Friday, 28 February 2014

What’s London Reading? by Aoife Mannix

It’s been nearly a hundred years since Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were gunned down in the streets of Sarajevo.  Few at the time could have predicted that this assassination would lead to the First World War and the death of over sixteen million people.  Not to mention the complete transformation of the Western world and the power structures that govern it. 2014 is the centenary of one of history’s most deadly conflicts and an extraordinary number of events are taking place across London to mark this dark and troubled time.

Cityread London is an annual month long celebration of literature in the capital.  While the start of World War I may not be anything to celebrate, the huge number of fascinating and compelling books that have been written about it certainly is. Cityread London’s ambition is to get the whole of London reading the same book.  Faced with the enormous task of choosing one of the many brilliant novels about WWI, we picked two. Louisa Young’s My Dear I Wanted To Tell You and Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful.

As well as being a deeply moving love story, My Dear I Wanted To Tell You is a book that connects the suffering of the Londoners who went to the front with the suffering of those who had to stay behind.  It offers profound insights not only into life in the trenches but on how the war impacted on the society of the time.  It looks at class, politics, power and the position of women.  It shows how no aspect of ordinary life was left untouched by a conflict that continues to impact on us today.

Private Peaceful is a novel for younger readers that focuses on the lives of two teenage brothers sent to the front.  It shows how the First World War destroys their youth and how they are the victims of a society that exploits those who are poor and vulnerable.  It asks important questions about loyalty, bravery and betrayal as well as what kind of world do we want our young people to grow up in?

It’s perhaps tempting to think of World War One as something horrific that happened a long time ago.  Yet a hundred years is just on the edges of living memory.  Terrorist attacks, like the one that killed Archduke Ferdinand, are still very much with us.  Europe is still a deeply divided continent with huge economic and social problems.  It’s difficult for us to imagine the ramifications of current events.  This morning I listened on the radio to the speculation about where the former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has fled to and what the Russians will do now the Americans have warned them that any kind of military intervention could have serious consequences. How do we know if this is just one more crisis that will pass or if we stand on the brink of the abyss?

What literature offers us is a way to imaginatively explore the past that is not dusty or dull or irrelevant.  It helps to bring back to life the suffering and courage of ordinary people caught up in events that made little sense to them at the time.  It gives a perspective that allows us to experience what it was like for them and thus to imagine what it might be like for us in the future. Join Cityread London in celebrating the literature of the First World War by reading the books and taking part in the huge array of workshops, reading groups, performances and events that we are running this April.  To find out more visit our websiteFacebook page and Twitter.

Aoife Mannix is the official blogger for Cityread London. She is the author of four collections of poetry and a novel. She has been poet in residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company and BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Unsung Heroes by Anya Harris

The chances are that you know a single mum somewhere, or even a single dad. The chances are also that they are not particularly young, especially unintelligent or went out of their way to find themselves in the position that they are.

Yet, when one hears the term 'single parent' coined, it would not be unreasonable to immediately conjure the all together common image of a young girl, being raised on a council estate, having her babies incentivised by financial gain via benefits from the state.

And it would not be unreasonable because such a portrayal of fecklessness is carefully constructed by the media, despite it actually being a reflection of a mere 2% of those to whom the label really belongs.

This means the majority of us are wholly misrepresented to quite a major degree!

Some of us might take that less quietly than others. We might not be shouting about that awful statistic from the rooftops - our stamina is good, but let's not stretch it - but we might make a little noise in our own corner of the World Wide Web. Which is what I do.

We are still parents with high aspirations for our children. Our intelligence doesn't plummet in some sort of warped inverse relationship to rising divorce rates, yet you'd be forgiven for thinking so because of the way in which we're represented. Many of us are more or less middle aged and muddling along as best we can, in the same ways other mums and dads do. Yes, it's harder, but it's not as hard (or as damaging for the kids) as being in an unhealthy marriage, so we go it alone.

I run Stories of Single Mums as part of my blog - written by warm and inspiring, wonderful women, who have - generally unwittingly - found themselves parenting alone - even for just a while.  Most importantly, it showcases people who are nothing short of unsung heroes, quietly sassy, getting on with raising their youngsters to the best of their ability despite their circumstances.

Some of them have lost their husbands to illness, others, like me, have endured an irretrievable relationship breakdown with our children's father, but each individual voice is very far removed from those knowing no better than blindly milking the system.

We don't need stigma - we've been through enough. We're more easily pleased than most, more grateful for a cuppa and some company, or a glass of something stronger with someone than you can possibly imagine. So that single mum you know at the school gates, or even that single dad somewhere, give 'em a smile, or an invitation over and the chances are you'll make yourself a feisty new friend!

