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.

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game