So, there it went. A whole weekend of literary happenings up in N16 which was many things – exhilarating, funny, intriguing, curious, fascinating, drunk – but never boring. And while we’re inclined to write it was good, because ELL was official media partner of the event, the second annual Stoke Newington Literary Festival was genuinely very enjoyable, and a welcome excuse to visit one of the most thriving areas in London.
In hindsight, how could it not be a success, especially with a line up consisting of David Walliams, Iain Sinclair, Barry Miles, Simon Reynolds, Viv Albertine, Paul Morley, Fire and Knives magazine, Laurie Penny, Rowland Rivron, Alexei Sayle… You get the picture. There was something for everyone, and we got well and truly stuck in.
Here is our full review of the weekend, including our perspective on as many events as we could manage, plus some photographs too. There’s also a round-up of all our festival coverage right at the bottom. If you didn’t manage to make it up to Stokey, then you missed out, but read on to find out exactly what happened, and make a note in your diary for next year. If you were there, you’ll agree with us about how fun it was. Leave a comment to let us know your thoughts!
Stokey Lit Fest review – ELL’s Seb Wheeler:
Stokey Lit Fest began with local MP Diane Abbott declaring “Hay, we’re going to overtake you. We have the history, the people and the cultural energy!” It’s going to take a while longer for N16’s literary happening to properly weigh in against the most famous book event in the UK, but Ms Abbott’s words, said during the opening gala event on Friday, are testament to the ambition and vision of all involved.
Now in its second year, Stoke Newington Literary Festival is still in its infancy compared to similar happenings going on in Hay-on-Wye and Cheltenham, but that certainly didn’t stop head organiser Liz Vater putting together a forward thinking, and sometimes quite radical, programme. Her admirable enthusiasm exactly underlies Ms Abbott’s statement, which means that the festival probably has a long history ahead of it. Many people seemed to agree; most events were packed out during the course of the weekend.
It all started with the aforementioned gala event, featuring Professor Richard Wiseman and Jon Ronson, both promoting new books with genuine zeal amidst the grandiose settings (and huge mirror ball) of the town hall. Although I was tempted by the discussion of the life and works of Alexander Baron, as well as an event showcasing writers from the African Diaspora, I was enjoying Wiseman’s set too much to venture from my seat. His trademark brand of practical magic, which disproves illusions rather than constructing them, and the way he cuts through the paranormal with arch wit, was highly entertaining and good way to start a Friday night. His show had the feel of a cabaret and was the perfect match for the tea cups brimming with Hendricks gin cocktails that were being dished out at the bar.
Jon Ronson followed with a presentation of his new, and already well promoted book, The Psychopath Test. The author of The Men Who Stare At Goats recounted the encounters and experiences behind his latest work with the quirky personality traits that make him such an engaging writer.
Both performances were followed by loud ovations, a signal that the festival had arrived and more than ready to satisfy the literary urges of those descending on Church Street for the weekend.
Saturday was as much an advert for great writing as Stoke Newington itself. N16 was baking in glorious sunshine and throngs of people lined the streets to take full advantage of the area’s cafe culture, lush beer gardens and cute boutiques. Oh, and then there was the lit fest.
My day began in an expectant audience waiting to see children’s author, illustrator and painter Oliver Jeffers. His books are fantastic and this was a rare opportunity to see the Irish born, New York based artist talk about what makes his work tick. He had prepared a slideshow to compliment his talk, but technological difficulties prevailed and some hasty rethinking turned the event into an open Q+A between him and the audience. After a shaky start, Jeffers and the crowd settled into a steady rhythm and he was soon taking questions from kids and adults alike, giving insight into the processes of his work and his love for kids books.
Shortly after it was time to see journalist Gavin Knight and ex-convict Shaun Attwood talk about their experiences of the criminal underworld in a brilliantly intimate little room upstairs in the White Hart pub. Knight discussed his research into some of Britain’s most notorious gangs, which is collected in his book Hood Rat. Attwood told of his experiences in one of America’s toughest prisons, which was kind of like an aural, more graphic equivalent of Louis Theroux’s latest documentary for the BBC. This was an event made up of exhilarating anecdotes, and some of the stuff that Attwood came out with was thrilling and sickening in equal measure, such as the horrific beatings he was witness to first hand. The pairing of Knight and Attwood was the perfect example of what a literary festival should do: give members of the public a direct and fascinating insight into areas of life they would never normally be privy to. Fantastic.
I tried to get into the Fire and Knives magazine food writing showcase, but the small basement of Homa was already stuffed with eager foodies and, try as I might, I couldn’t get close enough to get a taste of what was being said, so I turned round and embraced the sunshine instead. Similarly, I managed to miss CHAVS, a discussion by Owen Jones about his new book of the same name. Johann Hari turned up and various reports disclosed that the resulting debate about the demonization of the working class was electric, and most definitely sold out.
