Katie’s blog at Cheltenham Literature Festival 2014: October 3-12
11:43 13 October 2014
Latest entry: Katie Jarvis listened to the glamorous Victoria Hislop discuss her latest novel at The Cheltenham Literature Festival. ‘The Sunrise’ is set in Famagusta, a now-derelict city that has long been a source of tension between the people of Greece and Turkey. As Hislop explained on stage, merely writing about the place is a diplomatic nightmare...
Well, of course Cotswold Life sponsored Victoria Hislop’s talk about her latest book, The Sunrise. For one thing, the Cheltenham Literature Festival tent was packed to the rafters. For another, it meant we’d managed to get an interview with Victoria, a few weeks previously, to publicise the event.
“I haven’t seen the piece yet,” she told her on-stage interviewer (though I’d sent it through her publicist). “But,” she squealed, as she looked at the front page of the Cotswold Life edition plastered across the advertising boards beside her, “pigs! Is that me?”
No, no Victoria. Those pigs were nothing to do with your interview. In fact, we included various lovely pics of you, and a full description of your novel, The Sunrise.
And the final reason why Cotswold Life sponsored this event is that Victoria is simply delightful. Despite being born in 1959, (I couldn’t make the font go any smaller), she’s incredibly glamorous and married to Ian Hislop, who isn’t.
She’s also the most entertaining speaker. Why did she decide to base her latest novel in Famagusta, a once-bustling city on the coast of Northern Cyprus that’s been derelict and deserted for the past 40 years? “Oh!” she said, “It was like sticking my fingers in a bucket of water, and then shoving them into an electric socket.”
The point is that, even after all these years, it’s a political hot potato. In the 60s and early 70s, it was at the heart of Cyprus’s tourism boom, peopled by the rich and famous who would frequent its glamorous hotels and lounge on the glorious beaches. Then came the Turkish invasion of 1974, with its shells and mortars. The 60,000 residents who fled have never been allowed back in. And, even today – as Victoria showed through a series of slides she’d taken earlier this year – a hideous plastic fence and barbed wire continue to seal it off from the world.
Simply writing about the situation is a diplomatic nightmare. “I have lost a few Greek friends as a result, though I have gained some Turkish Cypriot friends,” Victoria admitted.
Not that she is partisan when it comes to the ordinary people – either in her writing or personally. She just hopes against hope that one day the city will be free for everyone to live side by side. “They have so much in common.”
She told the audience how, in her research, she read dry histories, looked at photographs (“especially of the women and children who you never read about in these history books”), as well as listening to music (including cheesy 1970s’ pop songs) “and trying the food and the wine – extensively!
“When I first went [to Cyprus], I had never had the experience before of plucking an orange from a tree. Yet here were acres and acres of orange and lemon groves. I was 17 and being able to pick this fruit, to me, was magical.”
She spoke warmly about The Sunrise’s heroine, Aphroditi – beautiful, intelligent, spoiled – who learns a great deal through her traumatic experiences, as the story unfolds. The daughter of wealthy parents, and the wife of a successful businessman, Aprhoditi treasures her unbelievable collection of jewellery.
“I love jewellery, too,” Victoria said. “Last week, we had a burglary and I lost almost all of it.”
“Ahh!” the audience sighs, with concern.
“No,” she replies, “don’t say ‘Ahh!’ because I realised it almost didn’t matter – and there’s a point where Aphroditi realises what really matters, also.”
Audience questions came thick and fast, including: Where does Victoria write?
“I sit in a library,” she revealed. “It’s the ideal place for me because it’s silent, but there are people around. I can’t work at home: it’s too lonely; and then the cat will walk in. It always looks ill so I end up having to take it to the vet. I have to get away from the cat, really.”
I went to see Michael Frayn’s Noises Off about 25 years ago, but I only stopped laughing a week last Tuesday. It’s truly the funniest play I’ve ever half-seen. ‘Half-seen’ because I missed every other scene – along with my immediate audience – by gaffawing so loudly that I drowned out each next five minutes.
I also loved his philosophy book, The Human Touch, despite having to read every sentence at least five times. It’s not that it’s obtuse – it’s that I am.
