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Earl Spencer travels Europe with Boris Johnson and other stories from Althorp Literary Festival

Shirley Jones’ uniquely forensic reflections on the Northamptonshire literary festival which gives us grandeur relaxed…

How can anybody fit into this?  A thought commonly held of living in small spaces, but which occurred to me  when visiting Althorp for its 15th  annual literary  festival, held on the weekend of 5th – 7th October. How could one family fit into such a large space?  The converse of over-crowded housing. For a fleeting moment I got a sense of how living in a vast place could be, paradoxically, quite stifling. But I suppose, as people do when living in cramped conditions, you adjust.  

A marquee close to the house held an exhibition by the artist Christian Hook.  What sprung to my mind was naturalist/impressionism in the conventional manner, of horses, of geishas, in the Kinimo collection; one painting with gold leaf altered to give a scrap-book effect, or interspersed with a three D–effect.  How the Masters would be painting today, perhaps?

In a courtyard, a musician, Barney Newman, played country blues.

Looking out onto the vast park, from a small, stone, lodge-like building designated the ‘reading room’ for the festival, I see a small herd of deer.  But looking as un-herd –like- as possible – practically forming a line in single file. Then they begin to disperse, coming into the foreground. One begins to trot – not quite the springing , prancing leaping gait when sprinting over soft ground.  But it seems apparent that all four legs are off the ground at once, much more so than can be detected in a galloping horse; I’m unsure of which species, I’m guessing either Roe or Red deer. It’s difficult to tell at this distance.

I come out of my reverie, overhearing somebody say ‘…an analytical look at the last days of life’.

Author Bernard Cornwall.Photograph by Felix Clay.
Author Bernard Cornwall. Photograph by Felix Clay.

I’m directed to the State Dining room to listen to the writer Bernard Cornwell, one of the tickets allocated to me by the festival organisers.  My tickets were not ready for me at the gate, as promised, so I spoke to one of the organisers when I alighted from the mini bus for the very short ride from the gate to the house.  I’m directed to speak to one of the organisers at the House, which I do. I explain my sinking heart and she quickly prints me some other tickets.

She tells me it takes four months to organise the festival, and before that there is the food and drink festival – sounds like a career of non-stop organising.

The room is packed and, before extra chairs are bought in, some have to stand.  I count, roughly, one hundred and twenty people. I’m right at the back so it’s difficult to always see, after Bernard and his interviewer enter and sit on a small platform at the front. The event seems to be being recorded by a sound engineer, even possibly filmed.  He is interviewed by a lively Suzi Feay, a literary critic and broadcaster.

He is there to talk about his latest book ‘War of the Wolf’ in his saga of medieval historical fiction.

He says his books are escapism; an adherence to gender roles, but he likes strong women. He wonders why it is that in the cliché of action films it is always the women who trips over in her high heels, why not ever the man, who is probably more likely to fall over?

The period he covers is the era of alpha males so he has a theory that it was women who invented chivalry as a way of controlling the violent behaviour of men.  Although, I would add, the chivalric code applied also to warfare as well as to romance.

His books are a saga about Alfred and his descendants.  He intersperses his big story; how England was formed; with the little stories of his characters such as Utred , the intertwining of  Danes, Saxons and the Kingdom of Mercia.

He didn’t meet his real father until the age of fifty eight and he, William, showed him the family genealogy.

He writes of the movement of armed men going back and forth, and he himself now lives in the states.  He tours Spain, Portugal, and the South of France for research, and he owns an ordinance survey map of Roman Britain.  He tells us that the prefix ‘Ethel’ means noble, and he recounts how the man voicing an audio book asked him about pronunciation and he replied : ‘ just say it as Fred’.

The background has to be authentic, and yet at one and the same time, it is fiction.

When asked whether the Vikings had a ‘bad rap’ he replied no, although he doesn’t go as far as  some scholars for whom Viking is also a verb: ‘ going viking’. Vikings didn’t, contrary to many films, wear horns on their helmets, and a  good clue to working out whether a place had a former Viking settlement is whether or not it incorporates ‘thorpe’ or ‘ness’ into the name.

