I had barely landed from a visit to Planet London Book Fair than it was time to go back into orbit and head for the Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebration at Battle Library in Reading, and thence to Bath to speak at the West Country Writer's Association annual congress on my way home.
I always do this... arrange to meet someone somewhere without the first clue about what they look like, yet somehow we never fail to find each other. I did wonder whether I might have over-estimated the skill as I walked through the station at Reading though, it's large and bustling and more places to meet than I had ever imagined. I mean over by Costa, or outside, or under the announcements board, Roisin McAuley and I hadn't been very specific...
'Oh don't worry,' I had said over the phone the week before, 'it always works, we are both looking to make eye contact with each other.'
And it is surprising how it does work, and conversely how little you make eye contact with those around you otherwise, and blow me down, we walked right into each other in the concourse of the station.
Of course what I could have done was head for Roisin's website had I known that she had one, or that she is a writer and broadcaster, or that she conducted a legendary interview with footballer George Best which you can watch here.
Roisin (pronounced Rosheen in case you are trying to Roysin as I did) had organised the most brilliant day in celebration of Elizabeth Taylor and held at the library of which Elizabeth had been a member..
I was deeply honoured to have been asked to take part and thrilled to lead a book group on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and also to sit on a panel discussing Elizabeth Taylor's writing.
But what a day because the rest of the guest list was stellar. Professor Neil Reeve from Swansea University opened proceedings with a detailed and informative introduction to the writing of Elizabeth Taylor and making my purchase of his new book essential. Neil then read us a very funny short story written in 1949 and unpublished elsewhere 'After Hours of Suffering.
I am relatively new to the short stories of Elizabeth Taylor but, having read The Devastating Boys through my train journeys over the weekend, could only wonder why on earth I hadn't read these sooner. Perhaps I somehow thought I already knew and loved the novels so well that these might be lesser. I couldn't have been more mistaken, each story is memorable, intricate yet simple if that makes any sense....and we spent a great deal of the day pondering quite how Elizabeth Taylor does what she does quite so well, it is real sleight of pen writing. Rarely can I recall a story from the title if you were to ask me after I have read a collection, yet each one of these is distinct and etched in my mind. Neil Reeve suggested that this is writing that remains fresh and alive, that intermittently jolts the reader, pushing them first one way then the other with constant attacks on complacency and self-delusion, and my mind immediately turned to that same skill Team Middlemarch are coming to know in the writing of George Eliot.
There followed an engaging and wonderfully insightful session with Roisin talking to Elizabeth Taylor's children, Rennie (seated second right below) and Joanna (seated second left below) who both shared personal reminisces with us. What emerged was a picture in my mind of a writing mother, almost in the tradition of Mrs Gaskell and Mrs Oliphant, seated at the table with life going on around them, writing set aside when family life dictated so, but with life providing so much of the fodder for the books. Rennie and Joanna both agreed the writing was 'something she did' but that it was never intrusive, and how much they now loved to read the books and spot the moments that they knew had happened for real and been noted. Rennie recounted a delightful moment in a restaurant with his mother, when he too had been writing, and on overhearing a delicious conversation, Liz (as both children called their mother) asked 'Are you going to use that or am I?'
What also became clear was that Elizabeth Taylor had a tremendous sense of humour, there would be laughter and teasing coupled with a sense of fairness and an intolerance of injustice. Rennie had us in fits over the donkey jacket he bought for his mother to wear as she walked along a dangerous road to the pub each evening for her drink and to people-watch, and probably a game of darts, because despite being blind in one eye Elizabeth Taylor was ace on the oche. Rennie had painted on the back in luminous paint 'I Am On My Way To The Crown' and his mother wore it with pride.
Personal anecdotes abounded and cherished memories were shared, books were explained in context and what a treat it was to have Joanna sitting in our discussions later in the day about Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont along with Elizabeth Jane Howard (seated right) sadly Paul Bailey was unwell and unable to attend the day at the last minute. I also had a lovely chat with Elizabeth's granddaughter ...about baby massage, the evidence base for raised cortisol levels causing anxiety in newborns and the impact on our professions of Sure Start children's centres... Harriet is a midwife.
Elizabeth Jane Howard had been a close friend of Elizabeth's in later life, and having discovered that friendship how they both wished they had been 'old friends.' More insights were shared including the fact that they never discussed their writing, and the picture of a woman of no arrogance and a self-effacing modesty continued to emerge.
Philip Hensher (seated left above) unpacked a bag full of well-thumbed Elizabeth Taylor novels onto the table and proceeded to expound the virtues as he shared his love for the work of a writer he returns to constantly. A writer capable of creating a world in two or three pages, peopled by individual and knowable human beings... if Elizabeth Taylor describes a person passing in the street somwhow we know exactly what their life will be despite often having been given so very little to go on, quite how she does it remains an indefinable mystery.
I came away delighted to have been part of the day and feeling enthused and inspired anew about a writer I have loved since first discovery, and who it has been a real pleasure to re-visit in my reading in preparation for the day... expect my thoughts eventually on Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, At Mrs Lippincote's, A Game of Hide and Seek, A Wreath of Roses and The Devastating Boys...brilliant books all.
That evening heading for Bath and on a train peopled by keen Reading football supporters who were busy celebrating promotion, I was oblivious to the chaos around me, snapping away from the train window as is my wont, new landscapes and things to see and all speeding by in a blink, but also a perfect literary day to reflect on, and with the next day and another talk to think about.
Thinking how Ravilious-like this landscape seemed I just kept clicking as the train sped on, not realising that I had actually captured a brief glimpse of the Uffington White Horse until I looked at the pictures about a week later.
Eric is popping his head up everywhere at the moment.