Falling or Jumping?: The Dark Heart of Environmental Writing

Writers such as former activist Paul Kingsnorth are responding to an era of environmental uncertainty.
Is writing capable of responding to our new, uncertain environmental epoch? Photo courtesy of KimJaxon.com.

The culture of our time?

In 2006 Phaidon, one of the world’s leading art and design publishers, released a photography book that was remarkably of its time – but today, only ten years on from its publication, it feels somewhat antiquated. Spectacle, edited by design and architecture gurus Bruce Mau and David Rockwell, is a celebration of mass participation in ephemeral, man-made, massive events staged across the world. In a flurry of “eye-popping photographs”, the book conflates religious festivals, sporting events and national holiday celebrations under a singular phenomenon that can be simply described as “spectacle”. The “society of spectacle” that the likes of Guy Debord railed against in the 1960s is here heralded as an expression of “the culture of our time”. Rockwell explains in his interview for the book: “This is looking at things that are temporary and the power of something that can burst and happen and go away.” The suggestion seems to be that the “culture of our time” is itself throwaway, ephemeral, infinitely changeable. Who needs substance, when you can have experience?

There is a section at the back of the book that encourages readers to travel to these far-flung and exotic festivals themselves. But the publication of Spectacle fell not long before the banking collapse and financial crisis of 2008, the effects of which are still being felt by many people, and such an invitation today somehow feels like decadence. This is not to say that there are those who still can and will make these trips, but you are less likely to see this reflected in much of British cultural production in 2016, which seems far more geared towards domestic pursuits: baking, gardening, craft, and enjoying the great outdoors closer to home.

You just have to walk into your local Waterstones and see the crowded shelves of the “Baking” and “Gardening” sections to see what I mean. These books are aimed at a luxury market, encouraging those who can to spend their money on domestic pastimes. We are still a society of spectacle, but the flavour of these spectacles has altered somewhat in David Cameron’s austerity Britain. Spectacle somehow feels like the printed equivalent of the old television series Wish You Were Here or Holiday. These days popular television no longer encourages viewers to aspire towards exotic holidays but instead to bake cakes and build bird boxes.

The new back-to-nature culture

Many have come to appreciate the detrimental environmental impact that has been the product of a 30-year throwaway society of spectacle, as well as the emotional and social consequences of an increasingly digital and ephemeral existence. While network communications have come to proliferate throughout our lives, there has been a countercultural resurgence of pursuits that are distinctly non-digital. Caught by the River is an example of this trend, a website that started in 2007 as a “meeting place” for such pursuits, listed as “walking, fishing, looking, thinking. Birdsong and beer. Adventure and poetry”.

There has been a renaissance in nature and landscape writing in Britain, which Caught by the River has found itself in the middle of – including among its contributors writers who have gone on to great acclaim in this genre, including Amy Liptrot, Melissa Harrison, Richard Benson, Will Burns and Benjamin Myers. The website’s founders have also ventured out of the digital sphere and into live events. They aim to celebrate the culture of substance that continues to flow through our lived experiences. This August they hosted the festival Caught by the River Thames, billed as two days of music, arts and nature, a gathering of thoughtful authors and musicians to entertain city folk with money and time on their hands on a sunny summer weekend. And thoroughly pleasant it was too, but I am left wondering about what is missing from this and other proliferating British festivals celebrating getting”‘back to nature”: that is, any notion of the very social, economic and environmental crises that all this cultural activity appears to perpetually spirograph around.

I could not read Amy Liptrot’s impressive and affecting debut The Outrun as a nature book without first experiencing it as a book about restlessness, heartbreak and disappointment, a kind of generational disillusionment, by-product of a culture of decadence that could not be sustained. The book has to work through all of this in order for the impact of Liptrot’s new-found engagement with the natural world to be fully appreciated. As a thirty-something myself, I too have found it a disorienting experience being born into and growing up through heady times of economic over-optimism only to find myself outliving it before I have even reached middle age. In response I have pursued more earthly enjoyments: hills and beaches, the overgrowth of the forgotten byways and pathways of the British countryside. On my journeys I have found fellow generational misfits, torn apart from the ideologies we were fed on, unable to perpetuate them, trying to make sense of what we see left behind. Along the way it seems we have all become nature lovers of a sort.

