The Numbers Game

A J Kirby reading an extract of at the LS13 launch

AJ Kirby reading an extract from ‘Prometheus City: A Leeds Crime Novel’ at the LS13 launch.
Photo by Steve Evans.

LS13 writer, AJ Kirby, considers Leeds’s ever-growing situation in the literary world.

London-based Tottenham Hotspur Football Club always used to talk about it being their fate to win a trophy in a year ending in a 1. Another famous institution from our capital has a thing about years ending in 3. I’m talking about Granta magazine, who every 10 years take it upon themselves to dust off their crystal balls, peer into the cloudy glass, and then name their 20 most promising British novelists under 40.

More often than not, they’ve got it right. 1983’s list contained such names as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, Pat Barker and Rose Tremain; amongst 1993’s alumni were Jeanette Winterson and Alan Hollinghurst; in 2003 it was time for Sarah Waters, Monica Ali and Zadie Smith to take their bows.

This year, the names included David Szalay, Taiye Selasi, Sarah Hall, Zadie Smith, Adam Foulds and Adam Thirwell.

I subscribe to Granta. I feel it introduces me to writers and writing I might otherwise not encounter. And I’d been looking forward to reading the Best British Novelists issue for some time. However almost as soon as I cracked the spine and read the introduction, something grated on me. The foreword was penned by the magazine’s editor John Freeman. Freeman set the tone for the collection by introducing us to some of the writers, including one Sunjeev Sahota. Sahota, apparently “had never read a novel until he was 18 – until he bought Midnight’s Children at Heathrow. He studied maths, he works in marketing and finance; he lives in Leeds, completely out of the literary world.”

It was one of those moments. I thought did I really read that?

So I read it again. And yup, that’s exactly what Freeman had written. The implication was that the 31-year-old Sahota had managed to become one of the most exciting talents writing in Britain today despite living in ‘the land that time forgot’. As though it was some terrible hardship Sahota has had to overcome; as though it was a sob story in some soul-destroying TV talent show, engineered to canvass votes.

And it seems Freeman’s comments didn’t only grate on me. There’s been something of a backlash from our northern backwater. We’ve chained up our whippets, donned our flat caps, shut the door to our outdoor privies and taken it upon ourselves to prove him wrong.

2013’s been just about the most literary year I can remember in the dirty old town of Leeds.

A J Kirby appearing at the Leeds Cross Cultural Book Fair in July 2013. Photo by Route Publishing.

AJ Kirby appearing at The Leeds Cross-Cultural Book Fair in July 2013.
Photo by Route Publishing.

There’s been the Leeds Big Bookend festival – now in its second year, and going from strength to strength. The Leeds Cross-Cultural Book Fair. Leeds Reads have compiled this brilliant map of literary Leeds using Google Maps.

David Peace’s new book, Red or Dead, is out now and is attracting rave reviews. Anthony Clavane’s Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? has been shortlisted for the 2013 Football Book of the Year.

So might it be time to reclaim Freeman’s words? Or perhaps to read them differently? What if the editor of Granta meant Leeds was “completely out of the literary world” as a compliment? And not a back-handed one. What if he meant it as an enthusiastic summation instead?

What if he meant: Literary Leeds is out of this world?

It certainly seemed that way on Friday 7th June when, as part of the Leeds Big Bookend Festival, the city of Leeds announced its own shortlist of the 20 most promising Leeds writers under 40 at the launch of the LS13 anthology.

I’m bursting with pride to be one of the LS13 top 20. It was lovely to meet other Leeds writers at the event in June. Will there be a future star amongst those names? Will the list be as prescient as some of the Granta lists have been? Will Dan Annett or Cristina Archetti, Jenny Beech or Matthew Bellwood, SJ Bradley or Sarah Brooks, Joshua Byworth or Rosa Campbell, Max Dunbar or Gareth Durasow, Aissa Gallie or Lizzi Hawkins, Adam Lowe or Zodwa Nyoni, Caleb Parkin or Adam Z. Robinson, Richard Smyth, Claire Stephenson or Matthew Hedley Stoppard hit the literary big time (as Freeman defines it or otherwise)? I don’t know. But Freeman will be relieved to discover that nobody in attendance dragged along a whippet. Nor was there a single writer clad in a string vest. Nor were we typecast extras from an Emmerdale pub scene. Some of us might have said “owt” and “nowt” but despite that, there was great drama in some of the readings. And I think the range of the writing on offer in the collection is testimony to the fact Leeds is alive with stories right now.

It’s out of this world with them.


AJ Kirby somehow manages to write fiction and non-fiction despite the crippling disability of living in Leeds. He is the author of the novels Paint this Town Red, Bully and Sharkways, and an Amazon chart-topping football book. His short fiction has been published across the web, and in magazines, anthologies and literary journals, as well as in two collections: The Art of Ventriloquism and Mix Tape. He was one of 20 Leeds-based authors under 40 recently shortlisted for the LS13 competition and his novel Paint this Town Red was shortlisted for last year’s The Guardian Not the Booker prize. He blogs at

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