‘The Art of Failing’, the West Hampstead way

Local author Tony McGowan’s new book ‘The Art of Failing‘ is described by the publisher as ‘A laugh-out-loud chronicle of one man’s daily failures and disappointments, set in West Hampstead‘.

He has a book reading coming up at West End Lane Books on Thursday this week, so we popped by for a cup of herbal tea to have a chat. Tony couldn’t actually find a herbal tea bag, so the following events took place over a cup of hot water with a measly slice of lemon.

The book is in diary format and according to his agent was ‘not an obvious book to publish’ as it is a series of Facebook musings turned into a book, but published it was, with a book launch last week at Daunt books in Marylebone.

'Don't cry for me, West Hampstead. The truth is I never left you.'

‘Don’t cry for me, West Hampstead. The truth is I never left you.’ Pic: at the book launch at Daunt’s Books

How did it come about?

“Well, my personal writing style is observation and a touch surreal so I needed some space, but I was interested in writing something over social media. As Twitter is only 140 characters, Facebook seemed the natural choice. Quite early on I realised that the ‘likes’ (which became quite addictive) offered a feedback loop on what was popular so it helped shape things. So the musings on cricket, for example, had to go!”

The book appears to be a diary or journal, but a lot of what happens seems bizarre and extraordinary. How much of it is true?

“All of it to some extent, much is as true as I could make it, there is a kernel of truth in all of it.

For example, take the dwarf doppelgänger called “Heimlich” who I encountered one evening when I was out walking the dog. Suddenly I heard this panting and pounding sounds behind me. I turned around and there he was. I stared at him, he stared at me, but then ran off. When I got home I told my wife and kids about him and they said ‘nah’, but I occasionally saw him after that and yet they continued to think he was figment of my literary imagination. This ties into another strand of the book about my marriage being under strain by increasing weirdness during that period. When that was over I was out with my wife and daughter and we ran into Heimlich; we all saw him. So they realised he did exist and yes they agreed he did even look a bit like me, just smaller.

My approach is to look at the world in a different way, even at mundane events, so even something usual becomes a new thing”.

For a book that is supposed to be funny, some parts are quite sad/poignant. Does the sadness undermine the humour?

“Part of the narrative is the disintegration of my character and my isolation from my family – it’s exaggerated of course, but it came after a successful period and things felt a bit flat, my career seemed to be heading downhill. Yet the comedy comes from that – it has an edge. However, the reviews and feedback I have had tended to see only the humour. As writer (or artist) you create what you can and put it out there, you can’t control how others react”.

Your family appears in the book. How do they feel about that? Especially the fearsome Mrs McGowan*…

“The kids are fine with it, they drift in and out of the text. My wife Rebecca plays a more central role so that was trickier. She can appear hard and cruel but is also rather beautiful so that was OK. I’ve discovered that way round is fine for people I write about, but not vice-versa”.

(* I was at university with Mrs McG and we nearly went out, except she turned me down. How different history could have been.)

What else have you written?

“I written a number of books for teenagers. The ‘Donut Diaries’ is a comic trilogy set in the north of England where I grew up.  The other books are all stand alone novels; ‘Hellbent’ about a teenager who dies and goes to hell – it’s a comedy, ‘Jack Tumor’ about a boy who discovers he has a brain tumour and keeps hearing voices. It’s inspired by Henry IV with the tumour playing the role of Falstaff. I’ve also written ‘The Knife That Killed Me’, which tackled teenage knife crime and was made into a film”.

In some ways the book is a love song to West Hampstead.  What are you favourite things about the area?

“What are my little stations of the cross? Well there’s Hampstead cemetery, the best open space in the area. It has everything; wilderness, history and a sense of poignancy of the graves. Each one is a story.

I’m also a big fan of the charity shops as a collector of first editions I’ve found a couple over time. Socially, a recent find is Tannin and Oak. Plus a long standing favourite where you often find me and Mrs McG having lunch is the Wet Fish Cafe. I used to go a lot to the Czech (and Slovak) Club but that’s tailed off.  And of course there is Lately’s.”

 

 

An Insight into: Ted Booth

Who is Ted Booth you are asking?  This month’s Insight is a bit different. Instead of interviewing a local business owner, WHL sat down to have a chat with Ted Booth, who is the current writer-in-residence for the Friends of West Hampstead Library. Ted’s a very cool guy but wouldn’t consider himself as such – he’s far too modest for that. He is retired and his last job was lecturer in creative writing in the art faculty at Middlesex University. He said it was ‘terrific fun’ as he was working with art students on writing; they would discuss diaries, poetry, short stories, postcards and occasionally lyrics.

