Charles Eager reviews 34 Years of Peepal Tree Press, Anna Beer: Patriot or Traitor – The Life and Death of Sir Walter Raleigh, and Nunkie Theatre: A Pleasing Terror- Two Stories by M R James.
I have always been somewhat sceptical of Literature Festivals, given my conviction that almost all literary figures worth seeing are already dead. However, just in its first year and across only four events, Leeds Literature Festival has allayed my fears and dispelled my scepticism: I had a great time at these events and am already looking forward to next year.
34 Years of Peepal Tree Press (Maurice Keyworth Building, University of Leeds, Thursday 7 March 2019)
Based in Hyde Park, Peepal Tree Press have been working in LS6 for the last 34 years, publishing mainly Caribbean writing. This event featured ten-minute readings by seven of its poets and was indeed compered by two more very fine poets, Malika Booker and Kadijah Ibrahiim (feature photograph) who, in addition to being fine poets, are also engaging and amusing speakers, with great chemistry. Much of the poetry was political, though with some moving and amusing personal moments. I also learned about the alternative to clapping, which is clicking—an unobtrusive way of demonstrating approbation for a particular line or remark.
The evening started with poet Degna Stone reading from her newly published pamphlet, ‘Handling Stolen Goods’, a signed copy of which I am now a proud owner. Her poetry stood out in the evening as particularly sensitive to her words’ sonorities.
Next was Nick Mahoka, featuring his ‘King of Myth’ project. Like many poets during the evening, conscience was a central part of his writing. To my ear, the poems sounded a little indistinct from prose.
Next was a Leeds-born poet of Sri Lankan parentage, Seni Seneviratne, who expressed her feeling that ‘Peepal is about people [the pun became evident here; I had been pronouncing it to rhyme with “Paypal”] sharing stories and experiences about making a life here’. She shared from a work in progress about her father’s role in (presumably) World War II, with poems (effectively dramatic monologues) written intriguingly from the perspective of herself, her father, a photographer, and even that of barbed wire.
The fourth poet was Roger Robinson, who was instantly engaging as a warm, funny speaker (the opposite is so often the risk, and the case, in poetry readings), but then moved the audience with a number of poems about his child, who had recently been born prematurely. The reading caused Robinson to begin to weep at one point. He ended, however, with a raucous poem of protest against the Home Office, essentially accusing it of conspiracy, and this won many clicks.
Next was Desirée Reynolds, who read from a short story which was quite like a poem in its compression and intensity—at least in parts. The first part, an amusing catalogue of the many irrelevancies (the right pen, notebook, house, etc.) with which an aspiring writer busies him or herself instead of simply writing, is much stronger than the second part about some personal experiences.
Second to last was the globetrotting poetry of Jacqueline Bishop, who seems to have lived in most major cities, and who sports what I think was an east-coast accent (I have no ear for these things). She read a series of Odes to Brixton life and its market.
To round off the evening was Anthony Joseph, a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, who read from his work-in-progress, a metafictional, surreal, and experimental novel. It was strange, a tad repetitious, and at times hard to follow, but stimulating, inventive, and entertaining overall.
You can listen to the Chapel FM broadcast here.
Anna Beer: Patriot or Traitor – The Life and Death of Sir Walter Raleigh (The Leeds Library, Sunday 10 March)
A curiosity at the start of this event was the compere’s introduction, which stated that, even though Anna Beer lives and works in Oxford, she ‘randomly’ supports Leeds United. Accordingly, the first slide (after an introductory picture of Raleigh, subscribed by the line, ‘Only we die in earnest, that’s no jest’) is of her at Elland Road. This was cute, although there were several moments of personal photographs which did slightly detract from her already limited time allowance talking about Raleigh (although it was great—and even slightly inspiring—to see a photo of a page from her first novel, written at school).
