Jersey Festival of Words 2019: Year 5

2019 marks the fifth year of Jersey Festival of Words; it feels like no time at all and also as though the Festival has been part of the landscape for much longer. This year, the events featuring female writers are predominantly non-fiction events, but there’s still an interesting range of subjects and some very special moments.

Those special moments come at the beginning and end of my Festival experience. On Friday evening the headliners, Kate Dimbleby and Cathy Rentzenbrink, create a show called ‘Out of Our Comfort Zones’. Dimbleby (yes, of that family) is a singer who wants to write longer pieces than three-minute songs and Rentzenbrink is an author (The Last Act of Love and A Manual for Heartache) who wants to sing. After sharing with us how they met and telling us their own stories – including Kate introducing us to Roland, the loop station which allows her to layer her vocals on stage – the fun begins. Kate asks Cathy to hum and we all join in to provide an accompaniment as Cathy opens her mouth and sings whatever notes she feels like. This is followed by a rendition of Stand By Me. Rentzenbrink appears exhilarated. The audience is collectively delighted that we’ve been allowed to witness this and to sing along in the darkness of the Opera House.

Then it’s Kate’s turn to be plunged into the new as Cathy sits her down with pen and paper, a timer set to five minutes, and some prompts related to memoir writing. We’re all invited to join in again. When the timer goes off, I’m lost in prose and surprised at what I’ve written. Kate, it turns out, has made one earlier. Following her initial meeting with Cathy, she began working on a memoir about her grandma, Mimi aka Dilys Thomas, who was the wife of Richard Dimbleby. It quickly becomes apparent that Kate can write and I’m already looking forward to being able to read the completed work.

The evening’s rounded off with an unexpectedly vulnerable moment where Cathy admits that she links singing to being drunk in the pub her parents ran. Now she no longer drinks, she isn’t sure she can disconnect the two things. Kate encourages Cathy to sing a sea shanty, one which Cathy learned from her dad, and Cathy does, growing in confidence as the piece progresses. As we leave the venue, there’s a sense that we’ve been part of something bigger than a literary event tonight. Something changed while Kate and Cathy were on stage and they’ve inspired us to try an activity that scares us too.

Saturday begins with a writer whose debut, award-winning book, The Salt Path came out of a terrifying life experience. Raynor Wynn begins her event with Andy Davey by explaining how a financial dispute with a friend led to the loss of the property her and her husband, Moth, had bought and restored twenty years earlier. This was compounded by Moth being diagnosed with a terminal neurodivergent disease. Determined to wrest some control over the situation, and inspired by Mark Wallington’s book 500 Mile Walkies, Raynor and Moth set off to walk the South West Coast Path. Raynor says they were drawn by the idea of following a line on a map. Physically moving forwards became a reason to go on, even though the path is 630 miles of relentless climes.

What stands out about Raynor’s story is the poverty her and Moth faced and how people reacted to their situation. She talks about how they underestimated the effect of hunger while walking the path and wild camping. A direct debit they forgot to cancel – house insurance for a house they no longer owned – led to them having pennies left with which to feed themselves. She talks about the narrowness of the path and how this forces interaction with the people you pass. Initially they told people the truth about losing their house, but the reaction from strangers – Raynor says she could see them physically draw back – led to Raynor and Moth changing their narrative. Instead, they told people they’d sold their house in a midlife moment. Now their story was inspirational. This has clearly affected Raynor and she states, ‘I’ve got something to say about homelessness’. It’s something I’m interested to hear more about – and in the current climate in the UK, it’s a topic many others should be paying attention to as well.

The day continues with another hot political topic via Leah Hazard, the author of Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story. Leah tells Cathy Rentzenbrink that she wanted to show the reality of her job and the experiences of giving birth. She comments that there’s a tendency to trivialise women’s experiences and their work, noting that the book’s been treated differently to recent medical memoirs written by men. Cathy says it’s unusual that they’re talking about normalising an experience that lots of people have been through.

Leah shares a range of stories. She talks about supporting teenagers giving birth and the care someone young and vulnerable needs; the ‘amazing’ experience of delivering a baby created via assisted conception to a lesbian couple, and, harrowingly, about the women she sees ‘on an almost daily basis’ who are being trafficked, and the holistic care they try to provide for these women. The job is ‘fascinating, endlessly, and challenging’. Hazard ends by saying she hopes the book ‘will make a difference. Individually. And maybe on a broader scale’.

Someone whose life did change enormously after having three children is Janet Hoggarth. She talks to Sara Palmer about how the events that followed the end of her marriage led to her first novel The Single Mums’ Mansion.

I’m on board as soon as Janet says she was told by a university tutor, ‘Your writing is fairly vulgar. No one wants to hear swearing. No one wants to read stories about girls having sex on a building site.’ Janet’s story is slightly more complicated than that, however. Not long after the end of her marriage, two of her friends found themselves in similar circumstances: one’s marriage broke up a month after Janet’s; the other gave birth only for her fiancé to leave four days later. The latter moved into Janet’s house so they could support each other as single mums – Janet’s children were 5, 3 and 1 when her marriage ended – and all three women synched the weekends when the children were with their dads so they could relax together. ‘It was really really magical. It was freedom.’

