Gig Review: Launching the Marlborough Literature Festival programme

On a sunny evening last week I travelled to the beautiful town of Marlborough for a literary party of a type new to me. I had received an invitation to attend the launch of the Marlborough Literature Festival programme, to be held at the White Horse Bookshop on the high street. It proved a friendly if packed event.

The festival started small and has grown since its inception, but never too much to lose its intimacy. Using just a few nearby venues – rooms at the college, a church hall, art gallery, library, and the town hall which also hosts the festival’s box office, pop up bookshop and tea shop – it aims to offer

“events with enough variety – from bookbinding and beer to poetry and politics – for everyone whatever your age or interest”

“This year we welcome several leading authors whose names will be familiar to all, as well as those you may not yet have heard of, but who we think are well worth looking out for.”

The expected highlight of 2018 is the attendance of children’s author David Walliams. So popular was his event expected to be that he agreed to perform twice on the festival Sunday – and both events sold out on the first morning tickets went on sale, demand bringing down the on line booking system much to the frustration of everyone involved.

David Walliams is not the only big name to attend. The Golding Speaker is Rose Tremain. Kate Moss, Alan Johnson, Max Hastings, William Boyd and Chris Cleave will all be there. You may check out the full programme by clicking here.

Back though to the launch party. Those I chatted to were: involved in the festival organisation; representing the sponsors; from local media. All were invited to enjoy a glass of wine, browse the programme and purchase tickets. The queue for these ran the length of the bookshop throughout the event. There was also a healthy interest in the books on display.

Personally I am looking forward to listening to the Hiscox Debut Authors – Adelle Stripe and Mick Kitson. I am also intrigued by the Translation Duel where Ros Schwartz and Frank Wynne debate the literary dilemmas posed by L’Amant by Marguerite Duras.

Whatever your interest, if you can be in the area do please consider attending. There are now many literary festivals to choose from and I believe this is a good thing, especially for local book lovers and their independent bookshops. These can only survive if they receive your support.

You may follow news of the festival on Twitter: @MarlbLitFest 

You may also follow the bookshop: @whitehorsebooks

 

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Gig Review: Will Eaves in Bath

It is rare for me to attend an author event when I haven’t yet read the book being discussed. However, when I spotted that Will Eaves was to visit Toppings in Bath I couldn’t resist. His latest book, Murmur, has garnered many rave reviews on a wide variety of sites. Also, it is published by CB Editions. If Charles Boyle is willing to get behind an author then they must be worth checking out.

On the day of the event I was caught somewhat on the hop. Due to a clash with a popular sports broadcast the start time was changed, a message I received only a couple of hours before. It was worth the rush to get there. Will proved to be a friendly, patient and considerate speaker, attributes that were needed given some of the persistent questioning he encountered from one particular member of his audience.

Murmur was inspired by Alan Turing and is written from the point of view of an avatar based on the famous mathematician, biologist and philosopher. Will did not wish to cover Turing’s role at Bletchley Park as this has been much written about already. Instead he was interested in how such a genius would cope with the state sponsored torture of chemical castration, his barbaric punishment, having being charged with gross indecency. The book is about the experience of taking the drugs prescribed – the pain, stress and humiliation. It is about intelligence and secrets, trying to to decode a biological response.

Will imagined that Turing would study his own reaction, attempting to strip away the personal yet never being able to get away from this. Any experience is only ever fully felt by the person involved. Will’s Turing wishes to discover where his pain lies, emotional as well as physical.

The central section of the book is a series of dreams that are relayed as they occur. The importance of each dream isn’t what happens – other people’s dreams are rarely of interest to any other than them – but rather how they felt. These dreams are book-ended by letters between Turing and his fiancée in which he tries to work out what is happening to him. The dreams are at times surreal. They are written with a pulsing beat, a structure that sometimes constrained the author but also provided discipline.

Turing was administered the prescribed drugs at the Royal Infirmary. He was also required to meet with a psychoanalyst who proved more sympathetic to Turing’s predicament than expected. What he had been, a past self, would remain irretrievable. Will believed Turing would wish to understand what he had become, to uncover any pattern formation.

Two readings provided a flavour of the book. The audience were then invited to ask questions.

Will was asked if he understood the maths.

He talked of wanting to solve a puzzle, of Turing’s theory of consciousness, of artificial intelligence. He mentioned that in any system there are aspects that will never be proved. He consulted with a mathematician and physicist, not from the university where he works.

He was asked if he thought that Turing had committed suicide (this seemed to be veering even further away from the subject under discussion but the questioner was proving persistent). Will didn’t know, and the event chair intervened to bring things back on line.

Will told us that the book had taken six years to write. To gain background information about dreams he read Freud and Jung but wouldn’t describe this as research.

He was asked why he changed Turing’s name.

This was to avoid the sticky situation of putting words into the mouth of a genius. None of Turing’s dreams were written down so these were entirely invented. The pivotal sexual encounter occurred in London rather than Manchester as Will is unfamiliar with the latter city.

He was asked what started him on his journey to write the book

Will couldn’t remember. Perhaps it was the centenary of Turing’s birth, reading essays he had written. Will had just started a new job and was looking for a fresh project. Turing’s voice was asking to be heard.

The evening was drawn to a close with time to have books signed. I enjoyed a conversation with one of Will’s former students who was most complementary of his teaching. I then made my way to the front with my purchase. By this time the persistent questioner had once again commandeered Will’s attention so I did not have the opportunity to talk further. Whilst I regret the missed opportunity it did not spoil my evening. I now look forward to reading what sounds like a fascinating book.

 

Murmur is published by CB Editions. Signed copies are currently available at Toppings in Bath.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Class Matters

From the festival programme:

In 2017, Dead Ink Press published the pioneering anthology Know Your Place in which working class writers addressed the issue of class inequalities head on. Authors from the anthology, and elsewhere, discuss class and writing.

Chaired by Matthew De Abaitua, the panel for this discussion included one writer from the excellent Know Your Place. Due to a no show, festival co-director Alex Pheby stepped in at the last minute to join Yvonne Singh and Shiromi Pinto. The discussion covered much interesting ground. None of the four authors are now working class but, growing up, all experienced class issues. My daughter and I ended up discussing this event more than any of the others attended. I may write my own post on class in due course to process the thoughts provoked.

Yvonne opened the event and read her story, More Than Just a Dreamland, from the anthology. Yvonne is a journalist, writer and editor. Her parents are from the Windrush generation. She applied to Know Your Place because she wished to counter the grim stereotypes of the working class, to write something joyful. Her story is set around a British beach. Such places are derided by some yet they hold happy memories for so many. Yvonne had to work her way through university. She first became aware of class at this time.

Alex was asked what role class played in him becoming a writer. He writes about the mentally ill and told us their weirdness cuts out the bullshit by which we live our lives. Alex grew up on a council estate in Basildon. His family then moved to Worcester where, due to his accent, he was considered posh. He passed the 11+ exam and ended up at a public school. Here he was called a gypo – a derogatory term. He experienced a sense of displacement.

Matthew asked about class mobility, what is left behind, identity. Shiromi grew up in Canada and finds class issues baffling. When invited to join the panel she was asked what class she would be and didn’t know. She has the experience of an immigrant coming from an aspirational working class family who moved to improve their chances. Her parents left Britain for Canada as they wanted to leave behind the racism and difficulty of class mobility. They desired greater opportunities for their children.

Matthew asked what working class means now. Yvonne talked of a survey that suggested there were seven classes, the lowest being precarious due to the gig economy. Like the others on the panel she accepts that she is not working class but that is her background.

Matthew quoted Orwell: “he does not act, he is acted upon”. Working class people have no agency.

Yvonne agreed. Many people now feel they cannot shape their future. Housing is out of reach and the older generation do not understand the younger’s lived experiences today.

Alex talked of the post-Thatcher attempt to undermine the infrastructure of support – unions, libraries, society. We now live in a strange form of individualism.

Yvonne mentioned that when she goes back to visit her working class acquaintances she feels a type of imposter syndrome.

Alex told us that his family were very left wing, Marxist. He doesn’t feel that he belongs to that. Whatever he is, his kids are middle class.

