Saturday was the second day of the 2012 Cheltenham Literature Festival which I attended with Frances Bevan, henceforth known as Mum, as that’s who she is to me!
This post is a bit of a diversion from normal business however I can make a rather tenuous link – this month’s challenge is science-fiction and at one point I found myself standing next to Iain (M.) Banks signing books in the Waterstones tent!
Anyway, I thought I would give a brief review of the three very different events we attended.
Not the most accurate title but I like a bit of alliteration. This event was actually called ‘Women of Substance’ and featured Libby Purves interviewing Clare Clark, Juliet Nicolson and Frances Osbourne. The discussion focused on the challenges of translating women’s lives in some of history’s most pivotal moments. Clark’s novel Beautiful Lies opens just before the Golden Jubilee of 1887; Nicolson’s Abdication is set in 1936 and Osbourne’s Park Lane in the First World War. All three women were passionate about the period and characters in their books, inspired by real women and events. Libby Purves grated slightly, talking over people and moving onto her next point without much acknowledgement of what had been said, so desperate was she to keep to time. This is probably my only complaint of the Festival. They pack in so many events that often really interesting discussions are cut short in order to clear the venue for the next person; unavoidable but a bit of a shame.
At the end a member of the audience asked if the panel felt there was a difference between male and female writers which elicited an interesting response. Clare Clark noted that as men and women’s lives change their writing reflects this, women are not confined to the home and in these post-Freudian times men are encouraged to discuss their emotions more. Gone is the idea that men write grand novels while women focus on the domestic affairs and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies was held up as an example. What do other people think? What are your favourite male-authored domestic novels and female-authored epics? Is this distinction helpful or even relevant?
The second event was a recording of BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze – available to listen to online here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qk11. The question was: ‘The 90th anniversary of the BBC. Is public service broadcasting a moral good?’
For those not familiar with the programme Michael Buerk chairs a debate with a panel and a number of witnesses. For this show the panel included Michael Portillo, Anne McElvoy, Claire Fox and Matthew Taylor. Witnesses were David Elstein – Chairman of Broadcasting Policy Group; Robin Aiken – Journalist; Matthew Flinders – Professor of Politics, University of Sheffield; and Steve Barnett – Professor of Communications, University of Westminster.
Worryingly (for me at least, as a bit of a lefty) I found myself agreeing with Michael Portillo – I don’t know which of us has shifted in our politics but I’m hoping it’s him!
It was a really interesting debate but I felt the odd one out in the audience. I was at least 20 years younger than the majority and not a regular BBC4 listener, I’ve never heard even a minute of The Archers which I think would have been treated as blasphemy had I admitted to it aloud.
As I’m not a die-hard supporter of the Beeb I agreed with David Elstein that the license fee is not the right way to fund such a service and also with Robin Aiken who highlighted an inherent political bias in some of the editorial decisions. Matthew Flinders and Steve Barnett both made valid ideological arguments as to the importance of public service broadcasting but I still remain unconvinced that the BBC is the only possible provider of such a service. I wanted to applaud several of Anne McElvoy’s comments but feared a potential lynching so have now decided to follow her on Twitter and read her articles in an entirely anonymous and safe way!
J.K. Rowling appeared at the Festival at The Centaur; with a capacity of 2,250 people the event unsurprisingly sold out well in advance. Before she took to the stage the tension in the room was palpable, the audience comprised men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds and everyone eagerly awaited the arrival of their hero. And hero-worship it was but I’ll return to that in a moment.
James Runcie interviewed the author and noted at the beginning that the pair were friends which was evident in the session as it struck the right balance of informality and detail. He called her Jo throughout so I’m going to do the same as I don’t think she’d mind!
Jo was there to talk about her new book ‘The Casual Vacancy’ the blurb for which states:
When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock. Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war. Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils… Pagford is not what it first seems. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?
Jo discussed the novel’s themes of responsibility and integrity giving an insight into her personal moral code as well as talking about the creative process. In common with the Harry Potter books you realise just how intricate the worlds she creates are, every character is multi-layered with whole backstories often never mentioned in the novel but working to create a rounded individual. She talked about redemption, tolerance and understanding but in a completely non-judgemental way and didn’t come across as at all preachy. She made you feel like you wanted to be her best friend which leads me onto my subheading of mania.
I’ve never seen such hysteria before and doubt I will again. During the question and answer session nearly every person to take the microphone cried and told Jo that they loved her. My Mum commented that she had touched a lot of people, to which I quipped that some of them were certainly touched but I now realise that was spiteful and unnecessary. Yes, some of them were obsessed and slightly loopy – in particular one fifty-something year old woman who proclaimed that Dobby was her favourite character and then warbled her way through some tearful monologue about wanting to help people who were disadvantaged in support of the little people like Dobby. I didn’t understand her point but Jo was gracious and warm as she was with everyone from teenagers offering themselves as actors in any future film adaptations to a Chinese woman struggling with her English.
As an avid reader, former bookseller and wannabe library manager (interview on Friday!) I was pleased that the mania in the room was directed at an author; someone who used their creativity, imagination and skills to create whole worlds and encouraged a new generation of readers and writers. While some of the audience may have been slightly crazed I felt they were my people and was proud of them for not admiring the latest Big Brother contestant or WAG and instead had chosen someone interesting, talented, warm and kind to pour their energies into.
Long live Rowling’s reign!