I am up and out by 9.15am. On a Sunday. Last day of the festival and three events for me today. The weather is glorious again and I find a free parking space right by the Public Hall. Winning.
Keep reading to the end for a summary of the whole event.
If you missed them read:
Day 3 – Sunday 20 September
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst ‘Finding Alice’
We don’t bury ourselves in books, books bury themselves in us. And the books that we read as children really seem to stick.
I was intrigued the moment I saw this session in the programme. I love Alice and I’m fascinated by the iconography of these stories and the way they exist in the cutural consciousness. I also find them sinister and unsettling – as a child I never wanted to actually visit Wonderland in the way that I did Narnia. The talk is by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a rather dashing Oxford professor who has written a book so big you could wedge a church door open with it.
What I learnt:
- Alice Liddell’s life was forever affected by Carroll’s book. The real Alice and the literary Alice became muddled and intertwined over the years; something that Liddell seems to have both enjoyed and resented.
- The major theme in the Alice books, and in Carroll’s life, is doubling or twins. Charles Dodgson was a religious mathematician who dealt in absolutes; but he was also Lewis Carroll who played with letters and numbers, magic and surrealism. By creating a fictional Alice, and by photographing Liddell, he created two versions of her. The real girl who would eventually become a woman; and the ‘character’ of a little girl he could control, who would never change and never grow old.
- The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party can be read as a Dantian representation of hell. The characters are locked in purgatory for some nameless transgression which requires them move in never-ending circles around the table; trapped at a tea party where only the dormouse ever gets any tea.
- No matter how you cut it, Carroll’s relationships with young girls are unsettling. It’s difficult to say for certain if he’s fetishising children or childhood, and we have to consider the cutural context for a man who lived in a society where young teens could marry. But still. He immersed himself in the world of fictional Alice for 30 years; long after real Alice became a woman.
- There is an utterly charming 1903 film of Alice in Wonderland which the BFI have restored. Watch it on YouTube.
I had a brief chat with Douglas-Fairhurst afterwards. I could have spoken to him about Alice for hours, and I definitely don’t have a crush on the handsome, charming professor.
Patrick Gale ‘A Place Called Winter’
My editor said; ‘I think that’s enough ploughing now.
Gale’s event has the comfiest looking chairs I’ve ever seen – he’s clearly a festival pro. It’s a packed house and he holds the audience in the palm of his hand throughout. I sensed that the session could have been three hours long and no-one would have minded.
What I learnt:
- Gale can only write at home on his farm where it’s quiet, and he writes all his novels longhand in a notebook.
- A Place Called Winter is based on the real-life story of Gale’s maternal great-grandfather. He found out that his relative, Harry Cane, left his wife and children and went to Canada as a ‘homesteader’ in the early 20th Century and didn’t return to England for 50 years. Only parts of Harry’s life story are know so Gale has filled in the blanks with fiction.
- Winter is a real place and, as part of his research, Gale travelled to Canada and visited the farm Harry worked. He used map co-ordinates to see the exact spot where the farmhouse stood.
- The government shopping list of things needed for a move to Canada in the novel is real. It includes equipment suitable for a trip to India and only one winter hat. It shows how so many homesteaders were woefully unprepared for the Canadian winters and may explain why so many of them died.
- Gale has done a phenomenal amount of research about the early pioneers in Canada. His findings on the Plains Cree Indians are both fascinating and appalling.
- Gale’s next novel will be about a cellist and will follow the whole course of a man’s life.
Afterwards I met Patrick Gale and introduced Booey to him – so I’ve totally nailed parenting – and then we had a brief chat on Twitter and I did a little happy dance.
Sarah Waters ‘The Paying Guests’
It’s a book about mess, in all sorts of ways.
It’s the final session of the festival so there’s a bit of a giddy, end-of-term feel. Sarah Waters is teeny tiny, very stylish and has fabulous hair. She is also intelligent, engaging and funny.
What I learnt:
- Waters read Virginia Woolf, Aldous Huxley and DH Lawrence when she was researching the 1920s, but none of them gave her what she was looking for. However, Vera Brittain’s memoirs were incredibly useful.
- In the 1920s The Manchester Guardian ran a series of articles about getting rid of household items which collected dust to help families who found themselves without domestic servants for the first time. Waters enjoyed writing the domestic side of the novel: “There was more homework in the earlier drafts; I got very fond of it!”
- The Paying Guests addresses some of the concerns of the era such as anxiety about the suburbs, the rise of the lower middle classes and women’s autonomy over their own bodies.
- You don’t have to go back very far in history to find a very different set of social norms. It’s helpful to remember that the ‘traditional’ ideals we become so fixated with aren’t so fixed. Fiction is a great way of exploring British social history.
- Tipping the Velvet is now a stage show… You may not want to take your gran to see this.
- At the beginning of the session, chair Rachel Cooke explains that they will be very careful not to give away the plot twist. They then give away the plot twist. About three times.
It’s been an amazing three days and I feel lucky to have such a brilliant festival on my doorstep. The line-up was so good it was really an embarrassment of riches; I just wish I’d had the time (and the money!) to see Ben Okri, Margaret Drabble and David Hare too.
Over the eight sessions I went to I felt that three themes seemed to appear.
- The roles of women – they way they live, the way they are represented and the choices they are able to make.
- Memory and it’s reliability.
- The joy and the challenges of blending fact and fiction.
I’m not sure whether the writers were all covering similar areas; or if I’m just attracted to those themes. Next year I’ll need to have a bigger sample size to come to a conclusion.
And I definitely will be going next year. This festival had such an incredible sense of community and celebration – it really is a wonderful, stimulating, fun event. Roll on 2016.