A Write Laugh - Jo Unwin, Georgia Pritchett, Nina Stibbe
Silver Apples

Pheebs' Review of ChipLitFest 2022

I have had the pleasure and the privilege to write reviews for ChipLitFest for the past five festivals, and I was gutted when it was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 due to the dreaded ‘Big-C’. The return to in-person events this year felt natural and nostalgic – as soon as I stepped foot back in town, I was instantly back in the game: downing a coffee from Jaffé & Neale, juggling a map to find the next venue, and tingling with excitement as I rushed to reach the next event. ChipLitFest is back.

Out of the many events on offer at the festival, I was lucky enough to go to a varied sample, so this is a review of those that I attended.

  • Was I simultaneously moving back into my uni room at the start of term? – Yes.
  • Was I somewhat sleep deprived? – Yes.
  • Was it worth it? – Absolutely. My review notes are a shambles, though. Enjoy.

First up was How To Build a Healthy Brain, held by Kimberley Wilson. It was a fascinating talk, focused on the health of the brain itself as an organ, something we often overlook in preference of the nebulous concept of ‘the mind’. Our brains are a physical biological object and as such, we need to maintain its health. Armed with some quite frankly shocking statistics and a witty, charismatic lecture style, Wilson captivated her audience with facts about methods we can use to slow down our brain ageing and how they work scientifically. In fact, it was so interesting that the event overran because people wouldn’t leave – they just kept asking more questions!

After that, I popped over to Muse, hosted by Amy Orrock, which explored Sophie Haydock’s debut novel The Flames and Ruth Millington’s Muse. Both explore the concept of the ‘muse’ – The Flames from a fictional perspective imagining the lives of Schiele’s muses, while Muse investigates various historical figures. I admit to a woeful lack of knowledge about art, but the interview was engaging, insightful, and speculative. The authors challenged the problematic image of a passive model and redefined how ‘muse’ could mean an active, collaborative artist. It was a refreshing change in perspective.

My last event on the Friday was ‘A Write Laugh’, which lived up to the title. Agent Jo Unwin chaired an interview with Georgia Pritchett and Nina Stibbe (pictured outside the Town Hall), discussing their respective books My Mess is a Bit of a Life and One Day I Shall Astonish the World. Both celebrated comedy writers, their senses of humour were front and centre as they easily dropped hilarious quips with perfect comic timing. Yet at the same time, their discussion stretched across a wide range of subject matter, from female friendships to their writing process to how ‘funny’ works, all of it highly enjoyable. As an aspiring comedy writer, I may indeed be a tad jealous of their talent…

Saturday began with the popular event New Voices, which introduces debut authors. 2022’s New Voices, hosted by Joe Haddow, included Kasim Ali with Good Intentions, Lianne Dillsworth with Theatre of Marvels, and Susan Stokes-Chapman with Pandora. I love this event and look forward to it each year – the authors are always eager to describe their books and their own thoughts behind them, with infectious passion and joy. This event was no exception, and the writers were so mutually supportive of one another that there was a relaxed, friendly dynamic to the whole interview. Hopefully we will see them again with new novels next year!

Next came Five Straight Lines, a talk by Andrew Gant investigating the history of Western music, the subject of his book of the same title. Although a broad topic, Gant’s expert knowledge made the event highly informative and stimulating. I also liked his strong focus on history as a fluid and selective process, acknowledging its biases and challenging ‘music orthodoxy’ by giving airtime to all styles of music – I knew we were in for a treat as soon as he compared the opera Robert Le Diable to the music of the 2012 film Les Misérables. It was an enriching experience.

Popping into a Very Short Introduction to Dyslexia, Professor Margaret Snowling gave a concise summary of information about dyslexia, including its development in medicine, its causes, and current approaches to it in education. ChipLitFest’s VSI events are always snappy and revealing, so I like to check in the festival guide each year as to what topics I can learn about.

The last event of the day was Next Chapter, in which Gerry Foley interviewed authors Abir Mukherjee and Laura Shepherd-Robinson about their latest books – The Shadows of Men, the fifth instalment of Mukherjee’s Wyndham & Banerjee crime series set in 1920’s India, and Daughters of Night, a Georgian murder-mystery thriller about a fight for justice on behalf of a high-society prostitute. Both authors demonstrated their clear prowess as historical writers, talking with nuance about the time periods and societies they chose as their settings, as well as the associated social issues that feature in the books. Despite some weighty, meaningful moments, however, the conversation remained light-hearted: honest but optimistic. My day ended on a very positive note.

I would have loved to have attended Louis de Bernières’ event that evening but unfortunately, I already had a prior commitment long since scheduled – cosmic karma paid me back when, shortly thereafter, I had a near-death experience on some dodgems. Fully deserved and next time I will organise my diary more carefully, as it was a huge disappointment to miss out on meeting such a writing legend.

Finally, there was only the one event on Sunday that I could get to, but well-worth the bus ride into Chippy. Catherine Evans chaired an interview with Eve Smith about her second novel, Off Target, a scientific thriller exploring the unexpected consequences of genetic engineering through the lens of a mother-daughter relationship. I personally love Smith’s books so I may be biased, but for me, the talk only reinforced that she is a genius at constructing a careful balance between the plausibility and relatability of her speculative sci-fi. Besides the fascinating scientific contacts and sources of inspiration behind the book, it was striking to hear about her own views on the sentimental and deeply human narratives that she tends to write, which ache with emotional precision.

The whole ChipLitFest weekend was just an amazing array of events that I am, again, so grateful to have been able to see. Covid took a lot from many of us; in ChipLitFest, we lost the opportunity to celebrate our wonderful literature and its authors. Books have always provided us with escapism, whether in lockdown or in the normal daily life we had before and are reclaiming now. It is very special to have the chance to show how much we cherish them. I truly look forward to the next Chipping Norton Literary Festival in 2023 – until then, happy reading!