Hillfields forever

Posted: November 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: events | Tags: , , | No Comments »

When I arrived at the Hillfields Readers Group event in Coventry on Saturday I was unaware that I was in for – what shall I call it? – not a roasting but certainly a light grilling. There were twenty or thirty people, loads of kids doing ‘crafts’ and a table of complimentary food and drink in the foyer. The organisers had laid on entertainment too (storytellers, poets, musicians) and the whole thing felt as benign as a village fete. I tucked into a mince pie (home made) and chatted to one of the gentlemen on the door whose job it was to greet participants, then settled at the back to listen to a performance of humorous verse from Martin Brown. Wonderful. As he left the stage everyone clapped enthusiastically.

The first inkling I had that Among Thieves had not been unanimously well-received was when I bumped into a group member I knew in another context. A lovely Jamaican woman (one of my mother-in-law’s friends) who I’ve met many times over the years. She congratulated me on the novel and I expressed my surprise and delight that she would be in the audience. My book, she told me, was the first to be bought for every member of the group by the Readers Group committee. I felt honoured.

‘So you’ve read it?’ I asked.

‘We all have,’ she replied

Interesting I thought – this would be my first reading where the whole audience had read the novel. I was impressed.
‘So did you enjoy it?’ I ventured.

I must learn NOT to ask that question. The dear lady touched my arm and made a strange sound. It was a sound I understood, a kind of ‘whoooohoooo-oooh’, a sound that implied my novel had aroused strong sentiments and those sentiments could possibly be described as ugly. The whole village fete vibe started to fracture.

I’ll admit – I was feeling vulnerable on Saturday. I’ve had a shit month and I’d set off for Hillfields feeling exhausted, so I was glad the event promised to be an easy gig on home turf. When I saw the organiser’s face my earlier fears were confirmed. He smiled nervously and led me to the front. We did the whole ‘do-you-want-a-microphone’ ‘would-you-like-some-water’ thing and I took a chair in front of the stage without a mic (I prefer things to be intimate). He introduced me and it went something like …. ‘as Mez is about to find out not everyone enjoyed Among Thieves…. and I’m sure they are going to tell her why….’.

He said some other stuff too but I wasn’t paying attention. I was thinking ‘shit, they hated it and here I am at the front with no allies, feeling small and not on full power and they’re going to shred me. Shit!’

I was mentally calculating all the things it could be; Jez the racist, Bas the criminal Jamaican, too much swearing, too many voices…? I offered a brief introduction to the story and ploughed ahead with the first reading, expletives deleted as there were so many children present. Now I do find this difficult – I hate editing the text on the hoof but I understand how people feel about swearing in front of the kids. I’ve always sworn in front of mine – but I’ve been a parent long enough to know that the most radical people can suddenly get all reactionary once they pop a sprog. And considering the warnings I’d already had I thought I’d better not do anything else to upset them.

I read well – I’m not just saying it – I’m theatrical and I have fun with the characters and I finished my first reading with a flourish. But the half-hearted applause said it all and I steeled myself as I said, ‘does anyone have any questions?’

Rather than transcribe the events in any more detail I’ll outline the main gripe which seemed to be that I hadn’t got my facts right about the area – Hillfields. And that I had, like many before me, painted Coventry and Hillfields in a bad light. I was suddenly pleased that the book had made them cross – they were sticking up for Cov and defending its reputation against all comers. Once I convinced them that I was friend, not foe – that I too had an affection for Coventry (not as fervent as theirs admittedly) then their attitude softened.

I explained that Coventry as a location was really incidental – it could have been set anywhere but the city fit the themes of the novel perfectly. I also explained that although Coventry wasn’t where I grew up I have lived in or near it for 23 years. I was around in the mid-1980s and so I did have authentic things to say about that time and place. By the end one of the ladies at the front was telling stories about WWII and Queens Street ‘way back when’ and her husband’s family coming from Ireland in the century before last. It was fascinating.

By the time I left I’m not sure if they liked the book any better but I think they liked me – and I liked them. One woman even said that she wouldn’t normally read a novel like mine, she’d found it very disturbing, but she read it right to the end, she had to know what happened. And I felt honoured again.

A day out in Hillfields

Posted: October 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: diary, events, writing | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

I’m really looking forward to the Hillfields Readers Group Open Day

Where: Hope Centre, Sparkbrook Road, Hillfields, Coventry – view on a map
When: 2pm Saturday 21st November 2009

I will be reading from Among Thieves and answering questions about how 1980s Coventry came to loom so large in my debut novel. I’ll also be milling around and enjoying all the other events on offer on the day which include Jo Roberts – Coventry’s Poet in Residence, and Martin Brown – a local Coventry poet who writes and reads humorous verse. There will also be music, dancing, a book fair, a book quiz, food and refreshments.

The day has been organised by Coventry Libraries Information Services where you can find all the information you need about readers and writers groups in your area. Hillfields Readers Group meets on alternative Fridays at 12.30pm . For further information and dates contact Colin Scott on 024 7683 2457 e-mail: colin.scott@coventry.gov.uk