A new epoch

While cultural theorists, economists and politicians perpetually tussle and debate over the future of local, national and global economies, an even more alarming discussion has just this month been happening at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town. The Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) has presented its recommendation for the formal designation of a new geological epoch, one defined by the physical impact since 1950 of man-made nuclear tests and plastic pollution (and, bizarrely, domestic chickens). The 12,000 year-old Holocene epoch has been irreparably transformed by the human life it gave rise to. We simply do not know the real implications of this. Most of us who are alive today have in fact been witnessing the advanced growth of capitalism while simultaneously living through the growing pains of a new geological era which nobody has yet been able to conceptualise. In light of this new knowledge, while championing the virtues of the natural world, as opposed to a man-made one, how can anyone be sure anymore of what it is they are really celebrating?

Among the speakers at Caught by the River Thames was writer, activist and former journalist Paul Kingsnorth. He was speaking about his latest novel, Beast, the second in a series of three experimental books about three men, three generations separated from one another across thousands of years. The first book, The Wake, is set in 11th-century Lincolnshire. Beast is set in an unnamed deserted moor in the present day. Both men share some form of existential crisis related to the specific cultural situation they are faced with. The third book, which Kingsnorth admits will surely be the most difficult to write, will be set well into the future.

Given what we know (or what we know of how little we know), what exactly will that future look like? This question is one of Kingsnorth’s preoccupations, and these days he is far more interested in pursuing questions than finding answers. In 2009 he co-founded with Douglas Hind The Dark Mountain Project. After spending years as an environmental campaigner, Kingsnorth admitted he no longer believed in the organ grinder which was powering the ideologies behind the movements he stood for. He discovered he was not alone in disbelieving the notion that the world can any longer be saved. “We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unravelling,” the authors decry from the project’s website, “and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it”.

The project’s main output comes in the form of a blog, and a series of regular anthologies of “uncivilised writing”, 300-page hardback books which aim to showcase radical essays, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art and other uncategorisable things that challenge the status quo. Anyone can contribute to the books and there are regular calls for contributions via the Dark Mountain website. The project also organises events for producers of culture in various mediums, who in some way see themselves and their work on a critical edge of civilisation.

A dark form of hope

If that all seems pretty bleak, it is – but as Kingsnorth has observed, accepting and articulating such reality has not brought about despair but a sense of hope. From the individual disillusionment, pessimism and cynicism has evolved a united sense of freedom, as people have been released from pretending that everything is going to be OK. The writer and activist Rebecca Solnit has remarked upon the significance of naming an experience in order for it to be acknowledged or shared. Words have tremendous power.

Kingsnorth’s specific use of the word “hope”, and his interest in asking questions rather than forging artificial solutions, chimes with Solnit’s essay Hope in the Dark, which has recently been republished with a new introduction from the author: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” We no longer have the answers, but nor should we seek to know them. Instead what Solnit, and The Dark Mountain Project, calls for are new ways of understanding the human race in relation to its environment.

The challenge for writers

Is fiction – or creative writing more broadly – up to the task of responding to and reflecting this new, erratic and uncertain epoch we find ourselves in, and in the process letting hope in through the dark? The novel is a cultural product of the modern era of capitalism, enlightenment thinking, industrialisation and colonialism (epitomised by early novels like Robinson Crusoe), all of which are phenomena that have played a part in creating the environmental disasters we currently face. I think that the author Amitav Ghosh, in his latest essay The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, is right to ask the question, “Is it possible that the art and literature of this time will one day be remembered […] because of their complicity in the Great Derangement?”

Further challenges are aimed at the rational construction of narrative in literary fiction. To encounter an event like a freak act of nature in a novel can feel like a contrived plot device, and to make them seem plausible would require a great deal of “set up” from the author. Ghosh says that this is in part to blame for the fact that serious fiction has struggled to deal with the subject of the climate crisis that is upon us. “Considering what climate change actually portends for the future of the earth,” he writes, “it should surely follow that this would be the principal preoccupation of writers the world over—and this, I think, is very far from being the case.”

