Not that we were keen or anything, but finding ourselves at the front of a queue outside St Peter's Church, Budleigh Salterton, that eventually snaked off down the road, and probably along the beach, for Hilary Mantel's event at the Literary Festival, seemed like a repetition of Hay Festival and Robert Macfarlane.
Budleigh is a small seaside town in Devon, just beyond Exeter, staging an unpretentious and welcoming literary festival that packs a punch well above its weight, and on a very tight budget too. As well as Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, David Lloyd, Helen Lederer, Kaffe Fassett, Judith Kerr, Patrick Gale, Margaret Drabble, Paula Hawkins, Ben Okri and the Poldark team were also on the packed programme. We can moan and groan that everything happens 'up country' or we can embrace and support what is on the doorstep, though sadly I had felt it wise to decline the committee's offer of some involvement earlier this year. I had no idea how the autumn might find me and my reading, and so decided it was best not to commit and then spend the summer fretting over it.
Events are held in venues around the town, easily reached on foot, and writers mingle with readers in a marquee (with bookshop) on the town green rather than being hived off out of sight to be wined and dined, so you will very likely see Dame Hilary Mantel having a cup of tea with Dame Margaret Drabble while you queue for your cream tea. I know how much effort and hard work goes into making a literary event seem relaxed and warm and friendly, so congratulations to the Budleigh LitFest committee for keeping it that way whilst still attracting some 'big names.' It would be worth putting next year's dates in your diary (15th - 17th September) and heading Westward for a few days.
We had spent the afternoon wandering around the town and along the seafront, and admiring the welcoming pebble art...
..and a selfie to send to the far-flung children just so they know we know how to use our mobile phones, send things onto the cloud or drop them in a box, and are on trend and pushing the envelope and things etc
I consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to be living through the era of a writer like Hilary Mantel; perhaps this is how the Victorians felt about George Eliot or Dickens, and oblivious to the other several hundred people behind us, Bookhound and I felt we were being treated to an intimate conversation between two friends as Rachel Cooke teased out Hilary Mantel's most favoured books. I scribbled furiously so I am hoping you will get the essence of what proved to be a wonderful hour or so... and you might want to make a list too.
First of all the life-changing book...
North of South by Shiva Naipaul.
Shiva Naipaul, the younger brother of V.S.Naipaul and North of South a book, published in 1980, that Hilary had read whilst living in Botswana where her husband Gerald was a geologist. This was a recognisable Africa and on her return to the UK, and with little idea about what to do next, Hilary entered the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize, offered by the Spectator in memory of the writer who had died at the age of forty. Writing her essay as if addressing it to Shiva, and describing her life in Saudi Arabia, Hilary won the £1000 and was then asked to 'mind' the Spectator's film column for a few weeks which became four years. It was a life-changing foot in the door of the the literary world and a career in writing. Many books have come and gone but North of South has been kept as a talisman
Remembering a time before reading...
Growing up in a non-bookish household has its drawbacks for an only child who is desperate to read, so anything that became available was fodder for the young Hilary's mind. Fluent in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on starting school, Dick and Jane was to be something of a disappointment...' a waste of boredom' ensued along with an unusual and rather arcane vocabulary for a five year old. Tournaments and armour a speciality. Books arrived in her life by accident hence a textbook of writing about the history of the countries of Europe which a young Hilary mistook for The Complete Works of Shakespeare and so memorised it by heart (even offered to recite...it's still there) with every detail of conspiracy, political thought, the power of oratory and how the crowd becomes a mob stored up in case it might come in useful. When the right Shakespeare came along at the age of ten Hilary was in there and reading the lot before any senior school teacher could turn it into 'work'.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson for its language, the inflections of lowland Scotland, the beautiful rhythm and a sense of identification with a book that wasn't quite the mainstream and with a pace that never falters...this is how to write a novel. Likewise Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, though the abridged version seemed far preferable to the full version in the eyes of a ten-year old Hilary who could identify with Jane the observer; the subversive who can't act but who can watch.
Ah the joy of the ticket to the adult library at fourteen. Anything that sounded hard...Dostoevsky, French plays and Brideshead Revisited.
