With an incredible array of talent and some seriously big names, this year's line-up took the Faversham Literary Festival to another level. It was a runaway success with venues around the town packed for dozens of sold out events. Who knew our town had such potential to be a magnet for authors and book lovers? The Faversham Eye would like to congratulate the organisers for their vision and hard work. We'd also like to thank Canterbury College's Creative Writing and Journalism students Beau, Helen, Emma and Louis who volunteered to review the festival for us.
Will by Beau Williams
In the dimly lit Alexander Centre, hazed with deep purple, six-foot-something Will Self emerges onstage accompanied by interviewer Lee Rourke.
Will's mellow voice saturates the room, full of character and passion. Dramatic, comedic and intriguing, Self wastes no time delving into the first chapter of his memoir.
His unmatched tongue-in-cheek comedy strikes us off guard when a faint ringtone is heard at the back of the room. “I could’ve gone on, but someone's phone was ringing,” he says with a grin and stare.
Will's delivery manages to grasp everyone's attention. He talks with us rather than at us and even holds eye contact with most of the audience when making a point. He defines things we didn’t realise needed defining. I catch myself, and others, nodding along to his ideas as if they were an intricate beat to a great song. Interviewer Lee attempts to divert the conversation back to a former point. “I’m not done yet,” Self humorously interrupts.
Self believes that none of us are our past selves. The character “Will” in his memoir, although sharing the same name and attributes, is not the Will in front of us. Today's Will bravely justifies this by reflecting on his “junkie” past self, to his current day personality: a father to four children.
With not-so-subtle sarcastic undertones and hilarious impressions, past foes get the Self treatment. He mentions Jack Straw and how he is “like a mole...actually, far less attractive” (Will would much rather cuddle a mole).
He brings his stories to life, taking the audience from belly laughing to empathizing, frequently using nostalgia and television to help us understand what he feels. He defines watching hours of TV drama, for example, as “a weird headache of existential nausea.”
Will uses terminology we thought we understood, until he uses it in context. He references his knowledge of medication, possibly to confuse us or maybe because it’s the only way he can explain things.
Whether spoken or written, his voice is instantly recognisable. Although his eloquence can be mind-boggling, we still manage to come away with a meaning. Will Self is possibly the most daring speaker and writer of our time.
Past Self, Present Self, Will Self: He says what's on his mind and says it proudly.
Another Planet by Emma Reilly
As soon as I arrived at the Alexander Centre, there was an overwhelming feeling of support for Tracey Thorn.
The building was crowded. The singer, songwriter and writer best known for her work in Everything but the Girl seems as popular as ever.
Her new book Another Planet, tells the tales of a teen living in suburbia with a longing to escape its small communities and their sometimes mundane cycles of comings and goings.
As Tracey talked and read extracts, I felt very touched by what she said about her parents: “I sent my parents my first album hoping for praise but it never came.” She felt her parents didn’t understand her, like an outsider in her own home. This touched me greatly. As a teenager you can feel your family doesn't understand your aspirations or think that they are against you when in reality they just want what's best for you.
Interestingly, Thorne also discussed how her mother tried to stop her from doing things she was herself unable to do while younger, which ultimately led to a breakdown in their relationship. After many moving moments, her talk finished with questions from the audience.
You could see how many people related to her stories from the rush to buy the book afterwards and get it signed by the lovely Tracey Thorn!
Record Play Pause by Claudia Heywood
February 22nd, early Saturday evening sees Faversham’s Alexander Centre sold out. Word must have travelled, people certainly have. Writer and journalist William Shaw is clearly pleased to step in and question Joy Division and New Order drummer Stephen Morris.
As Morris himself understands, Joy Division are seriously revered and, if you haven’t already read Volume One of Record, Play, Pause, you might be surprised at how unassuming and accessible a figure he is. Immediately appealing, in suit jacket over pristine FAUST t-shirt, colourful trainers and socks black enough to content a Craggy Island priest, he reveals he has always wanted to write. Fiction was hard to control, though gig reviews gratifying enough. Reality is easier, he claims. If time’s running out, why not write a life story?
The cover features a colour photo of Morris, grinningly under-the-influence, but in New Order days. A particularly pedantic Amazon reviewer reportedly ‘had to be placated’ and a black and white Joy Division picture now appears on the paperback edition. Morris challenges the colourless depiction of the band, who spent most of their time smiling. It’s clear he wants to show it as it really was.
