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Only way is up for good books
West Yorkshire publisher Kevin Duffy could have been a contender for significant literary prizes.
In 1998, he won a national writing competition and was wined and dined at London restaurant The Ivy.
Hodder and Stoughton were lined up to publish his first novel, the comic Anthills And Stars, but decided they wouldn’t be able to sell 20,000 copies of a new novel.
So instead of rubbing shoulders with Metroland’s literary luvvies at the Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham festivals, Kevin plotted his revenge in Hebden Bridge and, in 2006, launched Bluemoose Books.
Not content with that, the man who once “appeared in pantomime” with the late Les Dawson intends to launch a new venture at next year’s Huddersfield Literary Festival: the Northern Book Award.
Kevin said: “It has got to be a cash award, £10,000 at least, so that a writer can go away and write the second book. I am looking for a rich Northern businessman.
“By March next year, the award will be launched, so by 2011 we will have the first Northern Book Award winner.”
The director of the week-long Huddersfield festival is Bradford-based writer Michael Stewart. Having spent some time listening to Kevin outline his aims, he fully endorses the proposed award.
“There are a number of northern-based independent publishers doing great work. They are the unsung heroes of the literary world, run by committed people passionate about literature but yet when do the broadsheets ever cover them?
“It’s time to start making a noise. The London-centric nature of the literary world is evident. The effect of this is not to make the British literary scene cosmopolitan – in fact it takes it in the opposite direction, that of provincialism. Their choice is narrow, their tastes are bourgeois. Up in the North, we have wider ambitions.”
The Northern Book Award started off as a jest; but Kevin says Waterstones, in Leeds, love the idea and want to promote books by Northern-based writers – not just Northern-born writers; there is a big difference.
He has sold books for a living for a long time and knows how insular and club-like the literary world is south of the Watford Gap.
They are interested in making lots of money. Kevin, while not uninterested in lots of money, is driven by the desire to see lots of interesting stories published which, at the moment, are blocked.
“People are tired of it. They use the internet now to review the books they are reading. Some of it is terrible, but it is getting away from literary agents – the gatekeepers of literature – and the Oxbridge elite.
“They will call you ‘provincial’. That’s the worst insult they can throw at you. I don’t care. What we have done at Bluemoose is to start local and now the ripples are moving out,” he added.
Bluemoose Books, in the past three years, has sold about 7,000 copies of its list of four publications – two fiction and two non-fiction. That is more than creditable, especially given the circumstances of the last 14 months. During a recession, people tend to cut down on buying new books.
If reading is dying, as some people believe, that’s because story-telling no longer occupies the place it once did in the cultural life of this country. Kevin, from an Irish Catholic background in which story-telling was central, wants to restore good story-telling.
“When I read I want to be transported somewhere. You want to be taken somewhere with a story. Writers writing about writing – who cares? It’s only London writers who talk about that at dinner parties.”
And what about Les Dawson?
“In 1982 I was a stagehand at a theatre in Stockport when he was appearing in pantomime. I did all the backstage stuff for him – he was a great wordsmith. I used to go out and buy bottles of whisky for him.”
The two Bluemoose novels are Stephen Clayton’s The Art Of Being Dead and Kevin’s Anthills And Stars. Stephen Clayton used to be a member of the 1970’s band Tractor, greatly admired and helped by the late John Peel.