This year’s Hastings Litfest was a splendid and sunny south coast event with an In Other Words theme. It included sci-fi and dystopian fiction, works in translation, finding your voice in a new culture, and many other topics that looked at literature and writing through an unexpected lens.

I was pleased to see that the festival team, led by festival directors Marcia Woolf and Sam Davey, were working closely with the Get Hastings Reading campaign to encourage literacy and to celebrate the power of reading and writing. There were events exploring the writing of Dr Who (with a Dalek on the stage!), puppet making followed by a show, and local author Ed Boxall, who is now nationally popular, with his wonderful stories and poems. Many of the events for children were free and based in Hastings Library – a chance to capture prospective young readers for the future.

For the adults, there was perhaps too much choice! Hastings isn’t a huge town, but it’s hilly and some of the venues were quite spread out. Parking is a nightmare, although I was fascinated to meet those who had travelled many miles to stay for the whole event and make a seaside break of it.

My first talk wasn’t my choice, but a friend liked the sound of it, so off we went to the White Rock Hotel, where we sat on the balcony in the sunshine enjoying a glass of wine while looking over to the pier. Dr David Lewis is a well-established psychological historian and his book and talk on The Psychology of a Dictator (which is about Adolf Hitler) was well timed as we look back to the start of WWII in 1939. I never knew about Hitler’s time in a sanatorium, where he came across a psychologist who ‘talked him out’ of his temporary blindness (probably early PTSD after he fought in WWI) and a charlatan clairvoyant who taught him how to present himself beyond what he was at the time: a timid, insignificant, ex- soldier who was told he had ‘no leadership skills’.

Other events concerning WWII included Duncan Barrett talking about the ‘real’ Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society, which was formed in Guernsey during the Nazi occupation and which gave us the popular book and film of the same name. There was also Ted Powell talking about his book The Truth about Edward VIII and our continuing fascination with the king who abdicated because of his love for Wallis Simpson and, of course, his links with Nazi Germany.

At the amazing St Mary in the Castle, I heard, along with many others, a talk by Richard Blair about his father, George Orwell. This year marks 70 years since the publication of 1984, and I’ve previously written about how the dystopian science fiction of Orwell’s imagination has in so many ways come to pass in the world today. His son, who was adopted, spoke affectionately about his father, who tragically died when he was young. He showed some marvellous photographs and told many stories and I was delighted to end up sharing the lift with him and congratulating him on bringing out the real human side of a sometimes very complex intellectual man.

All day on Saturday 31st August, East Sussex College, which is located by the train station, hosted a book fair, workshops, discussions on writing for wellbeing, which is increasingly coming to the fore, and a panel discussion on The State of Publishing: Present and Future with excellent speakers, including Danuta Kean (books editor of Mslexia) in the chair.

At the Rock-A-Nore end of Hastings, amusements meet head on Hastings Contemporary Art Gallery and a great array of working fisherman, alongside fantastic fish for sale! In the Stade Hall, I caught the end of Fairy Tales – Breaking the Spell by award-winning author Sally Gardner and poet, playwright and author Cathy Johnson. They explored the resurgence of fairy tales and also the controversy surrounding them. Dark and dangerous, great inspiration for imaginative minds or sexist stereotypes encouraged by Disney dumbing down?! There was lots to discuss.

I had particularly wanted to hear Tabby Stirling in conversation with local writer Andrea Samuelson (who I know) because she is not only an author, but is publishing director of Edinburgh-based independent press Stirling Publishing. Her latest novel, Bitter Leaves, is an extraordinary story of women working as maids, or more like slaves, amongst the glittering immaculate wealth and towering skyscrapers of Singapore. Stirling has also had battles with her own mental health and previous drug addiction, and she was spectacularly honest about her life and the processes by which writing has worked alongside the issues.

I had hoped to listen to V.G. Lee talking about (and giving me hope for!) success in writing later in life and also for the evening’s lively Big Night Out, with an electrifying live performance by poet Salena Godden. But as I said, too much, too soon had exhausted me…

Sunday once again proved to be a glorious sunny day for all and I headed for the classic Victorian period pile that is the Royal Victoria Hotel. It was fitting to then listen to Rachel Reeves MP talk passionately and articulately about the many stories that went into her book Women of Westminster – 100 Years of Women in Parliament. Lots of those Rachel discusses in the book are not well-known names, although hopefully now they will be appreciated for their efforts in the male-dominated corridors of power. What a day to talk and question an MP as she set off for what would become an historic time in British parliamentary democracy.

I also went to hear the superb Tessa Boase talking more widely about her very successful book Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather. I’d bought a copy of this book last year but perhaps should have read it myself rather than passing it on as a gift, for it talks amazingly about Etta Lemon (no, I hadn’t heard of her either), who established the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and who campaigned against, but alongside in history, Mrs Pankhurst as the suffragettes wore rare bird feathers in their hats, which nearly caused the extinction of many breeds. Fashion, feathers and feminism!

The closing event was hosted by the patron of Litfest, Sir David Hare, a superb playwright and writer. At the event, the winners of the three Litfest writing competitions were announced. It was hoped that their first steps on the ladder of being published (a Litfest anthology was launched) might lead to them becoming best-selling writers in the future, who will come again and be part of the writing waves that lapped against the beach in Sussex.

Philipa Coughlan
September 2019