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142. Why on Hay…

142. Why on Hay…
May 2015 saw me return to my favourite book-hunting reserve, the incredible Hay-on-Wye literature festival, (or, as one comedian present put it, book festival. When challenged that it was actually a literature festival, he asked: “What’s the difference?!” No response was forthcoming…)
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Hay is possibly the largest festival of its kind in the world, and the place I fly to from anywhere in the world to spend two weeks in May any year which doesn’t contain a World Cup.
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I returned to my role as a smiling, ticket-ripping, joke-cracking, child-entertaining, direction-giving, little-sleeping, yellow-jacketed volunteer, and this year I did it whilst camping in a nearby field, to save money on the scarce accommodation in this tiny Welsh village. I have barely camped since I was an 11-year-old boy scout, and was amazed at the new-fangled tents they have invented which turn from the size of a plate into a rain-proof cocoon with the flick of a wrist: it always took us Boy Scouts three hours, several broken tent poles (stop snickering at the back…), and the tents rarely lasted the night. Aaaaahh, technology…
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Anyway, enough reminiscing! This is about BOOKS, and this year’s festival saw me take in 56 events from my privileged position, (from authors to comedians, from actors to musicians from around the world), save hundreds of pounds in entrance fees, and then spend most of those saved pounds in the festival bookshop, (where my bill was surprisingly under £200, thanks to both a propensity for paperbacks this year, and a staff discount).
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2015 was a year of anniversaries, and we were treated to talks on Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo (200 years ago this year); the Battle of Agincourt, (a six-century old confrontation between Britain and France which gave us Shakespeare’s ‘band of brothers’ and the famous British V-sign); and a guest appearance by one of the most important pieces of paper in world history, the eight-hundred-year-old Magna Carta, which restricted the powers of British Kings and was admired and adapted around the world, from France to the US Constitution.
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Old favourites are starting to become slightly too regular at Hay, (I was barely shaking when I met Stephen Fry again this year, and I’m starting to nod to journalist and book-machine Jon Ronson as if we’re old friends…although I’m pretty sure he is wondering why some strange guy keeps nodding at him), and the early days were just as much about the special events than the authors.
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Jude Law joining a host of actors to read from Unbound’s wonderful ‘Letters of Note‘ was a highlight, and I finally got to meet poet and comedian extraordinaire Tim Key, (aka Alan Partridge’s new sidekick), at a surreal last-minute comedy event which left the audience partly amused and mainly bemused).
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However, towards the end of the week came a day which could have been arranged just for me: after meeting Kazuo Ishiguro the day before, I had the joy of seeing two events each by two of my favourite authors, the ever-wonderful Neil Gaiman, (whom I later saw whilst invited briefly backstage to the Green Room and used my entire life-supply of willpower to not hassle: seriously, if you want to ask me to do anything, now is the time, I have zero willpower left), and my new Man Crush, David Mitchell.
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As if this wasn’t enough, Neil had brought along his heavily talented and equally heavily pregnant wife, Amanda Palmer, who was promoting her new book on ‘The Art Of Giving.‘ Her session featured several ukulele songs which actually brought me to tears not once but twice, first for its sadness, and in the very next song for its sheer joy.
(I almost cried again when I discovered after the talk that, not only was I sitting behind Mr.Gaiman, I had failed to realise that he was sitting next to Pink Floyd frontman David Gilmour. Mainly because I didn’t know what he looked like).
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Promoting his new book ‘The Bone Clocks,’ David Mitchell gave a fascinating talk in the face of a less-than probing interview, eyes lighting up as he gave the most stirring description of the beauty of language I have ever heard from a writer. His evening event, a midnight reading of an as-yet-unpublished ghost story, (now very much published, ‘Slade House‘), was so late that it gave me and some fellow volunteers (and fans) the chance to monopolise him at the after-event signing, (as we were the only ones who hung around for it).
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We got to reminisce about life in Japan, and my new friend Hannah caused such jealousy with the dedication he had written in her book that we invented a new sport: Competitive Signing, (much approved of by his agent), which saw me buying extra copies which the incredibly affable author was happy to inventively deface for me.
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Take that, Hannah, with your one-line dedication…
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From popular philosophy to sports psychology, ‘young adult‘ fiction to Nobel Prize-winning economics, yet again Hay gave me a reason to lie awake in a freezing field at 4am and to take all the abuse an entitled retired soldier can throw at me for allowing another line to enter a venue thirty seconds before his.
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And, of course, I will be back in 2016…
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Some things I learned, some quotes I heard, and some ideas I wrote down for you at this year’s Festival:
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British National Treasure, new hipster-beard-wearer and philosopher AC Grayling‘s advice for being a good teacher: “Nothing beats the combo of ignorance and enthusiasm!”
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80 people own the same wealth as half of the world, and 1% of the population will own half of the world’s wealth by 2016.
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Classic British girls’ magazine ‘Jackie’ was named after the hugely successful kids’ author Jacqueline Wilson, who was the youngest contributor to it when it was founded.
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Colm Toibín’s stunning short story ‘Mary‘ on the Virgin after the death of her son was originally a play, but when it ended after a few weeks he wanted it to be more permanent.
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Kazuo Ishiguro used to believe that authors peaked in their mid 40’s, the literature equivalent of a football player dropping back to midfield, putting their foot on the ball and pointing a lot. Now he’s older, though, he’s not sure he agrees with the thesis…
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An unforgettable line from Jude Law, during a reading of the war-time letters of lovers from ‘My Dear Bessie‘:  “Ooooooh, I wish I were a brassiere…”
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Author, comedian and political genius Sandy Toksvig’s father used to refer to literary editing as ‘filleting’!
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Toksvig again on the democratic origins of the USA, the Mayflower Compact, signed in 1620  by 41 men…on a boat of 110 people!!
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One more reminiscence from Sandy who informed an infatuated audience of 1,700 people that when at boarding school in Guildford, Surrey, students were allowed to go to the High Street everySaturday…but only to the left-hand side. No further details were provided…
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Rabbi Jonathan Sacks postulated that in Britain, we have removed nationalism as a relevant, acceptable sentiment since the wars, but not replaced it with anything, and hence religion has filled the vacuum. Who has managed to create a valid, modern British patriotism, he asks? Danny Boyle at the Olympic opening ceremony.
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In an early-morning, two-hour lecture on ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ I learned that the lovers share a sonnet in the scene when they first kiss: an alternating dance of lines entwining in poetry their sentiments, ending:
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Juliet: Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take…
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Alice in Wonderland,’ one of my all-time favourites, was revealed to be a story shot through with one of the obsessions of the Victorian times: classifications. “What are you?” Alice is asked so often.
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The same talk yielded this wonderful quote: “They kept a family newspaper, as so many Victorian children did…”
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Cedric Vilani, a real-life French version of Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, informed his audience that acfordin tot he Wall Street Journal, in both 2009 and 2014 he worked in the number one job field in the world: mathematician.
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Neil Gaiman, promoting his gorgeous Sleeping Beauty sequel ‘The Sleeper And The Spindle,’ illustrated by Chris Riddell, brought the shocking news that not only was Cinderella originally a Chinese tale, (who else cared so much about foot size, as he points out?), it was only when it was imported to France that the original fur slipper, (made of ‘vair’), may have become glass (or ‘verre’).
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Resident comedian Marcus Brigstocke won my award for funniest and simultaneously most offensive comment of the Festival when he announced that “…Australia is just South Africa where the white people won… “
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Former Scottish leader Alex Salmond seemed relieved to be out of politics and to announce with brutal honesty, in response to a question of why British PM David Cameron gave in to so many of his referendum demands: “He’s no very bright… “
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(I also learned from this last day talk that in a referendum it is essential to be on the yes side:  people respond instinctively toto positivity, apparently. Although not quite enough to win Scotland independence.)
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Finally, one of my all-time favourite trivia facts was revealed by the clever elves behind BBC’s wonderful game show QI:  Noah’s ark didn’t actually contain two of all animals, but had seven of all clean (i.e. kosher) animals, and just two of the rest.
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If facts like that don’t make you want to join me next year, I am truly astonished that you made it to the end of this blog!
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Posted by on November 1, 2015 in BOOKS

