Clapham Book Festival 2018


Saturday 12th May 2018

This year’s Festival is already in the diary!

A full Programme of events from morning until night will take place in Omnibus, with an event for children in Clapham Library. Boks supplied by Clapham Books.  With thanks to sponsors This is Clapham.  Tickets are not yet on sale but can be purchased from Omnibus. For more details about the 2018 Programme see

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The Day Arrives

9.00 a.m. First is the physical preparation.

Clapham Writers and volunteers, all wearing their Festival T-shirts, assemble at Omnibus at nine in the morning to organise the furniture in the Lounge/Bar area. There will be a very long table covered fully with the books of Festival authors, as well as a side table of books by Clapham Writers Circle. Plus smaller tables with chairs, where authors could sit and sign their books. Our six foot high banner declaring ‘Celebrate the Common Reader’ is set up in the foyer.

We must vacate the premises by ten thirty, to allow space for the parents of those children attending Dough! a children’s theatre session (with bread-making). I head off to Clapham Library to photocopy hundreds of evaluation feedback sheets and buy bits and pieces which we found we didn’t have, but needed. Then to spend an hour leafleting at Venn Street Market to persuade any last-minute, spontaneous Festival goers.

12.30 p.m. On returning to Omnibus it is all systems go to remove superfluous furniture and help the Omnibus staff clean up (after Dough!). David Armstrong sets out the books.

John Taylor is Technical Director for the Festival (complete with name badge to prove it!). He ensures that the backdrop slide shows are loaded, chairs, tables and mics set up in the theatre and the flower arrangement placed on its plinth. Sound and lights are tested – though by this time, on a sunny Saturday, we’re all opening any available windows and setting up fans to keep the theatre as cool as was possible.

Evaluation sheets are placed on theatre seats, pens are placed on signing tables and the boxes of chocolates, small thank you gifts for the Festival participants, are retrieved from the place where they had been hidden (away from small hands and doughy fingers) and stacked ready. Omnibus people staff the coffee bar/bar and someone sits on the front desk to hand out tickets to those who had bought on-line.

Then the people start arriving. First the family members and friends who are coming for the whole day and want to be there early so as to wish us all well. The bar is doing a growing trade selling teas and coffees.

Claphamite Natasha Cooper arrives, the Chair of Death in the Afternoon. I am introduced to JP Delaney, a charming man who is happy to discuss his remarkable good fortune in having his new book optioned for a Hollywood film (dir. Ron Howard). Sabine Durrant arrives, living proof that once you’ve participated in Clapham Book Festival you never escape (she was at the 2016 edition). Annemarie Neary, fellow Clapham resident, is there, perplexed that JP could write his book and yet not be a lawyer, so well executed are the legal elements (she had used to be a lawyer before turning to writing).

The Festival-going public appear. They browse the book table and chat. The theatre manager rings the bell and, suddenly, it is almost time. The room empties as folk go into the theatre. Natasha and her panel wait then follow Elizabeth Buchan in, ( Elizabeth is going to give the opening speech of welcome ). The door closes behind them.

2.00p.m. Clapham Book Festival 2017 is up and running!

If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy Historical Seduction      Saturday with Clapham Writers     The Ancient Art of Espionage

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Saturday with Clapham Writers

On Saturday Clapham Writers were pounding the pavements if not quite pressing the flesh, this isn’t an election campaign. Some of us were out on the streets of the capital this Bank Holiday Saturday promoting the Clapham Book Festival. Clad in our newly minted Clapham Book Festival T-shirts, tag-line ‘Common Reading’, we were at Venn Street market as soon as it opened (and before some of the traders had even set up).

Soon the stalls were festooned with CBF posters and we chatted with the traders. Thereafter we were handing out leaflets to whoever would take them. It was gratifying that a large number of folk said that either they had one already (we had been at Venn St one week before) or that they already knew about the Festival. A good number said that they were planning to come.

Plenty of people simply walked straight on by, but others walked past and then turned back to take a leaflet – I guess so many businesses are promoting services or goods for sale in this way today that pedestrians automatically avoid the leaflet giver, at least initially. Then there is a double take – ah, that’s a local community event, that might be interesting – and they come back and engage. The T-shirts helped. I was surprised by how many people stopped to talk about the Festival, asking about the events, who was on the Programme and where it was taking place. ( Had this been an election campaign, we would have been the foot soldiers, no one of Ministerial rank ever engages like we did. )

I had a long conversation with one lady on writing about southern Spain (she had lived in Malaga for thirty years) and with a gentleman about modern thriller writing. The pitch next to Clapham Picture House proved fertile and that opposite Olivier’s Bakery (lots of folk stopping to buy bread and cakes). We caught some local celebs too, Neal Pearson and Miriam Margoyles among them.

