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  • Miles Hedley

GREENWICH BOOK FESTIVAL at University of Greenwich, Old Royal Naval College & Greenwich Theatre

This year’s Greenwich Book Festival fulfilled the basic requirement of any event designed to promote the arts – it truly offered something for everyone. And then some.

Over four days, I saw sixth-formers reading their own stories and poems, a panel of writers discussing the amazing talent to be found among black women, historians comparing the lives of the 17th century diarists Pepys and Evelyn, a brilliant campaigning journalist fulminating against sexism and a comedy legend revealing how his latest book was inspired by a pair of stockings.

On top of that, dozens of other guests were giving talks, readings and workshops on the University of Greenwich campuses at the Old Royal Naval College and Stockwell Street as well as at Greenwich Theatre. They included singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, Cressida Cowell, Bella Mackie, Alexandra Heminsley, Alex Pheby, Sharna Jackson, Woolwich-born Bernardine Evaristo, Fiona Barton, Bev Thomas, Michelle Harrison, Hallie Rubenhold, Rosamund Davies, Kam Rehal, Kerry Hudson, Linda Grant and Beano writer-illustrator Nigel Auchterlounie.

The shows I saw began with pupils from George Green’s School in east London launching their eighth anthology, this year entitled When Time Runs. It was made up entirely of their own work which they had created in workshops with writer Hannah Silva. The extracts they read were uniformly brilliant.

Next up was a discussion about Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and their association with Greenwich, Pepys as a regular visitor in his role as a naval administrator and Evelyn as a resident of Deptford. Historians Chris Ware, Sara Pennell and Michael Talbot gave us a talk that cleverly combined a mass of specialist information with considerable wit – which is exactly what good teaching is about.

The festival’s most famous guest was globetrotting Monty Python hero Michael Palin who was promoting his latest book Erebus: The Story of a Ship, one of the vessels used on Franklin’s doomed search for the North-West Passage early in Victoria’s reign. Palin was wonderfully entertaining, telling us how being shown a pair of woollen stockings belonging to the ship’s scientist James Hooker prompted his search. His talk was full of funny asides but was also fascinatingly detailed as he followed Erebus’s progress from its birth on the Thames to its death in the Arctic ice.

Feminist Caroline Criado Perez became a household name after she criticised the Bank of England for issuing no notes featuring women and was subjected to an avalanche of rape and murder-threats. Undaunted, she won her battle and is now hailed as of Britain’s most admired campaigning journalists. She was at the festival to talk about her new book Invisible Women, which exposes just how our patriarchal society still ignores half its population. The book is so important it should be on the National Curriculum.

So should New Daughters Of Africa. Former children’s laureate Malorie Blackman, poet Bridget Minamore and novelist Diana Evans joined its editor Margaret Busby to showcase this epic new anthology of work by more than 200 black women from around the world. Their discussion and readings were eye-opening, defiant and inspirational - and they provoked one glaring question: How is it possible that so few black women have hit the heights in the literary world?

As I emerged from the talk, a group of children were shrieking with laughter in a nearby marquee which was hosting a workshop about the invented words Roald Dahl used as insults and euphemisms to such amazing effect in his stories. The contrast between the two events absolutely summed up why Greenwich Book Festival is so fabulous – and why it matters. Roll on 2020.

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