Late May 2019 – Our times, their times. Three events at the 30th Charleston Literary Festival.

One of the many pleasures of living in Eastbourne is its proximity to some of Britain’s most cherished cultural events. The Charleston Festival, held in a marquee in the grounds of the country home of the Bloomsbury Group is one of them. This year your man’s choice of which events to attend was restricted by a trip to Germany but he still managed to take in three sessions.

Tuesday 21st May. “A Man for our Times” - Melvyn Bragg discussing his latest novel Love without End, and other things, with philosopher A.C. Grayling. I shall try not to detail Bragg’s full c.v. as many of these reviews are long enough already. Most famous perhaps as an arts critic on the South Bank Show, and more recently, as the presenter of over 800 editions of the Radio 4 academic discussion programme In Our Time, (Lord) Bragg is also the writer of, at a quick count, 24 novels, some of which have won prizes and have been longlisted for the Booker Prize. His latest book (which I’m now looking forward to reading) is a retelling of the story of Heloise and Abelard (his ordering). It also features a modern day author who is in Paris writing a book on the two medieval lovers, and his daughter who arrives to help him, but also wants to find out more about her parent’s broken relationship. He talked interestingly about the difficulties of writing about the 12th Century on the Ile de la Cite before Notre Dame was built. The old Oxford History general paper was prone to ask, “Is it too late to be Early English?” Bragg certainly found it hard to be medieval French. In this he got a great deal of help from Prof. Michael Clanchy, a medieval historian and the editor of the letters of Abelard and Heloise. How well he succeeds will be gathered from reading the book. Revolutionary ideas for the time that are considered include Abelard’s challenge to contemporary belief through his teaching about Aristotle, and the idea of true friendship between a man and a woman. Bragg is firmly of the view that we mustn’t judge people in the past by the standards of our own day.

Audience questions included more general ones, particularly about In Our Time and how he manages to seem so knowledgeable on such diverse topics. Referring to the kindness of the academics who appear on the programme he said that, like Blanche Dubois, he “relies on the generosity of strangers”. He told a funny story about an American professor who asked him about 12 minutes into the programme “Melvyn, do you know what a Higgs Boson is?” Good stuff. (*****)

Friday 24th May. “Peace for our Time?” Here is something Charleston does so well. They look at recently published books in different genres but on related subjects and put their authors on the platform with an experienced interviewer to compare and contrast. In this case we had a first history book, Appeasing Hitler, subtitled “Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War”, by Tim Bouverie, and a novel, After the Party by reviewer and novelist Cressida Connolly. The event was chaired by Jon Snow. In reviewing this discussion Man about Eastbourne is mindful that when he started these diaries he promised they would be a Brexit free zone, and he doesn’t intend to express an opinion now. However with Jon Snow’s recent remarks about never having seen “so many white people in one place” at a pro-Brexit rally, it was bound to come up at this event, which was held on the day of Mrs. May’s announcement of her intention to resign. Also, without having done any statistical survey, the Charleston audience seem pretty solidly pro-Remain. And Snow made it a theme with his introductory “Oh to be in England now that May is………….”. Commentators (including David Keys in the Independent) have been writing that the appeasers of the 1930s and the Brexit supporters of today are both turning their backs on Europe, and Snow pointed out that people weren’t mentioning that the EU had its origins as an organisation to prevent war. Bouverie said that he started writing the book before the Referendum but when it happened his immediate thought was that it might improve sales. But they had strayed somewhat from the point (as, I suppose, have I).

