Friday, 17 July 2009

London Literature Festival blogs... with added zombies... and a recipe!

For those who couldn't attend the London Literature Festival in person and who didn't realise that there was a whole web-presence for it, I here post the entirety of my submissions. They're in reverse order, (most recent at the top) so you may wish to start at the bottom.

If you'd like to catch up and see what else was going on then follow this link

Have fun.



London Litfest Blogs

17th July

A literature festival? In London?

Derived from the Middle English, festive, via Old French and Medieval Latin festivalis, from Latin festivus, in turn from festus and with its roots in the Indo-European dhēs, the word festival conjures many images, of lavish banquets certainly; of a community and communities coming together in celebration; of times of jointly enjoyed joyousness and rejoicing. It is a word that brings to mind mutual merriment, eating and drinking, fun and storytelling.

A literature festival should thus be a banquet of books and of those who write them, read them, publish them, sell them, buy them and love them; a coming together of the various tribes of the word; a jamboree of and for the tellers of tales. And it is the tales and the storytelling that are the key factors here.

Books themselves are of course wonderful; from quotidian containers of necessary information to treasured objets that are adored, collected and venerated as art forms in their own right. But while the book as an article is to be admired it is merely the plate on which the food is served. When we speak of cuisine it is the work of the chef we have in mind, however much we appreciate and admire the art of the china-ware. A literature festival should celebrate those chefs-des-mots, those whose artistry and ability in story-telling is served on the plate of the page.

London has played host to many inchoate literature, literary and book festivals over the years. But none of them have actually quite stuck. There is of course much competition for attention in London. Every night in this cultural and cultured capital there is a menu of artistic endeavour that almost defies selection. It is also a big place and if a festival is to work it has to have a heartland, somewhere that the community that makes the festival can call home. Multi-centred festivals almost never work; they defy the very nature, the very essence of ‘coming together’ that defines festive sentiment.

So a literature festival in London? Fraught with difficulties, as many before now have found.

But hold on. The last two weeks have seen something rather curious happen.

It seems that a heartland has been found and founded in the Southbank Centre. For a fortnight there has been real sense of community among the authors, organisers and audiences who have contributed to and attended a fascinatingly diverse sixty plus events. Across generation gaps, across cultures and across tables, over food, over drink and over time I have seen new friendships being made and old friendships being renewed. I have watched audiences laugh and cry, get angry and been made happy, be inspired and be questioned by philosophers and scientists, poets and authors, singers and players, adults and children. In short I have seen a diverse group of communities come together, form a whole new community and feast on a veritable banquet of stories in all their forms.

The people who made all this happen have been mentioned in previous posts and I’ll spare their blushes here, but I will tell you this: London now has a Literature Festival worthy of the title, a proper literature festival with a beating heart, a good literature festival with a great sense of community. It has in Southbank a true centre, a cathedral for the celebration of stories. In only its third year something remarkable has happened and the fire - so often found at the heart of any gathering of warmth and integrity– has truly caught and it can only be a matter of time before the smoke signals are seen and that it becomes ‘word-famous’ and world famous.

Yes you read that right, but I’ll write it again; at last London has a Literature Festival, it is the London Literature Festival and it is indeed a capital thing.

As ever, if you have been, thanks for reading.

14th July



Global Poetry System is almost with us. The team and I are now closing down on the final stages of the website development, and it’ll soon launch live to the public.

In case you hadn’t heard, GPS is an online map, which users will be able to mark and flag with uploads of photographs, written words, video, and sound recordings, that convey the poetry of a place.

You can find poetry everywhere. It’s not just in books. There is always something poetical about the different places we find ourselves in and the experiences we have there. Soon you’ll be able to capture it and then tell the world where you were, by flagging it on the GPS map.

Paul Blezard has captured the poetry that’s recently been pulsating through the place we call Southbank Centre in his poem ‘A Word Album of the London Literature Festival 2009’. This will be one of the first entries on the GPS map, proudly flagged at SE1 8XX. Here it is!

Festival feasting, literary leanings

Conrad, Coleridge, Colethorpe

Kureishi and the ‘Caine’.

Prizes for writing, classroom creativity

Miller, Mosse, Mieville,

Arundhati Roy.

Word worriers,
word warriors

Moon walkers,
smooth talkers

Aldrin is a buzz

Dwan is Beckett’s new ‘Not I’.