Ghosh aims to provoke. Kingsnorth’s response to this challenge for contemporary literature has been to turn most of literary fiction’s conventions on their head and create new rules as he goes along. It makes for intoxicatingly writing, thrilling in parts, frustrating and even distressing in others. And that’s the point. I would like to invite Paul Kingsnorth, Rebecca Solnit and Amitav Ghosh round a table and I would like to record the ensuing conversation, as we plunged into the dark heart of a new, truly global, environmental writing movement. I wonder if the proof of such a movement’s effectiveness may not be in the final product but in the process of its creation, and the realisations later shared once we all break through everything that we think we know.

“We are all on the edge,” declares Kingsnorth, as he sat facing the crowd gathered to see him at Caught by the River Thames, in the comfortable, lush and green surroundings of Fulham Palace. His manner is calm and lucid, his eyes clear. The conversation has turned to the prophets, and what it must feel like to be forced to tell a story one does not fully understand. We have all been brought to the brink, but it is up to each of us to realise this for ourselves. Our agency as writers, for the time being at least, comes from deciding whether or not to jump.

Find out more about Caught by the River by visiting their website. Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast is currently out in hardcover, published by Faber & Faber.

On Culture: Why I’m Sceptical About Literary Festivals

Scenes from the Hay Literary Festival. Flickr photo via Katy Wrathall, Creative Commons licence CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Scenes from the Hay Literary Festival. Flickr photo via Katy Wrathall, Creative Commons licence CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0.

When we were about nine, my best friend and I were discussing our favourite singer, which, at the time, was Sheryl Crow. (Good Sheryl Crow, though. Tuesday Night Music Club-era Sheryl Crow, not the one who has highlights. Not that highlights are bad.) We couldn’t decide whether we would ever want to meet her or not, or rather, my best friend couldn’t decide. I was pretty sure that I would never want to meet her, despite adoring her eloquent, word-heavy songs, and the only explanation I could offer was that I thought she probably wouldn’t be very nice.

This has held true for basically all celebrities well into adulthood, and in “celebrities” I also include “authors”. (They all have Twitter now, and have you seen the way Zadie Smith and Jessie Burton dress? They’re rock stars.) Team that with an aversion to crowds and discomfort, and not only does Glastonbury start to look like the ninth circle of hell, so do almost all literary festivals.

About once a year, usually in early summer, someone says to me: “Have you ever been to the Hay Festival? Oh my God, you would love the Hay Festival.” This is, I know, well-meaning, but also untrue. I would not love the Hay Festival: I would be too hot or too cold, I would spend too much money, and, above all, I would have to sit in tents and listen to authors. Authors, I am firmly convinced, are to be read; some of them, it’s true, are great live, and some of them have interesting opinions or are capable of answering banal questions graciously, but by and large, we are interested in authors for what they say from a page, not a stage. Reading and writing are traditionally the preserves of people who are shy and awkward. Why on earth would you want to gather a large number of those people in one place and festoon the area with bunting?

It is difficult to feel as though you are having a personal connection with an author or their work when you are in a room full of other people listening to them. The fact that there are usually readings to accompany talks improves things slightly, but then again, one can read at home, and make oneself a cup of tea while doing it. I suspect the prevailing interest in literary festivals–maybe not traditionally, but certainly now–has to do with the rise of publicity. They’re so Instagrammable, aren’t they? They’re so cute, those tents and gin stalls and piles of books. At The Bookseller’s recent Marketing and Publicity Conference, one of the speakers (I now can’t find out who, despite searching the Bookseller site) pointed out that the rise of twee in trade publishing was something to be genuinely worried about. It reinforces the idea that reading is a leisure activity, for the moneyed classes: white, middle-class, middle-educated, middle-aged, mostly. And female, for a very given value of “female”.

