Berwick Literary Festival will go live online in 2020 with a programme of free events showcasing a range of genres and topics – including Black Lives Matters themes. Organisers are excited about the potential of the virtual festival to attract a wide audience in October.
With Berwick hard hit economically by coronavirus and many summer and autumn events cancelled this year, the Literary Festival is an exciting opportunity to open the doors of the town to a varied national and international audience – and to offer a treat to local visitors old and new.
Festival chair, Michael Gallico says: ‘Since a ‘normal’ festival is not practical this year, it’s vital that we keep Berwick in festival-goers’ minds. The overarching aim of the Festival is to entertain, engage and provoke debate across age ranges.’
The Festival is all about words – written, spoken, performed – and the programme includes themes such as poetry, history, and current affairs. Performers range from world champion slam poet Harry Baker whose quirky, poignant poems tap into today’s world in a modern, accessible way to political broadcaster and columnist Steve Richards, whose acclaimed book ‘The Prime Ministers’ will be the basis for his session on the recent incumbents of Number 10: from Wilson to Johnson.
Black Lives Matter themes will feature in this seventh Berwick Literary Festival. Brian Ward, Professor of American Studies at Northumbria University, will follow on his 2019 talk on Martin Luther King’s visit to Newcastle with a look at the life and times of Frederick Douglass: the black slave whose freedom was bought by two Quaker women in Newcastle. Former NME media editor Stuart Cosgrove will talk about how black music lit up the sixties. This remarkable musical revolutions is set against a backdrop of social and political turmoil and the extraordinary transformation of boxer Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali.
Other contributors include writer and biographer Ann Thwaite whose biography of A.A Milne led to her being consultant on the major 2017 film ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’; writer, social historian and horticulturist Ursula Buchan – who spoke about her grandfather John Buchan in 2019 – will share her passion and expertise in gardening and gardening history; and Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, will be joined by poets David Constantine and Vicki Feaver for his session which will also feature readings from the highly-acclaimed ‘Staying Human’.
Programme co-ordinator Mike Fraser says: ‘We’re always seeking to attract new audiences and the online Festival offers us a chance to reach out to a wider local, national and international population. Attracting visitors to Berwick is part of our remit and we’re looking to ensure that online visitors get a taste of our town – we want them to visit in person when that’s possible.’ Organisers say the online Festival will offer plenty of opportunity for interactivity, with poetry and creative writing workshops also on offer.
Berwick Lit Fest runs from 15th-18th October 2020 online from Berwick-upon-Tweed. For up-to-date information on the programme as it unfolds, visit the Festival website.
We’ve been wrapped in a chilly sea haar here in Berwick-upon-Tweed – atmospheric but a tad galling when most of the country has been basking in sunshine. It’s ironic that as lockdown lifts this stifling fret has closed around us, heightening the sense that anything might unexpectedly emerge to surprise us.
Sometimes, it feels as if our ministers and MPs live in a fog all the time. I was startled to hear Dominic Raab explaining on Talk Radio that, although he understands the ‘sense of frustration and restlessness which is driving the Black Lives Matters movement’, he doesn’t think much of taking a knee – other than for the Queen and his ‘Mrs’. Specifically, Foreign Secretary Mr Raab believes that the action of taking a knee derives from ‘Game of Thrones’. What? Wasn’t there a time when ministers took care to be informed about big issues that affect how we live as a society? This video featuring former San Francisco 49ers’ fullback Colin Kaepernick is a great intro into how and why taking a knee became an act of racial solidarity in sport.
Whatever the weather, walking and exercising have united our family of four during lockdown. Rain or shine we’ve been out for ‘family exercise’. However, as lockdown is lifting, we seem to have become less about going out together and more about heading off solo for, say, a coffee at Northern Edge Coffee, or ‘just popping out for a run/walk – see you later.’ It feels as if our Covid cluster is disintegrating. Which is strangely sad but, I guess, inevitable.
