Reflections on the first Featherstone Festival of Words.
Thank you to Ian Clayton (above, leading the Festival writer’s workshop) for these reflections on the Featherstone Festival of Words. Visit Ian’s website HERE
First things first. I have longed to have a literature festival in Featherstone. I have longed for it ever since Miss Price, a student teacher at George Street junior Mixed, marched us all up Station Lane in 1967 to visit the library. “Our” library. The one that smelled like a library, of must and wax polished parquet wooden floor blocks. The library where stern librarians instructed you to show your hands, then wash them, before you touched any of “their” books. Of course I didn’t know then that there was such a thing as a literature festival, but I did know because I fell in love with that library at first sniff, that I wanted words.
Fast forward then to the Featherstone Festival of Words 2015. I walked into the library on the Saturday morning and the first person I see is an old junior school friend, who had been on that same library trip with me all those years before. She said “I know I’m early, but I’m eager to see what’s going on!” Then the second thing I see is Rebecca Jenkins pinning sheets of words to a wall. These words were written by students at my old junior school and every other junior school in Featherstone. “Look at this one” she said, “It’s very beautiful.” And of course, it was and it was written by a kid from Featherstone, given an opportunity to share words.
Featherstone Festival of Words was well named. When you strip back the whole reason for having literature festivals in the first place, it all comes back to words. Words that mean something to those who use them, those who listen to them, and those that like to share them. Words that become stories, or plays or songs, words that change attitudes, words that suddenly allow a penny to drop in the minds of those that we vote for to represent us. And words that start friendships, collaborations and turn people on to want to read more .Thirty some years ago, at a one off storytelling and poetry event at Featherstone Library, funded by the arts council, I went to see two Americans and one Australian who had been described on the blurbs as “performance artists.” I have to say that the two American’s were not up to much, they gave a half hearted show of their work and seemed lost, like fish out of water when they munched on potted meat sandwiches that the library staff had cut in to triangles at the after event supper. The Aussie though was a different kettle of fish. I came to know him later as “Thom the World Poet” and he gave a rousing performance of his own work and then an impromptu workshop, where he encouraged some young people who had probably been coerced into coming to make the numbers up. One thing sticks out in my mind over these years since that night. He said to one young lass, who was shyly trying to say a poem that she had written. “Be loud, be proud, say these words out loud, because they belong to you and nobody has found a way of taxing them yet!” Thom ended up staying in the back bedroom at my house that night. The following day I took him for a walk around my home town. I showed him the spot where in 1893 some soldiers had come to shoot at striking coal miners. I took him up the allotments and I we watched old men training racing pigeons and then we went to sit in the stands at Post Office Road stadium and I told him about the heroes of our local Rugby League team. He said “This is exactly the place where a literature festival should take place. This is where we will find the new words, a different language.” He told me that every year he was invited to Cheltenham, but that over time he had become bored with it, because people parroted the same old words. “My ears need to hear something different,” he said. He wasn’t kidding.
I think this happened in the middle of the 1980’s. It’s taken a long time then for a literature festival that finds different words, to come, but it was worth it. I think the real beauty of what happened in Featherstone was in the unexpected. I didn’t expect May Nock to come and give a demonstration of how to translate words into Braille and I certainly didn’t expect to see Peter Harris, the stalwart of the local printing firm to come and talk on the history of printing from Caxton to the internet. Neither was I prepared for the astonishing quality of the writing that came out of the two workshops I ran. You never really know what people attending creative writing workshops will come out with. At the event at the library on the Saturday, I sat and listened to words put together in a way that I had never heard in my home town and the stories that I heard were as fresh as new laid eggs. I shouldn’t be surprised by what can happen when a cheap borrowed biro is applied to paper from a copying machine on a stacking table, but I was that day.
“My Aunt was gay, in every sense of the word, announced Christine, then she paused, for dramatic effect.
