Feature: Opening the book on Leeds’s literary rock festival

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The spotlight is well and truly on new talent in this year’s Leeds Big Bookend Festival, writes Neil Hudson

Remarkable and seldom recounted tales from the history of Leeds will form part of the retinue for this year’s Big Bookend Festival in Leeds.

The literary showcase - dubbed ‘a rock festival for words’ - is now in its fourth year, having begun in 2012 after a meeting of minds highlighted the need to promote local writing talent.

In the past, the festival has attracted the likes of Alan Bennett and Leeds-born author Tony Harrison, author of the thought provoking poem ‘V’.

One of the highlights of the festival will be Chris Nickson’s new book Leeds, The Biography: A History of Leeds in Short Stories.

Nickson, 60, only published his first book five years ago but has been writing from a young age. Although he grew up in Leeds, he spent much of his life in Seattle in the US, where he worked as a musical journalist, only returning to his homeland a decade ago - he moved to Nottingham and then, two years ago, back to Leeds.

“In many ways, it’s like walking with old ghosts,” he says, talking on his mobile phone as he walks across the rainswept Soldiers Fields in Roundhay, which is about a mile from where he grew up in Chapel Allerton.

“Writing is something I’ve always done,” he continues. “And I’ve always had an interest in history.”

It was that interest which provided the spark for his latest work, which delves into the often unseen back catalogue of events which made Leeds what it is today.

There’s a story about the first plague victim, Little Alice Musgrave, who died in 1645 and the plague cabins which were sited on Call Lane. The epidemic went on to claim 1,300 lives in Leeds and was a turning point for the city and its sanitation. Nickson, a member of the Thoresby Society for the last 20 years, who points out he has “two shelves full of Leeds history books at home”, has taken these historical markers and carved out his own fictional narratives.

“The stories are fictional but they are based on fact,” he says. “I’m known for writing historical crime fiction, some of which is based in Leeds.”

Another of the snippets which drew his eye is a tale recounted in Ralph Thoresby’s Ducatus Leodiensis, wherein he recounts a story about prominent Leeds philanthropist John Harrison (1579-1656), whose house was modified to include a maze of tunnels and small doors to allow his pet cats to gain access to different areas.

He adds: “I never intended the Leeds The Biography to become a book. It started out two or three years ago as interesting little snippets to post on my website but it grew from there. It’s the first non-crime book I’ve done. What I hope I’m doing is communicating the stories of ordinary people who otherwise leave no historical record behind them. Anyone can get the facts but I think showing a social history really brings it alive for people.”

He will be at Leeds Central Library on Saturday June 6 to discuss his latest work - the event is free.

One of the volunteers who helps organise the event is Fiona Gell, who works in the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds.

She said: “There has never been a book festival in Leeds and myself and a few others felt frustrated by this. We got together a team of volunteers, contacted the library and Waterstones and a few others and our first event was in 2012, although we began planning it in 2011. It’s a bit different to other book festivals in that we tend to focus more on Leeds. That’s the primary motivation and not just focusing on all the brilliant writers from the past but also the new talent that’s coming through.”

This year there is a big focus on Leeds writers and story tellers from Leeds. This includes Leeds based Zodwa Nyoni who’s play Boi Boi is Dead was successfully premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse last year and Leeds academic Max Farrer whose theme is ‘Islamism and Terror – A Western Way of doing Politics?’

There will also be a panel debate from the Index on Censorship who will discuss ‘Are Religious Freedom and Freedom of Speech Intertwined?’ The Index on Censorship panel debated last year the event was considered a massive success.

There will be a special guest appearance from Sam Priestley, Armley Press’ second new author, to discuss her latest novel Reliability Of Rope.

Armley Press’ John Lake said he picked Sam’s book to publish because: “This intriguingly titled psychological thriller opens with a young woman gatecrashing a funeral on an invitation sent to the wrong person.

“Ultimately, what I love about this book is the scope of the journey, from a moment of almost idle curiosity to a string of dramatic payoffs, each more satisfying than the last, keeping the reader in suspense till the final page. A fine achievement.”

In previous years, the festival has included events aimed at children but for the first time, this will be the basis for a new festival to be held in November.

The Big Bookend kicks off with A Drink with a Chimp - described as ‘biographical stories about people who have hit rock bottom’ - at the Carriage Works on Friday June 5 at 7.45pm.

All tickets are available on www.bigbookend.co.uk


The first festival took place in 2012 - it was started to showcase local writing talent.

Last year celebrated Yorkshire author Alan Bennett took part in one of the sessions.

The opening event, A Drink with a Chimp, will be hosted by actor Lynsey Jones, who helps run a self-help group for recovering drug and alcohol addicts.

Last year, over 1,500 people attended the event and over 60 writers took part. They also received Arts Council funding for the first time