Article published on May 10, 2016.
This is the tenth year of Hexham Book Festival and the third that I have attended. It is mainly held at Queen’s Hall Art Centre, across the road from the town’s beautiful abbey. The hall is also the home of the Little Angel café, very handy for tea and cake in between events.
As usual there was a good mix of author events and also this year, the festival played host to the Radio 4 Bookclub with James Naughtie. Among the authors appearing were Joanne Harris, Anna Pavord, Monica Lewycka and Louis de Bernieres. There were also poetry and Shakespeare workshops.
I attended three author events – Andrew Michael Hurley, Melvyn Bragg and Tessa Hadley.
Andrew Hurley won the Costa award for new novelist with his book The Loney which is an atmospheric story set on the north west coast near Lancaster. It has been described as a gothic novel but Andrew seemed to prefer to describe it as uncanny or unsettling and I would agree with this. He was an engaging speaker and talked about the themes of his novel – landscape, weather, religion and family. His influences include Robert McFarland and Nan Shepherd as well as M R James and Stephen King. The latter described the book as ‘an amazing piece of fiction’. Andrew said this was surreal; having your hero praise your own book. He is now working on his second novel, again set in the North west but this time in the Trough of Bowland.
The Melvyn Bragg event was quite different. There was no interviewer; he just spoke fluently and entertainingly for nearly a full hour about his new book Now is the Time. It is set in the late fourteenth century and tells the story of the Peasants Revolt. It is a period of history that has long fascinated him and although he had no intention of writing another history book, he found himself drawn back to it again and again. He described the events leading up to the Revolt, with many interesting anecdotes and snippets of information, which sometimes threatened to lead him off the topic, though I don’t think the audience would have objected too much. He then discussed the main characters of the book – John Ball, Wat Tyler, Queen Joan and the boy king, Richard.
Lastly, I went to see Tessa Hadley, whose novels I greatly admire although I hadn’t had time to read this new one The Past. Having listened to her, I am very keen to do so. It is about an ‘ordinary family’ – three sisters and a brother returning one hot summer to spend three weeks at their late grandparents’ house, before it is sold. It is about envy, lust, familial affection and memories. There was a real in depth discussion of the characters and also about her use of the technique of writing in the third person multi-voice.
Tessa had recently heard that she had won the Windham-Campbell Literary Prize, awarded for her body of work. This was given to her because she ‘brilliantly illuminates ordinary lives with extraordinary prose that is superbly controlled, psychologically acute and subtly powerful’. There is not much I can add to that! She is a Henry James fan and confessed to belonging to a Henry James reading group.
So three very different writers, all of whom I enjoyed listening to. I just wish I’d had time to go to more events. Maybe next year.