Each year at Dartington I head for my favoured seat high up on the back row of the balcony in the Great Hall. I try and tuck myself into the corner seat and if anyone sits in the vicinity I always mention that I'll be scribbling away and I hope I'm not a distraction.
No one has ever said I am, but it's always one of those instances when a literary festival conversation happens with someone you have never met before and are unlikely to meet again, warm and friendly and a mutual appreciation of an event you are both about to enjoy. To get to the balcony is an endeavour involving the tightest of narrow spiral staircases which leaves me quite disorientated by the time I reach the top, so much twisting I'm not sure if I'm facing north or south, so it's always nice to get my bearings through this window at the top.
I think it's the window below the clock,
Fortunately I'm not too worried about being able to see, because right up here in the gods it becomes a focused listening experience which suits me nicely.
Up and away early yesterday morning to hear William Fiennes talking about the The Music Room and it was most certainly worth the effort.
You may recall it was a book I loved for many reasons including this,
'Books like this leave a feeling, a resonating mood, for me a pitch-perfect sense of optimism and goodness, I think The Music Room might possibly be one to put on the 'Roger Deakin' shelf and revisit every so often, there is something timeless and quite life-enhancing about it.'
It was of great interest to me to hear William talk about his struggles to find this book.
Several novels and writing projects had floundered since the success of The Snow Geese, largely because William, by his own admission, felt each one had no need to exist.
The sign of a very generous writerly spirit for which as a reader I thank him.
Settling on the themes for The Music Room happened when William realised that his own doorstep was a home that was a true island; a moated castle (a real moat, not an MP's expenses pretend moat he assured us) which encapsulated all the love, beauty and tenderness balanced with the pain, loss and sorrow; all the energy a writer needed was there for the asking.
Whilst The Snow Geese fell into the symmetry of an octave, so The Music Room settled into a quartet as the four strands were woven into the rope of the book, weaving a personal under-narrative about saying goodbye to a way of life. A book about presence and absence constantly co-existing and an elegiac tone which makes me want to read it again and again now that I've heard William speak about it and I know I will.
Not wishing to enter into any Great Hall one-upmanship (but very unassumingly William's Great Hall is bigger than Dartington's, and we laughed) William couldn't pass up the chance to read about a Great Hall in a Great Hall and we were wrapped in that pin-drop magical silence that happens very occasionally in this setting.
In my humble opinion book readings are often less than satisfactory at literary festivals and apparently all writers are warned not to read to excess at Dartington because the audience gets irate, which hardly bears thinking about with all that medieval atmosphere.
One now fears for the launch of a pikestaff from the back row.
Not all writers make good stage presenters either, but I now officially add William Fiennes to my list of top notch stars and, if you find that he is speaking at a venue near you, don't miss him because he has a quiet but luminous presence which radiated right up to the back row of the balcony and we were loving it. I think we'd have been happy to have him read the whole book and then I think we might have persuaded him to read the blurbs as well and then turned out a few shopping lists just to keep him going.
Asked in questions how his parents felt about his writing, it seems The Music Room has been well-accepted by Family Fiennes (I think the explorers and the actors are first and second cousins) who trusted their son to write sensitively and lovingly about something so intrinsic to their lives. Small matter of Mrs Fiennes Snr getting fewer mentions than Mr Fiennes Snr in The Snow Geese so two more mentions were added for the sake of family harmony (much laughter) but nothing more disturbing than that.
Great and generous heartfelt applause for a wonderful event and then, if I'd had my wits about me, I could have held an auction for Offpsringette's copy of The Snow Geese which I had taken along for signing.
It's out of print, supposed to be reprinting but no copies available yet and people would have killed and maimed to get their hands on mine.
I dashed it back to my car for safety because I plan to read it very soon.