Sunday
06
April
2014

Interview with novelist Joseph Connolly

 

 

From today’s Observer: Meet the Author. Joseph Connolly is definitely one of the most bearded people I have ever interviewed. He’s also amongst the most charming (and that is a serious accolade as I have encountered Dame Judi Dench and Alastair Campbell who are charm personified). He’s an interesting character: a prolific novelist and non-fiction writer whose books sell as well as Martin Amis and Julian Barnes in France. He has expressed disappointment in the past that his work is not quite so appreciated at home.

He was talking about his new novel Boys and Girls, which is about a woman who decides that one husband is not enough for her — she wants an extra one too. And the two of them had jolly well better get along.

On the subject of his lavish facial hair, Connolly says: “The amazing question is not ‘Why do you have a beard?’ but ‘Why do 99.9% of the male population shave every day.’ It is quite unnatural.”

I love by the way that his Guardian url is “joseph-connolly-each-gender-requires-exclusive-company-own-sex-food-critic-beard”

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Sunday
06
April
2014

The View from Londongrad

 

 

From the cover of today’s Observer magazine: “Since the Ukraine crisis, London’s growing Russian population has been faced with a major identity crisis… “There are two sides to this story. And they are both right.” Galina Pentecost sighs. People like clean-cut, easy-to-follow narratives. This isn’t one.””

Well, that’s certainly an understatement. Over 300 comments and counting… A hard-won cover story for the Observer magazine on the view on the Ukrainian situation from Londongrad and the 150,000 Russians who have made Britain their home. Obviously there’s a nod to the situation involving the high-profile incomers who are often in the headlines (like Abramovich and Usmanov). But I really wanted to make this story about the cultural effects on Russians who have been here a long time (many who are married to Brits and hold British passports). It wasn’t an easy story to tell and I’m really pleased with the response.

The 150,000 figure is the best estimate around. Fox TV’s reality show Meet the Russians put the estimate up at 300,000 but I couldn’t find anything else that backed this up so I stuck with the more conservative estimate.

I really wanted to get in a mention of Vitali Vitaliev’s new book for children, Granny Yaga, based on the old Slavic fairytale — but it didn’t make the edit. Shame because it’s a great parable: in the original story Baba Yaga “may either help or hinder travellers” and it is hard to work out whether she is heroine, villainess or just ambiguous. Sound familiar? A situation where it’s hard to work out who is evil and who is going to save you? For a lot of the people commenting, it’s obvious which way round it is. But for Russians, it’s not so clear-cut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunday
30
March
2014

Mommie Dearest and the other side of Mother’s Day

 

Interesting response to these two pieces on Mother’s Day. In the Times on maternal guilt — are we the most guilty generation of mothers ever to walk the earth? I suggested that possibly we are. And Professor Tanya Byron cautioned that over-guilty parenting can, ironically, have a detrimental effect on children — so that the very thing you’re working hard to avoid (damaging your kids) becomes the thing you cause. Didn’t want to think too much about that in case I felt guilty. (Joke. I generally don’t feel guilty.) Twitter response: “Totally agree. ‘Guilt is just your ego’s way of tricky you into thinking you’re making progress.'” “I resist the G word and agree with Tanya: if felt, do something to nip it in the bud and squash it.” “Hear, hear. As a mum on the road, I’m not even at home for Mother’s Day. How much guilt does that involve?”

And in the Guardian on mothers and criticism, I wrote about the strange, passive-aggressive things that mothers and daughters say to each other. “One thing you could try is not sleeping with everyone.” That’s probably still top of the list (from a US-based blog post). Mostly people identified and had their own horror stories (and were glad of the opportunity to move away from the saccharine image of Mother’s Day). But there was some feeling that this idea was “anti-feminist” (i.e. women should support each other and not be bitchy to each other — the trouble is, in real life it is not always thus…).

