Thursday, 24 June 2010
A few weeks ago I headed up to Stoke Newington on my new bicycle (a rather fetching Raleigh Sapphire) to check out the first ever Stoke Newington Literary Festival.
In some ways, it’s a surprise that Stoke Newington didn’t already have a lit fest of its own: it makes the ideal location for literary events. Stoke Newington Church Street is replete with kooky cafes perfect for reading paperbacks and drinking coffee; it has an independent bookshop, and a spooky graveyard (the fabulous Abney Park) with a ruined church that’s straight out of a Victorian ghost story; and it also has a long history of connections with literary figures and radical thinkers – past residents have included Daniel Defoe (who even has a pub named after him), Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Wollstonecraft.
The programme for this first festival was certainly diverse, incorporating everyone from A.C Grayling to Tony Benn, and covering topics ranging from feminism through to guerrilla gardening. On Saturday afternoon, I went along to an event featuring two of Britain’s leading science fiction writers in conversation – China Mieville (swoon!) and John Courtenay Grimwood – which took place at Stoke Newington’s Assembly Rooms, under the rather incongruous sparkle of an enormous glitter ball. Although holding the event without a chair to direct the conversation meant that discussion felt quite unstructured, this was a genuinely fascinating event – entertaining, thought-provoking and inspiring.
Then on Sunday afternoon, after a picnic in Abney Park, I went along to one of the festival's headline events - Hackney resident Iain Sinclair talking to Andy Beckett, author of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies. Unsurprisingly there was much discussion of London on the agenda, and the localities of Stoke Newington and Hackney in particular, but the tone was far from self-congratulatory: Sinclair brought a good serving of local controversy to the table (see the full story of the cancellation of his book launch at Stoke Newington library here and here), and there were also entertaining readings on offer from both writers.
Altogether, a pretty good start for Stoke Newington's first ever literary festival - and the beer was tasty too! Check out the review in the Times here.