Jersey Festival of Words: The Non-Fiction

I tweeted on Saturday afternoon that one of the things I love about Jersey Festival of Words is the number of non-fiction writers who also happen to be female who are hosted by the festival. In 2015, I saw Rachel Bridge, Irma Kurtz, Ella Berthoud, Jane Hawking and Dr Gilly Carr. This year, it’s Anne Sebba, Cathy Retzenbrink, Kat Banyard and Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum.

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Kat Banyard takes to the Opera House stage along with former sex worker Diane Martins on Saturday afternoon. They’ve come to discuss the ‘uncharted territory’ society finds itself in following the ‘huge and unprecedented expansion of the global sex trade’.

In her book Pimp State, Banyard discusses each area of the sex trade but for this event, he focuses solely on prostitution, looking at ideas around power, money, equality and policy choices. She states that ‘the global sex trade affects everyone’ as the trades weave themselves into the fabric of society. This promotes a message about the ways in which it’s acceptable to treat another human being.

Banyard reiterates much of the ground covered in the book with regards to sex buyers and their views; the women who become sex workers; those who control the trade, and the different legal stances, from legalisation to the Sex Buyer Law.

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Diane Martins supports women exiting the sex trade and campaigns to end demand for sexual exploitation through implementation of the Sex Buyer Law. She tells us her story, which you can read here.

She has some interesting things to say about the work she does with women exiting the trade, in particular. She talks about the disassociation she felt and other women often feel from their bodies, ‘My vagina’s not attached to me by velcro’ and how powerful words are, ‘The power of words is so strong. You’re worth nothing. You’ll do as I say. This is what your life is’. But she hopes that her words can help impart hope and change ideas.

Both Martins and Banyard comment on the Home Affairs Select Committee they were asked to give evidence at with regards to prostitution laws. The committee was chaired by Keith Vaz, who was later revealed to be a sex buyer himself. Diane talks about how vulnerable some of the women who gave evidence were and how difficult revelations like this make it for them to talk about their experiences.

Banyard ends by saying that men take experiences of the sex industry into other areas of their life: work and home.

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Photograph by Yasmin Hannah

On Saturday evening, the Opera House plays host to Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum, who’s interviewed by some blogger from the north of England. It’s difficult to talk about an event when you’re the person on stage asking the questions, but Turner’s fantastic: funny and honest. Her audience of 300 parents (mostly mums) roar with laughter as she talks about wanting to put the kids up on eBay, not having a kitchen with an island, the milking incident and What Would Ruth Do?

The two events everyone was talking about though, happened on Saturday morning at the same time – Michael Morpurgo in the Opera House and Cathy Rentzenbrink in the Arts Centre. Obviously, I was at the Arts Centre (although I did run the length of St Helier to get a signed copy of Morpurgo’s latest book for the ten-year-old).

Rentzenbrink’s interviewed by Paul Bisson, Vice Chairman of the festival. I mention this because Bisson’s first question is about interviewing as Rentzenbrink often interviews writers and chairs panels (she chaired both the thriller panel and the history panel at the festival this year). She says she’s become a better interviewer now she’s on the receiving end of it. She used to accidentally be a little bit casual, not wanting to gush over writers. Now she tells them if she loves their work. She also comments that not everyone who interviews you prepares and sometimes you realise twenty minutes into the interview…

Bisson says there’s an irony in her saying in The Last Act of Love that she didn’t want to be known as ‘coma girl’ and now she’s known for her memoir about it. She says there’s dealing with the thing and dealing with how to communicate the thing and she feels a great sense of relief now she’s on the record about what happened and who she is. ‘I’ve wrestled it into a book,’ she says. She jokes that if anything were to happen to her husband and she has to return to dating she can use the book as an introduction, ‘Read it and see if you can be bothered to take me on’.

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How big Rentzenbrink’s book would be if it contained the whole truth.

She talks about the truth of the events, saying that ‘the written version becomes the true version’ and that although ‘there’s nothing in [the book] that’s not true’ there are omissions. These fall into two categories: people involved who didn’t want to be written about and things that were removed during the editorial process.

One of the reasons Rentzenbrink wrote the book was the misunderstandings around comas. She says they’re very clean on television, you either wake up or die. She quotes Henry Marsh, author of Do No Harm, who says that it’s easy to save someone’s life with emergency brain surgery but that they’ll almost never recover. He uses the phrase, ‘The collateral damage to the family’. Rentzenbrink says that she used to think she was crazy and mad but has since realised she’s not, it’s the events that happened to her.

