Words by the Water

OIR: Reflections on the 2017 Words on the Water Festival by Linda Hepworth

Article published on April 7, 2017.

Linda Hepworth was behind our very first online ‘Our Intrepid Reporter’ review for nudge-book.com back in 2015 and as you can see here she’s been a committed attendee of the Words by the Water Festival for some years now. If you’ve ever wondered how much you might get out of attending a literary festival and whether or not to bother, I’m pretty sure you’ll be booking tickets by the end of this…over to Linda:

The old adage that “time flies when you’re having fun” is an appropriate one to use when I think back over the ten days of this year’s festival – it’s hard to believe that this much anticipated annual event is over for another year. It was a particularly enjoyable and successful one, with very few disappointing talks and only one speaker (Tariq Ali) who had to cancel and who couldn’t be replaced. Each day was packed with stimulating and interesting talks on a wide range of topics and during the breaks the air was filled with the buzz of people chatting as they shared their views about whichever thought-provoking session they had been to.
When I look at the programme when it first comes out I find myself looking forward to particular speakers, either because I have heard them before or because a particular topic appeals to me. However, over the fifteen years that I have bought festival passes for this event (I missed out on the first year!) I have loved the fact that there are unexpected “hits” almost every day, talks which wouldn’t have attracted me had I been buying single tickets. So, I thought I’d share with you my day by day reflections on which those highlights were for me.


Friday 3rd March

On the opening day of the festival the talk I enjoyed most was given by Emma Jane Kirby, the award winning BBC journalist who was talking about her book The Optician of Lampedusa, an account of the impact of mass migration through the testimony of one man, his wife and some friends, whose lives were changed forever when, during a summer boat trip off his home island of Lampedusa, they came across hundreds of refugees in the water, screaming for help. The optician’s boat was small but he couldn’t “look the other way” from the terrible suffering he saw around him and managed to rescue forty seven people. Emma gave a very moving account not only of this specific incident, which demonstrated so much of what is good in human beings, but also of the effects of mass migration on the communities which receive them. This is a book which is well worth reading – but be prepared to cry!

Saturday 4th

The two outstanding talks for me were given by Diana Darke, a specialist on the Middle-East, and novelist Salley Vickers. Diana shared some thought-provoking insights into the tragedy of what is happening in Syria; a country with such a rich history of tolerance and multi-cultural integration but which is now rapidly disintegrating and being destroyed. She spoke with passion and experience about her hopes and fears for the country and really did put a human face to the tragic effects of what is going on in that country.

Salley Vickers shared, in the same eloquent and elegant way which informs her writing, the threads which run through her latest book, Cousins. She believes it is her most identifiably autobiographical novel to date, although that was not her intention when she started to write it! She explained that very often it is only after her books have been published that, frequently as a result of readers’ questions, she is able to fully understand what has influenced her plot development, characters and narrative. It felt like a privilege to be drawn into this talented author’s writing processes.

Sunday 5th

Vince Cable offered a masterly and lucid exploration of the fallout from the 2008 global financial crisis, Britain’s place in an uncertain global market and how the British economy should best be managed, both in the short and the long term. He made a hugely complex subject feel accessible and was even able to offer some cautious optimism! A sombre and serious talk about a subject which affects each and every one of us.

The big surprise of the day for me was Mark Watson’s talk on “Telling Stories”. Although I had heard of him I had never seen any of his programmes (not being into either sport or most modern comedy!) nor had I read any of his books, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect – in truth, I had half expected to be tempted to take advantage of the fact that my seat would have allowed for a reasonably unobtrusive quick exit! However, he spoke with both clarity and humour on the process of writing fiction and the differences between how he approaches his novel writing and his stand-up material. The fact that I now feel tempted to seek out some of his work must be a reflection on the quality of his ability to communicate!

Monday 6th

As Tariq Ali’s talk on Lenin had had to be cancelled, I decided to buy a ticket for talk being held in the small Studio Theatre. This was given by Ray Greeenhow, a retired inspector from the Cumbrian police force. Quite by accident during his travels around the Lake District, he had become aware of the Derwentwater Disaster of 1898, when five young women, close friends from Nelson and Colne in Lancashire, were drowned in a boating accident on the lake, whilst on a holiday organised by the recently formed Co-operative Holidays Association. When he tried to find out more he discovered that there was little ongoing local awareness of such a huge tragedy, and no local memorial to mark the deaths. So, with all his professional instincts aroused, he set about conducting his own investigation! He gave us a very moving and detailed account of all that he (with some significant help from his wife!) had discovered, and drew comparisons between the lack of any sort of current awareness in Keswick, and the impressive memorial in Nelson, where all the young women are buried in the same grave. As a town dependent on tourism, perhaps it is safe to assume that no one has wanted to draw attention to such a disaster! However, Ray’s book, his talk and all the resultant publicity should ensure that those five young women will no longer be forgotten, especially as their deaths led to far stricter regulations for the registration of pleasure boats on the lake. So, any disappointment about not hearing Tariq Ali had disappeared by the end of this fascinating talk.