At the same time, Janet became interested in what she terms the ‘beardy weirdy’ aka holistic rituals and healing. She tells Sara she has a crystal in her bra and that she’s a trained reki healer. She cites two books which were important in her thinking The Journey by Brandon Bays and The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. Janet detailed all of these experiences on a blog which her agent eventually convinced her to turn into a novel. It sounds like a riot and I leave the event keen to read it.

Saturday ends with more laughter as I interview Jenny Eclair, who is a joy. I’ll leave Festival reviewer Andy Davey to fill you in on that one.

Interviewing Jenny Eclair is pretty special but the magical moment that ends the Festival for me is Ana Sampson’s event about her poetry anthology She Is Fierce. Ana tells Richard Pedley that she compiled the book after realising that there were ‘more men called William’ than women in her previous anthologies and that when she looked for an anthology of poems written by women, she couldn’t find one. Ana’s passion for the poems she chose is evident in the way she talks about her reasons for including them and the decision to curate the anthology by theme, so readers could find poems that suited their mood. What makes this event so special though is the readings of poems that punctuate the conversation. Poems by writers including Lizzie Siddal, Yrsa Daley Ward, Hollie McNish and Imtiaz Dharker are read aloud by selected audience members. There’s something lovely and relaxing about being read to and especially so when the texts are poems. It allows us a real flavour of a carefully curated anthology.

My trips to Jersey Festival of Words are always lovely, but this year is especially so. Here’s to the next five years of wonderful events.

Festival photos by Peter Mourant.

Adventures into the Unknown: Jersey Festival of Words, part two

Late Saturday afternoon and evening at Jersey Festival of Words brings two new things into my life: Masterchef and Joanna Trollope.

If you’d asked me a year ago I’d have told you I didn’t do cooking. But in the last twelve months, with new work and only really myself to bother about, I’ve started to try new dishes. Turns out I’m alright at following a recipe. I wouldn’t know where to begin when it comes to creating dishes though so I’m somewhat in awe of Saliha Mahmood Ahmed who’s come to talk about her recipe book, Khazana, and her experience as the 2017 winner of Masterchef.

Two things really stand out: the first is how Saliha talks about her family and the influence they’ve had on the way she thinks about food. Her mother was a consultant working in the NHS with three young children but time was always made for them to have dinner as a family. The food was fresh and the rule was ‘Eat that or go hungry –  and you weren’t allowed to go hungry’. Her grandmother ‘cooked simply’ but was unique in putting sour apples in curry, ‘We had apples in every form.’ While her dad’s wanderlust took Saliha to places that inspired her cooking.

The second thing is her interest in the Mughal Empire and how that’s informed her cookbook. She describes a typical hareem with buildings constructed with marble, horticulture gardens and peacocks wandering around. The tables would be calico covering on leather on which food would be presented in huge portions in gold and silver dishes. Flavours in the room would include sandalwood and rose. Rose petals were used as a scent or a seasoning. They would feed chickens rosewater because they thought it would taste better. It’s this that inspired the Rose-Scented Chicked dish which Saliha cooked on Masterchef.

The book has 110 recipes, she tells us and – hurrah – was put together by an all-female team. Saliha wanted to capture the stories behind the recipes in the photography and used the influence of the Mughal Empire for the colours. There’s no doubt Khazana looks beautiful. Whether or not I’m capable of cooking anything in it remains to be seen.

Photograph by Peter Mourant

I am definitely, however, capable of reading a Joanna Trollope novel. Although, for reasons yet to be discerned, I never have. Not one of the 31 novels or one book of non-fiction she’s written during her 40 year career aka ‘forever’ as Joanna herself refers to it.

She says she writes to start a conversation about whatever society’s current dilemma is. In her latest novel, An Unsuitable Match, it’s a subsequent marriage between two heterosexuals in their 60s which the woman’s grown-up children have opinions about, particularly when it comes to who’s inheriting what.

Joanna talks about love and how she tries to show it in her novels. Valentines’ Day is ‘the seventh circle of hell’. Love is ‘unloading the dishwasher together’. ‘I deal in reality,’ she says, crediting the success of her novels to observing other people. She shares an anecdote about an ‘immaculate French woman’ who came to one of her signings in Paris and said to Joanna, ‘I don’t know what you’ve been doing sitting in my kitchen for the last three years’.

Interviewer Cathy Le Feuvre asks whether she’s ever felt pressure from her publishers to include a sex scene in her novels. She says no, she leaves them to the reader’s imagination, adding that her books started to become popular as the 80s bonkbusters were falling out of fashion. Ah, that’s why I’ve never read a Joanna Trollope novel: I was too busy with Jilly Cooper’s.

Photographs by Peter Mourant

Finally, on the Sunday lunchtime, I chair a panel on a subject that is even further removed from me than cooking: gardening. It’s difficult to write about an event you were part of; I find myself so focused on what’s happening in the moment I can’t remember much about it afterwards. However, all three of the books by the women on the panel are brilliant so I am going to heartily recommend them to you.