Matthew then read from his book, Self & I, about a period when he was working as a security guard on the Liverpool docks while a student. His mentor was an older guard who expressed annoyance when talking about students, asking what is the point of English Literature? The man bought himself a can of coke each day as a treat. Money was tight and coke was not a necessity, it was a rare luxury item that he allowed himself. When Matthew worked for Will Self it was at times almost a Pygmalian type relationship.

Matthew asked the panel about Grenfill and austerity.

Yvonne could only attend university as she received a full grant. She still had to work.

Alex, a university lecturer, told us that the obligation to work impacts on students’ ability to write. With the abolition of grants, more students have to work. Some also need to juggle childcare. They leave with huge debts. When that generation gains power in the future they may cancel these debts. What impact will that have on capitalism? Vice Chancellors wish to improve their institutions’ standings in league tables so raise entrance criteria. This cuts down on the diversity of students affecting all of their experiences.

Shiromi mentioned that Canada has always had university fees. Students graduate and go on to wait on tables in an attempt to clear their debts.

Matthew asked if the panel feel antagonistic towards literary fiction.

Alex talked of the English literary world being one of privilege, centred around Oxbridge and white, English males. Agents look for mirrors of their experiences and this affects who they choose to represent. There is a supposition that if a writer is incapable of gaining entry to Oxbridge then they don’t deserve representation. This attitude is complicit in its continuation.

Yvonne pointed out that fiction exists to tell other people’s stories. It is therefore a shame to limit it to one type, to close doors.

Shiromi moved back to the UK as a student. She was considering becoming a writer but couldn’t see anyone who looked like her being selected. They were all Oxbridge, an incredibly narrow field. Independent publishers offer a lifeline but the industry as a whole is exclusively a certain type. It is dispiriting.

Matthew suggested commercial fiction acts as a censor.

Questions were invited from the audience, the first being if inspiration were drawn from working class music.

Yvonne said yes. Pulp’s Common People tells a great story. Punk poetry can inspire. It is now harder though in all the arts. She suggested that the sciences were more egalitarian than the arts (not my daughter’s experience as a medical student – unlike her, her peers are mostly private school educated).

A teacher at a comprehensive school mentioned Gove’s Baccalaureate and how it has cut the focus from arts subjects, that they are no longer encouraged. This will lead to the gap getting wider. There is no immersion for students in the arts, no encouragement.

Alex talked of an entire group of people looking around for people who fit within their personal taste boundaries. This structural prejudice may not be deliberate. In going with gut feeling people can end up racist, sexist. Literature is chosen for what is expected to sell. We should be looking for something we don’t know, for new voices.

A question was asked, how much does reader demographic affect what is written?

Shiromi told us that agents do this, not thinking about broadening readership.

Yvonne talked of the limitations of market forces and perceived safety.

An audience member suggested that in the 70s and 80s when women weren’t being published they set up their own presses. It was suggested that writers consider alternatives, ways around the problem of Oxbridge.

Alex told them they were preaching to the converted and need to go out and evangelise.

Matthew suggested that the working class may have internalised passivity, telling themselves that, ‘they need to sort it out’, never seeing themselves as the they. He repeated that the working class have things done to them. They lack agency. Their experience of opportunity differs. A new model needs to emerge.

The event had run over time and had to be drawn to a close. It was a lively and thought provoking discussion, and a fine way to round off my attendance at Greenwich. After a quick thank you to Alex for his part in organising such an excellent festival my daughter and I headed back to our digs to mull over all that had been said.

  

 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Smackdown!

From the festival programme:

Carrie Dunn and Toby Litt discuss the sport where genuine athleticism and scripted spectacle collide in such spectacular fashion – as well as addressing important gender issues, writing about sport and wrestling’s long and unexpected literary history.

Given my lack of interest is wrestling, of any kind, this was not an event I would have chosen to attend had I not recently read Wrestliana. My reaction to the book left me eager to meet the author and hear what he had to say on gender issues and expectations of modern masculinity. While Carrie addressed sexism in WWE, Toby did not elaborate on his views. He was lovely, and personally thanked my daughter and I for attending the event, but the direction the talk took did not offer an opportunity to discover more on how he felt about the issues of masculinity written into his book.