However, there are many moments in the book which are funny. ‘Tragedy is funny because if you couldn’t find funny you’d die on the spot,’ she says. She tells us that she got the giggles at Matty’s funeral because she thought his friends were going to drop the coffin in an Only Fools and Horses type moment.

She talks about living and working in the family pub. How people who drink in pubs are very funny but that measuring your drinking habits against them when you’re seventeen isn’t advisable. However, she credits the pub with preventing the family from the isolation they might have suffered on bringing Matty home if they’d been living in a house. She also comments on how many people seem to miss the class element of the book. ‘I love my journey from Snaith Ladies Darts Team at sixteen to the main stage at Cheltenham Literature Festival.’

On writing Rentzenbrink says, ‘I think all of writing is about self-doubt management’. She mimics herself typing, squinting at the keyboard. She says it’s only in the editing she thinks about the reader but because of her work in prisons with men who don’t read well, she’s aware of a need to make books accessible for a wide audience. She wanted to take something complex and make it simple. While editing The Last Act of Love she became very aware of the lack of books on the subject of persistent vegetative states and pictured a builder who’d never read a book reading it. This led to her editing for clarity and deleting a whole thread about her response to a range of books. ‘That man does not need to read me twatting on about Julian Barnes.’

It’s so easy for memories to be overtaken by a decaying body, she says. Writing the book helped her to remember what Matty was really like. ‘I remember new things about him all the time. He feels completely real to me now in a way I thought I’d lost him. He sort of talks to me. It might be him, wouldn’t turn that down. I think it’s my memory having a conversation with itself.’ He’s encouraging, sweary and gives career advice. He’s fondly critical and calls Rentzenbrink to account with comments like, ‘What the fuck are you worrying about that for, you crazy bitch?’

There’s a theme of religion running through the book. Rentzenbrink describes herself as ‘a hopeful agnostic. I like a bit of smells and bells. I like married clergy, love being the answer and all’. She wonders why she doesn’t allow herself to go to church and thinks religion hasn’t caught up with medical developments. She was scared that religions people would be angry about the book and the decision her family took.

Rentzenbrink says that she considers herself a case study but doesn’t want to be a spokesperson for euthanasia. ‘Almost all of those arguments reduce the human.’ She says raising awareness is a great thing but, ‘I like the book to do that’. She says more cases have gone to court because of the book, people didn’t know it was an option.

She’s currently editing her second book, a non-fiction work called A Manual for Heartache which is about loss and grief more generally. She says if you remain silent people think you’re alright but when you’re honest, people say ‘me too’.

She’s also writing a novel. Doing so has liberated her from the need to tell the truth. She ends by saying that thinking about other people’s books, which she does for her Contributing Editor role at The Bookseller, ‘keeps me sane’.

Jersey Festival of Words, Final Day and Reflections

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On the final day of the festival, a day of war and remembrance, I only have one event by a woman scheduled. Unfortunately when Julie Summers gives her talk about Fashion on the Ration which closes the festival, I’m on a plane back to the mainland. I do get chance to see her in her fabulous outfit though. I’m quite enamoured with her hat.

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The other main event by a woman today is Dr Gilly Carr talking about Testimonies of Resistance. Here’s where I have to admit to my utter ignorance about events in the Channel Islands during the Second World War so not only is Carr’s talk very interesting, I learn a lot too.

1300 Jersey and Guernsey people, two per cent of the population, were imprisoned locally during WWII for some form of resistance. 200 of those were deported either to Nazi prisons or to concentration camps. 29 never returned.

Resistance in the Channel Islands was different to that in continental Europe: there was no united movement – one soldier to every three islanders meant there couldn’t be a large movement; those who practised resistance were seen as ‘troublemakers’, ‘criminals’ and that they ‘rocked the boat’; everyone suffered some way, were resistors responsible for their own fate?

The types of resistance seen on the islands was humanitarian aid – sheltering Jews or slaves; underground newsletters; listening to the BBC and spreading the news; the V-sign campaign; economic resistance – going slow, hoarding, stealing from the Germans; defiant public servants – school teachers refusing to teach German, doctors hiding prisoners; religious resistance – teaching particular sermons; political resistance – Jersey Communist Party; pseudo-military resistance – practised by teenage school boys stealing and saving weapons, and symbolic resistance – wearing red, white and blue.

Carr goes on to talk about two men in particular who became ‘Guardians of Memory’, recording the experiences of those who resisted and became political prisoners.

