Thursday, 17 July 2008

Dartington day three: Monday 14th July (Part one)

There are days at literary festivals where the events are so brilliant that the general mood seems to lift higher and higher - even if the weather doesn't hold up its end of the bargain.

Today was one of those days. I knew it would be busy - and likely expensive too - but what I didn't know was that I'd come away from every event with the sense that if every other speaker had cancelled, these people could have gone on for hours and nobody would have minded in the slightest.

The morning kicked off with Medieval bloodshed, as we listened to Ian Mortimer talking about The Fears of Henry IV. I don't know about anyone else, but the period between Edward II and Richard III is one of my absolute favourites. The Elizabetheans and Victorians run close seconds and thirds, but no other period of British Monarch quite manages to match the Plantaganets for their blood thirsty natures combined with the romantic chivalric code that ended up with a LOT of illegitimate children. As Ian Mortimer said, it's more than 99% possible that most Englishmen are descended from Edward III in some way. That's got to be an awful lot of infidelity going on around the castle!

So, there I was sitting in my corner of the window nearest the stage on the left, with my rug for extra cushioning, completely enthralled by what this man had to tell me. The power struggle between two cousins both born on religious feast days, thinking they were therefore especially blessed by God. One who was second in line to the throne, and the other to whom the throne would be entailed should his cousin die childless. Not a situation exactly conducive to friendship really.

Ian was a wonderful speaker - who could fail to warm to a person that invites you to look up at the beams of the ancient hall in Dartington and then claim that to a historian, this was like speaking at the Royal Albert Hall? This is a man whose opening sentence to his book is 'Shakespeare has a lot to answer for' Fantastic!
Over the course of forty minutes, Ian wove the tale of the many trials that lead to Henry's ultimate usurpation of the thone. (It was usurpation because by the time it finally became necessary for a change of monarch, Richard had altered his grandfather's will and had entailed the throne on Edward Mortimer - no relation, said Ian, although Roger Mortimer had even more illegitimate children that Edward III, so you never know!)
Henry appears to us a warrior prince - someone who outshone his cousin in every way (although ultimately just as ruthless and murderous as Richard). His main claim to fame - which perhaps not many people know - is that he went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and is the only member of the royal family to stand at the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Richard I (that infamous crusader) never made it.
Henry finally made it onto the throne in 1400, but although he was put there by an overwhelming majority it didn't mean that he was safe. Henry survived ten rebellions and attempts on his life during his thirteen years reign, which is really rather impressive. We put you there, we can take it from you too, seems to be the message. None of the divine right of kings, for a nation who had decided who they wanted for their king (not that that stopped future generations of course!)

So - after a quick romp around the middle ages, there was just time to dash and buy the book before hurrying back into the hall, climbing up the benches and settling down for James Long's talk on the republication of his novel Ferney. For me, this was slightly less absorbing, but only because I'd never read the book. James Long (frequent speaker at Ways With Words, in fact having been here a total of 114 times) was in conversation with his son Ben, a historian, with who he collaborated on a book about Pepys, and who rewrote the first few pages of Ferney after his father tried, and then realised he might well go on to rewrite the whole thing. Which would defeat the object entirely.
Telling the tale of a man reincarnated and appearing in the same village many times through the ages, Ben thought that even though the novel was set in one place, it still had an epic quality to it, seeing as how it had travelled 800 years of history.
And this seemed to be the most important thing, because the epic nature reflected the fact that people don;t change - values and culture shift about us instead.
There was a comfortable feeling to this talk - almost as if the audience had wandered in on a home chat. James did provide a useful bit of information for any would be writer. If ever you want to do some research for a novel, take a Labrador puppy along for the ride. Everyone will talk to you then!

Book buying time (I'm becoming well known at the Waterstone stall by now) and then a much needed pause for lunch - which I wasn't going to have, but having actually used my mind during the course of the morning, I needed the soup!

After lunch it was back to the great hall to steep myself in all things Russian. Simon Sebag Montefiore is another man who one felt could talk all day and all night and you still wouldn't tire of hearing him. Although here to talk about his first novel Sashenka, Simon instead dwelled in the foothills of his past and spoke on his journalistic days and his peculiar ability to arrive in places and have a war break out, once phoning his mother from a president's office, just before the same president was overthrown. Returning fire against some Armenians and hiding in a ditch when shells were exploding round the bus he was using only to find he was sharing the ditch with some deserters who kept him hostage for a few hours were all part of the daily adventure.
All this created a backdrop for the books he wrote about Catherine the Great and Stalin - which created more stories about the intricacies of the Russian archive system, and how being in favour with the Kremlin after the publication of his first book suddenly made the archives 100% more accessible.
Simon's talk was fascinating in its complexity, but also because he may have solved my problems regarding a title for my novel .... If it becomes the title, will I have to credit Simon, I wonder?

I had a slight pause between events, which was very welcome and settled in a chair to read. I quickly discovered upon reaching Dartington that the books I had brought with me were superfluous - strangely it had slipped my mind that the books I'd buy would be enough to last me two months at least, never mind the four days I'd be here!
I had a piece of carrot cake from Van Rouge - a food stall run out of two french fire engines - and after that twas time to go back into the hall, this time to hear Poppy Adams and Rebecca Abrams in conversation with Kay Dunbar.

...... I was going to write up the entirety of the post tonight, but I have to be up with the dawn to go to Norwich. Tomorrow, I finally get the piece of paper that proves I can add the letters 'MA' after my name. Graduation time is upon us!


wormauld said...

Becca I've just discovered your blog. Congratulations on your MA. was it in History or English or did you just 'aquire 'it as an Oxford grad?
i'm like you take books when I'm going to buy some. i just feel insecure without abook in my bag and I'm 67.
Do visit me sometime at life in books and
i too like this period of history what came post Tudors never seems as lively.Daphne

oxford-reader said...

Hello :-) glad to see you on here.

I did my Masters in Life Writing (study of biography and autobiography) at the university of East Anglia. Unfortunately I didn't go to Oxford to study, but I take it as a big compliment that you think I did! I've lived in Oxford all my life, apart from uni years, obviously!