"We've assembled something that Medway doesn't always get and 95% of it is free"
What Steven asked Barry Fentiman-Hall from Medway River Lit and Wordsmithery.
For the latest in our new weekly Sunday interview feature, we return to looking at creatives based living and working in Medway. Steven sat down with Barry Fentiman-Hall of Wordsmithery. The two sat down at Nucleus Arts, where they discussed what brought Barry to Chatham, if he is or isn’t a member of the Labour Party, setting up Wordsmithery, and the launching of Medway River Lit. Medway River Lit is on right now if you are reading this at time of publication.
Where were you born?
I think my birth certificate says I was born in the county of Derwentshire, which is some subsection of North Yorkshire. I grew up in Acomb, which is a suburb of York on the west side towards Leeds.
How did you end up in the Medway Towns?
A series of incidents and accidents, as Paul Simon would probably say. I ended up in the south after living so many different places in the north and the northeast, which is why my accent is a bit of a mongrel because the North Riding accent is not like the West Riding accent. After I left university, I got offered a doctorate down in Guildford at the University of Surrey, which I was not really prepared to do, and after about five minutes realised I wasn’t that interested in, so was clearly going to fail. I lived in London for a bit after that and then I met Sam Hall, who was living in Chatham already. And we're now married, and that's brilliant (chuckles), so that's why I'm in Chatham. We thought for about seven minutes in total about living in London, realised that was completely financially unviable and that was the end of that. I moved to Chatham and have been here ever since. Who knows for how long, but right now I'm here.
What jobs did your parents do growing up?
Ooh, we’re doing the sociological approach here I see. Again, I'm very much a hybrid there I think, and I think a lot of writers are. My dad, I think the only time that my father in his entire long life had ever worked in the private sector was when he was a butcher's boy, working for Crows’ butchers in York in the 1930s. Yeah, he did that and then he was signed up to the army in 1944. As soon as he came out of the army, he took a civil service exam. He could have gone to university, a very intelligent man could easily have done that. He wanted a solid job and he knew if he passed the civil service exam he would have one pretty much in those days for life. He ended up working for the Ministry of Defence for his whole career, right up until Maggie Thatcher privatised his department and kicked him out the moment he was 60 in 1985. He was being offered jobs like forecourt attendant. I'm not knocking forecourt attendants, someone's got to do it but he had other skills than that. My mother worked in the factories and did the cleaning. She worked in all the chocolate factories in York. I think there's quite a few that did that. Very different people, glad they hit it off or I wouldn't be here. I was born quite late in their lives, which is how I have a father who served in World War 2.
How did you find school and university?
Speaking from now, from the vantage point of someone who is fairly satisfied that I am somewhere on the autism spectrum, I found it very very hard. I found out by accident that I passed the 11-plus, but I passed it by half of 1% and I assumed I’d failed it because I failed everything else and somehow, I’d passed it. I went to Nunthorpe Grammar School, which is where my dad had been. I literally have an interview with Nunthorpe Grammar School to get in. I have no idea what I said but my parents dressed me up nice, I said something, and they let me.
I got nothing out of going to grammar school whatsoever. I am a person for whom the world screams out and I didn't understand it and I didn't like it and I couldn't interact with people very very well and I got nothing, so I hated every second of being there and I left with two CSEs in the things that you can just do which is Maths and English Language. Everything you had to study for I was lost. I was mostly just trying to dodge getting my head kicked in every day because up until I was about 15 I was about 4’11 and about six stone, and then I rocketed up. For about the last two or three months I was there, I had a bit of fun and I'm not proud of it, but there were some people who used to terrorise me who did not grow up very much taller over that time. Then suddenly when I'm looking down on them, they were no longer able to bully me anymore but they still continued to attempt to do it which was more fool them at the time. But anyway, that's another story so I left there with sod all.
I eventually found my way back by accident to Yorkshire Coast College in Scarborough and then in an environment where you can learn in a very different manner and I just kept going. I had this piece of paper, ‘Okay, I'll go to university then.’ It does change your life. I did alright there and they offered me a doctorate. I got a very high mark in sociology on my access course. I hadn’t cared about what I did, it was just preferable it was a government scheme. I did Sociology, History and English Lit. The doctorate was on interactive technologies in the home, run by a sort of think tank at the University of Surrey called Digital World Research Centre. I flunked out pretty quickly. I wasn’t that interested, and I didn’t have enough money to carry on with it.
What was your first full-time job?
I was a bingo caller at an amusement arcade in Bridlington, Premier Amusements. I earned £61.38 per week.
What political parties have you been a member of?
I have been a member of the Labour Party. I've lost count of how many times I’ve been expelled, which is always interesting when talking to Vince (Maple, Leader of Medway Council) when he is introducing me to people. I've re-joined that many times and I don't know what happens. While I was at university, I was a member of the Alliance for Workers Liberty which was previously known as Socialist Organiser. I got involved in Left Unity where it became a thing and then the rise of Corbyn pretty much eradicated the necessity for Left Unity and I have occasionally supported TUSC locally. I've got a lot of good feelings about the Greens like (Caroline) Lucas, I would probably vote for any party that she was head of.
