It's a bit of a lengthy one - I have spent a WHOLE DAY on it! I hope you do not fall asleep whilst reading it! There are loads of links to click if you feel your eyes irresistibly closing...
In a recent article entitled “The problem with literary festivals”, The News Statesman wondered whether there was a future for literary festivals in our austerity-scarred, celebrity-led and technology-obsessed times, and if attending them was really worth the trouble, both for the audience and the authors.
The comments are as interesting as the article itself, so go and have a look.
Even the London Book Fair is losing its Earls Court home and its future is now uncertain as the publishing powers that be are fiercely disagreeing about where to hold the next events. There seems to be an ever-increasing chasm between traditional publishing and less corporate, more independent and forward-thinking authors/publishers.
It looks like one constant in the industry is the lack of interest shown towards small independent publishers and self-published authors; there is still a belief that if you haven’t got an agent and are not published by a “proper” publishing company, you are bound to be an amateur who cannot string two sentences together.
Thankfully, it looks like there has been an explosion of small, independent literary festivals around the country ready to take a few risks, but they are not widely publicised and you would need to do your research yourself.
This leads me to the second edition of Shorelines: Literature Festival of the Sea. This biennial event – the first one of which took place in 2011 in Chalkwell Park, Westcliff-on-Sea – is curated by local resident and acclaimed author and artist Rachel Lichtenstein – who, incidentally, is working on a book about the Thames Estuary.
When I participated in Metal’s Culture Lab: on writing fiction in October 2012 (my blog about it HERE), I knew that the week-long creative lab would enable me – an author without an agent or a publishing contract and completely deprived of any contact in the industry – to take part in a literary festival, and I couldn’t let this opportunity pass me by. Since the lab, I have created my own small imprint and published my first novel.
In due course, I was invited to do a reading at Shorelines with the other members of the group who took part in the Culture Lab. I also thought that it would be a good idea to volunteer to help at the event.
I really wanted to see what was going on behind the scenes and learn a little bit more about how to set up and run a small cultural event – I would love to have a go one day at setting up my own small literary/artistic event, you know, something a little bit different, with music, collaborations between visual artists, musicians and writers; stalls would be offered to independent, alternative publishers and authors. I already have a few names lined up in my head…
I volunteered, and ended up working four days at the Leigh Community Centre. I can’t deny that it has been some kind of a challenge for me, as I am not a very sociable person and have been happily indulging in the solitary life of a freelancer and writer for the past four years! But I’ve survived, learning a lot along the way, which can only be a very positive thing.
I have been going to events put together by Metal for several years now, and it was brilliant to get to know the team a little bit more. I was very impressed by the amount of work necessary to prepare the venue for the event – the main hall was unrecognisable on opening night, transformed into a proper intimate venue; one of the upstairs classrooms was turned into a welcoming Green Room, complete with deck chairs!
Someone has to stick up for art and creativity these days, and Metal does that brilliantly and with a very contagious enthusiasm.
What ensured the success of this festival, I think, was its modern, refreshing approach to the world of literature: there were well-known authors and self-published ones; novelists and adventurers; artists, cabaret singers and musicians; there were multi-media performances and art workshops; oh, and most of it was entirely FREE. So no moaning about art and literature being for a wealthy elite or any such nonsense.
There was a bookshop in the reception area where I was able to display copies of my first novel, I Am a Muse. Of course, I bought several books – but didn’t sell any of mine… That’s life!
Obviously, the fact that I was working at the event and taking part in a group reading prevented me from attending quite a few events. I missed Robert Macfarlane, whose talk was exactly at the same time as mine; I had brought along my copy of Holloway for him to sign as I am working on a book about Dorset, but I didn’t even catch a glimpse of him… To help me deal with my disappointment, I bought The Old Ways, which I have been meaning to read for ages.
I also missed Justin Hopper’s Public Record – a walk around Old Leigh’s fishing village accompanied by poems inspired by archival reports of 19th-century Estuary sea accidents.
Local author Syd Moore had also organised a walk around Old Leigh, where her first novel The Drowning Pool is based. Apparently, the walk was so successful that it began with 18 people and ended with 30!
The opening event on the Friday was a stunning performance by Norwegian-French writer and performer Caroline Bergvall of her new piece of work, Drift.
I have to admit that I didn't know Caroline Bergvall at all before Shorelines. I had had a bit of time before the festival to have a look at her website and I have to say that I have found it pretty much fascinating. Caroline works with languages; she is bilingual herself (French-Norwegian) and speaks English fluently, albeit with a slight accent. I have a French ID card but I have been having an intense, very emotional relationship with the English language since childhood - a relationship that is extremely difficult to explain and make sense of. I have always been fascinated by bilingualism and what it does to your personality - I have experience of it. I also have a thing for Scandinavian landscapes and culture. I do find Bergvall's work simply enthralling because it speaks to something deep inside of my head and heart...
