Shirley Jones takes a long hard look at the first Delapre Book Festival which included Sarah Pascoe in its line-up of authors. Dave Ikin took the pictures.
The battle of Northampton, or, more precisely, the Battle of De La Pre was, as many of you might know, was fought in 1460, with Delapre Abbey in its midst. The Abbey has been through many changes since, passing through the private hands of the Tate family and the scandalous Bouverie family, latterly serving as the town’s record office. As this magazine has covered, the site, in its latest incarnation, has re-opened, restored to its former glories; different parts of the house reflecting different periods in its history.
But the lovely setting probably hasn’t changed much. Green pastures as far as the eye can see, not a sound, nor, from some parts, a sight, of a car. It is easy to imagine this as close to the site of a medieval battle, to get a sense how it might have looked and sounded.
Books, a lovely setting and peace and quiet make good bed mates, and so perhaps there is an inevitability about the inaugural 2018 Book Festival of Delapre, taking place on three days over the end-of -May Bank holiday.
In the courtyard of the house is The Prosecco Van; a miniature cream Italian van selling and serving drinks – including types of gins – with a couple of deck chairs provided. The Beer Garage, but which also sells gin and tonic and a local wine grower’s (Brixworth based) wines.
Arriving for the first day, I’m faintly surprised to find myself tasting a sparkling wine at 10.00 a.m.; the bottle which I later buy for consumption at home is delicious and, for practically the first time, under the prior instruction of Bill, the wine producer, I open the bottle with barely a drama, no noise and no spillage. The trick is to hold the wine resting against you, at a right angle, with the cork facing away, to gently ease off the cork wire and likewise the cork.
During a break from the writer’s talks, I taste a gin and tonic from the prosecco van, happily sitting in the deckchair provided, drinking the gin and tonic which I’d requested to be ‘as refreshing as can be’ which it was. The next day I visit the beer van, having a taste of an IPA made with American hops. But they also serve gin and tonic, so I have another, equally refreshing drink. There’s a van selling pork in all forms for ‘pigging out’, but it’s too hot for me to want to eat much.
The talks were held either on the Marquee ‘stage’ tent on the lawn or inside in the ‘Library stage’ – the newly renovated library as it would have been in its Victorian heyday; shelves and shelves of books, of course, but not too many to detract from the domestic setting, a copy of a Gainsborough over the mantlepiece, a thick but subtle rug, a chair with square sides which converts to a chaise lounge – pretty, genteel , with interior window shutters and a view into the green acres beyond.
Saturday morning starts off chilly. Cold, and dark is a theme of the first talk from the author Sarah Ward. Sarah is also on the panel of a Scandinavian Noir prize panel, the Petrona award and she estimates that a third to a half of all books submitted are Scandinavian. She came to talk about the Scandinavian Noir fiction scene, listing her top twenty books. Sarah talked about general themes in the fiction which she contrasted with those of the American crime fiction writer Sarah Parestski: of insular communities which allow secrets to flourish; of secrets carried down amongst the generations.
Crime fiction often depicts effects on whole communities, not just the motivation behind an evil act. Some of the population of Iceland still believe in elves, a demonstration of how folklore can survive. She points out that in many aspects Scandinavia is not as alien to Britain in landscape as, say America, yet in some respects Danish language and culture does not translate well in Britain; although many here will know the meaning of a ‘three dog night’ – i.e so cold that not just one, or two dogs are allowed onto the bed, but all three.
The legacy of the war is still felt in both Scandinavia and Britain.
Sarah’s own fiction is set in the area around her, which she knows best; which she believes should be the case for most fiction writers and she depicts an area known as the ‘Cat and Fiddle’ on the border of Derbyshire and Cheshire, rich in history and which has recently discovered trench digging of the last war.
She told us it takes her about a year to write a book.
The audience were asked to write down a location for a crime novel to be set to be entered into a prize draw. I selected the Cambridge: the Fens and the Cathedral. Where would you have chosen? Unusually for me, I won the prize draw and a bag of books – I am now awash with Scandinavian crime noir books.
I could not stay so had to miss some events.
