Book reviews and features about authors at Chiswick Book Festival, where writers talk about their new books every September in events over a long weekend.

I love you, You’re perfect, Now change

The Chiswick Playhouse has opened its first production under its new name. in the studio space above the Tabard pub. I love you, You’re perfect, Now change is running until 30 November.

I went to see it last week and it was great fun. It’s billed as a brand-new version of a hit musical. To me it seemed more like a revue – a selection of songs based on different scenarios on the theme of love, sex and relationships, but with no over-arching story line.

It’s none the less engaging for that. The four actors / singers are very accomplished West End performers and Laura Johnson in particular has a fabulous voice. 

You can tell from their very honed and toned muscles that they’re professional dancers and they worked their way through the numbers – sad, poignant, funny, witty – with an ease and confidence which made for a highly entertaining show.

NB Club Card holders are able to claim the concessions discount on all Chiswick Playhouse productions. Just book the concession ticket and take your club card with you to show on the door.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Tabard theatre becomes Chiswick Playhouse

See also: Simon Reilly to leave Tabard theatre

See all our current Club Card offers here

Queen Victoria at Chiswick House

Queen Victoria at Chiswick House

Interview with Esme Whittaker, curator of Chiswick House by Bridget Osborne

September 2016

The Chiswick Book Festival 2016 opened with a session at Chiswick House with A N Wilson, biographer of Queen Victoria, and Daisy Goodwin, screen writer of the hugely popular TV series Victoria. Esme Whittaker, curator of Chiswick House for English Heritage, spoke to Bridget Osborne about Queen Victoria’s association with Chiswick House.

Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor to Chiswick House. She came as a young woman in her twenties and was hugely impressed with the Italian style of the building, the beauty of the gardens and the hospitality of the Duke of Devonshire.

She came back as a middle aged woman when her son the Prince of Wales was living at Chiswick House and there is a picture of her surrounded by her 300 of her family and the great and the good of the time at a garden party hosted by the Prince of Wales. The picture, by Louis William Desanges, was put on display for the opening of the festival.

Painting above: The Royal Garden Party at Chiswick, c.1876-79, Autotype with hand-colouring. Royal Collection Trust

Local authors session 2015

Local authors session 2015

September 2015

The Chiswick Calendar organised a ‘Meet the local authors’ session at George IV pub. That would account for the background noise of children enjoying their Sunday lunch!

Sadie Jones talks about turning her book The Outcast into a TV drama, Salley Vickers describes her new book of short stories and Rhidian Brook recounts how travelling round America selling butterflies in glass cases inspired his next novel. Mark Ellen goes one further and demonstrates how Tony Blair used to come on stage trying to look like Mick Jagger when he fronted their university band, the Ugly Rumours.

Local authors talk to The Chiswick Calendar as part of the 2015 Chiswick Book Festival.

Carol’s Picks – The New Mrs Clifton

Carol’s Picks – The New Mrs Clifton

Carol Douglas reviews Elizabeth Buchan’s novel

July 2017

Elizabeth Buchan appeared at the 2017 Chiswick Book Festival talking about her book The New Mrs Clifton. Set at the end of World War Two, an army officer shocks his community at home in Clapham, when after the war he brings back his new bride with him, and she’s a German. Carol Douglas reviews it here.

Carol is an avid book reader, a long term member of the St Michael & All Angels Church book club and wife of the Book Festival Director Torin Douglas.

Carol’s Picks – The Co-Op’s Got Bananas

The Co-Op’s Got Bananas

Carol Douglas reviews Hunter Davies’ biography

July 2017

Hunter Davies OBE was one of the guests at the 2017 Chiswick Book Festival. Known as an author, journalist and broadcaster, he has written many books, including the only authorised biography of the Beatles. His latest is his memoir The Co-Op’s Got Bananas! Watch the video to see Carol Douglas’ review.

Carol is an avid book reader, a long term member of the St Michael & All Angels Church book club and wife of the Book Festival Director Torin Douglas.

150 years of Alice in Wonderland

150 years of Alice in Wonderland

Festival feature by Nick Raikes

September 2015

The Chiswick Book Festival celebrated 150 years since the publication of Alice in Wonderland in 2015, with an Alice Extravaganza for children.

Nick Raikes discovered that one of Chiswick’s residents had played a key role in rediscovering the long lost artwork for the Lewis Carroll book, that had been lost for many years.

Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) commissioned Sir John Tenniel to do the illustrations and paid for the first print run himself, so he was concerned to know what the publisher Macmillan had done with the original wooden blocks from which the illustrations were printed. He wrote to them asking them about it.