Nevertheless, we came together at the weekend for a socially distanced walk in the Cheviots to celebrate my birthday. Our starting point was an hour’s drive from Berwick through pretty Wooler – the gateway to the Cheviots. Once there, we were guided by two super-patient friends who listened to us bickering for most of the mist-shrouded eight miles. The views were condensed but we had abundant chews: a delicious takeaway picnic from Berwick Café Mule On Rouge
Generational blindspots – from technology to slang – have been recurring sources of confusion and amusement in the household. And we’ve all been upskilling the best we can. The youngest has hooked up to Depop – an online marketplace popular with young people buying and selling secondhand clothes etc. She wants cash to support her forthcoming university career (although with no freshers’ week…). When she made a sale, it turned out that the process of packing a pair of jeans in an envelope and writing an address in the right format was slightly opaque to her. Before she headed to the post office queue, she was anxious: ‘What do I ask for? What do you mean: “Get it weighed?!”‘ As she finally left, she said: ‘That’s Generation Z for you, we can throw a punch (an online boxing ref), we can topple a statue, but we can’t post a letter!’ She can now. We all felt a little ownership of her achievement.
Matt Hancock, Health & Social Care Secretary, declared himself ‘proud’ of footballer Marcus Rashford. He then called Mr Rashford ‘Daniel’ just to prove how much he’d mugged up on the guy who’d pressurised the government to make a U-turn on free vouchers for school meals. Perhaps Mr Rashford mistook the footballer for Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe? After all, the fact that Marcus Rashford spotted a clear need for the voucher scheme to continue through the summer holidays, when Mr Hancock hadn’t noticed it, smacks of a wizardly insight, doesn’t it?
The eldest daughter is working from home and is usually locked to her screen for 10 straight hours a day, often in meetings. Even so, there’s not much that passes her by. When she was little, we called her ‘Flappy’ because she picked up on every conversation we ever had – even if she wasn’t present when it happened. So, yesterday, when the youngest and I sneaked out for a walk without her, she was miffed. Yes, despite our new individual excursions, no one likes to feel left out. Later that same day, there was a discussion about preserved lemons as we ate dinner. I apologised to the youngest – she’s not keen and they lurked in the couscous. ‘I love preserved lemons!’ declared the eldest, smirking and smacking her lips. After a pause, the youngest said: ‘I had two walks with Mum today.’ ‘Two?’ whispered the eldest ‘Two walks?’ her bottom lip quivering.
The Husband often asks how I know about things. ‘By looking in the right places,’ is my usual smug reply. And that’s how come we’ve been dining-in royally these past few Saturday nights, courtesy of JW Catering’s international menus. Yes, as well as the Cheviots, we’ve been to Italy, South Africa and Turkey.
This is also how I know about the many local independent retail outlets reopening, working with and round the daunting new normal. It is exciting to see the high street shaking off the lockdown blues. But it’s also anxiety inducing. Sometimes, it feels as if I dreamt the whole Coronavirus pandemic. So many people are bustling about town without a social-distance care in the world. Me? I’m still feeling Covid-induced too-much-too-soon angst.
That’s how I felt about peeing outdoors when I was little. It seemed like an exciting proposition, but the reality was fraught with anxiety: would you be spotted? Would you pee on your feet/knickers/trousers? These days, peeing al fresco doesn’t worry me. And certainly not somewhere isolated like, say, the Cheviots. After all, you can see for miles to check if anyone’s heading your way, and you hardly ever see anyone anyway. Imagine my surprise at the weekend then, when looking around as I was zipping up, I spotted three people through the mist. ‘Oh! Ooops!’ I said. A voice floated back: ‘It’s alright, we didn’t see anything. We turned our backs as soon as we realised what was happening.’ It was a voice I recognised. And, as one, three friends from Berwick turned to face me.
When we got home, the Husband presented me with a can of Brewdog’s topical new hazy beer brew: Barnard Castle Eye Test. It’s a fair cop.
I’m finding it hard to write this week. In fact, this week has dribbled into next if you see what I mean. There’s so much to think about. So much to feel anxious and uptight about.
There’s a no-deal-Brexit looming with trade deals being shimmied through while we have our eyes elsewhere. Deals which will probably compromise the quality of our food (chlorinated chicken from the US and all that), and the safety and integrity of our crops (neonicotinoids that kill bees and that sort of thing). There’s the economic downturn resulting from Covid and lockdown – with many friends, family and neighbours facing an uncertain future. There’s the relaxation of lockdown – does ‘the science’ show it’s the right thing to do? Or can ‘the science’ be manipulated like ‘the data’? And, of course, there’s racism, Black Lives Matter, and the horror of George Floyd’s killing by US police (even though millions of us watched it, we can’t say ‘murder’ because it’s not been through the courts). All these things make me feel powerless and inadequate. And then I think: who am I to feel powerless?