There was no evidence of bare-breasted Viking women fighters

He says that the horned helmet idea was designed by Denmark in the  in the 18th Century  when it felt it had reached an all time low as a nation in terms of power and status.  He says his female character, whose name I didn’t quite catch (well, was at the back) was invented as a result of readers’ comments and suggestions but there is no evidence of bare-breasted Viking women fighters.

Research shows that some warriors put themselves into a trance with the plant henbane.

Alfred (the Great) was accepting of Danes and Vikings as long as they had converted to Christianity, when he  considered them to no longer be a threat. For example, in 942 a Dane became Archbishop of Canterbury. Alfred was on a crusade to eliminate pagans.  So Cornwell says he decided to make the character of Utred into a Pagan.

In the  early Christian church, a truly smart working class boy could rise far in the hierarchy, hence the church became a place of some very ambitious, and very nasty people.  Simon De Montford, when papal legate instructed troops to ‘kill them all’, whether civilian, or even possibly Christian, saying that ‘God will know the difference’. Three years ago a mass grave was found in Wilshire – dated from the time of Alfred- and all of the occupants had been killed.

History, Bernard reminds us, is written by the victors.

In 937 England was created by a day of horrible slaughter. As an historical novelist, it is a gap in the historical record to be written about.

He thinks his character is not too nasty, a modern day me too man.

When will the saga end? At the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. Ethelstand was leading a West Saxon army against Scots and Irish and Cumbrian North which could have taken place in the Wirral.  Five Kings died and it was a victory for the West Saxon forces and brought the North into the rest of the Kingdom so the creation of England was, in this sense, a Southern project.

Life expectancy was dependent upon class   and wasn’t much over thirty. The upper –class lived longer, having servants to do the back-breaking work.  Cornwell thinks that people are just as tough today, but, of course, we do have it easier.

He recounted an anecdote , around the time of the Napoleonic wars , of a woman who walked twenty miles in the rain with her child, to Belgium to find her husband – Wellington himself had remarked how bad the weather was .  The woman did find her husband and gave birth the very next day.

How does he write his fifty books?  He is an early riser, working from 6.00 a.m and for nine or ten hours a day, but only in winter.  He wouldn’t want to do anything else – he doesn’t have an inner Chartered Accountant waiting to break free.  

He has always wanted to be a writer – he sees the job as telling stories all day and says that in a good book you really want to find out what happens.  He doesn’t plan or know what he will do until he starts writing it.

He describes leaving space for future character action both within a book, and within a saga itself of several books as ‘putting doors into alleyways’ for characters i.e by going back to chapter 3 and putting a door into an alleyway – which the reader will know about – then in chapter twelve the character can escape.  And the reader doesn’t feel cheated as they already know there is a door.

He then talked about  the Sharp novels. Nelson was a small man who liked uniforms, as a visit to HMS victory showed.  There is a story about Wellington, in his days as Ambassador to France; an appointment made somewhat insensitively after his victory over them.  He was invited to a reception, and when there, Napoleon’s men turned their backs on him. When offered an apology, he is said to have replied : ‘No need to apologise, I have seen their backs before.’  And, of course, he said of his own men : ‘I don’t know what they do to the enemy, but, by God, they frighten me.’

Back to the medieval period – Chivalry was civilising, but battle was battle.  Forensic archeologists have found that some of those killed at Towton had ground their own teeth in terror, breaking their own teeth, when being killed.  You had to drink to get through it.

Two chroniclers, thought to be of good account, of Henry V at Agincourt; one saying he said ‘let’s go fellas’, and another that he said ‘fellas, let’s go’.  So, just three words, and nowhere near the eloquence of Shakespeare’s. Yet they also express a ‘band of brothers’ unity.

In response to  audience questions: there was no physical difference between the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.  But the Vikings had a terrifying ethos – they had nothing to lose.

