Arts and Culture, Film, Literature

The Woman in the Window Book Review: A J Finn’s twisty thriller is a fascinating study of a mind unleashed

It’s perhaps ironic that I ended up buying and writing a book review of The Woman In The Window because I read the recent expose in The New Yorker of its author, A J Finn, Dan Mallory’s alias. Mallory’s life – and his web of lies, it turns out – could give his own characters a run for their money. Yet, it said to something interesting to me about a reader’s, or perhaps even my own, psychology. Finding out about Finn’s duplicity: a fake doctorate from Oxford, his fabrication of life-threatening brain cancer and parental deaths, did not make me want to read The Woman In the Window on its own, but it did spark a sense of intrigue: where did Finn end and his deceptive characters begin? Would reading The Woman In The Window be more than just suspenseful entertainment, in the vein of Gillian Flyn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train? A quick plot synopsis: alcoholic woman, traumatic event, window, and the promise of lots of twists, was all it took for me to be heading over to Amazon’s Kindle store and start downloading the title. I could have waited to buy a physical copy, but who can wait for that when there’s a novel promising the good stuff, and promising it now?

My first impression of the novel was that I liked it. The combination of the old and the new worked well: the modern New York City, bright, bustling, full of almost unbearable sound and sensation. And then Anna Fox’s world: unbearable –unbearably quiet – and utterly alone, her days filled with vials of merlot and old movies. Anna’s love of film noir – she devours everything from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Otto Preminger’s Laura – gives us a taste of what it’s like to be trapped in Anna’s head, as she lives through fantasy – a brief respite from reality. But Anna is no ordinary person – a former child-psychologist, turned agoraphobic, Anna is stuck – not just inside the house, but inside her mind. Her mind is clearly a brilliant one, but one that may also send her over the edge, into a pit of endless despair. It’s only when the Russell’s move in across the road that Anna’s life is injected with some intrigue: a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Anna loves to watch them through her window, and with her zoom camera in hand, drip-feeding her fragments of their life, she soon learns all about them. Mrs Russell, she learns is having an affair. Their son, Ethan, a beautiful and sensitive teenager, spends his time in solitude in his room.

After a merlot-fuelled bonding session with Mrs Russell, Anna begins to undress many of the Russell’s problems – the way Mrs Russell feels trapped, and, like Anna, longs for a friend, her worries about her son, and her husband’s ferocious, unpredictable temper.
Everything changes when, a few days later, she spies the Russell’s arguing through her window. She sees the image of a woman – Mrs Russell – with a knife inside her. Then, almost as though she never existed at all, Mrs Russell disappears. Or, at least, the Mrs Russell that Anna befriended does. In her place is a new Mrs Russell, dark, rather than blond, sleek, refined, and practically hostile towards Anna. Who is this woman? What’s happened to the other Mrs Russell? And is Anna’s vision real, or simply the delusions of an insane mind? This may be where the questions begin, but we have to wait until the end of the novel to find all the answers.

The Woman In The Window is in many ways a sleek and intriguing thriller. The language is so vibrant you can easily get lost in it – ‘The buildings loom impossibly tall, thrusting like fingers into a rinsed-blue sky above’; ‘Beyond the window branches stir, shedding leaves like embers; they spark against the glass, fly away.’ Finn’s style, though sumptuous and dazzling, does feel slightly over-written. There were times I had to resist the urge to shout: ‘Just get on with it!’ as Finn treated us to yet another: ‘long pause’ before the character decided to do or saying something that had a hope of keeping us readers hooked for another chapter. For the most part though, Finn’s setting in Anna’s oldie-worldie vision of New York – complete with spying neighbours, abundant beauty, and seemingly endless reels of black-and-white classics – compliments the ornate style.

The character of Anna Fox is also an interesting one to consider. Being stuck in Anna’s head is actually an enthralling place to be. Not just because of her insight, or intelligence – but because there are times when we see flickers of the woman she used to be. Despite, or perhaps because of, her mental illness, Anna can be razor-sharp and intuitive. It’s the moments that she spends alone, truly contemplating the state of her life, and feeling her pain (sans Merlot) that we start to feel close to her. But these moments are few and far between. Although Anna is, on the one hand, everything we need in a heroine: both strong and fragile, smart, occasionally witty, and tenacious, I never really felt myself pulling for her. My emotional investment in her as a character was limited to these fleeting moments, and I found myself much more interested in how the plot was unravelling and the whodunit element of the story than Anna’s well-being. There are also a few odd plot developments – Anna’s one-night stand with her tenant, who she barely exchanges a word with aside from when she requires him as a handyman, feels unnecessary and almost entirely pointless.

