Reading Matter

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Sheffield is poised and ready for the Off The Shelf festival, and this Fargate From The Madding Crowd has a distinctly steel city flavour.

Not only do we look at one of the festival’s opening events, taking place on The Moor on 7 October, but my read of the fortnight is also Sheffield born and bred. Steph Henley is a local writer who has fictionalised a trial for gross indecency in 1897. These are shocking events by today’s standards, but Henley does a great job of bringing them to light.

Let me know what you think of it with a reader review of your own via email or twitter @AnnaCaig

Read of the fortnight - Boy In Blue by Steph Henley

Just two years after Oscar Wilde’s conviction at the Old Bailey for gross indecency, twelve men were tried at West Riding Assizes for the same crime.
In Boy In Blue, Sheffield writer Steph Henley tells their story, and that of the police officer who gave evidence against them, treading that difficult line between relating historical events, and extrapolating the detail of what may have happened. 
John Higgins is the police officer at the centre of the story, a gay man who is also from Sheffield, at a time when to openly act on his desires would have spelled social isolation and career suicide (as well as potential imprisonment, of course).

We follow his struggles, and his eventual betrayal of the men who have come to be his friends, as well as lovers.

Henley does a great job of convincing us of the plausibility of this version of the story, and it’s a gripping read even when we know where it’s all heading.

I was hooked.

At its heart this is a book about the tension between a man’s romantic desires, and his craving for respectability and professional success. He can’t fulfil both.

Henley came across the story of the trial while researching her own family at Sheffield Local Studies Library.

The men had been arrested at a private party and their ‘crime’, considered at the time to be of a ‘revolting character’ was victimless.

The outrage was that some of them wore skirts and aprons and did ‘strange dancing’. From there, Henley was drawn into a world of nineteenth century policing, prisons, research into psychosis and attitudes to sexuality, as well as genealogy on each of her characters.

We hear the story from the perspectives of several different narrators, primarily John but also his wife and one of the men who is on trial.

But it is the fact that this (the trial and its outcomes at least) really happened, that is the star of the show here. Something about this book being set on my doorstep brought it home how far we’ve come.

There may still be a long way to go – but we’re a million miles away from this.
Whether or not Henley’s take on the background to what happened at the trial is accurate, we will never know. But she has done a great job bringing this episode in our history to light.

And for what it’s worth, I’m convinced.

Reader Reviews: The Master Of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson

There are many reasons why you should read The Master of Ballantrae.

I could tell you RLS is the greatest prose stylist in the history of the English language or that this novel sees him explore brilliantly the themes of duality which run through his work. And yet, while true, that would seem to rather miss the point.

Rattling good tales are what he excelled at and this is no different. The tendency for wealthy families to hedge their bets during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 provides the starting point for a tale of escalating sibling rivalry.

The feud between Henry Durrisdeer and his fiery, violent, manipulative elder brother James (the Master of the title) takes place over two decades and a little over 200 pages. It features fiancée swapping, pirates, treasure maps inked in blood, blackmail, spies, bloody duels, sinister Oriental henchman, a descent into madness and the threat of murder at every turn.

Like a Bond movie it flits from Scotland to France, India, New York and the wilds of Canada and at its heart is the monstrous and mercurial figure of the Master.

Stevenson stated that he contained all that he knew of evil and his incessant, unmitigated, selfish desire propels him on his quest for vengeance against the brother he feels wronged him.

Concise yet epic it illustrates a fundamental understanding of the intricacies of human nature coupled with the literary verve required to create an exciting page turner full of memorable imagery and spine-tingling moments.

Literary City: The sheffield Connection

Sheffield’s literary community, and booklovers young and old all over the city, are gearing up for the varied programme of events on offer as part of this year’s Off The Shelf, the festival of words, that kicks off on 7 October.

It promises to be a diverse celebration of the power of words and books to enrich our lives in many ways.

But one event, on the opening day of the festival, should well and truly bring the magic of reading to life.

Magical Books, taking place on The Moor from 1pm to 4pm, is a free event for all the family that pays tribute to the magic of books and timeless stories.

The fantastic Grimm & Co, Rotherham’s magical apothecary and creative writing hub, and a firm favourite of Fargate From The Madding Crowd, will be there with all their trademark inspiration-stimulants: a dark den, story spinning, fairytale mail, wand making, potions, wild schemes and kitchenware.

All children, adults, witches, fairies, wizards and elves are welcome at this celebration of all things magical in books, in this, the twentieth anniversary year of the first story starring a certain boy wizard.

Amanda Phillips, centre manager for The Moor said: “The Moor is delighted to be supporting Off the Shelf 2017 with Magical Books. Our family events are very popular and this will introduce young children to favourite story heroes and characters, and as Harry Potter is twenty years old this year, maybe remind some of our students in the city what started them reading in the first place. Who wouldn’t want to meet Hagrid!”

There will be lots of fun arts and crafts activities including storytelling, takeaway spells and potion-making. You can make a dragon puppet to take home and train, play an enchanted glass harp, write your own mini-book, create a potion, make your own wand with a certificate of authenticity and much more.

Watch out for wizards, witches and real magicians.

Children are also invited to come dressed as their favourite magical character or creature and join the fancy dress parade, which will be starting at 3pm.

Then the magic continues as The Light Cinema will be screening Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at 4pm.

Running until 28 October, this year Off The Shelf has taken a new curatorial approach, covering themes from radicalism, to crime and India, and a new community focus starting with Somali culture.

All this on top of the usual big names, from Lee Child to Harriet Harman to Robert Webb.

To take a look at the full programme go to