Talks featuring Kerry Hudson, Anita Sethi, Natasha Carthew, Julia Bueno, Sali Hughes, Lynn Enright and many more were some of the highlights at this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival. Victoria Smith writes about the panels and which books are a must for your 2019 summer reading list.
Walking along an overgrown, paved pathway into Stoke Newington Old Church on a rather blustery Saturday morning was like walking into a village fete. I was attending my first event of the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, a talk entitled ‘Motherhood’. The thick, wooden chairs and woven carpets heightened the rural feel – I could have been somewhere in the English countryside rather than the hipsterfied outer areas of Hackney.
‘The Hidden Experience of Miscarriage’
‘Motherhood’ was billed as exploring ‘the unexpected sides of what it is to be – or not – a mother’. It featured both the psychotherapist Julia Bueno, whose book The Brink of Being focuses on her own and others’ experiences of miscarriage, and the writer Francesca Segal, whose memoir, Mothership, is about the birth of her premature twins. Together they discussed their experiences of miscarriage and premature birth. Bueno read a very moving description of her late (twenty-two week) miscarriage of twins, during which the church was full of restrained sniffling. My eyes were full of tears as she talked about her work to ‘prise [open the] hidden experience of miscarriage’, to stop miscarriage being talked of in a ‘pecking order’. Bueno spoke movingly of the loss of the child a pregnant woman has already imagined. However, I missed the moment when Bueno said that she went on to have children and spent the whole talk in agony, the description of her terrible miscarriage at the forefront of my mind, especially when I was trying to listen to Francesca Segal describe the camaraderie of mothers in the ‘milking shed’ – the place where she and other women went to feed their babies in the first hospital that cared for her tiny twin daughters.
The talk was thoughtfully and sensitively chaired by Henny Beaumont, author of Hole in the Heart, about the birth of her daughter, Beth, who has Down’s Syndrome. The discussion raised some interesting issues, such as the fact that miscarriage is discussed so little, that both women were more interested in the sentiment behind words used by consultants and midwives than the words themselves – something that we should perhaps all pass on. Although it felt like the event was somewhat miss-billed. It wasn’t directly about motherhood; the discussion centred much more on how both Bueno and Segal were cared for, or treated, both by the institutions they attended and by those around them in the aftermath. In her book, Bueno says that the people who treated her in a way she felt was ‘right’ were noticeably few. Afterwards, whilst in the park, I reflected on the issue of miscarriage and thought about the advice that isn’t given to people about pregnancy during the first twelve weeks, wondering if it’s because miscarriage is thought of as an almost shameful secret, a failure – and thought that miscarriage should be talked of more – particularly with the current debates on abortion. In The Brink of Being, Bueno writes that miscarriage makes her a stronger proponent of a woman’s right to choose. I couldn’t agree more.
Grief, Loneliness and Feather Dusters
I thought that the events I picked were all related, so my next panel was three women who’d all written about addiction and grief: Michele Kirsch, whose book Clean is about surviving addiction; Louisa Young, whose memoir, You Left Early, dissects her relationship with the composer Robert Lockhart; and Poorna Bell, who also wrote a memoir about the aftermath of her husband’s suicide in In Search of Silence. The structure was familiar – Kirsch, Young and Bell read extracts from their work, answering questions that led on to a general discussion related to their experiences. Young and Bell’s husbands had both been addicts, and the conversational thread pulled very much in the direction of their experiences – leaving poor Kirsch, who looked the most fragile, with very little chance to speak (and also, perhaps, feeling that much of the criticism of addicts could have been levelled at her).
It was a fascinating insight into grief, one which picked up a theme prevalent throughout ‘Motherhood’: that the panellists were less interested in fancy words than they were in the sentiment behind people’s often clumsy attempts at comfort. Each woman and each story was compelling but I felt that there was insufficient time to really unpick their experiences – Kirsch probably had a lot to say about how her father’s death had petrified her, her mother and sister in grief, but we – the audience – were more interested in the women who’d lived with, and grieved for, addicted husbands. I spent much of the time pondering the ethics and authenticity of memoirs about the dead. Young was charmingly frank and explained that she was a writer, so of course her life with Lockhart would word its way out of her, but the panellists didn’t really explore why their experiences were worked into factual accounts, rather than being woven into fiction (Young is a well-known novelist). But I think that’s because it was a crowded stage – the issues raised would have been explored in more detail if there had been only one author present.
Sali Hughes in Conversation with Lauren Laverne
The next event was devoted to one author only: Sali Hughes, who was interviewed by her friend Lauren Laverne. Me, my teenage daughter and her best friend walked through Clissold Park to the cavernous Stoke Newington Town Hall where we watched the audience drift in like a flutter of pretty petals: floral dresses floating through the room, (mostly) women chattering and smiling as they took their seats. This was a relief from grief, a talk between friends as Laverne guided Hughes through her career and then into a discussion about her new book Our Rainbow Queen, which is about the multiple meanings behind the Queen’s attire. Hughes is fascinating and compelling. And formidable. She told the audience that she was fifteen when she left home and came to live in London with her then boyfriend, rising up through a series of jobs (make-up artist assistant, copious work experience, writing for Loaded) to her current position as Beauty Editor for The Guardian– although she’s also a radio presenter, author and writer for other publications.