Venn St is named for the Rev. John Venn, he who invented the diagram of that name, so beloved of management consultants everywhere and there is a plaque to say so. The Venn family were rectors of Holy Trinity Church, Clapham ( see Amazing Grace ) and leading lights in the movement to abolish slavery and other progressive social changes.

Formally pedestrianised a few years ago, though it has been used for markets and cafes since well before then, Venn St has a plethora of interesting eateries, an independent cinema and a continental feel ( I suspect it’s the olive trees ) even on a chilly April Bank Holiday.

But intrepid Clapham Writers went further afield, giving out leaflets on The Pavement near to Clapham Books, one of the Festival partners, and in Grafton Square and around the Clock Tower near the tube. One of our number went off to hand out yet more leaflets outside the Cafe on Clapham Common, popular with the dog walkers and yummy mummies, and The Windmill, rendezvous for thirsty sports teams once they’ve finished their games (for more about the Common see A Walk on the Wild Side ).

With only a week to go before the Festival volunteers will be out and about around Clapham in the days ahead. I managed to off-load posters and leaflets in a number of venues after the market, including local pubs and cafes. We’ll be at the market for one last time next Saturday, to catch those more spontaneous Claphamites, in the gap between setting everything up at Omnibus and the beginning of the Programme. It’s approaching fast!

If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy      Clapham Book Festival 2017    Historical Seduction       The Ancient Art of Espionage

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Historical seduction…

…to be seduced by the romance of a certain place in a certain time, the attraction of an historic cause or an historic style. The discovery of a person who no one seems to have heard of, but who is so engaging and interesting, or so admirable and heroic and who languishes in anonymity, when their story cries out to be told.

Then there’s the resonance, the read across to events today. Lots of reasons why writers write about the past.

It seems to me that a lot of what we write about is brought about through happenstance. We happen to be in a certain place, where such and such occurred so dramatically, so many years ago and the imagination is fired. How well that story, the one we’ve been thinking about at the back of the mind for ages, would fit in such a milieu. What an opportunity for one’s characters to interact with the real-life history makers. What an opportunity to bring history to life.

Research will be required. We may know quite a lot about a certain period already, we’ve encountered it before in another context, (another happenstance) but there will still be more to learn and this, in itself, is seductive. But beware, for research can be a trap to ensnare the writer, who, like Bunyan’s Christian, can be drawn from his path into the net of the Enchanted Ground. It’s easy for a writer to wallow in research, seeking always to know more, when, in fact, while research is necessary, it is the story which must be paramount. And after all, as Mark Twain said to Rudyard Kipling, ‘Get your facts first and then you can distort them as much as you please.’ He knew what was important.

If we are to resurrect the past ( as Hilary Mantel would have it – the title of her Reith Lectures 2017 ) we need to do so with knowledge, but not to obscure the story (see Authenticity and Verisimilitude for examples from my own fiction). The telepathy between writer and reader mustn’t be encumbered by too many facts, however interesting and appropriate to the setting. Yet the reader must feel the book and its period to be alive.

So how do we resurrect the past and retain that telepathy? Through the senses, is certainly one way (though there are others). Many sensations are those we experience today – the salt tang of a sea-wind, burning wood smoke – others are decidedly different, the stink of a medieval midden, for example. These sensations need to arise naturally, as part of the tale and that they do so is part of the writer’s art.

For me, one of the novels most evocative of the medieval past is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a book which captured the odours and ordure of its 14th century setting, as well as playfully rendering a debate of philosophical ideas, all within a serial killer mystery – owing much to Sherlock Holmes. This was possible, it seems to me, in part because Eco was a supremely skilled writer, but also because he was totally immersed in his period. That is, I think, how it is done. Most research will never find the page, but then many words written won’t make the final book.

So, do historians make the best writers of historical fiction? I don’t think that this necessarily follows, but you may have other ideas. Come along to The Past is Another Country on 6th May and discuss.

N.B. The photographs which accompany this post are of Jerez de la Frontera a place which stimulated me to write.

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The Art and Craft‘ is the title of the Man Booker prize-winner Hilary Mantel’s BBC Reith Lectures this Spring. She won the prize for Wolf Hall, the first in the series, as well as Bring Up the Bodies, the second, together with a stash of other prizes. Evidence, if evidence were needed, that historical novels are the books de jour.