Later I went to see Mark Purcell; as well as an author, he is assistant librarian at Cambridge University and he talked about the history of a country house library of Britain and Ireland. Mark has visited many of the great houses on behalf of the National Trust, where he used to be the libraries curator.
Petworth was the Southern base of the Earls of Northumberland, of the once-mighty Percy family. Barely fourteen books have survived from the early Percy period: one a Book of Hours – a devotional manuscript – and a Chaucer manuscript.
Many libraries were destroyed and scattered during the Reformation and in 1538 Delapre itself shut down as it surrendered to the Crown. The same was true of the Civil War: many libraries were destroyed. Kingston Lacy, with its quite magnificent library was built after the family’s castle had been destroyed during the Civil War.
Women were not as excluded from the world of literature as some people might think – although they were certainly at a disadvantage – and the first-ever women’s autobiography was by Grace Sherrington where she described her own reading; all good protestant theology, for a pagan book couldn’t be read. It was Bess of Hardwick who built Chatsworth after her second marriage into the Cavendish family. She was the second wealthiest women after Elizabeth I and she had books of her own.
Unlike now, were we seem conditioned not to write on books, past readers were strongly conditioned to do so; they would devote considerable time to a book, reading and re-reading, writing observations in the margins, and after picking a book over and over, notes would be made in a commonplace notebook.
Books had the title displayed opposite the spine on the edge of the pages and would be placed on a shelf in a way that we now would think of as back-to-front
Contents of books could be unusual and/or show that some styles of today’s books are not as innovative as we might think: anatomy books would have pop-up figures and it is difficult to see how accurate they might have been as bodies could not be dissected or chopped up – this would have been a great sin; a body had to be whole to go into the after-life.
It was Ham House library room, built towards the end of the 17th Century which set the trend for buying of old books as antiques. Books were now also becoming tools of the trade; as in how to grow exotic fruits and plants, how to catch mice and so on, moving on from the theological and devotional theme.
One young aristocrat undertaking his Grand tour, wrote his name in his books by adopting it to the local pronunciation of the country he was in e.g George in Italy became Giorgio.
Libraries were not only for books. The Earl of Warrington, one of the newest titles, had an ornery in his library circa 1740; a modelling of the planetary system: oil would light up one of the planets and set the ornery into motion. And he also seemed to have used his library as a sort of shed to escape his wife to whom he was unhappily married. However, he did like his daughter and evidence shows she had her own place for books. Steps up to the higher book shelves also had a means on which to sit so that books could be perused without having to take them fully down and replace them if they were not what were wanted. There were also every-day books as for gardening, managing vermin and so on.
Spring Hill House in Northern Ireland is by no means a stately home or grand house, but it contained lots of books. Blickling Estate in Norfolk has twelve thousand and five hundred books and many of those are collectors’ items. Chatsworth House library was originally a collating of six different libraries brought together; it contains over thirty thousand books. Some families collected a specialism of books; with the Rothschild’s it was French books.
There are also glimpses of those on the peripheral of the libraries: instructions for cleaners to dust but not to move books, after one library had its books taken down and replaced in the wrong order. Libraries were also indoor rooms for card and board games.
The next day, Sunday, began with local author Steven Neil talking about his own route into fiction writing and techniques used : writing fiction as an adolescent, he then went on to do an economics degree and then came back to writing many years later, after a short-story was found in a loft and a family member declared it not bad. He read many novels as research for his own work of historical fiction and came to the conclusion that the language of today was not much different from that of the past – or at least in respect of Dickens and Trollope etc – except that they didn’t shorten words and it was more formal. Readings from his novel he then asked the audience which tense he had written in – his writing shifts from the first person to the third person; from a character narrating to the omniscient narrator.
