There are no star names at this year’s Birmingham Literature Festival.
Well, not if everyone from J. K. Rowling, Stephen King and John Le Carré through to Alan Titchmarsh, Jamie Oliver and Jordan are the kind names you might be looking for.
But that’s how the Writing West Midlands’ chief executive Jonathan Davidson likes it.
“We offer audiences a chance to meet authors in the best possible way – whether it’s those they admire or those they have yet to meet,” he says.
“Most of the British publishing industry is run by a frighteningly narrow group of people.
“If we can’t make a festival that’s connecting to everybody, then we’re sunk.”
Writing West Midlands is a registered charity and this is the 17th festival.
“It will be the best one yet,” promises Jonathan, “because we’ve got so many writers who couldn’t write had they not been brought up here.
“If you look at the line-ups of most festivals, you wouldn’t know where they were based as they have no connection with their locality at all.
“We pay all of our guests and look after them by meeting them at the station etc.
“We want all of them to see the best side of Birmingham.
“Most writers are stunned by the new Library of Birmingham.”
Some guests are booked a year in advance and it’s a sign of the times that tickets now go on sale online in May, three months before the programme is published in August.
“Even then we can still do new things and promote it online,” says Jonathan.
“But I still like to hold a brochure and to pass them on – you don’t see people handing over e-books.”
In his 60-page brochure produced from his Custard Factory base, Jonathan says: “This is an independent literature festival, programming writers and events because we think they are interesting.”
So with that in mind, here’s his pick of 13 of the festival’s main events.
1. Jackie Kay: Poems for National Poetry Day
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 7.30pm-8.45pm, Thursday, October 2 (£10 /£8)
A chance to celebrate National Poetry Day with an award-winning writer of poetry, plays, novels and short stories whose writing has mirrored her own explorations of heritage and identity.
Jonathan says: “Jackie is adopted, gay and Scottish – a wonderful speaker with a very warm personality, not afraid of saying what she wants to say.
“When she talks, people feel she’s writing just for them.”
2. Wake Up Happy With Stephen May
The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre – 6-7pm, Friday, October 3 (£8 /£7)
In a one-man show, Stephen May will challenge the audience to question what makes us happy as well as performing extracts from his latest novel, Wake Up Happy Every Day.
He will also be giving a workshop on writing comedy, from 10am-noon on Saturday, October 4.
Jonathan says: “Stephen is a really interesting guy who says that ‘writers are megalomaniacs with low self esteem’.”
3. Dylan Thomas and Me
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 6-7pm, Friday, October 3.
Fern Hill & Other Pieces by Dylan Thomas
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 7.30pm-9pm (£10 / £8)
In the first event, broadcaster Sian Lloyd will chair a meeting between Dylan Thomas’s granddaughter Hannah Ellis and Olivier Award-winning producer, actor, director and writer Guy Masterson – who will then breathe performance life into the worlds of the Welsh poet in the second event.
Jonathan says: “Guy is a larger-than-life, fabulous performer who has spent 20 years performing the poetry and drama of Dylan Thomas from memory.
“His passion began when great-uncle Richard Burton drove him to Switzerland in a Mini Cooper and spent the whole drive quoting the poet.
“Guy is totally mesmeric. I’ve never seen a poet sweat so much.”
4. Kerry Hudson, one of the Voices in Fiction
The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre – 7.30pm-8.45pm, Friday, October 3 (£8 / £6)
Kerry’s first novel, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, was winner of the Scottish First Book Award and her second, Thirst, is out now.
Jonathan says: “Kerry is in her late 20s and grew up on an Aberdeen council estate. She had such an unspectacular upbringing that she ‘gets’ things like the world of security guards in the modern age perfectly.”
5. Letters To The Midwife
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 2-3.15pm, Saturday, October 4 (£8 / £6)
Talking about the correspondence generated by the Call The Midwife books will be late author Jennifer Worth’s husband Philip, and their two daughters, Suzannah and Juliette, together in conversation with Andrew Houseman.
Father of two Jonathan says: “Letters to the Midwife is a bracing anthology of childbirth, the shared experiences of motherhood.
“We’re much more about being a festival where people can share their views rather than just sitting and facing an audience in the distance.
“Our audiences look as much to taking someone to task as to praising them.”
6. Roger McGough and Liz Berry: Poetry in Performance
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 8-9.30pm, Saturday, October 4 (£10 / £8)
BBC Radio 4 At The Festival
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 2-5pm, Sunday, October 5 (free, but you must book)
Scouser Roger McGoughs, a former member of The Scaffold (Lily The Pink) turned newly-elected president of The Poetry Society, has a new book of poems called As Far As I Know, while Liz Berry has a new collected called Black Country.
