– reviewed by Lettie McKie –
The Grand in Clapham Junction is not a typical venue for literary entertainment. An old theatre converted into a nightclub it comes with battered stucco balconies, stalls cleared of seats for a dance floor, sticky walls, multi-coloured lights and a disco ball. However, in a savvy attempt to draw punters on a week night, The Grand is currently playing host to the monthly Book Slam, a miscellany of comedy, readings, poetry and music.
A Shivery Start…
The only slight problem with this ingenious plan is that whereas Friday night clubbers squeezed on to a heaving dancefloor generate almost tropical conditions through their combined body heat alone, a group of literary leisure seekers do not create quite the same climate. As the event started on a freezing January evening, the audience sat shivering in their coats in the unheated building trying to ignore their discomfort and sipping hopefully on their red wines.
The lineup included two poets (Sofia Mattioli and Tony Walsh aka Longfella), a two piece band (Games) and two authors ( Samantha Shannon and Eliza Robertson). These acts had clearly been chosen with care as there were many points of comparison to be found amongst the songs, poems and extracts performed. Themes of love, loneliness, oddity and vulnerability were particularly prevalent.
What’s in a name?
Technically a Slam event has some element of competition between performers and the pedantic audience member may have felt let down by the absence of this. The night did not include any sort of open mic section either and would have been more accurately billed as a show case evening for hot new literary talent, or a platform for writers to push their newest material. But in a scene littered with similar nights it’s important to stand out from the crowd and a short snappy title will make you instantly recognisable. Essentially it’s all about the Brand and with acts such as Josie Long and Irvine Welsh coming up over the next few months Book Slam has certainly carved a niche that consistently attracts big audiences.
Despite the slightly incongruous venue and misleading title, the evening was really good fun once it got going. Kooky comedian host Felicity Ward did everything she could to ensure the audience soon forgot the slightly Dickensian conditions. Full of energy, she perked up the chilly punters with infectious enthusiasm and sarcastic wit. She immediately picked on the front row and riffed off their responses, creating running jokes that lasted the length of the evening.
Sofia Mattioli’s brief set was perhaps a little under-prepared and her shy delivery meant she struggled to connect with the audience. She explored themes of heartbreak and loss using simple language and sparse words. ‘She is holding me against the wall, just like you’. Every poet does not need to be a performer, but sadly Sofia’s graceful poetic style was slightly lost in translation due to lack of confidence in her reading.
Eliza Robertson presented her debut collection of short stories, Wallflowers, reading a compelling extract from a story about a girl living in Marseilles with a mysterious and intensely annoying housemate. Her prose was evocative, intimate and detailed without being self-consciously literary or clichéd ‘I moved to Marseilles to grow my hair’. She cleverly hooked us in with 1o minutes of taught build up and witty quips ‘I don’t know how the slugs got into the sink’ but then left us hanging just before the story’s protagonist found out the truth about her secretive companion. The collective moan that escaped from the audience as she closed the book is testament to her talents and I am sure her book sales that night were good as a result.
After the break…
After a short break, the next act was introduced with a lengthy linking section and the format seemed to become unnecessarily drawn out, with performers spread across three acts when two would have been sufficient. While Felicity was funny throughout, things were starting to drag a little towards the end.
Games were the only musical act of the evening. A duo of pianist and haunting female vocals, they were talented song writers but slightly uncomfortable to watch. They played the set off-centre and ineracted mainly with each other instead of the audience, so it was hard for them to build a connection. The music was big, pieces that built slowly into trancelike vibrancy and the vocalist had an incredible range with a really pure quality to her powerful voice. While the physical awkwardness of the performers was initially incongruous with the euphoric tone of their music, but as the set progressed and the music got louder there were moments when they were completely mesmerising.
Next up was bestselling author of The Bone Season: Samantha Shannon. At only 23, Shannon is ridiculously precocious in the best of ways. She read an extract of her new novel, The Mime Order, which continues the story of the first book, set in a dystopian version of London in the late 21st Century. Her subject matter is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s handmaids tale and her readable prose similar to Sarah Waters. The unique vision of the future presented in these books however is completely her own. In one reading it was hard to decipher all the specific references, names, places and concepts this ambitious novelist has created, but again it worked as an excellent hook for book sales. .
The headline feature was spoken word poet Tony Walsh, also known as Longfella. A confident and seasoned performer, he read from his collection Sex, Love and Rock and Roll. All the poems, he said, were written for the immediacy of performance, with a simple message and a memorable rhythm forming the basis of each one. He writes simply but eloquently with an adventurous spirit and his work is very accessible. A Girl Like y’know told about a teenage mother he once met from a Manchester council estate. Rather than use his own descriptions to patronise or judge her, he wrote a poem in her voice, using her limited vocabulary leaving her words left unsaid but the emotion of those unfinished sentences resonated poignantly to tell her story.
Each act in Book Slam‘s literary melting pot was talented, original and engaging a thoroughly enjoyable evening that was quirkily stitched together and attractive to a broad audience of writers and non- writers alike. One audience member summed up her experience saying ‘I’ve never been to anything like this before but I thought that last poet was amazing’.
Catch the next Book Slam on 18 March