characters; brilliant but volatile generals such as Thomas Picton and “Black Bob” Crauford, to individual soldiers including the legendary Irishman Ned Costello. For all fans of military history, or even Snow’s inimitable, energetic delivery style, this is an unmissable evening. Joe Cronin

New British Poetry Stars Reunited: Simon Armitage, Jackie Kay, Lavinia Greenlaw and Glyn Maxwell

This event looks absolutely unmissable. Back in the heady days of the early 90s, a whole batch of poets were chosen as “Next Generation Poets”, and toured the UK under that title. The whole thing was really a rather tedious marketing gimmick but the poets themselves were brilliant and have got steadily better since then. Simon Armitage, the festival laureate, is curating the event and reading himself; much-beloved by British schoolchildren for his contribution to the “Best Words” pamphlet, Armitage is a consummate performer of his own work, and his new collection Seeing Stars is a real joy. Jackie Kay is also fantastic, with many award-winning collections exploring race, heritage and the concept of belonging – she’s also one of the best love poets of her generation. Lavinia Greenlaw creates tiny, chilly vignettes out of nothing, and her book Minsk was deservedly shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot prize. And Glyn Maxwell is a real treat, based in the US and rarely touring the UK – one of the most politically astute poets writing today, with an ear for language and syntax which calls to mind the best of Auden. Look on in amazement as four of the most exciting names in poetry today share a stage for the first time in ages. John Clegg

Life-writing masterclass – Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay’s life writing class on Friday 22 nd October promises to be an interesting introduction to this complex and often overlooked form of writing. Having recently published Red Dust Road, an autobiographical account of her journey to find her Nigerian birth father and Scottish birth mother, the Scottish poet has encountered both the joys and tribulations of life writing. Her many award-winning collections, including Other Lovers which won the Somerset Maugham Award, have placed Kay at the forefront of modern British poetry. This masterclass looks to be an exciting experience for those interested in life writing to hone their skills and gain advice from a talented writer and expert in the field. Sohinee Sen

Bittersweet: Jonathan Coe and Catherine O’Flynn

In an event on the 24th of October, Durham Book Festival brings together two apparently very different writers, united in their concern with the nature of modern life in Britain today. While Jonathan Coe has just published his ninth novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, Catherine O’Flynn is relatively new to the publishing scene, and will be discussing her second novel, The News Where You Are, alongside the prolific Coe. O’Flynn found immediate success with her debut novel, and was named Newcomer of the Year at the Galaxy British Book Awards in 2007, garnering praise for her bleak portrayal of our increasingly consumerist society. Conversely, Coe is known best for his comedic and satirical take on the modern world, and his new novel is no different, taking on the way human interaction has been affected by online social networks. This theme of isolation and the emptiness of modern life is also present in O’Flynn’s new work, and the discussion of this issue from such different perspectives, suitably titled “Bittersweet”, will undoubtedly make for an entertaining and revealing hour. Hannah Shaddock

How to be a Knight: Michael Prestwich

In my last conversation with Professor Prestwich before he disappeared into his “rather active” retirement, the eminent Durham historian confided to me that he was having “tremendous fun” working on a new book, the details of which he was not prepared to divulge. So it is to my delight that two years later he has reappeared with Knight: The Medieval Warrior’s (Unofficial) Manual, a fun yet remarkably erudite guide to the world of the medieval knight. From encounters in battle to the ceremony of knighthood itself, Prestwich covers the myriad experiences of any aspiring warrior. He does not gloss over the frivolities or scandalous details either: the exhilaration of a jousting tournament and the pleasures of courtly love are both richly described. Every historian will be aware of the difficulties of writing a book both learned and popular in its appeal. Here, Prestwich seems to have pulled off both feats with panache. Whether you have knightly ambitions or not, don’t miss this chance to hear the man himself explaining the genesis of this wonderful book. Joe Cronin

Jo Shapcott, Pascale Petit and Anne Woodford: On Life, Death and Mutability

On Sunday 24th October, Jo Shapcott is giving a long-awaited poetry reading in Durham from her fantastic new Faber collection. On Mutability is one of the best books I’ve read all year and worth the cover price just for the magnificent closing poem “Piss Flower”. Shapcott is one of the best and well-loved poets of her generation and has won just about every award going. She’s joined by Pascale Petit, one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets, whose twisted animal narratives are freaky and deeply disturbing, and whose new collection What the Water Gave Me explores the paintings of Frida Kahlo. Anne Woodford will also be appearing, reading from her new collection Bird House. The whole thing promises to be a damn fine evening – I’ve never seen Shapcott read, but Petit is one of the best readers I know, and Woodford is also excellent. John Clegg

Facts and Fiction: Tim Waterstone

Tim Waterstone will be discussing his new book on the 24th October, at an event rather promisingly titled “Facts and Fiction”. Although the book-buying British public may currently know Tim Waterstone only as the name behind the leading specialist book supplier in Europe, this is set to change with the publication of his new semi-autobiographical book, In for a Penny, in for a Pound. Waterstone is obviously no stranger to the publishing world, but he is no first-time writer, nor businessman turned media star – he published three novels in the mid-90s, although to limited success. His new book contains not only the story behind the rapid rise of his business, which he founded in 1982 and sold in 1998 for a nine-figure sum, but also reportedly depicts leading figures in the publishing world, giving his old-fashioned family tale a dose of very modern scandal. For those interested in the inner workings of the book world, this event is not to be missed. Hannah Shaddock

Eco-Thrillers: Liz Jenson and Maggie Gee

In the beautiful Music School on the corner of Palace Green, Liz Jenson and Maggie Gee will be chatting about what society might look like after some sort of ecological catastrophe, and the differing responsibilities of novelists and scientists in the face of climate change. Jenson’s novel The Rapture is apparently a “gripping eco-thriller” concerned with climate change and rising religious fundamentalism, and Maggie Gee has written books on similarly apocalyptic themes including Ice People and The Flood. Anyone interested in the response of the literary world to climate change, and the responsibilities of the artist in a society beginning to look more fragile by the minute, should book themselves a ticket to what promises to be a fascinating discussion. There will also be an opportunity to put questions to these authors; a real bargain at just £6 per ticket, with a discount for Durham students. John Clegg

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