Ted’s been writer-in-residence at the library since June 2016. He was suppose to finish his stint in June this year, but was asked to stay on until September because as Friends’ chair Simon Inglis, put it – we are looking for ‘someone younger’. Ted will end his stint with another evening of poems with Cllr Flick Rea in September. I really enjoyed the last one, so watch out for that. And if you can’ t wait you can also read his blog here.

Ted at his desk

Ted at his desk

Before his library post, Ted was artist-in-residence for the Friends of Fortune Green (2013/14), where he started writing a poem for National Poetry Day, on a different theme each year. Last year, the FoFG gave away more than 500 copies of this poem to passing commuters (and you can also see the poems of other years on the FOFG website). Look out for this year’s poem, which will be published on September 28th. Ted really does bring a touch of poetry to West Hampstead.

What brought you to West Hampstead?

“Simple, my wife Janet’s work brought us here as she started the Mulberry House school. We moved from Leytonstone. People used to say ‘where’s that?’ but now it’s a bit more on the map.”

What is your earliest memory of the area?

“It was seeing this house. The estate agents showed us three houses, a couple on Burrard Road and this one. I soon as I stepped through the door, I thought “wow'”.”

Just a small part of Ted's poetry collection

Just a small part of Ted’s poetry collection

How has West Hampstead changed?

“I’ve noticed the rapid turnover of retailers on West End Lane and here up at Fortune Green.  There’s hardly anything left that was here when we arrived. Although the wonderful West End Lane Books had just opened then and that is still here.” Ted and I discussed a nearby corner shop which has been in turn a wine merchants, wooden flooring shop, motorbike showroom and now a skiwear shop and also the long-standing scuba shop in Child’s Hill. London is certainly full of odd shops we agreed.

What’s for lunch?

Ted surprised me. “I’m very fond  of Café Plus”. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s the greasy spoon café on Mill Lane, near Tiffin Tin.  “I also like the Bridge Café opposite the Overground station”.  He says Café Plus offer quick cheap and tasty food, “It’s always very welcoming and run by immigrants making a living.”

Otherwise – and Ted has many facets – he likes the Nigel Slater mid-week dinner which he cooks for himself and Janet.

Describe West Hampstead in three words

Happy, peaceful and enjoyable

 

Lucy Worsley grabs local kids’ attention with tales of Victorian intrigue

Words like ‘history’, ‘church’ and ‘books’ don’t always conjure up images of children’s happy, smiling faces. Especially in combination. However, the rapt attention of 300 schoolkids from Emmanuel, Beckford, Francis Holland, South Hampstead High, St Anthony’s and Rainbow Montessori schools told quite a different story this Tuesday.

History royalty rocked up to Emmanuel Church in the form of TV presenter/Chief Curator of Historic Palaces and all-round jolly good egg, Lucy Worsley.

I know, Miss! I know!

I know, Miss! I know!

Lucy was here at the invitation of West End Lane Books, to talk about her latest foray into children’s fiction, My Name Is Victoria, her imagined account of the youth of Queen Victoria.

The kings and queens, princes and princesses of West Hampstead

The kings and queens, princes and princesses of West Hampstead

Forget ‘We are not amused’; Lucy had the kids agog and in stitches from her thrilling intro: ‘The most exciting thing a historian can ever find is a letter ending ‘burn this”, to her creation of a Victorian family tree with much audience particpation to the final show stopper – a photograph of her Royal Highness’s, er, knickers.

The children were certainly won over. “I don’t really like history,” said Lina (11), “but I did enjoy the talk because it was interesting, and actually it was funny!”.

“I found it interesting finding out about the first toilet”, said Chynna-Lee (10). You know you’re going to strike gold with children if you’ve got some toilet-based material. She added, “I thought it was funny that one of the dukes had a pineapple-shaped face.”

As you’d expect from the hugely enthusiastic Lucy Worsley, My Name is Victoria, which has been reviewed as ‘Wolf Hall for kids’, is crammed with authentic period detail, packed with intrigue, secrets, treachery and is a ripping read. Although the plot pivots on the relationship between the young monarch and a young commoner who is sent to be her companion, the boys in the audience seemed every bit as interested in it as their female counterparts

And the finale of a successful book talk.

And the finale of a successful book talk.

The queue of kids wanting their book signed at the end of the talk is further testament to Lucy’s persuasive touch. Yes, people, history can be fun. Ask your kids. And if yours didn’t attend the talk, signed copies of My Name Is Victoria (suggested reading age 9-13), are available at West End Lane Books.