The big ‘twist’ at the heart of The Woman In the Window and the reason behind Anna’s torment, can be guessed by the canny reader within the first few chapters, but its predictability adds a poignancy to the moment of revelation.

Less predictable, at least for me, was the twist involving the crime at the centre of Anna’s new obsession: the apparent murder of Anna’s neighbour, as seen by Anna through her bedroom window: her spyglass to the outside world. Yet it’s during the novel’s final act that the action picks up a pace – we have the unmasking of an unlikely killer, a rooftop chase, and a conclusion that’s both satisfying and haunting. Whether The Woman In The Window will maintain its hype, securing the accolades of its contemporaries, remains to be seen. Like Gone Girl and The Girl on The Train, The Woman In The Window is getting the Hollywood treatment. With a glittering cast that includes Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman, and with the period-piece connoisseur, Joe Wright, sitting in the director’s seat, The Woman In the Window film is sure to generate plenty of buzz, especially given that its release date places it in the prime position for award season. How Hollywood, following its recent public disgraces, will react to adding another controversial figure in the form of AJ Finn to its mix, is yet unknown. But one thing is guaranteed: the name AJ Finn, and his alluring debut, The Woman In The Window, will remain on reader’s lips for a long time to come.

Arts and Culture, History, Literature

The real St. Valentine

Beheadings, Roman brutality and a Parliament of Fowls — doesn’t sound very romantic, does it? The truth is that Februarys’ celebrated holiday — St. Valentine’s Day — has a complex and varied history.

The truth is, little is known about the origins of Valentine’s. Like many of the highlights of history, the titular Saint Valentine is shrouded in mystery. There are at least three contenders for the title — all Christian martyrs named Valentine or Valentinus. Saint Valentine of Rome perhaps has the most attractive story, being both romantic and tragic in equal measure. During the Roman Empire, Claudius ii ordered that young men be forced to become soldiers. He believed that romance and marriage weakened a man — binding him emotionally to his wife and family — and that the best way to equip the army with fitter, more resilient soldiers was to outlaw marriage. Like many things that are outlawed — be it the prohibition of the early 20th century, or novels such as Nabokov’s Lolita — they tend to take on a shiny new allure that makes the ban almost impossible to enact in reality. Thanks to Valentine, young men discovered that they could have the best of both worlds: to become excellent soldiers and marry their sweethearts in secret. For Valentine, performing these secret marriages was not just a means of helping young men, but was an act of restorative justice — he was giving back what should never have been taken away in the first place. Sadly for Valentine (and the young people he performed the ceremonies for) Claudius soon discovered his actions, and ordered that he be beheaded. It’s also thought that Valentine may have been involved in emancipating Christians from the brutal prisons of the Roman Empire — yet another reason for his execution.

If you’ve ever wondered why people send Valentine’s greetings to each other, Valentine’s story might be responsible for that too. Whilst Valentine was imprisoned in the run-up to his execution, rumour has it he feel in love with and began a romantic relationship with his jailor’s daughter. In one of his many notes to her, he signed himself off as ‘Your Valentine’: and therein a centuries-long tradition began. Whether this particular Saint Valentine is truly the inaugurator of Valentine’s Day may never be known, but perhaps this doesn’t matter. What is important is that he embodies a heroic and self-sacrificing figure — someone who fights for what they believe in. Surely far more romantic than any Hallmark Valentine’s card or candle-lit dinner?

Geoffrey Chaucer (C:1343-1400) — best-known for The Canterbury Tales — is probably not the first name that springs to mind when we think of Valentine’s Day. Yet the earliest reference that I’ve heard to Valentine’s Day in literature was found when studying Chaucer’s dream-vision poem, The Parliament of Fowls. Some believe that it is indeed the first Valentine’s poem ever written and the first reference to the day in English literature:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make.

