Cheltenham Literature Festival 2018 Part 1: Mary Shelley and Jo Brand

If someone had told 15 year old me that one day she’d be attending an acclaimed literature festival with tickets that said “media and press” on them, I wouldn’t have believed them. Attending the Cheltenham Literature Festival this year was fantastic, especially as I got to meet some of my heroes.

A running theme throughout the festival this year was the power of being female. This is reflected in many of the events I attended. However, there were many more on female empowerment that my work schedule didn’t allow for. What was lovely was the amount of young women and men we saw milling around at such events. What a sign of the changing times.

The events I attended – in chronological order – are:

  • Mary Shelley: A Life Of Men And Monsters
  • Jo Brand (on her book “Born Lippy“)
  • Jon Plowman And Jennifer Saunders
  • Feminists Don’t Wear Pink (And Other Lies)
  • Caitlin Moran

I also had tickets to a taping of the podcast The Guilty Feminist, but was irritatingly unwell so couldn’t go.

In this post, I’ll talk about the first two events I went along to.

Mary Shelley: A Life Of Men And Monsters

“On the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, biographers Fiona Sampson (In Search of Mary Shelley) and Miranda Seymour (Mary Shelley) bring to life a woman whose dark and brilliant imagination created a myth still haunting us today.” (1)

I studied Frankenstein years ago and found it fascinating. Especially intriguing is the fact it was devised by an 18 year old young women in the early 19th century. The imagery and language of Frankenstein are so bleak and violent, that – on the surface – it’s difficult to imagine how it was created by someone so young.

It’s only when you delve deeper into Shelley’s life that her creation of such a story begins to make sense. Her traumatic experiences of motherhood, her absent mother (radical philosopher and feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft died giving birth to her), turbulent relationships and childhood all culminate into perfect fodder for a dark creation tale. Even seemingly insignificant experiences, such as her proximity to whaling ships and exposure to stories of human experimentation, play their part.

Hearing Fiona Sampson and Miranda Seymour talk about Shelley with such passion was truly wonderful. Seymour’s ancestral home is Thrumpton Hall – a property once owned by the Byron Family and inhabited by Ada Lovelace. Her personal insights into Byron and his relationship with the Shelleys definitely brought something extra special to the event.

Sampson, Seymour and chair Nicolette Jones brought an old myth completely to life and it was a joy to watch them converse.

JO BRAND

“When the much-loved comedian hosted Have I Got News For You late last year, her calm explanation of the effects of sexism on women to a bemused all-male cast turned into a viral phenomenon. ‘Born Lippy’ gathers together everything she has learned about how to ‘do female’.” (2)

When I grew up, there really weren’t many female comedians on television. Even more so in stand-up. Jo Brand, like other 90s/00s funny woman, Jennifer Saunders, Victoria Wood, Joanna Lumley and Dawn French, holds a very special place in my heart. She also unquestionably helped to mould my sense of humour into the sarcastic state it is today. As you can imagine, I positively jumped at the opportunity to see Jo Brand in the flesh. I was not disappointed.

Sitting on on stage with interviewer Hugo Rifkind, Jo Brand exuded that warm and blunt humour she’s so well known for. The woman is just naturally hilarious. When listening to her speak about her family – especially mundane daily tasks like the school run – I was struck by how inexplicable she seems to find her own fame. Her ability to stay “normal” and make the everyday funny is one of my favourite qualities and reminds me of something her Getting On co-star and co-writer, Joanna Scanlan once said in an interview with The Telegraph.

“It’s very easy, if you’re successful in our business, to get a long way from real life, and I need to feel connected. For me, the greatest thing is anonymity. What would I do if I couldn’t get the bus, and eavesdrop, and listen to what’s going on in people’s lives? I’d be out of a job.”  [3]

Jo Brand Talks Feminism

One of my favourite topics Brand spoke about was the evolution of feminism. She agrees that social media has played a huge part in the awareness of gender equality and welcomes it. I’m regularly infuriated by older woman saying things such as “in my day, that was normal and we just put up with it” in response to younger women challenging catcalling, groping etc. Brand cemented her place as one of my favourite humans by also wholeheartedly disagreeing with this culture. Instead, she asked, why aren’t these women happy that someone is finally saying or doing something to combat this behaviour?

Brand also spoke about feminism as a “broad church”. Like Christianity, there are many denominations but ultimately the overarching ideas are the same. Let’s stop vilifying those feminists that don’t 100% align with our own ideals and instead celebrate the fact we agree that both genders deserve equality. If we practice encouragement and acceptance, we can work towards that common goal.

Jo Brand Talks “Problematic” Feminists

Although many disagree with outdated statements made by women like Germaine Greer, I believe it is disrespectful to completely write these women off. Greer’s campaigning for equal rights and her book The Female Eunich (a novel Brand, when I asked her, stated had the biggest effect on her own feminist identity) was revolutionary. This we cannot deny. Does that mean we should excuse her problematic views on trans rights? No. I’m sure many people have an older relative who occasionally makes racist or homophobic comments. Do you completely disown them? No, you gently correct them and they continue to be your parent, grandparent, great uncle/aunt etc. A great deal of bigotry stems from fear or confusion – instead of attacking, how about we inform those that misunderstand? It’d be a lot nicer for everyone.

Hearing Brand agree with my views and then have the opportunity to discuss books with her was wonderfully surreal. Brand’s book Born Lippy is hilarious, inspiring and an altogether damn good read. I’d recommend it again and again.

Until Next Time

Keep your eyes peeled for more on my time at the Cheltenham Literature Festival soon. I’m aware I’ve been pretty absent recently – new job, ill health, family illness etc – but I can assure you I won’t be away for months next time. Promise. 

You can buy all of the books mentioned in my Amazon Storefront list – “Cheltenham Literature Festival 2018”.

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References and disclaimer

*I received some complimentary tickets in exchange for coverage.

[1] Mary Shelley: A Life Of Men And Monsters blurb from https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature/whats-on/2018/mary-shelley-a-life-of-men-and-monsters/

[2] Jo Brand blurb from https://www.cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature/whats-on/2018/jo-brand/

[3] Joanna Scanlan quote courtesy of Stuart Husband for The Telegraph – https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10571032/Joanna-Scanlan-Ive-never-even-tried-to-be-funny.html



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