Lucy herself clearly had a good time too.

An Ode to poetry evenings in West Hampstead

Just as the camp monthly quiz night in the Sherriff Centre, which caters to the 20-somethings, was getting started, the Friends of West Hampstead Library were kicking off their ‘evening of Hampstead poetry’, which seemed to appeal to a more mature audience. I’d been to the last quiz (and really enjoyed it), so it seemed time for some poetry.

The evening was organised by the FoWHL and Ted Booth, who is writer in residence at the Library. He was joined for the readings by local councillor and former actress, Flick Rea. Ted is a long-standing West Hampstead resident and a generous, gentle guy. And quite a good poet to boot, so it was no surprise that there was full house for the evening.

Flick channelling Edith Sitwell

Flick Rea channelling Edith Sitwell

Ted structured the evening as a programme of a dozen or so loosely linked poems, all by poets from Hampstead and its surrounds. If the poets were local, the poems ranged far and wide. A Year in London by Tobias Hill (formerly of Minster Road) took us on a journey down the Kilburn High Road, while Coming Back by Al Alvarez, and Autumn in Toas by DH Lawrence took us all the way to New Mexico.

We returned close to home with two poems of the same name, Parliament Hill Fields, by totally different poets: Sylvia Plath and John Betjeman. Ted said it would take a consummate actor to do both of them justice, but fortunately we had Flick on hand – and even with a nasty cough – she performed with gusto.

Earlier on she had read Portrait of A Barmaid, by Edith Sitwell, which Ted felt was surreal, but Flick just weird! Also in the programme were two works by Owen Sheers, a welsh poet who, like Tobias Hill is both a poet and author. The first, Mametz Wood, takes us back exactly 100 years to the battle of the Somme. The second , Coming Home, is about the awkardness of returning to the childhood home as an adult. Good stuff, and someone new to me.

The short evening ended with The Mission Jazz Band, written by Ted himself and recited by him and Flick. It was the lightest poem of the evening and brought back memories of warm summer afternoons in Golders Hill Park. Ted left us with some questions to ponder, what did we think of the evening? What did we think of the poems? I’m glad I went; it was a pleasant evening, it’s good to try something different and don’t we all, young or old, need a bit more poetry in our lives?

Is it Ginger, or Toxic Orange?

LondonOverground_IainSinclairIain Sinclair came to West Hampstead library on July 4 for a Q&A about his latest book, “London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line”, and before too long the colour question came up.  The Hackney-based author, who walked along in hearing distance of the 33-station ring at the heart of the Overground, called the branding for the ever-expanding network “toxic orange”.

But his imagination had been caught by a group of fancy-dress partygoers he met on his way who organise flash gatherings at stations on the ring and call themselves the Ginger Liners.  “Maybe it’s only in the Hoxton/Shoreditch hipster area that it’s called that,” he told the sixty-strong audience at the free event run by the Friends of West Hampstead Library  At least it has a nice bright colour now.

The 35-mile ring, in some ways a Victorian railway just stitched back together, was completed in 2012.  “It connects a necklace of places that are unfamiliar and lets you get to places you did not know.  Inglis agreed. “Now in some ways we feel closer to Dalston than to Cricklewood.”

Local author Simon Inglis reminisced about the Overground’s drab predecessor in these parts — the underused North London Line, with its empty, gloomy stations, ghost trains that just wouldn’t turn up, and where you could fear for your life once darkness fell.

The reconstruction of our overcrowded Overground station is about to start, but Sinclair’s talk was more of a deconstruction of the line, its past, the developers moving in to build what he has called parasitical flats on every bit of spare trackside land, and how its success has reshaped the mental map Londoners have of how their city is connected.

Sinclair was left with a strong impression of how noisy the railway was. He has called it “a 14-hour sigh of mounting, but never-quite-satisfied sexual bliss”. I wonder what he would say of the nerve-shredding metallic grinding of the old North London Line trains.

“What’s it like to live there in a new-build flat right by the train line and hear the announcements from the platform?” he said.  Hundreds of new West Hampsteaders will soon find out – in stereo, Inglis joked. Developers of the new West Hampstead Square blocks rising up between the Overground and Underground have decided to rebrand it as Heritage Lane.  “What heritage?” Sinclair asked.

West Hampstead does not having a starring role in his book, but is wedged between expanded musings on Willesden-based expressionist painter Leon Kossoff and Freud up in Hampstead’s Maresfield Gardens.