Chaucer establishes Valentine’s day as the courting season for his Parliament of Fowls and the poem is full of the kind of picturesque imagery we associate with the modern Valentine’s Day: ‘A garden saw I full of blossoming boughs…Where sweetness evermore bountiful is’ to name but a few. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season — which may have given Chaucer the imaginative spark he required to write The Parliament Of Fowls.

Yet the idea that Chaucer popularised Valentine’s Day is still up for debate — it’s thought that the celebration of spring in the poem means that it is likely set later than mid-February. This corresponds with the theory that Chaucer wrote the poem for King Richard ii (1367–1400) during negotiations over his marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1380. This perhaps makes the denouement of the poem — where the birds opt to defer the choosing of their mate — as much of a political statement as a domestic one. One theory proposes that Chaucer is actually referring to May 3 — and this speculation is bolstered by the fact that this was the date that Richard’s engagement to Anne of Bohemia was announced.

We’ll probably never know whether Chaucer’s poem was intended to be set in winter or spring. Perhaps like the festive season, part of the reason we have Valentine’s Day in the middle of February is to give us something to celebrate in the midst of the otherwise bleak mid-winter. The conclusion to Chaucer’s poem may endorse this interpretation:

Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake,
And driven away the longe nightes blake.

Much like the first glimmers of spring, perhaps Valentine’s Day is a reminder that we too can find solace in the darkness.

Fitness, Literature

Running Away those January Blues

Photo by from Pexels

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with running and exercise. On the one hand, nothing quite beats the feeling of knowing you’ve just completed 10 k. Running is also good-quality thinking time. I’ve made some pretty important — if not life-changing — decisions whilst running. It’s also a great time to be creative, to work out how you’re going to get that great idea off the ground, have that important conversation or simply get over a hurdle that has been hindering you personally or professionally. Sometimes running is none of those things though. Sometimes it’s just you and a great playlist, enjoying each other’s company. The best runs are when you feel that burst of energy and excitement, it ebbs and flows as time goes on and the run gets harder, but it’s always there, pushing you forward. And afterwards, you feel great. Runner’s high is real, but it’s easy to forget this on the occasions when you feel overwhelmed with fatigue and you just want to get the whole thing over with. Haruki Murakami even wrote a book about the combined agonies and almost sublime joy that accompany life as a runner. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running ‘chronicles Murakami’s training and completion of 62 miles or an ultra-marathon. It’s a sweeping and highly visceral love song to running — one that reminds us of the innate connection between physical competence and the power of the mind.

What I do know is that running is an important part of my life — and the health benefits, mental and physical, make the aching feet all worth it. Having had something of an exercise hiatus since the summer — and feeling about as unmotivated as it is possible to feel after the delectable indulgences of the festive season — I decided that I needed something that forced me to take action. A few years ago, in a desperate bid to get more active and lose some pounds, I came across an activity app (or game as its devotees prefer to call it.) StepBet is part of a slew of new accountability apps that make you put your money where your mouth is in order to ‘win’ the game. Other useful accountability apps that I’ve recently come across include Beeminder. With Beeminder you pledge a certain amount of money in exchange for the promise that you’ll complete or work on a certain task. The app gives you gentle nudge along the way and lets you know if you’re close to veering off track. It’s helped people lose weight, get their dream job, and even build businesses from scratch.

So back to StepBet, how does the app work? Step bet’s algorithm works out the number of steps you should take for the challenge by using your chosen device (in my case, a Fitbit Charge) and measuring your current activity level, then increasing this level to ensure the challenge is suitably challenging. I’m quite active anyway, running a few times a week and walking wherever possible, so my goal was set at 14,621 on ‘Active’ days and 17, 678 on ‘Active Days.’ Quite the challenge indeed.

So, what’s the driving motivation for signing up to StepBet? The obvious conclusion is that people just want to get fitter, lose a few pounds and start building better habits as we begin a new year. But desire alone is not enough — and this is where the genius of StepBet comes in. What people generally like is money. What people generally dislike is losing money. StepBet takes advantage of this human proclivity by making you bet on yourself and taking your money off you if you fail. If you win, on the other hand, you get back your original bet and a cut of the whole pot (including some of the losers’ money!)