“Carry on.” I said
“Well she was a lesbian, but better than that, she was also a spy, a lesbian spy. When she died, I never saw so many women at another woman’s funeral.” She carried on reading about this aunt of hers, who she described as a dislikeable woman who people couldn’t help but like. She then said “I’ve been wanting to write something for ages, but I’m not really sure where to start.”
I recalled something that the great African writer, Chenjerai Hove, had once said to me when we collaborated on a project, He said “I think you are like me Ian, you believe that the good story can start anywhere.”
I said to Christine “The good story starts anywhere and your book has started right here today in a room at the back of Featherstone library.”
Catherine was sitting next to Christine. She told a story about her father. She said “He never really talked about something that happened at the pit, that we had all heard about, but didn’t know the details of.” She went on to tell of how her dad had been one of the rescue ream following a disaster at Ackton Hall Colliery. She went on, “Dad decided to tell me one day. Three men somehow managed to survive by keeping their heads above the slurry that had burst into a shaft, but one man died after trapping his legs under a table in a pit bottom office. My dad cried when he told me this and it was only when he put his hand up to his face to wipe a tear, that I saw the blue flecks of embedded coal dust and scars and hard work on his hand that told me what a proud Featherstone coal miner he had been.”
Mark wrote about his mother who had fled the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland to settle here and find work as a dinner lady. She had a mantra” he said “She believed that humanity and “all you need is love” pulls you through.”
Dawn wrote about her Grandmother who had patched and sewn the ripped and torn jerseys of Featherstone rugby players. “Somebody had to do it” she said “they couldn’t afford new shirts every time, so the job of mending fell to my Gran.”
And on it went, stories that were half formed inside on the way to a lit fest, finding an airing, gushing forth as a stream of consciousness, words like water, words that told you stories that made you cringe, laugh, study and learn, words that took your breath.
It was the same earlier in the week when I did a session up at the Featherstone Academy. A school, that it’s fair to say, sometimes struggles to get the kids there to believe in themselves. One young student wrote “My street is like a man waiting for the sun to come out after the rain.” She put up her hand and said “Can you look at this?” I did look. She said “Is it alright to write that?” I said “Yes it is, and what’s more you might just be the first person in the whole world who has written those words about Huntwick Crescent.” She smiled like a slice of watermelon.
I asked some people who had taken part in the festival to give me an impression. Peter Harris, the printer said “Printing transformed society in 1450, in the same way that the internet has done in the last ten years. In the old days, words were the preserve of the educated well off. Yet words belong to us all and the way we use words encourages aspiration. Days like these, enable me to play a part in introducing people from an area less used to aspiration than perhaps some better off town’s, to ways with words. When I was young, I could read three books a week, I know that today there are some people who have hardly read a book. Their language is impoverished by that, so we need to find new and innovative ways to introduce people to words and reading. When you have a festival like this in your own neighbourhood you can make a start on that.” As an explanation of why you would hold a literature festival in a town not known for that sort of thing, it was the most elegant and well articulated I have heard.
Margaret, who works in the library spent part of her Saturday showing young people how to make a peg rug. She said “In the old days, a lot of conversation and story telling went on when families sat down to make things like rugs. Today has brought back memories that become stories, the atmosphere has been wonderful. Normally on a Saturday we get borrowers and computer browsers. Today we have been sharing stories.”
The caretakers who took great care in helping to make sure that the library was a good place to be on Saturday opened the door to let me out at as the evening events were coming to a close. I turned as they closed the door behind me. “What do you reckon?” One said “What to today?” Before I could say anything else, they both said in harmony. “Good do!” And it was a good do.
I don’t suppose it’s fair to single out people to thank, but Featherstone Festival of Words couldn’t have happened without the hard work and dedication of the women who work for Wakefield Lit Fest. They and in particular, Suzie, Rebecca and Fran, deserve a medal as big as a dustbin lid. We should also thank the members of the Town council who got involved and to bring it all back home to the library we need to thank the staff there. Things do change, all of the librarians on Saturday were full of smiles and nobody once asked me to wash my hands before I touched any books.