We say, Sissay,

we all scream for Sissay

Artist in residence

Poetical in temperament

Pushing back the membrane

Come and feast your mind.

11th July

Event Chairing continued

Some posts ago, as part of the intermittent series on chairing events at literary festivals, you were promised an insight into what happens when one of the authors can’t attend their own event. Please forgive the delay, but here it now is.

Having been asked to stand in for Rachel Holmes, the Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre, and chair the Mama Africa event with Brian Chikwava and Petina Gappah, it became apparent the night before that there was a problem.

Petina had discovered that despite her best efforts, she was not going to receive a visa in time. It seemed that urgency and priority were losing out to bureaucracy and checks despite the fact that as well as being an author, Petina is a high profile, highly regarded, Zimbabwean lawyer who has a permanent job in one of the wealthiest nations of the world (Switzerland) and who is highly unlikely to trouble the resources of the UK taxpayer. The reasons for the delay, far from being sinister, were rather more prosaic. The UK consulate, it seems, now outsources such applications to a private company who have their own pace and procedure, one that cannot be affected by human reason or, come to that, humane reasons.

So, the double bill in the programme now sadly reduced to a single bill with chairer, (sic. See earlier post) some quick footwork was required to be able to put on a show that would at least attempt to justify the price of a ticket. The starting point was that it would be introduced by Rachel H, who would explain the situation, apologise for it (despite it being beyond her control) and offer any audience member who so wished, a refund. Very decent behaviour on the part of Southbank, I thought and somewhat at odds from the music-world equivalent where certain lead singers seem to just shout ‘you’re not getting your f***ing money back’ when the sound packs up!

So, the show went on and as any decent chair would, I took it as a challenge to try to ensure that no one took up the refund offer.

Now the key to this revised programme was Brian Chikwava, who not only is a star author, but was also a star human on the day. He’s not the biggest fan of reading aloud from his work, but when the situation was explained to him, he instantly understood that it would make for a better event if he were to read, rather than he and I talking for 45 minutes and then opening up to questions from the floor.

So we had a plan. He and I would discuss the themes of Harare North, the inspiration behind it, the origin of the extraordinary and compelling voice that he wrote it in and suchlike. He would then read an extract. We would riff for a few more minutes and then, some 40 minutes in, we would take questions from the floor. And so it was or thereabouts; a quick fix to a problem. Heavily reliant on the graciousness of the author I grant you, but the show went on, Brian was funny, generous and thoughtful, the questions came thick and fast from the audience and were brilliant in range and depth and to my knowledge, no-one asked for their money back. Or maybe Rachel just is too kind to tell me.

If you have been, thanks for reading.

11th July

The Austen Industry.

There had been chatter earlier this week that this event might be too “Austen fluffy”; that despite my pride in being asked to chair a panel comprised of Claire Harman, Deborah Moggach and Gurinder Chadha there might be prejudice against the author of the set-texts on so many school curricula around the world.

So employing some sense while being aware of the sensibility of the occasion, I thought I would introduce an edgy theme and set about the task with electrified relish.

Oh fool that I am. But in my defence, how could I know that the author of Jane’s Fame – How Jane Austen Conquered the World would herself introduce themes that included the role of Austen’s work in the defence of fetishist pornography? I could tell you of this man’s felled spark.

The big secret that I mentioned in an earlier post, is that in the remarkably short time available I’d not only managed to contact the publisher of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the classic Regency Romance — now with ultraviolent zombie mayhem), the latest, smash hit Austen outing, but through the incredibly helpful Melissa Monachello there, had been able to field a few brief questions to Jason Rekulak – the Editorial Director of publisher Quirk Books – and to Seth Grahame-Smith – the author. That they were so comprehensive and speedy in their replies is due entirely to Melissa M’s powers of persuasion.