For decades the whereabouts of the wooden blocks was unknown, until they turned up in a bank vault in 1985. Chiswick resident Michael Wace was head of Children’s Books at Macmillan at the time of the discovery. Nick Raikes talked to him about it and asked him why he thought Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were still so popular.

Biography of American wartime spy Virginia Hall

A Woman of No Importance

Interview with Sonia Purnell by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

A Woman of no Importance is the story of Virginia Hall, an American spy who changed the course of World War II, whose story has never been told before. It reads like a thriller: ‘a suspenseful, heartbreaking and ultimately triumphant tale of heroism and sacrifice’. (BookPage) and has been very well reviewed.

its author Sonia Purnell has form in producing well researched, beautifully written historical memoirs. Her last book First Lady, on the life of Clementine Churchill, was chosen as a book of the year by The Telegraph and The Independent. Her first book, Just Boris, (about Boris Johnson) was longlisted for the Orwell prize. A Woman of no Importance is selling so fast it’s had two reprints in two days and Sonia, who lives in Shepherd’s Bush and has appeared at the Chiswick Book Festival, is currently promoting it on a book tour in the States.

“I’ve always been interested in spies” Sonia told me. “My father was a spycatcher, working in British counter-intelligence, so that world has always interested me”. She stumbled across Virginia Hall researching World War II spies on the internet and wondered why so little had been written about her. Glamorous, American, hugely successful and with the memorable feature of a wooden leg, she couldn’t work out why she Virginia seemed so elusive. She was without question a hero, who played a significant role in altering the course of the war. In 1942, the Gestapo made it a priority to track down the mysterious ‘limping lady’ who was fighting for the freedom of France. An urgent Gestapo transmission read: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”

As she dug deeper, Sonia realized that part of the reason Virginia Hall was not more celebrated was because after the war she went on to work for the CIA, so it suited her purpose to remain out of the public eye. But it was also that she didn’t conform to the romantic / tragic heroine stereotype, thinks Sonia. She was too good. “She didn’t conform to the feminine ideal” she says, “I’ve seen internal job appraisals from her former CIA bosses. Men tried to do her down because they saw her as a threat. Even her SOE controller during the war described her as ‘embarrassingly successful’.“

That Sonia should have read her internal CIA appraisals speaks volumes about the meticulous nature of her research. Virginia had “about 20 different code names” she says. She spent three years tracking down the story, spending time in the Resistance archives in Lyon and in Paris and America and getting to know Virginia’s family in Baltimore. She also discovered a historian of prosthetics at the Science Museum. It was an “epic detective operation” she says – “not easy”.

Photographs below – Virginia as a child with brother John and father Ned; Virginia and John as adults; Virginia as a young woman. She grew up on a farm and had an affinity with animals

Virginia became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines, despite the encumbrance of a wooden leg (she’d literally shot herself in the foot in a hunting accident in Turkey at the age of 27, and named her prosthetic limb affectionately ‘Cuthbert’). Working for the SOE – Special Operations Executive – she established vast spy networks throughout France, organized weapons drops and became a linchpin for the Resistance. When the Germans laid a trap and captured almost all the SOE operatives in southern France at one meeting,  she didn’t go. She managed to get all 12 out of prison in a spectacular jail break involving classic subterfuge such as hiding files in pots of jam.

Even as her face covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. Eventually her cover was blown and she escaped by hiking over the Pyrenees into Spain. “She couldn’t reveal she had a wooden leg” says Sonia, even though they were pushing through deep snow. “If they’d known she would have ended up in a ravine because they’d have thought she would slow them up”. Even after she escaped she plunged back in to the war in France, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a victorious guerilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the Nazis after D-Day.

A Woman of no Importance is available from Amazon and in all good bookshops – providing that is they’ve not sold out and are waiting on the next reprint.

Photographs below – ID papers from when she was posted to Tallin in the 1930s; steering a gondola in Venice; painting by Jeff Bass of Virginia transmitting messages from a farm in the Haute-Loire, July 1944; Virginia was the only civilian woman in the Second World War to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, for extraordinary heroism against the enemy. She received the medal in Washington, DC on 27 September 1945.

Read about Sonia’s previous books on Clementine Churchill and Boris Johnson here.

Terrorism linked to domestic violence

Domestic violence linked to terrorism

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

October 2019

Photograph above: Jess Phillips MP in the Chamber of the Houses of Parliament

Labour MP Jess Phillips says she’s had it explained to her in graphic detail what some angry men would like to do to her. She gets messages like this one: ‘Unless you change your attitude, be afraid, be very afraid… Wherever you are, keep looking over your shoulder … You and your Remain friends have been warned’ and messages which are much more explicit than that.