A major quantitative reason to be unenchanted by literary festivals, of course, is that they are often grossly unfair on authors. Many writers are not paid appearance fees, which is frankly outrageous: in what other profession would you demand that someone give up time that could be employed in the fundamentals of that profession (the actual writing) without compensating them? Management strategists don’t attend conferences on their own dime; actors don’t turn up to parties for fun. (I mean, some of them probably do, but let’s be honest: almost all celebrity appearances are negotiated.) Philip Pullman pointed out, earlier this year, that the Oxford Literary Festival doesn’t pay the writers who appear there. (They are now said to be “considering it”. I will add only that the festival is sponsored by the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, and HSBC.) In a way, it’s heartening that the vicious “for exposure” bullshit that low-level creatives have to put up with extends to the highest echelons of the profession, but in a much larger way, it’s just depressing. It also makes me think twice about the moral defensibility of throwing money at those organizations.

It’s all the more surprising, therefore, that I went to my first literary festival last month. It was organized by Emerald Street, the email newsletter run by the team behind Stylist Magazine. I went with the gravest of trepidations, expecting it to be populated entirely by thin blondes with good hair, tastefully expensive handbags and Baileys Prize Book Club membership cards. There were some of those, it’s true, but what surprised me was how much I enjoyed it. The first panel I attended was, inevitably, on the Baileys Prize itself: are women-only spaces still necessary, the talk asked. The nuance of what the panelists, novelists short-listed for the Prize this year, had to say on the subject impressed me. Afterwards, I had Lisa McInerney sign my copy of The Glorious Heresies, and she was pleasant, not impersonal at all. I thought, This isn’t so bad. It was probably made better, of course, by the fact that I chose to remove myself to Kensington Gardens to eat lunch and wait for the next session to start; in London, you can always escape somewhere else if you feel like a billy-no-mates. But the second panel, too, was rather wonderful: Caroline Criado-Perez and Marina Lewycka on what the EU has done for women. (This was, of course, pre-referendum. Criado-Perez was so impassioned, so bright and spiky, on the benefits of EU legislation protecting women; I like to think about how furious and eloquent she must have been upon learning the country had collectively voted to leave.)

And the auditorium, both times, was full of all sorts of women: yes, beautiful skinnies with sundresses that I loved and would never be able to afford or fit into, but also, next to me, a vaguely awkward red-haired woman with whom I struck up a chat; a woman wearing a West African-style headwrap in the row in front of me; older women, women my age, women of indeterminable age. It was a show of diversity that I liked all the more for not having expected it. There were men, too, most of whom looked as though they were there voluntarily, instead of having the martyred air of a husband dragged someplace by his wife.

It still hasn’t inspired me to go to the Hay Festival, or to the Edinburgh Book Festival, or Cambridge or Wigtown or any of the others. I would rather, I think, go to Hay in the off-season, with someone whose company I enjoy, and browse on my own; gather two dozen volumes for pennies and read them in the pub. Reading can be a group activity, but only when you’re actually reading. I worry, still, that literary festivals are a distraction from the joy of the actual book, the words on the page, the complexity of ideas that only language can convey. But I have to confess that perhaps they’re not all that bad.

Litro Live! at Stoke Newington Literary Festival

stokeyfestSummer is almost here, and we’re excited to announce that Litro Live! will be kicking off its festival season this June. We will be at the fifth Stoke Newington Literary Festival on Sunday 8 June, with a very special event: the launch of Litro Represents, our new bespoke literary agency.

For the last ten years Litro has been publishing stories by the most exciting new writers, alongside work by established authors. This one-of-a-kind Litro Live! event brings together three of the most promising young writers from the pages of the magazine, as well as the first authors to be signed up to Litro’s new bespoke literary agency, Litro Represents. Reading from their works-in-progress will be: Maia Jenkins (winner of the GQ/Norman Mailer Prize), Rebecca Swirsky (shortlisted for the Bridport Prize) and Reece Choules (finalist for the Aesthetica Short Fiction Award). The event will be hosted by Litro editor Dan Coxon.

Maia JenkinsMaia Jenkins: Maia Jenkins grew up in Singapore and France but moved back to the UK in 2009. In October 2013 she won the GQ Norman Mailer Student Writing Prize for her essay ‘To the Weakness of Others’, which will be published in the July 2014 issue of GQ. Her short memoir piece, ‘Lessons’, appeared in Litro #132; her reviews of the stage production of American Psycho and Galveston, by True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, have appeared in Litro online. She is currently working on her first novel, All a Darkness.

