Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Literary festival gets underway

Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh

Kenton Theatre

Tuesday, October 1


gave us cautionary tales; maintaining a blog is hard work, the division of labour must be marshalled and remember, you are responsible for your readers. So if you hold a twarty (twitter party) you might get twunk.

The blog strapline is “Join the conversation”. Go on — do it — but remember, you can’t stop people from following you.

RACHEL JOHNSON boasted that she could always climb trees higher than older brother Boris — but it still seemed to rankle that she was the only one of her brilliant family not to go up to Oxbridge on a scholarship.

Having batted away interviewer Sam Leith’s inevitable questions about Boris’ political ambitions, Johnson couldn’t resist taking a swipe at the Mayor of London by showing a comical photo of him as a baby on the screen.

A favourite with the Henley audience, the writer lent the theatre a touch of metropolitan glamour, dressed in a black bodycon dress and staggeringly high red heels. She seemed nervous, tugging at the sleeves of her dress like a twitchy teenager, which seemed odd given her upbringing and high profile.

Since her last appearance at the festival she has “moved upstairs” at The Lady to become editor-in-chief following a controversial two years as editor of the family-owned magazine.

Fellow journalist Leith encouraged her to revisit the well-publicised feud with Julia Budworth, mother of the venerable publication’s chief executive, who had openly described her as vain, overpaid, snobby and obsessed with sex. Johnson, who won the Bad Sex award with her novel Shire Hell, cheerfully pleaded guilty to the first three charges.

Even so, she appeared genuinely fond of The Lady and proud of having been chosen as editor from 21 interviewees in 2009 with the brief to save it from folding.

“I thought there was scope in the media market for a respectable magazine treating middle-aged women seriously... but it was a case of New Tory versus Old Tory,” she said. Innovations, including front covers with Tracey Emin and Joan Rivers, did see the readers’ average age go down from 78 to 52, but her editorial style ruffled an awful lot of feathers.

Perhaps aware that she doesn’t make it easy for us to take her seriously, Johnson claimed to be apprehensive about the forthcoming publication of her latest book, a historical novel called Winter Games.

“I’m braced for its reception,” she said. “The book is a change of register, a change for me to write anything remotely serious.”

The story of two girls “on a debs’ adventure” in pre-war Munich, the theme was inspired by her discovery that her own half-Jewish grandmother had been in Germany in the Thirties — although it is not her

Alan Johnson Johnson

Kenton Theatre

Tuesday, October 1

The seventh Henley Literary Festival got under way this week — and once again a team of Standard reviewers listened in at various venues around the town. Telephone: (01491) 419419 Email:

LESS than fresh and visibly at the tail end of a protracted 24-hour party train to celebrate the premiere of the filmic rendition of Filth, which Irvine Welsh prematurely hailed as a huge success (you can be the judge of that), Mr Welsh held it all together well. Paolo Hewitt (The Looked-After Kid and Paul Weller: The Changing Man) stifled a yawn half-way through his interview but by then we guessed he had been on the same party train as Welsh. Embarrassment avoided.

So how did it go? We learned of Welsh, the man and his writing. If you like your literature mainlined with expletives then the author will not disappoint but he modified his use of the ‘c’ word as a term of endearment in Scotland, which I can unfortunately ratify. If Paolo was the ‘Looked-After Kid’ then Irvine was the kid who loved books but dare not say their name. “I was the poncy boy with the poetry book and if I took a book out of the library I could get knocked out.” Hewitt asked him at one point if he valued age and experience; Welsh hoped he was nearing a state of grace. Music is at the heart of his literary influence: you need to feel the beat.

We heard of his influences; Joyce’s Ulysses, Dickens (any one you care to choose), Melville (Moby Dick of course) and Evelyn Waugh. No female influences then? Perhaps rightly so as he decried these works as the default position of middle-class WASP literature.

He took us through the process of writing. You spend a year locked up in a room inhabiting your characters and breathing their air. Intense. So is Skagboys your best work to date?. Well, he was after all promoting it, he laughed.

Trainspotting threw you into the party, Skagboys analyses the lives of the characters prior to their descent into the drug-fuelled chaos of Trainspotting. Welsh is now seeking, perhaps, a more Dickensian approach to character delineation. You can be the judge. For Welsh, character is all.

Vanessa Fisher

Travel Writing: What Next?

Bix Manor

Friday, October 1

Kenton Theatre

From Blog To Book

Bix Manor

Friday, October 1

Kenton Theatre

FRANK BARRETT, Mail on Sunday travel editor played his role as ‘chair’ in this light-hearted hour of ‘travel writing’ chat in the beautiful Great Tithe Barn at Bix Manor on Tuesday morning. Opening the session with “the more I see of the future, the more I like of Ancient Greece” Barrett set the tone of the talk, light-hearted and with plenty of discussion between the writers/speakers and the almost full audience.

A Tourist In The Arab Spring is the latest book by The Times travel writer and one of our speakers, Tom Chesshyre. He took us on a whistle-stop tour of his visit to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt resulting in this book charting the change, optimism and ‘hope’ that Chesshyre saw on his journey into the Middle East.

Cut short as we were about to be taken into Egypt (sadly, as his post-talk chat about Cairo was fascinating) Monisha Rajesh took over with her ‘journey’ and resultant book, Around India In 80 Trains.

Neither Chesshyre nor Rajesh had publishing deals for their books before their journeys began, Rajesh telling us how her weekly blogs while travelling subsequently became her 80 chapters. After some discussion about self-publishing versus using agents and editors all the speakers agreed the skills of an editor produces a better book — a useful tip for the young writers in the audience.

Chris Leadbetter, expert blogger at TravelMail online, shared his thoughts on online travel writing, saying that with the rise of the internet has come many bad websites and bad writers focusing on the ‘I did this/that’ style; a positive being that travel writing online can be very reactive to events. Despite Barrett’s pushing he wouldn’t name and shame any ‘bad’ travel websites.

If you are off on your travels, consider the ‘twittrip’, where we were told that twitter followers dictate where and what you do on your travels. But I think most of the audience would prefer Barrett’s description of a weekend morning with the coffee on, papers out with their travel sections open to be inspired to make their travel plans!

FOR most authors the road to publication is long and littered with rejection. To the casual observer it might seem Helen McGinn and Maggy Woodley had it a little easier. Indeed, Helen was approached by her editor out of the blue with the idea of turning her blog, The Knackered Mother’s Wine Club, into a book. But behind their success lies hard work, passion and a strong desire to share their knowledge in a way that’s accessible to all.

“Wine is a perk of life,” said Helen. “Not an academic study.” Both women began blogging while juggling a young family and within a few years were attracting tens of thousands of regular readers each month via social media. No wonder they caught the eye of savvy editors.

At one point our host, Sophie Van Brugen, asked how they maintain momentum for weekly posts. Helen grinned: “I enjoy the research!”

Engaging their audience in the beautiful barn at Bix Manor, Maggy and Helen spoke with as much enthusiasm for blogging as for their specialist subjects. More so perhaps.

As Maggy, author of family craft book, Red Ted Art, said: “When it comes to blogging, go for it! Write about something you love and don’t worry about friends who don’t ‘get’ blogging. Not everybody does.”

‘Get’ blogging or not, both writers have made it work for them, and the result is hundreds of inspirational ideas and spot-on advice the rest of us can enjoy. A glass of lovely wine and contented, busy children? Yes please!

Amanda Jennings

Belinda Hough-Robbins

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