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: Day One

I arrived in Jersey on the same flight as poet Jo Bell, which was fantastic as I had someone to talk to/try not to get lost with. When we got to the hotel, we met writer Tania Hershman, who had already sussed out cake opportunities. We went for afternoon tea and chatted about writing and the sessions we’re doing during the festival. Jo and Tania are part of tonight’s cabaret evening at the Arts Centre and are doing a session together at 5pm tomorrow in the Arts Centre. Jo is also doing a full day’s workshop in La Hougue Bie on Sunday. Their plans for the sessions sounded fantastic.

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I went to two events yesterday: Anna Sebba and Victoria Hislop, both of whom have a love of recent history in common. Both sessions took place at Jersey Arts Centre, which is a new venue for this year and is a lovely addition.

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Anne Sebba talked for an hour of the stories she discovered about women in Paris during the Second World War. These stories, and many more, form her new book Les Parisiennes.

I warmed to Sebba immediately when she said that the book isn’t a women’s history book, it’s a mainstream history book that happens to be about women. She described the book as ‘unashamedly’ a story about the women of Paris, a city which became feminised during the occupation. The book includes stories about resistors, collaborators, milliners, singers, dancers and more. The spectrum of women in Paris at that time is shown here.

Sebba questioned throughout the talk why it had taken so long for these women’s stories to be told. Her answers included that these women were self-effacing and they wanted to return to normalcy. They were also told by DeGaulle to return to their families, have babies and return their chequebooks. Women in France did not get the vote until 1946. Even after their part in the war, society thought they should return to their places. There were also the women whose romantic lives meant they didn’t want their stories known – Catherine Dior, for example, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his children – and those whose romantic lives wouldn’t be accepted by society – Claire Simone, who despite her portrayal by Cate Blanchett in The Momuments Men where she flirts with Frank Stokes played by George Clooney, was a lesbian.

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The book came from an interest in Reneé, formerly Rachel, Van Cleef who killed herself in 1942 following the Aryanisation of businesses under occupation. Sebba’s interested stemmed from the disparity between the darkness of the period and the growth in couture and culture in Paris.

Sebba mentioned a lot of women, whose stories I’m not going to repeat here because they’re told in the book, but they include Elsie de Wolfe, Odette Fabius, Beatrice de Camondo and Irène Némirovsky. Many of these women showed enormous courage, carrying out work that went unrecognised until recently. Sebba praised the grandchildren of these women who she said were determined that their grandmothers’ stories would be told.

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Victoria Hislop is also interested in telling unknown stories. In her case, these are stories from and about Greece. Last week, she published her fifth novel Cartes Postales from Greece which her and her publisher are describing as ‘the first book of fiction in full colour’.

She told the audience that the book was conceived as a novel with photographs and that she travelled around Greece with a photographer with no preconceptions as to what she wanted him to photograph. As he took photographs and then drove them around, Hislop wrote the stories that make up the book.

The book is about a broken-hearted man called Anthony – because ‘I’ve never met an Anthony I don’t like’. (She reveals later that he’s named after and looks like her friend and neighbour in Crete, Anthony Horowitz.) The book begins with Anthony waiting for the love of his life at a small airport in Greece, with an engagement ring in his pocket. She doesn’t show up and provides no explanation as to her absence. He can’t face returning to London so travels around Greece sending her a postcard from each place which ends with the sentence, ‘Without you this place is nothing’. But the postcards land on the mat of someone else…

Each of the sections are told to Anthony by other people. They are stories about the people who tell them and about Greece. Hislop said she wanted to express the duality of Greece, the beautiful, picture postcard side and the shadows behind it.

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She said it would be disingenuous of her to set a novel in contemporary Greece and not acknowledge the difficulties the country’s faced. She spends 30% of her time in Greece and says that there are lots of angry young people who leave because they can’t get work and then don’t return.

Some of the stories told to Anthony are real and others are fictional. Hislop said she’s leaving it to the reader to decide which category they fall into but she does reveal that the story about Lord Byron is fictional. She wanted to look at Byron from a Greek point of view, where he’s more famous for his sexual exploits than his writing, so created a maid in the household who theorises as to what ailment causes Byron’s death. ‘Writing is so much fun!’ Hislop said of the creative licence which allowed her to do this. She said some of the stories move into genres she hadn’t written in before: Gothic and horror, in particular, although she’s keen to point out that there’s humour in the book too. ‘I don’t read Gothic or horror stories. Ever. I don’t like them. I was quite disgusted with myself.’

Hislop said she reads her reviews and that ‘criticisms are usually right’.

The evening ended with a discussion about her debut novel The Island. ‘To me it’s like it’s been written by a child. There’s nothing pretentious about it.’ She told us she didn’t want to be a writer, in fact she actively avoided it having friends who are published novelists. She said it’s only with this book, which is her fifth, that she’s felt able to refer to herself as a writer but not a novelist. ‘That sounds so cringe-making. Ian McEwan is a novelist’. But visiting Spinalonga inspired something that she knew would need more than the articles she was writing as a travel journalist at the time.