So without further ado, without leaving you on a cliff-hanger badly, so to speak, the following is the entire Q & A email that dropped into my inbox. My thanks to Melissa M, Jason R and Seth G-S to whom I am extremely grateful. Needless to say, ‘emma’ fan. (right, is that all six novels mentioned? I think so, so that’s quite enough of that – Ed)

1. Paul Blezard – How did the concept of Jane Austen and zombies as a ‘fusion fiction’ first come about?

From Jason Rekulak, editorial director:

I’d always wanted to do a mash-up of a famous literary novel – I thought it would be funny to do a “new and improved” version of a classic that kids are forced to read in high school. So I made a list of classic novels that were published before 1923 (these are all safely in public domain). Then I made a second list of elements which could enhance these novels –pirates, ninjas, robots, monkeys, and so forth. Then I started to connect entries on the two columns with lines. When I drew a line between “Pride and Prejudice” and “Zombies,” I knew I had my title, and it was really easy to envision how the book could work. I was forced to read P&P in high school, and I’d seen “Dawn of the Dead” a dozen times, so it was easy to imagine how a funny writer could merge elements of both. So then I called the funniest writer I knew—Seth Grahame-Smith—and we were off and running.

2. Paul Blezard – What (if any) responsibility was there felt to be in approaching the works of such a global literary ‘brand’ with such an idea.

From Jason Rekulak, editorial director:

Our responsibility to Austen was to stay true to her original plotline. The book is about 85% of Austen’s original text and 15% zombies. To be honest, Quirk wasn’t sure how the public would react to adding zombies to one of Austen’s most beloved works. There have definitely been criticisms to what we have done, but it seems most people truly do enjoy the zombie mayhem—and on a global scale. The book has been translated into 17 languages. At the same time, we feel we have introduced others to her work. Over and over, we’ve heard people say, “I would never read Austen. But ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?’ I could get into reading this version!”

3. Paul Blezard – What does it speak of Austen’s value that Pride and Prejudice was the work selected for zombie-addition?

From Jason Rekulak, editorial director:

Austen is probably one of the most popular deceased author of the past two decades. Her books have been made into various movies and miniseries. Even Austen herself has become the subject of movies and books. So yes, we knew that” Pride and Prejudice” had a built-in audience. However, as I had said we weren’t sure if we were going to completely alienate the Austen fans. Some Austen fans were appalled by what we did, and others had a sense of humor about it.

4. Paul Blezard – Why/how was Seth chosen as the writer?

From Jason Rekulak, editorial director:

Seth is the funniest writer that I know. He had written a few books for Quirk before, most notable How to Survive a Horror Movie. Seth was already in tune with the horror crowd and had a wealth of knowledge when it came to zombies. He seemed like a natural fit.

5. Paul Blezard – What were his thoughts on i) being approached to write it and ii) tackling the challenge.

From Seth Grahame-Smith:

Jason Rekulak was the only editor I’d ever worked with. Over the course of four books, we’d exchanged hundreds of calls and thousands of emails. We’d established something of an electronic shorthand. So when I heard him say, “Hey Seth, it’s Jason,” I knew something was up at once. There was a restlessness in his voice. This was no “I need another 500 words to fill some space” call. This was the voice of a man possessed, a man struck by a lightning bolt of inspiration.

“OK. . . . I just need you to listen,” he began. “Just listen, and tell me if I’m crazy. All I have is a title. It’s just a title—but I can’t stop thinking about it. Just promise me you’ll wait a minute before you say anything, OK?”

I promised. The next words out of his mouth were Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

I broke my promise. I didn’t wait a minute. I didn’t need to. He’d barely finished the word zombies before my head was flooded with images of aristocrats being eaten alive; of the Bennet girls flying around Crouching Tiger style; of Mr. Darcy riding into battle atop his mighty steed, his glorious chestnut mane awash in musket smoke. My loins began to quiver as I imagined the joy of writing ridiculous, gratuitous scenes of violence and gore in the imitated style of Jane Austen. And the blood . . . oh, the blood. I told him it was the most brilliant idea I’d ever heard. I meant it. I was hooked.

We talked for an hour or so, excitedly trading ideas about tone, style, and body count. That afternoon, as I began rereading the original (it’d been years since I struggled through it in high school), Jason began the prodigious task of convincing his publishing executives to say yes. For a while, it seemed like he and I were the only two people on the planet who thought this was a brilliant idea.

After rereading the original, I re-reread it, making notes in the margins, jotting down ideas, and working out the logistics of weaving a zombie uprising into one of the most celebrated novels in the English language. If I changed something in Chapter 6, what were the consequences in Chapter 56? What were these new zombie sequences going to be, and how could I evenly distribute them throughout the book? What kind of zombies were these? Where did they come from? What were Elizabeth’s abilities? Where was she trained? Would any of this work, or were we just kidding ourselves?

