Girding up for 2022

2022Gird up your loins‘ is one of those recognisable phrases, but one can’t quite remember where from. In my mind it’s close to ‘Screw your courage to the sticking place‘, although I know that’s Lady Macbeth exhorting her husband to be bold and resolute. Both mean to prepare for the task ahead. In fact it’s from the Bible, where it’s used on a number of occasions, mostly in the Old Testament. In the New Testament we find ‘Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to end for the grace that is to be brought unto you.‘ from 1, Peter, 1:13. So, it’s about getting ready, bracing oneself for the future.

Which is what so many of us are doing at the beginning of a new year and I’m no exception. It’ll be a busyThe Controlling Idea year ahead. Despite the COVID prompted cancellation of several events outside of London which I was to attend, I’ll still be busy on zoom, starting with a discussion on 17th January for Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Libraries. ‘The Controlling Idea’ is a series of discussions sponsored by my publishers, Claret Press, about books which have been made into films and the first is about Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This is where I come in, as an expert guest, talking about Whitehall and the structure surrounding the security services, it’s where Opera is set, after all.

Opera_CoverIn addition, I’ll soon be finalising Opera for the last time, for publication in September, going through the final proofs, the front and back matter and so on. There is a publicity schedule to be agreed with Claret Press too, including an online book tour and dispatching review copies, plus all the events around a book launch, including talks for libraries, book clubs and societies and, COVID permitting, an actual book tour of real bookshops. It’s exciting. Especially as Claret has a new distributor. We are already talking about flyers being handed out at Westminster and Vauxhall Cross Underground stations – an idea originally for the publication of Plague which got completely derailed by the initial outbreak of COVID. Of course, at the same time, I’ll be continuing to publicise Oracle and Plague.

Then there’s Clapham Book Festival 2022 to think about too – the first planningclapham book festivallogo2 committee meeting is later this month when we hope to be able to discuss the potential programme for the event. A date for your diary is 15th October, our flagship Festival day, though we’ll be planning events around it, probably including another literary walk in Clapham and some events online with our media partners Time & Leisure magazine before and after the Festival Day.

And of course, there’s the next novel, but that, as they say, is another story.

By the way, the derivation of the ‘Gird up your loins‘ phrase relates to managing the long, desert garments worn in the Middle East. Wearers would have to hoick these up and wrap them around their thighs, tucking the ends into their belts or girdles so as to leave their legs unencumbered, if they were about to do something strenuous, wet or difficult. It makes sense when you think about it.

The RBKC Libraries event is Free to attend and you can register HERE.

Clapham Book Festival 2021 – farewell

PosterA4CLAPHAM BOOK FESTIVAL 2021Back in February, when the whole of the UK was in full lockdown, the death rate was still high  and who knew what the future was going to bring, the CBF management team met via zoom to decide what, if any, kind of Festival would be possible in 2021. The 2020 Festival, planning for which had already begun last year, had had to be shelved and no one knew if the same fate would befall any attempt at a Festival for 2021. Nonetheless, with a vaccine roll-out already underway and the promise of better things to come we decided, tentatively, to go ahead. 

We hedged our bets – there would be only two live ‘in person’ events at Omnibus Theatre and those would be livestreamed too, there would be two literary walks taking place outside on Clapham Common and two events online via zoom, hosted by new media partners, Time & Leisure magazine. Everything was uncertain. Omnibus was planning to be open again in Summer, probably with social distancing, but couldn’t be sure they would be. Even if they were, would people be willing to sit in a room with lots of others for an hour or more? We also didn’t know if there would be an audienceCBF2021MacintyrePosterV2 for zoomed author interviews, people might have had enough of zooming during lockdown. And would people be interested in walking round Clapham Common?

On Tuesday last the final event of the Clapham Book Festival 2021 took place. A fair-sized zoom audience watched and took part in a fascinating discussion about spying and espionage between Ben Macintyre, whose new book Agent Sonya is a biography of an amazingly successful Soviet spy based in the twentieth century Cotswolds and Simon Berthon, second world war historian and modern thriller writer. Ben was erudite, knowledgeable and witty and was asked insightful questions by his interlocutor and by members of the audience. It was a tremendously enjoyable hour, appreciated by all who attended and it ended the Festival on a high. 

The showcase day on Saturday 16th October was also a success, even with necessarily reduced audience numbers. The literary walks were a sell-out and, after rain in the early morning, the weather was benign. I enjoyed doing mine and was only annoyed that I couldn’t also go on the one led by Annemarie Neary ( the times overlapped ). We have already received requests to repeat CBF2021NearyWalkPosterV2these and may do so at, say, Easter 2022 as a way of maintaining the Festival’s profile across the year.  Sir Michael Morpurgo was a delight for children and adults alike and Ed Stourton spoke authoritatively and amusingly about broadcasting and journalism from world war two to the present day. Feedback was uniformly positive at 100%, which is astonishing. In retrospect I think there was a real desire, not to say craving, for a return to good quality, local bookish events and the Book Festival met that need.  The livestream option wasn’t called upon.