Reece ChoulesReece Choules: Reece Choules regularly contributes to The Culture Trip with articles on film, literature and music. His short stories have appeared in The Southbank Review, Inkapature, The Dying Goose and Cigale, and his story ‘Staircase‘ appeared in Litro #130. He was Long Listed for the 2013 Fish Publishing Short Story Competition and was a finalist in the Aesthetica Short Story competition. He is currently working on his first novel, The Drift.

Rebecca SwirskyRebecca Swirsky: Rebecca Swirsky is currently being mentored by Stella Duffy after winning the Word Factory Apprenticeship. Her fiction is featured in Matter, Ambit, The View From Here, Ink Sweat & Tears, The Pygmy Giant, Stories for Homes anthology for Shelter, Cease, Cows and a number of British anthologies, including the Bridport anthology. Her story ‘Hotline to Almighty‘ appeared in Litro #131. She is currently shaping her debut novel-of-stories, A History of Symmetry.

Other highlights of this year’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival include Ray Davies, Jonathan Meades, AL Kennedy, Mark Kermode, Seamus Milne, Tanya Byron, Claudia Roden, Lynn Barber, Ben Watt and Joanne Harris. Check out their website for the full programme, as well as tickets for Litro Live! on Sunday 8 June.

We’re also offering you the chance to join us and meet our writers, talk to our editors, and enjoy one of the UK’s newest literary festivals. Visit our Stoke Newington Flash Fiction Competition page to find out how you could win a pair of weekend tickets (worth £120) to the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, and have your story published on the Litro.co.uk website.

Litro in Edinburgh: Blackwell’s Writers at the Fringe

Meg Bateman
Meg Bateman

There are literary events all year round in Edinburgh so when festival season arrives, choices shoot through the roof. That being said, it’s important to know what’s worth seeing and what’s best to avoid. I’m happy to say that Blackwell’s Writers at the Fringe is a lovely showcase for Scottish performers to give a taste of their work both new and unpublished.

I happened across the third event in the series, with four authors and an acapella choir. The evening started with poetry from Meg Bateman. Living in the West Highlands, Bateman writes medieval Gaelic poetry anthologies, and read from her first collection written in English Soirbheas. With her soft, musical voice, Bateman transported the audience from the busy street of the Scottish capital taking the listener to the fresh woodlands of Skye. Each flower in the fields of her home holds a special meaning for her and gives a different emotion. Primroses, bluebells and bracken, snow piled high on hawthorn, she is inspired by her homeland. The vaulted beauty of Scottish woodland, painting the colours of Scotland with her intricate knowledge of language, Bateman tells tales through the theme of transparencies in life.

Poetry made way for prose as debut author Catriona Child read from Trackman, her novel about the healing power of music and the way songs bring back memories or can change someone’s mood. Following this with an extract from her yet-to-be-named second novel which is still a work in progress, Child read a very emotional scene of a woman collapsing on the floor with the narrator looking on entirely unsure of what is going on and what she needs to do to help her.

Liam McIlvanney
Liam McIlvanney

The third writer to stand was action crime writer Liam McIlvanney, born in Aryshire now living in New Zealand. Reading from his upcoming novel Where The Dead Men Go he returns to character Gerry Conway, an investigative journalist he introduced in his first fiction novel, All The Colours Of The Town. McIlvanney is inspired by real people and organisations he remembers from his homeland and his strong Lanarkshire accent hasn’t weathered from years abroad. Once again, the story is set in the streets of Glasgow and against a topical background of the forthcoming referendum and Commonwealth Games showing how he is able to draw inspiration from one country while living on the other side of the world.

Catriona Child
Catriona Child

Fitting in a spoken word event around two Edinburgh Book Festival appearances, James Robertson read from his latest novel The Professor of Truth. Taken inspiration from the Lockerbie bombing, the novel is narrated by English Literature lecturer Dr Alan Tealing and starts 21 years after he has lost his wife and young daughter in a plane bombing. Giving two readings, The Professor of Truth is a beautifully written heartbreaking human story of grief and bereavement.

