Off the Shelf Festival, Sheffield: Front page stuff

Polly Checkland Harding

Off the Shelf Festival 2014 might take a rather unassuming billing, but don’t be fooled – this literature festival packs a punch.

Its website might not be the most streamlined, but Sheffield’s Off the Shelf literary festival has much else to be pleased about. With over 200 events, featuring international guests from countries including Jamaica, Cuba, Sweden and the Czech Republic, this month long celebration of prose, poetry and publishing deserves some serious attention. What is perhaps most impressive is the range of events, which cover emerging writers, digital fiction, comedy, food, the Sex Pistols and more.

Early on in the festival is a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by former Poet Laureate of Canterbury, Patience Agbabi, and Beyond the Book, an exploration of digital fiction by the award-winning Kate Pullinger. Following on from this, poetry takes centre stage for an event with Lorna Goodison, winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and the Poetry Review Autumn Issue Launch, helmed by editor Maurice Riordan and held at the Sellers Wheel. There’s also an artistic accompaniment to Off the Shelf in the form of exhibition Picture the Poet at the Graves Art Gallery; a photographic showcase of the country’s leading pen smiths, including Wendy Cope, Benjamin Zephaniah and Kate Tempest.

This month long celebration of prose, poetry and publishing deserves some serious attention

Less poetic, more primal is an event with John Lydon, former front man of the Sex Pistols. Lydon will be talking about and around his new autobiography Anger is Energy, which spans an iconic life of riot. Comedian and writer Francesca Martinez brings all her energy and humour to What the **** is Normal?!, a book that explores her life having been diagnosed with cerebral palsy aged two. Her appearance at Off the Shelf promises to be bold, funny and, at times, unexpected. Describing the trials and tribulations of training her own goshawk is writer, poet, illustrator and Cambridge University historian Helen Macdonald; she presents her celebrated book H is for Hawk, which came out of the process. Macdonald is followed by a screening of Ken Loach’s heart-breaking film Kes at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema.

There’s a return to comedy with Paul Merton in conversation, an event at The Crucible theatre where the much loved funny man from Have I Got News For You and Just a Minute speaks about his piercing autobiography, Only When I Laugh. Towards the end of October, historian John Lahr will be speaking about his new biography of Tennessee Williams, whose Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opens in Manchester at the end of the month. With Helen Mort, Howard Jacobsen, Rachel Joyce and Wendy Cope also on the programme, this year’s Off the Shelf festival is fit to bursting with some of the UK’s brightest and best. The moral of this story: don’t judge a book by its cover.

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