Tag Archives: Peter Pomerantsev

Durham Book Festival; Modern Russia

As many regular readers of my blog will know I can sometimes struggle with non-fiction. However, this is something that I am keen to address, or even redress, as I think that sometimes non-fiction (when done right) can have an incredibly deep and resonating impact with you as you know it’s real. It can also make it all the more uncomfortable, in all the right ways, because you can’t read some of the things going on in the world, past or present, and simply say ‘oh but it’s fiction’ even when it seems to be stranger than.

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For this reason I already had my sights on attending the Modern Russia event at the festival today with journalists Arkady Ostrovsky and Luke Harding at the Town Hall. I don’t think I was quite ready for the event that unfolded before me and how much it has bothered me and stayed with me several hours (sorry my phone died) since.

Arkady is a Russian born journalist, who has only recently left Russia again after being a foreign correspondent for the UK within his own country – which he made a joke of the irony of. His book The Invention of Russia: The Journey from Gorbachev’s Freedom to Putin’s War looks at just that period and what on earth has happened to his own country since one president left things in a time of potential positive change for the country to one that seems at its most fragile and dangerous. Luke Harding is a writer for the Guardian, where he has been Moscow bureau chief, and lived there and endured subtle and not so subtle threats whilst in his job there along with his house being bugged and all sorts (which he described like being in a really bad Bond movie) before being expelled from the country by the Kremlin. His book Mafia State: How One Reporter Became an Enemy of the Brutal New Russia looks at those times. The question both of them were to discuss was ‘how did we get here?’ and their answers were fascinating.

Now I am not going to divulge every single thing they said, as why would you need to read the book, though actually (as I am sure anyone else who was at the event will agree) you were left in no doubt that their books were very much required reading for us to understand the news at the moment, how we have got here and what it could all mean. I can say that I didn’t realise the impact of the propaganda that is going on in the country, war is made to look like a blockbuster and the only possible answer, people only tend to get political roles if they are corrupt because then the powers that be have a hold over them, the KGB is back in full force, the fact it is one man not many that rules, etc. The other part I found chilling was when they both spoke about Russia now, at its fragile and most dangerous, and that Putin is a man with nothing to lose and a nuclear arsenal at his finger tips. There is a new cold war already; no one is daring to say the words yet though.

I found their thoughts and opinions grimly fascinating occasionally jaw dropping and in the end deeply disturbing, yet thought provoking in all the right ways. I think what has stayed with me most is the hope that Arkady had after Gorbachev left and the fact that he has now left the country with his family because he finds the whole atmosphere and attitude simply too toxic to bring his own children up in. Haunting, what a session, a truly impacting hour!

After this event and hearing Peter Pomerantsev yesterday, I need to be reading much more non fiction about Russia – if you have any recommendations in that field, or indeed modern Russian fiction (unlikely with the way the country is being run, but not impossible) that looks at the country now, I would love to hear about them.

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Announcement of The Gordon Burn Prize 2015

I have not been to many book prize ceremonies, in fact the first one I went to was actually for The Green Carnation Prize only last year, but who doesn’t love a ceremony and wish they were invited to them all? Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Gordon Burn Prize 2015 ceremony which was, frankly, a ruddy marvellous event for anyone who likes a good book. Not that any of you who pass this blog would be up for that sort of thing would you?

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The night was held in the splendour of Durham Town Hall and kicked off as the very lovely Claire Malcolm, Chief Executive of New Writing North, took to the stage to tell us about why the prize was born and the aims it has and what makes a Gordon Burn Prize longlisted or shortlisted book. In essence it is a book that some how combines the world of the fictional and the factual, yet looks at either from a different standpoint, they also inhabit the kind of world that Gordon Burn was interested in with his own writing, which was varied and covered crime, music, the human condition. Basically rather unusual but bloody brilliant books. Lee Brackstone then got up to talk to the audience, which I should add unlike many a swanky prize was open to the public to get tickets which I think is a marvellous touch as they are the ones who are going to buy the books, about Gordon Burn himself. Well I was already intrigued from the premise of the prize, now I want to go away and read anything and everything that he wrote. I shall be scouring the shelves of every bookshop until I have them all.

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Then the shortlisted authors took to the stage to read from their work and also talk about their books, their influences, the prize and Gordon Burn (who felt very much like he was alive and living and breathing in the room with us) chaired by Peter Guttridge. I found this really fascinating. First up was Dan Davies whose In Plain Sight; The Life and Lies of Jimmy Saville is naturally causing some unease but I can vouch (being halfway through) that whilst being incredibly uncomfortable at points is an amazing book though I can also vouch you will get some really dirty looks, occasionally sneers, if you read on public transport. Dan talked about the first time he was in a room with Jimmy Saville when he saw his TV show being filmed and how whilst everyone else seemed to be in his thrall, he remembered being slightly scared of him and feeling this lack of warmth and emotion. Then as he got older he started to do more journalism around him and then the rumours started and so did the book. Really interesting stuff.