Reading Law at Sheffield University, and, at this stage, with no ambitions to be a writer, Hilary was more determined to be a reader and one with a burgeoning interest in facts, reality, documents, case histories and psychology the name of the late Oliver Sacks was mentioned. A writer with a precision and eloquence, and the ability to mediate the scientific complexities of life in a 'healing' way.
And what about influence...
Hilary never doubted that she could write a novel. Having read so many she had the templates to hand but amongst the writers whose work gave her the courage to try were Beryl Bainbridge with her short, sharp black comedies. 'Look what she's getting away with...' thought Hilary. Nothing ventured etc A Place of Greater Safety was sent to Beryl's publisher, who weren't interested and also lost a chunk of it. When, in years to come, Hilary would find herself sharing a literary platform with Beryl she would have to blink and pinch herself.
Ivy Compton-Burnett became a firm favourite on the second attempt. In her mid-twenties the received opinion was that IC-B couldn't write and used the same bad plot. Twenty years later and..
'I get it...when my spring is broken and I can't write I read Ivy Compton-Burnett and my tick over speed is restored.'
Molly Keane's Good Behaviour another firm favourite.
'A rare and perfect book' with its black humour and anxiety and its precise and piercing vision, written after Molly Keane had suffered a stroke and had to learn to write again, making every single word precious, none could be wasted.
John McGahern's Amongst Women first encountered when a Booker judge in 1990. It didn't win, this was the year A.S.Byatt took the crown with Possession, but John McGahern's writing explained much about Hilary's early life, in a family of Irish descent, building sense into a family that she had never quite understood with its unspoken hand-me-down assumptions.
Sybille Bedford, born into the German aristocracy with an English mother, and a strange footloose life of travel and wandering. Hilary came to know Sybille and her very precise spoken English, they would speak on the phone, it was 'like hearing a Victorian ghost.'
The writing of Alison Lurie was the first sign of a breakthrough for the twenty-two year old Hilary. A rest from the Russians, but surely this was too easy and too entertaining to be good for you. The novels of John Updike and Philip Roth quickly followed though she never quite grasped Saul Bellow ...' I feel the lack and I must remedy.'
And then there is Anne Tyler ' who seems to breath out her books' and with them came the good news that novels could be about marital strife. The tiniest theme would work and they could be less ferocious, more human and let the comedy through...
'Walk to the postbox with the right sensibility and you will come home with the makings of a novel in your head, the interface between life and your own powers of observation.'
Having been reading in a 'frozen posture' and with solemnity, now came fluidity and with it an individual style.
How do you organise your reading now?
The postman brings books in vast quantities, all in the hope of cover quotes, but when writing her own fiction Hilary prefers not to enter the imaginative world of someone else and so reads non-fiction, memoirs, diaries, psycho-geography, the 'new topography of the heart' such as Helen Macdonald, and plenty of poetry...currently Kei Miller and Helen Mort. A book recently and thoroughly enjoyed has been A Notable Woman : The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield, an account of war work as part of the Mass Observation project, but the suspense lies in wondering exactly when Jean Lucey Pratt will lose her virginity.
Plus there is always research to be done...'I am currently learning how to be blacksmith.'
Could you outline Ivy Compton-Burnett's one plot...
Family of limited means, but with butler, meet at breakfast and use their knives and forks on each other. They do likewise at lunch. There will be a suicide attempt/murder/incest, a will, some forgery, all wickedness goes unpunished and the butler clears up the mess at the end of the day.
Cue rapturous applause and a signing queue that materialises out of thin air, but I am there with my copy of Beyond Black and having been sent a message from the festival organisers to 'break cover' and introduce myself to Hilary Mantel...I do.
I hope all this has given you a flavour of an event that was so special that Bookhound and I talked about it for every inch of the fifty-five mile drive home and which, the next day, sent me scurrying to my shelves.
I've thrown the baby, or rather the Ivy Compton-Burnett, out with the bath water though. Never thought her day would come...bad writing...all the same plots... so will have go and buy her back from Oxfam.
Meanwhile, your thoughts on Hilary's favourites...do you share her love of any of them?
Have you read them...
Do some come as a surprise...
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane, as yet unread, is the first off my shelf...