Lit Fest: Friday review

Performances at Stoke Newington town hall by Richard Wiseman and Jon Ronson go down a storm

The Stoke Newington Literary Festival began in fine style last night, with Diane Abbott declaring that the event would soon be bettering the Hay Festival, which is also on this weekend in Wales.

The MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington opened the festival at a gala event at Stoke Newington town hall last night. She stood in the centre of the hall’s impressive stage and said: “Hay, we’re going to overtake you. We have the history, the people and the cultural energy!”

While the Hay Festival is the most famous date on this country’s literary calendar, Stoke Newington Literary Festival is only in its second year, but that’s not to say it can’t compete. As Ms Abbott suggests, it has a dynamic and inventive line-up that is a very good alternative to its contemporary in Wales.

The first set of events showed exactly why; Friday’s evening programme boasted performances by Professor Richard Wiseman and Jon Ronson, the author of The Men Who Stare At Goats, a showcase of writers from the African Diaspora, a study of the life and works of outsider author Alexander Baron and an audience with Henry Hemming, who has just published Together: How small groups achieve big things.

Although tempted by both the Alexander Baron and African Diaspora events, I decided to keep my seat in the grandiose settings of the town hall (complete with huge disco ball) when Professor Richard Wiseman took to the stage and proceeded to set off on a marvellously entertaining show that disproved popular illusions, myths and tricks of the mind. It felt more like a cabaret than a literary event, as he drew laughs for his intriguing brand of practical magic. He also sliced through paranormal legends with an arch wit that has gained him prime slots on the BBC. When he finished, he was greeted with an ovation that was well deserved.

Jon Ronson followed, promoting his new book The Psychopath Test. In his unique, quirky style he told of how he’d been trained to spot psychopaths and the encounters that that had lead him to, including face to face meetings with hardened criminals and gang bosses. He then turned his attention to CEO’s of large companies before conceding that psycho spotting had turned him a little crazy, and that his earnest journalism had morphed into another cog of the “madness industry.” Ronson also left with an ovation.

So, a good start to what looks like a very good weekend. It’s clear that festival organiser Liz Vater, whose enthusiasm is insatiable, has struck gold with her co-ordination. All festival events are based in and around Stoke Newington’s beloved Church Street, where literary talent nestles amongst the colourful bustle of N16. Let’s get stuck in.

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