Once I had most of these logistics worked out, I opened the original manuscript on my computer (thank you, Internets), and set about changing words, adding lines, and inserting all-new scenes—one bloody page at a time. In order to keep track of my changes, I made the new text red (seemed appropriate). Sometimes there’d be two- or three-page blocks of all-new, all-red action. Sometimes there’d be a red paragraph or a few red lines on a mostly black page. Sometimes, there was only a red word or two. As I wrote, I constantly zoomed out to view the manuscript as a whole, judging my success by how much red I’d left behind. My self-imposed rule was to change something on every page, no matter what.

I worked seven days a week, usually until two or three o’clock in the morning—almost always with Nine Inch Nails’s Ghosts I–IV or a Jerry Goldsmith score blaring in my earbuds for inspiration. When I turned in the manuscript on July 31, 2008, I curled up on the floor and wept. OK, not really. But suffice it to say, it was the most fun I’ve ever had writing in my life, and I was sorry to see it end.

From Melissa Monachello, publicity manager:

I would like to add one last thing if you see it fit. Quirk is announcing the follow up to “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” on July 15th at It will be another work of classic literature paired with a monster. That’s all I can tell you. Thanks!


Once again, if you have been, thank for reading!

10th July

Comment is not only free but positively encouraged

If you have been reading these posts by all the bloggers-in-residence and have your own perspectives on events you’ve seen or opinions on the posts you’ve read, please do comment. We’re only really here to catalyse the debate and to flag up what we like the look of, but there are many more of you than there are of us and, frankly, you’ll have points of views that we haven’t considered. It’s not a private party but an open door. Come and join us in virtualitland. You’d be very welcome!

10th July.

Where to?

Billed as an eclectic line-up of poets, artists and musicians, I’d been looking forward to this show since first meeting two of its young curators Alex and Jayga at a pre-festival meeting.

The precept for it was a response to the concept of escape and its destinations and it drew inspiration from Benjamin ‘the bard’ Zephaniah, whose own show Where to? preceded.

What I did not expect was the superb fusion of spoken word, music, art, graphics and the extraordinary buzz that hit me as I walked into the Front Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall. I know it’s a real pain to be told how good something was after the event, when you’ve already missed it, so I’m sorry, but this show was everything that it could have been. Slick, sassy, soulful and with more heart and guts than Fergus Henderson’s notoriously offal-centric restaurant, St. John.

It would be easy for a middle-aged, grey haired gipper like me to wail on about how talented the younger generation are and I won’t disrespect the perfomers by even dreaming of doing so, because actually age didn’t come into this exquisite, diverse gem of a show. Because this was all about performance and integrity and art and the artistry of all these elements.

So I’ll make a bet with you. If super-singer-songwriter Aruba Red doesn’t have the stellar career in music that she royally deserves; if Woe don’t get signed, become bigger than, oh I don’t know, Oasis… Blur… whoever’s pestering the music journalists at the moment, and win a Grammy; if artist Adele Morse doesn’t win a Turner prize; and if none of this happens within five years… then I’ll take you for lunch. All of you!

10th July

Naughty Blezard.

I have a secret. And no, I’m not going to share it with you, not yet at least.

You’ll just have to come to ‘The Austen Industry’ event at 1pm on Saturday the 11th to find out what it is.

It’s a good ‘un, you’ll like it. Really…

See you at the Purcell Room tomorrow!

9th July

“Mouth on Fire”

There is a history of terror on the part of those who have played Samuel Beckett’s Not I.

Since it was written in 1972 it is generally agreed there have been a mere handful of notable stage performances (for the purposes of this post and on the grounds of taste, we’ll not get started on the filmic renditions.) Jessica Tandy in 1972, Billie Whitelaw in ’73 and ’74, Madeline Renaud in ’75 and ’78 being the highlights.