Next up was Louise Wener, promoting her new book It’s Different For Girls: Perspective on being a woman in the music industry. The prospect of her dishing the dirt on a male dominated industry was tantalising, and she didn’t disappoint, shedding light on the ignorance of music journalists in regards to female bands, the arrogance of sexed-up, ego-boosted rock stars and what it was like to become a sex symbol. She could have lead the event on her own, but instead she had to share the stage with Tiffany Murray and Zoe Howe, who were both relatively bland in comparison. It was a shame that Wener wasn’t allowed to really explore the depths of her experience.
Saturday closed with an intriguing screening of the Edgar Allen Poe inspired film, Masque of the Read Death, starring Vincent Price. There was a bunch of rare Poe memorabilia scattered around the town hall and a freakish performance before the film started, in which a whole cast of classic Poe characters were resurrected and allowed to invade the audience. Creepy indeed. The film was a surreal way to finish, and provided interest for die hard Poe fans, and those yet to be initiated, alike.
Sunday’s weather was the complete opposite of the day before. Instead of dazzling sunlight, grey clouds mobbed the sky and promptly chucked buckets of rain down. I was thankful, then, for Pete Brown’s beer and book matching session in the White Hart, which warmed my heart with fantastic tipples and readings chosen by the man himself. Brown is an award winning beer writer and has even brewed his own (powerful and brilliantly crafted) lager; he read from his own books and other favourites which featured a boozy theme and offered up an assortment of beers to an eager audience. Possibly the best format of a book reading ever.
Another wonderful aspect of any good literature festival is the matching of legendary personalities and the conversations that occur between them, which, of course, the paying public are privy to. Iain Sinclair chatting to Barry Miles was one such occasion, the crowd allowed fascinating access to what felt like a pub chinwag (albeit in a huge town hall) between two literary greats. Sinclair the cult psychogeographer and Miles the 1960s hero and biographer of counter-culture greats talked the wonders of London, outsider culture and the absorption of the avant garde by advertising companies.
John Osborne appeared round the corner in the gallery of Stoke Newington library right after, exceeding all my expectations of what his show, John Peel’s Shed, would be. I was excited at the prospect of a John Peel fan and radio nerd (plus author and performance poet) playing a bunch of records once owned by the great radio DJ. It’s a great idea, and I was pretty convinced it was going to be great, but Osborne delivered it brilliantly, telling awesome, funny anecdotes relating to his love affair with radio and the records in a modest, friendly way. He seems naturally funny, and endearing too, which made for a charming, often hilarious performance.
As a massive fan of roots reggae and ska and the culture surrounding those respective sounds, I was highly excited by the closing event of Stokey Lit Fest, entitled Ska and Reggae in Stoke Newington, featuring a panel consisting of Wailers biographer Colin Grant, guitarist for the Slits Viv Albertine, founder of the Four Aces Club Newton Dunbar, poet Tim Wells and author Tim Burrows. Together, along with host Danny Kelly, they made reference to their own work and involvement within the original reggae and ska scenes in London, as well as remembering some of the good times they had at dances and long defunct venues. Perhaps one of the biggest failings of the festival is that events were limited to an hour; many talks I attended were cut short, and this particular one, while enjoyable and relatively substantial, could have gone much longer, allowing a more full bodied discussion and reminiscence of the subject at hand. But that might be me, I could have listened to this bunch talk for hours. Again, Stokey Lit Fest provided an insight into something I could never experience, but brought me close enough to at least imagine it.
Stokey Lit Fest review – ELL’s Sophia Ignatidou:
Juke Box Fury at Stoke Newington Town Hall
Chatting about music is better than dancing about architecture. Paraphrasing Frank Zappa’s famous motto seems justified when the participating speakers include four of Britain’s top music journalists.
On June 5 at the second edition of the promising Stoke Newington Literary Festival, Paul Morley, Simon Reynolds, Lucy O’Brien and Charles Shaar Murray went back in time to remember the track that made them want to write about music, and recall how they felt when they first heard it.
There were many participants in this time travel, since the tables of the beautifully refurbished Stoke Newington’s Town Hall were filled with groups of mostly mature music fans who were intrigued to find out which were the tunes that made Britain’s most prominent music writers get on track and start putting music into context.
The panel was hosted by Buzzcock’s manager Richard Boon, who controlled the flow of the presentations and tried to inject the somewhat austere display of pop and punk history with doses of humour.
Although the choices of the speakers were hardly surprising, the underpinning stories were what it was all about. Like Murray so eloquently put it, “A music writers’ role is not just to write about music, but what music is about”. His own choice was My Generation by The Who, although he admitted he was tempted to go with Bob Dylan’s The Times Are A-Changing.
Simon Reynolds, who has just released his new book Retromania, went for Sex Pistols’ Bodies, describing the day his brother played the track for the first time: “I didn’t know you could be that naughty.” Reynolds was arrested by the volume of obscenity contained in the Pistols’ lyrics, but it made him realise punk’s true nature. “A lot of what punk was about was evil and destruction. That’s what fascinated me,” he said.
Morley’s take on the same track was slightly different. “I was listening to words about how you can remake the world. And that made me go and…cut my hair,” he said while the room burst into laughs.