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Frank Falla was a journalist on the Guernsey Star. Between May 1942 and February 1944, he ran the Guernsey Underground News Service. Having been caught and sentenced, he was deported to Frankfurt Prison in June 1944. The prison was harsh: between a third and half of those from the Channel Islands who died in Nazi confinement died there. Eventually he was moved to Naumburg-on-Saale which was liberated by the Americans in 1945.

On his return from the war, Falla fought for compensation for Channel Islanders persecuted by the Nazis. He alerted the UK government to the validity of their claims and acted as a go-between, distributing forms and helping people complete them. He also helped overturn rejected claims. Carr’s research shows that only 50% of those eligible actually did claim. She suggests this is for a number of different reasons: death, pride, emigration, ignorance of the scheme, seeing the compensation as German blood money, thinking they were ineligible, thinking no amount of money was enough to compensate for what they’d suffered. She says some of the testimonies read, ‘I was in X concentration camp and we all know what happened there’. What did happen ‘there’ included forced labour, beatings, torture, forced marches, murder, executions, PTSD, ill health, poverty and some medical experimentation.

The other man, Joe Mière, collected the stories of prisoners – some of which hadn’t even been shared fully with their own families – and put them on the walls at the Jersey War Tunnels – an underground hospital built by the Nazis. Now the tunnels have become a museum telling the story of the occupation, the prisoners’ testimonies are displayed in the café.

Carr finishes her talk by telling us that she’s secured funding to build a website where this unknown story can begin to be more widely known. She’s also filmed a documentary that will be broadcast on BBC1 at 7.30pm on the 2nd November about Sidney Ashcroft, one of the 21 Jersey prisoners who died while incarcerated by the Nazis.

At the end of Carr’s talk, Jersey poet Alice Allen reads some of her work from a forthcoming book about Channel Islanders during the occupation. She refers to that time as a ‘unique seam of history’ and goes on to read poems about slave workers and resistors.

In the Q&A with both Carr and Allen, a couple of really interesting things come up. One they’ve both experienced is daughters of resistors who were caught and imprisoned blaming their fathers for the poverty the family were plunged into and sometimes also the mental health of their mothers. It’s clear that not everyone thought these resistors were heroes. The other also concerns women and that’s the so-called ‘Jerry bags’, the women who fraternised with German soldiers. Carr clearly feels very passionately about the way these women are portrayed both in non-fiction recounts and in novels set during the time. She believes that the women behaved in this way because they wanted to feed and protect their families and some genuinely believed they were in love. She says they’re often termed collaborators but really, she feels, the idea of collaboration needs to be defined clearly and these women re-examined. I hope that Carr does this, I’d definitely be keen to read more on them.

Over the four days I attend the festival, I only see a fraction of what’s on – there are master classes, events with local writers and events for schools that I don’t even touch on. What I do see, however – poetry readings from Carol Ann Duffy and Owen Sheers; interviews with Isabel Ashdown/Kate Shaw, Irma Kurtz, Owen Sheers, Will Smith, Alex Preston, and presentations from Simon Barnes, Rachel Bridge, Ella Berthoud, Jane Hawking and Dr. Gilly Carr – shows that the festival may be in its inaugural year but it’s already capable of attracting a huge range of talent who are fascinating to listen to and watch. Irma Kurtz’s interview with Murray Norton and Owen Sheer’s interview with Andy Davey are two of the best I’ve seen anywhere. I hear so many of the writers comment on how lovely the festival is as well as the island of Jersey. So many of them are there for the first time and it’s clear they’re all falling in love with it – me too!

I’m already looking forward to next year and I’m hoping I might see people deciding to take a literary holiday, discover a beautiful island and see some cracking bookish events.

Jersey Festival of Words, Day Two

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The second day of the festival is a non-fiction day for me. The two women whose events I attend are Rachel Bridge, author of How to Make a Million Before Lunch and Irma Kurtz, who I’m sure many of you will recognise as Cosmopolitan’s agony aunt of 40 years. Her event is one of the best I’ve ever attended.

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The Opera House is buzzing when I arrive for Bridge’s event. There’s a wide range of people from school children in uniform accompanied by their teachers to post-work suited and booted/high heeled business types to over-60s in casual wear.

Bridge comes on to the Pet Shop Boys’ Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money), her gold dress sparkling in the spotlights. She’s very enthusiastic herself as she tells us that entrepreneurs are the most inspiring, enthusiastic, optimistic people in the world. She then proceeds to give us the rules that will take us to a luxury yachts with a cocktail in one hand and a big cheque in the other (surely a bank transfer entry on our banking app these days?).

#1 – be madly passionate about what you want to do
#2 – do not invent anything
#3 – keep it simple. Don’t be the first in.