Your winnings will not be particularly substantial — perhaps £10. But for those of us who are more motivated by the stick than the carrot, I think it’s the thought of losing money that is the ultimate motivator. In the game I have just completed, DrizzleMeSkinny’s Stepping In the New Year the bet is $40 or approximately £30. Not enough money to bankrupt you if something went wrong and you did lose it, but just enough money to hurt a little if you did lose it. £30 is enough money for two cinema tickets and a few drinks, a new outfit or maybe even a cheap meal out for two. It’s just enough money to stop you thinking ‘Sod it, I can’t be bothered anymore, I’ll just lose the money.’

Starting the five-week challenge in January, I probably picked the worst month of the year to start a challenge that involves lots of outdoor activity. January is for hibernation, long luxurious baths, cosy weekend lie-ins and hot chocolate, a time for lounging around and just coddling ourselves a bit. Not anymore. This challenge has seen me run and walk in rain, hail, ice, and snow. It became even more difficult when I started a new full-time job at the end of January and had to find increasingly creative ways to get my steps in. I found that eating lunch at my desk and spending my lunch break marching around the streets, going to the upstairs loo in the office, walking into the city centre after work and then walking around the streets (or sometimes the shops if it’s too cold) just about does the trick. If I didn’t get enough steps in during the day, an after-work run was the way to do it. I’ve no doubt looked ever so slightly insane to the staff in shops ranging from John Lewis to Topshop as I’ve marched up and down the isles — the bigger the shop the better. The challenge does provide a good opportunity for window shopping.

So, today, as these five long weeks have come to an end, and I’m declared a StepBet champion, what am I taking away from the experience? Well, like anything worth doing, there have been positive and negative aspects of the challenge. On the negative side, doing the challenge can be exhausting, it zaps a lot of your leisure time in the working week — time that I could spend reading that book that’s been on the shelf for months, working on my writing or, let’s be honest, binge-watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy. It also does make walking a bit of a chore — when you’re walking to achieve something, it seems like time slows down and every step becomes an effort, a formula that you must follow in order to succeed. It makes you miss the kind of walking you do in the majestic countryside or on a warm summer’s evening. The kind of walking where I look down at my Fitbit and have magically achieved over 20,000 steps with what feels like no effort at all. That’s the kind of walking I love and the kind of walking I look forward to getting back to. The challenge also hasn’t helped me lose any weight — the main reason I signed up for StepBet. After the delicious indulgences of Christmas, I expected that by getting my diet in check and upping my activity level — I typically needed to run for over an hour a day or walk for two in order to achieve my steps — would pay dividends. Not so.

Yet, in spite of the frosty walks, the painful feet and the static scale number, the benefits of doing the challenge have been overwhelming. My fitness levels have increased drastically. My resting heart rate has completely normalised — given that I have had tachycardia most of my life, this is an incredible bonus — and I’ve saved about £15 in bus tickets.

It’s also made me reflect on the positive habits and behaviour that the challenge encourages and which I hope to continue with. Walking through the peaceful gardens near where I work is an energising experience. Time away from my desk where I can think, relax, and contemplate. It allows me to return to work in the afternoon feeling calm, balanced, and ready to be productive. Sitting at your desk and watching re-runs of The Office is just not the same. It also encouraged me to run 13.3 k — that’s a half marathon! I haven’t signed on any dotted lines yet, but it has made me consider taking my hobby up a notch and perhaps signing up for a 10k.

StepBet Challenge half-marathon
Hitting that elusive 13.3 k

The challenge has been difficult, and if I’d been working full-time since the beginning of the challenge I think it’d have been a lot more likely that my money would have ended up in the losers’ pot. I don’t think I’ll be ready to sign up for another game until the spring or summer — because the challenge does interfere with and, to some extent, rule your life while you’re doing it. I’m not ready to give up all my autonomy to a fitness app quite yet — I worship at the altar of the StepBet gods who sign up to challenges back-to-back. What StepBet has done for me has pulled me out of the apathy I was feeling — that stay-in-bed-all-day and drink buckets of tea in your dressing gown kind of apathy. That has its time and place and is a wonderful treat when done sparingly, but it shouldn’t become a habit. StepBet got me back into gear, feeling motivated, energised, and enthusiastic again — and for that, it’s worth the £30 entry fee alone.

I look forward to the challenges and triumphs that my next StepBet game brings, but in the meantime, I’m off for a weekend jog.

