Anita Sethi dispatches from the Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrations

undefined By Anita Sethi

Splendid stories aplenty have flowed throughout the celebratory events for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (née Orange Prize and next year to be the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction), from the informative Women’s Prize/Grazia writers’ evening to the unforgettable shortlist readings.  On a beautiful balmy evening at the Awards Ceremony held in the Southbank’s Clore Ballroom, Baileys aplenty also flowed to herald in next year’s new sponsor.

A.M. Homes was awarded this year’s prize for her excellent novel May We Be Forgiven, described by chair of judges, actor Miranda Richardson as “a dazzling, original, viscerally funny black comedy – a subversion of the American dream”.

In her moving acceptance speech she related an anecdote about her grandmother lending her money to buy her first typewriter – and having to pay it back, paid tribute to her late father, and thanked Zadie Smith for commissioning her to write a story for the anthologyThe Book of Other People which later developed into the award-winning novel.

The evening before saw 1000 people gather in the Queen Elizabeth’s Hall to hear entertaining readings – by turns humorous and poignant – from all shortlisted authors as the climax to the London Literature Festival:  Zadie Smith (NW); Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette); Hilary Mantel (Bring Up the Bodies); Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behaviour); A. M. Homes (May We Be Forgiven) and Kate Atkinson (Life After Life), interspersed with acute questions from Kate Mosse, Co-Founder & Chair of the Women’s Prize for Fiction Board.

Pondering questions that cut to the core of life, Kate Atkinson’s novel cleverly crafts a plot asking: what if there were second chances to live your life?

My characters have to be my slaves and do what I say – the people I know would not be that co-operative”, said Barbara Kingsolver, discussing her timely and thought-provoking novel Flight Behaviour, which was sparked by the fact that no-one was discussing climate change.

The readings ranged far and wide in time and geography.  Hilary Mantel transported us to the year 1536 and in evocative imagery conjured the epoch of Thomas Cromwell.  Meanwhile, the twenty-first century and contemporary urban life was brilliantly captured by Zadie Smith in the various colourful idioms to be found on the streets of a city – in particular the NW of London. Smith later explained to Kate Mosse that the novel was sparked by a desire to explore the theme of how we should treat other people, including those who are guests in our houses or neighbourhoods, unexpected visitors and what we might owe them. Compellingly captured in the novel is the sense of desperation that might lead a person to knock on a stranger’s door and plead for money: the incident at the heart of the novel was based on a true event that Zadie Smith experienced in her neighbourhood.

In her hilarious reading from her epistolary novel Maria Semple touched the heart of the creative impulse.  The eponymous Bernadette is told:

“People like you must create.  If you don’t create you become a menace to society”. 

Thankfully these shortlisted authors did indeed create – and rather than becoming menaces to society, produced six highly enjoyable novels.

Email:  Twitter: @anitasethi

Women’s Prize for Fiction winner A. M. Homes

goodie bag

Above: Women’s Prize for Fiction goodie bag

Below: Guests at the Awards Ceremony

women's prize - Baileys

anita and lee b 2

anita and karolina

lee, michael, wd




Anita Sethi reviews a dazzling performance of “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath

undefined By Anita Sethi


Introduced by Frieda Hughes 
Part of the London Literature Festival

Sylvia Plath was “able to direct her energy with huge force”, describes Frieda Hughes, her daughter, introducing a stunning evening celebrating the 50th anniversary of Plath’s groundbreaking poetry collection, Ariel, which was written in the months before her death in February 1963. Plath left behind a black binder of poems that were to form her final, posthumously published collection.

“Every emotional experience was like a jewel” to Plath, says Frieda Hughes in her eloquent introduction to the evening. The emotional force of Plath’s poems is indeed on strong display throughout the two hours in which 40 leading female performers and poets including Jo Shapcott, Samantha Bond, Imtiaz Dharker, Gillian Clarke and Miranda Richardson gather to read aloud one poem each from the restored edition of the final unedited manuscript.

Plath has been variously dissected, analysed, fictionalised, on occasion fabricated, says Hughes, but her own words describe her best; now, thanks to James Runcie, the evening presents Sylvia Plath exactly as she would have wanted to be.  There are two versions ofAriel, the historic version and the manuscript in the making; the latter strikes a more hopeful note, beginning with the word “love” and ending with the word “Spring”.