Who has been the best Prime Minister of your lifetime?
Oh god. I mean it’s a horrible, horrible selection. Well, certainly nothing in the last 12 years. You can backtrack, and you can read about history, think about it. It was probably Harold Wilson, but I don't know because I wasn't really particularly politically aware as an 8-year-old when he retired. I think had he not died, I think John Smith would have become Prime Minister. I think he would have been brilliant. It's an awful question because it's not a great selection, but honestly, I think probably it's Gordon Brown. I think he was very skilled in how we dealt with the financial crisis just after he became Prime Minister and he got blamed for a lot that wasn't his fault. I don’t think he is perfect by any means. I think he was, by conviction, to the left of Tony Blair, certainly economically. I think if he'd have had more time as Prime Minister you would have seen that, but yeah, you know my favourite Prime Minister of the last 30 years was a lame duck James Callaghan tribute act (laughs) who was always doomed so that probably says about what my political sort of compass is like.
What is your official occupation?
My official occupation, I've got two. My official occupation that pays the mortgage is I'm a library assistant at Chatham Library. Also, I am, I don't know what my title is, but I'm one-half of Wordsmithery. At the moment, I’m the co-director of Medway River Lit and an editor of Confluence as well.
What additional roles, paid or unpaid, do you do?
I don't think I'm still technically writer in residence for Rochester Riverside. I was, but I haven't done anything for it in a long, long time, so I don't think I'm still classed as that. Co-director of Rainham Poetry Festival.
What is Wordsmithery?
When I first came here Sam was running a thing called ‘ME4 writers’, which had grown out of, I think, after the wave crashed of The Medway Poets where there wasn't a heck of a lot going on creatively. So, she started it, and she got together a group of writers called ME4 writers. We did events, we did all sorts of little bits and pieces here and there, so it graduated into having a sort of long-running open mic called ‘Roundabout Nights’ that we did various venues, latterly Poco Loco. We released an anthology called ‘City Without a Head’, which is the little yellow paperback book that you see kicking about somewhere. We still have a box of them at home if anyone wants one. It's a snapshot of what local writers were writing about in 2013, and from that, some people in ME4 writers fell away and didn't really want to do it anymore.
Sam wanted to get more ambitious with it and it kind of morphed into something called Wordsmithery which initially still had the collective about it, but very quickly became, as other people got other priorities, me and her making sort of literature as art. We started being more structural about doing the gigs and we started going after funding to do things. We started to get commissions and we realised that actually this thing has got some momentum and we should carry on doing it. To the point now where we have a magazine. It's now on its 15th issue, which is 14 more than most poetry and short story magazines ever last. We put out a lot of local writers at their start, and we have gradually got more and more ambitious about the sort of events we can put on. We've got to the point where our profile is big enough that we can attract the money to do it, to the point where we are Medway River Lit now, so Wordsmithery is a many-headed beast that will do anything to do with writing at the moment. Sam is focused on graphic novels, that's a big thing that she's doing now, so obviously we're doing more to relate to that. On June the 9th we're going to have a whole graphic novel orientated day at the Guildhall in Rochester. It's all stories in the end, even ones that don't get written down.
What is the Medway River Lit festival?
Medway River Lit is building upon the two ‘Welcome to Cloisterhams’ that we did. When we were coming out of lockdown, the council wanted to do something different with the Dickens festival and get it back more to its literary roots. We want to have fun, we want to dress up, the steampunks are some of the most fabulous people I've ever met. I always have such a fantastic time with Great Kentexpectations.
I think the council very much wanted to get back to Dickens as a writer. He was a major writer and they wanted to get back to the texts and the books, and they wanted it to be more of a literary festival so that's what we try to do for them. We commissioned works that were in and around what Dickens had done on themes of poverty, on themes of hardship, and all the themes that Dickens got himself involved in in his lifetime. That went from one day in the castle to two days, so we've got some momentum, and after a lot of meetings, we thrashed out the idea that ‘Well, let's go big.’
We wanted to be City of Culture, let's do a big literature festival, let's make it and it will have ten days in June we'll have a real broad scope of things. We’ll have plays, we’ll have a day of graphic novels, a day of children’s literature day, we’ll obviously have some poetry, we'll have novelists, we've got interpretive dance as well. There's so many things that I can't just reel them off. We attempted to get some stuff up on the peninsula. For various reasons it didn't come off, but we wanted to and maybe if we do it again, we’ll make that happen. But there is stuff in all the five main towns of the Medway. We want it to be broad. There is a whole weekend of Dickens-related stuff. On the 10th and 11th there is a Dickens weekend. We’ve got Gerald Dickens coming twice during that. We've got storytellers and got things on that theme. So, the Dickens part of it has not been forgotten at all. We think we're covering all bases and that's Medway River Lit.
Why hasn't there been a festival for 25 years?