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Honor Gavin, who I feel might be the Lady Gaga of authors (and I mean that in the nicest of ways), read from her novel Midland. She talked about how she used her own memories of Birmingham and the stories of her family (her Gran in particular, and how her Gran reacted to that)to create another kind of literary landscape.  In doing so Peter said she creates a city of memories that is slightly out of sync yet very much part of the world at the same time, in which her characters inhabit making it ‘a novel out of time’ which I was enthralled by and could have heard her talk about for hours. I need to crack on and read that book pronto don’t I?

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Romesh Gunesekera read from Noontide Toll, which you may know I think is really, really fantastic having read it earlier this year. His reading was possibly my favourite as he went totally into the head of his main character, Vasantha a cab driver in Sri Lanka, and made us laugh, think and then moved us with the last line – which he does in every short story that forms the novel. He talked about how the novel started as non-fiction and then how he found the voices of Sri Lanka calling to him and becoming more vivid and then the narrative of Vasantha took over. He also talked about the state of Sri Lanka in a post war and post tsunami world, unsure of itself and where it fits in its own history and skin let alone in the world. If you haven’t read the book do, his back catalogue of work is now calling to me.

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Finally, last but certainly not least, was Peter Pomerantsev (Richard King couldn’t make the event due to personal reasons, though has made a video) who talked about his book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible which is all about his experiences of moving back to Russia in the mid noughties and working in the TV industry to get into all the nooks and secret crannies of the country we are all both fascinated and rather scared of. He talked about how he feels about the country as a Russian and a Londoner, and how he felt as his book became more and more timely and what he feels about the country right now. I suddenly got the Russian bug as he talked and will be attended the Modern Russia talk at Durham Book Festival later today to hear even more.

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We then had a chance for more wine and chatter (I was sat next to Ben Myers who is as lovely as I had hoped after falling in love with Beastings earlier this year) before a musical interlude from Paul Smith of Maximo Park, who had been commissioned to make a song around one of Gordon Burn’s works.

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Then it was time for the winners announcement made my Doug Johnstone, Suzanne Moore and Gavin Turk, and the winner was… Dan Davies!!!

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And then the merriment continued well into the night at Empty Shop, with much book chatter, more wine and possibly with me getting into bed with a pizza at the small hours of the morning – maybe. Seriously though, if you haven’t read the shortlist (or indeed the longlist) of the Gordon Prize please do go and get your mitts on them. I am going to look at all the previously longlisted, shortlisted and winning novels (as well as Gordon Burn’s books) and make it a mission to read them all over time. Who doesn’t like reading something different/unusual/quirky/edgy and a bit out of your comfort zone, after all?

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The Gordon Burn Prize Shortlist 2015

Sometimes it seems like it is another week and another book prize, however there are some quite different and unusual ones and for that reason (along with the fact that we all love a list of books don’t we?) I wanted to mention the announcement of The Gordon Burn Prize shortlist for 2015. One of these will join previous winners Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers and The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (another two books I have been meaning to read for ages) when the winner is announced in October.

The criteria for the Gordon Burns Prize, set up by New Writing North with Faber & Faber, are books which challenge our perceived notions of genre and make us think again about just what it is that we are reading and non-fiction that explores in innovative and exciting ways topics that reflect Gordon Burn’s interests such as social history, sport, true crime, music, celebrity and art. Books where the reader begins to question the very nature of what he is reading. Fiction? Non-fiction? Faction?

 I think this sounds really interesting and (possibly bar sport) quite different which you all know I am a huge fan of. The shortlist has now been announced and the five books that judges actress Maxine Peake, authors Doug Johnstone and Roddy Doyle, journalist Suzanne Moore and artist Gavin Turk have chosen are…

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I don’t have the books I stole this from Twitter, apologies to the owners but its for a good bookish cause 😉

  • In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan Davies (Quercus)
  • Midland by Honor Gavin (Penned in the Margins)
  • Noon Tide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera (Granta Books)
  • Original Rockers by Richard King (Faber & Faber)
  • Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev (Faber & Faber)

Now I have to say other than the Dan Davies, which with its subject matter of Jimmy Savile has had a lot of debate and discussion going on about it, I have not heard of any of the other books and that always makes me really, really excited. So for that reason, along with something that I will be able to tell you all about on Thursday, I have decided that I am going to read all of them before the winner is announced on Friday October the 9th ‘oop’ north in lovely Durham as part of their literature festival.

Have any of you read any of these titles? What did you make of them? Are there any that intrigue you, might you be up for reading all five? Have you read either of the previous winners, Benjamin Myers or Paul Kingsnorth? What are your thoughts on the more left field (and I think rather exciting) book prizes?

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