In which The Author receives an invitation
On Saturday, quite late in the evening, I was potching with Facebook when my inbox lit up. It was a message from my old friend Lucy S. She’d read my blog entries from last week, and had come up with an idea to cheer me up.
This next sentence might surprise you. Although I’ve been a keen reader for as long as I can remember, and I worked in the book trade for twenty years, I’d never actually managed to make it to the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts.
In fact, until last night I’d only ever been to Hay-on-Wye three times. The first visit was about the time I was doing my O Levels. I stumbled upon a US hardback copy of Christopher Priest’s early novel Inverted World
. The second visit was in the spring of 2008, during the road trip I told you about in Making Hay While the Sun Shines
. The third time doesn’t really count; it was a very brief stop on the bus last summer (see On the Border
The Hay Festival has rapidly grown from its origins as a purely literary affair to one of the UK’s biggest ‘draws’ these days. It’s perfect for anyone interested in books, culture, politics, food and drink, arts and crafts, music, or just getting away from the rat race and chilling out in a civilised and family-friendly environment. (As you can probably tell, Glastonbury it ain’t!) I knew it started over the weekend, of course, because Leanne Wood is one of the guest speakers. I’d shared her event on Facebook just a few hours earlier.
However, I’d pretty much written off any hope of getting near the place under my own steam. The festival always gets under way over the Whitsun weekend, when nearly all public transport vanishes from the roads of South Wales – and, presumably, from mid-Wales too. Without your own wheels, you might as well pencil in a manned mission to Mars as attempt a trip to Hay.
Then Lucy stuck her two penn’orth in. The Sunday evening highlight was another in the series of Letters Live. No less a star than Jude Law would be reading extracts from Simon Garfield’s new book My Dear Bessie (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2015). Lucy, her mother Sue, and Lucy’s friend Jen had booked tickets. Knowing that I’d been through a rough patch lately, Lucy very kindly asked me if I’d like to join them for the evening. She offered to stand me a ticket, and told me that I’d be welcome to occupy the fourth seat of her car.
I’ve been a fan of Simon Garfield’s writing for a long time. He’s got an enviable knack of finding quirky and offbeat subjects, and an engaging style of putting words onto paper. Among his many books which I’ve enjoyed over the years, he’s tackled the history of cartography (On the Map), the art and science underlying our rich variety of typefaces (Just My Type), and the bizarre The Last Journey of William Huskisson. Huskisson was the President of the Board of Trade in 1830, and is primarily remembered as a notable casualty of the early British railway system. (As I told the girls, he was the first man to be chuffed to bits.) Mr Garfield has also compiled some fascinating books from the Mass Observation archives, called We Are at War, Our Hidden Lives and Private Battles. (That extraordinary project must be a veritable mine of material for social historians.) In fact, any book with Mr Garfield’s name on the cover is well worth picking up, in my opinion.
Naturally enough, the main attraction for the female contingent was the presence of Mr Law himself. Lucy didn’t know much about the content of the book – but, hey, it’s Jude Law! At first glance, the title of the talk didn’t ring a bell with me either. A couple of minutes later Lucy sent me a link to the festival website, and the penny dropped immediately.
I was at home one afternoon, six weeks or so ago, so I switched the radio on. It was tuned to Radio 4, and I was expecting the usual ‘grilled vegetable ciabatta and skinny chai latte’ crap that often comprises the afternoon play. Instead, I’d tuned in part of the way into a very unusual drama.
It starred Benedict Cumberbatch as a man named ‘Chris’ and Louise Brealey as a woman named ‘Bessie’, with another female voice providing linking material from time to time. I listened to it in the background for a couple of minutes, and then stopped what I was doing to concentrate on it fully.
The set-up, which – perhaps understandably – I assumed was fictional, involved the two actors reading a series of love letters written during the Second World War. Chris, while serving overseas with the British Army, was writing to a woman he’d met back in London. Eventually, we got to hear Bessie’s side of the story as well. The epistolary romance started when Chris was posted to North Africa. We followed him to Italy, then to Greece (where he was taken prisoner), to Italy again, back to England, and finally his demob in 1946.
Interwoven with his letters were Bessie’s letters to him. Both sets were passionate, lucid, funny, charming, incredibly insightful, and very frank. At every point, the young(-ish) lovers were fully aware that each letter could be the last. Chris was on active service. London was on the receiving end of the V-2 rockets. It was an extraordinary piece of radio drama, and had me spellbound. And it had a happy ending, against all the odds. Chris married Bessie during a week’s leave, and later returned to civvy street. I was in tears by that point.
Then, right at the tail end – and totally out of left field – came the reveal.
The letters weren’t simply the product of someone’s imagination. Chris Barker and Bessie Moore had been real people.
And it was a selection of their letters that Mr Law, Ms Brealey and Lisa Dwan were reading at Hay. It was too good an offer to pass up.
We set off from Aberdare at about five o’clock and made decent time to Brecon. From there, a fast road runs north-east towards Hereford. The little town of Hay-on-Wye itself nestles in a shallow basin between the mountains. It stands on the wide, gently meandering river which historically formed much of the border of England and Wales. It’s a quick and easy journey by car. (On the other hand, Aberdare to Hay by bus involves a three-stage journey, and by the time you get there it’s pretty much time to come home again. It’s not really an alternative.)
A series of rather confusing road signs meant that we took a rather convoluted route to the festival site. The surrounding countryside is fantastic, though, so we didn’t really mind. There were a few patches of high altitude clouds in an otherwise perfect blue sky. It was warm enough for us to walk around without jackets. Considering that the alternative was sitting at home, listening to some nonsense on the radio, I decided that Lucy’s suggestion had been a far better proposition.
While we were travelling up, I outlined (very briefly) the story behind My Dear Bessie. I didn’t give too much away, but I thought a bit of context might prepare my friends for what was to come. I warned them that it was a real tearjerker, though.
We parked up in a nearby field and walked to the arena. A series of marquees held all manner of attractions, including a bookshop, food stalls, a large theatre, and venues where you can hear – this week alone – a host of guests from Stephen Fry to Jim al-Khalili, Bettany Hughes to Simon Singh, Mary Portas to Kazuo Ishiguro, David Aaronovitch to Tony Hawks. Sue told us that she’d already spotted Alan Yentob, the BBC’s Creative Director. I kept my eyes open for anyone famous, but it was late in the evening by now. Earlier in the day, I expect I could have been ticked several boxes in the (sadly non-existent) I-Spy Celebrities.
In the shop, the Welsh writer and broadcaster Owen Sheers was signing his latest book. Sue had already bumped into someone she knew, who happened to know Mr Sheers. Before we knew what was happening, he’d agreed to come and give a talk at the school where Jen teaches. Now that’s what I call networking! It crossed my mind that I should have shoved a stack of my business cards into my pocket before setting off. Maybe next time…
Lucy and I chatted as we walked around the site, savouring the appetising aromas wafting over from the many food stalls. In the open spaces between the tents, groups of friends were sitting in the sun reading their new purchases. There were people of all ages, and they’d come from all over the world. I mentioned that it must be a great gig to be a steward during the festival. You’d get to meet all manner of interesting people, probably get accommodation and meals provided, and enjoy all the perks of wearing a high-vis vest in a laid-back and stimulating environment. We’re going to look into it in time for next year.
We decided to have a beer, still looking out for anyone famous. As soon as we entered the tent, Sue spotted Leanne Wood sitting at a nearby table with a couple of her friends. I’ve met Leanne once before, a few weeks before the 2010 election, when she came to Aberdare to support Dafydd Trystan Davies’ campaign. He and Rowland introduced us while they were canvassing in Market Street. If Leanne had just been wandering around the arena, I might have said ‘hi’, but I didn’t want to intrude on their evening. I’m sure our paths will cross again, now that I’ve finally nailed my colours to the Plaid Cymru mast.
We made our way to the theatre and joined the queue for the event. I started talking to the couple behind, and the six of us had an extremely pleasant chat while we edged closer to the entrance. On the way into the theatre, I told Lucy that there were a very few things I missed about the book trade. One of them is this: I very rarely get to have intelligent conversations with articulate, educated and well-read people any more. Since I crashed out of my university course halfway through 2011, my chances of talking to someone who can tell one end of a book from the other have been diminishing rapidly. In fact, it’s only happened to me a couple of dozen times in the last year or so.
When it does happen, it’s almost always with someone I’ve known for a long time anyway: Rowland; Geoff and Olga; Gaz; Gareth L.; Steven G.; Rob H.; a few other old friends whom I bump into from time to time. Occasionally I meet someone who’s interesting and knowledgeable, and we become friends. Stephen Pearce, the young lad who showed us around the Garw Valley Railway project exactly a year ago, falls into that category. So do Clive W. and Colin Rees. I’m also lucky to still have some friends who are studying, like Rebecca C., Shannon, and the rest of their large family.
Much of the time, though, I’m surrounded by numpties. They might know loads about soccer, action films or generic TV shows, but they haven’t read anything more challenging than the sport pages of the Sun since they left school. As you can probably imagine, our conversation in the queue covered a rather broader range of topics.
We took our seats in the theatre and I watched as the big screen behind the stage flashed up details of forthcoming events. I don’t think there was much that didn’t catch my eye, to be honest. Talk about being spoilt for choice! There were talks on artificial intelligence, genetics, climate change, quantum physics, the rise of Islamic State, the neoliberal takeover of the US and UK… The speakers were novelists, poets, playwrights, film-makers, stand-up comedians, scientists, historians, artists and critics, economists, political commentators…
I’d have had to make some serious decisions about what I could afford to miss out on, simply to cram everything in. After he famously visited some years ago, Bill Clinton apparently described the Hay Festival as ‘Woodstock for the mind’. Wise words indeed.
The house lights dimmed and the screen went dark. To a wave of applause, a man walked out to a lectern near the side of the stage. He was a smallish chap with short graying hair, wearing a jacket over a blue t-shirt. It certainly wasn’t Jude Law. I wondered who he was – probably one of the festival organisers. Then he introduced himself. It was none other than Simon Garfield.
He began by explaining the circumstances by which Chris and Bessie’s letters had come into his possession. I won’t give too much away, but this treasure trove of correspondence had originally provided some of the material for his book To the Letter. So many readers had been entranced by the unfolding love story that they asked to know more about Chris and Bessie. Thus it was that Mr Garfield decided to put the whole saga between covers.
After his preamble, he introduced the cast. For the reading they sat in adjacent chairs, with Jude Law on our left, Louise Brealey playing Bessie on our right, and Lisa Dwan between them. They were wearing headset mics, while the big screen behind showed close-ups of each of them in turn. It was a nice, simple, unpretentious set-up. Ms Dwan set the scene and the readings began.
To begin with, only Chris’s letters to Bessie survive. He’d (very reluctantly) had to get rid of her earlier letters to him. He’d had only limited space in his kitbag when he was travelling from place to place. Back in England, meanwhile, Bessie had treasured all of his. At one point Chris tells her that, even though he’s going to have to lose the hard copies, he’s committed every word to memory. He pours out his heart in a flood of letters to the woman he loves.
Eventually, of course, we reach the point where Bessie’s half of the correspondence comes in. Mr Law and Ms Brealy alternated the readings from then on. The letters are warm and witty as the two smitten writers plan their future, when the war is over and they can settle down together.
What struck us all (as we discussed in the car on the way back) was their extensive vocabulary, and the remarkable fluency with which they both wrote. You get the impression that both Chris and Bessie must have been voracious readers, with a pleasingly rounded view of the world situation during those dark days.
