Hexham Book Festival

Last weekend I was lucky enough to go to some events at Hexham Book Festival and see some really interesting writers speaking.

Over the course of two days I saw novelist Maggie O’Farrell, comedian and now writer Sara Pascoe, former Editor of the OED John Simpson and journalist Gary Younge. The topics were wide-ranging but I always like to try and find connecting themes so here were some of the ideas that cropped up:


Maggie O’Farrell is well known for the family drama within her novels and she commented on how this is important because it is universal – whether we like them or not, and choose to spend time with them or not everyone has had or will at some point have a family. Sara Pascoe’s fascinating research in her book Animal looks at how evolution came to form families, through changes to human pregnancies meaning that mothers had to start pair-bonding for protection. Gary Younge talked about his research for his book Another Day in the Death of America, looking at ten boys who were all killed by guns on one day. Younge talks about interviewing the families of these boys, none of who were surprised that their sons were killed by guns – it has become such a commonplace experience in the US that such deaths are almost expected. These families are often vilified as negligent – however Younge’s investigations showed that this was absolutely not the case and that some of the victims were shot despite safe, innocent home lives. The families provided context and stories about the boy’s lives that became crucial to representing them for Younge.


Culture is a tough thing to define and it is so wide ranging but it played a huge part across the talks of these writers. For Simpson, culture defines words – changing their usage and ultimately their meanings. Pascoe’s main goal with her book was to challenge the culture around appearance and body image that so negatively affects the  self-esteem and confidence of many women and girls. Younge challenges the gun culture of the US with his book, looking at how the attitude to guns there is the sole reason for this trend in deaths of young people.

Interpretations and meanings

Obviously words are the most significant aspect of interpretation and meaning, and Simpson explored the processed of documenting these and how interpretations and meanings can change. For Simpson we should simply be documenting, not prescribing these meanings and the way in which we interpret words and phrases. Younge taps into this when he talks about American’s believing in the ‘human right to bear arms’, and how that phrase ‘human right’ has been misinterpreted. For Pascoe interpretations become physiological with the female body evolving to portray fertility, meaning that markers such as an hourglass figure with wide hips, could be interpreted as a sign of a good mate.

Primal behaviours

Pascoe’s entire book is about how our modern behaviors have developed from primal instincts, from mating to care-giving. O’Farrell explores the idea of fight or flight – with many of her characters doing the latter, and disappearance being a huge theme in her novels. In Younge’s research about the attitude towards guns in America, it became apparent that the fight response is favoured, as it is seen as stronger and more masculine to be able to defend yourself and your family.


While these themes were necessarily the focal points of the talks it was interesting to see them come up in different ways, with different interpretations and through different topics. It was a wonderful weekend with Younge and Pascoe’s talks in particular being spectacular and I am very glad I got the chance to go. Here’s hoping for a good line up next year!


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