Blog: Madeline Heneghan

Co-director of Liverpool's Writing on the Wall festival, celebrating its 20th birthday

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We’ve been running WoWFest for 20 years now. In fact we’re Liverpool’s longest-running literature festival. Looking back at two decades of work, we’re really proud to be so involved with creative writing and literature in the city and to have worked with our amazing community here in Toxteth. That’s why, for this year’s WoWFest theme, we decided to ask a question – where are we now? Questions prompt answers, encourage discussion and promote collaboration – all key elements of our vision here at WoW.

In thinking about how our festival programme and community might collaborate more closely, we’re proud to be working with Fans Supporting Foodbanks. We’re asking audiences to bring a tin with them to events. It’s hard to believe foodbanks are a part of daily life for so many people and we want our festival to take that extra step in supporting the community. I’m sure these issues will be explored in our Jarrow: Road to the Deep South event, which explores the Jarrow March protesting against unemployment and poverty in 1936 with BBC 6 Music’s Stuart Maconie.

In asking the question where are we now, we have to look back to know where we’ve been and the people who’ve paved the way for us. One of these iconic people for us is Poly Styrene. She was a lifeline, an antidote to the mind-numbing conformity of small-town existence. We remember the wild crowds in 2008 at the Rock Against Racism anniversary where she belted out Oh Bondage! Up Yours! We’re honoured to be marking Poly’s legacy as the first woman of punk with the book launch of Dayglo!: The Poly Styrene Story, written by her talented daughter Celeste Bell and music journalist Zoe Howe.

We discovered 2019 is a historical year with many important anniversaries that echo still today

Thinking of women who’ve ripped up the script, we can’t not mention legendary comedian Jo Brand. A regular and prominent face on TV since the 1980s, she’s unashamedly vocal and epitomises so much about what it means to be a woman today. Women like Brand have never been more important, giving a huge finger to the patriarchy and the ideals we seem forced to comply with.

In our process of digging through the past for inspiration, we discovered 2019 is a historical year with many important anniversaries that echo still today. The most prevalent of these may be the Peterloo Massacre, a tragic event when cavalry charged on a large mass of people gathered to protest for parliamentary representation in Manchester. Acclaimed Salfordian director Mike Leigh has brought this historical occasion back into our cultural memory and we think it’s important to be showing his film Peterloo and discussing the massacre’s impact and how it’s being brushed under the carpet as “a well-kept secret”.

The second of our three anniversaries is close to Liverpool’s hearts, and indeed for us here at WoW. We’ve led a vital project documenting the 1919 race riots, and this year we’re commemorating those caught in these riots with an exhibition of letters from black workers, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool and central government showcasing attitudes toward those in Liverpool following the First World War, alongside walking tours that revisit the streets where the riots took place, and a unique conference discussing the impact of the riots and how they have shaped the UK today.

The final anniversary we’re commemorating is 50 years since the Stonewall riots. This landmark moment in queer history changed the world for LGBTQI+ people. Today, MPs decide whether LGBTQI+ sex education is “ethical” and countries like Chechnya are systematically detaining, torturing and killing queer people. The struggle for LGBQTI+ equality continues whilst simultaneously LGBQTI+ culture is moving seemingly into the mainstream, so in these confusing, paradoxical times we can think of no one better than activist Peter Tatchell to ask the question “Queer Are We Now?”

We felt this programme should have a strong LGBTQI+ presence, and there are lots of reasons we can’t wait to hear Munroe Bergdorf speak, including her thoughts surrounding trans activism, systematic racism and changing beauty standards. Only recently a trans woman was violently attacked during a demonstration in Paris, highlighting the need for voices like Bergdorf’s to be heard and valued. Joined by Lady Phyll, the co-founder of UK Black Pride, this event looks set to be one of the most insightful events of the festival.

One of the most immediate responses to our theme was looking at the state of grime music in today’s world. In Liverpool grime has a distinct and unique style, and is arguably the most popular music within our communities. It’s communities like ours that have allowed grime to step out of the shadows and anchor itself as one the most recognisable and important genres today, with its political consciousness and triumphant rise to the mainstream. We’re bringing experts Jude Yawson, who co-wrote Stormzy’s definitive Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far, and Dylan Thomas Award-winning poet Kayo Chingonyi, alongside local artists Dorcas Seb and Blue Saint.

We’re really looking forward to bringing our programme the city and think it’s one of the most radically relevant and exciting programmes around. We’re very proud to be connected to such high profile, hard-working, politically conscious and talented artists and to highlight our equally amazing communities alongside them.

If you’re interested in our programme you can check out all 63 events and buy tickets over at

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