Julie Teckman looks back on an eye opening Literary Festival at Althorpe …
I’m a simple soul at heart and can be kept happy with just a few annual events that punctuate the year for me. Christmas, birthdays, a bit of sun in the summer and the occasional trip to the seaside will top up my happiness tank, along with my annual culture-fest courtesy of the Althorpe Literary Festival which takes place almost on the (albeit, very grand) doorstep.
And while I had to wait a little longer for it this year (the Festival moved from the end of June to early October) the 2017 celebration of the written word in all its literary forms did not disappoint. The weather held up, the line-up of writers was inspired and the atmosphere was the usual blend of excitement, warmth and conviviality with guest speakers ranging from the political (Lord Owen talking about his book on post-Brexit Britain) to the historical (A N Wilson discussing Charles Dickens), sporty (Judy Murray and Clare Balding) and hilarious (Pam Ayres reading her poetry as only she can do it and the newly evicted from Strictly Come Dancing – although we didn’t know it at the time – Reverend Richard Coles giving colour to his latest autobiographical volume, Bringing in the Sheaves).
The biggest problem with the Althorpe Literary Festival, hailed by many as the best of its kind, is knowing which talks to visit given the breadth of choice and variety of speakers. To hear historians and public commentators whose fingers are firmly on the pulse of why we live like we do and how political and social history impacts on our lives makes sessions rich in information and colourful hints about the things we don’t always get told! I like to laugh, learn and look which doesn’t narrow things down too much but the great selling point of this event is that you can wander around and experience so much even if you can’t visit all the talks you’d like to. And this year I noticed that there were more activities available outside of the talks: free poetry readings, exhibitions, marquees to wander around and a gorgeous double-decker bus dispensing champagne!
Like so many others, I get a real kick out of exploring the exquisite surroundings, peeking in windows to see the grandeur of rooms which aren’t open to the public during the event, although with talks and book signings taking place in various stately rooms inside the house this is always a chance to learn more about the home and the family that has contributed so much to the county’s story. There is something pretty surreal in walking past the huge library window and seeing people whose faces you’ve only ever seen in the newspapers or on television chatting together, totally relaxed over tea and cake!
And so to highlights of my own literary experience. Novelist Kathy Lette is a joy both to watch and hear speak, with her delicious disregard for British reservation (she happily told us about offering to French Kiss Princes William and Harry, apparently oblivious to heir Uncle sitting in her audience!) and her passion for the subject of bringing up children on the Autistic spectrum and the heartbreak of seeing your child bullied. She had female fans nodding enthusiastically and male audience members displaying a range of nervous body language when she talked about sex and the middle aged woman and her descriptions of how far she almost went to help her son experience the carnal desires that other boys his age were apparently enjoying had us gasping with shock and choking with laughter at the same time. Her interviewer, the highly experienced local broadcaster and funny man in his own right, Bernie Keith, had done his homework and made easy work of keeping her just on the right side of decency (but only just!). Together they produced a comedy double act equal to any you’ll see on the television, and Kathy was still singing Bernie’s praises as a love god, several hours after their encounter on stage.
Listening to master perfumier Jo Malone was an astonishing tale of a woman refusing ever to give up, in spite of poverty, dyslexia and, later, cancer conspiring to drag her down. From a nine year old managing the family finances to ensure there was food on the table, to a wife, mother and entrepreneur having to start again after selling the company she’d grown into an internationally recognised brand and recovering from life-threatening illness. Like Kathy and so many of the other authors talking about their works at Althorpe, the theme that ran through her interview was that of Passion: passion for life, passion for people and passion for perfume.
At one point the stately marquee in which she was speaking was alive with the scent of various perfume strains as Jo passed around samples of her products and talked about new ventures she’s exploring (how many other people could chat casually about their husband challenging them to change the way in which consumers experience scent and do so by inventing a new fragrance brush?) It was in this session that I felt the true spirit of the Festival become apparent when I found myself sitting next to the venerable Ken Hom (inventor of the wok most of us couldn’t live without, and owner of the best smile on any face ever) and watched as he made playful faces at a baby in the seat in front of us. When Jo Malone mentioned her dear friend Ken Hom who was sitting at the back of the marquee, the mother of the baby did a true double take when she realised who it was that had been entertaining her baby throughout Jo’s talk!
But for me, and I’m not sucking up here, believe me, the highlight of the event was listening to Charles Spencer talk about his new book, To Catch A King (William Collins) published just a week previously and telling the incredible story of King Charles ll’s six weeks on the run for his life in 1651 after seeing his Scottish army wiped out by Cromwell’s troops. The story itself is as dramatic as any action adventure movie, with a host of key characters whose loyalty to the prince put their own lives at risk and made for a compelling narrative written in a style that is as easy to read as any work of fiction.
Earl Spencer’s dedication to his research and his clear affection for the man about whose personal qualities he writes were “not always evident in an individual whose self-indulgence and sense of entitlement could infuriate even his most loyal devotees” shone through as he created for the audience a breath-taking story of bravery, near misses and luck which changed the face of British history. His ability to bring his subject matter to life and make it both funny and incredibly moving at times kept the audience enraptured and, unsurprisingly, his book-signing queue after the session was a long one!
There are no airs and graces at the Althorpe Festival (or certainly none that I have witnessed in the years that I have attended). From the Earl and Countess to the authors, celebrities and historians who mingle, attend one another’s sessions and talk to visitors as they sign books or wait for other sessions to start, the atmosphere is gentle, calm and respectful throughout. And my goodness, you learn a lot.