London Word Festival – The Goodbye Library – 27 April 2011 – by Emmy The Great & Jack Underwood
Featuring Elizabeth Sankey (Summer Camp), Miriam Elia, Joe Dunthorne, Nikesh Shukla
Midweek, my friend phoned and all I heard was “Emmy The Great…Elizabeth Sankey…Islington…see you there..” Intrigued I met up with him and joined a small queue of apparent Islington-ites outside The Nave, an ex-church which also does duty as a private school. They probably weren’t Islington-ites at all, simply that when I got there, I discovered what I should have known all along that this was ‘literary festival’ as much as it was ‘gig’.
Forgive my country-boy-in-the-city naivety but it all just felt much more North London darling than my more usual east end haunts, a notion that became a self fulfilling prophesy as the night went on. The literary event in question was The London Word Festival, or at least one night of it. Tonight’s happening was certain not to garner any grant funding from the Tory government, the theme being libraries and their creeping demise at the hands of spending cuts. We’d all been invited to take a book, to create some sort of instant guerilla library. I’d been too dull to notice that bit on the website. Luckily my friend Martyn had anticipated this and taken a couple of books, to cover my back (my lack of paper-back?) We adopted our usual positions, there too early, sitting on the front of the stage, drinking tins of beer, whilst the books donated by all the patrons except me were stacked on specially waiting shelves. I screwed my eyes to scan what titles people had brought. “Who the fuck” I asked “brings a book called Galileo’s Finger, what’s that about?” “Ah” said Martyn “that’s the one I brought”. Of course it was, it had to be. Chances are that if I’d known in advance there would be book readings by authors, and even poets, I might have had a tactical headache, but in the event, what a blast this turned out to be. The evening was curated, that’s definitely the right word, by Emmy The Great and poet Jack Underwood.
Working their way through the Dewey decimal classifications on the end of library shelves, we were treated to a soliloquy on parenthood by Miriam Elia, someone who might possibly have kids of her own in, what, the next fifteen years or so? She was acerbic in a very nice way, quip of the day being that when she does have those kids, she’ll take them for a treat to one of those American Diner places, and to add to the effect, they can all dress up in authentic fifties costumes. And maybe they could learn the jitterbug and dance to the juke box, she mused, and to add even further to the effect, perhaps they could racially segregate the tables? I said it was North London political didn’t I? But funny with it.
We had two readings by authors, South Wales poet Joe Dunthorne sardonically describing his gap year in New South Wales, doing all those exciting things, selling mobile phone contracts and getting drunk, that he could have equally well done in Barry Island. We were also treated, and I really truly mean that, to Nikesh Shukla reading from his book ‘Coconut Unlimited’. The story is a scarcely hidden autobiography of growing up as an Asian boy on the right side of the tracks in London, trying to be as edgy as a middle class 12 year could be – ‘pretty cool’ – recording his own rap music onto two cassette recorders with his mate whilst the extended family carry on ordinary life downstairs. Shukla is these days a bit of a rapper himself, possibly in a comedy parody sense, but it did mean that he got the hip hop delivery of a nice 12 year old just right. It was simply brilliant, and the first thing I did the next day was order the book for myself.
There were two musical sections, the first by Emmy in her ‘The Great’ guise. We got an advance listen to one of the tracks off her new album, not due out for months yet. The song is ‘Cassandra’, which was absolutely appropriate for tonight, being based on Emmy’s own library excursions, where she stumbled on (I kid you not) an idiot’s illustrated guide to psychologist Carl Jung. I just knew that Emmy was in her element in a literature festival, her library muse proved it beyond any reasonable doubt.
Emmy The Great
The other musical interlude was from Emmy again, this time joined by Elizabeth Sankey. Her Summer Camp partner Jeremy Warmsley was sat cross legged on the floor with the rest of us. Except it wasn’t Emmy and Elizabeth at all. Instead, by the magic of imagination, they were transformed into Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield, the two twin sisters from Francine Pascal’s mind rotting Sweet Valley High series of books for teenage girls. The songs were all about the two girls lives in the Valley, where all manner of bizarrities happen – many murders, deaths in road crashes, scandal, intrigue, just like any good soap opera. The punch line though was that despite all this, the girls had … never had sex. Strange but true. Except that when they came clean ten years later, here on stage in front of us, one of them had, but only with the other one’s boyfriend. Gorgeous stuff.
The guerilla library was brought full circle by us all being prompted to choose a book to take home. Martyn managed to snag, or more accurately steal off the stage, the Sweet Valley High book that Emmy had been holding up. Me? I got Galileo’s Finger. I just hope he’d washed it.