Saturday, 25 May 2013

Festival Time

The festival season has begun.  Well, to be honest, the festival season never really stops.  There may be a bit of a lull over Christmas, when we're all busy doing other things, but for the rest of the year you can normally find a cultural festival of some kind, somewhere, to attend, if you feel so inclined.  It seems to have become big business.

Even the small market town of Cowbridge (population approximately 4000), which is the nearest place of any size to my house, has two festivals - a Food & Drink Festival in October, and a Book Festival which takes place, er, all year round.  Yes, that's right.  It began as a summer event but has turned into "a calendar of events running throughout the year offering more flexibility to both authors and organisers".  Rather a novel idea (if you'll forgive the pun), and perhaps not so difficult to understand when you bear in mind how heavily potential speakers' time is committed.  To get the best names, an organiser has to be prepared to wait.

"Names" are not really something the SSF has ever bothered too much about.  We look for interesting speakers on interesting subjects when planning our events, and don't chase after big names, although it can't be denied that they attract big audiences.  The Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, which is in progress as I write, takes place in a town half the size of Cowbridge and has been going since 1987.  This year's speakers include Will Self, Lionel Shriver, Melvyn Bragg and Mark Haddon, to name but a few.  The town is swamped with visitors (including the Prince of Wales) for the duration of the festival, but booking popular writers who are in such great demand has its hazards.  Just a couple of years ago, one notable speaker failed to turn up because he had gone to Ross-on-Wye "by mistake".  Since the two towns are only 35 minutes apart by road, this does sound awfully like an excuse; presumably the audience would have been prepared to wait.

In general, though, festivals are making a lot of money for a lot of people and there is no shortage of potential audience members.  The only thing that stops some of us spending most of our year attending festivals is the cost.  I've just paid over £90 for tickets for a few events at the Chalke Valley History Festival next month, and I don't begrudge it - organising a festival is not exactly an easy job, and the financial outlay must be considerable.  At the same time, I can't help thinking how lovely it would be if such events were more within the reach of the less well-off.

The audiences for these events - if the ones I've attended are anything to go by - are not restricted to the wealthy classes, although they do tend to be educated people.  Certainly all age ranges are represented, though I did cringe when Niall Ferguson, speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival a couple of years back, singled out his teenage offspring from the audience for an embarrassing father-to-son mini-lecture. Chalke Valley is a particularly good example of a community event, since it takes place in a field in the middle of nowhere, is attended by the inhabitants of nearby villages as well as a wider audience, and donates most of its profits to charity.  The organisers, James Heneage and James Holland, have the advantage of being well-known historians in their own right and being able to call on eminent friends and colleagues to speak at their festival. 

Nor is mere attendance a major earning opportunity for most of the speakers.  If you have ever tried to book a speaker, you will know that some relatively obscure "celebrities" insist on a large fee, whilst others who have a far greater right to expect one will do it for virtually nothing, recognising the opportunity to sell books.  Let's face it, people will queue up to get almost anything signed by Ian Hislop or Dan Snow (I just plucked those two names out of the air, knowing that both make frequent appearances on the festival circuit).  Let it not, however, be said that these celebrities don't earn their money.  I was simply astounded by the sheer stamina shown by Michael Wood in the first year of CVHF - speaking for an hour, signing books for another hour (pausing to chat to every single customer and never hurrying anyone along), and then, after only 30 minutes in which to eat his own dinner, chairing a one-hour debate before dashing off to the railway station so he could be in Norfolk at 8am next day to film "The Great British Story".

It has to be admitted that one or two of the speakers you will see and hear at the major festivals will turn out to be a disappointment, but in general it's a very rewarding experience and well worth the £10 or so that is the typical entry fee.  Just look at what's on offer later this year in the quaintly-titled Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival at Harrogate, for example: Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell and Susan Hill, and furthermore visitors can stay at The Old Swan Hotel, where Agatha Christie was found suffering from amnesia in 1926.   Or, if crime writing is not your scene, there is always the Stratford Poetry Festival, unbelievably in its 60th year, where for the second year running the SSF will be putting on a war poetry session on "Poetry Sunday", entry completely free.  For further details see the website: or just turn up on 7 July.

It's festival time and it's never far away.  If you haven't been to one yet, add it to your bucket list.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

All you ever wanted to know about centenaries but were afraid to ask!

We are about to celebrate a centenary - no, not that one!  On 1st June, which would have been the 100th birthday of the novelist Barbara Pym, the Alliance of Literary Societies will hold its annual conference at Pym's alma mater, St Hilda's College, Oxford, hosted by the Barbara Pym Society.