Sinclair, from Wales himself, has written many books focusing on sense of place in London including London Orbital, about a bigger circular walk he took around the M25.

If you would like to support the library’s future via the Friends, click here.

Is West Hampstead library at risk?

West Hampstead Library is a vital community asset, sitting in the heart of West Hampstead.

It is about so much more than books. As well as lending books, it serves as a space for community groups, hosts IT facilities for those who do not have them at home, and has various other classes and activities for people of all ages. During elections it serves as a polling station. It is also an attractive building with a good presence on the West End Lane high street. Public libraries are among the last indoor spaces in West Hampstead – or indeed anywhere – where you can sit for free.

However, its future may be in jeopardy – and together with my fellow local councillors – we’re asking for the help of local residents to keep it open.

Because of central government cuts, which are halving Camden’s budget over eight years, Camden needs to cut £800,000 from its library services and it has not ruled out closures.

This coming Wednesday, a 12-week consultation will start on the future of Camden’s libraries. The council has specifically mentioned West Hampstead among the libraries that might be considered for closure.

A lot rests on the response to the consultation. If the public response is a big ‘no’ to closures, it will help them to discount that option.

Of coursse, in light of the current financial pressures, the council needs to look at creative ways to make savings and modernise the service. I don’t think enough work has been done to look at partnerships with local groups – or bringing in other services to share costs and make the library an even better community hub. Closure should not be an option.

The West Hampstead councillors have started a petition against closure, to give an early show of the strength of feeling. If you want to, you can sign it here. Within a couple of days, it has already got more than 200 signatures.

Some of the comments are really quite moving. They show just how much this place means to local people. We need to show the council the strength of local feeling on this and we call on all residents to help.

The campaign already has its own Twitter handle, @SaveWHamLibrary and a hashtag, #SaveWHampLibrary which interested people can follow for updates. (The missing ‘p’ in the handle is due to Twitter’s tight character restrictions.)
As councillors, we are calling on residents to fill out the consultation from Wednesday and urge Camden not to close West Hampstead library.

Paradise regained, by way of Keats House

Here’s two names you rarely encounter in the same sentence: John Keats, peerless Romantic poet, and Nancy Dell’Olio, peerless, er, socialite, and, it turns out, major Keats aficionado and Hampstead resident.

With this knowledge on board, it’s less of a total surprise that Nancy was on hand to cut the ribbon and officially open Keats Festival at the poet’s former residence in NW3.

Nancy poised to cut the ribbon (Photo (c) Alex Brenner)

Nancy poised to cut the ribbon (Photo (c) Alex Brenner)

The beautiful Georgian house in Keats Grove will be hosting a season of delights… and not just for the poetry minded either.

The House has used its recent Arts Council grant to further upgrade its exhibits and as well as the usual cache of treasures from the two years the young poet lived there, during which time he wrote his most brilliant cycle of Odes, the House will feature a rolling cycle of rarely seen items: from letters to manuscripts and even annotated copies of Keats’ copies of Shakespeare and Milton. So, chances are, if you visit more than once, you’ll see different things each time. They’re clever, these Keats peeps!

A star object in the collection - Keats' love letter to Fanny Brawne (Photo (c) The City of London)

A star object in the collection – Keats’ love letter to Fanny Brawne (Photo (c) The City of London)

The Festival includes poetry readings and lectures, family activities and several musical events. Among those appearing will be Owen Sheers, whose recent novel is set in Hampstead, and also former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, who is newly named Poet in Residence at the House.

The Festival runs from 28 May – 7 June and you can view all events on the website, with bookings via this page.

Keats House is a quiet gem nestling a stone’s throw from the Heath in the heart of Hampstead – a very pleasant amble from West Hampstead and always a tranquil haven to visit while in the area. The festival, plus the wonderful new exhibits and the fact that one ticket buys you entry for a year (and under-17s go free) mean that it’s a fantastic place to discover the work and life of this most endearing of geniuses… a joy forever, one might even say.

Keats House in its full sunny splendour

Keats House in its full sunny splendour (Photo (c) The City of London)

T.S.Eliot’s “gloomy” West Hampstead home

T.S. Eliot – arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century – lived for two years in Compayne Gardens.

Local actor and writer Edward Petherbridge has put together a short film, While the Music Lasts, about Eliot’s time in West Hampstead, which is well worth six minutes of your time.

In 1915, Eliot married Vivienne Haigh-Wood in Hampstead Registry office and the couple moved in with Vivienne’s parents in Compayne Gardens. “A house Eliot found rather gloomy, with long dark corridors”.