To find out more about Anya Harris and her blog, visit Older Single Mum Blog. Anya can also be found blogging at The Healer Blog and of course, you can follow Anya on Twitter @anyaharris01 and Google+.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

What's A Mermaid Doing Outside A Derbyshire Pub by Elisabeth Stoppard

The story behind this photograph

After weeks of the pub car park flooding caused by a blocked culvert and heavy rain, the pub creative team got together over some serious Real Ale. What we needed was a bit of a peaceful but inspired protest to the authorities. We envisaged Moses and the parting of the waves, Noah and his Ark and even a sighting of Moby Dick! However, I remembered my newly acquired Los Angeles vintage lounge singer's dress that I has just purchased from Etsy. People had remarked that I looked like a mermaid whilst I was wearing it (though I had bought it for a friend's 'black tie with a hint of mad hatter' birthday dinner party in November - I went as 'the caterpillar' with peacock feather antennae and holding a hookah... and at midnight I turned into a butterfly with some attachable wings!)

I live in a very creative village in the Derbyshire Dales, which is surviving and thriving due to a great sense of community spirit and dogged determination. We have recently fought against and defeated some awful schemes that were thrown at us that would be damaging to the environment and to village life. We are currently restoring the beautiful historic field barn landscape that has been devastated over recent years through quarry blasting and the demise of hill farming. When we won Village of the Year (England), one of the judges proclaimed that we were in fact a very active village, edging on hyperactive.

So, it seemed natural that we thought a mermaid outside the flooded  pub, holding a pint would be quite fun and may be put a point across.

The Derby Telegraph picked the story up and within a couple of days the council had set to work unblocking the culvert.

I have to add, that part of our success as a village with projects and protests, is due to the fact that we have very good fixed wireless broadband (20 mb per second), great web designers, a good online community and a couple of brilliant pubs that provide us with live music, cinema, meals and a general creative and fun meeting space. And whereas at one time most villagers had to commute to nearby towns and cities to work, leaving the village a bit lifeless, remote working is indeed now alive and kicking in all the converted old pig styes and stone sheds. Some of us even work by laptop in the newly opened cafe. So broadband and the web has changed village life enormously over the past decade, and it's getting better all the time.

By Elisabeth Stoppard. To find out more about the Bonsall Field Barn-Project, visit

Friday, 7 February 2014

Ideas versus Truth by Jo Furnival

I come from a place where it’s all about the idea. If you’ve got a great idea, the rest (doesn’t always, but more often than not) will follow. Unsurprisingly, the company for which I’ve spent the past nearly 4 years devising and executing creative communications campaigns is called All about the Idea. But for the past 2 weeks, I’ve been consulting for another business; a strategic insights company called Truth. No prizes for guessing what they’re all about.

In communications, an idea is often the difference between something that sparks media interest and the other 99.9% of so-called stories that die a death, unloved in a journalist’s inbox. A great idea can turn nothing into something; a nugget into a story. And you know what they say about truth: It should never get in the way of a good story.

Thus, it’s this relationship between truth and storytelling that is of particular interest to me at the moment, as I look at things from a slightly different angle; the proverbial turd unpolished. And as I check what’s trending on Twitter, watch the videos that are doing the rounds on Facebook and finally read what the ‘snail media’ have to say about it all in the papers that evening, it occurs to me that perhaps this truth vs. tale interplay is topical outside of the Jo microcosm…

Buzzfeed cries out to the digital masses, “This Short Film Shows Just How Terrifying Life Is For LGBT People In Russia”, ESPN cites “draconian laws of suppression” and “significant peril”, while Marketing magazine reports, “Sochi 2014: How sponsors have responded to calls for them to defend gay rights”. But a brief exchange with Martyn Andrews put the truth magnifying glass over the story.

Andrews’ headline, “Media hype around propaganda law has ‘negative effect’ on Russian LGBT community”, is not exactly what one might expect from an openly gay (he actually came out on Russian television) TV presenter and journalist permanently residing in Sochi. Far from appreciating the demonstration of solidarity, members of the LGBT community within the 2014 Winter Olympics host city express concerns that “heavy handed” media overshadowing the Games could cause Russian society to blame them “for spoiling the Olympics.”

Now, I’m not saying that a story necessarily precludes truth – it wouldn’t be a very smart move if I wanted to continue my career in media relations! But a story doesn’t tell itself; it is told by someone. A story does not exist in a vacuum. Stories are stories because they have context; they are created in relation to culture. Truth on the other hand, now truth exists per se. It is pure, without prejudice. It simply is. That is the nature of truth. But this is the rhetoric of philosophers and back in the real world, truth is unobtainable, an inaccessible ideal about which we can dream, that we pursue but can never reach. Truth will forever be the mistress of Subjectivity and Time. It is true for me, for now.

So, if we can’t have truth, what can we have? Well, we can have another story; a different storyteller, another approach, alternative angle, a view from somewhere a little bit closer, with a different filter or a clearer focus. Andrews’ report from Sochi, for instance. It tells us a different story. And perhaps by absorbing enough stories and ideas, we can try to find our own path to the truth.

Jo Furnival is an account manager in communications at All About The Idea. For more information, visit and follow on Twitter @allabouttheidea.