And a couple of commenters wondered where the dads were in this. I put in some comments about fathers in my original copy but it was felt (by the editor) that this was a piece about Mother’s Day and so it should centre on mothers… I’m intrigued that some people are uncomfortable with the idea that mothers and daughters say nasty things to each other. I know they don’t *all* do this and this is not everyone’s experience of life. But it is a thing that most people recognise and that’s why I wanted to write about it. Also otherwise I would never have heard (via Twitter) of the mother who said, whilst looking at a photo of her daughter as a teenager: “You look like Meatloaf.”

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Sunday
16
March
2014

Backstage at #bathlitfest

 

Last word on Bath goes to Red magazine who ran this diary — complete with tales of Hanif Kureishi’s black tea, my 17 pairs of support tights and having to storm the stage while Germaine Greer was in full flow.

 

 

The solo show of I Laughed, I Cried which fell between interviewing Dr Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) about Tolstoy – and MCing our Great Big Comedy Night with Mark Watson, Ellie Taylor, Rachel Parris, Bethan Roberts and Mary Bourke.

 

 

With Sarah Bailey, editor of Red magazine, who hosted  a literary cocktail party by torchlight at the Roman Baths.

 

 

An audience of over 1,000 at The Forum for Jennifer Saunders.

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Sunday
16
March
2014

Latest TV and radio

 

Latest from BBC Radio 4: Saturday Review with Will Gompertz, Ekow Eshun and Gillian Slovo, talking about Lars von Trier’s (AWFUL) Nymphomaniac Vol I and II (this 5-hour film marathon cost me £70 in childcare and I will never forgive the director for it…), True Detective (excellent) and Gary Shteyngart’s hilarious memoir Little Failure. On Front Row with Kirsty Lang talking about Justin Bieber and the history of the celebrity mug-shot.

Sky TV: talking about women and boardroom quotas (I’m all for them) and the ongoing Bridget Jones phenomenon…

 

 

 

BBC Radio Bristol live from the Independent Bath Literature Festival (28 Feb to 9 Mar), where I’m Artistic Director (in my beret – oh yeah).

 

Gearing up for the paperback launch of I Laughed, I Cried, here’s Summerhall TV’s interview recorded in the wonderful Looking Glass Books in Edinburgh.

 

Woman’s Hour with Jenny Eclair on losing weight and resolutions:

 

And I’m linking to this Saturday Live recording from last year as it won’t be around on Listen Again for much longer: they got their money’s worth — I’m talking about juggling stand-up and family, speaking Russian and singing to Paul Nicholas… (pictured here with Rev Richard Coles, Sian Williams and David Chilvers).

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Thursday
13
March
2014

Independent Bath Literature Festival

 

 

This diary write-up in the Independent tells you everything you need to know: “memorable… buzzy… a kind of bliss..”

It’s all over! My first year as Artistic Director of the Independent Bath Literature Festival (150+ events, 200+ authors, 10 days, 20,000 audience) has been so enjoyable. This year’s highlights: Jennifer Saunders, Alastair Campbell, Germaine Greer, former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, Lionel Shriver, Hanif Kureishi… We’ve had coverage in the Independent (up to 7 stories a day), the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times Higher Education supplement, Huffington Post, Evening Standard, Red magazine and BBC Radio 2 (Claudia Winkleman’s show). Our Hanif Kureishi story made the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and was reported in El Pais, the Irish Times and The Times Live in South Africa. News of Jennifer Saunder’s revelation about using hypnotherapy to write the screenplay for the Ab Fab movie reached the New Zealand Herald.

So many highlights and high points: Jessica Fellowes’ fantastically intimate glimpse into the world of Downton Abbey (the creation of her uncle Julian); twin lectures on Jane Austen by Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid; extraordinary “Bliss Lecture” contributions from Frieda Hughes (who talked about the burden of her family legacy), Olivia Laing (who talked about the pain of writers dealing with alcoholism) and Philip Hensher (who talked about the pain of loving Wagner). 

And I particularly enjoyed being described as “sparky” in John Walsh’s column.  

 

 

Pics by Julian Foxon and Matt Crockett.

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Thursday
13
March
2014

Toca Boca and kids’ apps

 

 

Cover pic by Katherine Rose for the Observer.

