N&N Festival, City of Literature review: Why stories have never been so important

The Portrait of an Anxious Nation event with Tom Bolton, James Meek and chaired by Nina Nannar. Phot

The Portrait of an Anxious Nation event with Tom Bolton, James Meek and chaired by Nina Nannar. Photo: Becky MacNaughton - Credit: Archant

The City of Literature weekend, hosted by the National Centre for Writing and Norfolk and Norwich Festival 2019 has once again brought together some of the country's finest writers, thinkers, activists, storytellers and readers.

Portrait of an Anxious Nation with James Meek (pictured) and Tom Bolton. Picture: Marzena Pogorsaly

Portrait of an Anxious Nation with James Meek (pictured) and Tom Bolton. Picture: Marzena Pogorsaly - Credit: Marzena Pogorsaly

For me, one of the best events in the Norfolk and Norwich Festival calendar is the City of Literature weekend.

It celebrates not only the diversity and accessibility of the wider programme - where you can experience 10 days of performance, theatre, art and music within such easy reach of the city centre - but our status as England's first UNESCO City of Literature. While I very rarely know all of the names on the programme, I can almost always guarantee that I will come away with new ideas, from writers, thinkers, activists, storytellers, readers - and often more importantly, fellow audience members.

One of the other reasons I love the programme so much is its flexibility. The National Centre for Writing, which hosts the event, offer a whole weekend ticket - with access to all the talks, lectures, discussions and book signings - or the option to choose the events which appeal most to you. This weekend, I chose to do the latter, and enjoyed the laid-back, festival vibe in the neighbouring Adnams bar in between events.

This year, what seemed to link most of the events - or at least the ones I chose to attend - was an urgent sense of communicating the forgotten, the divided or the lost. Chris Gribble, CEO of the National Centre for Writing, put it best in one of his introductions: "In the current climate," he said, "stories have never been so important in creating understanding."

Opening the weekend was Sinead Gleeson and Aida Edemariam with their fascinating talk on Universal Women. They explored how much snapshots of 'ordinary' lives can reveal about the systems they exist within, from medicine and religion to structures of time, power and place. Both writers offered readings and discussions that were heartfelt, honest, and impassioned about the current, and historical, position of women. Sinead Gleeson's reading of her poem, written to her daughter in the final section of her book, Constellations, was particularly moving as a rallying, and necessary, call to arms.

During Portrait of an Anxious Nation, Tom Bolton and James Meek discussed Brexit's divisive impact on the nation. They described their most recent works which have, in some way, helped them to make sense of the present political climate, and detailed the insightful stories of the people - and their landscapes - who have helped to shape the vote, and featuring some challenging questions from an attentive audience.

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Perhaps the biggest highlight of this year's lineup was the Harriet Martineau lecture, given by award-winning author, Sarah Perry, to a sold out audience. Within just 60 minutes, Sarah had redefined the notion of the 'Essex girl', conjured spirits, spanned centuries and made the audience laugh, gasp and feel empowered by what it might mean to be radical. Drawing on everything from the Boer War to Kim Kardashian, she presented a passionate case for the idea that sometimes the most radical thing we can do is to just… be. It, too, was a rallying call - but also one which reassured, comforted, and left one in awe.