Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stokey Lit Fest

So, my wife just organized Stoke Newington’s first ever literary festival, and it was a phenomenal success, written up here by The Times (which you may now have to register to see).

I did two events at it myself, but these were almost an afterthought compared to the work we had to do organizing volunteers, the bar, crib notes for all event hosts, the sugar for A C Grayling’s tea… pretty much everything you can think of.

We’ll do it again next year, when we’ll hopefully have funding and the opportunity to hire staff. But what a blast it was. You can see some fab photos here.  To give a flavour of a whirlwind three days that feels like it lasted both a hundred years and half an hour, here are the images and sensations that stick in my mind a few days later:
  • Stewart Lee magicking the weather.  Stewart was reading a spooky short story by Arthur Macken, set in Stoke Newington.  It was a glorious afternoon as a sell-out crowd converged on Stoke Newington International Airport.  As the room was hushed by Machen's subtle, uneasy creepiness the sky went dark, and fat, heavy rain drops began hammering on the roof.
  • Our volunteers just turning up and getting on with it after I promised a briefing and allocation of duties and then found myself stuck organising a billion other things as the briefing time came and went and we got closer to the doors opening for the first event.  And them turning up day after day, and remaining cheerful and proactive, and just doing the biz again and again.  All while wearing bright pink festival crew T-shirts.
  • Stoke Newington's librarian, Richard Boon, meeting Edwyn Collins.  Edwyn is the former lead singer of Orange Juice, the band that pretty much invented the sound of Indie, who had a massive stroke in 2005 and is, incredibly, now playing gigs again.  The short set he and his band played after the readings from Grace Maxwell (Edwyn's wife, whose book documents his miraculous recovery) brought a standing ovation from the crowd.  Richard Boon is the former manager of Buzzcocks and Magazine (that's how cool Stoke Newington is, and how cool Richard Boon is - a librarian who was a key figure in the post punk movement!)  Richard first met Edwyn when Buzzcocks were touring Scotland in 1978, and Orange Juice hung around after the gig and offered to help move the equipment back to the van.  Now, 32 years later, I'm escorting Edwyn to the table where his wife is signing books, and Richard is coming the other way.  Richard: "Edwyn!"  Edwyn: "Richard!" and they fall into the most passionate embrace two straight men can, and my eyes fill with tears, not for the first time in the last hour.
  • The shivers that ran down my spine as I read Orwell's The Moon Under Water to a packed room of 50-odd pub fans.
  • Hearing about Tony Benn being taken to our green room in the basement of Oishiii, Stokey's Japanese restaurant, being asked by a star-struck proprietor what he would like to eat, and replying, "A cheese sandwich".  Volunteers finding him a cheese sandwich.  Our wonderful artist liaison coordinator, Camilla, then taking Tony Benn across the road to Abney Park cemetery to eat his sandwich because he wanted to smoke his pipe.  A crowd of people walking past thinking "Blimey, is that Tony Benn eating a cheese sandwich and smoking a pipe in our cemetery?" and gathering round.  In the commotion, a passing dog nicking half of Tony Benn's cheese sandwich and running away with it.
  • Seeing Liz up on stage after the final event and close the festival, and a capacity crowd cheering her because they knew who she was and what she'd done, and me then keeping her on stage while we presented her with a huge bunch of flowers, and getting to say to two hundred people, "I'm so proud of my wife right now."
  • Phill Jupitus, after his event closed the festival, walking round the hall with a black bin bag collecting rubbish and depositing glasses on the bar, because (a) he loves small events and getting back to intimate, shabby venues, and (b) I'd just made a speech saying we had to clear the hall and help set it up for play group the following morning before we could have our staff wrap party, for which he stayed.
See you next year.

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