Will there be another Sharpe novel?  Yes.

He said that he could not write from a female perspective, as he was ’not clever’ enough

He was asked whether he would  consider another novel in the saga with  a central historical female character He said that he could not write from a female perspective, as he was ’not clever’ enough; ( In direct contrast to Stephen Loveless), although he did introduce  an upper-class female character into one of his Sharpe novels.

He replied that no, he had never thought that he could complete eleven novels in the Last Kingdom saga.  ‘Write a series’ is advice he would give to all aspiring writers; the same advice given to him by a friend.  For example, if you write a book about a Scottish Terrier, which will go to pet shops all over the country, then follow it up with the same about, say, a Datsun.

He doesn’t read any fiction about his own period – he has spent so many years writing from about 6.00 until 5.30, so he finds it difficult to read other historical fiction, except Hilary Mantel and George Fraser McDonald.

Asked which books he liked the best: the three about Arthur and Fools and Mortals, the latter which he describes as a bit self-indulgent.  He adores Uhtred. His wife hates battle; she is a yoga teacher and vegetarian – but she loyally reads his books. He thinks he might be able to squeeze another ten books out.  He says he is a pacifist at heart.

Then into the hall for book- signing, where fifty people queue up – a drop in the ocean; he has sold twenty million books.

Peter Frankopen couldn’t attend the Festival, so Charles Spencer took his place: ‘My Life as a Writer.’  And he is later to have his own scheduled slot talking about his book : ‘To Catch A King’. Again, the talk is being recorded.

And again, taking place in the state dining room and, again, the room was full.  The décor is blue with gold trimming. Gilded chandeliers with the chain modishly disguised by cloth.  Large windows and a french window let in lots of light. Two bells, for ringing the servants I think, are attached to the shutter windows – charming and elegant. 

Charles Spencer Outside The House
Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, at Althorp, Northamptonshire, Photo by John Robertson

Charles Spencer is interviewed by local BBC Northampton Radio host Bernie Keith, who begins by saying that Charles has got a nice place; he, too lives on an estate but it has a Spar shop on the  corner. They described themselves as the Hinge and Bracket of Northampton.

The former Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker, now Lord Baker of Dorking comes in close to me at the back, and is invited to sit with other ‘VIP’ guests – which I suppose means other speakers.  Of course, Higher Education is no longer deemed important enough to now have its own named department, being incorporated into the Department of Business, Skills and Innovation.

Charles Spencer told us that the festival   had been timed for just after the ‘super Thursday’ in publishing of October 4th.  This is when publishers release the books which they hope will do well in the Christmas market. Charles says that he has always loved books – that is not an affectation.  He sees history as being, first and foremost, about people, not just dry and dusty facts. He has been writing professionally for about fifteen years and, as a writer, he is Charles Spencer, not Earl Spencer.  The interviewer reminded him of his first public appearance – aged four he opened a village hall and he remembers being ‘dizzy with nerves’.

Charles says he likes literary festival audiences who share a passion for books and, what’s more, perhaps even your own period of history.  He wanted a relaxed festival – unlike some of the ones he’s been to. The Spencer library is huge as the 2nd Earl Spencer was so keen on collecting first editions that he bankrupted the family by spending £43,000.  A certain Mr Southeby must have spotted a soft touch for the books he was selling. The third Earl Spencer, who was also Chancellor the Exchequer ,  (1830), sold land to replace the spent money – he sold Wimbledon and other now prime real estate areas in London.

He remembers an essay at school being ‘sent up for good’  – re-writing it on vellum so that it could be kept for posterity.  The essay was about poetry written in concentration camps. At school, he worked with Boris Johnson, editing a magazine.  Boris never did any work and Charles wondered if anybody ever read what was actually printed, so he wrote an entirely fictitious review of a play, only for a drama master to tell him that the review reflected the play well.  He describes Boris as a ‘flaxen ox’ and remembers that he used to travel around Europe with him; he seemed to quite like Europe then. But he says Boris is who he is and is not a fraud.

