Andy Owen – East of Coker “I must tell my story and I must encourage others to tell their stories”.

By Nicoletta Peddis

Andy Owen served in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army reaching the rank of Captain. He completed operational tours in Northern Ireland (2003), Iraq (2004 and 2005) and on intelligence duties in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2007. He published his first novel, “Invective”, in 2014.

On Thursday the 23rd of January, as part of the York Literature Festival, Andy Owen presented his second novel, “East of Coker” (2016), about the personal aftermath of conflict. Interviewed by Dr. Fraser Mann, he explored the themes of his novel, which uses TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as a structural and thematic starting point, asking challenging questions about our responsibilities to those that have seen and experienced war. He explained how Eliot’s poem has influenced him both for its use of language and for the way he uses myth to relate contemporary events to past events, showing the cyclic nature of history. Owen uses myth in own novel for the same reasons, and also uses references to a whole range of literary texts creating an intertextual layer that makes his novel fascinating and engaging. He believes that, has TS Eliot himself said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal” and that writer, when starting a book, finds himself in stream where all that is been written before washes upon him, making intertextuality in this sense an unconscious process of awareness.

 

Andy Owen also reflected on the importance of literature and storytelling in creating empathy. Sharing stories of people suffering of PTSD because of their war experiences can help people to better understand how it feels to suffer the aftermath of conflict, increasing understanding and helping to fight the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, especially in the military environment. Regarding the importance of storytelling in dealing with trauma, Andy Owen also spoke about his collaboration with the War Writers Campaign and their work with veterans and PTSD professionals. The aim of this charity association is, through written awareness, to change the social perception about veterans’ issues and to promote mental therapy through the literary world and through creative writing. It is possible to find out more about War Writers Campaign at

http://www.warwriterscampaign.org/ and more about Shoulder to Shoulder, another association that helps veterans with mental health issues in Glasgow and with which Andy Owen collaborates, at http://timebank.org.uk/shoulder-to-shoulder .

 

Read Nicoletta’s interview with Andy Owen tomorrow on Point Zero.

York Literature Festival: James Montgomery Performance. “For books, my friend, are charming brooms”.

 

By Nicoletta Peddis

On Wednesday the 22nd of March, as a part of York Literature Festival, Dr. Adam Smith guided the audience through the life and poetry of James Montgomery delivering an engaging performance combining readings of Montgomery’s poetry with interesting insight of the biography of this complex historical character.

Trailer for Adam Smith's performance on Montgomery at Sheffield's "Festival of the Mind" in 2016.

 

Montgomery was born in Scotland, the son of missionaries of the Moravian Brethren. He was sent to be trained for the ministry at the Moravian School at Fulneck, near Leeds. At Fulneck, secular studies were banned, but James nevertheless found means of borrowing and reading a good deal of poetry and made ambitious plans to write epics of his own. Failing school, he was apprenticed to a baker in Mirfield. After further adventures, including an unsuccessful attempt to launch himself into a literary career in London, he moved to Sheffield to work at the Sheffield Register, directed by Joseph Gales. At the Register, a newspaper of radical ideas, Montgomery rediscovered his passion for literature and started to write inflamed poems in the poetry section of the publication, the “Repository of Genius”, regarding themes such as the abolition of slavery and the conditions of the working class. In 1794, Gales left England to avoid political prosecution and Montgomery took the paper in hand, changing its name to the Sheffield Iris. These were times of political repression and Montgomery was charged with sedition and treason for the publication of a poem that he never wrote and imprisoned in 1975 at York Castle prison for three months. He continued to write poems that were sent to the Iris and to which readers responded. A pamphlet of poems written during his captivity will be published in 1796 as “Prison Amusements”. After his release, Montgomery is charged again in less than a year for criticizing a magistrate for forcibly dispersing a political protest in Sheffield. After this experiences James Montgomery’s life started to change. He turned away to politics and activism and turned to business. He carried on writing poems and started to write hymns. He later was decorated with the title of Poet Laureate and became a Tory MP.

Did James Montgomery become the establishment he was fighting against? Did he turn his back to his ideals? He was definitely a complex and fascinating character and, as Dr. Adam Smith reminded us, even though his political views changed the theme of slavery always remained extremely important to him and Montgomery definitely never turned his back to literature and poetry.

The performance that Dr. Adam Smith delivered at York St John’s University as part of the York Literature Festival is part of a wider research regarding the connection between poetry and radical protest in Sheffield between 1790 and 1810. The focus on James Montgomery is one of the results of this broader research ending in “The Wagtail Poet Prison Project”. It is possible to find out more about this project at https://yorkwagtailpoets.wordpress.com and it is also possible to respond to James Montgomery’s prison poems either creatively or critically getting in touch with Dr. Adam Smith at a.smith3@yorksj.ac.uk .