Jersey Festival of Words, Final Day and Reflections

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On the final day of the festival, a day of war and remembrance, I only have one event by a woman scheduled. Unfortunately when Julie Summers gives her talk about Fashion on the Ration which closes the festival, I’m on a plane back to the mainland. I do get chance to see her in her fabulous outfit though. I’m quite enamoured with her hat.

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The other main event by a woman today is Dr Gilly Carr talking about Testimonies of Resistance. Here’s where I have to admit to my utter ignorance about events in the Channel Islands during the Second World War so not only is Carr’s talk very interesting, I learn a lot too.

1300 Jersey and Guernsey people, two per cent of the population, were imprisoned locally during WWII for some form of resistance. 200 of those were deported either to Nazi prisons or to concentration camps. 29 never returned.

Resistance in the Channel Islands was different to that in continental Europe: there was no united movement – one soldier to every three islanders meant there couldn’t be a large movement; those who practised resistance were seen as ‘troublemakers’, ‘criminals’ and that they ‘rocked the boat’; everyone suffered some way, were resistors responsible for their own fate?

The types of resistance seen on the islands was humanitarian aid – sheltering Jews or slaves; underground newsletters; listening to the BBC and spreading the news; the V-sign campaign; economic resistance – going slow, hoarding, stealing from the Germans; defiant public servants – school teachers refusing to teach German, doctors hiding prisoners; religious resistance – teaching particular sermons; political resistance – Jersey Communist Party; pseudo-military resistance – practised by teenage school boys stealing and saving weapons, and symbolic resistance – wearing red, white and blue.

Carr goes on to talk about two men in particular who became ‘Guardians of Memory’, recording the experiences of those who resisted and became political prisoners.

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Frank Falla was a journalist on the Guernsey Star. Between May 1942 and February 1944, he ran the Guernsey Underground News Service. Having been caught and sentenced, he was deported to Frankfurt Prison in June 1944. The prison was harsh: between a third and half of those from the Channel Islands who died in Nazi confinement died there. Eventually he was moved to Naumburg-on-Saale which was liberated by the Americans in 1945.

On his return from the war, Falla fought for compensation for Channel Islanders persecuted by the Nazis. He alerted the UK government to the validity of their claims and acted as a go-between, distributing forms and helping people complete them. He also helped overturn rejected claims. Carr’s research shows that only 50% of those eligible actually did claim. She suggests this is for a number of different reasons: death, pride, emigration, ignorance of the scheme, seeing the compensation as German blood money, thinking they were ineligible, thinking no amount of money was enough to compensate for what they’d suffered. She says some of the testimonies read, ‘I was in X concentration camp and we all know what happened there’. What did happen ‘there’ included forced labour, beatings, torture, forced marches, murder, executions, PTSD, ill health, poverty and some medical experimentation.

The other man, Joe Mière, collected the stories of prisoners – some of which hadn’t even been shared fully with their own families – and put them on the walls at the Jersey War Tunnels – an underground hospital built by the Nazis. Now the tunnels have become a museum telling the story of the occupation, the prisoners’ testimonies are displayed in the café.

Carr finishes her talk by telling us that she’s secured funding to build a website where this unknown story can begin to be more widely known. She’s also filmed a documentary that will be broadcast on BBC1 at 7.30pm on the 2nd November about Sidney Ashcroft, one of the 21 Jersey prisoners who died while incarcerated by the Nazis.

At the end of Carr’s talk, Jersey poet Alice Allen reads some of her work from a forthcoming book about Channel Islanders during the occupation. She refers to that time as a ‘unique seam of history’ and goes on to read poems about slave workers and resistors.

