An evening at the Southbank Centre is always going to be enlightening and entertaining – this is never more true than during the London Literature Festival, which runs 5 – 16 October. This year, it featured events with Margaret Atwood, Louis Theroux, Richard Dawkins, Iraqi science fiction and a reading of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine with Christopher Eccleston, all focusing on the theme of ‘Living In Future Times’.

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine reading with Christopher Eccleston, Nikki Amuka-Bird and Emma Hamilton, 5 October

To mark the opening of The London Literature Festival there was a reading of H. G. Wells’ early science fiction classic, The Time Machine. Acclaimed actors Christopher Eccleston, Emma Hamilton and Nikki Amuka-Bird, were accompanied by internationally renowned organist James McVinnie, playing the famous Royal Festival Hall organ, to give a eerie and marvellously performed reading.

Time travel has long been one of the great tropes of science fiction, but it was this 1895 novella that lodged the concept firmly in the public imagination, popularising the idea that one might travel through time much as we travel through space.

H. G. Wells’ novel is a dystopian adventure and a political commentary of late Victorian England, offering a vision and indeed a warning of a troubled future. Nevertheless, the reading was thoroughly enjoyable, and brimming with an insight into how, in our own unsettled times, the power of storytelling can connect us all.

Nikki Amuka-Bird, Emma Hamilton, Christopher Eccleston will perform a live reading of The Time Machine, Wed 5 Oct in Royal Festival Hall to open Southbank Centre's 10th London Literature Festival. Credit Helen Maybanks
Photo by Helen Maybanks

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Short Story Competition 2016 judge, Erica Wagner, on her retelling of The Tempest, named Hag-Seed, 6 October

Also in attendance at the festival was the Booker prize-winning Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, who was in discussion with author, critic and our very own Short Story Competition 2016 judge Erica Wagner. The discussion was centred around Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed; a characteristically skewed re-imagining of The Tempest which is filled with surprises and wonders all of its own. She deftly shows how the tales of Shakespeare are universal even now and adds her own magic and twist of fun to this retelling. Atwood is an author that presents her work with warmth and humour; and that evening was no exception; her and Erica at one point were wholeheartedly rapping out a section of the book!

During the talk, Atwood also spoke of her participation in the project, Future Library. a project set up by Scottish perceptual artist Katie Paterson. Over the next 100 years, 99 more authors – one a year – will contribute a text to the library. In 2114, the 1,000 trees planted last summer in the Nordmarka will be cut down and all the texts made public. The preservation of the written word symbolises how must all, even in times of fear and darkness, preserve our souls. “I am sending a manuscript into time,” notes the author, in a short piece written for the event. “Will any human beings be waiting there to receive it? Will there be a ‘Norway’? Will there be a ‘forest’? Will there be a ‘library’? How strange it is to think of my own voice – silent by then for a long time – suddenly being awakened, after 100 years. What is the first thing that voice will say as a not-yet-embodied hand draws it out of its container and opens it to the first page? I picture this encounter – between my text and the so-far nonexistent reader – as being a little like the red-painted hand print I once saw on the wall of a Mexican cave that had been sealed for over three centuries. Who now can decipher its exact meaning? But its general meaning was universal: any human being could read it. It said: ‘Greetings. I was here.’”

While listening to Atwood speak, one was reminded how there is a strange comfort in consuming her dystopian stories. They are reminders, despite reflecting a dire present, that it’s never too late for us. This inherent hope at least allows people to imagine a better future- maybe they are a kind of litany for survival, that humanity will continue despite our best efforts to destroy ourselves.

Photo: Pete Woodhead
Photo by Pete Woodhead

Screening of Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’ and Q&A with Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton and John Dower, 10 October

Following this year’s London Literature Festival theme ‘Living In Future Times’, a screening of Louis Theroux’s ‘My Scientology Movie’, exploring the religion based on a science-fiction writer’s work, kicked off the second week of the festival. A relatively young audience filtered into the stalls, balcony and boxes of the Royal Festival Hall. A screen hangs; a poster of ‘My Scientology Movie’ by Louis Theroux is projected onto it, complimented by an instantly-recognisable illustration of Theroux.

The lights dim and Adam Buxton walks on-stage to introduce the evening. The film starts, opening with a tweet by Louis Theroux:

‘Open call to any #Scientologists out there. I would love to speak to you for a documentary I am working on. About Scientology.’

The film continues with this borderline sarcastic tone, a tone very true to Theroux’s entertaining and lighthearted documentaries in the early days of ‘Weird Weekends’. Later, in the Q&A, director John Dower explains this was one of their main aims: to give the documentary that ‘early Louis’ feel.

One of the main reasons Dower and Theroux decided to make the documentary rather humorous was because another film on scientology, Alex Gibney’s ‘Going Clear’, came out whilst they were filming. Gibney’s documentary was highly informative and serious, so they decided ‘My Scientology Movie’ had to contrast this.

This is something they certainly achieved. The documentary is structured around actors who play Tom Cruise, David Miscavige and other members of scientology. Marty Rathbun (former Senior Executive of the Church of Scientology) directs a mix of scientology-based workshops, improvisations and the re-enactment of real-life footage, allowing him to visually express what he experienced during his time at the church, both to Theroux and the viewers.

As a whole, the evening was informative, daring, but was also scattered with entertaining moments which bring a classic ‘Louis’ humanity to a very serious subject.

Photo: Pete Woodhead
Photo by Pete Woodhead

#LLF’s 10th Birthday Event, 10 October

Up in the Weston Roof Pavilion, poets and literature lovers alike met to celebrate Southbank Centre London Literature Festival’s 10th anniversary. The event was attended by John Agard amongst others. and was centred around speeches by Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson and Artistic Director Jude Kelly. They spoke about the futuristic, science fiction theme of this year’s festival, reviewed some of the events which had taken place so far and thanked the staff for their hard work. Behind the backdrop of the London Eye, the OXO tower and the other glistening lights of the southbank’s skyline, Southbank Centre staff and LLF guests cheered, celebrating the fine production of one of London’s most important events.

To read more on this year’s London Literature Festival, read our interview with Senior Programmer, Literature and Spoken Word Ted Hodgkinson.

Photo: Abi Lofthouse
Photos by Abi Lofthouse


By Lucy Binnersley and Abi Lofthouse

Artwork by Harriet Cheney, Southbank Centre

‘Living in Future Times’
Southbank Centre
5 – 16 October 2016

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