The winter began with quite a bang when children’s book author and illustrator Michael Foreman visited Chelsea to talk about the inspiration behind some of his best loved work. He described his wartime childhood in Suffolk and his excitement when one night a bomb flew through his bedroom window, bounced across the floor before exploding in the fire. Orange flames burst from the chimney of his family home. The experience was hugely enjoyable. The child was unaware of the danger: instead he was caught up in the drama of the moment. The war is still a big influence on Michael’s writing and he even improvised a quick picture.
Children are often unwittingly brave and that is certainly the theme of Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea which we read in Chatterbooks. Young orphan Maia is sent off to the Amazon to stay with hostile English relatives. The Amazon is a hell or a heaven depending on your state of mind—to Maia’s adoptive family the jungle must be kept out, bugs sprayed regularly and tinned food imported from Blighty rather than risk eating local produce. There are lost children in the jungle dreaming of Victoria Sponge, an Earl’s son gone native hoping to disappear into the forest and Maia herself a receptive and delighted traveller enjoying the night time music.
Don’t forget as it grows colder that you can still have a hot cup of coffee and slice of homemade cake at our coffee mornings every Wednesday at 10.30. We have had some good guest speakers, community police, a milliner and most recently a talk on diabetes—perhaps the double chocolate cake wasn’t such a good idea after all! And watch this space for details of a special Christmas Electric Babylandwhen the vintage Danelectro guitars will be wrapped in tinsel!
Book of the month
For all you Christmas bibliophiles: you might be aware of the great range of smart reissues of classic novels by The New York Review of Books. They are lovely editions. This month I read George Simenon’s Dirty Snow. A gripping read about a young man living in occupied France drifting into crime out of boredom and a desire to be noticed, Frank commits acts of almost suicidal stupidity in a search for meaning while everything is frozen: the only running water is by the sewer. The dirty snow is a symbol of all the cinders and ashes of the occupying army and the petty criminal enterprises of the locals, no fresh white powder can cover it up for long and the reader and Frank long for a thaw.
November at the Central Library means the London History Festival now in its fourth year.
We started the Festival in partnership with the literary agency Chalke Authors with the intention of improving our programme of author events. By concentrating on one subject (one of the most popular non-fiction topics) for two weeks we could get more authors and present them not only on their own but talking to each other in panel events. In the first year we covered Women in history (with Alison Weir, Sarah Gristwood and Claire Mulley), Greatest battles and war reporting but also had the time to devote a whole event to a serious academic history of the English Civil War by John Adamson, interviewed by the editor of History Today Paul Lay. History Today magazine has supported the Festival since it started and became a sponsor from the second year.
The success of the first festival enabled us to attract bigger authors to the event. In the second year Anthony Beevor made his first appearance discussing his blockbuster books about the Second World War with Roger Moorhouse another historian familiar with doing research into the war years. They spoke about how the opening up of East German and Russian archives after the fall of the Soviet Union has changed our view of the period.
That year we also had panel events on the always popular subjects of the Tudors and the Victorians.
Sometimes of course things don’t go according to plan. I was particularly keen to have an event on ancient history and we arranged for Tom Holland and Richard Miles to discuss their specialist subjects in Rome and Carthage. Richard Miles was unable to make it so Tom Holland had to carry the whole event supported by Paul Lay. Tom was surprisingly adept at covering both sides of the argument and the event was a success. The one disappointment for me was that I had been told that because Tom started his literary career writing vampire novels (pretty good ones too) he always got a couple of Goths at his events. But no Goths appeared so I was denied the chance to get a quirky photo.
In the third year we collaborated with Waterstone’s Kensington High Street branch and split the individual events between us. The Library presented the big authors. We had local resident Simon Sebag Montefiore talking about his books on Jerusalem and Russia. Max Hastings delivered a completely solo talk on his history of World War Two through the experiences of ordinary soldiers and civilians. Sir Max worked standing up and without an interlocutor, taking over the lecture theatre with his customary confidence. Our final night featured award winning biographer Claire Tomalin talking about her new biography of Charles Dickens. This was probably the most popular event the Festival has seen so far.
We think of the Festival as a way of giving something extra to our regular readers and as a way of bringing new users to the library. At a time when the publishing industry is changing due to the introduction of e-reading, and when many people get their books from online retailers, events like the Festival bring readers and writers together in an actual rather than virtual place. People can see, hear and talk to authors, which is good for writers, readers, publishers and librarians.
Tickets for this year’s Festival are available from all our Libraries and by phone from LibrariesLine (020 7361 3010). For further details see also the What’s on page on the Council website and the Libraries Facebook page.