Speak To Strangers


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It’s getting past a couple of months now since I quit a job working front of house in a cafe, a few minutes walk from where I live.  Some months before that I’d quit a more stressful office-based, at least 10 hours a day in front of a screen and down the phone, on call at weekends, kind of job.

I didn’t really know what would come up, if anything, when I quit the cafe. It may seem like an arrogant thing to do, current economic climate and all that, but with admin and teaching experience under my belt, and some savings from the office job (don’t worry indeed, I’m taking none of your taxes), I’d thought I’d probably muddle through if needed. London, is afterall, a bit of a bubble. No mortgage, no children, no better time.

After quitting and working my last shift, the most important thing for me was to do interesting things. I didn’t really know what they would be, but I signed up for lots of different things via the intriguing Tower Hamlets Opportunities and Requests list. It has a great range of things available to those who are able to work for little or nothing, as well as information about sponsorships, offers and competitions, where you can submit all manner of art – film, painting, writing, probably even expressive dance. In fact, there’s even a puppet based sexual health education project. Who could ask for more?

It was here I found the brilliant London Word Festival. For all those people who thought literary festivals involved watching a middle-aged man in rumpled shirt talk to another middle-aged man in a rumpled shirt, about his latest book – a book that explores the experiences of a middle-aged male writer in crisis and unable to use an iron, the London Word Festival is a revelation. It is a collection of events, performances and pieces inspired by a love of books and words and writing.  Rather than pompously stating the importance of literature, the festival runs on an earnest enjoyment of books – reminding us of what it feels like to read and have a voice in your head produce a running commentary as your eyes scan the page in The Quiet Volume, or a celebration of the ludicrous plots of Sweet Valley High books in The Goodbye Library. The festival has finished for this year, but I highly recommend it. I highly recommend volunteering for it too – they’re nice and liberal with the biscuits.

One of the festival organisers, Tom Chivers has a small publishing company called Penned in the Margins.  We spent half an hour one day, in the London Word Festival offices, chatting and he looked through my box of tricks – a collection of cards, book marks and boxes I was taking to some shop visits. He emailed me a day later and asked me to make 50 bookmarks, to slip inside the first 50 copies of a new book they were publishing, Speak to Strangers by Gemma Seltzer.

It’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve been offered, made even more by receiving a pdf of the book to read for inspiration. So, in one of those heady sunny days towards the end of May, I took a couple of hours in the afternoon, and lay on my belly in the grass, head in the shade and feet in the sun, and read Gemma’s 100 stories of 100 words, describing her chance meetings with strangers.  And reader, luckily, I loved it. Each story is a small absorbing description of a meeting, a person, a circumstance.  Some are familiar – the story of the irritated bar tender who hates your presence at the bar, and hates your choice of drink more, made me smile with recognition. Others are snapshots of people unknown – a glimpse of a mannerism, the curve of a profile, a few spoken words.

It has now been released and is available to buy. I highly recommend it. It is an absorbing and evocative book. Have a look at the rolling quotes at the top of this post for inspiration.

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