Small is beautiful

Stoke Newington hosts an enjoyable alternative to the traditional literary festival.

As the sprawling Hay Festival rumbled to its close in far-away Wales, the second Stoke Newington Literary Festival offered London book lovers something a little less star-studded, and a lot closer to home. Though with a line-up including Steven Berkoff, Stewart Lee, Dan Cruickshank, Jon Ronson, Kate Summerscale, Orange Prize-winner Linda Grant, and with the critic Alex Clark acting as peripatetic literary host, it was hardly a mothers' meeting. (Not that such gender-specific rendezvous take place in Stoke Newington these days.)

Organiser and local resident Liz Vater has a background in PR, and her skills in this field proved invaluable when, last year, on little time and less money, she put together 2010's impressive debut.

N16 is exactly the kind of arty middle-class locale that can sustain a festival of this kind. It mirrors Hay (and many others) in its mix of literature, history, children's events, social issues via recent writing and comedy.

It also employs a wide variety of venues: from the rather impressive Town Hall, replete with the world's second-largest glitter ball (the world's largest is currently stationed in Germany), to The Jolly Butchers pub and the Mascara Bar in Stamford Hill.

This mixture, and the festival's focus on local history - Poe, Wollstonecraft and Defoe, the area's three most famous literary residents, all featured across the weekend, most notably when Stephen Berkoff unveiled a bust of Poe at the site of the author's old school - create a homespun community feel, which is by no means a bad thing. Rather it's relaxing and friendly, with no awe-fuelled distance between reader and audience, and there is a strong sense of place.

Being a smaller, less commercial affair (after covering costs, the festival donates profits to literacy projects in Hackney) there is also more time and space for new writers. Thus on Saturday, Alex Clark was to be found in the tiled subterranean room of the Three Crowns pub, The Drop, talking to debut novelists - Sarah Winman (When God Was a Rabbit), Naomi Wood (The Godless Boys) and Sam Leith (The Coincidence Engine); and on Sunday evening the same venue provided the setting for a rather more raucous affair hosted by novelist, Nikesh Shukla.

Declaring he wanted to make the event a bit more "Glastonbury main stage", the ever-boisterous Shukla insisted all the young authors be summoned to the stage by the crowd chanting their names. The packed room kindly obliged for authors Evie Wyld (her debut, After the Fire a Still Small Voice won the Betty Trask award), Gavin James Bower, Shukla himself, Lee Rourke and Niven Govinden, author of two novels, but increasingly a prolific short story writer - he read his story, "Nightwalk", which was broadcast over the weekend on Radio 3, and is currently on the shortlist for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the tale, "Marseille Tip".

The sense of good entertainment via good writing was further emphasised by poet Tim Wells's concept of featuring short sets of poetry at the start of events; both to warm up the crowd and remind attendees that verse can by funny, gripping, seriously entertaining and, most crucially, accessible. Poets thrust into this brief spotlight included: Ashna Sarkar, Heather Phillipson, Jack Underwood, and Simon Barraclough.

Wells also took part in the last event of the festival: "Ska & Reggae in Stoke Newington". And so it was that under the unerring glare of the world's second-largest glitter ball, the panel - which featured the legendary owner of The Four Aces Club in Dalston, Newton Dunbar, and guitarist from The Slits, Viv Albertine - discussed why music from one small island had such a huge impact on London culture in the seventies and beyond. Albertine recalling that John Lydon and his thuggish north London mates would go along to another local reggae club, Phebes, and dance the night away.

From Gothic horror stories to true Victorian crime, reggae to Dr Seuss, the best new poetry to the new hopefuls of English fiction, this festival is more low-key but in many ways more enjoyable version of its blockbusting cousins. Long may it continue.

Getty
Show Hide image

The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage