Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Iron Press at Forty - the festival

From time to time I give talks on independent publishing. I often draw on the story of David Almond. David was a writer of short stories, often based on his own North East working class background. He was not the most successful writer of short stories, though he was regularly published in small literary magazines and even broadcast on the BBC. In 1985 Peter Mortimer's Iron Press published a collection of his short fiction. It sold modestly. Twelve years later Iron Press published a second collection of stories. It sold modestly. David's next book was Skellig, which became an international commercial best seller. At the fortieth birthday festival for Iron Press David launched a third collection of short fiction for Iron, Nesting, which included many of the early Iron stories and some new material. In the book he gives credit to Iron Press for its early support for his work, a support which kept him going, kept him in print and thus enabled David to become an internationally known writer. The introduction to Nesting should perhaps be read by every Arts Council administrator, owners of bookshop chains and reviewers of books. It might change their mind on the value of small presses.
There were 200 people at that launch reading, and the next day there were 200 people at a discussion of, and reading from, the 1991 Iron collection The Poetry of Perestroika. The book was introduced by Jackie Litherland, with readings by local actor and activist Charlie Hardwick. It was one of the best readings I've attended, with people listening with great attention to Jackie's tales of how the poems were sourced and received, the tour to Russia by North East poets and the tour to the North East of Russian poets. The event, and Charlie's readings, brought to life a collection that marked such a change in the lives of Soviet citizens and writers. 200 people, listening to poems translated from Russian, first published twenty-two years ago! And all in a community centre in a small fishing village - Cullercoats, home to Iron Press for the forty years.
Few small presses last forty years, only the recently retired Tony Rudolph's Menard Press comes to mind. If Five Leaves lasts that long I will be 82 - though Peter is knocking on a bit. Not that you would know, from his boundless energy and enthusiasm, his rattle of bangles and bright clothes. Five Leaves is pleased to have published half a dozen of his own books, but this weekend was all about Iron. And the arts community of the North East coast. There were few people from Newcastle itself - city folk! - but plenty from up and down the coast, from Durham, from rural Northumbria, and three from Nottinghamshire. I use the words arts community on purpose, because there were artists, luvvies, musicians, community activists as well as literary types. Plus which (to use one of Pete's own phrases) the events were generally a mixture of music and literature, with local bands playing ranging from an a cappella women's group to some very imaginative new folkies.
Peter tells something of the Iron story in Through the Iron Age, an A6 pamphlet. I wanted more, but this will have to do. You can order it through www.inpressbooks.co.uk or send Iron Press £3 and a copy will be yours.
I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend - including talking with editors from North East publishers Red Squirrel, Bloodaxe, Smokestack and fellow visitors Route as well as seeing Pete and his partner, the writer Kitty Fitzgerald. Fortunately I was stuck behind a bookstall so did not have to even  pretend I would have loved to have gone out to sea to write Haiku, one of the Iron Press Festival's oddest moments. But the sea was too rough and the sea Haiku trip was called off. Is this the first time a rough sea has ever cancelled a poetry event? There were other odd moments - it takes some doing to get lost in a fishing village in the middle of the night, but I did so ("I know the sea is here somewhere...") and it took two policepeople to help me buy a ticket at Cullercoats Metro on leaving so that I did not have to commit the crime of travelling without a ticket. But I did get to see the sea, a bonus if you live in Nottingham normally, and in its honour, here's a photo of a boat taken at the beautiful house of my host for the weekend, Jill Clarke, Cullercoats' answer to Mrs Madrigal.

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