Review: Stoke Newington Literary Festival, 3-5 June

Stoke Newington hosted its second literary festival on Friday 3rd to Sunday 4th of June, a programme of events which has the long term goal of raising awareness and funds for literacy initiatives in the Borough of Hackney. Having missed the opening day, I was eager to pack my Saturday full of events, which proved an achievable task, since there were over twenty events taking place that day alone in the town’s wealth of public spaces and pubs, the majority of which, rather conveniently, were situated on the same road. The festival boasted a diverse and interdisciplinary programme which celebrates the literary and cultural heritage of Stoke Newington: the area was home to treasured writers Daniel Defore and Edgar Allen Poe, the former commemorated by a bust unveiled over the weekend, as well as a reading of his work in the nearby massive, almost labyrinthine graveyard.

At the first event I attend, Stewart Lee, a resident of the area, plays host to a discussion with one of his favourite writers, Dan Rhodes, in what turns out to be a sell out, packed and uncomfortably humid mid afternoon event. Rhodes is quick to explain that, despite the presence of an alternative comedian, this is not a comedy event, and Lee will not be ‘telling any of his trademark jokes or saying any of his catchphrases’ (a dry remark which those aware of Lee’s self-aware, meandering and anti-punch line approach to comedy appreciated). However, the singularly odd humour which has gained Rhodes’ writings a cult reverence is certainly on display when he reads his stories (short glimpses into the lives of people whose strange compulsions, perhaps to avoid loneliness or to just be acknowledged, lead them to increasingly absurd lengths).

Lee states that Rhodes first won his attention because he seemed to understand the difference between a reading and a performance, a skill the writer believes he owes to his otherwise unused training as a secondary English teacher; ‘no book audience is going to be as bad as 9F’, he comments. However, he has often seemed indifferent to, or even keen to be hostile towards, critical acclaim. When his 2003 novel ‘Timoleon Come Home’ was included on Granta’s ‘Best Young Novelists’ list, he reacted with disdain, citing that the award meant the book’s release date was pushed further back. The ‘very bleak’ book is about a retired, disgraced television theme composer, Cockcroft, and his absent dog (the eponymous Timoelon Vieta).

Lee states dryly that, whilst most novelists would attempt to capitalise on the momentum of their novel winning an award, Rhodes instead chose to write a self-aware parody of commercial chick-it under a false name. Rhodes himself describes as ‘Little White Car’, released under the pseudonym Danuta de Rhodes , as ‘a romantic comedy about the death of Princess Diana’. However, Rhodes has managed to curb his tendency towards sabotage, and last year’s novel ‘Little Hands Clapping’ won the E.M. Foster award. Readers will also be pleased to hear he plans to revisit his chick-lit creation with another book, although his publisher has insisted it will be emblazoned with his own name this time.  Although I suspect many were drawn to the event by Lee’s name, I’m sure Rhode’s truly funny and engaging readings wouldn’t have left any attendees disappointed.

Saturday evening brings ‘Stoke Newington-on-Sea’, an exploration of Britain’s love affair with the seaside hosted by Travis Elborough. Elborough, who claims to have salt water in the blood owing to his childhood in Worthing, kicks things off with an exert from last year’s ‘Wish You Were Here’, a thorough insight into how the seaside has left shaped the British character in a much more significant way than just the indentations of pebbles on skin. His tale of some 1000 Mods descending on Clacton for a weekend of greasy breakfasts, the beach bed for a bed and launching deck chairs at Rockers is followed by a similarly brilliant set of songs by Darren Hayman. Hayman, a multi-instrumentalist who fronted 90s Indie darlings Hefner (becoming a prolific solo artist since) explains to the audience that his ‘pathological fear of writers’ block’, he often sets himself song writing challenges. Tonight he showcases a selection of results from his mission to write a series of E.P.s set at different classic British holiday locales. The collection illustrates Hayman’s endearing ability to capture characters that ring incredibly true, in such few lyrics. Most effective is ‘Out of Season’, which details a couple’s last-ditch attempt to make their marriage work, set against an unseasonal trip to a Minehead in the hope ‘there’s still some sun, though it’s autumn’. I really can’t recommend Hayman’s music enough.

Matt Thorne’s reading from his 1988 Weston Super Mayer-set novel ‘Tourist’ proves a poignant story of adolescence and the fading lustre of former glory, while Karen McLeod ‘s exert from ‘Search For the Missing Eyelash’ offers a unique and witty twist on the detective novel. Ian Marchant’s lampooning of the bohemian bourgeoisie types found in Stoke Newington rounds off the evening in style.

Sunday’s programme has a distinct musical theme, beginning with the endlessly enthusiastic John Osborne, and his touching show on the part radio has played in his life and those of others. When, in 2002, John Peel on his Radio 1 show asked listeners to write in with reasons they liked his show, Osborne answered with ‘records you want to hear played by a man who wants you to hear them’, the student won a box of records formerly stored in Peel’s shed. The crate contained a wealth of vinyl treasure, and the writer and poet treats us to a selection of the songs: oddities and obscure tunes alike. When Osborne found himself an unfulfilled graduate working a tedious temp job, he discovered creative satisfaction by hosting a radio show on Norwich’s community station in which he played the seminal DJ’s records. Osborne further developed his relationship with radio when he challenged himself to listen to a different station each day, again as an antidote to his days spent in an office, which was eventually documented in 2009’s ‘Radio Head’.  Although at first dismissive of commercial stations, he soon found that radio, regardless of station, provides invaluable companionship to countless people, every day. Osborne will be taking the show to Edinburgh, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Continuing Sunday’s celebration of pop music was Juke Box Fury. The festival organiser who introduces the event states that usually, if your local librarian asks if he can host a discussion with some of his friends, you’d be quite sceptical. Stoke Newington’s librarian, however, happens to be none other than Richard Boon, former manager of seminal punk band Buzzcocks and founder of New Hormones Records. Boon is joined by esteemed music critics Charles Shaar Murray, Simon Reynolds, Paul Morley and Lucy O’Brien, who each discuss that track which first inspired them to write about music. Through exploring records by the Who, Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks and the B-52s, the panel stress that it was the ideas, love of language and inventiveness of these bands, rather than technical proficiency, which made them so urgent and essential. Similarly, the consensus was reached that great music journalism will discuss the ideas behind the songs rather than solely describing the music: as Iggy Pop put it best, ‘the best writing about music makes you want to hear it’.

Other enjoyable events across the weekend included children’s author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers’ discussion of his work, and his live-drawing showcase of his book ‘The Incredible Book Eating Boy’.  The poetry readings from emerging writers dotted throughout the festival are also provide highlights. Particularly impressive was Jack Underwood, whose engaging readings display a fresh urgency. Also noteworthy is Wayne Holloway-Smith, who read as part of poetry anthology publishers Donut Press’ showcase, and whose work is vivid and brimming with ideas.

Overall, my impression of Stoke Newington’s second literary festival is a very positive one. There was an incredible amount of events (around sixty across three days), but the close proximity of the fifteen venues means it’s easy to move between shows. I look forward to seeing what they come up with for next year’s celebration of the area’s prestigious cultural past.

Liz Cookman

Liz Cookman

Liz is a thoroughly London-centric writer and a recent addition to the Litro Online team. She is passionate about creative non-fiction and waffles on a lot about London and the River Wandle - a total river bore. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and is studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University.

Liz is a thoroughly London-centric writer and a recent addition to the Litro Online team. She is passionate about creative non-fiction and waffles on a lot about London and the River Wandle - a total river bore. She holds a BA in Creative Writing and is studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University.

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