If you heard Jessie Greengrass speak at today’s Festival, I’m guessing that you, like me, will be rushing to order her new book The High House.
This deep-thinking, candid-speaking interview ranged over so many issues that worry away at us in today’s world: climate change, uncertainty, political turbulence, the pandemic, religion, the environment, parenthood and our children’s future.
Jessie and interviewer Nolan Dalrymple explored these themes with a tight focus on Jessie’s forthcoming novel, The High House (Swift Press, April 2021). One of fiction’s great powers is to ask the questions that permeate the atmosphere of the world; but often demand almost too much of our minds.
Jessie says she did think about the nuclear apocalyptic fiction of the 60s and 70s as she wrote The High House, a novel set in a dystopian near future. However, she draws a line between the fear of a sudden single catastrophic event and the slow time-slip into something that is certain – like the impact of climate change.
Jessie is worried and fearful about the future and the tension between the desire for stability and the need for change. She talks of a juxtaposition between the mundane and the extraordinary, a vision of two futures held in parallel. This dynamic is part of the human condition, she says, and is what allows us to persevere in the face of terrible events.
Jesse’s previous books, a collection of short stories An account of the decline of the great auk, according to one who saw it, and the novel Sight have won awards and applause. Here’s what novelist and political scientist Elif Shafak says about Jessie:
Jessie Greengrass makes words dance and makes me want to dance with them!
Hearing Jessie read a couple of extracts from The High House made me want to cry ‘Don’t stop!’ like a child engrossed in a bedtime story. But I suspect that the themes of her book might keep me awake at night – even as her prose sings to me.
It’s interesting that Jessie had to consciously decide not to write in a male voice. She talks about the literary canon and how much of it is male dominated. The patriarchy, she says, creeps in and it’s an insidious temptation to think that you’re not a proper writer unless you write what men are writing. Her novels are domestic novels but that does not make them less because:
‘In a crisis, when things are stripped away, that is what we have: the domestic. And Covid brought us face-to-face with that and it is important to explore and think about’.
There are more and more conversations about our fears for the future. About what the world will look like in five, 10, 15 years… what more will we have lost.
When events do strip things away from you, what you have left is your relationships with other people. And that’s where you find comfort.
Ursula Buchan debunked with gusto the idea that Britain dug for victory in the Second World War. Her talk was based on her book A green and pleasant land: How England’s gardeners fought the Second World War and illustrated with a slide show of irresistible photos and posters of that era.
Ursula was entertaining, incredibly well-researched and exuded wonderful enthusiasm for her subject. Her talk was peppered with magical asides such as: ‘I love the idea of Princess Margaret wondering where to sow her onions’. This, prompted by a Ministry of Agriculture promo photo of the two young princesses examining a massively complicated instructional leaflet on how to dig and sow your garden.
The whole campaign was a propaganda drive, dreamt up by the government to keep the unpredictable civilian population of the country occupied during the limited spare time they had. A morale booster to distract from the legacy of deprivation and poor health left by the First World War. School playing fields were dug up, bomb sites were planted, municipal gardens such as Kew created huge kitchen gardens, local councils turned over (often reluctantly) land for allotments, and the WI’s jam-making potential was harnessed.
The campaign slogan ‘Dig for Victory’ was dreamt up by Michael Foot, later to become leader of the Labour Party, but a journalist with the London Standard newspaper back in 1939. The original rather less catchy slogan was: ‘Grow More Food’.
The idea that a by-product of the campaign would be huge amounts of veg to sustain the nation proved false. Back to Ursula: ‘the Civil Service had a rather over-inflated view of what was possible’. I wonder if that’s been said before?
Overall, the Dig for Victory campaign was declared an underwhelming ‘fairly satisfactory’ by a Ministry of Agriculture survey. However, I guess it’s a testament to the power of propaganda that the idea that we became a self-sustaining gardening nation through the war still resonates today.
Here’s the wonderful Ursula Buchan:
And here’s what one delighted audience member had to say after the session:
Dear Ms Buchan, thank you for a wonderful talk. You are an amazing author. I loved your Buchan biography. As an admirer of his works, you gave me the insight into his mind and provided the historical context. Thank you. Your new book is going to be my Christmas present to many colleagues in America and here. Thank you thank you thank you.
One final thought:
Those who have the will to win, cook potatoes in their skin, knowing that the sight of peelings deeply hurts Lord Woolton’s feelingsLord Woolton was Minister of Food during the Second World War.
Jen Gale brought us into a world where the hope of change and possibility of change felt very real. I rather hoped that Jessie Greengrass might be in the audience. Jen’s a former vet. She’s taken up caring for the whole world by making small changes to create big differences – and patiently urging us all to do the same.
She argues gently, reasonably and compellingly. Her book The Sustainable (ish) Living Guide should be on all our bookshelves. Jen introduced us to six of the 12 areas covered in the book where we can effect real change in our lives. And they resonated with the audience.
Jen admitted that when she and her family spent a year not buying anything new it was magazines she missed most:
When you buy a magazine you’re not just buying something to read. You’re buying into the idea that you’re going to have the time to flick through the pages with a cup of tea in your hand
Following the talk, the audience virtually post-it-noted our commitment to changing one thing in our domestic lives – from switching our energy supplier to a sustainable energy company (BigCleanSwitch.com will help), to managing our fridge life more effectively (the app Cozzo’s the one to support you, apparently).
The figures Jen quotes are sobering and a bit disheartening but Jen’s got ways to help us see how we’re not just bystanders. Fifty percent of food waste happens in the home. Not restaurants, not supermarkets: IN THE HOME. Jen says;
Meal planning is dull and grown up but it is one of the most effective ways of reducing food waste
From single-use plastic, to repairing and reusing, Jen has a plan and great tips. She’s developed an online community of some 50,000 people who buy into the idea of small change, big difference. This is Jen’s form of activism. Real ways to change our habits, taken up by real people, living real lives. What’s not to like?
Her new book, The Sustainable(ish) Guide to Green Parenting is due out in March 2021.
All the books mentioned in our Festival blogs are available from good local bookshops and/or from author/publisher websites.
Buy the books from a local Bookshop! Click Here!
The Human Odyssey: East, West and the Search for Universal Values by Stephen Green
The High House by Jessie Greengrass To be published 1 Apr 2021
A Green and Pleasant Land: How England’s Gardeners Fought the Second World War by Ursula Buchan
The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide: Everything you need to know to make small changes that make a big difference by Jen Gale
The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson by Steve Richards