I’ve already been reading what she has said in the past, as well as other writers thoughts, on writing the past. This is in preparation for The Past is Another Country, the panel discussion about writing historical fiction at the Clapham Book Festival on 6th May. My fellow panellists are prize and plaudit laden.

There is Elizabeth Fremantle, whose latest book The Girl in the Glass Tower was a Times Book of the Year 2016. She has set four novels in and around the Tudor court, particularly exploring the lives and experiences of women and their relationship with power and obedience (or otherwise) which often resonate with female experience today. The Girl in question is Arbella Stuart, and it is her story, of a woman raised and groomed to be the presumed heir to Elizabeth I but whose life is lived in virtual incarceration to protect her from plots to oust the Queen and place her on the throne instead. Arbella Stuart was an intelligent and complex woman whose repeated attempts to liberate herself, sometimes highly dangerous, mark her as a fascinating victim of a system into which she did not fit. Arbella was unknown to me before I read The Girl and the novel, aside from being an astute psychological study shines an interesting light on the well-trodden ground of Elizabethan politics.

Her next novel, to be published in 2018, is The Poison Bed, a psychological thriller set around the events of 1613 in which a man is mysteriously poisoned in the Tower of London. Already no stranger to scandal, the Countess of Somerset, wife of the king’s favourite, confesses; but as the investigation unfolds it seems the case is much more complicated, going right to the heart of the Jacobean court and even as far as the King himself.

Robin Blake places his fiction in the Georgian period, his successful Cragg and Fidelis series (published by Constable) is set in 18th century pre-industrial revolution Preston. His north country Coroner and local doctor encounter death, crimes and mysteries in a society on the cusp of great changes. Also a noted biographer, of painters George Stubbs and Anthony Van Dyck, Robin’s fourth book in this series is Skin and Bone. This is an intriguing story of infanticide in a tannery, which reverberates around the town and provides an opportunity for the good burghers to rid themselves of the despised tanners, obstacle to modernisation. Needless to say, Cragg will not be browbeaten, but finds himself in trouble when rescues a lady from a fire.

I was gripped by this mystery and fascinated by the portrayal of a society with one foot in the future, but looking to the past. Robin is currently working on the next book in the series.

BAFTA-winning Simon Berthon is the third panellist. He may already be known to readers as a television journalist, director and producer, or through his books on WWII, most recently, Warlords a study of Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin which was turned into a TV documentary for Channel 4. Simon’s next book is, in part, a political thriller, a novel, set in 1990s Ireland and modern London entitled Woman of State which is due for publication by Harper Collins in July. Simon is currently working on his next novel.

We will all be discussing and dissecting the writing of historical fiction at 3.30 on 6th May at Omnibus, Clapham. Tickets cost £10 from Omnibus

If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy   Clapham Book Festival Authors                    More Clapham Book Festival Authors                  The Ancient Art of Espionage

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The Ancient Art of Espionage

Guy Burgess was one of the most famous spies in the history of spying and what’s more, he got was identified but got away. Since his escape he has been the subject of much speculative drama and fiction, most notably Alan Bennetts’s An Englishman Abroad.

Burgess was probably the most important, complex and fascinating of ‘The Cambridge Spies’ – Maclean, Philby, Blunt – brilliant young men recruited in the 1930s to betray their country to the Soviet Union. An engaging and charming companion to many, an unappealing, utterly ruthless manipulator to others, Burgess rose through academia, the BBC, the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6, gaining access to thousands of highly sensitive secret documents which he passed to his Russian handlers.

Andrew Lownie relates how even Burgess’s chaotic personal life,  of drunken philandering, did nothing to stop his penetration and betrayal of the British Intelligence Service. Even when under suspicion, the fabled charm which had enabled many close personal relationships with influential Establishment figures (including Winston Churchill) prevented his exposure as a spy for many years. Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess is the winner of the St Ermin’s Intelligence Book of the Year Award 2016, a Guardian Book of the Year, The Times Best Biography of the Year. Mail on Sunday Biography of the Year. Daily Mail Biography of Year.

Andrew will be discussing Burgess and spies in general at 17.00 on 6th May at Clapham Book Festival, along with Rick Stroud and Jane Thynne in a panel discussion Spies Under the Bed, chaired by Elizabeth Buchan.

Rick’s latest book Lonely Courage, is also about real life spies, the courageous women, who worked for the British Special Operations Executive in occupied France in WWII. On 18 June 1940 General de Gaulle broadcast from London to his countrymen in France about the catastrophe that had overtaken their nation – the victory of the invading Germans. He declared ‘Is defeat final? No! . . . the flame of French Resistance must not and will not be extinguished’.

