Entertainment | Literature: Off the Shelf Festival of Words, Sheffield (ft. Jenni Murray and Stephen McGann)


Over the past month, I've attended a variety of talks across Sheffield as part of the Off the Shelf Festival of Words. The festival invites authors of newly released books to come and talk about their latest work and this year has included the likes of Mark Haddon, Robert Webb and Brian Blessed to name but a few. The festival encompassed both fiction and non-fiction, although the events I attended were mostly about books of a non-fictional, specifically historical nature.

I've long been of the opinion that one tiny topic can open up discussions of much wider things, and a great charm of Off the Shelf was that it repeatedly proved that to me. As I listened to Lynn Knight give a talk on women's history via the clothes that they wore, I was rather in awe at how her family button box could spark an entire, well-researched book.

I always love when a piece of history comes along and challenges all my preconceptions. In particular, Alison Weir's talk on Anne Boleyn and Dr Miranda Kaufmann's Black Tudors talk had me rethink everything I thought I knew about the Tudors. As a ten-year-old, I'd been fascinated by this historical period and took it upon myself to know everything there was for a ten-year-old to know. But of course I never realised the complexity and mystery surrounding Anne Boleyn's character, the gender politics of a royal courtship or even that she wasn't actually executed for witchcraft (but instead adultery, incest and plotting regicide). Kaufmann, meanwhile, took us through her struggles in digging up details of the obscure characters of the past to prove that Black Tudors really existed and not as slaves but as working people of England (albeit of a somewhat lower status). Her talk fascinated its audience as she unearthed secrets of never-before-discussed elements of British history.

Jenni Murray of Radio 4's Women's Hour gave a wonderful interview with Dr Julie Gottlieb from my very own University of Sheffield's Department of History, in which she spoke about her book, A History of Britain in 21 Women. As a big fan of anecdotal history, this book was already right up my street for its structure as a selection of snappy stories told of particular characters. Murray read an extract from her book about how history should no longer be considered solely the story of great men, a sentiment I am fully behind in all that I do as a student.
It was Thomas Carlyle, circa 1840 who said 'The history of the world is but the biography of great men'... Let's simply set aside Carlyle's hopelessly outdated view and make sure our children know that the history of the world is the history of great men and women.
 I left Murray's talk feeling hugely empowered. She had talked so candidly about the women who inspired her and why, and about how we as women today can learn from the experiences of these women and how all of us can help to shape a better tomorrow from the lessons of the past. She was a wonderful speaker with such a passion for what she was promoting, and a very funny woman too. I'm currently partway through her book which she so easily persuaded me to purchase, so watch this space for a review!

Stephen McGann's latest offering, Flesh & Blood is his family history told through the maladies they suffered. Whilst this seems auto-biographical, it actually opens up to a more general social history of the country, beginning in the slums of Liverpool that his family came from. I admired the candidness of McGann's talk, it felt like he was holding very little back of his life in order to allow people to learn from and reflect upon his own experiences of struggles with mental health, struggles with family life, and much more that is so intrinsic to family life yet so tabooised. This all came as rather unexpected from a book about maladies but McGann certainly evidenced that any topic can spark a broader discussion, and that a study of history is a perfect platform for which to launch into discussion of today's society.

I had a wonderful month darting to and from Off the Shelf events and bitterly regret that I never had in the previous two years I've lived in Sheffield. With such a broad selection of events, there really is something for everyone, and I thoroughly recommend checking it out in the coming years! My preconceptions have been altered, my horizon of ideas has been broadened and I feel hugely creatively inspired by all the authors I listened to.