All confess to having approached the playing of ‘Mouth’ with trepidation. (The image was ‘suggested,’ Beckett wrote, ‘by Caravaggio’s “beheading of St. John”’ The painting which hangs in the co-cathedral of Valetta, Malta) Tandy was terrified and had to rely on a “teleprompter” for fear of losing the lines. Whitelaw described the physical and mental ordeal in such a way that ‘torture’ is the only word that springs to mind. When she say’s ‘I found so much of myself in NOT I. Somewhere in there were my entrails under a microscope.” One gets the sense of just how much guts, real guts it takes even to perform the piece. Lisa Dwan is possessed of such fortitude, the very same fortitude that ‘Mouth’s’ stream of thought outpouring in part addresses.

In a filmed piece after the performance, Billie Whitelaw, who has become a friend of Dwan’s since Dwan’s first performance of NOT I at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), publicly handed the Beckett baton to Lisa. It was a goose-bump moment. It was proof positive that a worthy new addition may be added to the list of performers first mentioned, of whom, interestingly, none went to drama school.

So Not I is very alive and very well, a sentiment confirmed by Beckett’s biographer whose praise of Dwan after the Tuesday performance was heartfelt, true and brought a prickle to the eye. While the fact that Lisa Dwan performed it in what is possibly a record 9’ 57” is of great interest and highly admirable, that she did so with utter dedication, with impeccable delivery and with a soul displayed for all to see is what makes her the new and deserved “Mouth on Fire.”

7th July

And now for something slightly silly…

It’s not often that a man of my advancing years gets the opportunity to go all quivery of knee but last night was onesuch, You see, I got to meet a real-life star of the airwaves, Bidisha.

Her BBC World Service programme The Word has a global listenership of 95 million people. Yes you did read that correctly. 95 million. And as if that wasn’t enough she also presents BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves that will be featuring co-blogger Suzi Feay in the very near future. In addition to her broadcasting career she has also written the novels Seahorses and Too Fast To Live and was one of this years judges for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

But those are only her day jobs, for Bidisha has a secret talent that was only revealed last night in the green room of the London Literature Festival.

When Antonio, our superb green room waiter, came around with dainty little meringues on a tray with a bowl of cream and fruit puree and then spooned the mixture onto the crisp little peaks as we took them, someone - possibly Rachel Holmes or Rosie Goldsmith or Suzi Feay - said “Oooh look, it’s like Eton Mess… but without the mess.” Quick as a flash someone else - possibly me, possibly not - then said “So Eton Tidy then.”

A mild titter wafted around the table and just as all was about to become silent it was Bidisha who, with a calm, considered tone, looked up and said “Eton Neat, I think you’ll find.”

Now that’s talent. That’s what gets you 95 million listeners. In fact that what gets you 95 million listeners and a grey haired, literary chair as a fan. Damn she’s good.

Eton Mess Recipe


(Serves 4 to 6) 

Preparation time: 10 mins 

800g fresh ripe strawberries 

Kirsch, berry liqueur or Cointreau to taste 

1 tbsp icing sugar, sifted 

200g fresh cream for whipping 

200g thick Greek-style yoghurt

6 plain meringues or meringue shells


Wash and dry the strawberries and then hull them, cut in half or into thick slices. Place all but 200g of strawberries in a bowl and sprinkle with 2tbsp of liqueur. Dust with icing sugar and chill for an hour or two. Whizz the remaining 200g of berries into a purée, adding a dash of liqueur to taste, and chill. 

Whip the cream lightly, fold in the yoghurt, and chill. Crush the meringues into bite-sized pieces and when you are ready to serve, gently toss the cream, meringue and strawberries and pile the lot into a glass bowl. Drizzle with the strawberry purée. Toss once and then serve. 

6th July

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…

… gang aft agley” as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s Shakespeare (or is Shakespeare England’s Burns? Hmmm.) once said.

To continue the “dark art of chairing” strand, having prepared for the two events I was to chair on Saturday, the flexibility mentioned in an earlier post was brought home to me. The preparation all done for the Clare Mulley and Alexander Masters discussion on biography, the event turned out not to be quite as I’d expected or planned for.

Clare is a brilliant writer and researcher and I was told that she had a prepared piece with visuals from her computer. Indeed she did and for just over forty minutes the lecture she gave was a fascinating précis of her book, a wonderful tour around her subject Eglantyne Jebb – the charismatic and adventurous woman who founded Save the Children - and a superb stand-alone piece that would have worked extremely well as an entire event of itself. Alexander Masters rose to the occasion magnificently, not least when asked by Clare to click the images forward from her computer on her command, a very generous contribution from a co-programmed, equal-billed author.

