London’s burning

Contemporary London – how has it gone from the Tottenham riots of 2011 to the smiley, happy place of the Olympics 2012.? What’s really going on? I hoped two sharp observers of that wonderful city, Chris Cleave and John Lanchester, would help me find out in their session London’s Burning at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival.

Both writers certainly delivered. Its clear that London is a novelist’s dream. Poverty and riches exist side by side, history is palpable in the streets and buildings, and every story in the world is there to be told. The Dick Whittington story still exists – John Lanchester spoke of the London dream which is like the great American dream. People come to London believing they will find opportunity and the chance for riches.

He talked about the obliviousness of London. A lot of problems are in plain sight but people and the media choose to ignore this. He spoke of how this creates an undefined space which gives room for the novel. Novelists can ask the hard questions, novels are cheap to write and you can have an edgy book more easily than edgy films and television.

The two novelists experienced London initially as a difficult place. John Lanchester thought of it as grey and provincial after Hong Kong and Chris Cleave’s child’s eye view after 8 years in West Africa was of a cold, hard place where he was punched in the face at school for speaking French and not knowing what football team to support. Chris told a lovely story of his mother finding himself aged 8 and his brother, naked and blue in the snow at the bottom of the garden. Coming from a very hot place both little boys only knew of taking your clothes off as a way to cope with extremes of climate. Both men came to see London as a powerful centre around which things revolve and both see London as a different planet from the rest of Britain, a situation exaggerated by increasing globilisation.

The impact of the financial crisis has seen the “hollowing out” of the middle class and the growing gap between rich and poor. The super rich are discrete but because they don’t care what anything costs this sets new inflationary benchmarks. There is “ethical inflation” as well – a well lived life has less value.

Asked which will leave a legacy – the riots or the Olympics, Chris Cleave spoke of feeling a recalibration of his relationship with his country and some unification between London and the rest of the country.He felt hopeful that most people chose not to join in the rioting and were clearly fed up with it. John Lanchester spoke of the power of London in the financial crisis – the feeling that nothing you can do will change it, a feeling that is scary but reassuring too. He described it as like watching a great river.

All in all a wonderful evening of ideas and humour and sharply tuned intelligence. Chair Kate de Goldi was the blue meanie for bringing it all to an end. There is still a chance to hear both men again at the festival:

Find out all about the festival which runs until Sunday.

Christchurch children meet local legends

The GeoDome was filled with the excited chatter of Christchurch school children this morning as The Press Christchurch Writer’s Festival kicked off with the Read Aloud Schools Programme. Children from around the city got the chance to come along and listen to stories from three of our best local writers, Gavin Bishop, Kate De Goldi, and Rachael King.

Kate De Goldi was up first and she told us all about her new book, that’s coming out in October, called The ACB with Honara Lee. Like her other novels, her latest story is set in Christchurch, and the Beckenham Loop in particular. She describes it as an ABC book within a story, that’s set in an old people’s home (hence why the title is slightly mixed up). Kate came up with the idea after our earthquakes left cracks, not just in our roads and homes, but also in our community. This got her thinking about the cracks in the memories of old people. Kate found the idea of setting an alphabet book in an old people’s home interesting, because it’s putting something that is very orderly in a place that certainly isn’t. The main character in the ACB with Honara Lee, Perry, is a girl who wants to have younger people to hand out with (rather than just her boring parents) and less to do after school, but she ends up making friends with the old people at her grandmother’s rest home.  Most can’t remember her name or the ABCs, but they know she always brings good baking.  I love Kate’s books, especially The 10pm Question, and I can’t wait to read this interesting new story.

Local legend, Gavin Bishop, talked about how he finds himself looking back into the past more and returning to his childhood when writing and illustrating his stories. Gavin grew up in Kingston in the 1950s, where there were only a few houses, a school (with only 12 students) and a pub. He has captured some of his memories of his childhood in Kingston in his wonderful book, Piano Rock. He read one of the stories from Piano Rock, the only story in the book that he ‘made up’ and told a funny story about his younger brother, who his parents found in the cabbage patch.  Gavin also brought along his tattered old teddy bear, who used to follow him everywhere when he was growing up.

Rachael King is used to talking to large groups of adults at book festivals, but this was her first time talking to a whole audience of children. After asking that the children laugh at all her jokes, Rachael told us about her wonderful new book, Red Rocks. She mentioned that she dedicated the book to her two young boys, and when she excitedly showed them the dedication, they were more interested in getting back to Cartoon Network. Rachael is fascinated by the myths of the selkie (seals that shed their skin on land and become human) and so she decided to write a selkie story set in New Zealand. Red Rocks is one of my favourite books of 2012 and you can read my review on the Christchurch Kids Blog.

The children who came along for the session really enjoyed meeting the authors and hearing all about their stories.  My favourite part of the morning was seeing crowds of children queuing up to get their autographs at the end, and hearing several children begging their teachers, librarians and parents to get copies of the books that were talked about.  Thanks to the organizers for a great event!


Biography and Memoir: picks from our latest newsletter

Some picks from our August Biography and Memoir newsletter:

Cover: The Favored DaughterCover: The Woman Who Changed Her BrainCover: Runaway GirlCover: Roald AmundsenCover: What The Grown-Ups Were DoingCover: Lunch in ParisCover: My Happy Days in HollywoodCover: Just Send Me WordCover: Mighty Be Our Powers

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Have you read any of these books? If so, we’d love your feedback!