The first zoom event, with Brixton author Rosanna Amaka, drew a relatively small but committed audience for an interesting discussion about her much praised debut novel The Book of Echoes and her approach to writing it. Both zoom events were successful in their own way, as was the ‘dry run’ in July with local, best-selling author Elizabeth Buchan. We will be doing more of these in 2022 and hope to continue with the £5 a ticket approach and to build up a regular audience.

For now, we’re doing sums and making payments and, it seems, we’ve covered our costs. Lots of books were sold ( I know I’ve acquired some new readers ) and enjoyment was had. Onwards to next year!

The Ben Macintyre discussion is now available and you can watch it here. Donate the ticket price if you can, via the Donate button on the Clapham Book Festival website

Zooming

RosannaAmakaimageSo to the last two events of the 2021 Clapham Book Festival.

Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of speaking with Rosanna Amaka about her stunning debut novel ‘The Book of Echoes‘ (Doubleday, 2020). The session was hosted by Lucy Kane of Time & Leisure Magazine, media sponsors of the Festival. Rosanna is a long-time resident of Clapham and Brixton and much of ‘Echoes‘ is set in Brixton in the 1970s. It was fascinating to learn about how she began to write the book, beginning with the character of Michael, the young man growing up then, expanding to include Ngosi, the young Nigerian woman, finding her way from her village to the United States and, eventually, Britain. Only after having developed these two characters did she light upon her narrator, an ancestor of both of them who opens the book. Rosanna read from the very start of the book, written in the words of the narrator, a pregnant slave woman. It is a very powerful opening.

Rosanna began writing the book twenty years ago, in an attempt to capture the Brixton community which she knew and had grownBookofEchoes 9781784164836 PBB.indd up with. It was, she saw, gradually disappearing as the area became ‘gentrified’ and property was priced out of reach of the ordinary person. The older generation was leaving for the Caribbean, from whence they, or their parents, had arrived in the 1950s. Thus ‘Echoes’ was born. She tried submitting to agents and those publishers who accepted unrepresented submissions, but to no avail, so the book was put aside ( taken out and considered every so often ) while she got on with life.

Twenty years later she took it out dusted it off and submitted again, this time with success.  The book was short listed for the Royal Society of Literature Christopher Bland Prize 2020, the People’s Choice Award and the Historical Writers Association Debut Crown, prizes, she told us, she hadn’t even known it was entered for ( it was only when the RSL contacted her to ask her to confirm her age that she knew she was up for that one ). It has not, she assured us, turned her head. Her latest manuscript is currently with her agent, Rosanna didn’t want to say too much about it, but we can look forward to another book soon.

CBF2021MacintyrePosterV2Ben Macintyre is rather more prolific than Rosanna, but then he has been writing for many years and with much success as the author of a series of histories and biographies about the world of espionage. I much enjoyed reading his last but one book, ‘The Spy and the Traitor‘ a biography of Soviet spy and double agent Oleg Gordievski. It read like a thriller, with the tension rising as Gordievski was extricated from the U.S.S.R in an operation reminiscent of James Bond. John Le Carre called it ‘the best true spy story I have ever read.’ I haven’t yet read ‘Agent Sonya‘, his latest, a biography of Ursula Kuczynski Burton, the Soviet spy, but I’m looking forward to hearing him talk about that and his other, award-winning books on Tuesday 2nd November in the last event of the 2021 Clapham Book Festival.

Short listed for the Baillie Gifford Prize, the Costa Biography Award and the Galaxy British Book Award Macintyre regularly hits the No. 1 Bestseller spot and his ‘SAS Rogue Heroes‘ is the book behind the BBC series ‘SAS Rogue Warriors‘. He should be fascinating to listen to in conversation with Clapham author Simon Berthon.  At under £6 a ticket this is a snip at the price, one would normally pay a lot more to see and hear him, so get your ticket now from Eventbrite.

The Clapham Book Festival will then be over for 2021, but we plan to continue with the zoom events throughout the year, with the help of Time & Leisure Magazine. I’ll be posting about future events here and on the Clapham Writers site. Here’s a little video made by SW Londoner Magazine about this year’s Festival. https://www.swlondoner.co.uk/entertainment/28102021-video-clapham-book-festival-returned-this-month-with-sir-michael-morpurgo/

A Different Kind of Book Fest

Clapham Book Festival 2021 is almost upon us! This year we have a variety of excellent sessions, all involving authors, sometimes ‘in person’ live, sometimes live on zoom and sometimes leading groups of walkers around Clapham Common. There are local authors involved, including myself, as well as some big names – Sir Michael Morpurgo being the biggest. We have everything from children’s books, to crime, history, biography and a ‘searing, rhapsodic‘ debut. Fingers crossed for good weather on the day. Autumn in Clapham is often beautiful and, as a leader of one of the walks, some blue sky would be nice. The Cafe/Bar at Omnibus Theatre is light and airy, with doors which open on to a gaily lit terrace and we will be selling, and the authors signing, books there throughout the afternoon of 16th October.

Clapham Book Festival is a small festival run entirely by volunteers and with only small local sponsors. It’s been running since 2016, gradually getting a reputation and a regular following in the immediate locale and some minor recognition in the industry (we were mentioned in The Times in 2019 and had the BBC filming a short piece). 2019 was also the year in which the Festival began to be financially self-sustaining. The future looked bright, but COVID derailed all that. There was no Festival in 2020. We took the decision that the Fest would go ahead in 2021 back in February, while England, the UK and much of the world, was in lockdown. Nobody really knew what circumstances would be like in the Autumn, so we had to be flexible and offer something rather different to normal.

So, this year, in a new and exciting partnership with media partners Time & Leisure Magazine we are presenting a series of zoom interviews and discussions with authors. We have Ben Macintyre, associated editor of The Times and best selling historian and biographer, speaking with Simon Berthon, local writer and BAFTA-winning broadcaster about his latest book Agent Sonya and all things espionage. Time & Leisure hosted the first, successful, online author interview back in July, when I spoke with best-selling local novelist, Elizabeth Buchan to an online audience. We’re staying local to end the Festival on Tuesday 19th October with Brixtonian Rosanna Amaka discussing her wonderful debut novel The Book of Echoes in an interview with me.

The live ‘in person’ events at Omnibus Theatre on the Showcase day will also be livestreamed. In collaboration with Clapham Books, our local independent book shop, the Fest is offering tickets to the livestream to include a copy of a book, plus postage.  Tickets this year are, it has been pointed out, more expensive. Yes, they are, but we are a charity and we can’t project running an event to make a loss. Given that audience numbers are restricted ( though not as much as we originally feared ) we had to reflect that in prices. It will, I have no doubt, put some people off, but the zooms are all at £5.

So why not join us, online or in person. If you live in south London come along to one of the literary walks and learn more about Clapham and its writers.

Conservation and conversation

London is a wonderful city in which to live, a trove of treasures to be discovered. I’ve lived here for over thirty years, yet I’m still finding interesting places new to me, sometimes close to home. Ten days ago I found myself in Stockwell.

Stockwell is a place I usually pass through, on the number 88 bus or on the Northern or Victoria lines going into town. I almost never stop there. Yet there I was, consulting my map and clutching my trusty notepad (plus a jar of homemade plum jam). I was there to interview the broadcaster and journalist Ed Stourton of Radio 4  for Time & Leisure Magazine. It was somewhat daunting, to be interviewing the man who had interviewed so many famous, and infamous, people and whose voice had formed part of the backdrop to my mornings for so many years. Stourton was a main presenter on Radio 4’s Today Programme for a decade – as well as The World at One and The World This Weekend, both of which he still does on occasion.

He had, very kindly, invited me to interview him in his home and, determined not to be late, I was ridiculously early. So I wandered towards the address I had been given and discovered, for the first time, Stockwell Park or the Stockwell Conservation Area.  It received that designation in 1973 and covers the old Stockwell Green (the 15th century manor house which formerly stood there has links with Thomas Cromwell) and the later 19th century developments of Stockwell Crescent and the roads running from it. Built primarily in the 1830s the surviving buildings are elegant early Victorian villas with gardens. They were built to different designs, which distinguishes them from the smaller, ‘pattern built’ south London Victoriana elsewhere (like some of my beloved Clapham).

I wandered, happy, around curving crescents and through quiet, tree-lined streets and found St Michael’s Church of England church (consecrated 1841) and a blue plaque marking the home of Lillian Bayliss, Director of the Old Vic and Sadlers Wells theatres and founder of the forerunners of the English National Opera, the National Theatre and the Royal Ballet. The whole enclave was a delight and so very near to the busy Stockwell Road which runs directly into the City. I never knew it existed.

