Event: Book Slam, London’s first literary nightclub
Where: York Hall, Bethnal Green, London
When: Tuesday 12th August
Forget confusing (and hidden) entrances, strict dress codes and expensive door fees it’s time to step into the welcoming arms of London’s first and best literary nightclub where top writers, lyrical gangsters and acid tongues join hands to entertain audiences including Authoright’s Kate Appleton. Yes it’s Book Slam.
On a school night (Tuesday) I ventured into a historic boxing venue in the east end of London, York Hall. The line-up for that night’s sold-out Book Slam event included a veritable smorgasbord of literary talent from all walks of life, from Chicago-born gang member Bill Hillman to the indomitable Irvine Welsh author of via the honest and unforgiving words of poet Kate Tempest.
Circular table secured, close enough to offer a good view, not so close as to be in the firing line of crowd heckling, drinks bought, I was ready to be entertained. The evening was being refereed by an ex-battle rapper by the name of Doc Brown, armed with both sarcasm and quick wit he knocked out a few great punches that had the crowd warmed up and laughing, ready for the first act to enter the ring. This came in the form of Bill Hillmann, author of ‘The Old Neighbourhood,’ a gangland coming-of-age tale based on his own experiences as a one time gang member, drug dealer and convict. The extract he chose was dark, disturbing and brutal in it’s honesty, his deep Chicago accent dragged you right into the scene and stayed even after he had left the ring. however, he was followed by a really quite random piece of theatre from the Hype Dance Company which combined a sequence of sparring in the boxing ring. Scanning the room I realised I wasn’t the only one to be slightly confused, thankfully, it didn’t last that long.
After a 15minute interval and a brief cameo from Doc Brown, we were introduced to one-time punk singer with a band called The Splits, turned author, Viv Albertine. The audience was treated to three extracts from her memoir, ‘Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys,’ and with it an extremely frank portrayal of a woman growing up and getting older. It also came across as almost a self-help book as she freely admitted that at times she was ridiculous, but that if it’s only fear that’s stopping you from changing your life then it’s time you started ‘Saying yes to nothing.’
Complementing the strong female presence at the event was poet and playwright, Kate Tempest, who will be releasing her album ‘Everybody Down’ in October. If you don’t know her already LOOK HER UP NOW! She’s brilliant, shocking, unashamed and brutally honest in her words, whose maturity bely her age, you feel like your being hit with bullets, in a good way, and it’s unrelenting. When her poetry stops she’s shy and almost shocked at the audiences positive, bring the house down, reaction which is refreshing.
Quick toilet break and we were seated and ready for the final heavy weight himself. Weighing in from Edinburgh, Scotland, the man behind Trainspotting, Porno and now ‘The Sex lives of Siamese Twins,’ Irvine Welsh. In a word, magnificent. He was reading from his current manuscript which was an extract dealing with a conversation between a sexual deviant taxi driver and his fare, a girl wanting to go and commit suicide. Foul-mouthed, controversial with a layer of his iconic dark humour, he was on fine form and without a hint of arrogance or ego.
After having my brain tickled I caught up with Book Slam’s main promoter man, Elliott Jack, to talk a bit more about London’s (best) literary night club and why ‘Slams’ becoming cool:
What does Book Slam aim to achieve?
Our aim is to celebrate story telling in all its forms – prose, poetry, comedy and songwriting, typically inviting underground talent to share a stage with household names.
Describe a typical Book Slam working day?
Eat, Sleep, Read, Repeat
How do you go about seeking out new talent to invite to participate in the events?
I read as much as possible. I go out as much as my body lets me and I generally keep my eyes and ears open.
How do you decide who you want to feature in the events?
I always start with the author and try and programme the event around them. Sometimes it works really well and other times I fail miserably.
I’ve been booking [primarily] music events for more than twenty years so think I’ve got a good ear for what sounds good and what will work with an author and / or poet.
Who has been the biggest surprise as a Book Slam speaker – and why?
The first time Will Self read for us was a surprise. He’s got such a powerful mind and is such a literary force churning out books at a ridiculous rate, suffice to say – I was a little intimidated and wasn’t sure what to expect [because authors are the new rock stars] but when he arrived – he was one of the coolest and relaxed authors we’ve ever hosted. A pleasure to work with.
What event made you realise the Book Slam was a success?
When we moved from the tiny Cherry Jam [80 cap] venue in Royal Oak to Neighbourhood [~400 capacity] under the Westway in Notting Hill and sold out the first night. There was and still is a hunger for what we do.
Do you see the likes of Lost Lectures and Sofar Sounds as competition or after a common cause?
The idea of a ‘literary event’ or ‘live literature’ is now commonplace (in London, at least) with all sorts of readings, talks, Q&As and the like happening on a regular basis. However, this wasn’t the case when Book Slam began a decade ago and we genuinely don’t think it too self-aggrandising to suggest that this explosion has been driven, at least in part, by our success (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say – we are, sincerely, very flattered). Nonetheless, Book Slam was always different and it remains so, precisely because of our commitment to excellence.
Who would make your dream guest line-up?
Ralph Ellison x author
Maya Angelou x poet
Richard Pryor x host
John Coltrane x music
Will we be seeing Book Slam go nation wide? – being from Yorkshire it would be nice to see it travel North!
I wish I could say yes but it’s unlikely. We’ve branched out to Bristol and have one-offs every now and again in Manchester, Edinburgh, etc BUT it really depends on time. Book Slam’s run by a very small dedicated team and we beg, borrow and steal to make each one happen.
Book Slam is off to Wilderness Festival this year – what should festival goers expect to experience?
Book Slam rarely pops up at festivals. We tried years ago and decided against it because listening to authors and poets when you’re in a K-hole’s not fun. We’re really particular about sound and acoustics which is almost impossible to get right in a field or a vacuous tent BUT Wilderness is cool and we love what they do so are really happy to be there.
What are Ben and Patrick (the brains behind Book Slam) setting the sights on today?
Ben’s writing and playing music.
Patrick’s writing and hanging out in Zimbabwe.
Finally, can you sum up Book Slam in three words?
We run things x
If you fancy checking out a Book Slam event you can find out their literary schedule here www.bookslam.com or tweeting @bookslam
Rating: 9 out of 10