It was during this time that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was published, although Eliot had written it a few years earlier and – the video claims – the seeds of The Waste Land were sown during his time in West Hampstead.

Edward Petherbridge’s original article is here.

Kilburn gets bookish with week of events

kilburnlogo2

If you thought that literary festivals mainly happened in fields on the outskirts of small Welsh towns, think again.

The first-ever Kilburn Literary Festival starts today and runs until 4th November, with events in various local venues including West Hampstead’s very own Sherriff Centre. The eclectic programme includes talks by authors, workshops for budding writers (including “How to Publish and Sell your Erotic Fiction”!), quizzes and a “flash fiction competition”. Two highlights are local history buff Ed Fordham’s talk on the history of Kilburn authors, at the Tricycle on Saturday morning, and the (esoteric perhaps) History of Fighting Fantasy and Adventure Game Books talk on Sunday afternoon, which will appeal to boys and girls who are now of a certain age!

Most events are ticketed, with prices ranging between £4 and £10, but there’s also a free “Festival of Books” at the Sherriff Centre at St James’ Church on Saturday. As well as readings, there will be activities for children, such as the chance to make their own book, and would-be authors will be able to talk to publishing professionals for advice on how to develop their writing.

You can find a full programme of events, and buy tickets, at the festival’s website.

Jeff Norton on the importance of reading… and a margarita

Jeff_Norton_Bookshop

Canadian ex-pat author/producer Jeff Norton talked to West Hampstead Life about the importance of getting kids to read, his love of a margarita, and – of course – his next book.

Was it always your dream to be a writer? If not, how did you start?
As a kid, I was pretty sure I wanted to be in the entertainment industry, but wasn’t clear on what that would entail. Growing up in suburban Canada, it felt as far away as the moon! I have been lucky enough to work in different areas of show business, developing and producing for film and TV, but when I moved to the UK seven years ago and was managing the Enid Blyton literary estate, I decided that I had stories of my own to tell. That was when I embarked on writing as a full-time creative pursuit.

West Hampstead is an area full of writers, musicians and actors, do you think there is something about the area that attracts creative types?
West Hampstead has a very active streetscape, which I feel stimulates the creative mind. There are characters all around us here, and it’s a joy to just walk down the high street with open eyes and an open mind. I think it also helps to be just a few minutes from central London, but also able to quickly retreat to the relative quiet of West Hampstead to focus on the craft of writing.

Do you have a favourite West Hampstead spot?
West End Lane Books, of course! And the library is somewhere I love to take my kids. But aside from those ‘bookish’ places, I’m a huge Mexican food fan so I was thrilled when Mamacita opened up. They do one mean margarita!

What are the best and worst things about living in West Hampstead?
The best is probably the people. Everyone is friendly and dynamic. I feel like West Hampstead is a place filled with people doing interesting things with their lives. The worst is probably some of the aesthetics: too many estate agent signs, saturation of similar services (how much hair do we really have to cut?), and way too much dog poo!

As a parent and busy author how important is a healthy work/lifestyle balance?
It’s very important, but it’s hard to attain. I work as many hours as I can in a week and yet time with my two boys and my wife is critical to a healthy family life and a positive relationship, but it’s a daily balancing act to get it right.

You’ve done several events at local schools, how important is it for schools to carry on encouraging kids to read outside lessons?
Establishing the habit of reading for pleasure is a gift that a school (and parents!) can give a child. It’s less about the literacy or information-intake, and more about opening up the world to the child. Plus, like anything, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I was a very reluctant reader as an adolescent so, for me, helping to inspire young people to work out their reading muscles is a very personal pursuit. It sets children up for success in so many areas.

Your latest book is the last installment of your MetaWars series; what’s next?
Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie publishes on August 7th and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy with OCD who rises from the grave to solve his own murder. It’s actually inspired by a short film I shot in West Hampstead a few years ago [which you can watch below].

If you could have written any other book what would it have been?
That’s impossible to answer! I have a lot of stories I want to tell; so hopefully it’ll be one you’ll be reading very soon!

Jeff Norton is on the web at www.jeffnorton.com and tweets @thejeffnorton.

Why local author Susie Steiner loves West Hampstead

Susie Steiner, Guardian journalist and novelist, chatted to West Hampstead Life about life as a working mother in West Hampstead.