For many of us, the killing of George Floyd will have made us look again at our own uneasy record on squaring up to racism and to our national record in the UK as a whole. There are certainly uncomfortable truths that lay behind the mask of our equal multicultural society, and the attitudes and structures that prop it up. These uncomfortable truths have occupied much of my household’s thoughts, conversations and readings these last 10 days or so. And, despite the fact that the daughters suggested I should write about it, I’ve struggled to find a way in.
One fear and challenge for me as a white English woman trying to write about racism is that I must own my past which includes racist thoughts, words and actions – and I am embarrassed and ashamed of that. I don’t like looking back at the racist me – but, if I’m to move forward, I must do it. I also need to acknowledge that I am a privileged member of an imbalanced society that has benefited from the spoils of empire and slavery – a society that still hasn’t totally dealt with its tainted inheritance or the legacy it’s left to the nations it pillaged and the peoples it abused.
It’s seriously painful and awful to still be having these conversations about casual and structural racism. But have them we must. Who, in their right mind, believes that hierarchies (or anything) should be decided by something so arbitrary as skin colour? And yet, this premise is something that is still ingrained in the way our systems work and the attitudes we (often unconsciously) carry with us. And, in our entitlement, we are constantly letting ourselves off dealing with the ramifications of a skewed equality. Only yesterday I was looking at an American research study that demonstrates implicit bias in the treatment of black children and adults by physicians (you’ll find the Abstract here).
You see this disparity even now in the reactions to the demonstrations here and in the US: it’s not the time, we say. After Covid would be a better, safer time, we say. As if Covid were not itself contributing to the polarising effect of inequalities based around skin colour and the social injustices that derive from them (take a look at this BBC video – it scratches the surface but it’s a good starting point).
So, how long should black people be patient about inequality? Ten years? One hundred? They’ve already waited some 450 years – surely a few more won’t make a difference? The subtext here is about maintaining a status quo of power: if people could all just pipe down a bit, we can get on with living through these terrible Covid times, and maybe look at the injustices associated with skin colour in calmer times. Maybe.
If you are challenged by the idea that people constantly side-stepped by rules that are purportedly designed to protect them might cease to respect or uphold those rules, I strongly recommend listening to Trevor Noah’s gentle, rational take on the situation in the States. He deftly summarises the idea of structural racism and the impact of a societal contract which only truly respects the rights and freedoms of the original architects of that contract.
I know many are horrified by the lootings during the demonstrations in the US and by the toppling of the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol in the UK. And I’m not an advocate of civil disobedience, but I don’t feel that demonstrators’ actions are any more horrifying than a man being openly killed by the police, or a black person dying in police custody after being brutally beaten, or someone being stopped time and again by police because of the colour of their skin. In fact, I’d argue the statue toppling is less horrifying. I’m in my fifties, and during my life I have seen a system designed to protect not just slip up from time to time, but actively abuse its powers countless times. And, each time, it seems we shake our heads and say ‘this shouldn’t happen’. We investigate and have enquiries that take years, and we get on with our lives and hope everyone else will too. But there’s such a thing as a perfect storm. And Covid, lockdown and that ultimate abuse of human rights on 25th May 2020 – the taking of George Floyd’s life – might just be that perfect storm.
I don’t think that we should get lost in a sea of guilt and hand-wringing and being ashamed – although many of us will have reasons to; or that we should get carried away in accusations and recriminations and being angry – although many are justified in that. I believe that, for many of us, the demonstrations rocked the foundations of the societal safety net we trust and believe in. But the challenge for us is to acknowledge that it’s a safety net designed with holes that let black people fall through it. And then to do something about it.
History is something we write individually and as a society. That’s why Banksy’s Instagram thoughts on replacing the statue of Colston are so interesting: “Here’s an idea that caters for both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t. We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down. Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.”
Visually and intellectually, Banksy’s suggestion encapsulates the shift that real change in the colour-bias status quo requires. Resurrecting this tainted statue and incorporating into it the story of its toppling would mark history in the making. And represent an overdue acknowledgment of a wealth and power that is sullied and, actually, should never have existed. It’s this sort of shift that each of us needs to embrace. Because that’s when we’ll collectively continue to topple an injustice that has blighted too many lives for way too long.