Chaired by Sam Jordison, the event included readings, discussion and an audience Q&A. I could have asked but didn’t feel comfortable veering into what I feared may be contentious territory.

Carrie is a sports journalist. She holds a masters degree in English Literature for which she read a lot of fan literature, such as Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. These books present sport as a means to do manly bonding. Yet plenty of girls also enjoy sport. Carrie has been playing football since she was seven years old. She did her PhD on women’s experiences in sport and now writes about them, particularly football and wrestling. She pointed out that women are also now attending more events as fans.

Toby talked of the expectation that, as a man, he should participate in sport and have an interest in it. When he attended a state school he enjoyed football. It was fun simply kicking a ball around. When he transferred to private school he was required to play rugby where he was put in the middle of the scrum. He disliked this and the other sports on offer, only being able to raise any enthusiasm for middle distance running. By the age of thirteen or fourteen he had turned against sport.

Instead he got into books, reading works by Keats and the Brontës. There is no sport in these. It was only later that he came to realise that he could choose to do a sport he enjoyed. He took up fencing, sword fighting! He has never regarded himself as sporty.

Sam asked about the liminal territory wrestling inhabits as a sport.

Carrie’s book, Spandex, was written just as the sport was growing in Britain. She was granted access as they wanted publicity. It looks behind the scenes of British Professional Wrestling, at the wrestlers, referees and fans. In the last five years the sport has developed. It is more collaborative. Injuries are minimised due to teamwork. There is a bond of trust between wrestlers.

Toby told us that, unlike professional wrestling, Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling is not scripted. It is competitive. Promoters haven’t decided on winners beforehand. It is local with wrestling having been enjoyed by participating families for generations. It is part of the fun of the fair. As a knockout competition each round becomes more intense. The weaker fighters have been weeded out. It is a community event, fun for all ages. Even teenagers will turn up to watch fights between local family members…

As part of Toby’s research for Wrestliana he went to a WWE bout (American wrestling in Britain). He observed that the audience were more nuanced than on the televised American shows, not always booing the baddie or cheering the goodie. He found it a bit boring, lacking intimacy.

Carrie agreed that interaction with the audience has not yet been sorted in professional wrestling. The goodies and baddies are decided on beforehand and the audience are required to buy into this. It is a performance, as in theatre. Wrestlers play their part, the character assigned to them in a promotion. It’s not about who wins or loses but rather who gets the attention.

Carrie talked about sexism in the sport, how one promoter boasted that he would never pay a woman more than £20, because she is a girl. Women may be chosen for how they look in costume. Participants in WWE must do as they are told.

The discussion turned to football. Before mass media coverage it was a knockaround sport played between rival villages. There was no pitch. It was a brawl, the aim being to capture the leather ball. As a sport with many participants, individuals didn’t have the fame that successful wrestlers enjoyed. Wrestling was bounded; charisma mattered.

In a lot of sports the players put themselves into the story being created. They convince themselves that they can do what it takes, visualising successful moves. Self belief is necessary.

The talk ended and the audience were encouraged to buy the authors’ books. Engaging as it was I would have preferred more in-depth discussion on those gender issues. I remain disinterested in wrestling.

 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Keeping it real?

From the festival programme:

The world is full of fascinating and important stories but setting real personalities on the page also presents challenges and responsibilities.

This event featured readings, discussion and Q&A with writers Alex Pheby, Shiromi Pinto and Matthew De Abaitua. It was chaired by Sam Jordison.

There are many ways of approaching the stories of people who existed. When choosing to write about them an author must decide how to present their interpretation. If interest is piqued, readers are likely to check for themselves what are regarded as known facts. In straying from these, or creating a story from what goes unsaid but may be suggested between the lines, an author is asking that the reader accept their version of events for what it is – a story. The blurring of fact and fiction happens everywhere a tale is told to an audience.

In 2019 Influx Press will publish Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto. This book tells the story of Sri Lanka’s first female architect, Minnette de Silva, and her relationship with fellow architect Le Corbusier. It is a tale of lost love, ego and affairs, charting the erosion of post-independence ideals as seen by two architects at different points in their careers.