The music, admittedly, was born out of an enthusiasm for leftfield and a vent for their shared ‘morose Mancunian’ outlook. Anecdotes from his early life certainly add colour: his first Sooty drum kit (he was always a fan of Sooty, who ‘never said anything’); the family outing to a Hawkwind gig, his mother’s palpable disgust at the ‘scantily-clad’ Stacia; a sense of unrest through his teens; truancy, drug experimentation and hilariously-described record theft. Academia and a job would never work. A stint with his travelling-salesman father, wearing his own gimmicky bowler hat, he is less Alex from A Clockwork Orange and more an excruciating mini-me. It is the quest for Macclesfield’s largest Cornish pastie that leads him to read Ian Curtis’ handwritten advert. Inspired by punk’s ability to shock, they practised hard; infected by Ian’s self-belief, they literally fought for gigs and got good.
The audience ask Morris to name favourite songs and describe the realities of performing. He responds easily and wittily, relishing the comedy as he recalls the painful rigour of recording with Martin Hannett. Someone asks if there are ideas to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Curtis’ death. Plans aren’t their thing, he says, but ‘We’ll come up with something’.Visibly moved, he explains how the young band struggled to cope with a tragedy they found so difficult to discuss.
‘The only thing we knew for sure was what we weren’t going to do, and that was give up’ he states in this book. They didn’t of course.
‘No one ever notices the drummer in the band’ he also ventures, far less accurately. Expect further humanity, grit and humour as the rest of the story unfolds in Volume Two.
What's So Special About Dickens? Michael Rosen's Book of Play! By Louis Fleury
Michael Rosen visited my mum’s primary school to entertain the kids and read his stories almost 40 years ago. The children's author and poet has inspired a generation of kids since, becoming a true national treasure along the way.
For the Faversham Literary Festival, Michael delivers an interactive and humorous talk, discussing the importance of encouraging kids to be creative while entertaining all ages with witty commentary on the school curriculum and absurdist jokes for the whole family.
Interspersed throughout the talk are renditions of his popular poems like ‘No Breathing in Class’ featuring his classically over the top facial expressions and energetic delivery, which seamlessly transition into entertaining lessons for young, aspiring poets and storytellers.
He achieves a personal connection with the audience, detailing stories of his family life and frustrating experiences with teachers while encouraging the audience to join in as he recites his poems.
During the Q&A Michael gives extensive and funny replies based on even the most simple questions. When one toddler in the audience exclaims “dinosaur!” he tells a story about his brother watching over fossils for a living. It’s impressive to see how one man can captivate all ages with the power to create applause, laughter and silence at his fingertips.
Livingstone’s London by Helen Ogilvie
Ken Livingstone’s new book 'Livingstone’s London' recalls his childhood growing up in a household where men and women were equal, racism and homophobia unacceptable, and how it shaped not only his politics but the man he is today.
The popular former London mayor was interviewed by Julia Wheeler, who tried her best to keep the discussion structured, interrupting Ken a few times when he went off on a tangent!
After a talk from Ken, with stories spanning his life from post-war London to post Brexit-London, Julia opened up the event to audience questions.
People asked about a mix of subjects from the anti-Semitism allegations made against Ken to his fathering five children.
Julia Wheeler did a fantastic job at uncovering his thoughts on the current political climate. Despite how cold and bitter the world may seem, he said, he had faith.This is something we want in politics today, that little bit of hope for the future.
It was nice to see a politician, especially one who has had such an interesting career, be genuine and open with an audience. Then again that has always been one of Ken’s strong points. He came into politics not for money or fame but to make a difference to the city he loves.
The English Job by John Wellard
Jack Straw played to a packed house on the launch of his latest literary effort The English Job – a narrative of Britain’s role in the history of the beleaguered country of Iran..
On introducing him the presenter asked the audience “Is there is anyone here from Iran?” Needless to say the room was silent as Iranians are somewhat thin on the ground in our neck of the woods.
Nonetheless I felt it incumbent upon myself to ask if there were any Iraqis present. This caused a ripple of mild hilarity from the floor.
To his credit Mr Straw showed a broad knowledge of “Things Iranian”, scrolling back to the Paris Treaty of 1857 when Britain and Russia carved out huge chunks of influence and profit from this ancient, cultured but vulnerable country then known as Persia.
Moving forward to more recent times, Jack somehow failed to mention the 1953 Anglo American overthrow of a democratically elected government to install the corrupt Shah in order to protect western oil interests.
But surprisingly, Jack showed some empathy towards the much and justifiably maligned state of Iran describing it as “the most secular country in the Middle East” and a richly diverse culture in spite of the repressive theocratic ruling regime.
Interestingly, and to the surprise of many of the audience – myself included – Jack told us that during the protracted and bloody war between Iran and Saddam’s Iraq, the main supplier of weapons of mass destruction to Iran was none other than Israel! Wow! What a corker ! Given the current relations between the two nations it beggars belief.
