EIBF2015: first week round-up of the rest

Kate Tempest

It’s interesting how the format of an event can be both a blessing and a curse. For the first half-hour of Kate Tempest’s show on Wednesday night I, like the rest of the audience, was rapt. By the last ten minutes, though, I feel slightly ashamed to admit that I was a bit bored. For a fan the format would have been a short burst of everything they love; for me, it was too much, too fast.

It’s not really because of her delivery or the material, though. It just needed more room to breathe. This event was, she said, only the second time she’d every performed a full reading of her collection Hold Your Own, and probably the last. The fact that it sneaked over the hour mark would suggest it’s not one to be rushed like this, and I think the fast-paced delivery with no pause between sections or poems meant that themes and arguments got smeared together uncomfortably.

I’m sure those already familiar with the poems would have found it thrilling, and indeed there was a huge standing ovation at the end but, coming to it fresh, I got lost somewhere after Hera and Zeus reduce Tiresias to a deranged, immortal homeless alcoholic. Up till then it was astounding, with clear, passionately delivered imagery, but then it tailed off into a series of what I’m guessing are shorter works: tales of drunken Stanley-knife tattooing; invective against social media and a story about a soldier returning home from the desert, unwittingly passing on the desire to fight for his country to his son. She’s an assured, passionate and charismatic performer and poet, but it felt like she was diluting the best work with weaker stuff.

There were still flashes of great wisdom and calls to action in the latter half, but with so much surrounding them they got swept away and forgotten. It’s an impressive feat of memory, though, to deliver such a long work from with barely any reference to the text, but I think everyone would have benefitted from a few breaks that the timing just wouldn’t allow. The Wake tonight got almost 100 minutes, why didn’t she?

AD Morrison-Low and Sara Stevenson

It’s still a better use of the time, though, than sitting and reading an essay. Let alone two of them. The authors of Scottish Photography: The First Thirty Years have created what event chair Ruth Wishart described as a doorstop of a book, which I look forward to reading, but there was just too much information to cram in, and names and dates whizzed past at a rate of knots from both speakers, illustrated by slides on the screen behind the stage which were hard to see at a distance or from an angle. Now and then a fascinating fact would whip past, such as the use of beeswax to preserve photographic prints for shipping — or was it plates? — never to be expanded upon. Concentrating upon such gems and cutting down the list to a few notable people would have been far more involving. One for experts by experts, I think.

Joanna Blythman

Food writer Joanna Blythman’s talk about her new book, Swallow This, was informative and entertaining and a little sobering. The pursuit of what food manufacturers call “clean label” has led to a dash for processing methods and ingredients that mean innocuous-sounding ingredients are sought and used to replace E numbers, preservatives, colourings and flavourings. However, it just takes a quick Google search on the term “clean label” to see examples of how secretive, or at the very least obscure, companies involved are about what it is they’re selling and what it does.

She was inspired to start her research when eating what she assumed was a “healthy-looking salad” from a “chain takeaway” on a train journey “but there was something wrong”.

“I started to see things like lemon extract, carrot concentrate and spinach powder, and thought there’s a lot about processed food that we don’t know.”

“I know, because I’ve been in this business for a good few years now, that phoning them up and asking won’t work. This is because it’s all covered by trade secrets.” And she say, it’s going to get worse because there’s a European legislation called the Trade Secrets Directive that’s going to make it harder to find out information.

She knew there was a trade show coming up, the Food Ingredients show. “I tried the honest way, ‘I’m a journalist.’ Forget that.” So she spoke to a friendly company and went along as their procurement manager.

“It’s deeply counterintuitive that this was about food. Nothing in there looks like food.” Instead, she said, there were jars and vials and cryptic descriptions. “The basis of processing now is that it has to be cheap to produce and have a long, long shelf life … the food industry has a term which I found really disturbing which is ‘fresh-like quality’.”

She gave many examples of additives that she found concerning, all of which I’m you can find in the book, but I hesitate to name as I’m sure their manufacturers’ lawyers are keen to protect their reputations. Something I think is uncontroversial but I’d never heard articulated before is the fact that: “It’s one of the many reasons so many processed foods taste very similar. I’m convinced if you taste them blind you could confuse something like spare ribs, or a lamb ready meal, or a gravy mix, because they’ve all got the same ingredients.”

The audience was a sympathetic one and at one point she noted she was probably preaching to the converted (for the record, I adore monosodium glutamate and mourn when it’s removed from snack flavourings), and this was reflected in the questions. There was a slight air of snobbery, I felt, from some in the audience, suggesting white bread, pasteurisation and microwaves as tools of the devil, but her responses were very measured and always kept in mind the fact that people often eat processed food because it’s the easiest and cheapest food they can get: “It’s really expensive to be a healthy eater in Britain because fruit and vegetables are so overpriced at the supermarkets.”

One point she kept coming back to was her basic advice: eat as little processed food as you can, and cook. “Do that, even if you do nothing else in your life: forget about signing up for the gym or trying a new diet.” She even noted that she had read research that low-fat, low-calorie foods might even promote weight gain by confusing our hormones to increase appetite.

It sounds like the book is well worth a read. I’ll definitely be doing so. Just give me back my MSG, though, please?

In all, a great first week for the bookfest. And the second week has already started with a fanfare, as I’m just back from a spellbinding show from Paul Kingsnorth, Mark Rylance and Martin Shaw; Jesse Jackson has just come on the iPlayer; and Limmy’s on later, so that’s all for now.

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