Competition: Stoke Newington Literary Festival

Win two weekend passes to festival sponsored by the New Statesman.

The New Statesman is proud media sponsor of the third Stoke Newington Literary Festival. It’s year three of this eclectic, amusing, inspiring and sometimes audacious festival and we are offering readers the opportunity to enter a competition to win weekend passes for the festival and take a guest. 

To enter – simply tell us the name of the well known BBC News anchorman who is participating in the festival this year.  The first two correct entries drawn will win two weekend passes each – email your entries to comp@newstatesman.co.uk and write Stoke Newington Literary Festival in the subject line. The draw will take place on 25 May and winners will be informed by email.

The Festival runs over the first part of the Jubilee weekend and starts on Friday 1 June with a Gala evening including Josie Long, Robin Ince and Pauline Black.

On Saturday the events continue when Iain Sinclair, China Miéville, Laura Oldfield Ford and Ken Worpole debate the Olympics legacy and George Alagiah, Giles Oldroyd (of the John Innes Research Centre) and Hattie Ellis discuss Global vs Local Food, there are many more literary, film and music and comedy events and the headline event for Saturday evening is John Cooper Clarke with Simon Day.

On Sunday - Padraig Reidy (Index on Censorship) has put together a media reform panel including: Nick Cohen, Brian Cathcart, Dan Hind and Suzanne Moore;  there is also the People's History of London event with John Rees and Lindsey German and many more events for adults and children.

For a full programme visit: Stokenewingtonliteraryfestival.com

Tickets are available through: ticketweb.co.uk

"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 a more enjoyable version of its blockbusting cousins. Long may it continue." New Statesman

"Just like Hay-on-Wye. But in Hackney" Time Out

"The coolest literary festival of the summer" Authonomy

Stoke Newington
Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496