Where the Word Is Wonderful
Walsh, John, The Independent (London, England)
For five glorious days in September, the town of Woodstock in Oxfordshire, and its magnificent neighbour, Blenheim Palace, will once again play host to a scintillating convocation of biographers, poets, historians, foodies, politicians, novelists, musicians, travellers, linguists and fashionistas, discussing books and ideas in the late- summer sun, talking, eating, drinking and carousing late into the night.
Festival-goers will enjoy the crazed variety of experiences that has become characteristic of the Independent Woodstock Literary Festival: one minute you can hear the nation's most outspoken anti- metaphysician Richard Dawkins discuss science and mythology, the next it's Ian Bostridge, the nation's favourite tenor, dilating (with music) on the secrets of the operatic aria. One minute, we have Deborah Bull from the Royal Ballet explaining how to execute an entrechat, the next it's Sir Terry Wogan addressing the festival dinner (probably not about classical dance.) Seize the opportunity to hear Dame Margaret Drabble, one of the great British novelists since the mid-1960s, discuss the art of the short story; but don't neglect the offer of a stimulating tasting of extra-special gins.
The third Independent Woodstock Literary Festival will move beyond the usual discussions of recently published books to tackle, head-on, the most important political issues of the day. No revelation this year outraged the public so much as the news that investigators empowered by News International hacked into the mobile phones of murder victims and their families, in search of scoop- worthy material. But who decides to what extent legitimate journalistic enquiry may invade the privacy of public figures? In the "Independent Live!" debate, Hacking, Criminality and Free Speech, key figures in the communications world will thrash out the ethics involved - Lance Price, former deputy to Alastair Campbell at No 10, David Aaronovitch, Times columnist and connoisseur of conspiracy theory, Patrick Jephson, former private secretary to Diana, Princess of Wales, and Simon Kelner, former editor-in-chief of The Independent.
Alistair Darling MP, currently generating much heat and column inches for Back from the Brink, his startlingly frank memoir of the 2008 economic crash, will talk about his fraught relationship with Gordon Brown and his negotiations with leading bankers as they appeared to sleepwalk to destruction. On Friday afternoon, two "Great Debates" will try to make sense of the epochal events in the Middle East: the Independent's legendary Robert Fisk will discuss the "Arab Spring" of 2011 with Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Centre at Oxford University, David Gardner (author of Last Chance: The Middle East in the Balance) and Martin Bell, war correspondent, MP and the Man in the White Suit.
In the second discussion, "Afghanistan - the Future," Bell will interview Lucy Morgan Edwards, a veteran of Afghan politics. A former aid worker during the Taliban era, later an election monitor and political adviser to the EU Ambassador, she is well placed to comment on how the Western powers "lost" Afghanistan, and what the future holds.
Meanwhile, the Orangery at Blenheim Palace will be host to a military hero - Colonel Tim Collins, the Belfast-born army strategist whose eve-of-battle address to 600 men of the Royal Irish Regiment just before the invasion of Iraq went straight into the annals of Great Battle Speeches, alongside those of General Patton and William Wallace (at least in Braveheart). He will look at the fate of Iraq after the Gulf War, and its likely future.
Viewing history from a slightly longer perspective, two events discuss the Second World War. Sir Ian Kershaw, whose great biography of Hitler has been acclaimed as definitive, considers the final months of the war and asks what made Germany keep on fighting to the death when it was obvious it would lose. And Caroline Moorehead, biographer of Bertrand Russell and Freya Stark, tells the story of 230 women of the French Resistance who, in 1943, were rounded up and put on a train to Auschwitz. Some survived to come home and tell their story. The record of their friendship and resilience is harrowing but finally uplifting.
An unexpected associate of the Nazis in Paris during the early 1940s was Coco Chanel, the dress and perfume designer. Recently unearthed documents suggest that she might have spied for the German secret service. Can it be true? Justine Picardie, author of a much admired biography, weighs the evidence and tries to separate the facts of Chanel's life from Coco's own fantasies.
Another elegant but controversial clothes-horse in the 1930s and 1940s was Wallis Simpson, wife of Edward VIII and unwilling cause of the Abdication in 1936, the subject of a new film, W.E., directed by Madonna. Her later life is a different kind of story - the chronicle of a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage and then the victim and virtual prisoner of a deeply creepy lawyer, Matre Suzanne Blum. The writer and broadcaster Hugo Vickers (who has authored the lives of Cecil Beaton and Vivien Leigh) tells it beautifully in his new book, and will draw a large audience.
An important half-century anniversary falls this autumn: that of Private Eye. Since October 1961, the satirical magazine, with its characteristic speech-bubble covers, has pricked the importance, undermined the authority and often devastated the reputations of venal politicians, pompous statesmen, corrupt public figures and hypocritical media figures. It has been vilified as no more than a scandal-sheet and praised as a constant safeguard of democracy and transparency. Richard Ingrams, its co-founder and long- serving editor, comes to Woodstock to discuss its half-century on the newsstands with Adam Macqueen, an Eye journalist and author of Private Eye: the First 50 Years, an A-Z.
The lives and influence of two important artists come under scrutiny at Woodstock. Fiona MacCarthy, whose life of the priapic sculptor Eric Gill caused a shock 20 years ago and whose life of Byron was more recently hailed as "a flawless triumph", talks about her new life of Edward Burne-Jones, "the last Pre-Raphaelite," whose alarmingly monumental female angels adorn British Christmas cards, and whose devotion to a dream of beauty informed his art but wrecked his marriage. And Dr Steven Parissien examines some lesser-known works of Stanley Spencer, the eccentric visionary who, on meeting Mao Tse-Tung for the first time, announced, "My name is Stanley Spencer and as you know I come from Cookham." Spencer's beautiful garden-paintings trace the effect the First World War had on him, and on his vision of the English garden as a kind of Paradise.
Dr Parissien is the director of Compton Verney, the Georgian museum and garden in Warwickshire re-modelled in 1768 by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. Brown is the greatest-ever British landscape artist, the man who changed the face of 18th-century England and who designed the sweeping lawns and lake of Blenheim Palace. He's the subject of a biography by Jane Brown, the distinguished garden- historian, who comes to Woodstock to discuss how Capability's radical style conquered the world.
Blenheim Palace was, of course, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, and the great war leader and politician is remembered this year in a brace of memoirs. Heather White-Smith came to Downing Street in 1953, a 17-year-old girl with the job of Assistant Private Secretary to Lady Churchill, wife to the Prime Minister. She's now written about her turbulent years working in Churchill's shadow, and is full of good stories about the global movers and shakers who passed through the statesman's life at the start of the new Elizabethan era.
The Churchills' only surviving child, Mary Soames, comes to Woodstock to talk about her long and mouvement career that saw her accompany her father on important trips across Europe and America. Now 89, Lady Soames has published her personal diary for the first time and discusses A Daughter's Tale with her daughter, Emma Soames, the journalist and former editor of Saga.
Setting the family in context is Mary S Lovell. The Churchills: A Family at the Heart of History traces the dynasty from the first Duke of Marlborough - soldier, empire-builder, ladykiller - through a succession of adventurers, politicians, gamblers, profligates and heroes.
Adventurers abound in many travel and history books celebrated at Woodstock. Tim Jeal has written acclaimed lives of enterprising Victorian men; his biographies of Robert Baden-Powell, Doctor Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley have won deserved fame and many awards. Now he turns his attention to five explorers who, between 1856 and 1876, tried to find the source of the Nile, battling through appalling privations, malaria, flesh-eating ulcers and tribal war, to achieve their goal.
A modern version of such intrepid Victorians is the adventurer, businessman and philanthropist Christopher Ondaatje (brother of the Booker-winning Michael,) whose fearless travels in search of leopards and whose research for his books have taken him all over the globe from Sri Lanka (when it was still Ceylon) to his home on Exmoor. Mark Tully, the BBC's veteran India correspondent, has travelled the length and breadth of the subcontinent - where he is venerated as something approaching a semi-deity - and reports on its new status as a leader-in-waiting of the global economy.
And, if you haven't had enough reminders of British colonialism and its legacy, you might like to wallow in some pictorial nostalgia at the Oxfordshire Museum. There, Ashley Jackson and David Tomkins, historians of empire, will talk about the finest pieces of imperial ephemera from the Bodleian's matchless collection: the label from an Australian tin of peaches, branded "Pride of Empire"; a handbill advertising a public discussion about how "British Christians" can combat the threat of opium from The East...
Why do the British so enjoy wallowing in the past? As Downton Abbey returns to our TV screens for a new series of below-stairs intrigue and above-stairs panic about inheritance, two novelists consider the enduring appeal of class tensions, snobbery, deference and social upheaval. Deborah Moggach is a well-known and prolific writer who adapted Pride and Prejudice and Love in a Cold Climate for the screen. Jane Sanderson is a former Radio 4 producer whose debut novel, Netherwood, is a period drama set on a great Yorkshire estate. Their discussion is chaired by your humble scribe, an Independent feature writer and novelist of 1930s hanky-panky.
Poetry is represented by three practitioners of very different styles. Pam Ayres became one of the country's best-selling poets after she won the Opportunity Knocks TV talent show in 1975, and her warm Berkshire accent can be heard reducing audiences to hysterics on Radio 4. Gillian Clarke was voted Wales's National Poet in 2008 and won the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2010. She reads from her work, and from Washing Lines, a new anthology of poems about washday that include works by Seamus Heaney and Pablo Neruda. And here's a pleasant surprise - Martin Bell, the brave war reporter, the squeaky-clean, anti-corruption MP and the man in the aforementioned pristine two-piece, has outed himself this year as a practitioner of light verse on serious subjects including political chicanery and celebrity culture. He presents his first collection, For Whom the Bell Tolls, over lunch at La Galleria, where he'll be introduced by the veteran foreign correspondent Dame Ann Leslie.
Linguists and lovers of foreign tongues have plenty to choose from. They could meet David Bellos, the Princeton professor whose new book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, considers, inter alia, how much world leaders actually understand of what they hear in speeches at the UN. They might listen to Anthea Bell OBE, translator of the work of everyone from WG Sebald to the tales of Asterix the Gaul, discuss her delicate craft with The Independent's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin. Or they could sit at the feet of the nation's favourite language-wrangler, David Crystal, as he explains how the King James Bible has contributed more idioms and expressions to the English language than any other source.
Foodies with a conscience will want to meet Henrietta Green, the broadcaster and green-issues campaigner, who is reputed to have started the farmers' market phenomenon by sheer force of personality and whose new book is A Green Guide to Traditional Country Foods. Fashionistas with a conscience will flock to hear Lucy Siegle, the Observer columnist, discuss the ethics and sustainability of 21st- century fashion and style with Livia Firth, film producer, green consultant and wife of the actor Colin Firth.
Finally, anyone with the slightest interest in the canon of great writing would be mad to miss the Literary Festival pub quiz in the Woodstock Arms, hosted by the omniscient but genial James Walton, soon to be heard chairing the 15th series of Radio 4's The Write Stuff. Last year The Independent's crack team crashed to ignominious defeat for imagining that Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms was published in the 1940s, instead of the (duh!) 1920s. Come along for a free drink and a test of your bookish knowledge at the UK's best boutique literary festival. Cheers!
The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival, 12 to 16 September; woodstockliteraryfestival.com…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Where the Word Is Wonderful. Contributors: Walsh, John - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 9, 2011. Page number: 4. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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