My other hit of the day was an excellent talk given by Alistair Carr, talking about his book The Nomad’s Path: Travels in the Sahel. This was an account of his three week journey across this remote, inhospitable and highly dangerous area of North Africa. His accounts of lost civilisations, previous explorers, rebellions and uprisings, as well as his evocative recollections of his own experiences during this journey, in the company of his two local guides, were spell-binding. His well-delivered talk, combined with the slides which illustrated his progress across the country, made me feel as though I had been transported to another world and, as I write this, I find that the images remain very vivid.

Tuesday 7th

The title of the talk given by Professor Raymond Tallis was “God, Free Will and the NHS” and, in conversation with Steve Matthews (supplier of books throughout the festival, and always an excellent chairman) we were treated to a lucid, inspiring and scholarly exploration of humanism, religion and the complexity of the concept of free will. He also spoke with passion about his rage with this Tory government which, he believes, is set to dismantle the NHS and the welfare system. He ended his talk with a plea that, if we don’t want this to happen, we should take every opportunity to protest. This talk, which I think we all wished could have been twice the length, was a perfect example of all that is exciting and stimulating about this festival of words and ideas.

The talk given by Elif Shafak was my second of the day which merited a score of 10 from me! She is a Turkish author, columnist, speaker and academic who has published sixteen books, most of which are novels (including The Bastard of Istanbul, Three Daughters of Eve, Honour) She spoke about her novel The Forty Rules of Love, a retelling of the life of the 13th-century poet Rumi, folded into the life of Ella, a Jewish-American housewife who realises that love is missing from her life. In her presentation Elif introduced us to the story and her elegant, poetic language demonstrated the threads of mysticism and reflection which drive her prose. I am now looking forward to reading not only this book but also more from her backlist.

Wednesday 8th

As I had recently read Richard Francis’s wonderful novel Crane Pond, I was looking forward to listening to him speak about it and all my expectations of a stimulating talk were more than fulfilled! He spoke with the same passionate interest that I found in his novel as he explored the complex influences which resulted in the iniquitous Salem Witch Trials. He shared what had led to his interest in Samuel Sewell, the only judge to publicly acknowledge the gross miscarriage of justice, resulting in him writing a biography of the man. However, once that was finished, he found that he couldn’t let him go and so decided to write a novel about him, using the man’s diaries, in order to attempt to get to know him better, and to imagine his life with his family. As in the book, Richard’s liking for this decent man came through powerfully in the way in which he explored what had influenced Samuel’s decision-making. One idea he explored in his talk was that much of the girls’ motivations for continuing, and escalating, their accusations could have been explained by the fact that they realised that their behaviour allowed them to exercise power over the adults – quite a heady experience for young people whose views would either not have been heard, or would have been disregarded. From the reactions of the audience, and from the number of people who subsequently bought the book, it was clear that I was not the only one to find Richard’s talk inspiring. I was delighted when it was announced that Crane Pond has been long-listed for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017 – I hope the judges will agree with me that it deserves to be the eventual winner!

Another talk I might not have been tempted to buy a ticket for was the one given by Steve Westaby, one of the world’s most eminent, innovative and skilled cardiac specialists. However, I was very pleased that I went to his it because he is a wonderful communicator and had the audience spell-bound by his accounts of some of the pioneering and risky surgery he has carried out during his long career. He showed clips from two particularly risky operations and I felt in awe of the skills of this man who, since the age of seven had been determined to be a heart surgeon and who has done so much to further research and innovative practice. His recent decision to retire from the NHS because he no longer feels able to work under the present regime of deteriorating conditions of service and lack of investment will be such a loss – although he does plan to continue his work with creating artificial hearts, an area of research in which he has had remarkable success.

Thursday 9th

Patrick Cockburn, who was to have talked about the rise of the Islamic State, was unable to attend and was replaced by Kaya Genç an acclaimed Turkish novelist and essayist, who spoke on “Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey”,  a country which stands at the crossroads of the Middle East; caught between the West, ISIS, Syria and Russia. He offered a lucid exploration of some of the influences which led to the most recent crisis, and discussed how his country’s divided society is coming to terms with the 21st century. He explained that in 2013 he was “living in a world of Victorian novels” (his academic speciality) but, having been asked to write something about the crisis, suddenly found himself thrust into a very different world as he became immersed in the realities of the current political situation. In order to understand what had brought it about he focused on interviewing Young Turks and Young Ottomans and shared not only how these two groups see the situation, but also some of the realities of modern day Turkey and the historical influences which still operate. Although the country is in a state of turmoil, when asked, on a scale of 10, how optimistic he is about the future, Kaya, to the surprise of most of us, answered 9!

The real surprise of the day was the talk given by Allan Jenkins, which was, from the programme notes, about his London allotment (“Plot 29”, as in the title of his book) and the “thrill of growing your own food, the pleasure of losing yourself in the flowerbeds and the joy of allotments as places where people come together to grow.” Expecting a fairly light-hearted talk, what we were privileged to hear was a very moving, intimate and articulate account of his fractured childhood, his search for his roots and the over-riding importance of true nurturing if people (and plants!) are to grow and flourish. It was one of the most moving talks I have ever heard at the festival and the queue for the book-signing was testament to how his story touched so many of us.

