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Culture: Stellar line-up for Cambridge Lit Fest

A host of illuminating writers and inspiring thinkers will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival’s online winter event. Louise Cummings takes a look at the impressive line-up

We are all in need of some spirit-lifting, awe-inspiring words right now – so praise be for CLF’s vibrant online Winter Festival! Famous names abound, including former Children’s Laureate Jacqueline Wilson, celebrated Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling, comedy legends Helen Lederer and David Mitchell and best-selling writer Matt Haig.

Climate change is tackled front and centre, with a major panel discussion tabled, featuring Dieter Helm, Jonathan Porritt and Caroline Lucas MP. H is for Hawk author, Helen Macdonald, will discuss her new book Vesper Flights - a transcendent collection of essays about the human relationship to the natural world. And winner of the Wainwright Prize, 16-year-old Dara McAnulty, will be chatting to festival patron Robert Macfarlane.

American politics come under the microscope as Professor Sarah Churchwell and novelist Attica Locke reflect on the outcome of the US Presidential Election. Plus there’s a medley of music and conversation from extraordinary talented lockdown sensations, the Kanneh-Mason family – stars of the BBC series Imagine.

Dubbed ‘a festival of prizes’, the event will also host the six shortlisted writers for the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non- Fiction, with the winner announced shortly after the festival. These include UK Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, who will present poetry, discuss the inaugural Laurel Prize (which rewards the best collection of environmental or nature poetry) and introduce the first ever winner.

All in all, there’ll be 40 online events running November 19 to 22, with the festival culminating in a free family day on Sunday, November 29, so there’s plenty to engage and enthral.

Festival Director, Cathy Moore, explains: “I am delighted to once again embrace the digital festival experience though saddened not to see everyone in person. The opportunities presented by a digital festival mean that we can reach far and beyond Cambridge, we can provide our author events to those who can’t otherwise get here and we can build on the repertoire of artists that we are able to programme. Thanks to all the donations received we have been able to continue and I’m excited to be launching a brand-new website alongside the launch of the Winter Festival.”

Take Five: Our pick of programme highlights

Helen Lederer: Winner of this year’s Comedy Women in Print Prize (for her novel Reasons To Be Cheerful) Nina Stibbe will be chatting to the prize founder, comedian Helen Lederer. Known for her infectiously zany brand of humour, Helen rose to fame as part of the alternative comedy movement, alongside contemporaries Rik Mayall, Ben Elton, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. More recently she’s appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, sparkled as the fairy godmother at our very own Cambridge Arts Theatre panto, presents BBC Radio 4’s Pick of the Week, and was nominated for the PG Wodehouse comedy literary award for her comic novel, Losing it.

David Mitchell: Enjoying an almost ubiquitous presence on primetime panel shows (QI, Have I Got News For You, etc), David Mitchell cut his teeth at the illustrious Cambridge’s Footlights. The Would I Lie To You? team captain found fame with long-term comedy partner Robert Webb with shows such as That Mitchell and Webb Look and Peep Show.

Dishonesty is the Second-Best Policy: And Other Rules to Live By, a collection of David’s Observer columns, which published last November, became a Sunday Times Top Ten Bestseller, as he tackled the dumbfounding times we live in, with his characteristic wit and warmth.

Maggi Hambling: One of the most foremost, influential (and some would add fearsome) figures of 21st century art, Maggi Hambling is renowned for her portrait painting, drawing and sculptural works. Suffolk born, she studied at the East Anglian School of Art (with Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines), Camberwell and the Slade, and was the first Artist in Residence in the National Gallery in 1980. Her best-known public works are Scallop – a 4-metre high steel creation on Aldeburgh beach dedicated to Benjamin Britten - and the sculpture A Conversation with Oscar Wilde in London.

Dara McAnulty: Hailed ‘an extraordinary voice and vision’ by Robert Macfarlane, and likened to Greta Thunberg because of his environmental activism, 16-year-old Dara McAnulty won the Wainwright Prize for nature writing with his debut, Diary of a Young Naturalist. The teen, from County Down, has attracted a huge social media following thanks to his love of the environment and his honesty about autism. Dara, who began a nature blog aged 12 – and lists his literary inspirations as Seamus Heaney and Agatha Christie – tells the story of one year, from spring equinox to spring equinox, from his 14th to 15th birthday. Part nature book, part memoir, Dara’s debut recounts his personal struggles, and reveals how nature provides a much-needed sanctuary.

Raymond Antrobus: Deaf, spoken-word artist Raymond Antrobus – whose graceful, finely crafted poems powerfully explore issues of deafness, bereavement, race and violence - is by now, no stranger to awards. The Hackney poet, born to an English mother and Jamaican father, was one of the world’s first recipients of an MA in Spoken Word Education (Goldsmith’s, University of London). The author of Shapes & Disfigurements and To Sweeten Bitter, his first full-length collection of poetry, The Perseverance, clinched the 2019 Rathbones Folio Prize for best work of literature in any genre, and the accolade list continues to grow (Ted Hughes Award, The Geoffrey Dearmer Prize. . .). To top it off his poem Jamaican British has been added to the GCSE syllabus. To listen to one of his stunning monologues is a rare treat.

See the full line-up at cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

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