• Dispatch from Durham

    I'm staying in a 13th century castle, rumoured to be haunted, as journalist-in-residence at the Durham Book Festival. While I saw no ghosts during my stay, the experience was nevertheless a haunting one, as the words of the writers lingered on in the memory.

    At the festival I chaired events with a range of speakers, including Alexei Sayle, Lionel Shriver, Harriet Harman, June Sarpong, Chibundu Onozu and Sarah Winman, in beautifully designed venues which were decked out with real trees. Whether politician, comedian or novelist, all had insights to share. We were also treated not only to readings but to singing, from the talented Chibundu Onozu who was discussing her novel Welcome to Lagos on a panel with Sarah Winman whose excellent new novel Tin Man exquisitely explores love, loss and the power of art and creativity.

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  • Dispatch from Durham: Diversify - in conversation with June Sarpong

    "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced", wrote James Baldwin, a chapter epigraph to June Sarpong's inspiring new book Diversify.

    At a sold-out event in the beautiful Durham Town Hall, the closing event of the festival, I interviewed Sarpong about the book which compellingly puts forward arguments for the social, moral and economic benefits of diversity. Sarpong covers a wide range of topics including gender, class, disability, and age and also gives an insight into her own experience, growing up in Walthamstow ('Wilcomestu' as the Anglo-Saxons called it, she writes in the book, meaning 'place of welcome), the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. She writes: "As a woman of colour, I am all too aware of the problems that can be caused by stereotyping. In fact, being excluded as a result of being a woman, and being excluded because of your race, are two forms of discrimination I understand first-hand". She talked about her own experience in broadcasting and the media, as a well-known television presenter, and reflected on how things have changed - and how far there is still to go for equality.

    What makes the book unique is that it offers practical tools and ideas for how we might go about "creating a new normal". The final part of the book, 'The Other Way in Action' is a call to arms. After all, as Socrates said, another chapter epigraph: "The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new".

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  • Dispatch from Durham - the spirit of Gordon Burn

    The spirit of Gordon Burn haunted this year's Durham Book Festival - in the thought-provoking special event News as a Novel which I chaired with Alexei Sayle and Lionel Shriver. It had at its heart the idea that, as Ezra Pound said, "Literature is news that stays news". Ten years ago the late, great Gordon Burn took the events of 2007 and during that year wrote and published BORN YESTERDAY: THE NEWS AS A NOVEL, an ambitious and experimental novel about the way news is made, and the way the media creates and manipulates the stories we see before us. In the spirit of this fine literary experiment with fact and fiction, Durham Book Festival commissioned 4 writers to produce a piece of work in response to the extraordinary unfolding news cycle of this year two of whom appeared on stage at the festival. Sayle produced an entertaining and probing piece called "Great Railway Fatwas of the Year" while Shriver's piece, "You Don't Know What You've Got Till It's Gone" or "The Mandibles: A Coda" extended upon themes explored in her dystopian novel The Mandibles in which one of the characters says: "Novels set in the future are always about what we fear in the present" - both writers explored contemporary fears and how they can be harnessed as a fuel for fine fiction.

    I also attended the Gordon Burn Prize for Fiction and was thrilled to see Denise Mina (a fellow Judge of this year's David Cohen Prize for Literature) win. I caught up with her for a chat at the ceremony. "I'm such a fan of Gordon Burn and how shockingly innovative he was and I feel very honoured as well as surprised. The other writers on the shortlist are so amazing. I'm just so chuffed. Gordon Burn is a writer who rocked my world". When did she first discover Gordon Burn? "It was Happy Like Murderers. My friend said it's too hardcore and I said that sounds fucking great. It's about Fred West and there's a kind of refrain in it about how Fred West objectified people and personalised objects". Mina is driven by "the idea of writing about forbidden subjects from a feminist perspective. Women are always absent from stories unless they're dead or waiting at home. So I wanted to write a true crime story set in a very macho time but with the women present. And also it's a story about two men getting incredibly drunk - you don't see a drunken night portrayed often. The whole thing is also about the stories we tell about ourselves and how much of it is a lie. And the stories rapists tell about themselves, and how they construct a web of lies - like Harvey Weinstein". So stories can harm or heal? "Yes, and they can facilitate or expose". She speaks more about how "women are usually just props in noir novels" - but in her novels, they are brought centre-stage; her prize-winning novel is a must-read.

    All in all, an excellent festival.

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  • Interview with Robert Macfarlane

    published in The Telegraph, Friday 29th September 2017.