Susie Steiner

Susie Steiner

Looking from the outside, you appear to have it all. How did you do it?
The career was very slow – I’m very slow and ploddy – I started on local papers and did work experience on the Ham and High. Then I trained as a cub reporter and did moonlighting shifts on the nationals. Eventually I got a staff job at The Times as a news reporter and then as a feature writer, and then I went to the Guardian in 2001 as an editor on the Weekend Magazine. That was a very lovely job and that’s where I had children, so it was punctuated by an awful lot of maternity leave! I got to a point that lots of women get to after their youngest is a bit more independent and you think: what now?

West Hampstead seems full of writers, musicians and literary agents, do you think there is something about the area that attracts creative types?
Well it’s just the most gorgeous place to live. I can’t think of anywhere better to live. It’s got is the gorgeousness of Hampstead and Belsize Park without the wankers really! It’s not as moneyed, it has a shabby edge to it, which is lovely. It hasn’t got that investment banking feel which is the death knell of creativity. It’s got a very nice low-key ordinariness to it and an amazing feeling of community, it’s hard to walk down the street without knowing everyone. You can be whatever you want here, you don’t have to put on a front when you walk out the door or dress a certain way.

How has West Hampstead changed since you first arrived?
It was a very different place, it was really shabby. There were no supermarkets, just a rash of 24-hour shops where you could buy fags but that was it. It’s changed a huge amount. I think it’s become better and better, there are fabulous places to eat and lovely shops. It’s amazing to go into shops and know the people who work there! It’s delightful.

What’s your favourite spot in West Hampstead?
Oh God I love so much! I like the guys in David’s Deli hugely who say hi to my kids. I love the food at The Wet Fish Cafe. I love the Kitchen Table – who doesn’t? I love the community centre where I do an exercise class and the nursery below it where both my kids went. I feel knitted into the whole place. I love Emmanuel School where my children are, which is a roll down the hill. We’re really embedded. I moved here in about ’94 and I lived in Kingdon Road in a bachelorette pad with my mates. When I was single I didn’t know anyone here, it was just great for work because of quick transport. But then when I got married and had children I suddenly got to know all my neighbours in an amazing way.

What are the best and the worst things about West Hampstead?
The number of estate agents makes my blood boil! The number of very average cafés makes me a bit annoyed. I’d like a kid’s shoe shop, I’d like a clothes shop. I think we have a problem with the variety of shops, there is a great deal of repetition. The best thing is the community – the people. I’ve never been happier, there’s no better place to live in terms of friendliness and the feeling of belonging somewhere and I’d never imagined how important that feeling would be. Saying hello to people on the hill every morning really makes a big difference. It’s extraordinary.

What book do you wish you’d written?
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s a few years old. It’s a fictionalised life of Laura Bush and it poses the question of how did a bookish, shy Democrat come to marry this sports jock, hard drinking, handsome Bush? It’s riveting and it doesn’t have shock tactics of sex and violence, it’s a very intricate study of character. It’s slow, detailed and absorbing.

Susie Steiner’s latest book, Homecoming is out now in paperback and was reviewed here. She will also be running a creative writing workshop on May 1st at West End Lane Books.

Review: Homecoming, by Susie Steiner

HomecomingMy husband has oft commented that with our Farmer’s Market, our feisty WI group and altogether friendly villagey atmosphere in Mill Lane and West End Lane, West Hampstead could be twinned with Ambridge.

Not entirely surprising then that Susie Steiner, one of the area’s community of writers, has chosen to set her debut novel, Homecoming, within a farming community.

The narrative follows the fortunes of the apparently hapless Hartle family with the story unfolding to the rhythm of the farming year.

The Hartles’ farm is suffering financially, the family is suffering emotionally: one son sinking into alcoholism, the other hotfooting away to open a garden centre so halfheartedly that he actually names it Garden Centre; parents Joe and Ann struggle to balance the books and make sense of a year so bleak that the prevailing advice is to sell up and cut their losses.

But Homecoming, set in Yorkshire, is resolutely not a ‘grim oop north’ story. It’s about community and family, belief and commitment. The portraits of the family and the locals, in particular the Hartle boys’ partners – the energetic and sparky Ruby and the embattled Primrose – provide a warm and vivid counterpoint to the harshness of the landscape and the seemingly unremittingly bad news that rains down on the Hartles.

In essence, Homecoming is all hearts and minds. Will there still be a viable farm for one of the boys to inherit? Will any of the marriages survive let alone prosper? Is stoicism the right response to the Hartles predicament?

For those of us who like to really submerge ourselves in the characters that writers like Steiner create, there are tears and literally laugh out loud moments in Homecoming and while reading it I ran home to seek it out as one would a warm hearth on a bitter day. And there are precious few novels one can say that about.

