Officiating at what has become a traditional Literature Festival event, Vane Women's Jackie Litherland, resplendent in a blue hat, introduced the collective's fourteenth and fifteenth publications, describing their authors as each, in their very different ways, "sieving their work for years to find the gold." The image is an apt one; the prospector accumulating treasure from many tiny specks of ore might well represent Vane Women, whose attention to detail serves up a feast for the eyes with their colourful stage settings, as well as for the mind in their publications. The two new books launched at the festival this year were The Right Amount of Vinegar by Margaret Rule and Chris Powell's short story collection, Burning the Blue Winged Boys.
Margaret Rule has distilled her poetry through the length of her lifetime, as well as the period of preparation of her book, for its roots go back to her Yorkshire childhood, though it ranges far and wide through time and space - which made it, she said, particularly difficult to title, and the group had combed through the poems several times until they came upon the phrase "the right amount of vinegar", with its associations with pickled herring, mint sauce and her own acerbic comments!
The photograph on the cover of The Right Amount of Vinegar shows William (Bill) Andrew offering his wares at his stall in Hawes market, at some time in the 1940s. His daughter unconsciously echoed his stance as she began her reading with Journeying Back, a description of the good things on sale at that market, and her own part in it:
At ten o' clock comes one small girlThis was an old-fashioned childhood, but Margaret Rule's distillation made it something alive, vivid and often mouth-watering: an early morning expedition, foraging for mushrooms, keeping one eye of the bullocks, who are x"frisky and curious", is rewarded with:
brown hair tightly plaited.
She carefully carries a wicker basket,
containing a flask and two buttered scones
wrapped in a tea-towel.
mushrooms for Sunday
breakfast with bacon
tripe and fried bread
Chris Powell had dressed to match her book (understandably so, for Pat Maycroft's design was the most praised of the festival so far): she posed next to Diane Cockburn's fantasia of flames and blue-winged cherubs, and explained the origins of her intriguing title: the "blue winged boys" were nothing more exotic than the decoration of a biscuit tin, which features in the title story, Burning the Blue Winged Boys, of which she read just enough to make it necessary for all those present to rush off, as soon as the break was declared, and buy the book.
She returned after the break, and read in its entirety her story, The Shallow End, which was broadcast in Radio 4's Opening Lines series. Those who were present for the Festival's Live from Durham event already know that the BBC is one of the forces committed to placing short stories before the public, and recognised many aspects of Chris Powell's description of her trip to the BBc for the recording. The BBC staff had all been very nice, "and did their best not to let on that I was the least important person there." The most important, of course, was the Studio Manager, who was "listening differently to the rest of us." If she was unimportant, though, it was only because her work was already completed; her portrait of an indomitable elderly lady adrift in a hotel swimming pool was unforgettable.
Margaret Rule's second set of readings skipped forward in time: "The middle years of one's life are so busy," she lamented. Taking up the theme of elderly people, she read two contrasting poems. Visiting Time concluded that it was a mistake to visit at lunch time:
Wait for a neater moment,while the title poem of the collection recalled the visits of her grandparents to Sunday lunch. Its descriptions of roast lamb sizzling in the Aga, the mint sauce which was her special province, and Grandfather's favourite jam roly-poly threatened to send the audience out into the night ravenous, but instead we ended with a lesson. After teaching for thirty years, said Margaret Rule, it is not so easy to stop. And:
When all is still and tucked away.
Skimming stones is becoming a lost art. I know this for a fact. I have been observant at the River.Stones were provided, so that all could take their new-found knowledge with them, and put it into practice.
& Peter Bennet