Shiromi talked about her protagonist, de Silva, who came from a politically active family. They were wealthy, progressive, left leaning liberals and the girl grew up amongst a certain class of people including Gandhi and Nehru. On moving to London she mixed with the likes of the Gielguds and Picasso. de Silva met Le Corbusier after she returned to Sri Lanka, the first Asian woman to have become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was a pioneer of modernism in Sri Lanka yet when men adopted this style a decade later her contributions were eclipsed. Despite being successful and ahead of the curve she is remembered more for her relationship with a successful man rather than for her own significant achievements in her field.

Shiromi read to us from the prologue of Plastic Emotions, pointing out that the book is still undergoing editorial rewrites.

In the mid 1990s, 22 year old Matthew De Abaitua was hired by the newly divorced and in-demand enfant terrible of the British literary scene, Will Self, as his ‘amanuensis’, translated as slave at hand. Matthew lived with the writer in a remote cottage in Suffolk and helped with research and anything else needed. This was regarded as an exciting opportunity by the eager young man, fresh out of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He had worked as a security guard on the Liverpool docks to help fund his education and came to the role with a degree of naivity.

Will was ambitious. He realised that the media performance of himself affected how readers would accept his work. The book that Matthew has written about this time, Self & I, captures the 90s, the triangulations people make, and the compromises to progress their work.

The reading brought to life what sounds like a fascinating book.

Galley Beggar Press have recently published Alex Pheby’s second novel, Lucia, to critical acclaim. Lucia was the only daughter of James Joyce and her family subsequently tried to erase her from the public record. In doing so they have created a fascination with Lucia’s story. Lengthy biographies have been written as well as plays and histories. Alex wished to write into the spaces, to explore who gets to say what about who. In his story he explores the silencing of a silenced woman. He does not always go down the route current commentators on Joyce demand.

As if to prove his point on the sometimes controversial nature of his work, Alex read from the animal torture scene.

Sam asked the panel if they felt any anxiety about their depictions, if they felt any duty towards their subjects.

Matthew talked of the ethics of writing about a living person. He chose never to attribute anything to what may be going on inside Will’s head. When the manuscript of his book was complete he sent it to Will and it was returned within 48 hours! Had he said no to publication then Matthew wouldn’t have proceeded. Matthew told us that he was periphery to Will’s life, although Will had been key to him.

Shiromi granted herself a lot of freedom in interpreting de Silva’s life but tried not to do this with her architecture. This required much fact checking. She felt the struggle between writing as she imagined events to have played out and fitting this alongside known facts. In the end she wrote as she wanted.

Sam asked Alex where Lucia was in Lucia.

Alex didn’t know. If she exists in retrievable form then she exists in this book. Any evidence in literary form is questionable, including his. He took risks and was not always respectful. He mentions problems that others won’t acknowledge, as they pretend the rumours cannot be true.

Sam asked about lost moments and memory, of their time and our time.

Matthew pointed out that his story, although set not that long ago, was before the internet, Harry Potter, the abolition of the net book agreement. At author events back then a reading could last 45 minutes and the audience were expected to sit in respectful silence before each buying hardbacks and having them signed. Will wanted to disrupt the social order. With the advent of social media authors are expected to be nice, to ask readers to buy their books.

Shiromi talked about colonial idealism and the erosion of this, how the ideals of the new nation of Sri Lanka deteriorated.

The audience were invited to ask questions. The authors were asked if they felt less responsibility when writing fiction.

Alex commented that certain people are unwilling to understand that it is foolish for a critic to complain about the truth of an account. He suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction (I disagree but that is for another conversation).

The authors were asked if these fictions are required to have a relationship with fact, otherwise why use real names.

Shiromi told us that she is more comfortable writing a novel rather than a memoir. She wanted to write about a great story, perhaps to prompt others to look deeper. She also finds writing fiction more fun.

Matthew mentioned that this type of writing has been described as a thinly veiled portrait which he finds anachronistic. He prefers to name names, to offer a frisson between real and fiction. He used his own experiences to provide narrative but avoids imposing his thoughts on others.

The authors were asked if they agonised over the points of view used.

