Posts by Ian Anstice

"She’'d have been burned as a witch in those days": Sharon Bolton visits Ramsbottom Library

Posted Monday 3 December 2018 by Ian Anstice in Author blogs, Events, Opinion

Sharon Bolton at RamsbottomIt was great to see a big author like Sharon Bolton come to a library like Ramsbottom for several reasons.  For one, the library is not huge unlike many that would normally see Sharon. Another is that the library is absolutely gorgeous, in a picturesque Lancashire town very reminiscent of the area described in her book “The Craftsman”. And, finally, of course, this was the culmination of the Great North West Read, a regional promotion that was instrumental in having such an author in the region in the first place.

But what was she like?

Well, the intelligence shines off her for a start. This is someone who would be fascinating no matter what she was talking about and this talk, which she must have delivered several times at least before, was no exception.

It started off spooky. Her parents lived in a church. They had quiet neighbours, people joked. But it got the young Sharon thinking that the best place to bury someone you have murdered would be in a graveyard. After all, there’s so many there already, another one may not be noticed.

Sacrifice BoltonHer first book to sell was “Sacrifice” and she was thrilled to get it not just in bookshops in this country but also internationally. It’s a thriller with a slightly supernatural twist. But not too supernatural, for she is a Gothic writer and thing with those is that, however it may appear, there’s no magic involved. Sharon sees magic as, vaguely, like cheating. It’s just human wickedness. But that should be scary enough.

“From the very first page I want my readers to be scared. If they're reading in bed, I want them to want check underneath them." she days.  You don't need gratuitous violence or ghosts to scare people, just hints and a good story will do it.

She then goes through her other books. Her next one was “Blood Harvest” which was rewritten from her very first big story idea which she never did get published, just with all the supernatural stuff taken out. There was a short trailer about the book which did, indeed, look very spooky.

Sharon used to live near where the Jack the Ripper murders took place so, Sharon being Sharon, this got her thinking. So she wrote a book partly inspired by the grisly Victorian events and produced “Now You See Me”. She did a ton of research for the book, including finding out that the lore around Jack is largely made up by detectives who worked on the case wanting to sell books. But one thing is clear: Jack was either very clever or very lucky, because he killed people in busy areas where it would have been easy for someone to have spotted him.

Bolton Now You See MeThe book started a series featuring a young female police constable – also a feature of The Craftsman – called Lacy Flint, trying to hunt down a killer while keeping her own dark past a secret. . Sharon thinks it's one of her best and may bring her back.

The author was born in Lancashire and lived there for her first eighteen years, being raised amongst all the local traditions of ghosts and the Pendle Witches. But the latter were real people.  Twelve men and women were executed for "murder by witchcraft", Mainly women. Sharon, being rational, discounts the magic aspect but also the criminal bit, saying at the very worst they were low level confidence tricksters.

What makes society turn on weakest, she asks. “"We don't hang people for witchcraft any more but there are still witch hunts".

So she knew she wanted to write about the area but, damn it, Jeanette Winterson got there first and, what is more, her book “Daylight Gate” was excellent. Sharon even read an extract of it approvingly, where it says "The North is a dark place ... Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.". She is constantly amused that Lancashire people don't feel indignant by that description, they feel proud.

"She’'d have been burned as a witch in those days, she says. And looking at that intelligence in her eyes, and from what I know of the intense sexism of the times, I’d say she’s probably right."

So now to Craftsman, where Florence is a senior police officer looking for closure over a murder decades before and wondering if she caught the right man. Foolishly, too, she has brought the son with her. "It's a book about me or a woman like me"

And then suddenly it was question time, which Sharon insisted on. She likes questions.

She says her characters are not always “nice”. They have dark sides and that Lacey evolves immensely over the series. Sharon is more interested in baddies

Why is Sharon no longer called SJ? Because men have got over not being comfortable reading women authors.  When she started, it was thought being female would put off men. Not any more. Especially as being there is social media, everyone knows she’s a woman anyway. Moreover, there are quite a few “SJ” authors so it was getting confusing. So ... Sharon.

Sharon Bolton witch huntWhy did she choose the Falklands as a setting for one of her books? She always thought islands are perfect for thrillers. But every Island in the UK has already been taken so she chose the Falklands, which are like the UK but decades ago. Also, she likes islands. And Pendle felt very island-like in the book.

Why has she not written about Salem? She’s interested but there’s more than enough material in England and Salem has been written about enough.  Also, the same thing happened there than in Pendle. Driven like in America often by mercenary reasons.

