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REVIEW: Thought-provoking talks and the Dunkirk spirit prevail at Stratford Literary Festival

Like many that attended this May’s Stratford Literary Festival, I came away not only with a stack of signed books, but also feeling fully enriched.

I don’t mean to sound too earnest, like some sort of Instagram life coach, but it’s true, there were so many wise and wonderful thoughts shared that one couldn’t help but feel the mental and spiritual benefit of it.

Perhaps the festival was lent a special frisson by going ahead despite the setback of a fire at its original venue – Stratford’s Crowne Plaza, which unfortunately remains closed due to damage caused by the emergency on Monday, 29th April.

There was definitely a Dunkirk-ish spirit on display as festival director Annie Ashworth and her team pulled miracles – and venues - from hats as the community rallied together to ensure the festival went ahead.

Michael Rosen. Photos: Rupert Barnes
Michael Rosen. Photos: Rupert Barnes

In some cases it even worked out for the better – Michael Rosen beamed like a toddler in a sweetshop to be on the main stage at the RSC to deliver his chat on Friday lunchtime.

If ever you’re feeling down, I can recommend a dose of Rosen. He did two stints for the festival – a kids’ session and one for adults. The grown ups one saw him ostensibly talk about his book Getting Better – subtitled ‘life lessons on going under, getting over it, and getting through it’.

He is in real life as he is on page: a consummate storyteller – he does not pause, hesitate or ‘um’ during his oration, every word carries the narrative delightfully onward. Whatever he’s talking about he is spellbinding, and expresses wonderfully what it is to be human even when life is at its ghastliest. His words hug and comfort you like a cosy blanket on a chill morning.

He’s quirky, offbeat and above all entertaining – even when talking about death and dying, including his battle with Covid that nearly killed him and left his sight and hearing impaired.

Lord knows his experiences are heartbreaking and powerful – not least his son Eddie’s sudden death at 19. The way he talks so searingly honestly – pragmatic even – about the circumstances in which he lost his boy, and how he is with the grief now is incredibly moving.

Rosen finishes with a hilarious tale of how he became a ‘meme’ the world over for the way he said ‘nice’ – more like a Cockney ‘noice’ – in a clip while narrating his poem Hot Food.

From the frivolous to the profound, Rosen covered it all and left hearts touched and faces beaming.

Another touching event concerned, perhaps surprisingly, investigative journalism – sponsored by the Herald, and on at the Welcombe on Thursday afternoon.

Sam Peters has investigated forensically for The Mail on Sunday the possible link between head injuries in sport and early onset dementia and brain damage – he delivered a compelling argument for better safeguarding in sports such as rugby.

Hannah Barnes and Sam Peters The Herald sponsored talked about their books at The Power of Investigative Journalism event sponsored by the Herald held at the Welcombe Hotel. Photo: Mark Williamson
Hannah Barnes and Sam Peters The Herald sponsored talked about their books at The Power of Investigative Journalism event sponsored by the Herald held at the Welcombe Hotel. Photo: Mark Williamson

Given the recent damning report about the way the Tavistock Clinic has been treating trans children, Hannah Barnes talk was very topical. She is an associate editor of the New Statesman and author of Time to Think: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Tavistock’s Gender Service for Children.

Both speakers spoke about their subjects with passion, and showed the need for dedicated journalists to unearth wrongdoings.

Most movingly, though, were the families who had turned up to listen to original speaker Caroline Wheeler, whose book Death in the Blood exposed the shocking scandal over the deaths of thousands given contaminated blood in the 1970s and 80s.

At the end of the session, one bereaved mum politely interrupted to speak on behalf of the small group there – to deliver their truth and experiences. It was an entirely appropriate forum, and her words were welcomed by all present. It really showed how much investigative journalism matters.

Author David Nicholls. Photo: Rupert Barnes
Author David Nicholls. Photo: Rupert Barnes

There was charm galore during David Nicholls’ appearance on at the Play House on Saturday afternoon.

Any fans of his books – and indeed the recent television version of One Day – will perhaps not be surprised that the creator of these sophisticated rom-coms is urbane and wise.

He talked with real insight about love and relationships, and the writing process – no wonder he seems to ‘get’ women more than we often understand ourselves.

Without giving away any spoilers, he spoke about his new book – out last week – You Are Here, about finding love while on a hiking holiday. I was convinced enough to snap up a copy for summer holiday reading.

Adored locally, RSC and Archers actor David Troughton is a generous interviewee.

Actor David Troughton pictured backstage at Stratford PlayHouse. Photo: Mark Williamson
Actor David Troughton pictured backstage at Stratford PlayHouse. Photo: Mark Williamson

The dad of three boys – now all grown up, actors Sam and William, and cricketer Jim – and husband of Alison, who he clearly adores, he his happy to talk about family life, his early memories of the RSC and his life in Stratford.

He had the audience in the palm of his hand when he appeared last Wednesday at the Play House.

There is a lovely air about David – he is modest, clearly doesn’t like fuss much, is refreshingly honest and frank, cares deeply about the craft of acting, and the game of cricket – in which he is a qualified umpire.

His recollection of his time at the RSC in the early 80s – when he first moved to Stratford – were particularly fascinating. “I was in six plays at once. Terry Hands was such a workhorse he once called me into rehearsals while I was offstage during a production of another play,” he laughed.

David’s dad was, of course, the great actor Patrick Troughton (the second Doctor Who), and he spoke honestly of his strained relationship with him.

“It’s well known that he set up with another family [his dad left when David was five and had another family] But he came back regularly. I did originally want to be a stunt man after meeting one at my dad’s work at the BBC. But I followed him into acting – I’ve always liked wearing funny shoes and being in front of an audience.”

For me the festival finished on a high note – literally – with the Celebration of Noel Coward with Alistair McGowan with soprano Charlotte Page and pianist Lana Bode.

Alistair McGowan with wife Charlotte Page. Photos: Rupert Barnes
Alistair McGowan with wife Charlotte Page. Photos: Rupert Barnes

It explored Noel Coward’s less known numbers and skits, sometimes dark tales of love and longing. It kicked off with a divine rendition of Mad About the Boy – Page’s voice is to die for – and ended with a poignant reading of a playlet about upper-middle class parents rejecting their gay son.

It was something I’d not heard before, and it left me wanting to learn more… Which in fact the whole festival did – all of it wonderfully thought-provoking stuff.

Well done all.

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