A literary coming of age party

Jewish Book Week 2017 provoked debate and delight, says Gerald Jacobs. But where were the under 40s?


Though Mark Lawson did say it on Saturday night when introducing Jewish Book Week’s “Big Debate”, it almost goes without saying that JBW is now one of London’s major cultural festivals. And, uniquely, it offers the social observer various typically Jewish phenomena (in addition to the legendary smoked-salmon bagels). These include the hugs, handshakes and cries of delight as old friends and relations suddenly find themselves under the same roof; the many familiar — and not quite familiar — faces; and, not least, the overheard verbal exchanges.

This year, these were evident right from the start. As the crowd poured out from the opening event at Kings Place — Emily Maitlis interviewing James Rubin— to my left I heard an emphatic verdict of “terrific,” quickly countered on my right by: “they completely missed the point!”

The great collector and recycler of such conversational snippets was, of course, Harold Pinter — who was posthumously present last week in two events. His widow, Antonia Fraser, was interviewed by Michael Billington about her recently published account of her 1978 trip with Pinter to Israel, and Billington also presided over Voices From Pinterland, an enactment and recollection of a range of writings by the prince of pauses with actors Claudie Blakley, Kenneth Cranham, Ilan Goodman and Alison Steadman.

Among overheard words that most strongly registered with me this time were “GP”, “consultant”, “diagnosis”, and “amazing new tablets”. While this last might possibly have been an updated biblical reference, what my ears were hearing reinforced what my eyes were seeing: the age profile was well into the “mature” bracket.

This in itself is no bad thing. This year’s Book Week, with its characteristic blend of the intellectual and the entertaining, of vigorous debate and a sense of simchah, was once again an inspiring success, with several sell-out sessions and an enviable 75-per-cent average attendance across the main venue at Kings Place, Kings Cross and the lunchtime sessions at JW3.

But it left me a little worried for the future. In a week when well-educated and discerning devourers of texts ancient and modern were making their way to Kings Cross to listen to the likes of Bernard Henri-Levi, Howard Jacobson and Simon Schama, news emerged of moves to replace school text-books with comics as a “more efficient means of learning” and later came the announcement of Snapchat’s massive stock-exchange launch in New York, about which one commentator opined that young people “don’t need words” when they can communicate more effectively with pictures.

Are young people really favouring pictures over words for communication? Could that explain why were there so few people under 40 at JBW? Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads, in his genuinely educational session on Istanbul with historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, asked if there was anybody in the audience aged 18 or younger. One, solitary hand went up, whereupon Frankopan offered the young person a free copy of The Silk Roads.

Age was very much on the agenda in the unfeasibly glamorous and age-defying neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield’s talk about consciousness — “the riddle we are all trying to solve”— as addressed in her new book A Day in the Life of the Brain. With fellow neuroscientist Daniel Glaser in the chair, she argued that consciousness is not constant but is “like a dimmer switch”. Greenfield also announced that she had just received the go-ahead for a commercial project to move forward on dramatically ambitious research in the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This session was notable, too, for a spot of heckling, when a woman in the audience shouted at Glaser to “stop interrupting” his illustrious interviewee.

The programme as a whole reflected JBW director Lucy Silver’s policy of promoting breadth and diversity.

While there was still plenty of strong Jewish content with Jewish presenters from the rabbinical to the stridently secular, the days when this was almost exclusively the case have long passed and there is no question that this has proved successful. This was exemplified this year by the climactic “Big Debate” with only two Jewish participants among the half-dozen discussing Donald Trump’s America, with marginal Jewish content, in front of an enthusiastic, overwhelmingly Jewish, full house in the Kings Place main hall.

It is difficult even to pick out highlights from a festival incorporating 70-plus events covering everything from Autism to Zionism and involving such colourful individuals as Henry Goodman, Claire Hajaj, Deborah Levy, Itamar Rabinovich, Dorit Rabinyan, Elif Shafak, Haim Shapira, Robert Winston — and Maureen Lipman, who displayed her brilliance and versatility by taking part in three events, including a show-stopping celebration of jazz and poetry with the verse of Jeremy Robson, the voice of Jacqui Dankworth and the verve of an outstanding group of musicians.

Most of JBW 2017’s sessions have been videoed ( View, and vow to attend JBW 2018. And bring your children.


Gerald Jacobs’s novel ‘Nine Love Letters’ is published by Quartet

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive