Ted Hodgkinson on the London Literature Festival

This year, the London Literature Festival (Southbank Centre, 21-31 October) is drawing inspiration from Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends, to dive into the joy and meaning friendship brings to our lives, as well as the challenges of maintaining our closest relationships. 

Leading authors, scientists, comedians and artists will explore the many dimensions of friendship, from the importance of community in the face of rising populism, to the way social media influences our most intimate interactions. The festival is filled with encounters with the writers shaping our cultural life, with a line-up featuring eminent authors alongside rising literary stars, innovative performances of international fiction and viral sensations, live podcasts and major awards including the Booker Prize and Forward Prizes for Poetry. We spoke with Ted Hodgkinson, Senior Programmer for Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre, to hear more about this year’s festival. 

The inspiration for this year’s festival is friendship and what it means to be friends today. Can you tell us a bit more about how you approached the programming for this and the role that you think literature has in connecting people and nurturing friendships?

While reading literature is often an outwardly solitary business, sometimes requiring a quiet spot to immerse yourself in a book or poem, it’s inwardly profoundly social in the way it connects us to people and perspectives beyond our own experience. In looking at friendship this year we partly wanted to celebrate something on a human level we’ve all been missing, while also creating space from an increasingly defining dynamic of contemporary literature, across fiction, non-fiction and poetry. In programming the festival I was struck by how writers from Sally Rooney to Mieko Kawakami were placing stories of friendship at the heart of their latest books, and also the way that friendship is one of the major fault lines of modern life, from our polarised politics to the way social media is recasting our daily interactions. 

On 22nd October the event Crew Love: Friendships forged in Lockdown is taking place. The past year and a half have seen many of us struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness. What was the affect of lockdown on our friendships and how we were able to form new ones?

A study carried out by YouGov in 2019 showed that 9 in 10 people aged between 18-24 years old suffered from loneliness with nearly half having difficulty making friends. So the levels of loneliness in society were already high even before the constraints that lockdown placed on our lives, further atomising our personal interactions and sending most of us online to do our socialising. Despite this rather inhospitable picture, new friendships have of course been forged and some may even have flourished during the pandemic. Crew Love is a chance to celebrate the sheer joy, laughter and meaning our buddies bring to our lives but also an opportunity to reflect on the ways lockdown has intensified and tested our friendships or even sparked new ones. 

This theme of disconnection and connection is also picked up on in the event on 24th October with Tahmima Anam and Roisin Kiberd, who will be discussing the age of social media. Has technology and social media brought us together or pulled us apart?

Without technology and social media many people would have been completely isolated during the pandemic and on the face of it they offer us more ways than ever to connect. But at the same time, as the recent revelations about Facebook’s own in-house research underscore, social media can augment our sense of loneliness, stoke division and sow disinformation. Whatever your perspective, given how pervasive the influence of social media on our lives, we wanted to create space for a conversation which delves deeper into the promise and contradictions of these platforms. I’ve found Roisin Kiberd’s writing on this candid and incisive and Tahmima Anam’s satire of start-up culture manages to be both sharply observed and big-hearted. With Jenny Kleeman chairing it looks set to be a pretty illuminating conversation. 

On 21st October you will be inviting Caleb Azumah Nelson, Vanessa Onwuemezi and Naomi Ishiguro to reflect on friendships forged in London. What role do cities such as London play in shaping and warping our relationships?

Living in a place like London has a profound influence on our relationships of course, from the architecture and atmosphere of our neighbourhoods to the confluence of cultures that makes it a truly global city. It’s a crucible that forges and frays our friendships, as captured in distinctive ways by the three fiercely talented writers on this panel. From the ominous evocation in Vanessa Onwuemezi’s debut story collection Dark Neighbourhood to a cityscape charged with desire and longing in Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water to Naomi Ishiguro’s exploration of a friendship sparked and rekindled on one of London’s remaining common spaces, these are writers capable of revealing the currents that course beneath the surface of the city.  

Now that cultural and social venues such as the Southbank Centre have re-opened, what role do these artistic hubs have in bringing people together and creating friendships?

After all the time we’ve spent sequestered away, spaces like Southbank Centre have a vital role in bringing people back together again. Our site was created to be a ‘tonic for the nation’ in the aftermath of World War Two, so that sense of camaraderie and friendship is embedded in the architecture of our buildings. Seeing them filled to the brim with audiences over the last few months simply never gets old. We’re all still recalibrating to life after the pandemic, but perhaps especially having lived so much of our lives through a screen over the last few years the simple act of being in a room together can itself be a restorative experience. 

The National Poetry Library is having an Open Day on 23rd November. Can poetry play a part in forming friendships?

That’s certainly been my experience and the community spirit that the National Poetry Library fosters is a testament to the way poetry can bring people together. It was striking the way that during the pandemic people turned to poetry, from sharing on social media to the rise of virtual poetry parties at the height of lockdown. Despite having to close our doors, The National Poetry Library maintained an online service and continued to collect all new poetry published in the UK. Now our Open Day is an opportunity to explore the theme of friendship through this living collection, reflect on the value that libraries bring to our lives and simply browse the shelves again. 

What other events are you most looking forward to throughout the festival’s run?

I’m particularly looking forward to our one-off adaptation of Mieko Kawakami’s newly translated novel Heaven, a moving tale of teenage friendship, with a brilliant cast of actors and music from Hatis Noit.

The Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival runs 21 – 31 October, southbankcentre.co.uk

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