In tackling Appeasement as a subject Tim Bouverie is treading where many historians have been before. As early as July 1940, three journalists, Michael Foot, Peter Howard and Frank Owen, writing under the pseudonym Cato, produced a short book blaming 15 politicians (including Ramsay Macdonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain) for their weakness in standing up to the threat of Nazi Germany. And, of course, The Gathering Storm, the first volume of Churchill’s war memoirs, reinforced this view. It is a persistent one. I remember going around Highbury, Joseph Chamberlain’s house in Birmingham, on an open day about 15 years ago. Our guide pointed out a portrait of Joseph’s son Neville Chamberlain and a lady in the group said “Oh yes, the weak looking one”. In the 1960s and 1970 A.J.P. Taylor and Chamberlain’s biographer David Dilks used documents that were coming available to suggest that there were severe limitations on the appeasers including a lack of support from allies, the great difficulty of rearming due to economic depression and hostile public opinion. However, in Historiography, wherever there are revisionists, counter-revisionists will soon follow, and R.A.C. Parker suggested that Chamberlain held on to his policy of appeasement for far too long. From his comments Bouverie seems very much to support the view that British governments should have stood up to Hitler earlier. He stressed that people did know how bad Hitler was, yet he also pointed out that Churchill had got so much wrong before that many did not believe his warnings. I look forward to reading his analysis of a complex issue.

Cressida Connolly is a daughter of the critic Cyril Connolly. (Eastbourne connection – before Eton and Balliol Cyril attended St. Cyprian’s School along with George Orwell and Cecil Beaton and late in his life lived in St. John’s Road. He is buried in Berwick Churchyard). Like her father she is a journalist and book reviewer. Unlike her father, who always bemoaned his lack of success as a writer of fiction, she is also building a successful career as novelist. Her fourth novel After the Party focuses on a small group of women who become supporters of Oswald Mosley. Much of the book is also set in Sussex. She said that she is very interested in the process by which people go wrong. She suggests in an article that there are parallels between the way that “right-wing parties were attracting followers from all walks of life” and “what’s happening in the West now.” Apparently the book also focuses on the relationship between three sisters and has been influenced by the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, Chekhov (of course) and also the three Curzon sisters, daughters of the Viceroy, one of whom married Mosley and at least one of the others had an affair with him. Plenty of material there. I look forward to reading both books. (****)

Monday 27th May – “Erebus”. The final event at the whole festival was Michael Palin talking about his book Erebus. The Erebus was a ship that went to the Antarctic with James Clark Ross and to the Arctic with Sir John Franklin. Palin was just as charming as he is on television and told the story of the ship with a great deal of humour and panache. He is justifiably very proud of the amount of personal research that he put into the book and he visited all of the key sites in the Antarctic, Tasmania, the Falklands and Canada. He was obviously impressed by some of the crew members on board. In his researches he found Robert McCormick’s diary. McCormick was surgeon and naturalist on the Erebus. He pronounced himself a bird lover, and then on the succeeding pages detailed how many new species he had shot. To be fair to McCormick this was so that he could take their skins home for identification puposes. Ross held a party when they were stuck in pack ice and handed round ice creams. When Erebus and her sister ship Terror set off for the North-West Passage in 1845 under the overall command of Sir John Franklin, the sociable Sir John held dinner parties for local worthies on board every night of every stop. He insisted that the captain of Terror, Francis Crozier, joined him, much to the latter’s annoyance. Crozier had to be rowed over and back again each night, whatever the weather. When they reached the Arctic the story takes a more sombre turn. Icebound, both crews abandoned ship and tried to trek overland. All 130 men died of various causes. Their tragic story was gradually pieced together over the next century and a half with the wreckage of both ships being discovered in the past 5 years.

Palin is obviously fascinated and told the tale superbly. Perhaps the only down side was that he told it so well that I felt no particular need to buy and read his book, though I’m sure doing so would reveal an even greater wealth of fascinating detail. (*****)

After the talk a presentation was made to Diana Reich who is retiring after 30 years as the artistic director of the festival. When it started in 1990 she said “we had no idea whether anyone would turn up”. They certainly did. Through those 30 years the Festival has resisted the temptation to over-expand, sticking only to book related events and only having one event at a time. There is a spin-off festival in Charleston, North Carolina, and later in the year a short story festival.


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