I went to Stockholm for the Observer with my seven-year-old to test-drive the world’s best-selling kids’ apps for three- to five-year-olds, Toca Boca. It’s a pretty impressive outfit, run by a publishing house set up in 1804 and with an eye on the long-term – instead of on a fast buck. I’m still not convinced they have any educational merit but they definitely match with Google’s aim – “do no harm”.

Extract: [Company founder] Jeffery explains that it is just supposed to be fun. Nothing more, nothing less. Toca Boca divides children’s activities into five categories: active play (sport), make-believe, manipulative play (building stuff), creative play (drawing) and learning play (books and games). “Most children like all five types of play. But then you look at the app store and think: ‘How is it addressing these types of play?’ Everything in the app store is in the last category – games and books. But that’s how adults play. It’s Candy Crush, basically.”

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Thursday
13
March
2014

Interview with Siri Hustvedt

 

 

Thrilled to interview Siri Hustvedt (over the phone from New York) about her new novel The Blazing World. It tells the extraordinary story of a woman artist who achieves acclaim by posing behind the personae of three male artists. As a woman she is ignored. Once people think she’s a man, she’s the toast of the Manhattan art world.

This is a brilliant companion piece to one of my favourite novels of all time, What I Loved. Hustvedt: “Harry – the artist Harriet Burden – is right that there is a “masculine enhancement effect”. The arts are often thought of as “sort of feminine” and science as masculine. These divisions are underlying our perceptions. There are a number of other positions and perspectives that are meant to complicate the reader’s understanding of this story. There is no message. There is nothing simple about this.”

See also this review of The Sorrows of an American. And The Summer Without Men.  

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Friday
21
February
2014

Women and book reviews

 

 

This week there was an explosive discussion on BBC Radio 4 about women and book reviews — about how there are fewer female reviewers and fewer books by female authors. Thanks to @LisaAllardice for flagging up the Guardian’s graphic of the figures.

The discussion featured an extraordinary statement from the London Review of Books (who declined to appear on air), which I have reproduced below because a lot of people on Twitter were asking what all the fuss was about.

I have transcribed it myself. As I am, unfortunately, a woman no doubt there are many errors. Because really I should have been doing the washing up instead of producing a transcript. In actual fact I was also looking after 3 sick children, doing a supermarket-and-McDonalds run (quality parenting), filing 2500 words of copy (probably illiterate — see previous statement re gender) and I still took the time to do this. Because I do think both on Twitter and in real life – “to hell with it.”

I wanted to reproduce the statement in full because I think it’s important that it is known that there are people out there who still think this way. Whilst I’m  loosely on board with the basic “Lean In” sentiment implied here (you can never “Lean In” far enough if you’re a committed, passionate person, whether male or female), I could throw a lot of dirty washing up water in the face of anyone who uses these “women are too busy cooking dinner and looking after children to do any proper work” arguments as part of a supposedly serious discussion.

But there I go producing just the sort of rubbish sentence that would not be the best version of itself and therefore not be fit for publication in the London Review of Books.

 

Here comes the transcript:

Mariella Frostrup [presenting discussion about women and book reviews with Rachel Cooke and Jonathan Gibbs]: “We asked for one of the executive team from London Review of Books to come on the programme, as they were one of the publications cited as having more male books and reviewers than women. But they were unable to join us and instead sent us this rather lengthy statement.”

 [statement read as voiceover by female announcer — interesting editorial decision]

“Counting is a feminist weapon. “How many women are on the board?” “How many women are in Parliament?” “How many women are in the LRB this fortnight?” Over the history of the LRB 82% of the articles have been written by men and 18% by women. None of the editors — count them, four men and five women — are proud of that. We need to do better. 

 It shouldn’t be controversial to say that doing better isn’t as easy as it seems. The number of women’s bylines are low in the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, the TLS. Just as numbers of women are low on corporate boards. It’s down to more than editorial whim.

 The problem is, as Jenny Turner said earlier this year, both subtle and deep-rooted. Partly a matter of social arrangements that work against women and partly due to the effect a sexist world has on women. Women send fewer pitches to the LRB. They often prefer not to write critically about other women. They are under-represented among historians of the Second World War, particle physicists and macro economists. And any number of academic disciplines the LR Books covers.