Michael Frayn’s talk at Cheltenham Literature Festival was, then (as you’d expect), a mixture of dry humour and philosophy, seasoned with the art of writing. He was slightly nervous of public speaking, he claimed; but reminded himself of a lecture he’d attended, given by the great Lord Allen, “in the middle of which, he stopped and patted all his pockets slowly. Eventually, he produced what looked like a tablecloth and blew his noise extensively. Then he folded it back up and put it away.” His audience was held rapt throughout the whole episode. “If he could get away with that, then I can get away with sometimes becoming muddled,” our speaker concluded.
Not that he did. This is a razor-sharp mind. He took us through Things We Ought To Know About Actors (“They’re the nicest people. Acting is so terrifying that they help each other out. I don’t know how they do it – particularly on a first night.”)
And he talked about the skill of being an audience – we’re very well behaved compared to the old days, when people would simply mill around having chats in the absence of being able to ring each other’s mobile phones.
Audiences react to each other and magnify the results, he explained, citing as an example the terrifying laughing epidemic in 1962 in Tanganyika that began with three girls at school. Soon, half the school was laughing – and then it spread to other girls’ schools. “In the end, there were 18 schools that had to be closed and it took 18 months to bring the attack under control.” (I experienced something similar 25 years ago at Noises Off, though the authorities were never involved.) Serious stuff.
Michael Frayn would know about these things. He’s been a playwright for some 40 years now (his latest being a matchbook theatre set of 30 short scripts, some lasting just a couple of minutes. This is incredibly clever, as anyone who’s written a short story will know. I can’t remember which famous writer once began an extensive screed to a friend with, “I meant this to be a short letter but I didn’t have the time.”) and he spoke movingly about the horror of sitting, as author, in a theatre, listening to comments. At one of his plays, a grand party pushed past him just before curtain-up, “exhaling wine fumes and opening chocolate boxes. Just as the lights went down, in the silence one of the women said, ‘Oh no! I thought this was by Alan Ayckbourn.’”
The great thing about humourists is that nothing awful ever happens to them. Life only throws funny incidents in their direction. It was revealing, therefore, to read an old interview by Gyles Brandreth, in which he quizzed Michael Frayn about the break-up of his first marriage. (He subsequently married the biographer Claire Tomalin.) Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, it was a moving reminder that everyone suffers; and that no playwright as marvellous as Frayn could have escaped life’s more difficult fluctuations.
When he lightly talked about his disappointment at his Footlights revue flopping, therefore, we knew better. Or how – when he got his courage back – producer Alex Cohen refused to stage one of his short plays, about a young couple with a baby, because it was “too filthy”. “Too filthy?” asked Frayn, astonished. The reply came, “He says he could never do a play in which a baby’s nappy is changed on stage.”
Tuesday October 8
The issue is this: the evening was billed as an ‘illuminating interview’ in which Lorraine Pascale ‘shares her inspiring journey from a childhood in foster care to one of the nation’s best-loved and bestselling TV chefs’. Look – it even quoted that on her own website. And I’ve read interviews where she talked about being adopted, living in Witney, time in foster care – which, considering how much of a success she’s made of her life – is incredibly inspiring. But not a whit was forthcoming at her Cheltenham Literature Festival event.
Personally – rightly or wrongly - I blame the publicists. There was more than a hint of ‘just sell the cookery book’ here. Which is why we were left with statements such as ‘Slow cookers. You just throw stuff in, come back at the end of the day, and it is cooked.’ Or ‘I include lunches because people are so over the lettuce sandwich’. Or ‘I’m a big fan of balance.’ After 10 minutes behind closed town-hall venue doors, it felt like a hostage situation. I bet the interviewer – whose name I’ve forgotten; but then I forgot my own name at one point during that hour – can never face cooking again.
It did get better, when Lorraine moved off the book and spoke a little about her modelling days – “Marlboro Lights and diet coke” – and about how she struggled to find a post-catwalk career. “I went down the list of courses [at the local college] trying everything: hypnotherapy, interior design, car mechanics.” She also spoke of Witney, and how childhood fields where she and her friends rode bikes were now full of Barratt Homes.
