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Sunday, 10 August 2014

Hungary dumps democracy

Richard Wilcocks writes:
George Szirtes
I've just been looking up George Szirtes again, the poet with Hungarian origins (he got out of Budapest in 1956) who was at the Headingley LitFest in March 2013. He is very concerned (obviously?) with Hungary's departure from democracy towards a kind of fascism, ruled by the political party Fidesz - and I remember when he was at our house before the reading, telling us at length about the strong anti-semitic currents which are now flowing (officially encouraged and promoted) back in Budapest. Pretty worrying, but you don't read much about it in the press here. You can read his blog at

Monday, 4 August 2014

From college to hospital at Beckett Park

The efficient James F Dobson
On this day exactly one hundred years ago, James Faulkner Dobson, surgeon at the Leeds General Infirmary and Lieutenant-Colonel in the RAMC (T) (Royal Army Medical Corps, Territorial), swung into dynamic action. He had realised back in 1912 that existing plans to base a wartime hospital in the city centre would be pathetically inadequate and unworkable, and had his eyes on the brand new buildings for the City of Leeds Training College up at Beckett Park in Headingley.

He was efficiency itself: he had made detailed plans to equip the college in case of mobilisation. Now, his orders came through, to coincide with the declaration of war on Germany and the Central Powers. Beds appeared in the Great Hall and the library within a week, barbed wire fencing was put up in the Acre and flat roofs were designated as open-air wards. A week after that, six hundred beds were available with ninety-two nurses prepared to take duty.

The declaration of war had come as a shock and surprise to many, even after years of forebodings. Who would have thought that a teenage Gavrilo Princip with a group of amateurish Bosnian suicide bombers (they carried cyanide capsules) could have triggered off so much by killing an archduke and his wife in the faraway Balkans? The feelings of surprise did not last long at Beckett Park...

STORIES FROM THE WAR HOSPITAL, written and compiled by Richard Wilcocks, was launched at a Headingley LitFest event with a play based on some of its contents on 21 March. Get your copy by contacting

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ralph Thoresby School Poetry Slam

Sally Andrews writes:

Thursday 8 May saw the culmination of the work in poetry workshops led by Michelle Scally Clarke at an evening poetry ‘slam’ for the newly-formed poetry group called 'Own Your Words'.  City of Leeds young poets were also invited to share in a second opportunity to perform, a really good development in our on-going poetry support work now with nine local schools.

Supported by funding from Arts@Leeds and Wade’s Charity, this new partnership has generated a lot of interest.  As Ralph Thoresby’s headteacher Will Carr commented: “..our newly formed poetry group gave a stunning performance as part of Headingley Litfest. Some extraordinarily mature poetry from a relatively young group of students.”

Support came from Sai Murray, performance poet/coach as well as Brendan Duffy on the saxophone and Junior Willocks on keyboards.  Young people, some initially shy, were encouraged to go up on stage with poetry they had written about their own lives, feelings, experiences.  Many adults would be terrified at that!

Pupils’ comments, both on stage and in the audience, include:

 "The event really improved my confidence and made feel talented." 

 "It was great fun performing and even better getting to watch the others perform." 

“Fantastic! Really good and very proud of my friends!!!!! AMAZING!!!”

.. and a parent was keen to let us know that it was
“Very enjoyable, so impressed with the talent and enthusiasm of the staff and pupils of Ralph Thoresby and City of Leeds school. Brilliant.”  

Michelle firmly believes, as does LitFest, that:
“Spoken word has a great impact with the students - it is a great way to begin creative writing and free writing; it allows you to speak to the page, it allows your voice to be owned and heard, it allows for writing and literature and language to be enjoyed first then learnt. It allows for praise and for people to see the truth of you. These pupils humble and inspire me with their stories, poems and songs and I have no doubt that all will continue to perform, write and grow.”

Perhaps the final comment on the work should go to Tom Stubbs, the organising teacher at Ralph Thoresby:  “For me, I would just like to say that this whole event has helped some of the most cripplingly-shy students realise that they have a voice and that people want to listen to them.  It has opened other members of staff's eyes to new approaches to the teaching of writing and I would love to be involved in some form again in the future.”

We hope so too.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Poppies Red or White?

