Charles Moore article

Writers thrive on their trip to the seaside

Charles Moore reviews The Aldeburgh Literary Festival.

 

It is a commonplace that "no one reads books any more". The growth of literary festivals casts doubt on this proposition.

When the history of our time comes to be written, people will write about the breakdown of community. Again, the success of literary festivals provides strong evidence to the contrary.

The Aldeburgh Literary Festival, which I attended last weekend, almost perfectly disproves both orthodoxies. Organised by Mary and Johnny James, who run the Aldeburgh Bookshop, it draws strongly on local talent and has no outside backing, but is national in its scope. Writers speaking this year included Sebastian Faulks, Alexander McCall Smith, Ferdinand Mount and Michael Holroyd.

It is also very small. All the talks take place in the Jubilee Hall, a few yards from the sea. It fits only about 200 people. Entry to each talk costs only £11. There is constant local irritation that tickets are so oversubscribed, but it does mean that everyone present really wants to be there. There is a charm in the almost village-hall feel of the place, and an excitement at encountering high quality in such surroundings. I think Aldeburgh must be to literature what Glyndebourne, in its early days, was to opera. The result is that real conversation takes place between the speakers and the audience, and among the audience. Conversation is what civilisation needs and what people crave, but often lack.

In the great days of the BBC, literary conversation was a great part of the Third Programme and the Home Service (now Radios 3 and 4). "Dumbing down" on the BBC means that it has become harder to find.

The pleasure of this sort of conversation is its range. It accommodates very big questions and very small ones. It is possible to discuss the nature of art, the future of the novel and the existence of God, but also the split infinitive, the availability of acid-free paper, and the latest gossip about the domestic arrangements of writers.

Michael Holroyd is a master of this range. He is excellent on the tension between privacy and disclosure in biography, or how each witness to a person's life inevitably sees it differently, but he is equally excellent on the minutiae. He told us that Ellen Terry walked on stage like Michael Jackson, moving backwards without appearing to touch the ground. He approvingly quoted Dr Johnson on "the significance of the trivial".

A talk I particularly enjoyed was by the veteran translator Anthea Bell. Nobody reads a book more closely than its translator. Out of minute attention to the trivial arises an understanding of the whole. Miss Bell said that it is quite common to notice a small error missed by the original author – a man, for example, who has lost an arm in the war, yet goes down stairs with a stick in one hand and his coat in the other.

Translation, in fact, is a most intent search for meaning, and it cannot be undertaken by people who do not love words. People who are good with words are like people who are good with horses – they both respect them and command them, and they can coax them through trappy places where others cannot. Literary festivals are rather like watching the best jockeys and horses on the gallops: they are not competing, and not at full stretch, but they are honing and displaying their skills beautifully.

So a part of all literary festivals should be authors reading aloud. Ferdinand Mount read three passages from his subtle memoir Cold Cream. One was about Sunday walks in his Wiltshire village in the 1940s. The second recalled Siegfried Sassoon giving tea, uneasy in his role as country squire. The third described Mrs Thatcher (for whom Mount worked) bustling around at Chequers. It is only when you hear such passages declaimed that you fully understand how words work. You have the lovely feeling that what is described could not be properly expressed any other way.

Holroyd made the interesting point that literary festivals arise from a culture that has become less literary. What he meant is that people used to publish their books and leave it at that. They did not go round speaking about them. The festivals are part of our more performance-related age
– a touch of showbiz.

This is true, but it is not a bad thing. When you put words behind the hard covers of a book, you surely should not intend to imprison them there.

Besides, authorship is a solitary business. It is nice, at literary festivals, to see writers enjoying the chance to get out. Sometimes they blink appreciatively, like convalescents tottering round a spring garden after a long period in hospital.

Because the tone of conversation at Aldeburgh is good, it infects other subjects. When I saw that there were talks by Anatole Kaletsky on why he had been wrong about the credit crunch and by Nigel Lawson on why global warming is largely fantasy, I thought at first that this was detracting from the purpose.

In fact, however, it enhanced it. The speakers were liberated from the usual boundaries in which they have to work. Kaletsky did not have to wrangle with other economic policy wonks. Lawson did not have to tussle with climate change zealots (though he did fight, and win, a passage of arms with one scientist).

The Aldeburgh air allowed them to think out loud, and discuss ideas as they should be discussed, but so rarely are – not to "win", but to elucidate.

© Aldeburgh Bookshop    T: +44 (0) 1728 452389    42 High Street, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, IP15 5AB, England    
Site Map