Red, black and white are the presiding colours of the evening, and many of the performers are clothed in the colour red which paints itself in startling images throughout the collection, from Tulips, read with passion by Juliet Stevenson, to Poppies in October, in which a woman’s “red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly”, and the narrator strikes an existential note of wonder:

O my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

The poems powerfully crystallise a palette of emotion, voyaging to the extremes, swooping from the depths of despair to soaring elation, jewels of words capturing a spectrum of human feeling; wonder, rage, defiance, fear, courage, hope. Then there are the emotions off the edges of the poem; those yearned for: “How I would like to believe in tenderness”, she writes in The Moon and the Yew Tree.  

In a hugely emotive experience, perhaps the most moving reading is by Ruth Fainlight who reads Elm, a poem that Plath actually dedicated to her, in which Plath skilfully tunnels the depths of human experience: (I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root; / It is what you fear / I do not fear it: I have been there).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             The poem’s emotional terrain is terror (“I am terrified by this dark thing / That sleeps in me; / All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity”, she writes).

The collection is a strikingly original exploration of the self (I / Have a self to recover, a queen”, she writes in Stings), exploring both self-destruction and the possibilities of self-recreation.  On publication in 1963, the intimately confessional format opened up new avenues of what a poem might be and the inner landscapes capable of exploration.  50 years later the poems’ intensity and brilliance still blazes.

In the sheet that we are handed at the beginning of the haunting performance, detailing the sequence of poems and their reader, I notice that there is no reader listed beside Daddy, and momentarily wonder if there has been an accidental misprint. But no – in a stroke of genius, that poem is reserved for Plath herself – the lights dim, a huge picture of Plath appears on the screen onstage and her distinctive voice resounds throughout the auditorium filled with thousands of people – a fitting touch to an unforgettable evening allowing Sylvia Plath to quite literally speak for herself.

Email:  Twitter: @anitasethi

Anita Sethi previews the London Literature Festival 2013

undefined By Anita Sethi

Literary stars are preparing to dazzle at the London Literature Literature 2013 which opens on 20th May and is filled with a treasure trove of delights.  Words will be celebrated through an exhilarating range of forms including poetry, short plays, music based on Pablo Neruda’s poetry, and of course, talks and debates.  Literature from the world over will be showcased and there will be two prize-reading events – the 2013 Man Booker International Prize Readings and the Women’s Prize for Fiction Readings. Best-selling authors reading from and discussing their work include Barbara Kingsolver, Audrey Niffenegger, Lionel Shriver and William Dalrymple.  Alongside today’s finest writers, the Southbank Centre will also be haunted by some eminent literary ghosts as celebrated biographer Claire Tomalin presents five lectures on classic authors including Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen.  Meanwhile, musical stars appearing include Jarvis Cocker, Tracey Thorn and Cerys Matthews.

I’m particularly excited about seeing what sounds like a spectacular event celebrating 50 years since the publication of “Ariel” by Sylvia Plath in which 40 leading female poets and performers including Juliet Stevenson, Ruth Fainlight and Samantha Bond will read one poem each from the final unedited manuscript (which starts with the word “love” and ends with “spring”) in an evening introduced by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes.

I’m looking forward to being “blogger-in-residence” for the 3rd year running, so call back for dispatches from the festivals, and I’ll also be tweeting bite-size nuggets from events themselves here.

There are so many to choose from, but here are 5 Selected Highlights: (click on the boxes for more details):


For the full programme of the London Literature Festival 2013, click here.
Anita Sethi will be blogging and tweeting throughout the festival.

JK Rowling launches The Casual Vacancy – watch live on YouTube

JK Rowling

JK Rowling’s launch event for The Casual Vacancy will be available to watch live on our YouTube channel this Thursday 27 September. From 7.30pm Jo will be on stage at Queen Elizabeth Hall for an interview with Mark Lawson before reading extracts from the new book.

To watch live, head over to at 7.30pm GMT on Thursday 27 September.  Here’s a useful time convertor if you’re not in the UK.  The Twitter hashtag #JKRLive will be used throughout the day and you can find us @southbankcentre – we’d love to know where you’re watching from and your reactions to the reading!

The Casual Vacancy is the Harry Potter author’s first novel for adults, set in the small and seemingly idyllic English town of Pagford, which faces an uncertain future. From a local election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations, J.K. Rowling weaves a masterful story. Find out more about the book.

Unlimited Festival starts tomorrow! Watch the trailer here!

Cutting edge, brand new, large-scale: Deaf and disabled-led art has never been so good. LOCOG and Southbank Centre present 29 brand new commissions from Deaf and disabled artists to coincide with the Paralympics.



Catch Unlimited at Southbank Centre from 30 August – 9 September. Get more information on Assisted Performances, Access and tickets here. 

