On the last day of the Festival I went to two talks. The first was by Helen Pearson who has written a book called The Life Project – The Extraordinary Story of our Ordinary Lives. Pearson is a scientist/journalist who edits the magazine Nature. She found the research work based on following the lives of a cohort of babies born in one particular week fascinating and it forms the basis of the book. The first group was the babies born in one week in March 1946 and their lives have been documented over the last seventy years. Further cohorts have been recruited roughly every fifteen years. She looked at a number of conclusions that have been drawn from this research – she described it as the jewel in the research crown. One area is pregnancy where the link with smoking and infant mortality. On education, another book Born to Fail showed how hard it was for those from poorer neighbourhoods to improve their incomes and status. It was this research which gave the impetus to the introduction of comprehensive schools in the 1960’s. It was a fascinating account of important research which unfortunately will not be continued – the last cohort recruited in 2015 has already been abandoned.
We had coffee in the beach hut before the talk by A C Grayling drawing on his book Progress in Troubled Times. He believes the 17th Century was a turning point in the way humanity thought about itself as religious philosophy changed to the scientific one. He argued it came about when the Protestant religion introduced liberty of conscious – ‘you are your own priest before God.’ This liberated many to think for themselves about the world in which they lived. Whilst they tried to make base metal into gold, searched for the elixir of youth, and read the future in the stars, alchemy became chemistry, magic medicine and astrology astronomy.
It has been a brilliant four days. Looking forward to next year.
The third day and I’m scheduled to go to three talks. First is Shami Chakrabarti On Liberty. She is in conversation with Rachel Holmes. She explains how she took up her job with Liberty on 10 September 2011 with the intention of promoting a number of issues on Civil Liberties, but after 9/11 all the organisation could do was react to the increasing call for a surveillance society. Those wanting greater powers argue ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ but she argues we all need some areas of our lives that are private and not subject to state snooping. We have become complacent towards our freedoms after living in a peaceful world for so long, but we will lose them if we are not careful. She made the arguments with wit and some humour, comparing the Palace of Westminister with Hogwarts.
Next was Kate Summerscale talking with Erica Wagner about her new book The Wicked Boy. She began her career in journalism writing obituaries. The facts for the pieces she found by reading newspaper clippings about the deceased. This had given her a love of old newspapers and it was trawling through one of them she found the story of 14 year old Robert Coombes who murdered his mother. He was tried at the Old Bailey and found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to Broadmoor. The book traces the facts of the case and follows what happened to Robert and his brother after the trial. She said she made nothing up, all the facts are from the transcript of the trial or newspaper reports at the time. Definitely, one to read.
By this time it was 5.30pm but I still found time to go for a swim in the sea before a fish and chip supper sat outside our beach hut. After supper, Mark Haddon was in conversation with Rachel Cooke about his new book, a collection of short stories The Pier Falls. These stories are dark and the excerpt he read from ‘Bunny’ was truly disgusting. So much food! He acknowledged he found the modern short story difficult to read and write and it was only when he realised he could write action based stories that he was able to write the short form. He confessed to being unable to write for quite long periods, and to writing a lot of rubbish. Being a good editor was his key to writing a publishable novel. I was rather relieved to find I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get the bulk of short stories.
On the second day of the Festival, I began the morning in Rome with Virginia Bailey, author of Early One Morning. I have to confess I had already read the novel which I bought at the book launch in London. Just saying.Virginia Bailey talks like and Italian, with her hands. The novel is set in 1943 and 1970’s and unusually those parts in the 40’s are in the present tense and those in the 70’s in the past tense. Bailey’s explanation was of giving an immediacy to the earlier events.
Virginia Bailey talks like and Italian, with her hands. The novel is set in 1943 and 1970’s and unusually those parts in the 40’s are in the present tense and those in the 70’s in the past tense. Bailey’s explanation was of giving an immediacy to the earlier events.
Although she thought there were similarities with the modern crisis in the Middle East she said she found it difficult to process current events and preferred to look for parallels.
She liked to move between locations because she likes to step into a different world and also it enables her to make the familiar exotic.
I enjoyed the novel and would recommend as well as her debut book African Junction.
The weather was not so warm so I gave up any idea of a swim and headed to the Festival Marquee for a cup of coffee and a browse at the book stall.