But I suspect that Sharon is not driven by mercenary reasons, although she notes that as a professional writer she does not have the luxury of simply not writing. I suspect she writes because she has to write. And they can’t be kept in but burst out of her. Like a demon. A very rational, scientifically explainable one.

A video of the visit can be seen here.

Burning with energy: Burnley Library

Posted Monday 12 November 2018 by Ian Anstice in Opinion, Training

I had the sheer pleasure last week of talking to David Ridehalgh of Burnley Library about the Burnley Literary Festival and other things like disembodied flying witches, of which more later ...

Burnley Literary Festival

Unusually for a small town with such a wide ethnic mix, Burnley has a thriving literary festival which has been going on for three years. If you drive into the town at the moment, as I did, you’ll see signs for the festival, which is fantastic. The local radio station is also up for publicising it and so everyone in the town is at least aware of it, giving it a reach normally beyond that of a library service. And this shows in attendance. Events get 30 or 40 people coming to them, which is brilliant, with such visitors often not being library users to begin with.

Burnley FestAnd there’s a need to attract non-library users. There are real pockets of poverty and poor literacy in the town. Those two so often go together. A lot of people just don’t go to cultural events, especially if they have to travel, and so the festival brings the events to the people, as things should be. The events are free as a way of reducing barriers – experience shows that locals are often put off by charged events – and are open to all. The library works closely with local schools and has regular class visits, with the idea being that “if you work together, you can achieve more”.

Stemming from an idea from Burnley Council, the library service jumped at the festival as a way of boosting library usage, and have been keen partners from the start. There is funding from Arts Council England and also from the local Stocks Massey bequest. This means that the library events are free, with Lancashire offering the building and staffing as its contribution in kind. As is common with free events, there is some non-attendance but a good 80% do come to the library when they say they will. Oh, and what a building, it’s gorgeous, with an impressive pillared façade leading into wood-lined rooms with an awful lot of stained glass.

"... there’s a need to attract non-library users. There are real pockets of poverty and poor literacy in the town. Those two so often go together."

David sees the point of the festival, and other events put on, as ways of providing – and this is important – high quality events to local people. This encourages them to come back as well as attracting people from outside of the area. The events also need to be fairly individual and not mirroring something happening just miles away. Moreover, the library has learnt to taylor events for the local audience. What works elsewhere does not necessarily work locally.

An example of this is the Light Parade. The Library is involved in doing craft workshops beforehand, creating lit props like umbrellas shaped as jellyfish and encouraging the lanterns to be created locally rather than shipping them in. And, wow, what a result. 1500 attended the last parade.

"1500 attended the last parade"

Cater the event to your audience. The same does not work everywhere. Learn My Way works well here., not so much in more affluent areas.  Unemployed needs email address. Vital for universal credit.

Witching videoAnd now, finally, for the flying witches. David has a background in graphic design and this shows. There have been some lovely displays, with the one that (literally) stood out for me being a witch flying in the area as a result of a projector (only £70 apparently - see in "the technical bit" below) shining on a gauze cloth. It was the most impressive display I’ve seen in a library and is an idea that’should be adopted more.

So, Burnley Library is working hard to be an important part of the local community. All of the local community. And it does that by working with partners and the public to put on individual and high quality events.

"Burnley Library is working hard to be an important part of the local community. All of the local community. And it does that by working with partners and the public to put on individual and high quality events"

The technical bit

The projector usef is an Excelvan 3D DVB-T Theatre projector. It is an LED projector – the picture quality is better – and is capable of projecting 3D movies/images and can also be used for Virtual Reality. It was available on eBay for around £70-£80 but they can be pricey from places like PC World. They also allow for HDMI input too which means you don’t have to use a PC/Laptop. I have attached a video of what it looks like this year.

The website where the 'illusions' were purchased from is here - There are some absolutely amazing scenes on there and they can all be purchased via download reasonably.  YouTube have a good collection of videos and effects and there are quite a few cheap DVDs or Blu-Rays that have holiday scenes on… it appears to be a growing market. Netflix also do have a few 'atmospheric' shows called moving wallpapers, there are tropical, underwater and winter scenes that do work really well when projected. The Christmas one is especially good and I think I may be using it this year.

Transcription of an author event: Kate Atkinson at Bolton Central Library

Posted Tuesday 18 September 2018 by Ian Anstice in Events, Opinion

Bolton CentralA sunny, warm but windy day in Bolton. Outside, people were sat watching an talking on the steps but the town hall. Just round the back is the beautiful old Central Library with the newly refurbished combined museum just about to be opened on the asaturday after.