The problem was that to then ask Clare some questions before turning to Alexander would mean cutting into his already shaved time allotment, it being a matter of courtesy and the unwritten literature festival norm for the time available to be equally shared between the number of authors on the stage. Solution? To distil the questions that I wanted to ask Clare down to three before attempting (rarely has one word done so much work in a sentence) a seamless segue into the very different nature of Alexander’s biography of Stuart Shorter, a young, alcohol and drug dependant homeless man with an extraordinary ability to cut to the heart of his dreadful situation.

Alexander spoke emotionally and eloquently about his subject and one could feel the crowd warm to this gentle, funny and humane writer. Not least during the revelation that when Stuart had read Alexander’s manuscript (the product of three years of literary endeavour) and was asked his opinion, Stuart replied “It’s b*ll*cks boring.”

We rather raced through Alexander’s tale, but covered the main themes in some detail before I encouraged the two authors to compare and contrast their differing dynamics – Clare’s dealing with a subject no longer living but about whom much has been written, Alexander’s being with the complete opposite. They riffed magnificently for ten minutes or so before I realised that were in rapid danger of running over time (a literature festival faux pas of sackable magnitude) and invited questions from the audience.

How can you tell if an event has gone well? Two simple ways really. Are there any questions from the audience and if so are they equally divided between the authors? And do people then buy the book. I’m very happy to report that by both yardsticks the event was deemed to be a success. There is of course another test: were the authors happy? Well only they could tell you but my eyes remain unblacked and I’ve received a charming email from Clare. You will be the judge.

So when the “scheme” has ”gang agley,” remember the watchword, flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.

Next in this slightly odd series, “What to do when one of the billed authors can’t make it.”

If you have been, thank you for reading!

More soon.

4th July

Day the thrice.

Day three at LLF and the anniversary of the birth of a nation to boot. How fitting that this evening the festival hosts one of the supreme all-American heroes, Buzz Aldrin.

After a Friday that saw the day job as Literary Editor of The Lady magazine segue into a sweltering train journey to Oxford to host the launch of Oxfams’s Oxfest - and the publication of Ox-Tales, a four volume collection of stories by 38 great writers that feature here on the 14th July – I finally returned to the South Bank mid-evening to catch the end of Jake Arnott’s superb event discussing his latest novel “The Devil’s Paintbrush.” A hugely talented man is Mr Arnott, not only as a writer and storyteller but also in giving voice to his own work. I managed to catch a few minutes with him after the event and will transcribe and post the conversation we had later this morning.

But to the work of chairing. I was saying in a previous post about the importance of ‘open’ questions. It’s more of a guideline than a rule as any good conversation has to be flexible and make room for the digressions and culs-de-sac that make such interactions so fascinating. Having read the books and done the research, the trick, for me at least, is to slightly forget it all.

There’s a temptation to script a list of questions that you’d like to ask, to have a safety net that will take you through your allotted time. There is of course nothing wrong with this, but it can lead to an overly formulaic, stilted event where the ‘life’ part of the live performance aspect is sacrificed and squashed in order to get to the last question you’d originally thought of. If there’s an element of investigative journalism inherent in the event then of course that must take precedence but if there isn’t it can be interesting to author and audience alike to go with the conversation and see where it leads. It often leads to the author making new observations about their work or indeed life in general.

How does that work? Simple, you ask your first question and in the answer to it will be the seed of the next question. It can feel a little like a high wire act without a harness, but when it works it’s really worth the risk. Now I just have to apply all this to the event with Alexander Masters and Clare Mulley at 1 o’clock. I hope to see you there.

Happy birthday America, have a lovely day and enjoy today’s fantastic events.

3rd July

“The game’s afoot” as the Bard once wrote and certainly the game opened last night with much fanfare.

At the launch party, South Bank’s “empressaria” Jude Kelly gave the opening speech, explaining that the South Bank’s remit is to “push back the membrane” to the point that there is “no-one on the outside.” Now that’s a properly inclusive approach to creativity, artistry and expression, a rousing, modern version of ‘Cry “God for Harry, England and Saint George”’ as the Bard went on to say.

