Laurane Marchive reviews all the London literary highlights for the month of February.
There is no such thing as the London literary scene. The events I went to this February could be more accurately described as a literary constellation: one event was for an avant-garde magazine in the practically de rigeur Hackney Wick warehouse; one set in a Vauxhall tea house and aimed at practising writers, and one storytelling event in an Oxford St basement aromatised with chip.
Full disclosure, though: before this year, I’d not been to many literary events in my life. It’s not that I hadn’t wanted to, it’s just that I was always scared. Events are daunting, and everything literature-related can be especially petrifying as it often comes glazed in a layer hushed voices and seriousness. But all the events I attended this February felt open and welcoming, and as different from one another as three cheeses on a cheese plate.
Early February, Crater 50 launches in Stour Space, Hackney Wick. Stour Space is a converted warehouse now sheltering artist studios and a cafe. The space is wide and tall and painted white, with circus equipment hanging from the beams. One wall is covered in art by Oliver Baggott and a side speaker plays bird sounds on repeat; this is a typical Hackney Wick experience.
Founded in 2009, CraterPress tends to commission work that looks visually interesting, with a special focus on writing that attends “to the materiality of the page”. The event starts with a performance by Simon Hayes, a man with a coloured umbrella, followed by a reading by Tim Atkins, whose photobook Deep Osaka features original poems and translations of classical Japanese poetry. Later, when Luna Montenegro and Adrian Fisher take the floor, their performance reminds me of clowning more than of poetry. Montenegro and Fisher operate under the name mmmmm and their surrealist work is currently interested in the relation between the non-human and the insect body. During their performance, they repeat the word “roach” in different tones, and they brandish bananas, reflecting on their straight or curved nature, an absurdist Brexit piece. After the reading, we drink white wine on the jetty behind the Gallery and I ask Fisher about the clowning. He says that clowning and poetry are similar because they are both disruptive; A disruption of time.
Far away from the white industrial world of Hackney Wick, the next event on my list is Words Away, held at the Tea House Theatre Cafe in Vauxhall. Set in a magical looking tea house, Words Away aims to “bring writers together in a creative environment to explore the writing process”. The night I go, the room is packed. Outside on the terrace, candles in friendly lanterns ward off the dark while inside, the atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming. There aren’t quite enough chairs and some people have to stand. The audience is mostly female and the Salon feels wonderfully convivial, best enjoyed with a slice of cake, a glass of wine or a cup of tea. As the event starts, all faces turn toward an alcove at the front of the room where three great, high-back leather armchairs preside over the Cafe. Run by writer Kellie Jackson and co-hosted by Emma Darwin, Words Away takes place monthly, featuring a different writer and theme every time. Jackson also offers regular writing workshop and masterclasses.
The night I go, the salon’s theme is “Recovering Voices and Stories Lost From History” featuring Alice Jolly, an author and playwright who teaches creative writing at Oxford University. Throughout the evening, Jolly discusses historical fiction and how to get inside the heads of characters from another era. She invokes both her most recent novel and her experience in the publishing industry. The setting of the salon allows for the conversation to be informative while also warm, approachable and friendly, and Jolly doesn’t shy away from answering a wide range of questions.
The following day, a friend and I attend Liar’s League, in Oxford Circus. Once again, the change in crowd and scenery is total. Liar’s League is a storytelling night where actors read out short stories submitted by writers. The event takes place in the basement of the bar The Phoenix, so this time the atmosphere is beer, neon signs, chips and dim lighting, more comedy club than storytelling night. As the compere takes the stage, a red glow creeps over his face. He introduces each reader with the pizazz of a circus ringmaster and it’s clear from the audience reaction that the crowd is here to have a good time; Liar’s League is approachable and entertaining, focusing on voice and plot rather than on formal experiments.
Because this instalment occurs in the vicinity of Valentine’s Day, it is Love and Lust themed. Which is a great idea, except that, when it comes to dealing with what turns people on, it seems a shame to have a lineup composed almost exclusively of male writers and actors. On top of that, all the stories feature straight-on-straight attraction, and a few of the stories contain an alarming amount of amicable women with “parted lips” and “delicate orifices”, or even cameos by Princess Leila in her slave bikini, and male actors using grating, high-pitched voices to depict female ones— Hello, cis-straight male gaze.
But the night also unearths some gems. Math Jones’ rendition of FishFish, by Cherry Potts, is haunting and emotional; his performance swirls along a tale of homesick selkies, loving and swimming in a crepuscular world. The event ends with The Wicker Heart by Alan Graham, read by the stellar Peter Kenny. Kenny is utterly convincing and engrossing as he brings to life a perfectly timed story which echoes the movie Get Out and draws from pop-culture tropes with enough self-awareness to run away with it.
On a scene where writers are most often asked to read out their own work, Liar’s League proposes something refreshingly different. When listening throughout the night, I often find myself wondering what makes or breaks the story, the writer or the performer—a particularly fitting question with which to end this roundup, as most literature-based events rely on texts being brought to life in front of an audience.