When I arrived (on time) Ed and I had coffee in his beautiful garden and talked about his life in broadcasting – from the Cambridge ‘Milk Round’ and an ITN traineeship, to Channel 4 News at the very beginning (Stourton was a co-founder), Washington and Paris for C4 and the BBC respectively, his love of radio, admiration for George Orwell and enjoyment of la france profonde, specifically the foothills of the Pyrenees. His views on current standards of journalism were more optimistic than I thought they might be, taking the view that the ‘no truth’ culture would pass, reality being very hard to avoid. He cited the initial success of Nazi propaganda, something he’d researched for Auntie’s War; The BBC During World War Two (Doubleday 2017) which ultimately failed.

He was an amusing and engaging companion with a fund of stories, how he got into the besieged city of Sarajevo, for example, or being in Soweto when Nelson Mandela was released. I came away with a wealth of material and the interview will appear in Time & Leisure October edition ( plus a longer version in their on-line version ) I’ll share a link when it’s published. Why not come along to hear him speaking with Simon Berthon, fellow broadcaster, at the Clapham Book Festival on 16th October or, if you’re unable to get to Clapham, buy a ticket for the livestream of that event. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.

Clapham Book Festival 2019

Calling all lovers of books and reading!  The countdown to the annual south London celebration of both has begun.  Clapham Book Festival takes place on 5th October 2019 at Omnibus Theatre.

The preparations are now well under way.  The CBF stall at the recent Clapham Summer Fete attracted a lot of interest from locals and visitors alike. It’s taken us almost four years but folk now expect the Book Festival to take place, it has become part of the Clapham scene.  Our stall this year had books donated by Clapham writers, especially those who had been prize judges. So they were, by and large, pristine copies at knock-down prices and some of them signed by the authors as well. One woman was delighted to find the signature in the book she had just purchased. We had a superb hand-made chocolate cake to raffle off as well (congratulations John, I hope it tasted as good as it looked).

Ably assisted by the ladies from The Reading Den another Clapham-based not-for-profit organisation which acts as an on-line central hub of advice and guidance for book clubs, we managed to raise £130 for the Festival, as well as doing a lot of promoting of the events ( and having fun talking about books and writers ).  Clapham Writers has at least three new members, who we hope to see at the Meet & Greet event after this year’s Fest.

We have also been out and about leafleting around Clapham. We were at Venn Street market on Saturday and our small battalion of volunteers is posting flyers through letterboxes all over Clapham. One may be coming through your door soon.

The Windmill on the Common has again supported the Festival by donating a voucher for an overnight stay for two in that boutique hotel as a prize in our Festival day raffle.  Last year’s winner was a Clapham resident who, as the occupant of a one-bedroom flat, was able to have his parents to stay by using the voucher.  Thank you The Windmill and Young’s Brewery.

As regards publicity, you will find us mentioned by the Royal Society of Literature, the Society of Authors, in the Sunday Times On-line and in a veritable cornucopia of local media of various kinds.  There’s also a podcast coming out on 1st October.  Henry Hemming – Our Man in New York – had a double page spread in the Sunday Mail and Elizabeth Buchan – The Museum of Broken Promises – an excellent review in The Times.  Aida Edemariam and Ursula Buchan won the plaudits when their books, The Wife’s Tale and Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps, respectively, were first published. That’s not forgetting our opener – Professor Kate Williams on the relationship between the Rival Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots – and Frank Gardner OBE, BBC Security Correspondent to close the Festival.

Tickets can be had at Omnibus £16/£13 concessions or £10/£8.  A snip at the price.  Buy soon, the events are filling up fast!

For more on Clapham’s own Book Festival try       On The Day….           Books and Walking – A Literary Trail 

Introducing….and reading

As part of 2019’s amazing line-up of authors at the Clapham Book Festival  on 5th October, we introduce a new type of session this year, of an author introducing his or her new book and then reading from that book.

Local historian, biographer and travel writer, Henry Hemming takes the inaugural slot talking about, then reading from, his latest book Our Man in New York.

After the hugely successful M, a biography of Maxwell Knight, MI5’s greatest spymaster, Hemming has moved on to tell the story of the covert British operation to manipulate public opinion in the US, using, amongst other things,  fake news and spin, to prepare the way for America to enter World War II. Our Man in New York has been described by William Boyd as “A revelatory and wholly fascinating work of history. Superbly researched and written with gripping fluency, this lost secret of World War II espionage finally has its expert chronicler.”  

As Nicholas Shakespeare has said, it is Gripping and intoxicating, it unfolds like the best screenplay.’ There are rumours that Hollywood is interested. So come along and listen to its author read an extract at five o’clock on Saturday 5th October.

For more on this year’s Clapham Book Festival take a look at the Programme on the web-site. Or buy your tickets at Omnibus Theatre.