Alex talked of the many shifts of voice and grammar in addressing the reader. He asked himself: what do they want to find out and why; what does this mean about the reader. All writing is fictive. What differs is the edges, the bleeding in and leeching out of realities.

Shiromi explained that point of view shifts throughout her tale. She did what she felt was necessary to tell the story of an intriguing character.

Matthew wrote in the present tense as he chose to exclude hindsight. He experienced this period as a younger version of himself, one who didn’t understand much of what was going on at the time. He wished to avoid a reinterpretation.

And with that the event was out of time. The authors moved towards the shop to sign any books purchased. My daughter and I were provided with much to discuss, especially around how certain authors can appear to regard their readers!

 

Click on the covers to find out more about the books, and do please consider buying them.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – The long life of short fiction

From the festival programme:

Are short stories enjoying a renaissance? Did they ever go away? What can they do that novels can’t? And how does it feel to write one that works?

The long life of short fiction brought together three critically acclaimed short story writers, all of whose collections I recommend you read.

Little Island Press publish David Hayden’s Darker With The Lights On which I described in my review as “challenging, vital and eloquent; as unsettling as it is intriguing”.

Influx Books publish Clare Fisher’s How The Light Gets In which I described as “personal, prolific and visceral. Relatable, readable and recommended.”

Influx Press also publish Eley Williams Republic of Consciousness Prize winning collection Attrib. which I described as offering “much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression.”

The event was chaired by Sam Jordison, the first of four he ran that I attended. I wondered if he thought I was stalking him.

Eley and Clare each opened by reading from their collections. David treated us to a new, as yet unpublished work. They then got down to the business of discussing the short story which, as was pointed out, the media regularly declares is either disappearing or enjoying a renaissance.

Eley suggested that there is an expectation that short stories are a sideline to novel writing. Yet readers seek out short stories in journals, or read serialised novels, perhaps due to available attention spans. Usually publishers ask for a novel so kudos to Kit and Gary at Influx, currently in the audience, for publishing these.

Clare agreed saying agents have asked for a novel. She started writing what became her collection for a live art festival. She enjoyed the experience so kept writing them. As short stories weren’t what the big publishers were after she approached a small press.

Sam asked Clare if, as a successful novel writer, this required a different process. Clare described writing a novel as like having a long term illness. Short stories are fun to write.

Sam: Do you have any idea where the story will go?

Clare: Yes. I like to plan but also to rebel against that.

David explained that he creates a story world and allows the language to grow within that. He starts with an idea, perhaps a memory or people he knows. He will then rewrite the story. He is nosy, listening for things that become seeds he can grow, craft and develop. Sometimes he throws them away as they are awful.

Eley compared short stories to poetry. They can pivot on a word. There is a sense of ricochet, resonance, a call and response within the text that can be playful. It’s okay to use unfamiliar words so long as they are looked after, rearranged and played with to effect.

Sam asked about the different expectations of what a reader can take.

Clare suggested that those who don’t read so much may not pick up a short story collection. She too mentioned her work as akin to prose poetry and the importance of an image or a word.

David talked of a novel offering immersion, although not all deliver this. A short story requires a rhythm in the composition. It is more noticeable if the author gets this wrong making it overreaching, overfussy, overworked. When they do work though a short story can be amazing, vivid, alive. The reader is left with a huge amount to cope with emotionally. It can be haunting and discomfiting. Not all readers want this.

The audience were invited to ask questions. It was mentioned that Tessa Hadley has said she approaches a novel as a series of short stories. Another writer stated that writing a good short story is harder than writing a novel. What do our three writers think of this?

David said that Tessa is wonderful as a short story writer and as a novelist. His answer was to do whatever gets the words down.

Clare told us that she did sort of the same thing with her novel which made it easier to write. Both forms are hard in different ways. It is easier to finish a short story but not necessarily to ensure it is good enough.

David mentioned that he is still writing a particular short story after eight years. He likes Anne Williams work. She will take many years to write a half page story to get the rhythm right.

Eley told us that she hasn’t yet finished writing a novel.

Clare suggested a novel was just bigger – a marathon rather than a sprint. With any type of writing, every time you think you’ve found an answer it outwits you.

The authors were asked if ordinary life is better represented in short stories.