Quite a tonal change, eight-piece acapella group The Wild Myrtles took the floor. Singing five songs, the classical feel and traditional song choices lighten the mood after the emotional reading from James Robertson. These women clearly enjoy what they do and ended the evening on a relaxed note with a version of popular song, Mr Sandman.

The whole event kept to an hour and a half, leaving a good half an hour for browsing and chatting to the authors. With two more Writers at the Fringe evenings to come this August, if you’re looking for a free spoken word event, a sense of calm away from the hustle of festival crowds then head to Blackwell’s on South Bridge on Thursday evenings.

Warming the Literary Hearts of ‘Auld Reekie’ at The West Port Book Festival


Rally & Broad at The Cuckoo's Nest as part of the West Port Book Festival.
Rally & Broad at The Cuckoo’s Nest as part of the West Port Book Festival. Image © Chris Scott.

When people hear the word ‘festival’ there are many images that may spring to mind: fields of swaying glowsticks shining brightly à la Glastonbury; beer, saurkraut and wurstl flowing freely at Oktoberfest; or throngs of costumed theatrical types and aspiring comedians flocking to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, to name just a few. Besides these larger scale festivals there are lesser-known literary gems popping up all over the UK that are worth seeking out.

This is particularly true in Edinburgh, a city with winding alleyways, full of literary secrets. The brickwork, wintery blue skies and cobbled streets have inspired writers for centuries. This inspiration led to a small group of Edinburgh residents rallying together to create the West Port Book Festival. Commonly known as Edinburgh’s Soho, West Port is a patchwork quilt of a neighbourhood described by festival organisers as ‘a heady mix of booze, bosoms, bespoke tailoring and books’. Once a year, for four days, the numerous secondhand bookshops, art spaces and traditional pubs that line the West Port streets become the setting for days filled with poetry readings, artistic demonstrations and literary discussions. Now in its fifth year, the West Port Book Festival has previously appeared in June, May and October. This year, organisers chose November to warm the literary and artistic hearts of ‘Auld Reekie’ ahead of a chilly winter.

As a late-November working day drew to a close on a damp and dark Friday, I headed to Inspace, the bright venue for Take Tea with Turing, the first of two West Port events I’d chosen to sample on the festival’s debut evening. The event also marked the December launch of an anthology of creative work inspired by Alan Turing compiled and edited by Viccy Adams, writer in residence at the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, and it proved to be a wonderful insight into Turing’s life and work. In a world of non-stop Facebook posts and Twitter updates, the readings and poetry in the anthology allowed the audience to take a moment to think upon the legacy of a man considered by many to be the father of computer science, whose discoveries radicalised the way we communicate. Upon hearing these original interpretations of his work through poetry, short stories, animation—there was even a poem read by a robot—my friend and I were led into a debate about what it was Turing had set out to discover. Having subsequently inspired and educated us within hours of its opening, the mission of West Port was well on its way.

I slipped out of Turing ahead of the end in order to make it in time for my second event, hosted by Rally & Broad, which was due to start at The Cuckoo’s Nest, a rough-around-the-edges but cosy Scottish pub with a small event space in the basement. It was a sell-out event, and the intimate venue brimmed with an atmosphere of anticipation for the literary, musical, tongue-twisting evening that the team of Rally & Broad had thrown together especially for West Port. Showcasing the story-weaving skills of former Edinburgh Film Festival director, Hannah McGill, the musical talents of Liz Cronin and the whimsical and elaborately crafted poetics of Luke Wright, the show was a feast of lyrical delight. The cleverly created poetry puns and well-delivered prose introduced a new crowd to Rally & Broad’s monthly event that happens elsewhere in the city, and guaranteed a great start to a West Port weekend.

From an "Atmosphere Screening" of the Pillow Book. Image © Chris Scott.
From an “Atmosphere Screening” of the Pillow Book. Image © Chris Scott.

