BY JAMES CRACKNELL
The Arts Council-backed Enfield Literary Festival saw local authors give talks about their careers, offer advice, and host workshops. A lecture on one of the borough's most important historical figures, plus a talk on the future of journalism in the digital age, rounded off a varied and informative day.
Kicking off the event at the newly refurbished Edmonton Green Library was Catherine Johnson, a prize-winning children's author and scriptwriter for television shows including Eastenders and Casualty.
“I realise I'm really lucky to do what I do,” the Londoner explained. “I think school ruins writing for some people. Essay writing is not creative and it puts people off. I have uncles who have written poetry in Welsh – seeing someone I knew who had written something made it seem possible.”
Catherine's father is Jamaican and her mother Welsh. The story of how her parents got together in the 1950s in a Welsh village where, Catherine says, “they had never seen a black person”, became the basis of her first book.
History is an inspiration for much of her writing, but it had not always been her favourite subject. “I got thrown out of history when I was 14 because I was the worst in the school,” said Catherine. “My school report said I was 'completely inadequate and disorganised'.
“I do love history, it's just that I didn't know I liked it until I was older. In school the only women they told us about were Elizabeth I and Margaret Thatcher, and the only guy from Africa was a white Portugese.”
Discovering unusual and forgotten parts of our history is a big motivation for Catherine, who spends a lot of time researching material for her books: “When I wrote Sawbones I went round with a real surgeon, discovering these old operating theatres – then I found myself seeing an operation happen in front of me. The book became a sort of Silent Witness for teenagers.”
Catherine said the way the publishing industry has changed over the years has made it more difficult to make a living. However, there are also more opportunities for new authors.
“The way that writing has gone now, there are just so many more books being written. So trying to sell them is very difficult. Publishers really like debut authors. It is a bit like scratchcards – they publish lots of them in the hope one will work and do well.
“It means there's always openings for new writers, but it's harder to make a living because the advances have gone down. If you have got a good story and you have written it well, I think there will be opportunities for you.”
While writing for television helps pay the bills, Catherine says writing books is still her main passion.
“If you are writing a book you can write whatever you like and it may or may not get published, but for TV it's more of a job, people come and ask me if I'll write something for a particular show. You work collaboratively, there's directors and producers, but with a book you are in charge.”
Alex Woolf from Palmers Green is another children's author who uses history to inspire his stories, although he also looks to the future and imagines how advances in technology may impact our lives. In his talk at Enfield Literary Festival, Alex said the best way to improve your writing is simply to practice as much as possible.
He said: “The only way to learn how to be a writer is by doing it. It is not about going to classes and reading about it, it is about doing it day to day. You don't learn how to paint by studying the theory of painting. You just have to paint.
“I used to have a fear of failure. The attic of my imagination had always seemed a private place and I was afraid to open it to the public. I was working as an editor but I was writing in my spare time. I went freelance and ended up writing a children's non-fiction book about artificial intelligence.”
Alex's big career breakthrough, however, was the science-fiction trilogy Chronosphere. He said: “After the economic crash the market for children's non-fiction collapsed overnight, so I started writing fiction. A 3,000-word short story about a boy who buys time turned into a 180,000 word epic trilogy. It was the first thing I was really proud of that I'd written.
“History and scientific speculation are the raw materials of what I write. The dystopia I write about are really just based on extrapolating today's fears. Storytelling for me is a form of escape, but also a way of understanding the world. I feel very lucky to have been able to make it my life.”
The inaugural Enfield Literary Festival also featured a fascinating lecture by Dr Katy Beavers, from the Charles Lamb Society, who revealed more about the 19th Century essayist's life in Edmonton and relationship with his sister Mary, with whom he collaborated. The pair had first visited Enfield in 1817 for a holiday but ended up living much of the rest of their lives here, at a property now known as Lamb's Cottage. Both Charles and Mary are buried at All Saints Church, Edmonton.
The day ended with a presentation by festival organiser Martin Russo, who discussed the current state of local journalism and how hyperlocal websites such as Entwo.org could help communities in Enfield thrive.
Martin had successfully bid for and won a grant from the Arts Council to make Enfield Literary Festival possible. The money also enabled a series of workshops at local schools in the weeks prior to the event, with more than 300 pupils connected with authors including Catherine Johnson, Alex Woolf and Allen Ashley. Martin said: “Having the Arts Council funding really helped and without that this just wouldn't have been possible. I'd also like to thank Enfield Council and particularly [Head of Culture] Paul Everitt for being a great help, they have been fantastic in their support for this event.”
Enfield Literary Festival will be returning in June with a series of events between 22nd and 30th June. A poetry reading event is also being planned for 7th April. One of the attendees at the inaugural festival on 27th January was Enfield Council’s cabinet member for community, arts and culture, Councillor Yasemin Brett. “It was music to my ears when I heard there was going to be a literary festival,” she said. “I think it is great that Martin is trying to establish something. We have a great legacy in Enfield with people such as [Charles] Lamb and [John] Keats. Everyone has got a book inside them, if they decide to commit to it. I hope we can inspire people.”