Gardening tips from a life-changing project

The organic garden on the roof of Queen Elizabeth Hall boasts some of the best views in London. Here you can get a sun tan and pick up top gardening tips from the knowledgeable volunteer gardeners, who are turning their lives around by learning new skills and growing some weird and wonderful global vegetables to celebrate Festival of the World.

Stella’s story

Stella has been volunteering at the garden since last year and says that gardening has dramatically changed her life for the better. She says: ‘I was going to a woman’s centre and one of the workers there was from Ground Ecotherapy. I discovered this garden and starting helping out – and I never left! Now I come up here four times a week.

‘It’s turned my life around’

‘This project keeps me out of trouble – I haven’t been arrested, I’ve come off drugs, I don’t touch alcohol – it’s turned my life around, really. You wake up wanting to be in this garden and when you get here you don’t want to leave.

‘It’s nice to be respected by the public for what you do. A lot of us volunteers come from backgrounds where you think you’re nothing, you don’t think anyone’s going to look up to you. Something like this shows that you can do things with your life. Now I’ve just got a £500 grant to help women at my hostel grow their own vegetables.’

Flowers in the Roof Garden

‘Lots of office workers get jealous of our jobs – especially when the sun’s shining!’ (Stella, volunteer gardener)

Southbank Centre’s Gemma Hooper says ‘The gardeners are all volunteers. The main group of gardeners we have is from Grounded Ecotherapy and they all have experience of homelessness and alcohol or drug addiction. They are now channelling their energy into the garden, and some of them have gone on to get jobs after working here. There are currently 15 volunteers who all play a key part and we’re trying to develop the project and get more members of the public to volunteer in the garden and join in with what’s happening here.’

Basil: top tips

Stella and Paul, the head gardener, have grown 13 types of basil in the garden from seed. We asked Paul for his top tips on growing your own.  

‘Basil is very delicate’, says Paul. ‘It’s a tropical plant and if you over-water it you can kill it. It doesn’t like going to bed with wet feet is what my Dad taught me. Water it in the morning so that the basil can take up the water during the day and then when it goes to sleep, the soil isn’t waterlogged.’

‘Basil doesn’t like going to bed with wet feet’

Stella describes how they ‘train’ the basil in the roof garden to get used to being outdoors, putting it out during the day and then popping it back in the greenhouse over night. ‘When it gets older, it can then live outdoors permanently,’ she says.

Join in

If you’re desperate for herb-growing tips, advice on growing veggies or just want to meet new people and spend time outdoors, then do come along to the free, drop-in gardening sessions on Tuesdays from 11am until 1pm. The sessions are mainly aimed at adults but lots of families have been joining in, too. You can just turn up – you don’t have to book and everyone’s welcome.

Southbank Centre’s Gemma Hooper says ‘In these sessions we’ve been doing lots of seed sowing and learning all the proper processes for that. We’ve also been doing dead-heading, removing old leaves and flower heads, and generally what we call ‘Chelsea-fying’ the garden. Lots of our gardeners are involved in the Chelsea flower show and we try to keep the garden up to that standard so we need lots of help to do that.’

Notes from the London Literature Festival Lecture: Siri Hustvedt

undefinedBy Anita Sethi

Why one story and not the other? This was the question at the heart of writer Siri Hustvedt’s thought-provoking Southbank Centre Lecture at the London Literature Festival, author of such acclaimed novels as What I loved and The Summer Without Men.  She went on to explore the question: what does it mean to have an idea? What is an idea? She engagingly grappled with the  “problem of dualism”, deftly covering philosophies ranging from the “Cartesian divide between spirit and matter” to the present-day, and her lecture was interwoven with a wide range of writers, scientists, and philosophers, with particularly resonant quotations from Margaret Cavendish and also this one from Rumi:

“Don’t turn away, keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you” – Rumi

Powerfully describing how her own wounds inspired her to look for answers, she explored some of the issues in her compelling non-fiction book, “The Shaking Woman: A History of My Nerves”.

She also movingly described the voluntary work she has done as a writing instructor for psychiatric patients, both adolescents and adults, and how the written text’s ability to fix something on the page can be a gift for those “at risk of disintegration” and writing’s ability to provide consolidation and integration.

Her new collection of essays, “Living, Thinking, Looking” is published this Summer and Hustvedt elegantly fitted a lifetime of learning into an hour, distilling with wisdom and wit the mysterious process of storytelling peculiar to humans, describing human beings as imaginative creatures who can leap from one thing into another, becoming something else, old or young, woman or man.