Paula Sherrif MP says she gets death threats ‘every single day’. ‘I’ve received death threats, I’ve received rape threats, I’ve been shouted at in the streets, I’ve had abusive phone calls’. 23 year old Neo-Nazi Jack Renshaw was recently jailed for life for making preparations to kill his local MP Rosie Cooper and a female police officer. He’d bought a 19 inch blade to slit the MP’s throat. As he was sentenced, one of his supporters in the public gallery said ‘we are with you, Jack’.

When Jo Cox was murdered she was shot and stabbed multiple times by a man with far right views. He believed people with liberal and left wing views were the cause of the world’s problems. He saw her as a ‘collaborator’ and a ‘traitor’ against white people. He used those exact words. Trigger words like ‘surrender’, ‘collaborator’, ‘betrayal’ are used by Boris Johnson and his coterie and repeated back by the perpetrators of hate crime. Jess was told she would be ‘dead in a ditch’ if she carried on expressing her views.

What part of this is ‘humbug’? This is not a bunch of hysterical women having a fit of the vapours over nothing. There is clearly a direct link between the use of inflammatory language by politicians and the upswing in violence particularly directed against left wing women.

Jess Phillips spoke at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival about this targeted violence against women. She was talking to Joan Smith, who has written a book about domestic abuse and terrorism. Her research shows that the perpetration of violence against their own families is a common trait among men who go on to become terrorists, yet it’s not something which has been considered to any great extent by those whose job it is to identify terrorist suspects and prevent acts of terrorism. What they both had to say about the extent to which violence against women is routinely ignored was shocking.

Photographs above: Jess Phillips MP, Joan Smith’s book Home Grown; Joan Smith

Terrorism starts in the home

What do the attacks in London Bridge, Manchester and Westminster have in common with those at the Charlie Hebdo offices, the Finsbury Park Mosque attack and multiple US shootings? They were all carried out by men with histories of domestic violence. Yet ‘terrorism is seen as a special category of crime that has blinded us to the obvious’ said journalist Joan Smith, author of the book Home Grown. Joan has done extensive research into the backgrounds of terrorists and says we should be looking for the obvious. The men who commit acts of terror don’t suddenly become violent overnight; they have a history of violence. That violence isn’t evident to police and intelligence officers because it’s hidden, or rather it’s overlooked. There are no red flags because violence committed within the home isn’t taken seriously. ‘The extraordinary link between so many tragic recent attacks is that the perpetrators have practised in private before their public outbursts’ she says.

From the Manchester bomber to the Charlie Hebdo attackers, from angry white men to the Bethnal Green girls, from US school shootings to the London gang members who joined ISIS, Joan Smith has shown that, ‘time and time again, misogyny, trauma and abuse lurk beneath the ‘justifications’ of religion or politics’. Now she says her work is being taken seriously and criminology departments at universities are asking for copies of her book. “The reaction has been ‘Oh, we’d better come and talk to you’” she told the audience at the Chiswick Book Festival. But before she pointed it out in 2017, criminal authorities routinely missed this connection, which should have been staring them in the face, because violence against women has become dangerously normalised.

Jess Phillips’ exposure to male violence is not a new thing. She told the audience at Chiswick Book Festival that she had worked for many years with Rape Crisis centres and every year on International Women’s Day she had taken to reading out all the names of women & girls murdered by men. “There’s been an outcry about knife crime, but no corresponding outcry against domestic violence against women. There’s a big action being taken by the Centre for Women’s justice at the moment because the incidence of cases being passed from police to CPS has fallen by 22% in the last year… Men get away with it and women give up reporting it”.

Case studies of domestic abusers-turned-terrorists

Joan’s book looks at a number of case studies. Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the man who drove a 19-tonne cargo truck into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice in July 2016, killing 86 people and injuring 458 others, “was a horrific abuser” said Joan. “Only after they (his family) had managed to get him out of the house did he take any interest in religion or jihad. He hadn’t been to a mosque until three weeks before”.

Darren Osborne, who killed Makram Ali and injured twelve others in the attempt to kill as many Muslims as he could by driving his van into them outside the mosque at Finsbury Park “hadn’t shown any interest in politics before he was thrown out of the family home in Cardiff”.

Jess’s conclusion: “the narcissistic wound of being thrown out of the family home causes them to take up a cause to continue to be violent”.  “A long tail of violence leads up to men becoming terrorists. They don’t just snap, any more then they do when they kill their wives. There’s usually been a reign of terror” said Joan.