A Thousand Paper Birds by Tor Udall is the story of Jonah whose wife has died by suicide following a series of miscarriages. After her death, he spends time in Kew Gardens where he meets Chloe, an artist, and they both encounter Harry, one of the gardeners, and Milly, an eight-year-old girl. It’s beautifully written, perfectly capturing the weight of grief. That makes it sound miserable but, honestly, it’s a gorgeous book.

War Gardens by Lalage Snow covers five years and several of the world’s most dangerous war zones. Working as a war correspondent left Lalage with war fatigue so when she discovered that people in conflict zones were maintaining gardens behind closed doors, she began to seek them out. The book tells the stories of a number of gardeners building new life in places of destruction. Lalage is also a photographer and the images in the book are fantastic.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury is a memoir, spanning a year after a relationship break-up when Kate moves to Brighton, buys a flat and tears up the decking outside to create a wildlife garden. She recalls her childhood gardens alongside the work on her new place – including the creation of a bee hotel – and then her mother falls ill and life takes a different turn. I might not know anything about gardening but if one book’s capable of convincing me to give it a go someday, this is it.

Reframing the Conversation: Jersey Festival of Words, part one

The Jersey Festival of Words took place between the 26thand 30thSeptember. I was delighted to be invited back for the fourth year running, not only because Jersey’s such a beautiful place to spend a few days but also because it’s been a pleasure to watch this festival grow and bring such a wealth of interesting writers to the island.

Photograph by Peter Mourant.

One of the themes that runs (ha!) through this year’s events is a reframing of the conversation around exercise and women’s bodies. It’s no surprise to find journalist, runner, swimmer and author of two books about exercise –  Running Like a Girland Leap In– Alexandra Heminsley involved in this. On the Friday evening, Alex interviews Bryony Gordon whose book Eat, Drink, Runchronicles her journey from couch to running a marathon. Then on Saturday afternoon, Alex herself is interviewed by Cathy Rentzenbrink alongside Libby Page, author of debut novel The Lido.

Frankly, I could review Bryony’s event purely by using direct quotations. If you need a soundbite expressing things about exercise that other people (including myself) will recognise, she’s your woman.

Alex and Bryony begin by discussing the version of sport and exercise we’re sold. The idea, perpetuated right from primary school, that if you’re not good at sport you shouldn’t be doing it. This is followed by the marketing of running to women as something to do to make ourselves acceptable to others. Bryony: ‘I was scared of exercise…for me it was so rooted in self-loathing. I wanted to look like someone else.’ She began running ‘in desperation’ in the hope it would help her mental health. ‘I just needed to stay alive.’ It worked. Bryony realised there was a point where ‘I wasn’t doing it for the losses, I was doing it for the gains’.

Alex: Did you go quite slowly to begin with?
Bryony: What do you mean to begin with?

Bryony decided to run the marathon after thinking it ‘can’t be harder than the days when I can’t get out of bed’. Alex talks about how marathons are good for mental health because you’re ‘locked into a structure’ with the training regime. Bryony mentions the high that comes around mile 10 or 11, ‘I did that with my own body and that’s kind of magic’.

Having run the marathon in her underwear despite being told she needed to lose weight in order to do so, Bryony discusses the so-called ‘obesity crisis’ in relation to exercise. ‘When people who are overweight go out and show themselves and do exercise we’re all, “Put it away”. Obesity to me is as much a mental health problem as it is a physical one.’

It’s a theme that’s picked up again at the lido the following afternoon. ‘There’s no lean thigh or buff arm in the universe that will keep you exercising. It’s community and friendship,’ says Alex. This is echoed by Libby whose novel The Lido is about people coming together to save a local lido, making friends and enjoying swimming along the way.

Libby mentions how ‘community spaces are very much under threat’, linking the threatened closure of lidos to the rapidly disappearing libraries. She also mentions that one of her characters, Kate, who is in her 20s, suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. She’s ‘feeling quite lost in the world’ and it’s the sense of community and the friendship with Rosemary, who’s in her 80s, which allows her to feel less alone.

Alex talks about the connection between swimming, breathing and stress and how helpful the sport can be for managing anxiety. You have to be calm, she says. She thought learning to swim outdoors would give her control over an element but there is no controlling the sea. She describes swimming in the sea as ‘completely intoxicating’. Libby adds that swimming outdoors ‘really changes your perspective of things’ and relates an anecdote about being interviewed at Brockwell Lido in the rain. She didn’t want to get into the water for photographs but ‘It was suddenly just beautiful’.

Cathy mentions that she lives by the sea. She’s been contemplating swimming but hasn’t plucked up the courage yet. Both Libby and Alex offer tips but it’s the benefits to mental health that are mentioned which hold the most appeal. Libby says, ‘It makes you really happy!’ while Alex tells us she was at the lido at 6am with Bryony before the latter’s flight back to London. They swam as the sun rose and Bryony said, ‘I’m going to hold this in my body all day now’.

After the event, a group of women descend the steps into the water. Cathy and I watch standing at the railings above. It looks like fun; it looks like something we might try soon.