NOTE: this article was written the day I completed my StepBet challenge 09/02/2018, but because of life, it wasn’t published until today.

Arts and Culture, Irish Authors, Literature

The Best of 2018: Roddy Doyle’s ‘Smile’ 


Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Rewind back to the spring of 2018 and celebrated Irish author, Roddy Doyle, is being interviewed by Stephanie Merritt as the celebrated Hay Festival enters its 30th year. The topic is Doyle’s latest offering: a harrowing story of childhood trauma, secrets, and self-revelation. The date of Doyle’s interview is significant: the 25th of May 2018, the day of the historic Irish abortion referendum: the people of Ireland voted by a margin of 66.4% to repeal the eighth. For Doyle, the victory was not just political, but deeply personal – as a young teacher, he often landed himself in trouble when leafleting to repeal the eighth. Ireland, for Doyle, is not just his homeland, but the physical and political tapestry onto which many of his best-selling novels are woven.

In Smile one of Ireland’s most troubling associations is cast into the spotlight: the sexual abuse scandals that have, and continue, to plague the Catholic church. Yet Doyle does not attack the Catholic church as a whole, despite his criticism of institutionalised religion. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2017, he said:

There is great comfort in the notion of the few bad apples. There are a few bad Christians, there are a few bad priests who, if you like, made the whole institution seem rotten, and it’s not, it’s fine.

Though Doyle’s novel does possess what he calls an ‘autobiographical spark.’ As a child, he was a student at the authoritarian Christian Brothers’ school. A school where discipline and sickening violence were at the top of the menu.  The novel’s title, Smile, was conceived from an encounter Doyle had as a teenager with one of the Brothers: ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile’, he said. Inevitably, ceaseless taunting and torment shadowed Doyle through much of his secondary school life. It was only much later in life that Doyle found out that he had got off lightly – over a discussion with old school friends, he discovered that a significant number of his friends had been sexually abused or assaulted whilst attending the Christian Brothers’ School. And so, the premise of Smile was born.

That’s not to say that the sexual abuse scandal took Doyle by surprise. In his conversation with Merritt he recalled how certain boys would be asked to ‘stay behind’ with the Christian brothers after school. Eventually, the other boys insisted on staying behind collectively to prevent the abuse from happening – safety in numbers proving key to preventing the abuse or at least making it more difficult for the Brothers to continue undetected.

Yet Smile is not just a novel about abuse, in the same way, that Two Pints isn’t a novel that’s just about two Irish blokes in a pub. It could be described as a meditation on memory and its unreliable, labyrinth-like nature. Smile portrays memory as not just a photograph, capturing a moment in time, but as an image with fuzzy, indistinct edges, where figures loom in the background, contorted and unfamiliar. When we first meet the newly single Victor Forde, he seems quite satisfied with what middle-age has handed him. He lives in a tiny apartment in Dublin and frequents his local, Donelly’s pub, where he sinks a pint or two whilst absorbed in his book. It seems like an attempt to bridge the gap between the solitary and the social, by doing an activity that involves a little of both.

Victor feeds us snippets. As a youngster, he was a wannabe music journalist, who enjoyed moderate success. He recalls how he met his wife (now ex)- Rachel, who had an ambition of her own: to become a top celebrity chef and television personality. The middle of the novel provides a departure from much of the chaos and confusion, as the storyline gives way to romance. We watch as Victor and Rachel bond over pints of Guinness, have sex and fall in love. For now, Victor has got the girl, but the reader already has the foreknowledge to know that this is not to last. Yet the Victor and Rachel of the past muddle through their poverty and pain for what they want – Victor, a career as a novelist, Rachel, her burgeoning catering business ‘Heels on Wheels.’ As a reader we can’t see what could possibly have gone so wrong – they struggle from day-to-day, but always hand-in-hand.

Fast-forward back to the present, and Victor’s solitary existence doesn’t last long. A man in shorts and a pink shirt, who calls himself Ed Fitzpatrick, interrupts Victor’s reveries one night in the pub. Fitzpatrick claims that he went to the same Christian Brothers’ school as Victor and vividly remembers the taunting Victor encountered: ‘“What was the name of the brother that used to fancy you? … Would he fancy us now, Victor?’” Fitzpatrick seems uncouth and provocative, but ultimately harmless. But not for Victor. For Victor, the sight of Fitzpatrick triggers an irrational hatred: ‘“I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kill him.”’ For Victor, Fitzpatrick embodies the uncanny: that face in the crowd that you can’t quite place, the nightmare that threatens to engulf the quotidian nature of life. Victor has no recollection of the man who claims they were at school together; whose sister apparently had a ‘thing’ for Victor. But isn’t that just the nature of memory? It’s slippery, half-formed and prone to rusting with age. Yet Victor also finds himself drawn to Fitzpatrick in a way that he can’t explain: he is repelled and intrigued in equal measure.

The shocking conclusion of Smile forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything that has come before. We’ve had clues along the way – Victor reveals towards the end of the novel that Rachel was not his wife, after all, but that he found it easier to refer to her as that. In one intense scene, in the middle of their blissful relationship, he awakens in the middle of the night and tells her everything: ‘I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart.’

This ‘bursting apart’ is Victor’s revelation of the sexual abuse he experienced during his time at the Christian Brothers’ school. Victor’s mask is starting to slip – and this is just the beginning. The climax of Smile is sure to divide readers – but since when is that a bad thing? Literature that denies us a tidy ending – think JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – has often been praised for its verisimilitude and experimental nature. Doyle provides the reader with a twist that is surreal, outrageous, perhaps even dissatisfying, yet it also, oddly, feels like the only conclusion Doyle could possibly have written. With Smile, love it or hate it, Roddy Doyle is entering new territory and pushing the boundaries of his own genre. If memory is a tapestry, in Smile, Doyle proves himself a supreme craftsman.

Arts and Culture, Literature

Charles Dickens: The Man Who Invented Christmas 🎄

Read ‘Humbug to Hygge’ Savage Online

JESSICA BEASLEY considers ‘hygge’ and the Yuletide legacy of Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol.    Unless you have decided to boycott bookshops this winter, almost undoubtedly you will have encountered the nation’s growing fascination with hygge–the art of Danish happiness. For those of us with neither the funds nor inclination to redecorate our houses in wood, candles and Scandi soft furnishings, the closest we get to indulging in hygge is during Christmas–‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ definitely counts. Patrick Kingsley, author of the travel book How To Be Danish, asserts that the idea is ‘rooted in the Danish sense of togetherness, and perhaps even in Denmark’s social democracy’. Possibly, Christmas’s most famous social commentator, Charles Dickens, encapsulated the importance of values such as generosity, warmth and community in his 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. Since its publication, A Christmas Carol has become increasingly ever-present in popular culture, forging a close association…


Arts and Culture, Literature

Hay Festival 2018: The Highlights – Ian McEwan, Michael Morpurgo, Margaret Atwood and more!

Margaret Atwood Hay Festival 2018

The world-famous Hay Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. The festival’s location is in the picturesque village of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, formerly known as ‘The Town of Books.’ Founded by Norman, Rhoda and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival has humble origins, with its events originally being held in a variety of locations including antique bookshops (Hay boasts twenty books shops) and the local primary school, before moving to a unified location just outside the village. The festival was hailed by former US President Bill Clinton as ‘The Woodstock of the mind’ and continues to attract bigger names and bigger crowds year on year. Read on to find out just what makes the festival the literary and cultural treasure trove that it has become.

Roddy Doyle talks to Stephanie Merritt

Saturday 26 of May, 5:30 pm

 Beloved Irish writer Roddy Doyle kicked off the Bank Holiday weekend with a lively discussion of his up-coming novel Smile. Hot on the heels of the historic Irish referendum which saw 66.4% of The Republic of Ireland vote in favour of overturning The Eighth Amendment, Doyle discussed his own involvement with the pro-reform movement in his youth, where as a young teacher Doyle frequently leafleted in favour of repealing the eighth. The Booker Prize winner’s latest novel Smile deals with the harrowing topic of childhood sexual abuse by teachers in Catholic Ireland. Doyle claims that the novel, whilst fictional has an ‘autobiographical spark’ and is inspired by his own time as a schoolboy at the Christian Brothers school. In Smile, Doyle combines his typical irony and charm with the hard-hitting and often distressing recount of childhood demons and personal renewal. Smile’s shocking climax will ensure that this is a novel that stays with the reader long after they have turned the final page.