Saturday had something for those with a flair for the arts, as the fine art of book repair was demonstrated by Edinburgh specialist Orlene McIlfatrick and the intricacies of printmaking was revealed by resident artist and business owner, Isabelle Ting of the Owl & Lion Bindery on West Port. For those alternatively seeking something with a more literary bent, there was an intriguing “atmosphere screening” of the 1996 film The Pillow Book, starring Ewan McGregor. The film’s interweaving concerns for poetry and calligraphy was explored—the protagonist Nagiko’s father has written characters of good fortune on her face—as over the course of the evening a model’s body was gradually covered up with calligraphy.

Sunday held more literary delights with a reading from an author in the local chip shop Kingfishers, certainly one of the more unique venues in West Port programme, and with free chips to boot. With the title, Saturday night, Sunday morning, Vicki Jarrett offered an insight into her novel Nothing is Heavy, following three characters over the course of one intense Saturday night. Unaware that their lives are already intimately connected by a previous tragedy, their fates collide again with completely unpredictable results. Kingfishers was an apt venue to hear this particular extract delivered by the author, which described the first meeting between two of the main characters that takes place in the fictional Deep Sea chippy.

Reading of Vicki Jarret's novel, Nothing is Heavy from the Kingfishers chipshop. Image © Chris Scott.
Reading of Vicki Jarret’s novel, Nothing is Heavy from the Kingfishers chipshop. Image © Chris Scott.

In the afternoon there was a feature in the programme for readers and writers of young adult fiction, with a discussion between prominent writers Keith Gray, Rod Gill and Daniela Sacerdoti. As an aspiring young adult fiction writer myself, I had particularly looked forward to this event. I’d missed Patrick Ness and Keith Gray at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and here was another chance to hear the work and opinions of published children’s authors. The event began with readings from each author. Keith Gray read from his prizewinning novel Ostrich Boys, Daniela Sacerdoti from Dreams—a novel from the Sarah Midnight Trilogy—and Roy Gill from his debut fantasy novel Daemon Parallel. Each reading touched upon one moment and one experience for the central character. Ostrich Boys intricately describes the experience of a teenage boy’s first bungee jump. Dreams depicts the mystical world Sarah must pass into when she dreams to eliminate demonic threats. Daemon Parallel details a fantastical journey through an endless mystical department store, just to find the right department. Following this, a discussion was led by Hannah Trevarthen, Assistant Programmer for Edinburgh International Book Festival, that delved deeper into issues relating to writing literature for young adults. Each author enthusiastically contributed to the conversation about the ever-evolving young adult and children’s fiction market, how this development affects writers and the choices available to readers as a result. It was suggested that the publication of Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy has led to a stronger cross-over between fantasy fiction and young adult fiction, opening the field up to more recent series such as The Hunger Games.

Keith Gray reads from his novel Ostrich Boys. Image © Chris Scott.
Keith Gray reads from his novel Ostrich Boys. Image © Chris Scott.

Little did I know what more was in store, as following the talk, I found myself in the neighbouring pub sitting with Keith Gray, Hannah Trevarthen, Roy Gill, Emily Dodd (poet and Reader in Residence at Leith Library in Edinburgh) and Janne Møller (Daniela Sacerdoti’s editor from Black & White Publishing). We proceeded with a conversation on the topic of publishing and children’s fiction, which made for a fantastically unpredictable afternoon. Such is the power of West Port!

On Monday evening a discussion on the Future of Festivals wound up a long weekend on the perfect note. Chaired by Peggy Hughes, Programme Director for West Port, who led Nick Barclay, Edinburgh International Book Festival Director, and Lisa Dempster, director of Melbourne Writers Festival & the Emerging Writers Festival, this engaging exchange touched upon how festivals may need to adapt to the changing publishing environment in order to ‘future proof’ themselves. With around 400 book festivals currently in the UK, it was stated that eventually there will need to be some form of contraction in the market. Festivals in the future may have to cater to their strengths and focus on creating a personality for themselves, tailoring a programme to a theme or genre or offering an international appeal to connect with different audiences in order to compete with each other. Another option discussed was to integrate the ever-growing audience of social media. The Emerging Writers festival is an excellent example of this, using Twitter to encourage interaction and incorporating an online community to the festival to complement ongoing face-to-face discussion. In 2009, the organisers of West Port themselves were also responsible for the world’s first Literary Twestival, and they can often be found building literary apps, twittering, friending people and blogging.