He also discussed the five classic elements of story – telling: character, plot, setting, dialogue and point-of-view. He explained about the difficulties for any new author given that one million books are published in a year and thinks that these days social media is a must for any author wanting to come to the public’s notice. He recounted how he was advised that to be a writer he had to move on from the short story to a full length novel – a novel then could be described as 36 short stories of 2,000 words. To start with he wrote down the titles for thirty six Chapter headings. A book should be written from the readers’ point of view and each chapter to have a ‘hook’ to keep the reader engaged. Steven completed O U courses and was taught by local creative writing tutors. Steven’s book was based upon actual historical figures- Jem Mason and a famous actress called Harriett Howard. Because of the research element, it took him three years to complete his book as any novel based upon real figures has to have ‘a modicum of reality to it’. His own novel covers the turbulent period of 1835 – 1870’s – a revolutionary period in Europe.
David Hutter’s talk was one that I didn’t hear – busy talking to authors’ and having a photograph taken, I missed the first fifteen minutes and the person on the door didn’t seem open to my going in. However I talked with him afterwards. His self-published book is written around the premise of real historical events (discovered on a trip to China) and he fictionalised them as though they occurred during the Presidency of Donald Trump; how trump would have tackled them . His book has attracted some national press. He said that it took a few months to get from the idea which formed on his holiday in China to self-publishing his book.
Deborah Delano is another local author – born in Kings Heath – and she spoke about her autobiographical and fiction writing, about being a working-class lesbian and touched slightly upon themes of magic. The well-known author Alan Moore joins the audience, a bit later. She described writing as an exorcism, began when she had broken her arm and couldn’t work; she thought the process of writing about it would be cathartic. She wrote about her Mother’s life and how poverty can, if you like, cast a bad spell on events. She has now gone on to complete a murder mystery and is working on another work of fiction based around the character of Radcliffe- Hall who wrote the famous ‘Well of Loneliness’. She spoke of the magic of writing, Grim Noir – in some definitions the alliance between the good and the chaotic, the recipe of words, to spell and spelling.
And, Dear Reader, books are words – spangled, mangled, tangled words; eating words, souped-up words, marking words, spun and woven words……
I go and sit on a bench in one of the fields to eat. I am joined close by by a young, but very nervous rabbit; we both munch away until disturbed by the approach of others.
Kevin Manwaring lived very close to Delapre abbey as a child and used to walk his dog in the grounds. He was disaffected by Northampton in the 80’s, finding it dull and his own world not expanding much beyond Hardingstone and Wootton. So he went in search of the unusual and the mysterious for his book on Northamptonshire folk Tales. He now lives in Gloustershire, but he believes that the town has changed for the better. He spoke of Briar Hill and the excavations of the Roman villa, of St Peter’s Church and Holy Sepulchre, locally called St Seps. The apparent gravestone of St Ragnar is in St Peter’s church, an ancient anglo – saxon artefact ; the name ‘Ragnar’ meaning ‘Born of the People’s Strength’ . He was the adviser for the Bardic picnic held at Delapre, and the open mike nights amongst other events. He started and took part in local group story telling. He spoke of ‘Harewood the Wake’ and recounted the story of the Grey Lady of Delapre Abbey, told in the folk-tale fashion; funny, lovely and warming.
The headline act was Sarah Pascoe, who I must admit, I did not know much about. Hers was the most expensive ticket of the festival and those who had pre-booked were given a glass of prosecco (which didn’t include me)
I don’t know if it was the wine but she was met with gales of laughter from the beginning. Sarah appears on BBC radio comedy shows and the audience seemed ideal for this. She spoke frankly, as does her autobiography about her literal experiences of her body; her abortion, what she finds the fascinating biological facts she has learned, about both men and women, which she engagingly told. When asked how she ‘fell into stand –up’ she says it stemmed from drama and acting. She described her stand-up as presenting a ‘version of yourself’ and is now working on a novel.
Driving up for the last day on Monday, one can see an effect of the magnificent storm of the night before. A large puddle the size of a small lake has appeared on the grass near the car park. But the rest of the ground near the Marquees is not too sodden at all; a clear demonstration of how much water vast amounts of soil, grass and trees can absorb.