Both sessions will be recorded for broadcast.
Jonathan says: “I love radio because it enables you to do different things at the same time.
“Roger’s poetry will move you or make you laugh, you can’t take it or leave it.
“Liz, 34, writes terrific Black Country poetry using the local dialect and there’s absolutely no doubt that she comes from this region.
“She was a primary teacher in London but after having her first baby is hoping to make her career here.
“Liz is very down to earth and not at all egotistical, very good at getting audiences to accept what she’s doing.”
7. Peaky Blinders: Steven Knight
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 6-7.30pm, Monday, October 6 (£8 / £6)
As the Oscar-nominated writer of Dirty Pretty Things turned director of Locke and creator of TV series Peaky Blinders, Birmingham’s own Steven Knight will be talking about why the social history of the city has become such an important driving force behind his work.
Jonathan says: “People like Steven are giving us a sense of artistic pride.
“I don’t think Birmingham has had that kind of aspiration for years.”
8. A Midlands Odyssey: with Natalie Haynes
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 8-9.30pm, Tuesday, October 7 (£8 / £6)
Commissioned by Writing West Midlands and edited by Polly Stoker, local writers have been reinterpreting Homer’s Odyssey through life in the Midlands.
Jonathan says: “Writer and classics specialist Natalie Haynes will introduce the event – she was a stand-up comedienne for ten years before she became a novelist and non-fiction writer looking at how the Greeks and Romans still have an impact on our contemporary lives.
“Odysseus’s homecoming is now set in a laundrette in Stirchley.
“I don’t know what Homer would make of that, but tough!”
9. Writing From The Home Front
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 5.30pm-6.30pm, Wednesday, October 8 (£8)
Home Front is a Radio 4 series looking day by day at what life was like during the First World War in Britain (series one ends on Friday, October 4).
As well as actor Bella Hamblin (the great-granddaughter of Siegfried Sassoon), also taking part will be Birmingham-based writer Fiona Joseph, whose forthcoming novel Comforts For The Troops is based on the true stories of four women working at Cadbury during the First World War.
Jonathan says: “One of the obscure stories she has found is that of Beatrix Cadbury, an extreme quaker and pacifist whose work led to the setting up of private schools in the Netherlands which are still used by the country’s royal family today.”
10. The Urban Sermon: Owen Jones
Birmingham Cathedral – 7.30pm-8pm, Wednesday, October 8 (£10 / £8)
The bestselling writer, political activist and weekly columnist for The Guardian has already sold out his event.
Long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award with his debut work, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, his follow up is a boardroom / corridors of power critique, The Establishment.
Jonathan says: “Chavs showed how being working class was something that went from being something that gave you pride in having the salt of the earth to becoming something you would despise, when most people are hard-working and diligent.
“The Establishment shows how banks have now become part of the welfare state.”
“Owen is from Stockport and went to Oxford to read history. He has written a very persuasive book about how there’s a constant, low-level duplicity among people we should trust, an increasingly narrow level of people whose judgements are impaired.”
11. Writing in the Wild
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 6-7.30pm, Thursday, October 9 (£8 / £6)
Three writers combine to talk about the impact of green fields, wild water swimming and beaches have had on their lives.
Jonathan says: “Andrew Fusek Peters was always a wild water swimmer, then his life was hit by depression.
“He went back to the wild swimming and cold water to address his mental health.”
12. Sophie Hannah – The Monogram Murders
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 6pm-7.30pm, Saturday, October 11 (£10 / £8)
The Agatha Christie estate has, for the first time, authorised a brand new novel featuring Hercule Poirot, with a story set in 1920s London.
Jonathan says: “I’ve known Sophie for years and she’s been given the chance to write a new story for one of the world’s most popular detectives.
“It’s a job of work and an artistic thing. Although there are millions of Agatha Christie readers, Sophie is rightly confident she can do this because she’s so respectful of how people love Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.”
13. Meera Syal in Conversation with Sathnam Sanghera
Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham – 8-9.30pm, Saturday, October 11 (£!0 / £8)
The Wolverhampton-born star of Goodness Gracious Me and writer of Anita and Me and Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee is currently working on her third novel.
Jonathan says: “I know Meera more as a writer of novels than a TV star. She’s a writer from the West Midlands and that’s a theme running through the festival.
“Both Meera, and Sathnam, write from the British-Asian experience, and there’s great potential for this market which hasn’t quite broken through yet into the mainstream.”