Towards the end of the performance, a picture appeared on the screen behind the actors. It was a colour photo of an elderly couple, sitting side by side on adjacent park benches in the summer sunshine. She’s smiling into the camera from beneath her neatly-trimmed white hair. Beside her, wearing a shirt and tie under a jacket, is a man with a halo of white hair around his ears. His eyes are almost closed behind his round wire-framed glasses, but there’s a serene smile playing about his lips.
The photo was taken at Greenwich Park in July 2003, during her last trip from her care home. Chris and Bessie were both aged 89, and had been married for 58 years.
The audience gave the three actors a well-deserved standing ovation when the reading ended. Lucy and I hugged each other, and we both had tears flowing down our cheeks. It was one of the most moving, poignant, beautiful, funny and heart-warming pieces of theatre I’ve ever witnessed.
We headed out into the chilly night air, still chatting about the show. The combination of the unexpected trip out of Aberdare, the nature of the correspondence, and its wartime setting, got my mental gears working. I remembered an old song from that era, and decided to use it as the title for this entry.
Some of my regular readers may wonder why I (as an avid bibliophile) still haven’t embraced the Kindle/Kobo/Nook/E-Reader phenomenon. I told you about the shenanigans of sorting my Lending Library out a couple of weeks ago. Surely, I hear you cry, it would be easier to have all your books stored on a handy portable hard drive, available to use anywhere, any time.
Last night, however, I was reminded of just why the new technology falls far short of the printed copy.
We made our way to the Festival Bookshop, where Mr Garfield was doing a signing session. I paid for my copy and joined the queue of people waiting to speak to him. To my surprise, nobody joined the queue behind me. I started chatting to a couple of girls in their twenties, who’d also been deeply touched by what they’d heard. It took about quarter of an hour for me to reach the table where Mr Garfield was sitting.
Being last in line meant that I was able to chat to him for a while. I introduced myself and told him how much I’d enjoyed his earlier books. He was intrigued to learn that I’d read We Are at War some months before its publication date. I explained that uncorrected proofs, sent out in advance by publishers to their key accounts, were another much-missed perk of the book trade. I congratulated him on his knack for finding such interesting and offbeat material to develop.
I also told him how fortunate he was to have gained access to Chris and Bessie’s letters. In return, Mr Garfield told me about the Mass Observation archive at Sussex University, and recommended a visit if I’m ever in Brighton. I told him about my blog, which has a lot of social comment as well as more personal stuff. I said I thought some of it might be relevant in the future. (Colin Rees has already submitted it to be archived by the British Library.) I asked Mr Garfield if there was anything like M-O in the current era. To my surprise, it turns out that M-O is not only still in existence – it’s looking for volunteers. Mr Garfield himself is a trustee of the organisation. I think I’ll be dropping them a line in the next few days. It sounds like an enjoyable project I could really throw myself into.
Mr Garfield’s current project is another spin-off from the M-O archives. It’s a distillation of (get this!) sixty years’ worth of diaries kept by Maggie Joy Blunt, one of the people whose submissions to M-O feature in Our Hidden Lives and the other books. At the moment, it’s running to some 800 pages, and it’s on course to hit the shops later in the year. I think I’ll add that to my Xmas list.
He signed my copy of the book (see, that couldn’t possibly happen with an e-book) and thanked me for coming to the event. We shook hands, and I thanked him again for giving me so many hours of reading pleasure over the years. Then we wished each other well and said goodnight.
While Mr Garfield and I were chatting, Lucy had been lurking nearby with my camera. She managed to get a couple of decent(-ish) pictures, but the lighting conditions weren’t great. You can see us both, though. There was no photography allowed in the theatre, of course, so there aren’t any photos of Jude Law. Sorry, girls…
I’m extremely grateful to Lucy for thinking that I might welcome a change of scene and a break from the norm. When they dropped me off in Trecynon, just before 11.30, I thanked them all for the invitation, and told them that the whole evening had been a real tonic.
I really am a lucky man to have such caring, considerate and thoughtful friends. I know full well that my mood can often plummet without any prior warning. When everyone rallies round and helps me through the blackness, it becomes a lot easier to handle.