In the Q&A with both Carr and Allen, a couple of really interesting things come up. One they’ve both experienced is daughters of resistors who were caught and imprisoned blaming their fathers for the poverty the family were plunged into and sometimes also the mental health of their mothers. It’s clear that not everyone thought these resistors were heroes. The other also concerns women and that’s the so-called ‘Jerry bags’, the women who fraternised with German soldiers. Carr clearly feels very passionately about the way these women are portrayed both in non-fiction recounts and in novels set during the time. She believes that the women behaved in this way because they wanted to feed and protect their families and some genuinely believed they were in love. She says they’re often termed collaborators but really, she feels, the idea of collaboration needs to be defined clearly and these women re-examined. I hope that Carr does this, I’d definitely be keen to read more on them.

Over the four days I attend the festival, I only see a fraction of what’s on – there are master classes, events with local writers and events for schools that I don’t even touch on. What I do see, however – poetry readings from Carol Ann Duffy and Owen Sheers; interviews with Isabel Ashdown/Kate Shaw, Irma Kurtz, Owen Sheers, Will Smith, Alex Preston, and presentations from Simon Barnes, Rachel Bridge, Ella Berthoud, Jane Hawking and Dr. Gilly Carr – shows that the festival may be in its inaugural year but it’s already capable of attracting a huge range of talent who are fascinating to listen to and watch. Irma Kurtz’s interview with Murray Norton and Owen Sheer’s interview with Andy Davey are two of the best I’ve seen anywhere. I hear so many of the writers comment on how lovely the festival is as well as the island of Jersey. So many of them are there for the first time and it’s clear they’re all falling in love with it – me too!

I’m already looking forward to next year and I’m hoping I might see people deciding to take a literary holiday, discover a beautiful island and see some cracking bookish events.

Jersey Festival of Words, Day One

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I arrive in Jersey to glorious sunshine. It might be the first of October but the island clearly hasn’t had the memo about Autumn yet. I’m here for the Festival of Words, Jersey’s new literature festival. It’s an added bonus that I also get to discover a place I’ve never been to before.

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The headline events are taking place in Jersey Opera House which, as you might expect, is a beautiful Edwardian theatre in St. Heller. Over the four days of the festival it will play host to a range of writers including Holly Smale, Irma Kurtz and Jane Hawking. But today I’m here to see Isabel Ashdown along with her agent Kate Shaw and, later on, Carol Ann Duffy.

Isabel Ashdown’s here to discuss her latest novel Flight and her career as a writer. Her agent Kate Shaw’s here to talk about the business side of things.

Ashdown begins by reading a short passage from Flight – she will read three in total throughout the event. Flight is about a woman, Wren, who wins the lottery then leaves her young family and disappears. A subject Ashdown describes as a modern taboo for women.

All of Ashdown’s books revolve around the themes of families and relationships, she says. Shaw’s asked what’s hot in the publishing industry and whether she can predict this. No, she says, but insiders can give the impression they can due to the period between a publisher buying a book and the publication date. Genres are a construct of the publishing industry but sometimes a book comes along that spawns a genre. She refers to Holly Smale, another of her clients, whose Geek Girl books led to the creation of the ‘clean teen’ genre.

Ashdown talks about her journey as a writer. She used to work for The Body Shop head office but after having children enrolled on an English Literature and Creative Writing degree. She quietly wrote short stories and poetry, eventually being persuaded to submit them to competitions and magazines. She was met with a deafening silence she describes as worse than rejection! But then she won a Mail on Sunday competition with an extract from Glasshopper which then became her first published novel.

Shaw tells us she receives around 1000 submissions a year – she likes physical submissions because the pile makes her feel guilty – and takes on approximately 12 writers a year. She says she wants to see submissions from writers taking themselves seriously, something she emphasises throughout the event. She cites entering and being placed in competitions and doing creative writing courses. There’s quite a discussion about how useful creative writing courses can be. Shaw says only three of her writers have a creative writing MA so they’re far from essential but both her and Ashdown (who has taught on an MA course) emphasise the community/workshopping element of these courses in helping to hone talent.