Another newly – published but not local author Kate Fulford spoke on the theme of how she became an Author. We sat cosily in a circle. Kate told of how she was highly imaginative as a child, yet how this very imagination also caused much anxiety with imagined fears arising from reported real events she went through a phase when she feared being kidnapped. There are plusses and minuses to an active imagination;, she can, for example, tell what will happen next in television drama. Unhappy now with her job managing when she had been a copywriter she then booked onto a writer’s Arvon course and gave up her job. When asked what she was going to do she replied she would either have a baby, start her own business or become a writer. But she says copywriting gave her the skills of writing a strong, clear opening, a focus on the reader and the ability to be succinct. She used her real life relationship with her Australian Mother-in-Law as a basis for her book.
She also believes that a writer should only take on board constructive criticism; i.e. if somebody hates a piece of writing, or suggests that it should be done in another format, then it is best ignored. But if somebody generally likes the work, then the criticism should be taken on board. She finds the closed facebook page Book connectors invaluable. She had one very good bit of luck. She accidentally noticed, when picking up the fallen book that the cover of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall had been designed by a person with the same name as a childhood friend, Andy Bridge and that he had designed Life of Pi and many other famous book covers. A few email later she discovered it was the same person and he went on to design her own book cover.
Linda Hill was on the Marquee stage, talking about reviewing books. She’s been blogging about this for three years and has recently won an award. As an Ofsted inspector, she was asked to review Key Stage 3 books and she carried on from there. Of course, she loves reading. She outlined how reviewing was of benefit to Authors. However, she said if she couldn’t find anything favourable to say then she would not write a review, and she would add honest qualification to any review if she could not be wholly positive, she would ‘sugar the pill’, e.g in one such review she listed the positives but added ; ‘but it didn’t hit the mark for me’. After all, authors have done their very best. Reviewing can become highly emotive : one reviewer she knows received death threats from an author. For how does an author know how well they are doing? Via a review. For those interested, there are supermarket home panels to review all sorts of products, there is The Book Club on facebook, reading groups.org and good reads.com. , netgalley.co.uk, bookbub, bookhippo, kindofbook.com. Women and Home and Good Housekeeping are also useful sources, as is any book group in general. Most books sell through word of mouth and it is difficult for authors in a market of three-and-a-half thousand books published in a week. Book review can be put practically anywhere. When reviewing it is important to write generally of the plot, character, pace and genre; but don’t give away the ending! It takes Linda an hour to set up a blog. She says that 80% of sales are via twitter. The downside is that she can sometimes feel invaded; with copious amounts of emails from authors asking her for a review. But she has met some well-known authors and been described as Queen of the Blogs.
Elizabeth Evershed trained as a medievalist, and also writes science fiction, so her talk was about time-travelling through 900 years of books. And it certainly was swift and rapid. A book which means a lot to her is one about the D Day landings with a short but lyrical description of leaving to take part. Many have expressed a belief or interest in the possibility of time travel: Steven Hawking conducted an experiment in 2009 inviting people to his party on a date which had passed – the experiment, needless to say, didn’t yield any unexpected results. Isaac Astomov was an academic and sci-fi author.
Although the history of books goes back 900 years, before then were scrolls. An example of what could be described as ‘time-travelling’ is the Psalter of St Albans, which depicts the Virgin Mary holding a book. But this is not an anachronism (in that there were no printed books then, nor that the poor didn’t read, nor that women didn’t read); it is a symbol or metaphor within a religious text. Some medieval books would have been the equivalent of buying a Ferrari today.
Erasmus was, of course, an important medieval scholar and the 14th Century could be described as the age of the bookworm! There were worries that reading was anti-social and fears that it would lead to a trance -like state. Later on came pagination and reading travel journals of the past can become like becoming a hitch-hiker. In fact, books were deemed to becoming so prolific that, in the 1790’s, when books were being published at a rate of 60,000 per annum, Boswell described this as a ‘sickening pace’. Charles Dickens’s; his books and his night talks harness what Elizabeth described as speculative fiction. Wells’s ‘Time Machine’ was written as a result of his broken leg; there is a relationship between being a bookworm and illness (as described as well by Deborah Delano).
