Writing on the Wall festival

Liverpool’s festival of radical writing is back for its 21st year with an online edition. Chris Moss speaks to musician Tracey Thorn about her efforts to put the female experience front and centre

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Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall festival, which kicks off (virtually) from Liverpool on 1 May, was born of the Liverpool Dockers protests of 1995-98. It’s doubly fitting then that its theme for these testing times is “21 years of radical writing”. Authors taking the platform include American crime writer Walter Mosley, 2020 Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart, Sheffield-based poet Helen Mort and cartoonist Steve Bell. Audio dramas, poetry readings, book launches and writing workshops will tackle issues such as decolonising the curriculum, systematic sexism, LGBTQ+ rights and prison rights.

On 12 May, biographer Zoë Howe will be in conversation with Tracey Thorn, discussing the latter’s latest book, My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend, which celebrates the life and work of Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison and offers a frank account of sexism in pop music and the male-dominated media circus surrounding it. Thorn and Morrison met backstage at London’s Lyceum theatre in 1983. Over the years they became confidantes, comrades and best friends, but Morrison’s career is also a case study in how women are written out of music history – including by fellow bandmates.

Thorn, who was also at WoWFest in 2015, is one of several women authors helping reshape music writing.

“Too many music books are built on clichés, repeating the same old tropes, the same old myths,” she says. “It gets very boring. It’s been refreshing in recent years to get more books from women, casting new light on the subject, showing us new perspectives. I’d count books by Viv Albertine, Kim Gordon, Chrissie Hynde. I’m still waiting for a book from Gillian Gilbert, the only member of New Order who hasn’t yet written one.”

Thorn adds that the sexism experienced by Morrison is still prevalent. “I still read interviews with women musicians in which they describe the exact same experiences of being patronised, marginalised and harassed by men they are working with, or who are in positions of power in the industry.

“Women are definitely speaking out more and more, and calling things to account, but it doesn’t seem to me that we have yet reached anything approaching equality.”

She says her radicalism does not take the “shouty, sloganeering” approach. “Throughout my career I’ve been quietly and consistently writing about experiences that are not standard pop-lyric material – the politics of women’s surnames, contraception, motherhood, periods, menopause, gender roles, toxic masculinity, the limitations of femininity, and so on, and so on.

“Now, as well as that, I’m writing books in which I’m foregrounding the experiences of girls and women, whether in music, or just in life. I’m still trying to tell the kind of stories that get overlooked, still writing in the style in which I’ve always written, aiming above all for clarity, honesty, and connection. If all that isn’t radical, I don’t know what is.”

Liverpool, known globally as a music city, is also a capital of radicalism. “Liverpool is full of people and organisations that are proud to speak up, be heard and push for equality for everyone,” says Mike Morris, festival co-director.

“To WoW, radical writing is about exploring those untold stories, of putting to the forefront those who have something important to say but aren’t being given the space to say it within the mainstream.”

The £40 festival pass allows access to over 40 events featuring Ken Loach, Jon Snow, Elif Shafak, Lady Phyll, Michael Rosen, Ben Okri, Laura Bates, Kit de Waal, Nikesh Shukla, Hassan Blasim, Maxine Hong Kingston and others. (writingonthewall.org.uk/wowfest)

Photo: Lindy Harrison and Tracey Thorn

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