Then into the Public Hall to see Alexandra Harris being interviewed by Rachel Cooke about her book ‘WeatherLand.’ Harris is such an exuberant personality, confessing she came to Budleigh as a child for holidays and how she would lie on the beach looking at the pines against a blue sky and imagining she was in the Med where most of her friends were. She said the idea for the book came when she was working on her biography of Virginia Woolf, particularly Orlando and how Woolf uses shifts in the air as a way of being. In literature, the weather is a powerful indicator of mood. She gave examples such as it is always winter in Anglo Saxon poetry and how Shakespeare changes the idea of weather away from the Gods to the emotions of the characters. I can’t do justice to the range of authors she cited who use weather to indicate mood. Perhaps just one more – Wuthering Heights is a one great meteorological disturbance. I had to buy the book and will look forward to reading it.
Finally Juliet Nicolson in conversation with Carol Ackroyd about her book A House Full of Daughters. She is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville West and she has used family archives to tell the story of her mother, grandmother and great grandmother as well as her own. It is a family with all the glitter of the wealthy and the important but there are hidden secrets of illicit relationships.
What could be better than books and the beach – they go together like love and marriage. After a swim in the sea, I went to the opening lecture in the Public Hall. Erica Wagner was in conversation with Helen Rappaport a scholar of Russian affairs. Her book Caught in the Revolution – Petrograd 1917′ considers the revolution as it appeared to foreign nationals living in the city.
The Winter or 1916/17 was very bad and hunger stalked the city. There were queues for bread and it was this that drove the revolution in February of 1917. It was a grass roots revolution unlike the events of October that brought the communists to power. Nor was it as benign as the official figures would have the world believe. Rappaport believes many hundreds died their bodies stiff with the cold and carried off by their relatives. The weather was a major influence on the conflict, if it was very cold there was less violence.
Amongst the foreigners whose eye witness accounts Rappaport has utilised for her book are diplomats like the British Ambassador George Buchanan, the American Ambassador David Francis and his valet Phil Jordan. Jordan was an African American who had been taught to read and write by Francis’s wife. His letters are ungrammatical and have no punctuation but provide a vivid and immediate account of the events.
A number of women journalists provided accounts of the revolution and often photographs and film taken by the cameraman accompanying them. Emily Pankhurst arrived as well to support women who were being urged to persuade their men to fight in the Great War. Everyone was obsessed with food and if you were rich you could get hold of it, but if you were poor you starved.
The February Revolution deposed the Czar, but the weak government that followed allowed the communist to have their revolution in October. The Russians need a strong leader/Czar.
Then it was back to the beach hut for lunch.
In the afternoon I went to the talk given by the President of the Festival Hilary Mantel. Professor Helen Taylor from the University of Exeter was the interviewer. The subject was writing short stories perhaps prompted by the outrage in some of the press about ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.’ Mantel read a new short story called ‘In a Right State.’ Mantel said she was unable to write commissioned short stories, she needed all the elements to come together before she could get them to work. This one set in a hospital waiting room had three sources. One was the sort of questions asked by newspapers of celebrities like ‘what was your best kiss?’, a comment in one of Alan Bennett’s diaries about going to A&E for recreation. (As an aside she said she had asked Bennett to come to the Budleigh Festival but she said he is rather frail and doesn’t go out much, anyway he thought Budleigh might be too frisky for him.) was the second and the third was the news stories this winter about floods and the crisis in the A&E.
Talking about writing short stories she said one of the differences between a novel and a short story was that the writer had to use voice to capture characters that hints at the back story. The writer must find the best words in the best order. In a novel technique can take you through the difficulties but not a short story. They cannot be forced.
She confirmed my own experience, it’s hard to write a short story.
I have struggled with writing my blog over the summer, but I have more episodes from ‘Life at the Bar’ lined up for the autumn. Before that this week I will be attending the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival. Four days of listening to outstanding writers from Hilary Mantel to Shami Chakrabarti with Virginia Bailey, Kate Summerscale, A.C. Grayling and many more. I hope to do some posts about the Festival as it happens.
I hope the weather is good as we are renting a beach hut for the period of the Festival. We got the key yesterday and spent a few hours there enjoying the sun. Here’s a photograph of my other half and our dog Lily.