The Resistance began almost immediately. At first it was made up of small, disorganised groups working in isolation. But by the time of the liberation in 1944 around 400,000 French citizens, nearly 2 per cent of the population, were involved.

The Special Operations Executive (SOE) set up by Winston Churchill in 1941 saw its role as helping the French Resistance by recruiting and organising guerrilla fighters; supplying and training them; and then disrupting the invaders by any means necessary. The basic SOE unit was a team of three: a leader, a wireless operator and a courier. These teams operated in Resistance circuits and the agents were given random code names. The aim of this work was to prepare for the invasion of Europe by Allied forces and the eventual liberation of France. It was soon decided that women would play a vital role.

Thirty-nine female agents were recruited from all walks of life, ranging from a London shop assistant to a Polish aristocrat. What linked them was that they knew France well, were fluent in French and were prepared to sacrifice everything to help defeat the enemy. The women trained alongside the men, learning how to disappear into the background, how to operate a radio transmitter and how to kill a man with their bare hands. Once trained they were infiltrated behind the lines by parachute or tiny aircraft that could land in remote fields. Some of the women went on to lead thousands of Resistance fighters, while others were arrested, brutally interrogated and sent to concentration camps where they endured torment and death.

Lonely Courage tells their story and sheds light on what life was really like for these brave women who tumbled from the sky.

Come along and listen to the discussion of spying and spy writing on 6th May at Clapham Book Festival.

If you enjoyed reading this article you might also enjoy               Clapham Book Festival Authors        More Clapham Book Festival Authors

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More Clapham Book Festival Authors

Elizabeth Buchan and J.J.Anderson could be found at Macfarlane’s on Abbeville Road on Easter Saturday from 10.00 a.m.. They were happy to talk about their own books, (if asked) but also to discuss the books and authors featured in this year’s Clapham Book Festival .

Elizabeth, a long time Clapham resident, was inspired to set her latest novel close to the Common. One of her previous books had been set in WWII but for The New Mrs Clifton she had to research exactly what happened to Clapham during and after the war, including the High Street and the Common, all close to home. As was one element of the story, a similar event had happened in her own family, only in reverse.

The New Mrs Clifton is Elizabeth’s fifteenth novel and her previous work has won prizes and been televised. She has chaired the Costa and Whitbread judging panels and sits on the author committee of The Reading Agency. She is patron of The National Academy of Writing and the Guildford Book Festival. Elizabeth is a co-founder of the Clapham Book Festival.

As the Second World War draws to a close, Intelligence Officer Gus Clifton surprises his sisters at their London home. But an even greater shock is the woman he brings with him, Krista – the German wife whom he has married secretly in Berlin.

Krista is clearly devastated by her experiences at the hands of the British and their allies – all but broken by horrors she cannot share. But Gus’s sisters can only see the enemy their brother has brought under their roof. And their friend Nella, Gus’s beautiful, loyal fiancée, cannot understand what made Gus change his mind about their marriage. What hold does Krista have over their honourable and upright Gus? And how can the three women get her out of their home, their future, their England?

Haunted by passion, betrayal and misunderstanding these damaged souls are propelled towards a spectacular resolution. Krista has lost her country, her people, her identity, and the ties that bind her to Gus hold more tightly than the sisters can ever understand.

Elizabeth will be chairing the discussion Spies Under the Bed at 17.00 on 6th May at Omnibus.

Fellow co-founder of the Clapham Book Festival and Abbeville Road habituee, J.J.Anderson, was also handing out leaflets and discussing the Festival. As regular readers of this blog already know, her latest novel is Reconquista, a story of intrigue, adventure and self-discovery set in 13th century Al Andalus. Julie has a home in Andalucia and was inspired to write the novel, originally for her nephew and god-son, by the historic and romantic city of Jerez de la Frontera.

Outside the walled city an army awaits…. Within, Nathan, his cousin Rebecca and their friend Atta face an uncertain future. The world they have always known is about to be ripped apart. In war-torn Al Andalus, King and Emir vie for supremacy, bandits and pirates roam land and sea in their wake and our heroes must set out on their own desperate journeys to find freedom and safety. Atta must cross the mountains in winter to reach the sanctuary of Granada, Rebecca hatches a desperate plan to follow her lover and Nathan has the hardest task of all, how both to realise his dreams and to meet his father’s expectations. Each of them must face down their fears and decide what sort of people they want to be. All of them will change. Not all of them make it home.

Julie will be chairing the discussion The Past is Another Country at 15.30 on 6th May at Omnibus.

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