What does it mean to talk of literary festivals in terms of markets and competition? Festivals such as West Port, Edinburgh and Melbourne are non-profit, and aim to establish space for debate and discussion, to bring people together over common interests. They rely upon the enthusiasm and passion of the organisers and participants, without whom, regardless of market trends, these events would not happen. Then again, these financial issues are an important reality, and if festivals start to disappear due to lack of monetary support, we risk losing these choice events, with fewer opportunities to hear from noteworthy authors, poets and speakers.

Whichever way literary festivals go in the future, West Port is certainly one to remember and cherish. It was very efficiently organised, with quick and easy booking available through EventBrite for popular events and smaller venues alike, making it easier to be able to attend whichever events you wanted. Moreover, with everything free, it was a wonderful opportunity to hear from both published authors and local artists. Six different venues, twenty-four separate talks, presentations, readings and one team of volunteers behind it all, each event had a real sense of community. Supported by local businesses, paid for by sponsors and with money raised through bake sales and charitable donations, it is this overriding community spirit that brings a new and transient audience to West Port over this short time. Long may it continue! I’ll be keeping an eye out to see when it will pop up in 2013, that’s for sure.

For more information on the West Port Book Festival, visit the website.

Preview: Words in the Park, 18-20 May 2012.

Dates: Friday 18 – Sunday 20 May 2012, from 11 a.m.
Venue: Opera Holland Park, London, W8 6LU
Tickets: Individual passes £12, day passes £50.

Buy online at www.operahollandpark.com, or call 0300 999 1000.

The full programme is available here.
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Ways With Words has been running festivals of words and ideas for over 20 years across the UK in Devon, Suffolk, Cumbria, and in Italy and France. This May, it will bring to London a new three-day literary celebration under the canopy of Opera Holland Park. Some of the UK’s finest writers and journalists are set to appear at the festival alongside broadcasters, historians, philosophers, fashion and design icons, foodies, actors and politicians.

Festival goers can hear crime veteran P.D. James in conversation with friend and fellow writer Penelope Lively, laugh at the hilarious life observations of actress Maureen Lipman, join John McCarthy on a journey into the complex Middle East as he discusses his travels in Palestine with Sandi Toksvig, be inspired as A.S. Byatt looks back on her best-loved novels with Culture Editor of the New Statesman Jonathan Derbyshire, and revel in the foodie tales of Sophie Dahl and Mary McCartney, who will be launching her debut cook book, Food. Political legend Tony Benn will speak with young author and agitator Owen Jones, and Chinese writer Jung Chang with critic Maya Jaggi, reflecting on China in the 21 years since the publication of her epic family memoir Wild Swans.

The Britain of yesterday, today and tomorrow will also be scrutinised by some of our sharpest and most renowned minds. Delving into history, Jeremy Paxman will investigate the effect of the British empire on our lives and Andrew Marr will discuss the astonishing reign of Elizabeth II as Jubilee fever mounts. Questioning the society in which we live, Evan Davis will shine a light on our current economic state, while politician and Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow will discuss why democracy matters and parliament’s role in the 21st century, with author and political professor Matthew Flinders.

The changing face of the modern world and technology will be explored by a panel of high profile speakers in our Google keynote debate, including author, journalist and free speech campaigner John Kampfner, technology activist and ex-WikiLeaker, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, Channel 4 News international editor, Lindsey Hilsum, and author and journalist Nick Cohen, debating the role of the internet in breaking down the barriers of establishment.

For audiences looking for comedy and controversy, A.A. Gill speaks with the comedian Jimmy Carr about his travels around the world, in what promises to be a lively event from two infamously acerbic wits.

And then philosophy: atheist Alain de Botton will argue why even the non-believer can learn from religion, television presenter and historian Bettany Hughes will explain how Socrates can help us live the good life, and Gavin Pretor-Pinney, the bestselling author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and The Wave-Watcher’s Companion, will encourage us to spend more time looking skywards.

The festival will also offer audiences the chance to meet fellow literary enthusiasts, wander the beautiful park, enjoy excellent food and wine, browse the festival bookshop and meet the authors at book signings.

See you there!