Winners, Words and Wise Advice a review of Stoke's literary festival by Sallie Tams.

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Winners, Words and Wise Advice a review of Stoke's literary festival by Sallie Tams. If I could only use one word to describe this year’s Stoke on Trent Literary Festival – Hot Air 2015 – it would be ‘inspirational’. I had the opportunity to attend many of the sessions and have to say this is a literary festival that is really starting to establish itself on the calendar of literary events to attend. The quality of the speakers, venue, the warm welcome given to visitors and very reasonable ticket prices make for an excellent weekend and one which was in equal parts thought provoking, entertaining and above all motivational.

From the opening session with internationally acclaimed former SAS soldier turned author, Andy McNab to the closing of the festival with a screening of the Bafta award winning, Marvellous in the presence of and about Stoke’s very own Neil ‘Nello’ Baldwin, there was a constant theme of achievement against sometimes very stacked odds.

Stewart Collins, festival director, invited Danny Flynn chief executive of Staffordshire YMCA to speak briefly about the work of the YMCA over the years and particularly in areas such as literacy. Danny introduced some of his members who have been working with the Emma Bridgewater Creative room and who had produced the very impressive fabric mural which took pride of place next to the stage. Danny commented on the fact that projects like this really brought out the amazing hidden talents that so many people didn’t realise they had. Speaking with fire, passion and enthusiasm for youth development, it’s not hard to see why our own YMCA here in North Staffordshire is one of the premier YMCA centres in the country.

 Ron Coterill of The Sentinel and Emma Bridgewater introduced the prize winners of the Too Write competition and Festival Patron, global best-selling author Andy McNab presented prizes to the Winners and runners-up. Emma Bridgewater commented on the quality and imagination in the under 11’s category which she said was simply inspiring. In the 11-18 age group there had been fewer entries and she urged young people in this age group to keep going and continue developing the enormous potential that had been much in evidence in the 2014 competition. She told us that the adult category had seen an interesting mix of entries, difficult to judge because of the diversity of themes but producing an eventual winner and runners-up.

Emma BridgewaterThe subject of literacy featured prominently in a number of the sessions I attended this year, none more so than that of Andy McNab who recounted his battles with literacy in his early years and how these problems denied his dream to become a helicopter pilot, instead resulting in him joining the infantry. It was as an infantryman with the help of an inspirational teacher, sheer determination, and buoyed by the feeling of accomplishment gained from reading his first book, Janet & John Book 10, he persevered and came to understand that his reasons for not being able to read were in fact because he didn’t – it was a simple as that.  Among his many accomplishments and a distinguished military career, he has gone on to write 28 books and become a global publishing phenomenon. He said that from reading a person gains knowledge, knowledge gives power and the freedom to do what you want.  In a lively Q & A session, when asked what he considered was the most inspirational book he had read, he said simply, “Janet & John Book 10”.

On a serious note he mentioned the recent devastating earthquakes in Nepal and urged that this did not put people off visiting, saying how vital tourism is to the Nepalese economy.

The second day of the festival unfortunately brought a very wet and windy morning which was particularly disappointing for the Cyr Wheel trio, Alula who were due to perform in the courtyard but needed a perfectly dry surface to do so.  Equally it was the day of the Big Wild Rumpus and lovers of Where the Wild Things Are has been encouraged to dress up in their wildest costumes and join Emma Bridgewater and the nation in reading the book aloud together.  Although the weather put a damper on some of the activities, this session was located indoors and thoroughly enjoyed by all participants, young and old.

If ever there was an inspirational story about the power of one hundred well-chosen words, it was that of award winning journalist and author, Sathnam Sanghera (Marriage Material, The Boy with the Top Knot), who spoke of growing up in a Punjabi household in Wolverhampton where there were no books. He told us how as a young teenager he had entered an essay writing competitions, largely because his brother had been too old to enter and which he subsequently won. His prize, a visit to Los Angeles to meet Michael Jackson in the company of BBC DJ Jackie Brambles. This visit, to a boy who had never left Wolverhampton opened his eyes to possibilities and when his local newspaper asked him to write about his experiences, he took the opportunity which led, at the age of 15, to a regular column, a First Class Honour Degree in English Language and Literature from Cambridge University and a career as an award winning journalist on the Financial Times, Times and Management Today. If that weren’t accolade enough, he has also written a very personal and thought provoking biography and a critically acclaimed novel, Marriage Material, which took its inspiration from Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tales Sanghera said he’d started reading on a long flight to India and, being troubled by the somewhat bleak ending in Bennett, had retold the story with a very unique spin set in a family-run shop in Wolverhampton and a more upbeat ending.

Alastair Campbell, well known for his love of Burnley FC started his talk to a capacity crowd by introducing some rather special audience members who each in turn took a bow: former Lancashire & England cricketer, Graham Fowler currently working on his own memoir; Neil ‘Nello’ Baldwin, Stoke City kit man and all round Stoke legend together Burnley superfan, Dave Burnley who I understand never missed a Burnley game in 40 years.

Sporting matters aside, Campbell reminded Tristram Hunt MP., who had joined him on stage, that shortly before the recent General Election, he had published a book called Winners. Looking pointedly towards Mr Hunt with a wry smile, a glint in his eyes and deadpan delivery to much applause from the audience, he said that he had rather hoped people would read it!

During the course of his talk, he made some interesting observations about what makes winners and suggested models such as the McClaren ethos that nothing is ever good enough, or the philosophy of Arianna Huffington that the job is never done, are what marks out winners from non-winners. He suggested that winners’ fear and loathing of losing is in fact greater than their desire to win. Interestingly and— this came out strongly in the Q & A session— winning does not necessarily make happy people. A winner, he said, “is a loser who evaluates defeat properly; losers do not learn from defeat”.

All evening sessions were very well attended and included a special workshop for 12 aspiring or working screen writers with award winning screenwriter Peter Bowker, whose credits include Occupation, Blackpool, Marvellous and Desperate Romantics to name but a few. I had the opportunity to attend this workshop and have to say this was an amazing session which packed in a masterclass in the creation of tension-filled opening scenes, taught middles and satisfying endings.

The closing session of a screening of Marvellous was again a packed event and one well worth waiting for, providing indeed a very fitting close to a wonderful and Marvellous Hot Air 2015.

by Sallie Tams.

Dates for 2016 have already been announced and tickets sell faster than Staffordshire oatcakes hot of the griddle, so here are the dates for your diary 9th to 11th June, 2016. You won’t want to miss it.

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