She revealed the chutzpah that carried her to her current position: whilst waiting for an interview at Loaded, she organised the samples cupboard, which got her the job. She has presence – the whole audience leaned in, faces upturned, listening – and she is impressive, so much so that she reminded me of the Zadie Smith quote about Madonna’s influence on our generation of girls, teaching us that ‘you were not to be done unto, if anyone was going to be doing the doing, it would be you’. She does not like being asked about feminism and beauty, nor the snobbery within her industry towards women’s magazines, citing Take A Break as an excellent place to hone journalistic skills. She had writing tips: everyone writes differently, but her litmus test for quality is whether she’d be embarrassed in a couple of years, was it sufficiently crafted to age well.
There were a few questions about the ethics of writing about beauty products, which Hughes dealt with very well, saying that she’s sent samples from every beauty brand andThe Guardian gives her freedom to write about anything she chooses. But the best bit of the talk – specially for those of us who love a bit of visuals – were the excerpts from Our Rainbow Queen, such as Elizabeth II wearing a gift from Obama to meet Trump, and her pro-Euro outfit for a post-Brexit speech. She and Laverne were funny and wry, and the atmosphere was relaxed. This was largely thanks to Laverne’s warm presence, which made the enormous room feel oddly intimate. My daughter persuaded me to buy the book and on the way back through the park she and her friend talked excitedly about Hughes, laughing at the Queen getting one (or two) over on Trump. I listened, silently wishing them both to become the good-bad girl that Hughes seems to be.
Nerd Nite with Maiklem, Chapman and Day
I dropped off the kids and took my husband out to Nerd Nite, where we saw three very different talks from hobby-ists: Lara Maiklem on her hours spent along the Thames shores Mudlarking (her book of the same name); Kit Chapman on the Superheavy Elements at the bottom of the Periodic Table; and Jon Day on Homing, a history and celebration of his beloved pigeons. Again, each talk was accompanied by pictures, which made it easy to absorb the information, and enjoy the discussion. There was an awful lot of information and I loved the brief tours through the treasures concealed within the Thames mud, how ephemeral superheavy elements are created and the unique homing abilities of pigeons (and some pigeon-eye views above Walthamstow). I sank into a glass of wine and relaxed on the plastic chairs at the back, wondering what it is about particular activities that make people so enamoured of them – or if it’s specific types of people who are drawn to certain activities that satisfy their peculiar needs.
Wild Writing in Abney Park Cemetery
I breezed across the park on Sunday to what was my favourite event of the weekend: Wild Writing with Natasha Carthew, an author of, amongst others, All Rivers Run Free and who writes outdoors. This was a workshop rather than a talk, where Natasha took around twenty of us on a walk through the wildness of Abney Park Cemetery. She discussed the benefits of writing in the open air and asked us to record and then share our sensations: the petrolly tastes on the air, the sigh of the planes overhead, the sensation of the breeze rushing around our ankles. She then asked us to use our surroundings as a springboard to association – writing down memories or family histories, which some of us then shared. Our words became miniature pieces, ‘flash fiction’ that Carthew encouraged us to read aloud which, as our shyness faded, most did. Everything was different and listenable; our writings were strewn with poetic phrases such as ‘shiny green tides’ and ‘dead, still eyes’, ‘a way of doing death’. Carthew was wonderfully positive, friendly and open. Like Sali Hughes, she’d left school at fifteen; she knew she wanted to be a writer so she set about grafting to support her craft. During the workshop Carthew was inclusive and funny, bossing the pariticipants a little to get us to read out loud. And it was the first event where I spoke to anyone else – I met a woman who writes Haikus on the way home from work, and another whose mother-tongue is Russian and speaks nine other languages, but writes in English. I left feeling enervated and inspired.
Common People: Class, Education & Writing
I circled around the cemetery until I found Church Street, then walked along in the sunshine, wolfed down some carrot cake in a local café, and wandered along to Abney Hall where there Carthew was again, along with Kerry Hudson (author of Lowborn), Pete Brown (who wrote Pie Fidelity) and Anita Sethi (a journalist who’s written for most major newspapers and has contributed to Common People). Sethi chaired the panel, and the discussion followed the familiar pattern – reading, questions, discussion, audience questions. I’d already read Lowborn, in which Hudson writes of her experiences growing up in poverty, and goes back to visit those places where she grew up, and I was interested to hear what she, and others, had to say. I felt very conscious of our milieu – although appearances don’t tell the whole story, the audience looked, for the most part, white and middle class – and I wondered how ‘useful’ a talk about class can be to those who might never have described themselves as ‘working class’. I was wrong about the usefulness – I learnt about ‘otherness’, about imposter syndrome, about not lacking peers to lean on for support, about the sting of snobbery (those from further up the class scale dismissing those whose class origins were more lowly).