Haron Monis, the Iranian-born refugee and Australian citizen. who took hostages in a siege at the Lindt Chocolate Café in Sydney in December 2014, was another example of the pattern, said Joan. He was a serial sex offender. He said he was acting for Islamic State, but the Iranian government told the Australian authorities he was a con man. “He’d been in Australia 15 years. They charged him with 43 counts of rape because they found his stash of videos where he’d filmed himself and he was still let out on bail”.

Salman Ramadan Abedi, the suicide bomber behind the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017 which killed 23 people and wounded 139 others, had previously punched a muslim woman unconscious because he thought the skirt she was wearing was too short. He had no criminal record for that; he was just given a ‘restorative justice’ sentence, where he had to sit down with his victim and talk about what he’d done – a reaction which is in any case not considered suitable by women’s groups for sex crimes.

Joining ISIS to have sex slaves

In interviews with returnees from Syria, Joan found that about half of them had become involved in ISIS because they’d wanted to own sex slaves. Elliot Roger, the 22-year-old Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured fourteen others at Isla Vista, near the campus of University of California, Santa Barbara considered himself “the perfect gentleman” said Jess. “He had a thing about blondes and couldn’t understand why he was still a virgin. He decided to take revenge because he couldn’t get a girlfriend”.

Jess has been on the receiving end of “huge long diatribes explaining exactly how they’re going to hurt and rape me” from men who disagree with her politics, so she’s very well aware of “a culture of grooming young angry men online”. Her conclusion, from long association with the violence of men, was that “victimhood of women is not seen as being unimportant. 177 women murdered in their homes last year. If there were 177 men murdered at football matches, football would be banned”.

Public policy implications

In terms of public policy, Joan, who sits as the independent chair of London crime reduction board, has suggested an offenders register for those who have been violent within the home. The response was that it would be impracticable because it would just be too long. Jess’s suggestion is for young men who have grown up in violent homes to be flagged up in the Prevent programme, designed to spot radicalised would-be terrorists early on. “We don’t want people being targeted unnecessarily, but can’t be squeamish about terrorism” she said.

It’s interesting that within two weeks of this discussion, our Prime Minister was dismissing the idea that the language of betrayal is linked to threats of violence against women MPs as ‘humbug’.

Home Grown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists is available in bookshops or online

Is Chiswick Britain’s most literary location?

Is Chiswick Britain’s most literary location?

Famous authors associated with Chiswick

Chiswick’s writers have created some of the country’s greatest works, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair to John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker.  Director of the Chiswick Book Festival Torin Douglas decided to see how many writers there were who had some association with Chiswick, for the tenth Chiswick Book festival in 2018.

The best-known include Alexander Pope (who lived next to the Brewery), WM Thackeray, WB Yeats, EM Forster, GK Chesterton, Harold Pinter, Dame Iris Murdoch, Anthony Burgess, Patrick Hamilton, John Osborne, Sir John Betjeman, Sir Arthur Pinero and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Chiswick Writers Trail

Torin has created a Writers Trail featuring 21 acclaimed novelists, poets and playwrights who have lived in Chiswick or written about the area. He produced a leaflet for the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival with brief description of each writer and their connection with Chiswick, including a map so you can walk round and find the places where they lived. You can download the leaflet here.

He borrowed the idea from the Artists Trail, created by Karen Liebreich and Sarah Cruz for the launch of the Chiswick Timeline mural under the railway bridge on Turnham Green Terrace. You can download the Artists Trail leaflet here.

Chiswick Timeline of Writers and Books

‘Everyone has a book in them and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.’

The line is attributed to the late journalist Christopher Hitchens, well known for his sardonic wit and devastating put downs, (though it may have been recycled from an earlier acerbic cynic). It’s an argument which cuts absolutely no ice in Chiswick, whose population, undeterred by such negativity, seems to think they all have a story to tell and the ability to tell it. That may be a slight exaggeration but there does seem to be a remarkable glut of authors in a relatively small area.

Torin embarked on the massive undertaking of finding all the authors who live or have lived in Chiswick who have ever published a book. At time of writing the list was upwards of 250, which prompted the Observer and Guardian to pose the question: Could Chiswick be the most literary location in Britain?

Image above: snapshot of the Timeline of Writers and Books ‘how it all began’ page from The Chiswick Book Festival website

The project which started in the Book Festival’s 10th year has grown beyond all expectation and become something of a labour of love. 