Between these, Bridge gives examples of successes and failures from entrepreneurs. By this point, I’m getting irritated because, besides a quick mention of the dragons from Dragons Den, they’re all men. Are there no female entrepreneurs?

She also gives us some tips between the rules such as ‘A lot of ideas are had in the pub. Write it down!’ ‘You’ve got to make a profit otherwise it’s not a business, it’s a hobby.’

#4 Don’t even think about opening a shop. You’ll be stuck inside while people are buying things on the internet. Sell on the internet or through other people’s shops. Shops are expensive, inflexible and restrictive.
#5 Don’t borrow lots of money to start up your business, it will weigh you down.
#6 Find out if there is a demand for your idea. This is the bit everyone forgets, Bridge says. If you’re stuck for ideas, think about what drives you mad.
#7 You have to be very focused and single-minded.

Bridge takes a tangent here to plug her forthcoming book Ambition. She tells us that successful people fit more into their day and gives us the examples of David Wolstencroft, creator of Spooks, and Bill Muirhead, advertising executive and Agent General for South Australia in London. Bridge met Wolstencroft at the baggage reclaim in LA after a flight from London. During the flight he’d edited a script and written two chapters of a book. He says if he has 15 minutes, he uses it, even if it takes five of those to fire his laptop up. Muirhead tells everyone he meets with that he only has 10 minutes for their meeting before he has to leave for something else, so all his meetings happen in 10 minutes. This sounds like the dream to me.

Bridge’s top three tips learnt from ambitious, successful people are:

  • carry a to-do list everywhere but only do three things at a time;
  • stop multitasking;
  • just say no – be selective about the events you go to and make the most of the ones you do attend

Then it’s back to the entrepreneur rules.
#8 You don’t need to be alone. Every successful entrepreneur has a team.
#9 Just do it! Don’t wait for everything to be perfect, there are always reasons not to start. The hardest thing about starting a business is actually starting it.

Bridge ends by telling us about her favourite entrepreneur, who is a woman (she has mentioned a few more by this point). Judy Craymer decided she wanted to write a musical. She spent 10 years working on this and came up with Mamma Mia. She didn’t write the music, she didn’t write the words, she didn’t invest any money in it. She made £90 million.

Bridge leaves the stage to Abba’s Money Money Money. On the way out a woman asks me what I thought. ‘I’m inspired,’ she says. ‘I’ve got an idea and I’m buzzing.’ I’m wondering about Judy Cramer and how I can make a fortune without much hard work at all. I think I might have missed the point…

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It’s a very different audience for Irma Kurtz. Mostly women aged between thirty and sixty, those of us for whom Kurtz was our agony aunt. She’s interviewed by Jersey broadcaster, Murray Norton.

He begins by asking her about the term ‘agony aunt’ and whether she minded it. ‘I insisted on it’ and that the column be called ‘The Agony Column’. Kurtz points out that she’s not a counsellor or a therapist, her degree’s in English Literature. ‘I’m a writer.’ She likes to travel alone, listening to strangers. She’s curious and that makes her a writer, she says.

She began at 14, advising a 16/17-year-old about her boyfriend. She says the key to her success is that she’s avoided telling people what to do. Should means ‘Because I say so’. She’s empathised and suggested what people could do. They then find the solution within themselves. ‘The real tool is common sense.’ ‘And wisdom?’ says Norton. You’re born with common sense, she says, wisdom takes time, observation and experience.

Being lonely because she’s an ex-pat and away from her roots has been key to who she is too. She’s from Jersey City, New Jersey which sparks some impressions of native New Jersey accents which continue throughout the event and a discussion about the differences between the island we’re currently in and the state in America and how one came from the other.

She mentions some of the anti-Semitism she experienced in her youth. In particular a group of boys who used to throw snowballs at her with rocks in the middle. The shouted, ‘You killed Christ’ at her. This confused her, ‘I thought Christ was a good Jewish boy.’

Norton names a number of prominent agony aunts including Claire Raynor. Before he’s reached the end of the list, Kurtz is adding names to it because she knows the connection – they’re all Jewish. Why does she think that is? It’s ‘the kitchen court’. While the men were philosophising, the women were in the kitchen arranging marriages. And common sense is portable.

They talk about Agony Uncles and why they didn’t work. Kurtz puts this down to them wanting to be therapists or counsellors. They needed an overarching theory to work under whilst women examine the everyday. ‘Gossip is a good thing when it’s used in a good way.’ Also, she says to much laughter from the audience, ‘The women were often in agony and the men were often causing it’.

