Article published on May 18, 2016.
Sheila A Grant visits “The World’s only Festival of Biography & Memoir”
How does an avid book lover select which writers to hear speak? I chose to go outside my comfort zone and attend the unfamiliar rejecting (with regret) the opportunity to hear the actor Martin Jarvis, Daphne Selfe, the world’s oldest supermodel, Philip Mould from Antique Road Show, Lloyd Grossman and others entertain with anecdotes from their respective professions.
Listening to Erwin James I was not the only person who was moved by his story. Serving a life sentence for a horrendous crime he became the first prisoner to become a correspondent for The Guardian. The graphic description of his adjustment to prison life was harrowing. He credits much of his rehabilitation to Joan, an insightful psychologist who told him ‘You were born loveable’ and after initially scoffing and some reflection under her guidance he began to feel hope, an emotion that had been missing from his life since childhood. He offered no excuses for his unforgivable behaviour as he recounted with humility how, with the help of this amazing woman, he changed his mindset. He may no longer be ‘inside’ but his 99 year sentence is still being served in the community. A Memoir of Darkness and Hope is a book totally different to my previous reads and very revealing.
Wandsworth Prison is a long way from India. Ferdinand Mount’s book The Tears of the Rajas recounted a century of the British involvement in India in which his family, the Lows from Fife, played a lasting part. They were involved in much of the drama, the disasters and the horror for a century with a lifestyle that put pressure on family life in India. At home members as young as fifteen took up posts in India, and were away for many years or never returned to their homeland. The history of his family is also a history of India. There were lighter moments in the talk as the author told stories of eccentric relatives and unorthodox events.
Andrew Lownie’s extensive research in this country, and in USA and Russia has revealed hitherto concealed information on Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman. In his interviews with over a hundred people who knew the spy, he has uncovered facts that are as entertaining as they are shocking. Burgess knew everyone and appeared to charm his way into confidences at an almost unbelievable level. Peter Thorneycroft, the then chancellor of the Exchequer, was a friend who allegedly assisted Burgess in currency exchange. He was a clever and highly educated man who acquired a job in the Foreign Office and immediately offered to do overtime and work at weekends. Hundreds of documents were leaked to Russia and who knows what lives were put at risk or lost due to this traitor. An absorbing read that proves fact is stranger than fiction. When Mr Lownie was asked what made Burgess act the way he did the author replied that he doubted we would ever know the whole truth, especially since some of the archives are locked away for another century.
Mona Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at Edinburgh University and has gained renown from her intelligent well-balanced contributions to Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’. She was an impressive speaker who’s carefully measured replies to questions – that were occasionally tactless – displayed her wisdom and common sense. Asked if she believed in arranged marriages she indicated her husband of 25 years sitting in the front row, and yes it was an arranged marriage. Her reflections on all denominations are sensible and calm as she stressed the importance of religious tolerance. ‘We must put the negative aside and work for a better society’ she said and should not be defined by our type of religion. Speaking in the West of Scotland where Roman Catholic and Protestant pupils are taught in separate schools this had particular resonance.
It was physically impossible to attend all the speakers but friends gave me notes on the ones that I missed:
Ben Stewart’s aptly named book Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg is the story of the attempt to free the Arctic30 from Putin’s jail. The talk was illustrated with scenes of soldiers in balaclavas abseiling down from a helicopter to take over the ship. Other prisoners in the jail protected them and showed them how the internal communications (made from plastic bags and set up each night) worked. With the approach of the Winter Olympics in Sochi Angela Merkel, who speaks fluent Russian, nagged Putin to release them.
A real life thriller.
Charles Moore was launching his second volume on Margaret Thatcher’s time in office. Not being part of the ‘old boy’s network or educated at Oxbridge she had to have a different approach to leadership. A strong woman, yes, who did not like people who were unwilling to argue with her, such as Geoffrey Howe. Once she had made up her mind then it was a true saying that the lady was not for turning. Uncomfortable with her mothering skills she felt she had failed by indulging Mark and criticising Carol. Not known for her sense of humour she could be witty as when she was surrounded by powerful business men ‘cocks can crow but the hen lays the egg’. A wonderful insight into behind the scenes of power.
Queen Victoria was another strong woman and A. N. Wilson was given access to archives at Windsor, although some are still closed. Letters reveal a different side to her than the public perception. When she was thought to be mourning in the Isle of Wight after Prince Albert’s death she was actually in Prussia helping her daughter Victoria and working to unite the various parts of what would become Germany. Surprisingly she was class and colour blind and enjoyed the company of her Indian servant and his family. After her death Queen Alexandra and others went to his house and removed all her letters and gifts to him.
This book has many cameos of the other side of a queen who always appeared severe and austere.
Gregor Fisher, of Rab C Nesbitt fame, closed the weekend in an interview with Melanie Reid, his biographer. As those familiar with his work would expect it was a fun discussion and the two were like a double act chatting about the circumstances of Gregor’s birth, his early years and his search for the truth about his origins. He was at times thoughtful yet self effacing but also very funny when discussing The Boy from Nowhere. A relaxed, hilarious, moving and poignant talk and a brilliant taster before devouring his book.
A perfect way to close this lively and insightful weekend and a privilege to hear such superb speakers. Now to start wading through the books – signed of course!
Sheila A. Grant
Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage by Kathleen Winter