Coming full circle again, in the new digital age, we see again concerns expressed about the effects: this time it tends to be on how the digital affects the ability to concentrate and therefore to read for long or too deeply; expressed as TLDR – Too Long, Didn’t Read. There is also a strange circularity that Ray Bradbury’s Sci -Fi book about a dytopian future which saw books banned was banned itself; because one the banned books he depicted was The Bible. Many sci-fi readers go on to invent new technology. Elizabeth said that when the world seemed too mad, she would retreat into Jane Austen for sanity. She ended by exhorting us to pick up a book and read for an hour; something I, for one, wouldn’t find too difficult.
Michael Pennington was the final speaker, on Monday evening. He is an actor who jointly formed the English Shakespeare company and the theme of his talk was about his experience playing King Lear in Brooklyn : the play, he tells us,was once thought impossible to stage. Some directors had been known to have interviewed as many as twenty actors about the role. Michael sat with his partner who asked him questions. He ended up by ‘luck and chance’ playing King Lear in Brooklyn. He had been performing in Love Is My Sin’, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets . At a party he was introduced to a woman who was a theatre director, they met up for further discussion and went on to stage King Lear. He said that there is now an easier relationship between the American branch of Equity, the actors Union, and British actors who appear over there. He had just had his seventieth birthday party when he received the news that the Union had cleared the way for him to do Lear.
Another potential stumbling block was when they found that another company, opposite to his theatre, was also staging a production and on the same dates. They went ahead anyway and the press reviewed both plays, giving both equal space. Michael thinks that the grading of a review with stars is detrimental. A good review is vital – a bad review can close a play in New York within a week of its opening. He then went on to tell about his dinghy basement apartment with its cockroaches and very noisy plumbing. So why play Lear, an unpleasant character? At this point he recited, to the delight of the audience, some lines from Lear, as Lear, then asking ‘you mean that one? But he said that Lear had insight and then in his observations from the heath becomes like ‘a self-respecting socialist’. He is a character of contradictions and Michael sees a link to Chekov. He says there is no point in underplaying Lear. Readings from his from his book about the first night describe how he almost threw up during the storm scenes. All the reviews were good apart from one ‘stinker’.
The theatre had a platform extending from the stage which projected into the audience, which he thought was good, for Lear has no soliloquy and being on the platform was akin to a debating chamber with themes of the play being discussed with the audience. As ever, was the question of how Lear should carry Cordelia onto the stage. Productions have tried various ways – on a truck, on a hay bale, over the shoulder. Michael dragged her on backwards from a runway from the stage. This was a mix of high farce, as the runway was close to the audience seating, and there was always a worry about a coat or bag being in the way, or the risk of slipping on a programme. The play then went on to a British tour, under James Dacre as Artistic Director in at the Royal in Northampton, where it stayed for six weeks before moving on. The play as directed by Max Webster was, Michael says, very different. And in case you’re wondering, in answer to an audience question : in the Northampton production, Cordelia was still dragged onto the stage. Michael also confided his theory that some of the meaty but shorter Shakespearean roles could have been penned by Shakespeare for himself, when after his departure from the stage, he would have carried on with writing his plays.
I am genuinely sorry not to have been able to attend some of the talks. This was partly because I couldn’t be there, but also because of some programme clashes. I caught the last fifteen minutes of a talk on books and dementia, catching the last lines of a poem which ended: ‘ we hate dementia’. Attendance was quite poor. And particularly so on the first day. It seems to me that the festival was not well advertised nor well-enough in advance. There was a bit of a problem with parking and being guided in. And from the Marquee stage could be heard the constant thudding of footballs as the grounds are still open to the public and, even at a book festival, footballs are allowed within the vicinity of the house; despite there being acres of ground just a bit further away where balls games could be played without disturbing anybody.
There were also stall of things to buy, a treasure hunt, and various skills workshops. In some ways it showed that this was the first festival. There were no all-day tickets, and making full use of the festival would be an expensive business, especially if you wanted to buy books and other items on offer as well as some food and drink.
Perhaps it was because I was writing as well, making the three days even more intense, but I did, through no fault of the speakers’, sometimes wonder how much more self-referential talk I could take. But if the Festival becomes a fixture in the calendar, it was not a bad start.