A12 to Aldeburgh
BY MICHAEL CAINES
I'm afraid I distrust book festivals; perhaps you feel the same way. Book festivals, for one thing, are not necessarily bookish. It’s a commonplace piece of scoffing now to say that many of them have been overrun by celebrities rather than writers (who only end up in a Posy Simmonds cartoon, captured at the moment of absolute abjection), although presumably the celebrities are merely intended to compensate for the inexplicably sparse attendance at the poetry readings.
About ten years ago, writing in the TLS, P. J. Kavanagh described his indignation on behalf of Norman MacCaig, “who read almost as well as he wrote”, at such an event:
“People listened attentively to his wry Edinburgh tones, watched his weather-beaten face, that of an old sea captain concentrated on a horizon behind their heads, applauded loudly at the end, and left – without buying a single one of his books. Possibly they were better listeners than I am, and could retain his words in their heads . . . .”
While MacCaig himself "did not seem to mind, or notice”, I think I would have taken Kavanagh's side. But then, a friend said: let's put this to the test. A charming drive eastwards along the A12 will take you into Suffolk, and ultimately to the sea, to Aldeburgh, where you can have your faith restored. Not me, I replied. And that's how a sportsman’s bet turned into a full-scale investigation . . . .
In 1905, the TLS had declared Aldeburgh to be a “little, windy, wave-beaten town”, with a “single literary glory”, George Crabbe – but at least the town was about to celebrate the poet’s sesquicentenary. Nowadays, if Aldeburgh feels inclined to raise the tone (or lower it, depending on your point of view), it can always borrow a few writers for the weekend: the weekend just gone, that is, saw the eleventh Aldeburgh Literary Festival.
Literary festivals take many forms – from the venerable affair in Cheltenham and the field-bound delights of Hay-on-Wye, to the summery hipness of Port Eliot, the short-story-focussed Charleston, and the single-author-focussed form such as the imminent one celebrating Robert Walser in Newcastle upon Tyne (refreshingly, it’s free entry for all events, donations are welcomed). Run by the good people of the Aldeburgh Bookshop, the Aldeburgh festival mostly takes place at a single venue, the Jubilee Hall, and attracts a local crowd (cf. the pilgrimages people make to Wales or Cornwall). It’s about as charming (I grudgingly admit to my travelling companion) as this sort of thing gets.
The programme was almost entirely given over to speakers who actually write for a living (what remarkable creatures they are, moving and speaking just like real human beings), with life-writing a prominent theme across all three days. Claire Tomalin perambulated entertainingly around the subject of – what else? – Charles Dickens, speaking of his daily walks of ten or twenty miles, his devotion to the very best causes (not just ragged-school education for the impoverished minds of street urchins, but soap for their bodies), his writing two books at a time, his experiments in mesmerism. How did he do it all? She raises the question herself: was he one of those lucky souls who can run on only a few hours’ sleep, like Margaret Thatcher?
(This is marvellous, I said. If only the locals wouldn't give us that who-be-those-strangers look whenever we walked into a room. Is it the Dickensian waistcoat and monocle? Too much?)
Some of the biographers had the kindness to stop and talk. One of them was Alexandra Harris, who, to the delight of a full house, told tales of a lively and life-loving Virginia Woolf – a portrait of the author as a woman of both “exquisite” and “catholic” tastes, that seemed to surprise some people in the audience. When asked an all-too-conventional question – “what’s your favourite novel by Virginia Woolf?” – she responded with magnificently Bluestocking-ish glee, throwing up her hands and exclaiming “luxurious question!” (The answer was To the Lighthouse.)
Between I managed to fit in longer conversations with both Kathryn Hughes, the biographer of George Eliot and Mrs Beeton, and Eugene Rogan, the author of The Arabs: A history, and hope to post an observation or two from those interviews soon.
For now, I'll just end by noting that it was on this well-heeled, well-tended part of the coast, at Aldeburgh, that P. J. Kavanagh had his “prejudice” against such events dented, at a poetry festival: “an intensive two days of readings from morning till night, with gaps between in which the audience can get to know the readers and each other; a sort of group exhilaration is generated, word-drunk”. That was a poetry festival, mind. Getting word-drunk is just what you'd expect from such a crowd. . . .