Eley suggested the form was better for moments, for immersing the reader in a single experience or thought. With a novel that might cause a whiplash effect, which some writers such as Ali Smith can manage well.

David mentioned Italo Calvino who wrote fabulist short stories. Also Donald Barthelme whose ordinary tales would break out into the uncomfortable. All stories concentrate attention on reality, a world of feeling.

Clare talked of moments of conflict. Novels require background, incidentals. Stories are joyful to read if well done.

The authors were asked to choose their Desert Island Short Stories.

Eley mentioned Jonathan Gibbs’ on line personal anthologies to which more than fifty writers have now contributed.

Clare chose Lydia Davies as her collection is huge.

David chose Dubliners as it was Bloomsday, then changed his mind to add a massive book of folk tales from which so many other stories stem.

  

And with that we were out of time. This was an interesting event featuring three authors whose stories I have very much enjoyed. I hope that others from the audience visited the bookshop and discovered their work for themselves.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Festival Party

The 2018 Festival Party, held in the impressively vaulted Queen Mary Undercroft, had a theme of Celebrating Women Writers. The featured authors were predominantly London based with four of the five published by Penguin. From the readings and discussion of their work these appeared to be mainly commercial fiction – historic or domestic noir. Of the books being promoted I had only read Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The venue opened half an hour before the first panel convened allowing attendees to purchase drinks, mingle and find seats at the round tables. The chair of the event and co-founder of the festival, Patricia Nicol, then called for the audience’s attention.

The first panel brought together Imogen Hermes Gower, Lissa Evans and Paula McLain.

Imogen introduced her latest release, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. The book is set in late eighteenth century London. At the time it was a maritime city. There were few bridges across the river, allowing access to the tall ships arriving laden with cargo. Ships were built that enabled the creation of the empire. Grand houses were established in the west of the city around Hyde Park for the moneyed classes who enjoyed leisurely pastimes. The men would vie for the renowned courtesans, the celebrities of the day. There was a cachet in ‘owning’ such women. London at this time was booming. It was an exciting period.

The book’s protagonist, Mr Hancock, is a merchant living in Deptford. He is lonely and grieving having lost his wife and daughter. When one of his captains delivers a mermaid statue that he has sold his ship to obtain Hancock is displeased but determines to do what he can to capitalise on the purchase. Imogen told us that such a mermaid exists in the British Museum where she worked.

The other main character in the book is Angelica Neal, a desirable and accomplished courtesan living in Soho, who Hancock meets at a party. Women who wanted more than childcare and needlework had to find ways to protect themselves. They sought freedom but had to work within the patriarchal structures.

Lissa‘s protagonist, Mattie Simpkin, is a former militant suffragette, now in late middle age and looking for a cause to fight for. Set in 1928 London, this was a significant year as the enfranchisement of the people was enacted and Emmeline Pankhurst died. Lissa talked of the suffragettes, how they fought together to shoulder down the door but then, once through, scattered to settle into domesticity or fight new causes. In this aftermath many stayed good friends, leaving their estates to one another on death. They led extraordinary lives. Before the First World War they had caused and endured violence. When the war started Pankhurst decided their fight should be paused which split the movement.

Old Baggage is a comedy but has depth and layers. Its apparent lightness was not easy to write. Mattie first appeared in an earlier work, Crooked Heart. Lissa had not intended to devote a book to her but she chained herself to Lissa’s conscience demanding to be written about.

Paula‘s protagonist existed. Martha Gellhorn would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century. For a few years, around the Second World War, she would also enter into a relationship with Earnest Hemingway, and this is what she is remembered for. Paula did not wish this remarkable woman to be merely a footnote in someone else’s history.

Hemingway married four times. Gellhorn was the only one to leave him. She was his intellectual equal. She flung herself at life, was ambitious and independent. Hemingway was at the height of his powers when they met and was attracted by her audacity which, once married, he would try to suppress. He expected her to put him first, going as far as to steal her journalist’s ID and offer himself in her place.

Unable to gain passage as a war correspondent, Gellhorn made her own way to Spain to report on the Civil War. Rather than list the dead, as reports at the time did, she wrote about the living victims, the survivors in a bombed and broken land. She stowed away on a ship and ended up in the thick of the action while other journalists remained on the periphery. Her social conscience was her drive and she wanted to wake this in others.