I have been attending the ALS annual meetings for several years now and have enjoyed memorable weekends hosted by the Jane Austen Society (at Bath), the Elizabeth Gaskell Society (at Knutsford), the Charles Dickens Fellowship (Nottingham), the Johnson Society of Lichfield, and, most adventurously, the Dubliners Literary Society.  In 2017, it will be the turn of the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship to be adventurous, as we hope to host that year's conference, in collaboration with the Wilfred Owen Association, in Edinburgh.  That will, of course, be another centenary, the 100th anniversary of the meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen over a set of golf clubs at Craiglockhart.

Such has been the success of the last few ALS conferences that there is now stiff competition to host them, several years in advance.  The George Eliot Society has already secured 2019, which will be the 200th anniversary of Eliot's birth, and 2016's Charlotte Bronte bicentenary will be celebrated courtesy of the Bronte Society.  These are sure to be major events, with no shortage of delegates.

It is more difficult for a society dedicated to a less well-known author like Barbara Pym, and I say this as a current member of the committee.  To fully appreciate Pym's comic genius (assuming you don't already), it is useful to read her out loud or to see her works dramatised.  In the past, the Barbara Pym Society has enjoyed readings by leading actors and actresses such as Miriam Margolyes and Joanna David, but we find that our D-I-Y efforts, involving members of the society not noted for their dramatic talent, work just as well.  As I told one guest speaker, somehow the worse it is, the better it is.  I can't really explain what I mean by this - you'd have to be there, as they say.

Naturally, with it being the centenary, we have worked hard to organise celebratory events in the current year, often against the odds.  The media have not been particularly helpful, showing little interest in an author whose work has never been adapted for television (though it has frequently been on radio).  This would hardly have surprised Pym herself, who is an inspiration to many writers precisely because she knew the pain of unexplained rejection.  Having had six successful novels published between 1950 and 1961 and become a favourite with library borrowers, she suddenly found herself on the scrap-heap, told by her publishers that she was out of step with the times.  She spent another fifteen years in the literary wilderness, until a chance event made her work more sought-after than ever before.

Although she had not been moving in literary circles, Pym had maintained a long correspondence with Philip Larkin, a (seemingly unlikely) fan of her work.  By coincidence, Larkin was one of two major literary figures who chose her as "the most underrated writer of the twentieth century" in a piece that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977.  (The other was Lord David Cecil.)  Suddenly, everyone wanted to know Barbara Pym and there was no shortage of publishers willing to take her next book - which was nominated for the following year's Booker Prize.  Sadly, her new-found fame was short-lived, as she died of cancer in 1980.

Despite this late flowering and the posthumous publication of some of her earlier work, Pym remains not exactly a household name, though she does have a tendency to crop up in the oddest places.  Recently I was telling an Oriental lady about the friendship between Barbara Pym and Philip Larkin, and she responded, "Well, I've never heard of that other person, but I love Barbara Pym!"  Her celebrity fans range from Alexander McCall Smith to Jilly Cooper to Sebastian Faulks to the Reverend Richard Coles.  In celebration of the centenary, the BBC has graciously agreed to repeat-broadcast her appearance on Desert Island Discs and a radio adaptation of her novel Jane and Prudence.  

The ALS conference will be replacing the Barbara Pym Society's usual spring meeting in London, but the Pym Society will still hold its annual conference (this year entitled "Remembering Barbara") in September at Oxford.  Many of the delegates will be academics from Europe and from the USA and Canada, where Pym's work is widely appreciated.  In fact, the Society has around the same number of members on the other side of the Atlantic as it does in the UK, and they have their own annual conference in Boston.  As well as the annual conferences, the centenary is being recognised with a short story competition (details here: ) and a book by society archivist Yvonne Cocking containing all kinds of intriguing information from her research into Pym's papers held by the Bodleian Library (where the young Barbara would carry out her own "research" into the habits of young men she had her eye on).

In addition to Pym's centenary, the ALS will this year be celebrating its 40th anniversary - not quite the same thing, but a notable achievement nevertheless.  After the speaker sessions on Pym and Larkin and a little dramatised reading to whet your appetite, there will, of course, be tea and cake, as well as the opportunity to meet other people who admire a range of authors - Trollope, Woolf, Marlowe, John Clare, Richard Jeffries and Arnold Bennett are just a few of those who will be represented. 