To Beer, Raleigh was a man always thinking of words and maps. I tend to think of Raleigh principally as a poet, but he was of course also a military man, explorer, and eminent courtier. He began life as ‘a nobody’, according to Beer, and worked his way up to being a favourite of Elizabeth I, although this became a strained relationship—though not half so much as his relationship with James I and VI, who eventually had Raleigh executed, as an old man (and so no longer dangerous, according to Beer), and for obscure reasons. Her account of this important political moment seemed a tad flippant, but I appreciate the struggle of condensing a biography of an exceptionally rich life into a thirty-five- or forty-minute presentation.
The real strength of the talk was the rich collection of images—particularly Hilliard’s 1585 portrait of the young Raleigh and Beer’s discussion of its symbolic significances—and her reading of passages from his eccentric and wonderful poetry—at once conventionally Elizabethan and wonderfully, distinctly Raleighan. Beer’s tendency to moralise and preach—for example, her condemnation of Spenser’s opinion on the problem of political turmoil in Ireland, using this to exonerate Raleigh for his somewhat firm approach to military action there in his early career—was a wearisome distraction from the real topic, but the talk was engaging throughout.
Nunkie Theatre: A Pleasing Terror – Two Stories by M. R. James (The Leeds Library, Sunday 10 March 2019)
This final event of the festival brought it to a fine close. I had been looking forward to this since, although not familiar with M. R. James myself, I know that a deeply learned colleague appreciates his works in those times, when, lifting his attention from the medieval manuscripts with which he usually busies himself, he wants some lighter reading for relief. Perhaps an even greater recommendation than this, however, came in knowing that M. R. James’ stories had a considerable influence on Paul Thomas Anderson’s wonderful film of last year, Phantom Thread. I was eagerly expectant, then, for the dramatic narration of these two stories, which blended the niceties (and sometimes absurdities) of the Oxbridge scholarly life – at least as it was back in the day – and the at times genuinely chilling accounts of certain ghostly happenings. (These I shan’t give away, however.)
Anyone who has been to an event at The Leeds Library will know that it makes for quite a small, intimate theatre—a setting which was ideal for this one-man presentation of these two M. R. James stories. I was sitting in good company (with an esteemed critic from Culture Vulture and his associates on my right, and an academic from Leeds’ English department on my left) when the lights went abruptly off as actor-narrator, Robert Lloyd Parry—who looked rather uncannily similar to James (he even appeared as him in the 2014 BBC 2 documentary ‘Ghost Writer’)—walked down the aisle and took his seat at the front of the room, lighting the four or five candles which would be the only stage lighting for the evening. There was no raised platform for a stage; just a chair, candles, and a table with a little bit of brandy, which Parry poured and then drank, as he held our attention for half an hour or so with a story both charming and chilling.
A particularly nice bit of stagecraft consisted in Parry’s use of the candles. For example, when the tension of the story ratcheted up and humour gave way to horror, he gasped and jumped up from his chair, blowing out a candle as he did so, leaving us in almost complete darkness. Another great moment came later in the show, when he held a candle beneath his face whilst imitating the act of reading, thereby illuminating only his reactions to the chilling realisations drawn from the book and throwing our focus solely onto this. Parry finished the first story and, without giving any indication that this was the end, walked down the aisle (we weren’t sure if this was part of the story or not), climbed up the small staircase behind us, disappeared, and the bright flood of electric light came on, whereon a flood of applause followed.
The second story consisted of much the same dramatic and theatrical devices and could have had more variety, but I and the rest of the audience very much enjoyed M. R. James’ Oxford-bashing (par for the course, as a Cambridge man) and the content of the story.
The evening was sprinkled with witty asides, and I left the Library that night somewhat desirous of reading all of James’ stories, rather than the things I am supposed to be reading for work. I am sure I was not alone in this feeling.
Robert Lloyd Parry and Nunkie Theatre are doing wonderful things. They seem mostly to operate around Cambridge, and I’d recommend that anyone who happens to be over that way seeks out one of their many shows, all of which look great.
All photographs by Fiona Gell, Big Bookend.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.