Homecoming, by Susie Steiner is out in paperback on March 6th
Faber & Faber, £7.99

Review: Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris

DeepShelterWhen Harris’ debut, The Hollow Man, was published in 2011, I thought ‘It doesn’t get much better than this’. His thriller, set in Hampstead, fulfilled my fantasy requirements of an intelligent crime novel: sharply written, fabulously paced, wonderful central character and a plot so local I wouldn’t have been surprised to see my own road turning up. And actually I’ve never been to Starbucks in South End Green since [spoiler alert].

But it turns out that I was wrong.

This follow-up, Deep Shelter, still tracking the fortunes of Byronesque bad-boy cop Nick Belsey (‘a beguiling bastard’, according to crime writer Val McDermid), adds a maturing style and a broadening appeal beyond the parochial to the long list of boxes ticked.

Briefly, if you love the early discovery of names to drop, you should pick this up.

Deep Shelter finds Hampstead nick’s Belsey attempting to keep his nose clean. But then a car chase in Belsize Park leads him to be confronted with the sort of riddle that Agatha Christie could have dreamed up, when the driver legs it down a blind alley and disappears.

What unfolds is a vivid cold war conspiracy drama. And while London swelters in the slick heat of an oppressive summer, Belsey goes underground to uncover the degenerating secrets that lie beneath our great city.

Where The Hollow Man was a no-holds-barred kitchen sink of a high octane rollercoaster, Deep Shelter is pace and pitch perfect and depicts London every bit as masterfully as the Scandinavian thriller-meisters paint their home territory.

Out March 20th, Deep Shelter is well worth investigating.

Love defined by Emmanuel School pupils

What is love?

This has occupied many great minds through the ages, from Stendhal to, erm, Haddaway. It even topped the list of Google searches a couple of years ago.

Now, pupils at Emmanuel School in West Hampstead have tackled the question, and published a book of their thoughts on the subject. Definitions vary, but range from “Love is kissing and smiling and hugging” (by Conor L, 7) to Rohan’s thoughtful “Love is something that makes you remember people that have passed away”.

whatislove

Called 31 Ways To Define Love, it’s the work of the Topaz class at Emmanuel, all of whom are aged 6 or 7.

what is love extract

The idea for the book came from Sarah Trueman, whose son Arthur is in the class. As the school has expanded in recent years, it needs more books for its growing library, and Sarah hit upon the idea of creating a book with the children as a perfect way to raise extra funds.

Along the way, the children have learned what is involved in the process of writing, illustrating and publishing a book, and  also had a lot of fun. Sarah spent a day with the class and found the children enthusiastic about the project and “lovely to work with”.

Sarah praised her son’s class teacher Miss Willis, as well as Emmanuel headteacher Miss Fitzsimmons, who she described as “super-engaged with the process” and extremely encouraging of the children’s creativity and literacy.

The book is available for £2.99 from West End Lane Books, and all proceeds will go to the Emmanuel School Big Read Quest. The bookshop is open until 7pm tonight, so this could be the ideal extra Valentine’s gift to pick up on your way home.

Zadie Smith’s NW: Opportunities knocked

Kilburn, Willesden, Harlesden. London’s north-west neighbourhoods pulse through this triptych of interconnected tales. Their council estates and streets are the building blocks and threads of a narrative that sweeps its way through ideas of opportunity, identity and class.

Zadie Smith’s affection for the area, her area (at least before she moved to New York), is clear. Her characters never escape it, whether they want to or not and irrespective of the rare foray into central London. Readers, especially those living locally, may choose to revel in the fecundity, though for many of the young professionals who now call NW home, it may be easier to observe this multicultural landscape dispassionately; just as it’s possible to spend time on Kilburn High Road yet never engage with anyone meaningfully.

“A local tip: the bus stop outside Kilburn’s Poundland is the site of many of the more engaging conversations to be heard in the city of London.”

Gazing down on NW from such a height would be a disservice to Smith’s abilities. The crowning glory of this book is its dialogue, internal or conversational (and the two often merge). Rich in vernacular and alert to linguistic trends (“It was the year everyone was saying that such and such a person was ‘their rock'”), the conversations peppered across the pages are those you hear on the streets.

Yet, for all the local detail, and the acute, native understanding of lives lived here, the setting ends up a backdrop when it feels as if Smith wanted it to be a character in its own right. Her prose doesn’t help here: the conflict between self-aware changes of pace, style and form, and the natural ebbs and flows she creates in dialogue left me tripping up; forcing me to stand back from the story rather than fall into it as if into the arms of a lively Kilburn pub.