 When the editor of the London Review [sic], Mary-Kay Wilmers, gave an interview to PN Review in 2001, she put it this way [HERE COMES THE BEST BIT]: “I think women find it difficult to do their jobs, look after their children, cook dinner and write pieces. They just can’t get it all done. And men can. Because they have fewer, quite different responsibilities. And they’re not so newly arrived in the country. They’re not so frightened of asserting themselves. And they’re not so anxious to please. They’re going to write their pieces and to hell with the rest. And I don’t think women think that way.”

 Perhaps they do say “to hell with it” on Twitter more these days. And perhaps eventually these days that will make it easier to say “to hell with it” in the real world. But it’s not a pathetic excuse to say that the world is still sexist and that the feminist revolution is hopelessly incomplete. You can see evidence of this everywhere from the pay gap to rape conviction rates and a thousand things that are more important than the proportion of women who write book reviews.

 Counting women is one way of looking at the problem. For the counters, the answer is a quota. A women’s edition. Positive discrimination of one type or another. But counting then trumps all other considerations. The LRB’s way — which isn’t to say it’s the best way or that it doesn’t have disadvantages — is to publish women writers in the same way as male writers — as writers. We give them space, work with each sentence to make it the best version of itself, encourage them to write about the things they can’t write about elsewhere.”

[transcript ends]

If this is the country, I don’t want to live in it. Fortunately the country they describe is no place I recognise. Now I must go and cook dinner because obviously (a) men cannot cook dinner  and (b) no pre-prepared food is freely available in this country. *bangs head against wall*

 

 

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Monday
17
February
2014

Debut authors at Bath

 

We have two great debut writers at Bath Literature Festival: literary supremo and ex-Booker judge Alex Clark is continuing the series she started at Stoke Newington Literary Festival — Alex Clark’s Stars of Tomorrow — with Darragh McKeon, author of Everything That is Solid Melts into Air on Friday March 7 at 8pm. This is a much-talked about elegant debut which tells the story behind what happened at Chernobyl. (I am struggling not to use the word “fall-out”.) Recommended. Colm Toibin: “Daring, ambitious, epic, moving.”

Here’s the blurb: “Russia, 1986. In a run-down apartment block in Moscow, a nine-year-old piano prodigy practices silently for fear of disturbing the neighbours. In a factory on the outskirts of the city, his aunt makes car parts, trying to hide her dissident past. In the hospital, a surgeon immerses himself in his work to avoid facing his failed marriage. And in a rural village in Belarus, a teenage boy wakes up to a sky of the deepest crimson. Outside, the ears of his neighbour’s cattle are dripping blood. Ten miles away, at the Chernobyl Power Plant, something unimaginable has happened. Now their lives will change forever.”

 

 

I am also so proud that Joanna Rossiter is the (debut) author of this year’s Big Bath Read. I need to check the archives but I’m pretty sure it’s the first time a debut novelist has been chosen for the Big Bath Read. The local response to the book has been phenomenal. Over 60 people signed up for our Goodreads book group online (the first time this has ever been trialled — and already it has been chosen as a featured Goodreads Group, promoted to Goodreads’ 18 million members) and we’ve been holding face-to-face book groups across Somerset, talking to readers about The Sea Change.

Tonight’s group at Midsomer Norton (pictured above) awarded it an unprecedented (for them) 7.9 out of 10. Judging by their faces, this was an exceptionally generous mark and meant it was a book they would recommend to anyone. (They gave Wolf Hall 5 out of 10 and they really liked it. Scary.) Earlier today, I talked to Joanna Rossiter on BBC Radio Bristol and she talked about how much something like this means to an author with their first novel. This is exactly what the Festival is for and it makes me very happy.

You can join me for our big Festival Big Bath Read Book Group on Wed 5 March at 1pm in Bath — it will be a lot of fun.

Or you can join Joanna at Keynsham Library at 7.30pm on Wed 5 March — or in Bath at 1pm on Thurs 6 March —  both are waiting list only now, I’m afraid. 

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