A history teacher, because of ‘class warfare’ didn’t like him because of the connection to Marlborough

His father loved history – Marlborough in particular as he was also a Spencer.  Charles would read Who’s Who in military history as he was growing up. He had always liked the subject but says that a history teacher, because of ‘class warfare’ didn’t like him because of the connection to Marlborough.

He says he can only read what he wants to read and so, in his own writing, he keeps his chapters short and makes them read like thrillers.

His publishers wanted to call his book ‘Regicide: A Tale Of Justice And Revenge’.  He would never buy a book of that title; he wanted something more accessible – to capture the crescendo of one moment : ‘To Catch A King’.  He wrote something on the Battle of Blenheim, as John Spencer was an ancestor and he realised that it was the only battle the country had won since the Battle of Agincourt, three hundred years before.  He was contracted to write a second book by his publishers . He didn’t want to write about the Tudors so he chose the Civil War. Whilst writing a book on Prince Rupert, he had read of John Oakey who was put to death for killing the King.  There were eighty nine people involved in the death of the King and a twenty five year chase around the world ensued to find those responsible.

And then he thought; why not write about Charles’ escape?

He says that because it takes three years of his life to write a book, he has to be sure that he wants to do it.  He says he has lots of initial ideas and then usually thinks not. It takes him about one-and-a-half hours to get into a zone – to get his brain into a place where he can write.  He used to work as a foreign correspondent and for that he learned to touch type. He was the only man in the class. For a long time he used to do his notes by hand – thinking that the facts went in at a deeper level if he wrote them by hand – but he doesn’t think that is the case recently.  He finds doing the numbers and footnotes the most difficult part of writing.

He  did some research at the Bodleian, Oxford.  He enjoys it when he can find out enough to put right an inaccuracy.  For example, when Charles II escaped to Stourbridge, in the West Midlands, some historians and writers mocked how his only apparent disguise was to walk through the town, with his companions, talking loudly in French, as though this was somehow utterly ridiculous.  Yet, Stourbridge at the time was becoming a centre for glass-making, with many Hugenot glass-makers. So talking in French, would, in fact, have been a disguise (although how much of one might depend upon whether the upper-class accent was detectable.)

Back, now, to Charles the Earl, rather than Charles the King; he worked for NBC, the American National broadcasting Company from the mid-80s – 90s.  At the suggestion of a record producer, he reported on Prince Andrew and Sarah’s wedding and was then told ‘you’ve got a job’, although he was generally ‘less happy at the English things’ such as covering Wimbledon. At one point during his time at NBC, he happened to be in the right place at the right time.  A fire broke out in an Hotel in Egypt– a hotel which Charles , by sheer chance, was in himself, and he informed NBC. He was asked whether or not there were any Americans involved. He found that there was one dead American and so NBC reported it. Charles dislikes this, but says that it happens here, but not so much. You have one minute and fifteen to get your news across – ‘less is more’ as a top New York Executive put it and this is now Charles’ own philosophy.

He is a friend of Edward St Aubyn.  Teddy gave Charles a small book launch in his garden.  St Aubyn had, as is on public record, a terrible time in his own life with addictions resulting from abuse by his father (described by the New Yorker as a ‘sadist’).  He mentioned to Charles that he was planning on writing a novel – ‘that’ll work’, was Charles’ cynical reaction. But, of course, it did.

He got his first five star review from the Times.  Some, he says, absolutely infuriate him – the ‘ego thing’

He says that reviews matter to him: he got his first five star review from the Times.  Some, he says, absolutely infuriate him – the ‘ego thing’. He gets cross when a reviewer writes something which is not true when they criticise.  A writer is quite solitary and the finished book is ‘sending a child out’, as the interviewer put it.

You have to be informative without being condescending.  Publishers are so stretched these days and Charles doesn’t know how they make any money; all writers have to accept the limits of what a publisher can do and the average income for a writer is about £11,000 per annum.  