The thing is, wonderful, wonderful Cheltenham lit fest is generally so good about pretending it’s not about selling books; and most authors understand that. They also understand that a rapport with an audience is not a given. In fact, it involves giving – little bits of you that people wouldn’t have got, if they hadn’t come along.
I love Lorraine Pascale’s cookery books and I’d recommend them to anyone. The recipes work; they’re what you want to eat; and they’re not pretentious. I’m sure I’d love Lorraine, were I to meet her in person. But, if I were lucky enough to get an interview, I’d make sure her publicists were firmly locked in the town hall first.
Monday October 7
Sir Ranulph Fiennes
If Sir Ranulph Fiennes were to be accused of having ancestors that started wars, he’d have to reply, ‘Guilty as charged’. For there are numerous Fiennes examples of his family charging into battle, right back to Hastings. (And, of course, we all remember 1066 and all that.)
The point is (Sir Ranulph explained, during his talk at Cheltenham Literature Festival), when William The Conqueror needed ships, he turned to Count Eustace de Fiennes, who agreed to help with the supply (he was something Big in Bologne); but only, he stipulated (rather sneakily, in my opinion), if he could be commandant of the troops. As a result, Eustace is preserved for posterity in the Bayeux Tapestry (Une Bonne Chose), but with a cartoon bubble in which he advises William to flee back to the ships at once because the English Kniggits were winning (Une Chose Pas Vraiment Si Bonne). Luckily (depending on your perspective), William told him this was de poppycock complete, and the rest is history.
Oh, except that, if William had listened, we wouldn’t have had the Hundred Years’ War, Sir Ranulph explained, personally shouldering the burden of a bellicose family whose many stone effigies should be looking more shifty than they are.
In point of fact, the fine Fiennes intermixed with royalty like raisins mix with nuts – a highly popular combination. Which takes us neatly on to Agincourt, Sir Ranulph’s new book – ‘a uniquely personal account of one of the most significant turning points in English history’. We now move on to Henry V, thought to be A Bad King, except by those who considered him A Good King. A conundrum encapsulated by Sir Ran: “He killed loads of people in a single night, but that was just because it was the fashion,” he explained, with firm moral stance. Though, as a balance, he also pointed out Henry’s less moral qualities: “He would even take Yorkshire men in his army”, he added. Enough said.
So then – hope you’re keeping up here – we turn to Henry’s trusty advisers Roger Fiennes (A Good Thing) and James Fiennes (A Nasty Thing, proved conclusively by the fact that James was eventually made Chancellor of the Exchequer) (Sorry, George, but, to be honest, this does add up). From here, we learned much about the art of warfare, weaponry, and diarrhoea (caught at the Siege of Harfleur), which played havoc with your armour. (If you see paintings of soldiers approaching Calais with sad faces and leaden legs, it wasn’t just the weight of the metalwork, to be honest.)
Particularly fascinating was the interweaving of facts about Sir Ran’s own time commanding a platoon of 60 Muslim soldiers in the 1960s during a counter-insurgency while attached to the army of the Sultanate of Oman. There were also his personal accounts of planning for expeditions that led him to understand something of Henry’s own battle preparations.
Despite a rapt audience, questions were remarkably few, possibly because of a fear that Sir Ran might challenge any posers to a duel. Which nearly happened. When his own publisher, Rupert Lancaster, asked him, “What’s next?”, Sir Ranulph fixed him with a beady stare, explaining that he really couldn’t answer that. Why? “I don’t know whether or not there are Norwegians here,” he said.
Great Scott! What on earth could he mean by that?
Sunday October 5
Oh my days! Golly gosh! And by ginger! Stanley Johnson, in conversation with journalist daughter, Rachel, was spiffing at Cheltenham yesterday. A youthful 74, with an exciting barnet of his own, he’s constantly being mistaken for his son, Boris. Once, even by his own literary agent, who asked him, “How’s your father?”
But the confusion is not without its moments. “I always feel proud, riding my bicycle around Hyde Park without my helmet, when people call out to me, “Boris, you tosser”, he told the packed Town Hall audience.