She follows this up by saying she’s been in trouble for saying men and women are different but over the 40 years she’s been an agony aunt, the essential issues haven’t changed: lack of self-esteem and the immense difference bearing children makes to your life.

She talks about the recent Daily Mail article, ‘Irma Kurtz says rape is the victim’s fault’. She’s emphatic when she says, ‘Not in a million years’. She says it was painful to be accused of that and she couldn’t fight back. She does clarify that she said ‘don’t get so drunk’ and it’s a shame Norton doesn’t follow-up on this as it’s clearly a problematic piece of advice in this context.

In 1971, she decided she had to have a child. As her partner was an artist, she took the job at Cosmopolitan for a year, thinking it would tide them over. Later she says she never took a rise, making sure she did other things. She never questioned how equipped she was though, ‘I felt sisterly, I felt companionship. Sometimes annoyed, sometimes spooked.’ She’s ended the job this year because answering emails isn’t as attractive to her as answering letters even though, ‘The postman hated me’. She was receiving 500-1000 letters a month.

Whenever Cosmopolitan started up in a new territory, she would do the first few months of the advice column until they employed someone local. This means she’s recognised some differences in the types of advice asked for around the world. In Japan it was ‘endless in-law problems. Mother-in-law problems’. South Africa she found difficult. Usually she would travel to the country but it was during apartheid and her union wouldn’t let her travel which meant she didn’t know the local organisations, ‘What was open to the white women wasn’t open to their black sisters’. American women are angry, while the English are self-accusing. She attributes this to the American constitution and war. The constitution includes entitlement to the pursuit of happiness and she thinks many mistake this for an entitlement to happiness and it leads to anger when they don’t get it. The English have seen war in their own land and she thinks this is what affected their mindset. Although, she says, we’re much more homogenised now so the contrast has shrunk.

The big issues haven’t changed though: love, sex, sexual jealousy, family, friendship. However, the questions around sex have changed from worrying about being pregnant to not wanting to have children ever. Kurtz says she was glad when the sexperts arrived in the 1980s and she could hand these questions over! She says during the rise of feminism in the 1970s, she received many letters from women saying they didn’t like the ‘woman on top’ position and thought this was a betrayal of feminism. Others weren’t enjoying sex and some were falling in love with other women’s husbands. This was the only time she told them rather than advised. She said they’re ‘collaborators rather than a lover’ and they needed to know that.

Norton asks about the men in her life. ‘Let’s not, we haven’t time.’ She talks about moving to New York City, to Manhattan, as soon as she could. Going to Greenwich Village and listening to the poets (apart from Dylan Thomas who used to sit in the corner drinking but never reading his work). Despite her parents’ disapproval, she raised money waitressing to go and live in Paris but struggled there. After someone bought her a ticket to see a production of King Lear she decided ‘to go where the language comes from’ and moved to London as a way of avoiding returning home to ‘I told you so’. This was 1968 and when a well-off friend moved out of her flat, Kurtz paid £8 a week to live on Kings Road.

She returns to the letters. She’s had death threats from America when she included abortion as an option for a pregnant 15-year-old. She can spot a fake letter – she says it’s harder with emails. The fake letters were often from men and began with what they were wearing! She’s only had one letter that shocked her. It was from a woman who’d had an argument with her boyfriend and then gone out for a drive. During the drive, she picked up a hitchhiker, took the gun from her glove compartment, shot him and pushed him from the car. There’s a collective gasp from the audience. Kurtz says the postmark was from a state where there was capital punishment, so she couldn’t answer the letter in print, no editor would take it. She wasn’t supposed to answer letters that weren’t printed but of course, she did.

Kurtz ends by telling us more about her ‘complicated, exciting’ life. Throughout her career, she’s also written articles on a variety of things including the Klu Klx Klan and the Vietnam War. When she interviewed the Grand Dragon of the Klan, he heard her name as Curtis, which she wasn’t about to correct. He took her to the Klavern where the woman who opened the door said, ‘I can tell a Jew by the look on their face’. Kurtz said, ‘It was an interesting experience. I smiled. There was a look on my face’.

As for the war, ‘I’d never really seen a warzone and I wanted to see a warzone’. She compares this to Londoners visiting Bedlam. ‘I’ve always been a bit ashamed of myself for wanting to see a warzone and glad I did.’

She tells us that Tennessee Williams saved her life: she was due to interview him, he changed the interview, the plane crashed. And finally that her son complained when the boys at school discovered she was an agony aunt, ‘I was living in Soho at the time, it could’ve been much worse’.

She’s currently working on some fiction but then she’ll write a memoir. With a life as fascinating as this one, I can’t wait to read it.