Mr Straw then moved on to life after his descent from mainline politics. At the taxpayer’s expense he enjoyed thirteen years of close protection. But at a cost to him. Unable to move freely and without supervision from his minders poor old Jack endured a diminishing of every day skills such as driving, using public transport and other perks of normal everyday existence.
My heart might have bled for him were it not for the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians needlessly slaughtered in a pointless war in which he and Tony Blair played a leading role.
When the questions session started I asked Mr Straw why, in a Commons speech prior to the invasion, he repeatedly intoned the mantra “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. In response to my reference to the widespread belief that he, Jack, was complicit in a a war crime His response was that I “should be careful when making such allegations”.
Jack Straw appears to be without an uneasy conscience over his part in the hideous carnage before, during and long after the conflict. He seems completely detached. But of course he was – and still is at heart – a politician and to survive at the forefront of political life one’s moral compass must be infinitely variable.
Brexit Without the Bullshit by Richard Fleury
As anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention knows, Brexit has some nasty surprises in store for leavers and remainers alike. It is possibly the only thing the two halves of our now bisected nation have left in common.
The Alexander Centre is filled to capacity with people, myself included, anxious for a few clues on what unexpected horrors might be coming down the pipe at the end of this year.
Who better to warn us than Gavin Esler the former Newsnight presenter, author of “eight or nine” books and veteran journalist who spent a large part of his career reporting from Brussels: the Daily Mail's own Mordor.
With the title Brexit Without the Bullshit, his new tome sounds like a strong contender for the year's slimmest volume. So what do we glean about our uncertain future from an hour with Mr Esler?
To nobody's surprise, his forecast is far from upbeat. “A lot of people will be very upset,” he predicts, when the the gulf between Boris Johnson's salesmanship and his ability to deliver (“the difference between selling you a car and getting it to work”) becomes painfully apparent.
Gavin's grab-bag of finely honed one-liners contains some gems. He characterises our current Prime Minister as a 'one notion Conservative...and the notion is to do what is best for Boris Johnson'.
“If facts were everything, Spock would be captain of the Enterprise,” he quips, explaining why the key to political persuasion lies as much in the heart as the head.
“If a chicken can be a herring, chlorinated chicken is a red herring,” he says, by way of educating us about the more troubling prospect of US imports of pork laced with ractopamine, a growth drug banned in the EU and 100 countries around the world, including famously fastidious China and Russia.
Turning his attention to the normalisation of lying and the politics of distraction, he warns a new age of unenlightenment awaits Britain, unless we learn to unravel the spin and “be very, very sceptical”.
Despite his laudable attempts to navigate his subject with hope and humour, what echoes around the hall still sounds suspiciously like laughter in the dark.
GARETH E REES
CAR PARK LIFE by Richard Fleury
“No one wants to read about car parks,” warned Gareth Rees' soon to be ex-father-in-law, as the author announced the concept for his next book, a three-year psychogeographical odyssey exploring the hitherto underappreciated majesty of the UK's chain store parking facilities.
Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Gareth's marriage is no more, thanks at least in part to his obsession. But the book exists. And very good it is too. Any half-decent scribbler can turn an exotic subject matter into passable prose but it takes serious talent to create something as entertaining as this from such apparently unpromising raw material.
It helps that he is a hell of a writer. And these dismal everyday spaces, ignored by day and inhabited nocturnally by disaffected teens, doggers, the dodgy, the drugged, the despairing and the doomed have cast a powerful spell on his imagination. To Gareth, dreary retail parks are mysterious 'brandscapes', enigmatic non-places filled with intriguing artefacts and haunted by “the ghosts of fag breaks long gone”.
Like an industrial estate Indiana Jones, he unearths bizarre tales from under layers of hidden history, discovering a dinosaur under the asphalt of Hastings' Asda and a waterway built by Sir Frances Drake in the car park of a Plymouth Pizza Hut. Stick Car Park Life in your shopping trolley and a trip around the ring road will never be quite the same again.
NED PALMER: A CHEESEMONGER’S HISTORY OF THE BRITISH ISLES
By Andy Capon
When literary festival organisers announced a noted cheese authority was to bring a talk and crucially, tasting, to Faversham, one-man surrealism factory and fromage fiend-about-town The Spire’s Andy Capon was the first to volunteer his reviewing services. This is his report:
Ned Palmer’s cheese evening: Fromage To Eternity
There was an uncomfortable atmosphere at the Brewery Store for Ned Palmer’s talk on the history of cheese. What should have been an informal and relaxed occasion had an underlying air of menace about it. From the start, there were mumblings that Ned Palmer was something of a charlatan, an imposter.
