Jersey Festival of Words: Day One

I arrived in Jersey on the same flight as poet Jo Bell, which was fantastic as I had someone to talk to/try not to get lost with. When we got to the hotel, we met writer Tania Hershman, who had already sussed out cake opportunities. We went for afternoon tea and chatted about writing and the sessions we’re doing during the festival. Jo and Tania are part of tonight’s cabaret evening at the Arts Centre and are doing a session together at 5pm tomorrow in the Arts Centre. Jo is also doing a full day’s workshop in La Hougue Bie on Sunday. Their plans for the sessions sounded fantastic.


I went to two events yesterday: Anna Sebba and Victoria Hislop, both of whom have a love of recent history in common. Both sessions took place at Jersey Arts Centre, which is a new venue for this year and is a lovely addition.


Anne Sebba talked for an hour of the stories she discovered about women in Paris during the Second World War. These stories, and many more, form her new book Les Parisiennes.

I warmed to Sebba immediately when she said that the book isn’t a women’s history book, it’s a mainstream history book that happens to be about women. She described the book as ‘unashamedly’ a story about the women of Paris, a city which became feminised during the occupation. The book includes stories about resistors, collaborators, milliners, singers, dancers and more. The spectrum of women in Paris at that time is shown here.

Sebba questioned throughout the talk why it had taken so long for these women’s stories to be told. Her answers included that these women were self-effacing and they wanted to return to normalcy. They were also told by DeGaulle to return to their families, have babies and return their chequebooks. Women in France did not get the vote until 1946. Even after their part in the war, society thought they should return to their places. There were also the women whose romantic lives meant they didn’t want their stories known – Catherine Dior, for example, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his children – and those whose romantic lives wouldn’t be accepted by society – Claire Simone, who despite her portrayal by Cate Blanchett in The Momuments Men where she flirts with Frank Stokes played by George Clooney, was a lesbian.


The book came from an interest in Reneé, formerly Rachel, Van Cleef who killed herself in 1942 following the Aryanisation of businesses under occupation. Sebba’s interested stemmed from the disparity between the darkness of the period and the growth in couture and culture in Paris.

Sebba mentioned a lot of women, whose stories I’m not going to repeat here because they’re told in the book, but they include Elsie de Wolfe, Odette Fabius, Beatrice de Camondo and Irène Némirovsky. Many of these women showed enormous courage, carrying out work that went unrecognised until recently. Sebba praised the grandchildren of these women who she said were determined that their grandmothers’ stories would be told.

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Victoria Hislop is also interested in telling unknown stories. In her case, these are stories from and about Greece. Last week, she published her fifth novel Cartes Postales from Greece which her and her publisher are describing as ‘the first book of fiction in full colour’.

She told the audience that the book was conceived as a novel with photographs and that she travelled around Greece with a photographer with no preconceptions as to what she wanted him to photograph. As he took photographs and then drove them around, Hislop wrote the stories that make up the book.

The book is about a broken-hearted man called Anthony – because ‘I’ve never met an Anthony I don’t like’. (She reveals later that he’s named after and looks like her friend and neighbour in Crete, Anthony Horowitz.) The book begins with Anthony waiting for the love of his life at a small airport in Greece, with an engagement ring in his pocket. She doesn’t show up and provides no explanation as to her absence. He can’t face returning to London so travels around Greece sending her a postcard from each place which ends with the sentence, ‘Without you this place is nothing’. But the postcards land on the mat of someone else…

Each of the sections are told to Anthony by other people. They are stories about the people who tell them and about Greece. Hislop said she wanted to express the duality of Greece, the beautiful, picture postcard side and the shadows behind it.


She said it would be disingenuous of her to set a novel in contemporary Greece and not acknowledge the difficulties the country’s faced. She spends 30% of her time in Greece and says that there are lots of angry young people who leave because they can’t get work and then don’t return.

Some of the stories told to Anthony are real and others are fictional. Hislop said she’s leaving it to the reader to decide which category they fall into but she does reveal that the story about Lord Byron is fictional. She wanted to look at Byron from a Greek point of view, where he’s more famous for his sexual exploits than his writing, so created a maid in the household who theorises as to what ailment causes Byron’s death. ‘Writing is so much fun!’ Hislop said of the creative licence which allowed her to do this. She said some of the stories move into genres she hadn’t written in before: Gothic and horror, in particular, although she’s keen to point out that there’s humour in the book too. ‘I don’t read Gothic or horror stories. Ever. I don’t like them. I was quite disgusted with myself.’

Hislop said she reads her reviews and that ‘criticisms are usually right’.

The evening ended with a discussion about her debut novel The Island. ‘To me it’s like it’s been written by a child. There’s nothing pretentious about it.’ She told us she didn’t want to be a writer, in fact she actively avoided it having friends who are published novelists. She said it’s only with this book, which is her fifth, that she’s felt able to refer to herself as a writer but not a novelist. ‘That sounds so cringe-making. Ian McEwan is a novelist’. But visiting Spinalonga inspired something that she knew would need more than the articles she was writing as a travel journalist at the time.

Her daughter, Emily, is her ‘ruthless’ early reader but she said it was her husband, Ian (Hislop, editor of Private Eye and regular on Have I Got News for You), who told her to remove a joke about leprosy from The Island.