 

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124. Unbound: People Power in Publishing…

124. Unbound: People Power in Publishing…

This week I am in my hometown doing little but research and prepare the launch of a Kickstarter crowd-funding project to publish my first book: ‘Benfica to Brazil: a summer of football‘.

It was therefore fitting to wake up this morning and find an email from Unbound: a UK based crowd-funding publisher which was founded a few years ago by three British writers as a way for readers to have a more direct say in which books they want to read, and how they want to buy them.

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I was at the official launch of the project at the ever-fantastic Hay Literature Festival, attracted mainly by ex-Monty Python Terry Jones being one of the original authors on their roster, and have funded a couple of books over the years, (selected authors ‘pitch’ a book idea to the public, and in traditional crowd-sourcing manner those which reach their funding level get written, printed, and sent to you…with your name in all future copies!)

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Success stories include ‘The Wake,’ one of the dozen books long-listed for this year’s Booker Prize, and the incredibly gorgeous and fascinating ‘Letters of Note‘ (based on the website of the same name), which is one of the finest coffee-table books I have ever seen/read.

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Queen Elizabeth II sends a recipe to President Eisenhower

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Elvis writes to President Nixon requesting to be made a Federal Agent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being a past pledger, I receive regular emails from Unbound which don’t always grab my attention. Luckily this morning, tempted to skim through their latest correspondence, I decided to give it my full attention. I was rewarded with the news that not only had they had their one million pounds-worth of pledges but that to celebrate, anyone who has ever pledged towards a book was allowed to download any and all of their back catalogue in e-book form for a week.

As if I don’t have enough books to read right now!

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I haven’t read a book on my computer, phone or iPad for a year or two now, but working my way through the past releases, numbering over 50, I found around a dozen on top of the ones I had already funded which sounded fun or interesting, covering everything from: museum pieces, the history of wine, the story of modern music, the geography of ‘places,’ and a book by Stephen Fry’s ‘wife,’ and I downloaded e-versions of them all.

As I promised that for every book I downloaded I would let one person know about Unbound, I hope this blog entry finds at least a dozen of you, and you check out their work. There’s few better feelings than knowing you are responsible for the creation of a piece of art: and you can do it with a £10 discount the first time you pledge, by entering ‘newcomer’ when you make your first order.

Maybe someday I’ll be on their books, too!

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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93. Books Bought & Read, November 2013…

Books Bought, November 2013

The Marx Brothers Poster Book.‘ 

1Q84,’ Murakami Haruki

Stuff I’ve Been Reading,’ Nick Hornby

To The Letter,’ Simon Garfield

Fortunately The Milk…,’ Neil Gaiman

Pygmies,’ Chuck Palahniuk

Writings From The Zen Master,’ (Penguin Great Ideas Series)

Where I Lived And What I Lived For,’ Henry David Thoreau, (Penguin Great Ideas Series)

Toothpicks And Logos: design in everyday life,’ John Heskett

Nobody Belongs Here More Than You,’ Miranda July

Fight Club,’ Chuck Palahnkiuk

The Scarecrow And His Servant,’ Philip Pullman

The Total Library: non-fiction, 1922-1986,’ Jorge Luis Borges

Burma Chronicles,’ Guy Delisle

Speaking With The Angel,’ ed.Nick Hornby

Skullduggery Pleasant: playing with fire,’ Derek Landy

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Books Read, November 2013

Grantland, issue 5

Grantland, issue 6

Grantland, issue 7

The True Tale Of Billy Dean As Tellt By Himself,’ David Almond

Monkey,’ Wu Ch’êng Ch’ên

To The Letter,’ Simon Garfield

Seven Nights,’ Jorge Luis Borges

Toothpicks And Logos: design in everyday life,’ John Heskett

Super Sad True Love Story,’ Gary Shteyngart

Fortunately The Milk…,’ Neil Gaiman

The Believer, issue 102

I, Coriander,’ Sally Gardener

The Celestial Café,’ Stuart Murdoch

Gentlemen Of The Road,’ Michael Chabon

The Imperfectionists,’ Tom Rachmann

Mother Brother Lover: selected lyrics,’ Jarvis Cocker

52 Ways Of Looking At A Poem: a poem for every week of the year,’ Ruth Padel

Utopia,’ Thomas More

Burma Chronicles,’ Guy Delisle

Hell Screen,’ Ryunosuke Akutagawa

The Scarecrow And His Servant,’ Philip Pullman

The Coincidence Engine,’ Sam Leith

Pulling ahead of the books bought/read debit column yet again, I had a very varied and enjoyable reading month. The month started, tucked up warm in the family home in Essex, devouring a trio of Grantland sports journals, (an incredible way to catch up on a year’s worth of mainly US-based sports and culture), before I made my way through a backlog of YA (young adult) books from the wonderful David Almond, Sally Gardener, Philip Pullman and my beloved Neil Gaiman.

imgres I picked up a promo copy of the interesting but slightly disappointing ‘To The Letter,’ by the imgres-2author who wrote my favourite book of the year so far, ‘Just My Type;‘  learned about design in the modern day from a short tract by Chair Professor Emeritus John Heskett; and tracked down a further episode in Guy Delisles incredible graphic depiction of life in some of the most bizarre corners of the world, (Guy being a French-Canadian artist who follows his wife on her travels with Médecins Sans Frontières from North Korea to Jerusalem to, here, Myanmar).

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With a month at home between countries, (where some people are between jobs, I am usually also between countries), I took the opportunity to read some of the signed copies which are confined to my childhood bedroom cupboard, most enjoyable of which was the excellent ‘The Imperfectionists‘ by Tom Rachmann, a multi-registered, decades-long look at the life of various characters in an imaginary newspaper, which simultaneously made me want to work in journalism and deeply glad that I don’t. Quite a feat.

Mainly, this was a month of poetry. I often find myself buying poetry collections, (either because they are small volumes, or beautifully bound, or with names I feel I should know and have read), and they have slowly built up a layer of dust on a poetry shelf above my bed. Having read Stephen Fry‘s excellent introduction to poetry, ‘The Ode Less Travelled,’ last year, I finally continued my education with Ruth Padel‘s ‘52 Ways To Read A Poem,’ a weekly newspaper column which examines and explains a series of short, contemporary poems. This inspired me to read two books I have from two of my favourite singers, Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, (who wrote a poetic, although slightly dull, computer diary), and song lyrics from Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, although the enigmatic Cocker himself insists that lyrics are nothing like poetry).

I leave you with the final stanza from a simple, strangely beautiful and yet slightly disturbing poem by ‘folk-jazz musician’ Don Paterson entitled ‘Imperial,’ a paragraph which stayed with me after I’d finished reading all 52 poems in the collection, (which, being me, I decided to tackle five at a time: who has a year to read a book?!).

“and no trade was ever so fair or so tender;

so where was the flaw in the plan,

the night we lay down on the flag of surrender

and woke on the flag of Japan”

The most lyrical depiction of a slightly coerced taking of virginity you are ever likely to read.

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Posted by on December 8, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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