Monday, 7 June 2010

Stoke Newington Literary Festival: Stewart Lee and John Hegley

The problem with things that sound pretentious is, well, they’re actually fun. Justifying going to a literary fest to others is a difficult one, like convincing a doubter to climb aboard an errant camel to enjoy the view from the top. But we wouldn’t commit pretentious acts – going to see foreign language films we know will be slow and depressing, attending twee folk gigs where you have to sit on the floor – if it didn’t have an element of raw fun in there somewhere now would we?
The inaugural Stoke Newington lit fest has already garnered an impressive line-up, swelled by the likes of Tony Benn, Jeremy Hardy and incredible author/ShadowPlay contributor Toby Litt, at this early stage. The north London suburb is typified by its poor transport links, slightly yuppyish but charming streets and hoards of goods pubs and eateries.
My experience of the event centred upon two acts, Stewart Lee and John Hegley. Tucked away in a back street, the Stoke Newington International Airport is an instantly engaging venue. Essentially a garage filled with trinkets and mismatched chairs, Lee takes to the stage backed by a haunting painting of horses with a plane overhead and a kitchen dresser any house proud mum would desire. Lee, a Stoke Newington resident, is typically downbeat and modest and the comedian apologises for not being funny today, despite being just that. He proceeds to read a short story, N, by  Arthur Machen fluently and deadpan. Mackan’s tale is fit for this very occasion, a winding tome about visitors to Stoke Newington and perception of the village and its mythical park just four miles from central London. He’s an author for whom there is clearly much love and his gothic, accessible and eloquent 1930s tales are something deserving of further investigation. The heavens open outside as Lee reads, it seems entirely apt, they stop shortly before the end, not sure how much the organisers paid for that one.
Another local, John Hegley offers an entirely different prospect. Backed by double bassist Keith Moore (who also whips out a euphonium – an instrument which he can draw with some speed and skill – during the set), Hegley reads poems, letters and simple quips without breaking stride or hearing a lull in the laughter. The beautiful Assembly Rooms at the top of Church Street have clearly hosted the making and breaking of a hundred hearts over the decades but tonight the glitter ball merely reflected the positive. Urging the crowd to sing, translate French and even throw their glasses in the air, Hegley leads his audience through sidling songs of guillemots, Anglo-French romance and, ahem, hamsters. As the crowd file out, many clutching copies of Hegley’s book (which comes with lots of free space to draw pictures, nice) signed in pastels the smiles are as bright as the volunteer’s pink t-shirts. Stoke Newington, as an outsider, a comparative southerner, I salute you. 

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