Men and Suicide: Making sense and building resilience

Saturday 26 May 2018, 8.30pm

Suicide is the leading cause of death amongst men aged 20-49 years old in England and Wales. In this enlightening and often difficult discussion, Andy Bradley, founder of Frameworks 4 Change, was joined by Sarah Stone, Executive Director of Samaritans, Army veteran Luke Woodley and Dr Roger Kingerlee, Consultant Clinical Psychologist who specialises in male suicide prevention. On the surface, Andy Bradley had it all: a job he enjoyed, an adoring wife and children and a loving home, yet in December 2016 he found himself on the platform of a train in Hove, ready to take the leap. After mentally making a list of all those whose lives he felt would be better off without him, Bradley took a pause when he was unable to think of a reason why his wife and ‘soulmate’ Kirsty would be better off without him. Having sought help, Bradley is now considered by NESTA and The Observer as one of Britain’s most radical thinkers. He considers internalised and unaddressed shame as a source of the high depression and suicide rates amongst men, acknowledging that he himself is not ‘cured’ of depressive tendencies, but continues to manage his feelings through therapy and meditation. Highlights of the discussion included new means of tackling treatment and broadening options for young men, who may sometimes feel uneasy about talking-therapy, such as sports’ associations & the ways that employers can help employees feeling low, with Aviva acting as trailblazers in this area, with their implementation of a relaxation room providing an outlet for stressed and depressed employees. To find out about more of Bradley’s work in the field of compassion and care visit:

 Ian McEwan talks to Stig Abell

Sunday 27 May, 2:30pm

 Ian McEwan Hay Festival 2018

The best-selling author of Atonement (2001) recently made headlines when he revealed that an A-Level literature essay that he assisted his teenage son with, on his own novel, Enduring Love, only received a paltry C+. Humour is a major part of McEwan’s cannon and his personality. Humour, sex and sophistry are the hallmarks of the majority of McEwan’s novels, short-stories and novellas. During his discussion with Abell, McEwan attributed the highly-sexed characters of his formative novels to the fact that, as a young novelist: ‘sex was all I could think about.’ One positive of growing older, McEwan quipped, is that ‘you don’t think about sex…all the time.’ Much like his US contemporary, the recently deceased Phillip Roth, the motivations behind his characters’ actions have changed as he has aged – with less emphasis on lust and a shift towards considerations of mortality. Despite the glamour and allure behind many of his best-selling novels, McEwan admitted that such themes enabled him to live vicariously through his characters. He himself was a lover of school, a literature turned-creative-writing student, turned-teacher, turned-novelist. McEwan’s short reading of an excerpt from his latest short-story collection showed that the themes of sex, lust and displacement have not entirely disappeared from his writing: the chapter concludes, fittingly, with an orgasm. McEwan also welcomed onto the stage the winner of the 2018 Deborah Rodgers Foundation Writers’ Award, Deepa Anappara, whose wonderful reading of her work of fiction Djiin Patrol and Purple Line showcased the magnificent legacy that Rodgers has left behind.  


Peter Florence, The Pity of War

Sunday 27 May, 2018, 9:45 pm

 An event unlike any other at the Hay Festival, Peter Florence’s breathtaking reading of his father, Norman Florence’s, award-winning play about the poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, provided a stirring reminder of the universality of the pity of war. The tiny Llwyfan Cymru stage provided the perfect setting for an intimate and moving reading. Comprised of a combination of Owen’s letters, beginning at the outbreak of war when Owen was teaching in provincial France, and his world-famous poetry, Florence’s seamless interweaving of the personal and the political, the quotidian and the poetical, still leaves audiences spellbound to this day. Owen’s war poetry including the harrowing ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and Owen’s famed response to jingoism ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ have seen Owen’s poetry become a bulwark of the National Curriculum. Owen himself said that: ‘All a poet can do today is warn.’ Florence’s final reading of arguably Owen’s most rousing work, ‘Strange Meeting’, tells the story of an exchange between a British soldier and the spirit of a German soldier he has just killed. Owen himself died in action on 4 November 1918. A memorial to the poet, Symmetry, that lies in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey, contains an inscription, with ‘Strange Meeting’s’ most famous line: ‘I am the enemy you killed my friend.’ Florence’s reading proved that ‘The Pity of War’ is a discussion that shall never be done.

 Ambient Literature

Writing Workshop, Monday May 28, 12-1:30 pm

 For those of you whose creative muscles have grown a little rusty, writer Tom Abba’s writing workshop will provide the perfect antidote to creative apathy. In a world where technology such as smartphones, social media and the internet are often blamed for plummeting concentration spans and a loss of natural creativity, Abba challenges this notion by showing us how we can use just our smartphones to create dazzling new worlds. The workshop begins with each participant being given an Ambient notebook, each labelled with sections that correspond with Abba’s PowerPoint presentation – participants are encouraged to make notes and engage actively with the material. Next up participants are divided into ‘readers’ and ‘listeners’ – with one set of the audience listening to Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark by Then, whilst the remainder read the story. But what, you may ask, is the point of all this? Abba wants to show us how to untether our minds from linearity in order to create more innovative, exciting and unique forms of writing. The concluding part of the workshop, which saw participants engage in a wholly interactive experience involving words, speech and sound, encouraged participants to read Kate Pullinger’s ghost story Breathe: a story that shows us the equally terrifying and exhilarating possibilities offered by creative technology.

Michael Morpurgo in conversation with Peter Florence

Monday 28 May 2018, 2:30 pm.

 Michael Morpurgo Hay Festival 2018

Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling novel War Horse (1982) arguably cemented his place amongst Britain’s greatest children authors, with the novel having been turned into a hit film directed by Steven Spielberg and enjoying 8 record-breaking years in London’s West End. Morpurgo chatted to one of Hay Festival’s founders (and current director) Peter Florence about his new children’s novel, Flamingo Boy – a novel, which, much to Morpurgo’s amusement, few of the audience members appeared to have read. Flamingo Boy, set during WW11, tells the story of an autistic boy, Lorenzo, who perceives the world differently to others but also has a multitude of extraordinary talents – namely his ability to heal and communicate with animals. Morpurgo explained that the character of Lorenzo was inspired by his autistic grandson, adding that his experience with his grandson and the research he partook in the process of writing has led him to the conclusion that ‘we are all autistic to some extent.’ Morpurgo spent part of the discussion reflecting on the trajectory of his phenomenally successful year, from his beginnings as a day-dreaming schoolboy, to his days as a student at King’s College London, where he claims that his proclivity for ‘staring out of windows’ is what landed him with a Third-Class BA in English and French. But the highlight of the discussion was when Morpurgo engaged in a Q&A with some of his biggest fans – the children in the audience, enabling the novelist to flex his comic muscles. Questions ranged from ‘What’s your favourite animal?’ (a dolphin, for your information) to ‘How do you write so well?’ (a question I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves.) Morpurgo’s discussion proved that, in addition to being a remarkable novelist, he also continues to be a consummate entertainer.

Margret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Monday 28 May 2018, 4pm

Margaret Atwood Hay Festival 2018 2 

Margret Atwood recently hit the headlines when she likened the treatment of Steven Galloway, the former chair of creative writing at the University of British Columbia who was accused of sexual misconduct, to the Salem Witch Trials. Despite the backlash that followed, with some labelling Atwood a ‘bad feminist’, it appears that the 78-year-old Canadian writer is as popular as ever, with this event, held in the venue’s largest tent, the Tata Tent, selling out months in advance. Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel has recently been dramatised into a successful television series for hulu. The theatrical elements of the series migrated to the Hay Festival, with the discussion opening with the entrance of the hooded handmaids, accompanied by series’ chilling soundtrack. Atwood addressed the criticism that she has received surrounding the poetic licence that creator Bruce Miller has taken, including, most controversially, the sanctioning of a second series. Atwood revealed that the rights to the television show were entirely out of her hands, but despite having ‘no control’ she believed the production had ‘done a tippity-top job’ and she was particularly pleased to hear that Miller’s small team of ten consisted of seven women. Although Atwood’s dystopian horror story in which women are farmed out into sexual servitude and surrogacy may sound far-fetched, Atwood revealed that all events that occur in the book have taken place at some point in history. In the infamous scene in which the bodies of doctors who performed abortions are hung up on the outskirts of Harvard University, Offred comments that ‘in the time before…such things were legal.’ In the wake of the Irish referendum and the continuation of protests in Northern Ireland, Atwood’s novel has never been more relevant.