Bolton Libraries must have been delighted to get someone of the stature of Kate Atkinson. She’s been doing big bookshops and big cities otherwise in her tour, and been all over local and national radio and podcasts and book reviews. It turned out that she'd spent all that morning doing local radio interviews.

I can see why she came to Bolton though. It's a beautiful library and the auditorium can fit 150. In addition, tickets to attend were free and, not just that, but a free coffee and biscuit at the beginning. And it was clear people were using that money to saved to buy books. Choosing a seat at the back of the big semi-circular auditorium, I got chatting to a local bookseller who was looking on somewhat remorsefully at Waterstones doing a roaring trade in selling hardbacks.

Over 100 came for the difficult lunchtime weekday slot, never the best, in the beautiful meeting room at Bolton Central Library. Others had booked but not turned up (always a challenge with free events) but so many booked it didn't matter. The audience was what one would expect:  audience 90% female and largely retired. I'd recommend attend a weekday author visit to anyone approaching 50; Its a great way to feel young again.

"I'd recommend attend a weekday author visit to anyone approaching 50; Its a great way to feel young again."

Mel Kate Atkinson BoltonAfter a short intro from librarian Mel Graaf, which raised a laugh, it was over to Alison Barrow from Transworld who interviewed Kate Atkinson on her new book "Transcription" about espionage in the phoney war period at World War Two. "Sounds good doesn't it?" Said Kate in a happy voice which set the tone for what came after.

The author read a selection from the book. It was a Good audience, smiling and laughing at asides, such as observing that the lead character "is a pathological liar".

Then the questions came. Did Kate want to write a war story? No.

"I didn't want to write a war story but because I wanted to write this story, I had to. They don't know there's six years ahead of attrition. People are paranoid at the time which fits in well as the book is about paranoia and suspicion. MI5 are concentrating on mopping up the fifth column of Fascists, whose membership ran a very large gamut from the working class to the aristocracy.

She then apologised (no need) saying she’d be doing  local radio all morning and so if she repeated herself to let her know.

Kate used the National Archives to research story. It turns out that MI5 make periodical releases to NA when they're no longer sensitive and, seventy years after the events, they've recently released who one of the key characters in the book - Jack King = actually was, including transcriptions of his conversations. He infiltrated  fascist circles and was known socially to them. It's amazing to think that a bank clerk working for secret agency infiltrating fascists. Someone who looks so normal but whose work led to a whole web of people being revealed.

"It's amazing to think that a bank clerk working for secret agency infiltrating fascists. Someone who looks so normal but whose work led to a whole web of people being revealed."

There was some fun for a minute as the microphones were swapped due to a few people not being able to hear and the comment that "Kate is a writer, not a sound technician".

So, how much was made up? The plot and the characters are fictional but the background facts are facts. “ I then forget what I've made up: I can't remember what is real and what is not, which is quite appropriate"

There’s a lot about identity and deception in the book. You never find out with some people who they are. It's a book about ambivalence but not enough that readers throw down the book in disgust.

“If I knew everything that was going to happen I’d be bored” say Kate. “One things come out of another, always. I'm the early days I though one had to plan novels but the second I start typing it changes completely. It's only then that I understand what I'm writing. I like to have structure, a clear skeleton then you put the flesh on. I can't write without a title. I need to know that, how it begins and how it ends. And almost without fail I do get where I want to go at the end of writing.”

"If I knew everything that was going to happen I’d be bored”

I don't have the fear of a blank page because if you have the title then you don't have a blank page. The title bears little relation to the actual story but my thoughts unconsciously congregate around the title. I want to write a book with that title and when I finish it, I realise why I called it that.

For example, the book “Started Early Took My Dog”. Well, that means, the protagonist had to have a dog and an unlikely liking for Emily Dickinson, where the quote comes from originally. Therefore the book almost starts to write itself. On the subject of canines “Every book has a dog in it but I don't actually have a dog, of which more later.” One audience got very excited about what dog Kate should get. “A dog would be very important to dog owners and so should appear more in stories.

Characters in Transcription are quite isolated. This is deliberate. In the war, people left family, especially young women. Not isolated ... But liberated. Starting anew. Most of them had a whale of a time socially. Start of a huge shift of attitude about women.

"She sometimes catches herself thinking “What Would Gloria Think Of That?”

