Live Review: Oliver Jeffers at London Literature Festival, Southbank Centre

The Southbank Centre, one of my favourite London buildings, a brutalist concrete home to a melting pot of arts and culture. Today, I’m at the London Literature Festival to see and listen to renowned artist and author Oliver Jeffers introducing his new picture book for adults, Begin Again: The Story of How We Got Here and Where We Might Go, “the most important book I’ll ever do” by his own confession. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a mild, sunny, October but you wouldn’t know from the moody blue lighting in the Purcell Room. Walnut wooden walls, black leather chairs, this room is 60s masculine chic, you can almost smell the cigar smoke and cologne. The crowd for Jeffers is mixed as audiences start pouring in, older children with their parents, groups of teachers, hipsters with coffee, artists, couples. Soon we’re plunged into darkness and Oliver Jeffers is introduced, he appears from the blue curtain backdrop looking sharp and cool in a pink suit, trouser legs rolled up, wearing a hat, glasses, and what looks like – all the way from row E – a sprig of rosemary foliage buttonhole. In his hybrid Belfast/Brooklyn accent, he opens with a question for us; “who here thinks we’re all doomed?”
I tentatively put my hand up, as do others.

Jeffers tells us how he believes art to be a powerful tool and how he likes to tell stories with art, he thinks it helps us to understand things about the world. For a story, you need 3 simple things he says; a beginning, a middle, and an end. During the presentation he uses the large projector screen behind him, where slides of his illustrations and Jeffers’ own penned font create visual representations of his vocal points. We learn about who Jeffers is and what he does, and why he does it. Having his first child greatly changed his perspective on life, which inspired him to create the book, Here We Are, a sort of tour for new arrivals. The visual slides come into their own as he teaches us about something called ‘the overview effect’, a cognitive shift reported by some astronauts whilst viewing the Earth from space, where borders and boundaries disappear and everything is interconnected. It can cause the astronaut to experience a state of awe, causing changes in the observer’s self concept and value system. Jeffers believes “this is how we make sense”, and follows this with a quote from space philosopher, Frank White, which is screened behind him in his classic illustrative writing, reading ‘We have to start acting as one species, one destiny. We are not going to survive if we don’t do that’. Jeffers explains that from space, there are no borders and boundaries, Earth was never meant to be viewed in this way.

This is the beating heart of Jeffers presentation, explaining how we “need to reimagine things, we’re a story driven species” and urges us to change the story. Another quote on the screen, from Frederick Douglass this time, the freed slave and statesman, ‘It is easier to build strong children than fix broken men’. But Jeffers hasn’t given up on the broken men and women, he knows only human beings can solve the problem. He knows enough about people to know that rather than focusing on being right, we should focus on being better. He knows that people are fragile and complicated, that sometimes we might feel attacked and naturally go on the defensive if we feel that we’re being told we are wrong. So we need to “be gentle with everyone for we all carry a great weight”, he says. Jeffers style of lecture with his use of visual quotes and explanations, feels poetic and moving. This is so much more than a date on a book tour, this is education, philosophy, art, and truth. I feel part of something just being here and listening.

The final act of the presentation is a short film created by Jeffers that leads to the introduction of his new book, Begin Again: The Story of How We Got Here and Where We Might Go, which includes themes of grief, community and climate. The entire presentation today has been a build up to this end film and how Jeffers got to this book.

He asks us, “is this the best use of our time?”

Oliver Jeffers is optimistic about people, he believes we can begin again, before assuring us that this is a book aimed at everyone. He finishes his lecture with the same question he started with but this time tweaks it slightly; “who here still thinks we’re all doomed?” No-one raises their hand, including me.

Review by Jo Overfield

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