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Medway River Lit: a personal view by Melissa Todd

“Nothing is unwritable”, says Caroline Bird, patron of Medway River Lit, the literary festival which took place last month. “Write it. Then choose if you want to deal with the consequences.”

Sound advice, and many of the hundreds of authors, poets and playwrights who performed at and attended this year’s festival had clearly chosen to ponder and abide by it. I heard works about Pirate Queens, mauled teen Lion tamers, Tories, Brexit, Dickens, Jews, “cosy crime”, memoirs, suicide, paedophiles, asylum seekers, sex work - every conceivable subject, covered in every conceivable fashion, and then some.

... in Medway, wherever you might be in your literary journey, as reader, writer, or listener, there seemed to be an emphasis on inclusivity.

I’d not been to a literary festival before, despite being a bookworm, because I'd assumed they'd be bourgeois snooty affairs, not for the likes of me. First-timer fortuity perhaps, but in Medway, wherever you might be in your literary journey, as reader, writer, or listener, there seemed to be an emphasis on inclusivity.

For instance: I’d never heard the phrase “cosy crime” before. Had you? Following in the tradition of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, turns out it’s a guaranteed formula for a best-seller, consisting of a series of rules, which the sparky panel of authors delighted in breaking: amateur detectives, usually middle aged women, at the heart of their community, who manage to make the police seem buffoons. The cosiest books place an emphasis on puzzle solving, as opposed to sex, gore and violence. Fascinating. I’ve never wanted to write crime before, but suddenly I’m desperate to have a go. No time, however, for I’m off to the memoir writing workshop at Chatham library, and before I’ve digested that, a poetry open mic at Gillingham’s mid-Kent college campus. This is a festival that exploits every inch of the Medway area, but particularly its many libraries. I encounter four of them during the 10-day long festival, and admire every one. Strood, Chatham, Gillingham, Rochester.

Not a new or original observation, I realise, but goodness, aren’t libraries fabulous? All that quality free stuff, nestling among smiley librarians and comfy chairs. 'Liminal spaces', Philip Kane called them, at the reading he gave during the Medway Poets special, '25 Years of Hunger'. Liminal spaces are those that have somehow managed to fall between the cracks of capitalism. There’s no pressure in libraries to spend, consume, produce. Simply be. No one will ask why. Very much like this festival.

Run by Sam and Barry Fentiman-Hall, who together make up Wordsmithery, this is the first Medway literary festival for 25 years, but they hope fervently it can be repeated in the near future. As do I. It’s such an absolute treat to smell writers’ fear as they perform, instruct and share their words. You’d think writing would be an entirely solitary activity, but plenty of us feel you can’t create in a vacuum. Despite popular belief, literary visions aren’t actually planted in your soul by a friendly muse. You must rub up against other ideas to begin your own flame.

I gave a talk myself, and flogged some books, although that was genuinely far from the week’s chief joy. At the Queen Charlotte in Rochester I looked out across a sea of faces, assembled to hear my words, and thought, gosh, it’s a sunny Friday night, and these people have chosen to be here, simply to listen to my nonsense. Thrilling.

Literary events are empathy machines (...) if we lose our language and our stories, we lose what connects us to our past, our land, and to each other.

The extravaganza concluded with Pete “ The Temp” Bearder performing at the Sun Pier House in Chatham. Spoken word, he argued, is a lived relationship between art and life. Language is the method by which the universe metabolises itself through us, while the word poetry derives from the Greek “to create”. In spoken word, the creating is every bit as much about the communities as the words and performances around which they rally. Literary events are empathy machines, Pete Bearder told us, before explaining how, if we lose our language and our stories, we lose what connects us to our past, our land, and to each other.

As Barry Fentiman-Hall writes, in his new poetry collection Austerity Soup, (thoroughly recommended): “You stand on the empty bellied bones of the ones who went before you / These are my people and yours and they are not to be ignored…”

And they’ll try telling you literature is elitist! They’re lying to keep you quiet.

If you missed this year’s festival, insist there be one next year, and be sure to attend, and be prepared to have your life and mind altered, immeasurably, and permanently, for the better.

Photos above show (L-R) Row 1: Barry Fentiman Hall and Sam Hall; Melissa Todd reading at the Queen Charlotte; Melissa Todd.
Row 2: Miss Yankey performing at Even Bigger Trouble at McLeods; What is Cosy Crime? panel at Strood Library; Patron Caroline Bird at Medway Adult Education.


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