Individual characters are a big thing with Kate. Is she had to pick a favourite, then it'd be Teddy from Life after Life. Or Gloria in A God In Ruins. Or all of the dogs, especially Lilly in this current book. She went on to say that some characters just stayed with her. She sometimes catches herself thinking “What Would Gloria Think Of That?”.

She used to be offended when everyone thought Museum was autobiographical. “No, I'm a writer. But now I think that all of it came from my head so it must all be me, one way or another. Especially if you live inside a head of the character, you can see the similarity. But I'm not putting across a message or as a sounding board for my own opinions. “

“I think I would make an excellent spy. But in reality I'm not very good at keeping secrets. If I had my time again, I'd do something secret, Mi5 or GCHQ ... And be in charge of things. “

"I think I would make an excellent spy. But in reality I'm not very good at keeping secrets"

When would you travel back in time was asked. To the war as it was a time of heightened living,  was the answer. But only with a guarantee that I would come back. Imagine going back to Shakespeare’s time? No, there'd be no tea or good lighting or laundry.

kate questionAfter 50 minutes, the audience were given the opportunity to ask questions. And of course one of the first was about how Kate writes. She writes mostly chronologically. She reads the beginning every day as that makes her remember why she’s writing that book.

Some book ideas last forever with no book actually happening. She’s  been planning a book on the Antarctic for years and years. Kate is (a very young looking) 66 and frets some of her ideas will never get around to being written. Maybe if she lives to 150 and then get it all done.

“If I gather enough thoughts then I write it. The next two books I'm planning are relatively recent ideas. One is an exhibition I saw, one is an idea that just came to e. I've been putting together a book of short stories forever. Writing the book you want to write is the gift you give yourself.”

"Characters are often described as breeds of dogs in Kate’s books. What dog are you was the cheeky questions:  “I'd like to be a dog I'm planning to get - a border collie"

Characters are often described as breeds of dogs in Kate’s books. What dog are you was the cheeky question?  “I'd like to be a dog I'm planning to get - a border collie. Because they're more intelligent than me, or my best bet in that direction.”

Did you always want to write? “No. I was a reader. I was an only child so started reading at three. Did a degree and doctorate at English, and then failed at it. I was bereft. I treated academic writing as a creative thing. Then I started writing creatively almost immediately. I got rid of all the biographical crud in shoot stories. First story I ever wrote won a women's magazine award, which gave me permission to do more. Studying gave me the time to read so much. A winding reading base is the basis of writing.”

kate Atkinson queueWhat are your favourite writers? She was most influenced by her reading when she was a child. Real classics like Lewis Carroll and Nesbit. There was not this vast library of children's books then like there are now.

And now for I think what may be news to many. Her next one will be a Jackson Brodie one. Not sure she should have said that by the look of her publicist.

And, then, all too soon, it was time for book signing. 35 books were sold at £20 per time. Not too shabby. Kate showed tremendous patience signing so many books, laughing and thanking everyone.

28 tales for 28 days

Posted Tuesday 4 September 2018 by Ian Anstice in Latest Libraries News

Refugee Tales and Comma Press are launching ’28 Tales for 28 Days’ (#28for28 ) on 11 September.

Rooted in the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group,  and supported by the University of Kent, Refugee Tales shares the tales of those who have been indefinitely detained in immigration detention. The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely for administrative purposes without judicial oversight. To highlight the call for a 28 day time limit for immigration detention, Refugee Tales is releasing 28 tales online – one each day over 28 days on the website

Events for the book which have taken place across Manchester and the North West at various festivals and have always been well supported, and a number of the tales recorded for this project were recorded in Manchester with local actors such as Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh.

Tales are collaborations between people who have experienced detention, or people who have worked with those detained, by writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Ali Smith, Neel Mukherjee, Jackie Kay, Marina Warner, Inua Ellams and Patrick Gale. They are read on film by actors such as Christopher Eccleston, Niamh Cusack, Zoe Wanamaker, Jeremy Irons and Maxine Peake making a call for an end to indefinite detention to a new audience. Crucially, at the end of 28 Tales for 28 Days, a tale will be read in Westminster taking the tales to parliamentarians who have the power to bring about legislative change and end the injustice of immigration detention.

North West Libraries

Librarians in the North West have pioneered partnership working to encourage new readers into libraries. Time To Read is a partnership of librarians engaged in reader development activity in public library authorities in the North West Region. 22 public library authorities in the region currently support Time To Read.

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