How can I not have been to the Birmingham Literature Festival before now? Ten days of events around writers, books and ideas, virtually on the doorstep – well, better late than never, I suppose. Nor had I been to the newly-built Birmingham Conservatoire, and I would have expected my first encounter with that impressive space to be for a musical performance, but the Recital Hall was the location for the Sunday word-laden events that I’d chosen.
My choice was influenced by already knowing one of the speakers, Katharine Norbury, as she’d been a tutor on my recent writing residential at Tŷ Newydd. For ‘The Call of the Wild’ she shared the ‘stage’ in the pale wood-clad theatre with Abi Andrews, discussing women’s perspectives on writing about nature and travel, chaired by Alys Fowler. Illustrated with readings from Katharine’s The Fish Ladder and Abi’s The Word for Woman is Wilderness, the chat covered such interesting topics as the bravery of writing about failure, coming to terms with the idea that you might not achieve your quest, questioning boundaries and challenging traditionally male preserves, consideration of who your reader is, and dealing with that ‘conflict’ ingredient – so essential to all good narrative – that disturbs the equilibrium of your literal or emotional journey. There was also a health warning: memoir may be painful to write!
Hometown Tales is a new series of books celebrating regional writing, pairing more established authors with up and coming voices. The next presentation, chaired by Anna Lawrence Petroni, featured Kerry Young and Carolyn Sanderson, whose stories jointly make up Hometown Tales: Midlands, and Maria Whatton, one half of Hometown Tales: Birmingham. Bearing in mind that each author had in fact been born elsewhere and moved to the location of their subject matter, together they discussed the concept of home and what defines you. Place could be seen as a character in its own right, which may change over time, reflected in the shifting timeframes contained within their stories. They considered how you handle potentially sensitive material when fictionalising true and harrowing events, both in relation to authenticity and respect for readers’ feelings.
How on earth would a ghostwriter, who relies on their subject’s memory, narrate the tale of somebody who has dementia? My final session was a fascinating – and funny – insight into capturing in print the extraordinary story of Wendy Mitchell, through her collaboration with Anna Wharton: Somebody I used to know. There was a ripple of recognition amongst the crowd when Wendy, in the midst of her description of the painstaking mechanisms and hours of preparation she employs for finding her way to speaking venues, with ‘my faithful pink file in my red haversack’, she admitted she didn’t get it right first time in locating the Conservatoire. Neither did I.
Wendy’s positivity is inspiring in the face of such a daunting diagnosis as young onset dementia. She spoke about not wanting to dwell on what she can no longer do but to use opportunities to change people’s perceptions of dementia. She’s the embodiment of embracing modern technology (not something she was drawn to pre-diagnosis) as part of an inventive range of tricks to outwit the disease: learning to use an iPad, blogging at Which Me Am I Today? and engaging in ‘my silent conversation’ via Twitter @WendyPMitchell. Wendy and Anna joked about the prodding that went on to unearth the material that makes up the book, sensory memories in particular. The emotional connection was clear for all to see – they have evidently become great friends during the course of the two-way nagging – and it was a good advert for the possibilities of ghostwriting. Aside from what the book does for readers, it has given Wendy back things she thought she’d lost. ‘Writing is my lifeline,’ she said, ‘it puts dementia in the background.’
The audience was both delighted and moved, and the hour – chaired expertly by Jan Oyebode – flew by. It’s difficult to sum up in just a few sentences Wendy’s warmth and wisdom, so my best advice would be to read the book. I started it on my train journey home, and it’s just as well my stop was the terminus.