Poppies Red or White? - partnership event with Headingley Festival of Ideas
7pm Headingley Library Tuesday 6 May

Síle Moriarty writes:
 Poppies, red and white, have become potent symbols and in this event (chaired by Richard Wilcocks) they provoked a wide ranging discussion on the themes of war and pacifism:
·       Is war valid?
·       Is war inevitable?
·       What is pacifism?
·       Is being a pacifist the same as being anti war?
·       What significance does pacifism have in the current world and domestic political climate?
·       What can we do?

Sylvia Boyes, Richard Wilcocks (Chair), Ingrid Sharp
Sylvia Boyes started the evening by exploring the origins and meanings of red and white poppies and she freely and frankly shared her own pacifist convictions with us. She explained how red poppies were originally sold by women in Northern France as a means of raising money and how their use gradually spread. Today they are still used as a fundraising device for ex-servicemen and their families (this later provoked a discussion on how poorly this country has always looked after its ex-servicemen and women) but in her view they are now being increasingly surrounded by militarism and because of that she feels she can no longer wear both a red and white poppy as she once did.

She explained how the Co-operative Women's Guild made and sold white poppies in 1933 before its wider adoption and promulgation by the Peace Pledge Union. The white poppy is a symbol of peace and the search for an alternative to war and was never intended as an insult to those who died in the First World War - a war in which many of the white poppy supporters lost husbands, brothers, sons and lovers - but as a challenge to the continuing drive to war.

Movingly, Sylvia said she would willingly remember the soldiers at the cenotaph but without the military paraphernalia.

Ingrid Sharp explored the anti war movement in Germany, both before and during WW1, revealing how a robust movement pre-war (comprised of groups such as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP), German Women’s groups and other Christian and pacifist groups), changed once the war, which was presented as necessary to defend the German way of life, started. This was because of determined censorship and because, once war was declared, people and political parties (the SDP was one of them) then focussed on supporting the war effort. However some anti war efforts did continue, often via international connections (e.g. the International Congress of Women at The Hague in 1915) but its voice remained small. There was also no provision for conscientious objectors although there was some unofficial tolerance of those who wanted to undertake non-combatant roles.  It was interesting to hear the German perspective and this was re-enforced during the discussion by a German member of the audience who explained how in Germany remembrance (which mainly concerns WW2 and the holocaust) is focussed on peace.

In the ensuing discussion opinions ranged from those who said that ‘sometimes you have to fight for something’ to those who saw pacifism as the only rational way forward. The discussion was passionate, respectful and wide ranging and it was a privilege to take part. The audience comments below speak for themselves.

Audience comments
1.     Ingrid and Sylvia were good speakers. Well chaired by Richard. Nice informal group.

2.     Both speakers gave very interesting presentations. The first speaker concentrated with personal fervor on her campaign for the selling of white poppies, arising partly from her Quaker convictions. Ingrid sharp from Leeds Univ. gave a detailed account of WW1 as it was seen in Germany, where ideas of ‘pacifist resistance’ were taboo. The short lectures then promoted an intense discussion among members of the audience, many of whom had deep personal views on WWI and war in general. An excellent start to the new Festival of Ideas (and fine closing event for the very successful 2014 LitFest).

3.     Good idea as a topic for discussion. Ingrid Sharp’s presentation was superb, do bring her back to talk on other topics. Some people (a few) seemed to dominate the discussion.

4.     A very interesting debate and positive start to the Festival of Ideas. 

5.     Just to say that I thought that this was a really good discussion. Also I hope that Headingley Festival of Ideas will become a regular event. One issue that could be considered is whether the time is right for a big push to eliminate nuclear weapons, which can never serve any useful purpose.

6.     Interesting and lively debate.

7.     Interesting information on something I’d never come across i.e. white poppies. Great to have that opportunity.

8.     War is not inevitable. There are alternative ways of solving problems. Do what you can, where you are, with what you have got.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Secret Life of Gavrilo Princip - with Aritha Van Herk

Aritha van Herk - partnership with Yorkshire Network for Canadian Studies
7pm Headingley Library Monday 7 April

Aritha van Herk is an acclaimed, award-winning writer of several genres who came to the friendly environment of Headingley Library in our first partnership with the Yorkshire Network for Canadian Studies and our final event in a month-long programme – and what a very good way to end.