Friday 10th

As I have always been fascinated by raptors, and now live in an area where I am privileged to see several species on a regular basis, I decided to forgo my seat in the main theatre (for Prue Leith’s talk) and instead went into the studio to listen to an illustrated talk given by James Macdonald Lockhart who has travelled the length and breadth of the country, from the Orkneys to Dartmoor, to see and photograph all the raptors which can be seen in Britain. His articulate passion for these wonderful birds was a joy to share, as were his stunning photographs of them in their natural habitats. Interspersed with his own photographs were black and white ones taken by his father and grandfather and I found that these added an extra layer of depth and interest to the talk. In addition to showing the grace and beauty of these magnificent birds, he demonstrated a deeply felt love of the countryside. His book Raptor, (which, following such a delightful talk, I felt unable to resist!) describes his journey and evokes powerful images, not only of the birds but also of the changing landscapes he experienced as he continued his quest. James’s articulate talk is one which I am sure will live in my memory for a long time.

Later in the day I enjoyed a light-hearted, and at times very amusing, talk by the irrepressible Michael Rosen. There was no “going on a bear hunt” today, rather some informative, and highly entertaining, insights into Emile Zola’s challenge to the highest powers in France with his famous open letter J’accuse, the author’s need to flee his homeland, with only the clothes he stood up in, and some of his experiences whilst in exile in England. It was a fascinating talk, from which I discovered a lot about the background to such a famous piece of work.

Saturday 11th

The day started with a masterly presentation from Chris Mullin who offered some insights into the Blair years and the rise and fall of New Labour. He is such a fluent and entertaining speaker that he is always able to introduce notes of humour into serious topics!

The talk which followed was entitled “Leaving Kabul” and was given by Christina Lamb – it earned my only score of ten for the day. She has reported from Afghanistan for thirty years and, with great clarity and eloquence discussed the appalling human cost of political failure and how, over many decades, the lack of recognition of the tribal boundaries and loyalties has led to doomed invasions and the consequent spread of terrorism. Her passion for Afghanistan and its people shone through her remarkable accounts of her experiences there as a foreign correspondent and added weight to her analysis of recent military action. Her deep knowledge and understanding of the country made me think that government policy decisions would have been more effective had she been employed as an advisor!

The third session of the day is worthy of inclusion here. This was a conversation between Peter Stanford (who spoke later in the day about Luther, his latest biography) and Marie-Elsa Bragg about her Cumbrian roots and her first novel, Towards Melbreak. She spent much of her childhood in West Cumbria, often speaking dialect, and spoke with great love for the county and the countryside. Her responses to questions from Peter, about both her life and her novel, were reflective and thoughtful and, listening to the short readings from her book, these qualities are reflected in her writing so I’m looking forward to reading it.


The high points of this final day came from the first and the final talks. The first was from Christopher Somerville and was entitled “The Long and Winding Road”. Christopher is a travel writer who, over the years has not only written and broadcast extensively about the UK, its history, people, landscape and wildlife, but has also walked the length and breadth of the country. It was a fascinating talk, illustrated by some wonderful slides.

The final session of this year’s festival belonged to Alan Johnson discussing the third and final volume of his autobiography, covering his years as a highly influential union leader and then as a very popular and effective MP and government minister. He is a very entertaining speaker and his reflections were very well received by a very appreciative audience in the packed auditorium. One cannot help but reflect on what his influence would have been had he been willing to consider putting himself forward as leader of the party and become Prime Minister. However, he made it abundantly clear that he has never harboured any interest or ambition in that direction and that he is now very happy to have the time to write – having read and enjoyed all of his autobiographical books, I feel confident that his move to writing novels will continue to delight his many admirers!


So, it was a very good note on which to end this wonderful festival. An added bonus this year was the fact that the weather remained good for the ten days that I had to travel the 75 mile return journey from Garrigill to Keswick each day – no need this year for the wellies and snow shovel which I always put in the car! It was wonderful to travel towards Keswick each morning, contemplating the day to come and seeing the snow-capped fells of the Lake District, often bathed in sunlight, and then to drive home, reflecting on what the sessions had offered and, whilst catching glimpses of some spectacular sunsets, enjoying the North Pennines, and home, draw ever closer,. What a very special festival this is so thanks must go to Kay Dunbar and Stephen Bristow and the team from Ways with Words, as well as everyone at the theatre and to the Matthews family and staff from Bookends (who do such a magnificent job of ensuring that all the books for each day are where they should be!) for continuing to organise this wonderful event.
The dates for next year (2018) have already been announced so, if you are interested, do set aside time to come to Keswick next year between 9th – 18th March!

Linda Hepworth, March 2017


How can you resist?

Find out more at www.wayswithwords.co.uk and on Twitter @Ways_With_Words


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