Drift is a live performance mixing words, electronic visuals and music performed by percussionist Ingar Zach. The performance is high-hitting, hypnotic, atmospheric. It uses language in a creative way just as a sculptor would use clay or stone or a painter would use paint; it links past experiences to present ones, a theme that I have always been interested in.
From the artist's website - I think I wouldn't explain Drift in a better way:
“Drift takes you on a journey through time and space, where languages mix, where the ancient cohabits with the present.[It] invents a language of connections and of extremes: from Anglo-Saxon and ancient Nordic seafaring literature to rare pop songs to human rights reports of contemporary sea migrants’ disaster. A complex and haunting meditation on sea travel, exile and history.”
I also took a bit of time out to listen to the delightful Cathi Unsworth, who was one of the guest speakers at our Culture Lab back in October last year. She brought in a bit of alternative grittiness and rock’n’roll edginess to the festival by reading from her powerful latest novel, Weirdo. She took us on a bleak yet incredibly evocative walk along the seafront of the fictional Norfolk town featured in her book - based on Great Yarmouth, where the author grew up...
Another fiction writer present at Shorelines was Deborah Levy, who talked about Swimming Home, shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize. A very charismatic personality, Ms Levy took us to Nice in the South of France and to a very dead Mediterranean sea, then was invited by Craig Taylor, the editor of Five Dials magazine, to press the “send” button on his laptop to send issue 29 to its subscribers – the next issue will contain some Shorelines-related articles…
Throughout the weekend, people could slip into Room 6 upstairs to watch Mikhail Karikis’s multimedia installation, Sea women, about a disappearing community of female divers on the island of Jeju, located between South Korea, Japan and China. But even better than the installation itself – for me – was the talk this multi-talented, fascinating artist, performer and academic gave about his project, from the background to his research to his encounter with the Jeju community; he described in detail “the vocal practices of the women, including the unique sounds of their ancient and trans-generationally transmitted breathing technique”.
Interestingly enough, the women he has met are the last divers on the island. The money they have made thanks to their speciality has enabled them to educate their daughters so they do not have to perpetuate the tradition and can go and find a better life for themselves.
The weather had been awful on the Saturday - thankfully, the rain had stopped just on time for the beginning of the walks at 4 pm - but Sunday morning, it was just glorious. I walked from my flat to Leigh-on-Sea via the seafront; it was full of runners and happy dogs!
I was determined to catch the whole of the glamorous Lili La Scala’s sea-themed brand new show, Siren. The seasoned cabaret performer admitted to being very nervous about the show – this was the first ever time she was performing it in front of an audience – but of course, it didn’t show. As confident and witty as ever, Lili sang a bunch of lovely sea-related songs with her trademark theatrical panache, only accompanied by a piano. Behind her on the screen, photographer Simon Fowler’s beautiful images of the Thames estuary added to the magical atmosphere. Siren brings together songs from different eras and with varied moods: from The Ships of Arcady (1919) to Siren Song, written especially for the show by Michael Heath, via Nick Cave (The Ship Song) and Tom Waits (Fish and Birds), Lili kept the audience spellbound.
If a professional performer like Lili La Scala was nervous about her show, imagine the state of my nerves before and during my reading. As I wasn’t the first one in my group to have to stand up and get onto the stage, I had plenty of time to stew and worry.
I was reading the 1,000 words I had written during the Lit Lab – I had worked a little bit on it since especially for Shorelines. I also had a visual presentation and a song by PJ Harvey, all minutely timed. Standing on the stage, I think I forgot to breathe for a while and the words struggled to come out; I could hear my voice wobble, and of course, I read too fast – without the pauses between the different sections, as I had planned – I think I just wanted it to be over. So I managed to get to the end of my reading without any major mistake but too early in the presentation!
The extract I read was the opening of my third novel, The Right Place, which is in the development/research phase at the moment. I have added the extract to The Right Place page on this very website. There, you can read a little bit more about the novel and watch the official video of PJ Harvey’s The Wind – it has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of the song, sadly.
I predict that Shorelines will grow over the years, and I hope I will be able to participate in the next edition – as an artist or volunteer.
As Southend has been identified by The Sunday Times as one of the places London "hipsters" and creatives are flocking to - once again as recently as two weeks ago - it is only logical that we should see an explosion of creative endeavours in the area, and it can only be a good thing.
Bring it on.
Find some pictures of the event HERE.
A great blog about the festival was posted HERE – the author managed to go to some of the events I couldn’t attend!
The Shorelines festival is branching out and is paying a visit to the National Maritime Museum as part of its event “Lost at sea Late with the Thames festival” on November 28th. More details HERE.
I think therefore I write.
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