Someone in the audience asks about the television series of The Island, which was made by and for Greek television. At 26 episodes, she said she doubts it will ever be shown in the UK. She was involved in it ‘like a maniac’, she said, due to her concerns that the characters would be treated ‘like monsters’.

Hislop will continue writing about Greece. Although she confessed to an interest in Norway in the 1940s, she said she won’t write anything very different. ‘This is what I do.’

The Island – Victoria Hislop

As I mentioned on Friday, throughout September I’m going to be reviewing books by writers appearing at Jersey Festival of Words at the end of the month. I’ve divided my reading by theme and this week I’m focusing on Historical Fiction. I confess that I started here as it’s probably my least favourite genre (I make an exception for Hilary Mantel) but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by books I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.

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The Island was Victoria Hislop’s debut novel, published in 2005.The story is framed by events in 2001 in which a young woman, Alexis, travels to Plaka on the island of Crete searching for clues about her mother’s past and a childhood that is never discussed. There she meets Fotini Davaras, an old friend of her mother’s, who tells her the family’s story.

The story, which takes place between 1939 and 1958, centres around life on the island opposite Plaka, the island of Spinalonga. Alexis guidebook tells her:

SPINALONGA: Dominated by a massive Venetian fortress, this island was seized by the Turks in the eighteenth century. The majority of Turks left Crete when it was declared autonomous in 1898 but the inhabitants refused to give up their homes and their lucrative smuggling trade on Spinalonga. They only left in 1903 when the island was turned into a leper colony. In 1941, Crete was invaded by the Germans and occupied until 1945, but the presence of lepers meant Spinalonga was left alone. Abandoned in 1957.

What the guidebook doesn’t tell her is that in 1939, Eleni, her great-grandmother, ‘left the mainland for Spinalonga’. One of her pupils, nine-year-old Dimitri, also went. His parents having covered the blemishes on his skin for over a year, until Eleni ‘noticed the strange patches on the back of her leg’.

As Georgiou takes Eleni and Dimitri to Spinalonga on the boat in which he makes regular trips to the island with supplies, Eleni contemplates her situation:

As the boat neared the island, Eleni held Dimitri’s hand ever more tightly. She was glad that this poor boy would have someone to care for him and at this moment did not give a second thought to the irony of this position. She would teach him and nurture him as though he were her own son, and do her best to ensure that his schooling was not cut short by this terrible turn of events.


They (and no doubt the reader) are pleasantly surprised when they disembark at Spinalonga to discover ‘It looked just like market day in Plaka’. Eleni also quickly establishes: What had always been rumoured was true. Most of the lepers looked as she did: ostensibly unblemished.

Spinalonga has its own democracy with an elected leader, shops, a church, a town hall, a school, a market and a clinic. As Eleni and Dimitri begin to organise their new life, Georgiou is dealing with the loss of his wife and raising two daughters, twelve-year-old Anna and ten-year-old Maria, alone.

As the girls grow up, the story develops into a tale of a difficult sibling relationship. Maria is kind and tries to help her father, while Anna is tempestuous and selfish, her behaviour ultimately becoming destructive.

Hislop explores a place and a condition that it is rarely talked about. She does an excellent job of exploding myths about leprosy while covering the advances in treatment that took place during the time the novel is set. Her descriptions of life on Spinalonga are fascinating and when she spent a period of time back in Plaka, I was always keen to return to events on the island.

There are a couple of weak point in the novel. The framing device set in the recent past is just that: we barely get to know Alexis and her boyfriend troubles are irritating but mercifully short-lived. While the point in the story where a mob comes to Plaka intent on razing the island to the ground lacks the tension to make you believe the inhabitants of Spinalonga were ever really in danger. Having said that, on the whole I found The Island an engaging, interesting, knowledgeable read. I loved that while it was clearly plot-driven, it took a challenging subject and gave the reader a viewpoint different to that of the mainstream.

Victoria Hislop appears at Jersey Arts Centre at 8.30pm, Thursday 29th September. Tickets are available here.

Jersey Festival of Words 2016 Preview

Some of you might remember that last year I attended the inaugural Jersey Festival of Words. It was a fantastic few days: great events, lovely people and wonderful weather. You can read about the events I attended on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

This year the festival returns bigger and better and I’ll be flying out to Jersey on the 28th of September for what I anticipate will be a glorious long weekend.

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If you fancy a long bookish weekend away at the end of summer, then I highly recommend a visit. The festival programme is here and includes a whole range of events from author interviews to workshops to reading groups to panel discussions.

If you can’t make it, then you’re in the right place as I’ll be covering the festival for the blog again this year. Not only that, throughout September I’ll be focusing on books by writers appearing at the festival including Victoria Hislop, Alison Weir, Caroline Lea, Tania Hershman, Erren Michaels, Antonia Hodgson, Rachel Abbott, Louise Doughty, Kat Banyard, Anne Sebba and Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum.

Cathy Rentzenbrink, whose memoir The Last Act of Love was one of my books of the year in 2015, is also appearing. She’s well worth seeing live – smart, thoughtful, honest and very funny. She gives great interview.

And, well, if you can only afford to go to one event…? I’ll be interviewing Sarah Turner, The Unmumsy Mum, on the Saturday evening in Jersey Opera House. We’d love to see you there.