Reviews by Judith Dunn

JEAN Moorcroft Wilson is an expert on the poets of the First World War.

Presenting her new biography of Edward Thomas during Ilkley Literature Festival, she argued that, although not a “war poet” in the same way as Brooke or Sassoon, his work was certainly coloured by the conflict. A prolific writer, Thomas turned to poetry only in 1914 and his career was brutally cut short in 1917 on the Somme. His poetry was an antidote to depression, but he was no mere depressive, any more than he was just a mystic or a pastoral poet.

Moorcroft Wilson gave us a picture of a complex, charismatic character whose work had a lasting influence on 20th century poetry – the father of us all, in Ted Hughes’ judgement. This biography is timely; a lot of new material has come to light since the last one, in the 1980s, which subscribed to a number of myths surrounding Thomas. Moorcroft Wilson sets out to challenge these and also to explore the poet’s troubled relationship with his wife.

An entertaining triple bill saw playwright John Godber, novelist Helen Cross and poet Peter Sansom reading their work and conversing with each other and the audience at the Playhouse about what it means to be a “Northern” writer. A relative concept of course, as a native of Inverness once scathingly pointed out to John Godber. And is there one Yorkshire when we have three Ridings and the Ackworth community has a stand-off with Featherstone or Upton? The answer is yes, as any journey from a London theatre planning meeting to Doncaster will demonstrate.

At Rombalds Hotel, Justin Cartwright talked to James Nash about his new novel Up Against the Night, set in his native South Africa. Beginning chillingly with the massacre of the Boer leader, Piet Retief, by Zulus in 1838, the novel deals with the journey to SA of Frank, with his drug-damaged daughter and a child, Isaac. The themes are close to Cartwright; his mother was a Retief, so he is a direct descendant of Piet, and Isaac is closely modelled on his own grandson. Family relationships and the generations are explored. The hour gave a fascinating insight into a strife-torn country. Afrikaners never took the natives seriously, so mutual fear and distrust meant that genocide was waiting to happen. The “rainbow nation” is a pipe-dream and the violent gun culture is endemic. All this is in contrast to such an achingly beautiful landscape.

The Festival fizzed to a headline close with Simon Schama at Kings Hall on Sunday. He was presenting The Face of Britain, a study of portraiture. Schama himself should have been a subject, with his concertina leather trousers and improbable blue boots. This brilliant outfit had the audience mesmerised as he strode about, clearly thoroughly enjoying himself. First came an affecting video sequence of a baby, his little grand-daughter, learning to read her mother’s face – the first skill a child learns, well before language.

Schama then bounced onstage, snapping the audience on a phone. He contrasted the use of Snapchat, whose 100 million daily users flesh out messages with images autodestructing after a very short time, with portraits designed to last and create a nation’s family. These should not, however, be taken at “face” value, filtered as they are through the vanity of the sitter, the mischief of the artist and the verdict of the public. A moving sequence of slides recorded the damaged faces of soldiers, the “broken gargoyles”, prior to reconstructive surgery. This struck a deeply serious note at a time of so many anniversaries. The audience responded warmly to this engaging presentation. The hall was almost full in spite of the high ticket price – including a copy of Schama’s book – a tribute in itself to a popular personality.

But it’s not over until the poet speaks. Or the stand-up. Or the short story writer. The Open Mic competition has developed into a slick and convivial entertainment. The format is brilliant: a random draw selects 16 participants who each have three minutes to convince audience and judges that they deserve the first prize of £200, the second of £75 or the third of £25. Mark Connors won, for the second year running, with a poem about his local undertaker. Second was John Hepworth, with a poetic homage to John Cooper Clarke, and third was Joanna Sedgwick with a moving poem about communicating with her profoundly deaf daughter. The event was ably compèred by Craig Bradley – that poetry bloke, as it says on the T-shirt – who must inspire kids all over.

One of the best things about LitFest is the new avenues it opens up. For me in 2015, it was the poetry of John Cooper Clarke – thank you Open Mic and John Hepworth. Check out Beasley Street on Youtube.

LitFest may be over, but the Ilkley Arts Festival is imminent. Taking in all aspects of cultural activity, it runs until December. Check out what’s on offer at Tourist Information and via leaflets around the town.