Receiving the microphone Rachel Holmes gave thanks to those people who make such a festival happen, not least in this case, the quiet guru of the London Literature Festival, Martin Colthorpe, who Holmes described as ‘forensic’. If any of you are/were fans of the TV show NCIS then Colthorpe is the Jethro Gibbs character. He’s that good at what he does, but without the head slapping so favoured by his TV avatar.

Fred D’Aguiar, could be found mingling as briefly could Arundhati Roy before being whisked off for her sound check. You’ll have read about her event in Jayga’s excellent post below.

All in all a great start. I’ve got to dash… or as William S put it, and so much better, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.”

More later…

2nd July 2009

Having read up for the event on Saturday with Alexander Masters’ “Stuart – A life backwards” and Clare Mulley’s ‘The Woman who saved the Children” I now have a pretty clear picture of the path the event might take. There are the obvious themes of identity, biography and the approach that each took to their subjects (why obvious? Because that’s what it says in the London Literature Festival programme about the event!). Then there are the matters peculiar to each of these fascinating books; the research issues, the keeping track of the story issues and in Alexander’s case the “what to say when your subject thinks the manuscript is “b*ll*cks boring” issues. A slightly rarer one that. It has all the hallmarks of being a really fascinating glimpse into four lives, those of the subjects and those of the writers, so I hope you can make it at 1pm on Saturday.

In a slight departure from the programme, Rachel Holmes - the Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the South Bank - has asked me to step into her shoes (no, not literally!) and chair the Brian Chikwava and Petina Gappah event at 4pm on Saturday, which bears all the hallmarks of being a fascinating hour that I was hoping to attend as an audience member. Zimbabwe is in all our minds at the moment and Brian and Petina have such superb perspectives on it. Thankfully I’ve read “Harare North” and have been a fan of Brian’s since before he won the Caine Prize for African writing. I interviewed him back in 2004 for the radio show that I then presented and remember well his short story “Seventh Street Alchemy” but Petina’s collection of stories is new to me and boy am I impressed at the power of her writing. If you love great writing, let alone great writing on Africa, then this will be well worth the ticket.

Now, what’s happening at Wimbledon? “Come on Tim… oops…sorry…come on ANDY!”

1st July 2009

Notwithstanding the light-hearted blog yesterday on event chairing (or should that now be Chairering?) there is a serious side to what might look like an easy way to get a good seat at an event. Over the next few days I’ll try to lift the veil on various aspects of what looks so simple when it goes right but which can be a horrific form of torture when it goes wrong.. And it does sometimes go wrong.

There’s always thrill in being invited to interview or be “in conversation” with an author whose work you admire, a philosopher that has changed the way you think or a person of otherwise notable achievement. It’s a bit like being invited to a meal where the host says, “oh by the way you know that person that you call your hero? Well they’re coming too and you’re sitting next to them.”

The thrill can soon give way to utter fear as the realisation dawns that you actually have to have something to say to them. With festivals it’s worse when as you soon realise that what you have to say to them not only has to be interesting to your subject but also to the audience of thousands that have bought tickets to see them. That’s when the works starts, the research and reading begins and a chairs mind turns to planning the shape and nature of the event. The thing to remember is that audiences have come to see the person you are speaking to and not you, so the simple watchword is “questions.” The trick is to ask them in a way that will elicit a fascinating answer so “open” questions then, those that Kipling described best in the “Just So” stories

I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

The worst opening word for a question is “Did” or “Do” or “Does.” Why? Because with such “closed” questions your interviewee can respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no” and there’s not much room for entertainment or theatre there.

Right, I’m off to read Alexander Masters’ and Clare Mulley’s books for Saturday’s event. More soon.

30th June 2009

As the excitement builds and the weeks of fevered, expectant anticipation come to an end with the start of the festival on Thursday, the final meeting for bloggers took place at the South Bank this lunch time and a whole new word was coined.

Susie Feay, that doyenne of literature, the former Literary Editor of the Independent on Sunday no less, was responsible. We were each asked to introduce ourselves to the assembled group and having outlined her career SF went on to say that she is also a “Chairer” at the festival. “A Chairer?” various voices queried. I thought about it and realised that I rather liked it, so chipped in a quick defence along the lines of “Work… Worker. Chair… Chairer.”

So you’ve heard (or indeed read) it here first. The correct term for a person that chairs events at a literary festival is a Chairer and Susie Feay invented it.