    Interview with Robert Macfarlane

    By Anita Sethi

    'Small acts of care are crucial'

    The power of language to shape our sense of place and the people we become was excellently explored in Robert Macfarlane’s last book, Landmarks. The introductory essay, ‘The Word-Hoard’, went viral and was partly prompted by the loss of words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary (2007 edition) - everyday words such as acorn, bluebell and conker had been omitted. “For blackberry, read Blackberry”, he wrote. “A basic literacy of landscape is falling away up and down the ages”.

    His wonderful new book, The Lost Words, is Macfarlane’s response. “We poured our hearts into this book”, he tells me. The “acorn of the book”, he explains, was an alphabet of the words “but it grew and grew and became a huge book, bigger than some of its readers - the idea was that readers would feel a sense of walking into the book, like a landscape”. Beautifully illustrated by Jackie Morris, enchanting acrostic spell-poems - each devoted to one of the vanished words - succeed in vividly conjuring them to life. “We wanted to make a spell-book in two senses - in that children spelled these words and then this magical sense of enchantment; that old magic of speaking things aloud.” He read the book out to his three children - Will, 4, Tom, 11, and 13 year-old Lily; at first they were embarrassed (it was the equivalent of “dad-dancing”, he laughs) but soon fell under its spell and Lily became very involved and at every stage would look through every page.

    I am walking through Wandlebury woods with Macfarlane in the countryside nearby his Cambridgeshire home, the first time the author of such classic books as Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places has done an interview here but a place whose pathways he knows deeply. As Autumn sunlight breaks through huge yew trees, he points out the large Iron Age ring-fort, wide meadow rising into a chalk down, and Roman road along which he walks in his bestselling book The Old Ways. Wandlebury woods also features in Landmarks and is filled with children’s dens, a secret garden, and his own children love it here, too.

    Throughout our walk he points out acorns, ivy, a magpie - some of those lost words. “The nature of childhood is changing dramatically. We know the surveys for that - the increase of screen-time and decrease in roaming radius” - caused both by parental fears and because there are less wild places for children to play. “And the inability of children to name even nearby nature. It’s not about snow leopards and jungles and remote mountaintops - it’s about the living world with which we share our living days. It got me thinking about names and the magic they weave, about what it means to grow up with even a basic literacy of nature and the sense that these words were vanishing. I really wanted this to be a book about everyday nature”.

    A proportion of the royalties from each copy will be donated to Action For Conservation: the charity, which does work with disadvantaged children, is dedicated to inspiring young people to take action for the natural world, and to the next generation of conservationists. Macfarlane is a founding trustee and wanted the book to inspire action and change: “There’s a huge inequality in distribution of access to nature - I think it’s really important to recognise that. We need to find ways of addressing inner city and otherwise socially excluded children. Ethnicity and class and postcode play huge roles. Things like Action for Conservation and the John Muir Trust award target children who wouldn’t otherwise get into nature.”

    Green places are good places and “do wonders for wellbeing”, he insists. He mentions the Welsh phrase "dod yn ôl at fy nghoed", which means "to return to a balanced state of mind", but literally means "to return to my trees". He believes the government certainly has a role to play and could increase available green space near to home for all children, and include nature and environmental well-being in Section 78 of the Education Act ('General Requirements in Relation to Curriculum’) so that “nature and our relations with it become part of life, behaviour and ethics”. He adds: ”I don't want a nature tsar - I want a Minister for Nature."

    He reflects: “The books we read as children take root in us and they can grow through us for the rest of our lives”. Keen to get this book into as many children’s minds as possible, he and illustrator Jackie Morris are drawing up teaching notes for schools and running writing competitions. He believes that ‘nature’ should be integrated across the curriculum, and that learning outdoors in nature could more deeply be ingrained into the education system. He admires the Forest School movements’s ethos: “Hearteningly, it has come to understand it needs to extend that ethos out to children who might not easily find their way to green places or into regular contact with nature”.

    He is keen that “one generation doesn’t patronise the next” and does understand the disinclination to get outdoors (indeed one of his teenage memories is “sighing when mum said take the dog for a walk”). “My daughter went on this conservation camp for the first time this summer and she’d been sighing about going but rang me on the first night in West Wales and said ‘Dad - you know all that nature stuff you’ve been talking about my whole childhood - I used to think that was baloney but now I get it’. And I thought wow it took a day! That’s all it took - without parents and without screens there. I loved that moment.”

