Bookhound and I had a fine lunch with Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press up in London a few weeks ago when Ernest commented that I didn't read much non-fiction. He was right then, but just a few weeks later things have changed and now he's wrong!
I'm very busy swotting up for Ways With Words Dartington 2008.
If I'm taking the blog and therefore all of you along with me I want to be sure I'm well-prepared so that we get the best out of it all, and the reading has redressed the non-fiction balance in spades. I'm reminded how easy it is to get stuck in the fiction rut when there's plenty of real-life stuff going on out there too. I'm reading some jaw-droppingly good books which I might just have missed because...well just because.
Not to put too finer point on it I avoid misery memoirs.
Once I'd read about a few miserable Irish childhoods, quickly pursued by a few miserable Chinese childhoods that was me done for and I started evasion tactics when I saw the books coming. Show me one of those books with a headless child (usually a girl in frock and ankle socks) holding a teddy by the ears and I just groan because I know what's coming. Whilst I can appreciate that for many these books will be sought-after reading and for their authors they will have undoubtedly been life-saving cathartic therapy they are rarely for me, probably because I spend my days dealing with the real thing in peoples' lives.
So when I heard about The Three of Us by Julia Blackburn, I did the usual avoidance thing and ignored it. Then I saw she was going to be at Dartington and I was in a quandary.
Julia Blackburn is unwittingly responsible for one of my finest and most memorable Dartington events ever.
It was a Sunday, July 10th 2005 according to my notebook, one of those hot, lazy, sun-dappled late afternoon events in the Great Hall. It had been a good day.
I'd heard Clare Bertschinger the Red Cross nurse in conversation with Michael Buerk talking about the famine in Ethiopia. Tim Collins, ex of the 1st battalion Royal Irish Regiment talking about the war in Iraq , Lucy Hughes-Hallet talking about Heroes and in the evening to follow it was Alexander Waugh. The trick is not to fall out of your seat laughing when Alexander Waugh talks.
It was 5pm, the air felt heavy and drowsy and it was odds on I might doze off so I sprawled myself comfortably in an end seat with the rails to prop my elbow and thus my chin on. When the long blink became a zizz I had scaffolding in place and no one would notice and hopefully I wouldn't progress to dribble and snore stage. Someone did that very loudly sitting behind us watching Hamlet once, which I suppose is inevitable and forgiveable.
Julia was talking about her then recent book With Billie on the life of singer Billie Holiday about whom I knew little beyond the word tragedy. Fat chance there was of falling asleep or even taking many notes because Julia's talk was spellbinding and then she did something quite amazing, read a passage from her book to a backdrop of Billie singing. As Julia talked gently in a voice quivering with emotion over Billie's plaintive and husky singing everyone moved right to the very edge of their seats, and to say shivers went up and down every spine in that room would be an understatement. The song might have been Laughing to Keep From Crying, I'm not sure but that's one I wrote down, but it all created an eerily magical moment and I've never forgotten it.
It also gives rise to one of those fine Dartington after the event moments.
There hadn't been that many people there and so you come out and tell everyone (because at Dartington you talk to everyone) they've just missed the very best event ever and they then gnash their teeth and regret that snooze on the lawn.
So how on earth can I possibly ever miss a talk by Julia again? I'll just have to read the book and having been assured by 'them as know' that The Three of Us was definitely not a misery memoir I tentatively plunged in...
I've just turned the final page, so was it a misery memoir?
Was I right?
Did I wish I hadn't read it?
Will I go to Julia's talk?