As well he might. This is a man with no mean record of his own. It ranges over political success, environmental activism, authorship, poetry prizes and, of course, being father to six reasonably notorious offspring. Other lesser-known achievements include felling a tree with a chainsaw while cutting down the branch on which he was sitting. “You fall with remarkably more speed than you expect,” he admitted, with an air of surprised sadness. Then there was lunch with Nancy Dell’Olio, with his mother-in-law unexpectedly sitting at the next table. Oh, and a keen penchant for libel.
“William Hague – didn’t he have a fling with Angelina Jolie?”
“No, Dadda. They’re both married.”
“Well, he spent a lot of time with her.”
“Dadda, this is getting libellous.”
“But, when I was growing up, if you spent a lot of time…”
Ostensibly, he was there to sell the second volume of his memoirs, Stanley, I Resume. The first, Stanley, I Presume, was named after an incident in which the British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey happened to find his briefcase full of airline tickets and passports after it fell off the back of a jeep in the wilds of Kenya. (‘Ordinary’ just doesn’t happen in the life of a Johnson.) He feels there may be room for one last volume-to-come: “Stanley, I Exhume”, he suggests.
In fact, he wanted to call the first volume Paterfamilias, “But my publisher told me they didn’t want a book with the word ‘arse’ in the title.”
This was a talk with no hint of a dull moment – either in the hour for which father and daughter spoke, or, indeed, in the life around which the conversation pleasurably drifted. Even the questions were entertaining. There was barracking from a one-time fellow MEP who (bitterly or jocularly: either was feasible) felt Stanley probably didn’t know where Canada was. And – my favourite – a question from either a Brian Sewell sound-a-like or Brian Sewell, who drawled, “You appear to have had many wives. Have you enjoyed all of them?”
Stanley sang the praises of the two wives he felt made up his full complement. “But,” he told the questioner, with his consummate good manners, “it’s sweet of you to ask.”
Saturday October 4
It’s 13 years since Douglas Adams died, but Python Terry Jones still cried when he described his friend, at Cheltenham Literature Festival yesterday (Saturday). That very day, a photograph had appeared in national papers of a whale, leaping out of the sea. For Adams fans, it was a sign that Hitchhiker’s, at least, was alive and kicking; the only thing the photograph lacked, of course, was a resigned bowl of petunias.
Douglas Adams: A Celebration was chaired by Clive Anderson, who knew Douglas from back in their Cambridge days. They also remained close friends, despite the fact that Douglas had once both enhanced and ruined one of Anderson’s sketches by bringing the curtain down at the wrong moment.
Douglas Noel Adams was born in 1952 – the most important phenomenon of a year that was also to discover his namesake DNA. He went up to Cambridge to study English. Even there, he stood out; at six-ft 5, he was bound to. His dream was to be a Python – indeed, he did appear in various sketches. But his fate was to be a more alien one.
“He was once offered a job in Hong Kong – I think it was with the police,” Clive said. “I strongly advised him to take it.” Instead, Douglas chose to stay behind and write The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Probably, on balance, a better decision.
The phenomenal success of Hitchhiker’s took even Douglas by surprise. Terry Jones described how his friend was once two-and-a-half hours late for a dinner party in Camberwell. When a harassed Adams eventually rushed in, he explained that he’d popped into Forbidden Planet in Soho to sign a few books. In fact, 1,000 people had turned up, stretching in a queue that rounded the block.
Jones, between tears, also told the legendary story of Douglas settling himself down at a train station table, with cup of coffee, packet of biscuits and daily paper. A moment or two later, an accountant sat down opposite him, before brazenly leaning over, opening the packet and taking a biscuit. Douglas, shocked, decided he was too English to say anything, so leaned over and took one himself. For a moment, their eyes locked. Then the accountant took another. This carried on until the (mini) biscuit packet was finished. The accountant’s train arrived, and he walked off.
A few moments later, Douglas’s own train arrived. He finished his coffee, picked up his paper – and, underneath, found his own packet of biscuits.
The one aspect of the story that Terry Jones missed was Douglas’s comment on the incident. “Somewhere in England,” he mused, “an accountant is telling exactly the same story. But without the punchline.”
Douglas Noel Adams, March 11, 1952–May 11, 2001