    Does he limit his children’s screen/social media time? “I think I’m probably worse at it now than they are!”. Six months ago he joined the Twittersphere and has amassed a huge following - his Word of the Day tweets take his project of ‘rewilding the language’ and prizing its biodiversity, into cyberspace - something he finds an “utter joy” and “daily gladdening”. There’s “a complex relationship” between nature and technology, and cyberspace “can be a way of sharing and connecting places and people and language”.

    Macfarlane wrote poetry in his teens and is an admirer of Hopkins, Hughes and Heaney. There are also echoes of Edward Lear and Edward Thomas in some splendid spell-poems. “I wanted to catch the eeriness and strangeness as well as comedy and magic and beauty of nature. And with each spell I tried to capture what Hopkins calls the ‘this-ness’, the quidditas, of each creature and what makes it astonishing to be close to”. As we walk, he delights in naming the creatures we see, soaring in the sky or scuttling on the earth. We forage for food and devour delicious blackberries and apples.

    “There’s so much layered history here”, he says as we stand upon an enormous tree stump and survey the land, “this high-ground has been inhabited since the neolithic age, so we’ve got 5000 years of continuous human habitation here.” He also delves into his own history. Born in 1976 he grew up in Nottinghamshire and, as chronicled in Mountains of the Mind, it was his grandfather and parents who passed onto him a passion for wild places. He shares with me his earliest memories of the natural world: “I remember seeing a golden eagle for the first time and was amazed that a bird could be so big”.

    On we walk through the woods. “This thing is called the understorey”, he says, pointing down at the growth below the canopy, “and I just love that word”. Walking through the understorey calls to mind his next book, scheduled for 2019, Underland, which, he tells me, is about the literal, metaphorical and mythological worlds beneath our feet. He stops to take a photograph holding my iPhone through a coppice pointing skywards - a technique Bill Bailey shared with him during a recent walk they took, which produces a remarkable image.

    His talent for working in different mediums is also on display in the film he has written, Mountain, which has its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. He worked on The Lost Words and Mountain during the same time-period. “They’re both arriving within the same four days - that’s absolutely thrilling. When Willem Dafoe came on board I was like that’s my dream, I can die happy now with my words spoken by Willem Dafoe. It’s an experimental film in a way - 90 minutes long but the script is 820 words. We wanted to create a dreamscape, almost like a film poem”.

    Does he have hope for the future? “The bigger picture is dismal. Plastic pollution, climate change, extreme weather events, environmental degradation - that’s the Anthropocene, a geological epoch defined by human activity”. Contemplating the seriousness of planetary scale problems, though, can throw people into paralysis and paralysis, he says, is truly hopeless. “Small acts of care and small acts of hope and good are also crucial - grassroots charities, individuals, books, words, are doing magic work - so to say there’s no point is an abandonment of everything. Hope is a greater agent for change than despair”.

    The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane illustrated by Jackie Morris is published by Hamish Hamilton on 5th October

    Mountain premieres at the London Film Festival on 9th October.

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  • Journalist-in-Residence - Durham Book Festival (October 2017)

    It is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness and this Autumn brings with it not only burnished leaves pirouetting from the trees in an astonishment of coppery colour, but also the Durham Book Festival and I’m delighted to be the festival’s first Journalist in Residence. My fellow residents include Festival Laureate, poet Andrew McMillan, Reader in Residence, the writer Andy Miller, and the Cuckoo Review.

    By night I’ll be residing in a castle part of which was built in the 13th century, and when not sleeping in the castle at night, and by day and evening I’ll be chairing a host a host of exciting events and conducting a special masterclass for Cuckoo Young Writers.

    Events I’m chairing include:

    Friday 13 October, 6.15pm–7.30pm (Durham Town Hall) - The News as Novel

    With Petina Gappah, Benjamin Myers, Alexei Sayle, Lionel Shriver

    http://durhambookfestival.com/programme/event/petina-gappah-benjamin-myers-alexei-sayle-lionel-shriver-the-news-as-a-novel/

    "Ten years ago, the late Gordon Burn took the events of 2007 and during that year wrote and published Born Yesterday: The News as a Novel, an ambitious and experimental novel about the way news is made, and the way the media creates and manipulates the stories we see before us.

    In the spirit of this fine literary experiment with fact and fiction, we have commissioned four outstanding writers to produce a piece of work in response to the extraordinary unfolding news cycle of 2017"

    Harriet Harman: A Woman’s Work,

    Saturday 14 October,

    7pm–8pm

    Durham Town Hall

    "We are thrilled to welcome one of Britain’s most prominent campaigning politicians and the country’s longest-serving female MP to Durham Book Festival.