The actual writing is largely a solitary pursuit though and this is explored more when Ashdown discusses how important place is to her work. She has a camper van which she drives to the locations she’s set her novels in – Treyarnon Bay in Cornwall for Flight and the Isle of Wight for Summer of ’76 – walks, absorbs and writes. She grew up in a coastal town and it’s something she keeps returning to in her work.

She also talks about planning, which she describes as ‘the death of creativity for me. I write into the darkness for about the first third of the book.’ Her routine is to read the last 1000 words she wrote, write the next 1000 and then write a single sentence summary of what the following day’s passage will be.

The conversation moves on to the role of the agent and self-publishing. Ashdown says Shaw gives her security, she can throw ideas at her and get valuable advice in return. She didn’t consider self-publishing because the Mail on Sunday win meant she didn’t need to but Shaw says the stigma that used to exist around self-publishing is changing due to the high profile novels that have gone on to be traditionally published. She says she understands why someone would self-publish – how can a small number of agents in London understand everything people across the country want to read, never mind across the world? But she does add a warning about the low earnings of many self-published authors and that there are a disproportionate number of prizes for debut writers and self-published authors aren’t eligible for the majority of these.

Ashdown finishes with some tips for writers: enter competitions; read to yourself aloud; use a page in the back of your notebook to list your bad writer habits; ‘read and read and read and read’; don’t make excuses, find the time and write. Shaw finishes with ‘Don’t give up the day job!’ but it is possible to make your living from writing.

It’s dark when I return to the Opera House to see the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, perform poems from across her career. She’s accompanied by John Sampson who’s brought a range of instruments – crumhorn, descant and treble recorders, goats horn, cornetto – most of which are used for musical interludes but occasionally he plays as she reads.

Before Duffy does read a selection from The World’s Wife, she says how delighted she is to be at the festival, supporting a new literary initiative: ‘It makes us all human and that’s what’s needed in these times’.

Personally I’m delighted that she begins by reading ‘Mrs Midas’. (I’ve loved it since being presented with it in my A level English Literature exam as the unseen poem and credit it with my result!) Duffy’s reading is sharp and playful. She pauses to allow the audience to react to particular lines, emphasising what a fool Midas is. It’s a demeanour she maintains as she moves on to ‘Mrs Tiresias’, showing us through her facial expressions exactly what she thinks of him being turned into a woman as punishment and turning herself to look at Sampson when she mentions Tiresias getting his first period:

One week in bed.
Two doctors in.
Three painkillers four times a day.

 And later
a letter
to the powers that be
demanding full-paid menstrual leave twelve weeks per year.

She ends this first section by reading ‘Mrs Faust’. It’s clear she’s in a wicked, provocative mood when, eyes sparkling, she tells us that Faust sold his soul to the devil for unbelievable powers, ‘like Jeremy Corbyn’.

Before she reads a group of poems from Rapture, her collection of love poems, she talks about how she aimed to use the sonnet form to capture moods, describing the form as ‘the little black dress of poetry’.

The tone changes again after this, back to the political. Early in my secondary school teaching career, one of Duffy’s poems ‘Education for Leisure’ was banned by the exam board AQA after an invigilator wrote to her MP accusing Duffy of glorifying knife crime. Clearly it still rankles. ‘30 years ago, when Meryl Streep was prime minister’, Duffy says, she wrote a poem that she thought was pro-education. ‘My poem was arrested, taken into a dark room, pulped and shredded.’ She doesn’t read that poem, instead she reads the poem she wrote to the invigilator. ‘I wanted to immortalise the invigilator. That’s not actually the correct verb,’ she says. The rest of this section is characterised by poems written as responses to national events – from the Post Office asking letter writers to no longer include the county on addresses to the Hillsborough Disaster.

The event ends with Duffy reading from The Bees, bookending the section with poems about the death of her mother. It’s interesting to hear how she responds to the personal and the political. The word play is always evident as is the passion she has for her subjects. It’s clear the audience appreciate her style and her range of subjects as she returns to the stage, with Sampson, for a second bow as the applause continues. A wonderful start to the four-day festival.

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