A lit­er­ary com­ing of age party

JC lit­er­ary edi­tor Ger­ald Ja­cobs looks back over Jewish Book Week. Madeleine Kings­ley dis­misses con­tro­versy

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

Though Mark Law­son did say it on Satur­day night when in­tro­duc­ing Jewish Book Week’s “Big De­bate”, it al­most goes with­out say­ing that JBW is now one of Lon­don’s ma­jor cul­tural fes­ti­vals. And, uniquely, it of­fers the so­cial ob­server var­i­ous typ­i­cally Jewish phe­nom­ena (in ad­di­tion to the leg­endary smoked-salmon bagels). These in­clude the hugs, hand­shakes and cries of de­light as old friends and re­la­tions sud­denly find them­selves un­der the same roof; the many fa­mil­iar — and not quite fa­mil­iar — faces; and, not least, the overheard ver­bal ex­changes.

This year, these were ev­i­dent right from the start. As the crowd poured out from the open­ing event at Kings Place — Emily Maitlis in­ter­view­ing James Ru­bin— to my left I heard an em­phatic ver­dict of “ter­rific,” quickly coun­tered on my right by: “they com­pletely missed the point!”

The great col­lec­tor and re­cy­cler of such con­ver­sa­tional snip­pets was, of course, Harold Pin­ter — who was posthu­mously present last week in two events. His widow, An­to­nia Fraser, was in­ter­viewed by Michael Billing­ton about her re­cently pub­lished ac­count of her 1978 trip with Pin­ter to Is­rael, and Billing­ton also presided over Voices From Pin­ter­land, an en­act­ment and rec­ol­lec­tion of a range of writings by the prince of pauses with ac­tors Claudie Blak­ley, Ken­neth Cran­ham, Ilan Goodman and Alison Stead­man.

Among overheard words that most strongly reg­is­tered with me this time were “GP”, “con­sul­tant”, “di­ag­no­sis”, and “amaz­ing new tablets”. While this last might pos­si­bly have been an up­dated bib­li­cal ref­er­ence, what my ears were hear­ing re­in­forced what my eyes were see­ing: the age pro­file was well into the “ma­ture” bracket.

This in itself is no bad thing. This year’s Book Week, with its char­ac­ter- is­tic blend of the in­tel­lec­tual and the en­ter­tain­ing, of vig­or­ous de­bate and a sense of sim­chah, was once again an in­spir­ing suc­cess, with sev­eral sell-out ses­sions and an en­vi­able 75-per-cent av­er­age at­ten­dance across the main venue at Kings Place, Kings Cross and the lunchtime ses­sions at JW3.

But it left me a lit­tle wor­ried for the fu­ture. In a week when well-ed­u­cated and dis­cern­ing de­vour­ers of texts an­cient and mod­ern were mak­ing their way to Kings Cross to lis­ten to the likes of Bernard Henri-Levi, Howard Ja­cob­son and Si­mon Schama, news emerged of moves to re­place school text-books with comics as a “more ef­fi­cient means of learn­ing” and later came the an­nounce­ment of Snapchat’s mas­sive stock-ex­change launch in New York, about which one com­men­ta­tor opined that young peo­ple “don’t need words” when they can com­mu­ni­cate more ef­fec­tively with pic­tures.

Are young peo­ple really favour­ing pic­tures over words for com­mu­ni­ca­tion? Could that ex­plain why were there so few peo­ple un­der 40 at JBW? Peter Frankopan, au­thor of The Silk Roads, in his gen­uinely ed­u­ca­tional ses­sion on Is­tan­bul with his­to­rian and broad­caster Bet­tany Hughes, asked if there was any­body in the au­di­ence aged 18 or younger. One, soli­tary hand went up, where­upon Frankopan of­fered the young per­son a free copy of The Silk Roads.

Age was very much on the agenda in the un­fea­si­bly glam­orous and agede­fy­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tist Baroness Su­san Green­field’s talk about con­scious­ness — “the rid­dle we are all try­ing to solve”— as ad­dressed in her new book A Day in the Life of the Brain. With fel­low neu­ro­sci­en­tist Daniel Glaser in the chair, she ar­gued that con­scious­ness is not con­stant but is “like a dim­mer switch”. Green­field also an­nounced that she had just re­ceived the go-ahead for a com­mer­cial project to move for­ward on dra­mat­i­cally am­bi­tious re­search in the treat­ment of de­men­tia and Alzheimer’s.

This ses­sion was no­table, too, for a spot of heck­ling, when a woman in the au­di­ence shouted at Glaser to “stop in­ter­rupt­ing” his il­lus­tri­ous in­ter­vie­wee.

The pro­gramme as a whole re­flected JBW di­rec­tor Lucy Sil­ver’s pol­icy of pro­mot­ing breadth and di­ver­sity.

While there was still plenty of strong Jewish con­tent with Jewish pre­sen­ters from the rab­bini­cal to the stri­dently sec­u­lar, the days when this was al­most ex­clu­sively the case have long passed and there is no ques­tion that this has proved suc­cess­ful. This was ex­em­pli­fied this year by the cli­mac­tic “Big De­bate” with only two Jewish par­tic­i­pants among the half­dozen dis­cussing Don­ald Trump’s Amer­ica, with mar­ginal Jewish con­tent, in front of an en­thu­si­as­tic, over­whelm­ingly Jewish, full house in the Kings Place main hall.

It is dif­fi­cult even to pick out high­lights from a fes­ti­val in­cor­po­rat­ing 70-plus events cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from Autism to Zion­ism and in­volv­ing such colour­ful in­di­vid­u­als as Henry Goodman, Claire Ha­jaj, Deb­o­rah Levy, Ita­mar Rabi­novich, Dorit Rabinyan, Elif Shafak, Haim Shapira, Robert Win­ston — and Mau­reen Lip­man, who dis­played her bril­liance and ver­sa­til­ity by tak­ing part in three events, in­clud­ing a show-stop­ping cel­e­bra­tion of jazz and po­etry with the verse of Jeremy Rob­son, the voice of Jac­qui Dankworth and the verve of an out­stand­ing group of mu­si­cians.

Most of JBW 2017’s ses­sions have been videoed (www.jew­ish­book­week.co.uk). View, and vow to at­tend JBW 2018. And bring your chil­dren.

Ger­ald Ja­cobs’s novel ‘Nine Love Letters’ is pub­lished by Quar­tet Mau­reen Lip­man: bril­liance and ver­sa­til­ity across three sep­a­rate events

It is dif­fi­cult to pick out high­lights from 70-plus events and so many colour­ful in­di­vid­u­als’

PHOTO: BLAKE EZRA

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