    Her groundbreaking memoir A Woman’s Work tells the story of her efforts to bring women’s issues to the heart of the Labour Party and of a life dedicated to fighting for equality and respect. Written with great warmth and refreshing humility, this is a frank and inspiring work that offers a crucial insider’s account of the last 30 years of British politics: the progress and the setbacks"

    Chibundu Onuzo and Sarah Winman: Fantastic Fiction

    Sunday 15 October,

    1.30pm–2.30pm

    Durham Town Hall (Burlison Gallery)

    "Discover some exciting new fiction as two award-winning novelists discuss their latest books.

    When a Nigerian army officer is ordered to kill civilians, he knows he must leave. Travelling towards Lagos, he becomes leader of a band of runaways who share his desire for a better life. As moving as it is mesmerising, Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos is a provocative portrait of contemporary Nigeria.

    Tin Man is a touching coming-of-age story by the best-selling author of When God Was a Rabbit. Sarah Winman’s novel follows two inseparable boys, Ellis and Michael, through friendship, adulthood, marriage and loss."

    June Sarpong: Diversify

    Is it possible to live without prejudice?

    Sunday 15 October,

    5pm–6pm

    Durham Town Hall

    Through inspiring stories, up-to-the-minute evidence, and case studies from around the globe, Diversify explores the value we place on packaging, and how the way we see others affects who we ourselves become.

    In this event, author and broadcaster June Sarpong offers a fierce, accessible and comprehensive guide to how we can beat social division, and reach our potential as a society.

    June Sarpong has interviewed everyone from Nelson Mandela to Tony Blair to 50 Cent. In 2007, she was awarded an MBE for her services to broadcasting, philanthropy and charity, making her one of the youngest people to receive the honour.

    Hope to see some of you there!

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  • Interviewing Billy Bragg in the Brecon Beacons

    I had the honour of interviewing the great Billy Bragg on stage in front of 1000+ people in the beautiful Brecon Beacons at Green Man Festival. It was an inspiring hour of not only words but also a surprise musical rendition as at the end Bragg burst into a rousing rendition of Jerusalem to a standing ovation. An amazing experience.

    We discussed his fantastic new book Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World which has been acclaimed by those including Jon Savage who described it as “the story of the first DIY revolution; a perfect mix of author and subject”.

    Turning 60 this year, for over thirty years Billy Bragg has been an acclaimed recording artist, performer and activist, his albums including Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, England Half English and, with Joe Henry, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad and in 2015 he published his wonderful selected lyrics, A Lover Sings. Over the course of his career, Bragg has enjoyed a No.1 hit single, had a street named after him, been the subject of a South Bank Show, appeared onstage at Wembley Stadium, been mentioned in Bob Dylan’s memoir, shaken hands with the Queen and had dinner with the King of Skiffle, Lonnie Donegan & John Peel. He began by recounting the amusing anecdote of that dinner and a starstruck Peel.

    Bragg was fascinating in discussing the context to skiffle, how "skiffle was the first music for teenagers by teenagers in our cultural history... they created a do-it-yourself music that crossed over racial and social barriers”. Young women were involved in the musical movement, gathering at cappucino bars that faced towards Europe and finding empowerment in music. Skiffle was also a precursor to Rock Against Racism and Bragg recounted his own experiences of this, experience which feels hugely resonant given the rise of the far right.

    The book is subtitled 'how skiffle change the world', and Bragg spoke not only about music and its role in changing the world but also talked passionately about the need to stave off the cynicism that stops people attempting to make the world a better place - how each and every one of us can play a role in making change in the environments around us. He discussed how in the past ten years since the economic crash people's lives have been thrown into chaos and to create chaos instead for those in power responsible for such inequities.

    The guitar was an "outsider's instrument" which empowered young people - and it was very much an empowering session about empowerment. The final audience question, fittingly, asked why Bragg isn't running for Prime Minister. Perhaps most memorable of all, as well as the moving rendition of Jerusalem, was Bragg's call for empathy and compassion - needed more than ever in our world.

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  • Interview with Matt Haig

    Click here to read my interview with Matt Haig whose excellent new novel How to Stop Time is out now.

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  DISPATCH FROM PORTUGAL

  The National Travel section
  April 2012

writing, broadcasting, speaking