Audience comments:

Wonderful – very hospitable at the library and loved the talk.

Aritha was an engaging speaker, at times quite dramatic – especially in the section of the reading describing the assassination of FF and Sophie.  Excellent Q/A session.

Aritha van Herk with Catherine Bates
I absolutely loved getting the opportunity to hear Aritha speak.  I studied ‘No Fixed Address’ as an undergraduate and never expected I’d have the chance to hear a Canadian author here.  Thank you.

Thanks for the Canadian link, good writing.

Interesting, informative and enjoyable reading and talk.  More please.

Entertaining and informative, would have liked to find out more generally about her interests and approaches and not just the issues arising from her current work; thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating nevertheless.

A very interesting event with a wider range of topics covered than I had expected!

FANTASTIC.  Thank you.  A fascinating alternative insight into such a well known part of history.

It was a really warm and friendly event, with an inspiring presenter and friendly staff.  Good evening and duration. Happy to attend more events!

Very enjoyable experience, good talk/reading with stimulating discussion.  To maintain audience focus, perhaps readings could be broken into sections with responses.  Or a break half way.

Brilliant: enjoyed both the reading and the discussion.  I was impressed with the wide-ranging knowledge of the author/speaker, detailed fluidity and her dramatic voice.

The author’s reading was intellectually stimulating, a treat.

She was a interesting speaker.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Dismembered body found in wheelie bin - just in time for scarecrow meet

Literary Scarecrow Festival - partnership event with Far Headingley Village Society
2pm End-of-trail meet, near St Chad's Sunday 6 April

Richard Wilcocks writes: 
Tooth Fairy
Reconstituted Mr McGregor with cardboard Peter
The dismembered body of Mr McGregor was found in a wheelie bin near houses opposite the Headingley Arndale Centre last week. He had been stolen from the community garden, along with Peter Rabbit, a week ago, on a Sunday morning after 8.30am. 

Very hungry larva

Who would do such a thing? Could somebody staggering home from an all-night party have been motivated by a grudge against Beatrix Potter? Whatever... Peter, who may never be found now that the bins have been collected, had to be replaced by a cut-out, and a hastily reconstituted McGregor was set up instead of his more sophisticated original. The spectators on the muddy patch of grass opposite The Three Horseshoes didn't mind, and one of them, aged about five at a guess, was more concerned that I took a photo of The Tooth Fairy, a literary figure of some importance to him, followed by the Hungry Caterpillar. 

John Milton stood, pallid and austere, for adult tastes, along with The Invisible Man, but children's classics were at the forefront: The Mad Hatter's Tea Party looked disturbingly familiar (a mad all-nighter of the distant past?) and the Tin Man's face seemed to indicate that he would rather have been invisible. 


Add caption
Warning, the famous poem by Jenny Joseph, was represented by a superb female scarecrow wearing purple and a red hat which didn't go. She had obviously just taken a nip or two of brandy, and was viewing the proceedings with quiet, slightly bemused satisfaction. I'm sure I've seen her in the audience at one or two recent LitFest events,

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Vivid, gruesome and compelling

Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage - Ivan Cooper
7pm Friday 4 April - Headingley Library

Sally Bavage writes:

Ivan Cooper
Heinrich Harrer’s seminal book Seven Years in Tibet was an exotic influence on the young Ivan.  Heinrich was an Austrian mountaineer and climber who found himself interned in British India at the outbreak of WW2 and spent years as a prisoner.  Finally escaping to Tibet, he then remained there for seven years; a tale both of derring-do and extraordinary social, political and cultural observations.

An inspired Ivan spent two decades living and working in Asia, principally Taiwan and Korea, with spells in China and, of course, Tibet.  A forbidden city, smiling monks, Buddhism, a rich and ancient culture – the differences and the attractions were many.  He learnt to speak Tibetan and travelled widely, sometimes with a sword-wearing guide. Had he ever used it? “Only when a man insulted my mother,” showing him the nick on the blade.  He shared a tongue but was separated by culture. 

Ivan reads us excerpts from his vivid account of his Tibetan times, covering a range of aspects of life in a landscape that is both beautiful and squalid, a culture that is primitive and spiritual, life which is simple and philosophical, a society which is hospitable and brutal. 

