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 Three

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It’s this morning when I realise how many female non-fiction writers are doing events at the festival. What a contrast to media and prize coverage which would have you believe very few women write non-fiction books. Today I’m seeing Ella Berthoud by Skype and Jane Hawking in person.

Berthoud’s session takes place in a room at Jersey Public Library. If you haven’t come across her, she wrote a book called The Novel Cure along with Susan Elderkin. The book centres on the practice of bibliotherapy, the idea that you can cure every day ailments with the power of fiction. Berthold tells us Aristotle used to practice a verbal form of it, recommending poetry and plays. In World War Two, it was used to treat shellshock. Jane Austen was prescribed for soldiers because it was very English, a reminder of home and Austen’s world is predictable and comforting. In the 1960s, books were recommended to children who were dealing with a bereavement, their parents divorcing or parents who were having a range of difficulties.

For Berthoud and Elderkin, their practice of bibliotherapy began when they lived in adjacent rooms as undergraduates at Cambridge. When one of them was dealing with an issue, the other would slip an appropriate book under the patient’s door.

Several years later, after Elderkin had published two novels and Berthoud worked as an artist, they decided they wanted to do something with their bibliotherapy skills. Around the same time, Alain de Botton was establishing The School of Life in London. They met with him and discussed setting up a one-to-one bibliotherapy service which would deal with a combination of reading habits and real life problems and issues.

Before people go to see Berthoud and Elderkin, they’re sent a questionnaire. The first half asks about reading habits. What do you read? Why do you read? Where do you read? When do you read? What are your most loved and most loathed books? Do you have any particular reading issues? The second half is about their personal life: biographical information, any issues they have at the moment, where they want to be in ten years time.

Sometimes people come with very specific requests, which Berthoud and Elderkin research but often they’re general issues: a career rut, bereavement, divorce, empty nest syndrome.

They started planning the book in 2008 because they wanted a textbook to go with their service. Planning in Elderkin’s cottage, they came up with every ailment they could think of – a total of 777! – and every great novel. Their editor told them to cut it to 300 ailments. Even so, the first version of the book had 50,000 words cut from it including a cure for cannibalism and some medical and psychological ailments where it was possible Berthoud and Elderkin’s intensions could be misconstrued. Their aim is to help and heal rather than cure.

Berthoud says the book’s really split into four different types of ailments – emotional: depression, a broken heart, agoraphobia; situational: moving house, taking a gap year; physical: a broken leg, hiccups, in which case the books are ‘to be taken alongside medicine’, and reading: too busy to read, surrounded by children, guilt, put off by hype, tendency to read instead of live and vice-versa.

If you suffer from reading related memory loss, Berthoud suggests keeping a notebook. She says to buy a beautiful, leather bound one and allocate a page a book. On that page you should write the title and author of the book, the place where you read it and a few lines about the book including how you feel about it, what you liked and didn’t like, the narrator and key plot points. It should be enjoyable, short and should only take five minutes. If you loved the book, this will get you through the mourning period!

At this point, before Berthoud begins to recommend cures to the audience, I have to leave to powerwalk over to the Opera House to see the first of three Owen Sheers’ events. Obviously he doesn’t qualify for this blog but, along with Irma Kurtz on Friday night, his is one of the best events I’ve seen anywhere.

After Sheers, there’s a screening of Travelling to Infinity, the film based on Jane Hawking’s book about her marriage to Stephen Hawking. I don’t attend as I haven’t read the book and I have rules about these things! I do, however, attend Jane Hawking’s talk afterwards.

‘I wonder how you would respond if someone came to your door wanting to make a film of your family?’ She said no on an annual basis to the filmmaker who wanted to tell her story. She preferred to share her intimate details with a single reader, she says.

There were three reasons for writing the book: one, it took a very long time before she reconciled herself to writing about her marriage to Stephen Hawking but his prognosis was for two years and he’s outlived that by 52 and his fame drew their life into the public arena. Two, she had a huge burden of memories, the weight of which were preventing her from pursuing her own independent life. Three, she wanted to publicise the horrors of Motor Neurone Disease/ALS to help carers, sufferers and their families.

She wrote a book called Music to Move the Stars but was accused by critics of writing ‘a kiss and tell’. Eventually the book was bought by Alma Books and with the help of an editor there it became Travelling to Infinity.

She speaks at length about the film. She was pleased it was made by Working Title rather than a Hollywood production company but she says there are still a number of inaccuracies. She tells an anecdote about meeting someone who tells her she met Stephen when she was a Cambridge undergraduate – she was never a Cambridge undergraduate!

However, she was ‘bowled over’ at the private screening. Despite the omissions of the hardships of day-to-day life and their extensive travels, she says it’s emotionally true.

She goes on to talk about some of the things that were omitted from the films. She says the wives of physicists were unhappy, disaffected, intelligent women trailed by kids. Mrs Einstein cited physics as the reason for her divorce, Hawking tells us. Stephen was having coughing fits that were dangerous and frightening. Jane was living in London during the week, trying to complete her undergrad and at weekends, painting their Cambridge college and championing the disabled access cause.

When the children came along, Stephen would sit thinking whilst the children played around him. This made Jane anxious – were the children too loud? Had she upset him? Was he ill? What he was doing was thinking in eleven dimensions and solving problems. She says wives and mothers were nothing in Cambridge society so she started a PhD.

She blames the collapse of their marriage on fame, fortune, illness and sycophancy. There was a disparity between public celebrity and private stresses.

She tells an anecdote about meeting the Queen. As Stephen bowled into the room where the Queen was in his usual haste, the royal pile got caught up in the wheels of his chair. Jane was behind him in heels and a tight skirt. She couldn’t see what had happened and couldn’t get round the chair to release him. At the moment when it looked as though the Queen was about to step in, two of her equerry’s vaulted Stephen’s wheelchair and resolved the situation. Despite the unusual setting, the event illustrated the reality of Jane and Stephen’s day-to-day life. ‘It’s been a very interesting life,’ she ends.