Her daughter, Emily, is her ‘ruthless’ early reader but she said it was her husband, Ian (Hislop, editor of Private Eye and regular on Have I Got News for You), who told her to remove a joke about leprosy from The Island.

Someone in the audience asks about the television series of The Island, which was made by and for Greek television. At 26 episodes, she said she doubts it will ever be shown in the UK. She was involved in it ‘like a maniac’, she said, due to her concerns that the characters would be treated ‘like monsters’.

Hislop will continue writing about Greece. Although she confessed to an interest in Norway in the 1940s, she said she won’t write anything very different. ‘This is what I do.’

Les Parisiennes – Anne Sebba

The life that most of us engage in is a muddle, and that is what is so compelling for any writer or historian looking at France between 1939 and 1949, especially through the eyes of women. Turn the kaleidoscope one way and see women destroyed by the war; turn it the other and find women whose lives were enhanced with new meaning and fulfilment.

Anne Sebba’s account of Parisian women in the Second World War is a fascinating look at a city and its people. The mention of Paris conjures images of chic women and Sebba does consider the role that fashion and couture played in Paris’ fortunes in the war, but she also looks at those women who became part of the war effort both informally and as part of the secret service.

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The book begins before the outbreak of war with a look at high society. There is a jaw dropping account of Elsie de Wolfe’s grand party, given on the 1st July 1939. Sebba comments on the ‘sense of recklessness’ amongst the wealthy who believed that France was impenetrable by the Germans. Coco Chanel was reckless in the sense that when war broke out, she closed her boutique and moved into the Ritz, putting hundreds of women out of work, and former athlete Violette Morris who ‘felt an outcast from French society’ was reckless in driving to the front line and possibly helping the Nazis.

One of the things that’s particularly interesting about the book is the picture of French society that’s created with regards to women. We’re used to thinking of France, and particularly Paris, as liberal, but in 1936 ‘women in France still did not have the vote, nor the right to have a bank account in their own name’. The later became a particular problem when men were away at the front and in the instance of their death. Women were only allowed to take a job outside of the home without their husband’s or father’s permission after 1938 in case they got ‘inflated ideas’ from it.

It’s clear from Sebba’s narrative that women had a difficult time during the war: abortions were illegal and only an option if you had the money to pay for them while any sort of fraternising with German soldiers led to consequences after the liberation in which women were deemed to be collaborators and charged with an act given the delightful title of ‘collaboration horizontale’.

While it’s interesting to hear about high-society and a way of life which continued for some throughout the war – sales of designer clothing increased; cultural pursuits continued as the Germans took in the delights of Parisian society – for me, the most compelling stories were those of women who took part in the résistance and worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) working undercover. The work of the latter was so secretive that some of the operatives and their work have only come to light in recent years. One such example is Catherine Dior, sister of designer Christian, who was an agent in the Massif Central unit, ‘gathering information about German troop and rail movements, production and weaponry’. Her story was shared in light of anti-Semitic remarks made by Dior’s now former creative director, John Galliano.

Sebba packs a lot of information into Les Parisiennes, covering a period of ten years and a significant number of women. She handles her material with aplomb spinning a narrative in which key characters reoccur as we move from the outbreak of war to the concentration camps to the aftermath and reconstruction. In both focusing on the stories of women and partially looking at high-society, Sebba provides us with stories about the war which have been hidden and neglected. Les Parisiennes is both a fascinating insight into the lives of women in Paris and a very welcome addition to the coverage of World War 2.

Anne Sebba appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Thursday 29th September, 4pm, in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

Thanks to W&N for the review copy.

Jersey Festival of Words 2016 Preview

Some of you might remember that last year I attended the inaugural Jersey Festival of Words. It was a fantastic few days: great events, lovely people and wonderful weather. You can read about the events I attended on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

This year the festival returns bigger and better and I’ll be flying out to Jersey on the 28th of September for what I anticipate will be a glorious long weekend.

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If you fancy a long bookish weekend away at the end of summer, then I highly recommend a visit. The festival programme is here and includes a whole range of events from author interviews to workshops to reading groups to panel discussions.

If you can’t make it, then you’re in the right place as I’ll be covering the festival for the blog again this year. Not only that, throughout September I’ll be focusing on books by writers appearing at the festival including Victoria Hislop, Alison Weir, Caroline Lea, Tania Hershman, Erren Michaels, Antonia Hodgson, Rachel Abbott, Louise Doughty, Kat Banyard, Anne Sebba and Sarah Turner aka The Unmumsy Mum.

Cathy Rentzenbrink, whose memoir The Last Act of Love was one of my books of the year in 2015, is also appearing. She’s well worth seeing live – smart, thoughtful, honest and very funny. She gives great interview.

And, well, if you can only afford to go to one event…? I’ll be interviewing Sarah Turner, The Unmumsy Mum, on the Saturday evening in Jersey Opera House. We’d love to see you there.