Albeit distancing himself from any haircut inspirations, Murray admitted he felt equally passionate about the track: “It’s totally in your face. This is the equivalent of being pushed on the back of your own wall. It’s staggering offensive and painful. Other records broke boundaries you knew were there, this one breaks boundaries you didn’t know were there.”
Next one in the Juke Box selection was Morley, who chose Buzzcocks Boredom (it is worth mentioning that Morley himself wrote a documentary about boredom for Channel 4), and brought his Manchester-scene affiliations back to the surface. His selection was welcomed by his fellow speakers who lifted up the sign ‘Hit’ as a token of their approval. Murray sealed Morley’s selection by stating that the Buzzocks were the prototype to all the punk that happened since then.
Lucy O ‘Brien, NME’s first female editor, brought about the most feminine side of the punk spirit, selecting B52s’ Planet Claire, released in 1979. O’Brien saw the track as a turning point for her not just as a writer but also as a musician, since back then she had her own band, the Catholic Girls. The featured keyboard sound captivated her and made her want to instil bits of this efflorescent sound in her own music.
The Juke Box selection was followed by brief questions from the audience, which left the rest of us praying for more time that, unfortunately, we didn’t get. Admittedly it would be lovely to have two more hours to listen to the speakers elaborate on the political role of contemporary musicians or the decentralisation of music by digital technology. One thing this time travel didn’t manage to do is buy us more time.
Stokey Lit Fest Review – ELL’s Chris Stevenson:
Age of Dissent, Sunday
Laurie Penny seemed to be the main attraction at this talk at Abney Hall. What started as a great way of talking about the student protests and how that energy needed to be transferred into the creation of a fully-fledged opposition plan to the cuts to public services, ended with stern words from the audience and left a slightly bitter taste in the mouth.
It was a shame that the audience felt they were not getting a proper discussion, with a time limit imposed on questions, as the panel, formed of New Statesman writer Laurie Penny, Kettled Youth author Dan Hancox and journalist Dan Hinds were full of interesting thoughts on the protest movement, where it should go and the role of dissent today.
Laurie Penny repeated several times that the movement would live or die by the fact that many were under the age of 30 and they needed to carry the torch. Dan Hancox offered advice on the way kettling tactics could be disrupted and turned to the advantage of the group, especially the use of “cat and mouse” tactics as used in the November 2010 student protests.
Overall, an interesting and stimulating debate watched by a packed crowd, let down by it’s Q and A section.
Alex Wheatle + Courttia Newland, Sunday
This event touched base with many aspects of the writing of the two authors present, from the craft of writing, through to inspiration, and why certain modes were chosen (such as short story over novel etc). However, much of the event focussed on one issue, the label of ‘urban’ writing.
Both Alex and Courtney had been classed as ‘urban’ writers but both believe this does little justice to their style when it is used primarily to describe a class of black culture rather than just a geographic location. Alex Wheatle spoke of his roots being in rural Jamaica and how this tag of being ‘urban’ was constraining as the idea of the rural was intertwined with the roots of many people.
Courtney believed that the tag was like the word ‘chav’ for the white working class, a term that was derogatory and had no place, preferring to call himself an ‘inner-city’ writer. Both spoke of how they wanted to show more than one dimension of city living, not just the council estates in their writing and break out of the genre-defined box they had been put in.
Both read some great extracts from their novels and Courtney read from his collection of short stories in what was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the weekend.
Alexei Sale and Rowland Rivron, Saturday
There was a definite air of excitement in the packed-to-the-rafters Town Hall before Rowland and Alexei took to the stage.
Alexei was the consummate performer as he read from his novels, his voice ever-changing to reflect each of the characters and his face constantly twisting into ever more strange expressions as his excitement ebbed and flowed. He read about his childhood, but this did not stop him unleashing torrents of swearing in a way only he can. A master of the comic performance.
Afterwards he took a range of questions, from his family’s communist background, to THAT sketch about Stoke Newington. He called Stoke Newington a “remarkable” place and the audience, as they did during his act, lapped it up to thunderous applause and raucous laughter. What a fantastic way to end a day of events in the Town Hall.
Bust of Poe unveiling, Saturday
In many ways the Stoke Newington Literary Festival was a celebration of one of N16’s more famous residents, Edgar Allan Poe. There were many events dedicated to the great gothic writer, but none reflected the sense of reverence to the man more than the unveiling of a bust of Poe outside The Fox Reformed pub, on the site of his old school.
People lined up two or three deep on both sides of Church Street as the sun shone down and the great man was talked up. Traffic initially continued to trundle past, adding an air of farce to proceedings that was taken in good heart by all involved.
Eventually, the traffic was halted for five minutes to allow Steven Berkoff to slowly life the veil on the bust, to a chorus of ooohhhs and aahhhs from the gathered crowd. A fitting tribute to a great writer.
Stokey Lit Fest featured interviews on ELL:
Stokey Lit Fest previews/reviews:
All photographs by Seb Wheeler. If you have an event that we may be able to partner, email email@example.com