The well-bred meet the well-read as Stoke Newington Literary Festival returns this weekend. Comedian and fest opener Robin Ince talks Tom Huddleston through the highlights
‘I’m the gossip columnist with “What’s on in Stoke Newington”. It’s a big piece of paper with “fuck all” written on it.’ For decades, this kind of snarky love-hate rant by former Stokey resident Alexei Sayle was all the outside world knew of Hackney’s most upmarket enclave. ‘Alexei Sayle was definitely my first exposure to Stoke Newington,’ says stand-up, science buff and writer Robin Ince, who’ll be opening this weekend’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival. ‘
There was one joke about a whole row of people who knocked their front rooms through and the street fell down.’
Most of those jokes are, it has to be said, still fairly relevant – Stoke Newington remains an unashamed den of wine-sippers, beard-cultivators and yummy mummies. But its profile, like its house prices, has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks in no small part to events like this, the kind of lovingly curated, local-but-global happening that not only educates and entertains but acts as a glowing endorsement of its borough at the same time.
‘It’s one of the most important things that festivals need to do, and they’re doing it particularly well here,’ says Ince. ‘You’ve got Iain Sinclair turning up, with his amazing brain and his incredible, insightful, encyclopaedic knowledge of London and what lies behind it. Things like that are really important, and all festivals should embrace it as much as possible.’ Of course, Sinclair has been in attendance every year since the festival began in 2010, though he’s rarely enthusiastic about Stoke Newington itself – one year he memorably referred to its citizens as ‘muesli grazers’ – preferring the grittier, more ‘real’ likes of Homerton and Clapton. This year, he’ll be appearing in conversation with psychogeographical sci-fi master China Miéville (Abney Public Hall, 2pm Sat) and others, discussing the potential cultural and social impact of the Olympics. I’m going to go out a limb and suggest that Sinclair might have a few misgivings about it all.
As always, music-related events have a strong presence on the bill. There are one-man talks – Dr Feelgood guitarist and all-round eccentric Wilko Johnson talks audiences through his storied life (Town Hall, 8pm Sun), while The Word writer Pete Brown discusses the link between music and beer (The White Hart, 1pm Sat) – plus plenty of panel discussions, including ‘Juke Box Fury’, (Town Hall, 6pm Sat) in which NME legends Pat Long, David Quantick and Barney Hoskyns talk about music writing, and ‘How Soon Is Now’ (Town Hall, 6pm Sun), which sees Paul Morley and guests looking back at the indie label boom of the 1970s and ’80s.
Ince saves his most fervent praise for two words-and-music legends speaking at the festival. ‘I want to see Pauline Black from The Selecter,’(Library Gallery, 8pm Fri) he says. ‘She’s a wonderful singer songwriter, she still has that great political passion.’ He’s also keen to check out poetic proto-punk beanpole John Cooper Clarke (Town Hall, 7.30pm Sat), who’s having a spectacular 2012, with a BBC documentary and a cameo in Plan B’s movie ‘Ill Manors’ to come. ‘He does have the most incredible knees,’ Ince gushes. ‘I think he’s still wearing the same trousers he was wearing 30 years ago. He hasn’t aged. I think they replace his body every few years, just pop the same head on.’
Events for children are also back and stronger than ever, this year encompassing writing workshops and storytelling sessions, plus a chance for kids to learn the art of comic-book writing and drawing with Adam Murphy (Town Hall, 1pm Sun) of the excellent weekly story comic The Phoenix. ‘Book festivals are fantastic for kids,’ Ince says. ‘ It lets them know that there’s a world beyond “The Gruffalo”!’ Not that fans of that hairy beast will feel shortchanged – he’s even going to be putting in a personal appearance, courtesy of local storyteller Fleur Alexander (Town Hall, 10am Fri)
Ince himself will be appearing at the opening night event alongside fellow stand-up Josie Long (Town Hall, 7pm Fri), where he’s planning to revive his hugely popular (and Time Out awardwinning) Bad Book Club, in which he tracks down and lampoons the worst that literature has to offer. ‘I’ve been doing a Bad Science Book Club recently, looking into the possibility that Erich von Däniken’s ideas about alien civilisations and airstrips in the jungle might not have been based on the hardest scientific evidence.’ But he’s dubious about the prospect of catching any of the other events himself. ‘Book festivals are great fun, but I don’t have a life as a punter any more,’ he says sadly. ‘I’ll be too busy shouting at some people in a tent. But it’s a shame, there are some incredible people. I’ll try to sneak in at the back.’ Tom Huddleston
Stoke Newington Literary Festival takes place Fri June 1-Sun June 3 at various locations.