Incidentally, if you are reading this now and thinking, "I wish I'd booked!", it's not too late.  As long as you are a member of any literary society affiliated to the ALS (which includes the SSF, WOA, Edward Thomas Fellowship and most other major societies), you are entitled to attend, and you still have time to get a place if you make your way to  and follow the instructions.  It would be lovely to see you there - we're going to have a great time!

Sunday, 5 May 2013

From Mametz to Misrata

I had thought of writing about something very mundane in this blog - then I opened last week's Big Issue and found an article about the late Tim Hetherington.  Not exactly a household name, perhaps, but if I were to jog your memory with the information that Hetherington was a photojournalist who was killed, aged only 40, in Libya during 2011, you might begin to recall the circumstances.

Hetherington was in Libya to cover the so-called civil war (I say "so-called" because I am never quite sure how many of the international conflicts going on in today's world are stoked by foreign interests for their own ends) when he was killed by shrapnel in Misrata, during the three-month battle for control of the city between pro- and anti-government forces.  In the same year, Hetherington had been nominated for an Academy Award for Restrepo, a documentary he made with Sebastian Junger about the war in Afghanistan.  The film followed several U.S. battalions operating in the Korengal Valley, at that time regarded as "the deadliest place on Earth".

Hetherington himself will shortly be the subject of a new film, Which Way is the Front Line from Here?  A biography by his friend Alan Huffman, entitled Here I Am, has also been published recently by Grove Press and is receiving rave reviews on Amazon (if that is anything to go by).  What interests me, of course, is the parallel between the experiences of photographers and journalists in war zones of today with those of people trying to do a similar job during the First World War.

I am not really talking about "official" war correspondents and photographers, but about men (and occasionally women) who take their lives in their hands in order to record what they see as the truth about wars.  Propaganda is still rife, just as it was in the past, and we cannot always rely on "candid" shots from mobile phones and camcorders, which are generally supplied by people who have taken sides in the conflict and are interested in showing only their own side of things to the international audience.  Hetherington's photographs, many of which are now widely available in published books and articles, include photographs of the soldiers, the situations, and the victims, in a way that seeks not to judge but to report, not merely accurately but reflectively.  He described himself, not as a war photographer, but as an "image maker".  Perhaps this is unfortunate, as the word "image" has connotations we do not necessarily associate with the truth.

When I saw a reproduction of the last photograph Hetherington ever took, I was rather moved by the parallels with twentieth-century wars.  A metal helmet with an enormous hole in the centre lies on the barren ground in the centre of the frame, surrounded by the remnants of the contents of an army supply truck captured by rebels.  Whether there was anyone wearing the helmet at the time the hole was made, one cannot be sure, but it is reminiscent of so many of the rusted Great War artefacts I have seen in France and Belgium and which can still sometimes be picked up at the site of battles that happened almost a hundred years ago.

What interests me even more is the way that technology has altered our ability to report on these conflicts in a timely and effective manner (which of course also makes it easier to misrepresent the facts if governments and newspapers so choose).  War photography began long before 1914, as we know from the many tragic visual reminders of the American Civil War.  As long ago as 1853, a Hungarian artist named Carol Szathmari took photographs in the Crimea, which he offered as a present to Queen Victoria.  Tim Hetherington is only one in a long line of war photographers who have been killed as a result of operating on the front line in an effort to report "the truth" about these conflicts.

Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and many other soldiers made sketches of what they saw on the Western Front, and many took cameras with them, but even this did not guarantee truthful representation.  We know that photographs of soldiers going "over the top" were staged as a way of engaging the British public.  That is one reason why the poetry of the war is so highly prized.  Art and literature offer their own way of presenting a higher truth by way of pictures and words reflecting the individual soldier's view of things, and Sassoon is rightly regarded today as a shining example of someone whose writings made a real difference to our view of World War I. 

Sassoon did not attempt to answer the big questions: whether the war was right or wrong, whether he should or should not be fighting in it.  Yet, in his poetry, he conveyed the truth about the human tragedy it represented in a way that was possibly more effective than any visual image of the time, however accurate.  We must, of course, acknowledge the contribution of Robert Graves to Sassoon's poetic development, and likewise, we must acknowledge how Sassoon's approach to reporting the war made an even bigger impact on the public imagination in the hands of the next great wordsmith, Wilfred Owen.  No doubt none of these men thought of themselves as war correspondents.  Nevertheless, they fulfilled that role in a manner that became a benchmark for later writers and is still greatly admired by the present generation.  This may seem an odd thing to say, but I think it would still be difficult for people like Tim Hetherington to achieve what they have achieved without the example of the poets of the First World War.  I wonder if you agree.