Living with Hemingway she watched as his books became best sellers while hers disappeared. As an introduction to her work, Paula suggested we read Travels With Myself and Another.

Following a short break during which we could revisit the bar and mingle with other attendees, a second panel convened bringing together Diana Evans and Louise Candlish. Whereas the previous three writers were talking of historic fiction, these two have written domestic stories set in more recent times. Their London is south of the river.

Diana‘s Ordinary People is set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory. It is a portrait of black British life. It opens with two couples attending a party to celebrate Obama’s inauguration. The crisis explored is the arrival of children in these busy, professional Londoner’s lives. Diana takes the reader inside the minds of the men and the women. She wished to represent the experiences of parenthood and marriage from both points of view as well as black lives, ordinary lives.

London is rich in history yet is also difficult to live in. Diana writes of the resentments of couples. The women are trying to work from home, constantly interrupted by children and the demands of keeping the house in order. The men are resentful of having to commute to jobs they do not enjoy.

Music plays an important role as does the psychology of the characters. They are trying to find their place in an increasingly gentrified city.

Louise‘s Our House explores the folly of aspiration. A husband sells the family home without the wife knowing. It is a page-turner, a twisty thriller. It was conceived as a cautionary tale.

From the moment they moved in, the wife in the book had been constantly improving her house, intending to create a forever home yet never reaching an point where this was achieved. The couple are property obsessives, forever checking how much the house is worth and how they could climb the property ladder. The sale can occur due to the couple’s birds nest custody arrangement. This happens when parents separate but hold on to the family home where the children continue to live. A second, small property is purchased and the parents take it in turn to live in each house.

Our House is a he said / she said novel. This format is integral to the plot. Neither lead character is lying but neither are they listening to the other’s story. Louise told us it was fiendish to plot. She used timelines for each character, including a car and phones. It is set in South London Zone 3, an affluent area with good schools and overland train rather than underground. It is Louise’s twelfth novel and more complicated and ambitious than previous works. It is about bitter love.

All five authors then took to the stage for an audience Q&A.

Imogen was asked who her influences were. She mentioned Beryl Bainbridge and Danielle Dutton but explained that to achieve an authentic voice for the period she collected words and phrases.

The authors were asked if they felt writing about women over the age of forty was dangerous. They agreed that they felt free to write about who they wanted so long as what they had to say captivates. Writers write the books they want to write, books they would want to read. It was pointed out that the majority of readers are middle aged women.

Paula was asked about her book The Paris Wife. She explained that whatever she writes she wants to feel emotion, to put herself in the setting and feel invested in the novel.

The authors were asked how they managed to make a living when they first started writing (I’m sure this is a question no writer should be asked!). None of the panel started as full time writers as they needed jobs to pay the rent. They squeezed in writing time somehow. Demands on resources depend on individual circumstances. Those without dependents can live on less. Creative Writing courses were recommended for those needing to learn discipline and structure. Mostly though, a writer has to want to write.

The authors were asked how they knew when to stop, to let go and submit a manuscript. The answer was, when they felt they could do no more to make it better. It must be the absolute best, the most polished it can be at the time. Unless under a deadline it was suggested that work then be set aside for a month before returning with fresh eyes. A community of writers can be useful in providing feedback. However, don’t reword and rework so much that buoyancy is lost.

Imogen was asked if any of her characters were based on historical figures. She borrowed her courtesan from several who existed, especially one whose friend / servant wrote about her. One particular bawdy scene was based on a real party held when Captain Cook brought some artifacts to London – a scientific orgy!

And on that note the event was drawn to a close. Books were available to buy with authors willing to sign on request. I was happy to be able to introduce myself to the lovely Alison Barrow, Director of Media Relations at Transworld, who has sent me some amazing books over the years.

On our way back to our overnights digs, my daughter and I discussed the lack of diversity in the literature featured at an event celebrating women writers – where was the fantasy, the experimental, the poetry? Thankfully this was addressed at subsequent events at the festival, which I will write about over the coming week.