NW has had some lofty accolades heaped on it, but it certainly hasn’t grabbed everyone. It has some gorgeous vignettes but is never the sum of its parts. It has interesting things to say about opportunity and aspiration, but fell short of making me think new thoughts, which I feel any great novel should do. It has some entertaining and insightful characters, but they are often the co-stars rather than the protagonists. Ultimately, it feels more like a book set at a precise time rather than one set in a particular place.

In a final, unsettling, move, it ends abruptly.

NW
Zadie Smith
Penguin, 2012

Whampbooks is Five – August 29th

This month sees the return of the ever-popular Whampbooks lock-in; the fifth edition no less.

What is this event? I hear you cry. It’s a chance to browse and stock up on some holiday reading at the lovely West End Lane Books, while drinking free wine (thanks Chelsea Square) and meeting some lovely literary locals. As if that wasn’t incentive enough, there’s 20% off all books on the night.

There’s no need to book a ticket – just turn up anytime from 7.30pm; browse, chat, mingle, drink, buy. It’s not too hard.

Put August 29th in your Moleskine diaries (yes, there’s 20% off all cards and stationery too) and we’ll see you there!

Stock the shelves at West End Lane Books

Yesterday afternoon, everyone’s favourite independent bookshop tweeted:

Bet yr *really* well read! Want to show how clever you are? Send list of fave books & if we like ’em we’ll add shelf with your name & books!
— West End Lane Books (@WELBooks) June 13, 2013

What a great idea, I thought. So I asked Danny from West End Lane Books, to give us a bit more info:

“West Hampstead folk are a well-read-bunch. We should know, we spend all day, every day, recommending great reads. And very grateful we are too.

But now we’re turning the tables.

We want to know what your favourite books are. The best submissions will have their selections displayed in the shop on their own dedicated shelves with their names on show to boot.

Send your choices, which can include as few as 6 books to a maximum of 12, to ku.oc1506028569.skoo1506028569blew@1506028569ofni1506028569 marked ‘bookshelves’. Winners will be announced next week.

[Tip: try not to include any titles which may be out of print or we will find it hard to order and display them]

This is one occasion when you might want to be left on the shelf”

Crowdsourcing your stock from local recommendations. What a fantastic notion. I’ve already submitted my list, an electic mix of children’s literature, highbrow fiction, social theory and rip-roaring tales of adventure. Lets see whether I win!

Photo via @theprettybooks

Bookshop event January 22nd

Whampbooks is back on January 22nd.

If you’re not familiar with this particular event, it’s really very simple. The lovely people at West End Lane Books open their doors for the evening for a night of bargains, booze and books. There’s 20% off all stock, (free) wine for all, and a chance to meet and chat with some lovely locals.

The fun kicks off at 7.30pm, but it’s all very informal. Come along when you can, there’s no ticketing or pre-booking or anything. I think this will be our fourth book event, and they’ve all been great fun. See you there!

Books galore – just needs you!

Books, booze and bargains

Next Thursday, the 16th, is the third of our occasional #whampbooks events with the marvellous West End Lane Books.

The premise is simple: you come to the bookshop from 7.30pm. You can chat to some lovely locals, you can drink some (free) wine, browse the shelves, and if you want to buy anything then you’ll get a 20% discount. Yes, free wine AND 20% off books. Come on.

No tickets, no pre-booking, just turn up. The event usually winds up aroud 9 – 9.30pm.

Look forward to seeing you there.

West Hampstead bookshop “lock-in” success

Last night saw an experiment in West Hampstead. West End Lane Books threw its doors open from 9 to 10pm to @WHampstead twitter followers (and a few others!). There was wine, there was chat, there was 15 percent off everything. A dozen or so #whampers decided that the election debate on TV wasn’t enough of a lure (or recorded it) and getting to know a few fellow locals was a far better option.

It was great to see a mix of familiar faces such as @bubela, @TheWetFishCafe and @SamWong1 along with some first-time whampeventers including @designbyday, @jenny23232323 and @tractorgirlie.

Photo by @designbyday. Original here

Plenty of books were bought (lets not forget that if we want to keep our independent bookshops we do, at least occasionally, have to buy books from them and not Amazon), a reasonable amount of wine was drunk, and hopefully everyone had a good time!

Other bookshop / @WHampstead tie-ins are being mooted, so keep your eyes peeled and follow the #whampbooks hashtag. The bookshop also organises lots of its own events.