His own journey is both physical and spiritual: he studied Buddhism from an agnostic perspective in order to better understand a guiding force that gives meaning to many of Tibet’s people, especially those in a rural environment that has more of the medieval than the modern about it.  Imagine a village without electricity, water, telephone, public services such as sewage or toilets, police, town planning.  Put in wooden huts arranged haphazardly round the inevitable monastery,  surround them by garbage heaps and pariah dogs.  You have something approaching the shanty town in which he stayed.  Happily.
Prayer flags and prayer wheels, ice-skating, snowballing monks clutching mobile phones, deities and disasters, temple gods and Mao Tse Tung -  this book has them all.  A description of a ‘sky burial’ is riveting, at once vivid, gruesome, compelling and yet somehow natural.  Yes, it has disembowelling and vultures, an aerial tug of war over a length of intestine, a mortuary platform and grim tools – cleavers, razor-toothed saw and stone bone-crushing mallets included – but a clean ending.  We are all just flesh, skin and bone, and eventually all gone, leaving just faded photographs and memories.

Ivan neither rejects his western heritage nor denies the attractions of a more centralised eastern philosophy.  He can translate the word ‘democracy’ but the meaning does not cross the political divide. Like the travel writer Colin Thubron in To a Mountain in Tibet, he recognises the contributions each make to our understanding of freedom and society.

Ivan returned after his sojourn in the wilder spaces of our world, and his imagination,  with a wife and young baby.  His distraction with the new demands on him cushioned him from too much introspection about an extraordinary journey and gave him some time to chronicle his adventures in a book that proves he is a master of the genre of travel writing.  Do read it.

Audience Comments

1.     I am so glad I came to this event which was informative and very well presented. To have the opportunity of meeting and listening to someone who has had such an interesting life and has plainly retained the courage of his convictions is a privilege. Thank you Leeds. 

2.     I am not a fan of travel writing. However I thought that the talk was well structured, the slideshow was linked in well and the Q&Q session was very informative. Good venue too.  

3.     An excellent presentation. Fascinating readings, a real window onto life in remotest parts of Tibet. Well read by Ivan – great choice of photos and very generous Q&A session.

4.     I enjoyed the talk. Anecdotes interesting. Talk came to life with slideshow at the end. Question and answer session very good. Only then did I get a sense of his journey.

5.     I had heard Ivan speak at Café Philosophique last year and bought his book after reading the flyer there. I came this evening to hear more about his travels, and enjoyed hearing him read from the book, and seeing many more illustrations through slides. A fascinating story.

6.     I find the readings entertaining and enlightening and found the discussion afterwards thought provoking.  

7.     As a Tai Chi teacher and a practitioner of meditation it is very interesting and inspiring to listen to all the wonderful atmospheric descriptions and details of this amazing culture. I loved looking at all the characterful faces and the striking colours of the artwork, architecture, clothes, landscape and of course the Tibetan flags!

8.     An excellent event – Ivan was a very engaging and clear. A full house – obviously well advertised and organised.  

9.     Fascinating insights into a way of life that is still substantially unknown. Interesting personal observations and the ambiguities his experiences evoked. Thank you.

10.  A good presentation from an original ‘source’ presenting a thoughtful view of an occupied country.

11.  Interesting readings with vivid descriptions. He read with a good clear voice. The pictures shown on screen illustrated the book excerpts he read alongside some of them. The question session was good. He answered them in detail. Nice touches of humour. His passion for the subject shone through.  

12.  Very interesting talk and slideshow. The Q&A session was very enlightening and was probably the best part of the evening. 

13.  Very interesting insight onto Ivan’s travels and his experience of Tibet. Looking forward to reading the book and very competently delivered by the author.

14.  It was a really interesting talk, very enjoyable. The Q&A session went on too long for me and I was getting restless. The photos were amazing. Thank you very much.  

15.  A fascinating insight into a troubled country. The speaker was fluent – his writing style is vivid and lively. Question time was dealt with fully. Some tricky questions received wise answers. A good evening – food for thought.  

16.  I enjoyed the reading. This was the only event I was able to get to this year. (I just move here this year). Next year I will most definitely make an effort to go to more. I have heard so many good things. 

17.  Very interesting from start to finish. The sky burial description very vivid and thought provoking. I will enjoy the book.