And it was soon obvious to see why. Guests had paid £20 a head to listen to an ‘expert’ regale us with stories of fermented curd going as far back as Roman times to the present day. And therein lay the problem. It’s common knowledge that cheese was not invented, or at least discovered, until 1972 after Monty Python’s The Cheese Shop sketch first aired.
Cheese is never mentioned in the Bible or Domesday Book, and only partially alluded to in Samuel Pepys’ diary, when the diarist mentions his milk curdling after forgetting to put it in the fridge overnight. It soon became clear that the audience were made up of cheese deniers who were after Palmer’s blood. Just like flat earthers and climate change deniers, there are a growing number of people, including scientists, who do not believe that cheese existed prior to that moment when John Cleese (real name John Cheese) wandered into Michael Palin’s cheese emporium.
But, Palmer stood his ground and soon won the audience over with his amiable style and genuine passion for cheese (Palmer actually said the word ‘Cheese’ 132 times during his 90 minute performance). It wasn’t without its faults, though. At no point did Palmer mention that prince of cheeses, the laughing cow triangle, and the Babybel was criminally overlooked also.
The cheese platter that came with samples of Sheps’ own beer was quite agreeable. Although it was a little disappointing to see a ten-a-penny Cheddar – the single most popular cheese in the world – rubbing shoulders with the delicious Kent Blue.
We were told by Palmer not to touch the cheeses until he gave the word, but after hearing the word ‘cheese’ for the 67th time, it became a subliminal suggestion. Soon enough, Palmer’s words were drowned out by the crunch of a hundred crackers as everyone lost patience and tucked in.
Everyone, that was, except the table next to ours which was occupied by a group of Ned Flanders lookalikes. It seems there had been a misunderstanding which resulted in a Ned Flanders fan club turning out for the evening (Dressed in green V-Neck sweaters and pink collars), after confusing ‘Palmer’ with ‘Flanders’. An easy mistake to make. And, staying in character with Flanders’ lactose intolerant and tee-total character, their cheese remained untouched, and the beer undrunk. Until we took it from them, to cries of ‘Okily Dokily’ and ‘Hi Diddly-Doo’.
All in all, an enjoyable evening, even for the cheese deniers who did everything but throw flowers at Palmers feet.
SARAH CHUCHWELL: Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream
by Richard Fleury
A US-born academic now based in London, Sarah Churchwell has produced a powerful and often startling political history of her troubled homeland, delving into the complex past of two potent yet much-misunderstood phrases.
Everyone has heard of 'America First' and the 'American Dream' but what are their origins? Behold, America explains all, revealing the fault lines of a nation in permanent conflict with itself.
Trump's jingoistic campaign slogan “America First”, it turns out, was a big favourite of the Ku Klux Klan and, largely discredited by the association, had all but disappeared from political discourse until regurgitated by the Orange One in 2015.
“Most people waving their America First flags are totally unaware of its history,” says Prof Churchwell, explaining she wrote the book in the hope “that some people who do think it is an innocuous phrase might rethink that”.
The phrase “The American Dream” began life in the 1930s as an expression of America's original egalitarian idea of democracy. As the Right became mightier following WW2, the principle of freedom from fear and want morphed into the freedom to get rich. By the Cold War it had become a statement of capitalism as democracy versus the Soviet Union.
Erudite and engaging, Sarah Churchwell delivers a compelling account of the extremism at the heart of American politics. Behold, America is as revealing as it is disturbing.
ELIZABETH MACNEAL: The Doll Factory
by Ruby Bishop
Elizabeth exclaims that her novel, The Doll Factory couldn’t be set in any other time period. The book is set in Victorian London at the time of The Great Exhibition, which she describes as a very powerful time for Britain; showing its ambition and wealth. She describes her main characters as ambitious and hardworking. The book itself follows the journey of the female protagonist Iris, as she explores the world of art.
As a potter, Elizabeth compares the making of her book to pottery, explaining that it took her ‘a long time to understand different elements of writing’ and how to ‘smush’ characters and plot together. To aid her writing, Elizabeth uses spreadsheets to set out the timeline and structure of her story.
Elizabeth’s hero of fiction is Becky Sharp from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. She loves how the character is a fiercely ambitious woman, but the confines of the time meant that such female ambition was suspect, and the author condemned rather than celebrated it.
Elizabeth’s greatest achievement to date, she says, is almost finishing her second book, which she’s currently working on. Writing it has been a struggle due to the pressure of living up to expectations, and it has been a very different process from writing The Doll Factory. The second novel will also be historical fiction, but with different characters and a different story. It’s set in an 1860’s circus, and will explore objectification, celebrity and female anger.
The Doll Factory will be adapted into a TV series with Buccaneer Media, and work is beginning on the screenplay.