The panellists all seemed conscious that, to those attending, they would probably be viewed as middle class, as terribly successful with stellar careers, awards, agents, financial success. It seemed that none of them had found their class to be a barrier to success on the page – it was off the page that they found their class a disadvantage. Natasha Carthew’s talent had earnt her an agent and several book deals, but she said that once she was published, she felt isolated. Hudson echoed Carthew’s feelings, saying that often she was the only non-Oxbridge person on a panel. Each felt that the publishing industry was too London-centric, with only a handful of independent publishers based outside the capital. One audience member asked what the publishing industry could do to encourage more working class writers and employees. Hudson suggested having mentors from a similar background to their mentees; Brown said outreach to schools and universities, and to avoid quotas and recognise talent.
There was some discomfort about taking up the trappings of a middle class lifestyle, about the threat that poses to those born into wealth – something I wondered as I looked at the middle-class appearing panel. Pete Brown summed his experience up nicely – he didn’t fit in at school, didn’t fit in his working class surroundings and he doesn’t fit in now – he is special. They obviously all are.
John Hegley: an Hour of ‘Non-stop Goon-like silliness’
I cycled home across the park – it was chilly now – and picked up the family for the ‘wonderfully mundane’ John Hegley, who took us on a journey through his picture book Stanley’s Stick, accompanied by a ukulele, a range of nonsensical songs, a projector and a laser pointer. It was an incredibly British affair, with cups of tea and sea-side holidays, a boy who makes a pet out of a stick, guillemots and a lot of singalongs. The event was aimed at quite small children, who giggled and wriggled and talked all the way through. But Hegley’s dry humour appealed to adults too, and though the youngest in our party was eleven he couldn’t stop laughing at a made-up world called ‘The Land of Knocking Out Teeth’. It was clever and slick and funny. Hegley unleashed his dry humour on a large crowd of very pleased parents and children who all walked away wiping their eyes, buoyed up by an hour of non-stop Goon-like silliness.
Vagina: A Re-Education – or not?
My family left to traipse noisily back home and I walked up the road to listen to ‘Vagina’, an event based around Lynn Enright’s book entitled Vagina, A Re-Education. I’d planned it because I thought it would fit in nicely with the theme of women that I’d loosely followed through ‘Motherhood’ and ‘Grief’. Lynn Enright has a mesmerising voice, gentle and soft with an Irish lilt, but the event itself was the nadir of my weekend: it was a flat, listless talk that did nothing to improve the vagina’s PR. Perhaps it was because of the palpable discomfort in the room as Enright and the chair discussed the constituent parts of our sexual organ: the clitoris, the labia, the vulva – or it could have been the hushed tones of the speakers. It was a talk discussing the hidden female sex and I felt that it needed a visual element, something to bring the vagina into the light. I had learnt more from a snippet featuring Dorri Lane’s Vulva Puppet on Twitter (and was far more entertained) than in this hour. If we want to release the vagina from years of oppression, if we want to talk freely about FGM, about periods, about pleasure, we’re going to have to learn to look at the vagina; to stop shying away from it and give it space.
We have all sorts of words for penises – we make fun of them all the time, because penises are everywhere – but if we want to give the vagina power, to stop girls worrying about the size and shape of their vaginas, to stop young women cosmetically paring them down (why?), we need to be comfortable enough in our power to laugh at the silly old vagina. We need to be able to re-claim the c-word, which, after all, was the common word for vagina in the middle ages (at least, according to Wikipedia). We need to come up with hundreds of laughable nicknames. Po-faced talks are not the answer. It wasn’t a terrible event – I didn’t know that the clitoris wasn’t officially acknowledged as the site of sexual pleasure until 1998. There were informative discussions about sex education, about what children should know, about how they should be taught, about period poverty and the best type of menstrual products to use, but I left feeling deeply dissatisfied, and also rather angry at a wasted opportunity.
Overall, the Stoke Newington Literary Festival was brilliant. It offered a chance to see so many different writers talk about a wide variety of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama. We often talk about how brilliant it is to live in London, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this festival so close to where we live. The prices were thoughtfully, incredibly cheap; the programme full of interesting events – there literally must have been something for everyone – and there were many that I couldn’t attend because of programming, but wished I had. The atmosphere was extremely friendly and welcoming; the staff selling tickets were lovely, as were the bar staff. I walked home at the end through the busy park, feeling a little bit more in love with Hackney.
The Stoke Newington Literary Festival took place on the 7th to 9th June. For more information about the writers and their work, click on the links in the body of the article.