Publishers these days can do metrics to work out more or less how many books you can expect to sell.  And you have to build an audience, and readers. He says that at four in the morning when he is editing an index, he can feel lonely, but he thinks it worth it.

There is a chance that one of his books may be turned into a film.  But his wife, Karen, who knows a lot about Hollywood, says don’t bank upon it happening until, quite literally, the first day of filming.

He knows the character he writes about and their stories, but he doesn’t have encyclopedic  knowledge. He recounts how he once went to give a talk in a lovely, medieval building. It was packed, and he noticed that all of the men were wearing the same ties and jackets. He was told that they were the Battlefield Association of Great Britain, and it was planned that he would talk for about forty five minutes and then take questions for the same amount of time – he says he just talked for the whole time, managing to avoid the expert questions.

No attempts to avoid questions here: a former school friend asks whether he is still as anti-Cromwell as the questioner had been pro-Cromwell when they were at school together.  Charles says his own ancestors were, initially, parliamentarians, but when it descended into Civil War, they just couldn’t draw their weapons against the King. He says he now recognises good in Cromwell; he did not persecute Jews for example.  And he says his book reviews consist of both sides accusing his of bias.

There are 350 Literary Festivals around the UK; including Cheltenham, Henley and Wimbledon.  He decided to have one with, he thought, a more relaxed approach. He says one of his own favourites is the one held in Tain – which is just a village hall, but a lovely place.  He remembers going into what he thought was his marquee at one festival, and the mild shock felt when it was completely empty – only to be hugely relieved to find he’d walked into the wrong one, and he did have an audience.

One questioner said that Simon Sebag Montefiore had said that handwriting is coming back; isn’t something lost with digital?  Maybe, but on the other hand, it is harder to fake digital documents; hard copy ones can be falsely aged .

A questioner asked him what he was holding in his hand in a portrait on one of the walls. He says it is the first draft of the eulogy he’d written for Diana’s funeral.

A questioner asked him what he was holding in his hand in a portrait on one of the walls. He says it is the first draft of the eulogy he’d written for Diana’s funeral.  The American who had painted it had wanted something to symbolise his connection to her and he said ‘ I’ve got this..’.

He remembers asking his Mother if he would be the one  to write it and her replying that they were all thinking that he would. Coming back on a flight from America, when hearing of the news of her death, he remembers a particularly sympathetic air hostess.  It wasn’t that long ago when he encountered her again on a flight; he asked if she remembered him – of course, she did.

Althorp House and Books

My questions might have been, apropos talking to other writers and local groups, about whether writing humanises us; is it a heel on the road to finding out who we are, where we might be and how the world is as we find it?

There is another painting, which stands in sharp contrast to the huge canvases in a main hallway of outdoor scenes and earth-stoppers (for trapping badgers) which is called ‘Rehab’, by Mitch Mitchell.  I’m told this by a member of staff, as there seems to be no signature or title. It is of a man in a Christ-like pose, loose underwear in place of a loincloth. One outstretched arm, bent at the elbow, with a cigarette in the hand.  The other out-stretched with a glass of wine. This portrait too, looks like a modern-day-old-master. The body has cuts on it. But then there are three figures behind the protagonist, wearing the clothes of a forensic scientist, or surgeons, complete with masks and gloves, at least one of whom is female.  She kneels, stilettos visible, and with a large pair of scissors, is cutting at the underwear. Behind the body, a tall figure is injecting a needle into the man’s neck and the third figure is taking the glass out of the man’s hand. On the floor is a wine bucket, with a logo of ‘The Sun’ newspaper, with a champagne glass and a clear plastic tube out of the bottle neck, coiling around onto the floor.  A packet of cigarettes lies just beyond the bucket.

Going home, the field for the car park is nearly empty, the friendly stewards now gone.  Driving out, I hope to catch sight of more deer. No deer, but cattle, stocky and huge, with an attraction of their own.  Driving along the winding road, off the Estate, books, painting and chatter begin to fade away.

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