“When we started the Chiswick Book Festival, I wanted to celebrate the writers who have lived here, because I thought Chiswick’s record had been under-recognised” says Torin. “I knew there were distinguished writers with W4 connections, and famous residents who’d written their memoirs, as well as less well-known authors, poets and dramatists. But I never suspected we’d find 250 – or that so many of them would be quite so distinguished!”

See the Chiswick Book Festival Timeline of Writers and Books here.

Meeting authors who you’ve read for years

Meeting authors who you’ve read for years

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2018

Photographs above: Kate Mosse; Ann Cleeves

Kate Mosse and Ann Cleeves at the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival

The relationship between a writer and a reader is an intimate one. When you’ve been reading someone’s books over many years, enjoying them to the extent that you put your life on hold while you get to the end of one book and then look forward to the next, you feel you know them and to some extent you have ownership over their characters.

So it’s a bit of a risk going to see them live. They may not live up to expectations. You might not like them in the flesh or agree with what they say about their creations. It could be a huge let down.

But it wasn’t. I went to see historical novelist Kate Mosse (author of Labyrinth, Sepulchre, Citadel, The Winter Ghosts and The Taxidermist’s Daughter) and Ann Cleeves, the crime writer whose books are behind the TV drama series Shetland and Vera at the Chiswick Book Festival and they were lovely. They both just love writing and feel privileged to be successful enough to do just that. They were warm and funny and happy to share their characters with us. “Reading is an active process not a passive one” said Ann. Handing over a finished book to the public was “like handing a child over for adoption”. Once you’ve done that, you have no further say in their development; you just hope that others will care about them as you have done.

Read more about Kate Mosse and her latest book The Burning Chambers – in which she returns to Carcassonne and the French religious wars –  here.  It’s the first of four books in a family saga spanning 300 years.

You can read more about Ann Cleeves, the making of Vera and her last and final book in the Shetland series Wild Fire, published just two weeks before the 2018 festival here.

Vanity Fair – the Chiswick connection

Vanity Fair – the Chiswick connection

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2018

ITV production of Vanity Fair, pictures courtesy of ITV

Vanity Fair launches the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival

Vanity Fair was the theme of the opening night of the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival in the Burlington Pavilion at Chiswick House. ITV’s ‘sexed-up period drama’ (The Telegraph) had hit our screens two weeks earlier and it was a huge hit. The production had a great team behind it: the screenwriter was Gwyneth Hughes, (Dark Angel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood). The director was James Strong (Broadchurch, Doctor Who) and the production company was Mammoth Screen, who made Poldark.

The star-studded cast included Michael Palin, Frances de la Tour and Martin Clunes but the lead roles were all played by actors in their twenties: Olivia Cooke (then 24) played the heroine Becky Sharp, Tom Bateman (29) her husband Rawdon Crawley and Claudia Jessie (28) her best friend Amelia Sedley.

ITV production of Vanity Fair, pictures courtesy of ITV

The production was designed to appeal to today’s audience. ‘In the social-climbing Becky Sharp, it has a heroine in tune with today’s materialistic, self-obsessed world’ said the Daily Mail. “She would be so self-promoting and she would love social media,” Olivia Cook told The Telegraph. The soundtrack included Madonna’s Material Girl.

The Chiswick connection

Director of the Chiswick Book Festival Torin Douglas is very astute at picking up on current TV drama series to launch the festival at Chiswick House. In 2017 the theme was Jane Austen, with actor Imogen Stubbs. The year before it was Victoria. Queen Victoria we know visited Chiswick House, the Austen connection was a bit more tenuous but Vanity Fair is right on the button, as William Thackeray went to school in Chiswick and the book’s first chapter is set in Chiswick Mall.

Photographs above: Places in Old Chiswick associated with William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair  – Walpole House, Chiswick Square, and a plaque marking the garden where Thackeray describes Becky Sharp throwing the dictionary  

The launch evening, sold out with a waiting list two weeks earlier, featured writer Gwyneth Hughes and actor Claudia Jessie with Thackeray scholar Professor John Sutherland talking about Vanity Fair with Festival Director Torin Douglas. 

You can read more about the Chiswick Book Festival here and a profile of Director Torin Douglas here.

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

AN Wilson at the opening session of the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival at Chiswick House; Prince Albert: The Man Who saved the Monarchy book cover

AN Wilson is a prolific writer of biographies as well as the author of more than 20 works of fiction and a huge body of work as a journalist. He wrote Resolution, a fictional account of Captain James Cook’s second voyage, and Scandal about the Profumo affair, but the subjects of his biographies also include such towering literary figures as Leo Tolstoy, CS Lewis, Hilaire Belloc and John Betjeman and in the past few years he’s written highly acclaimed books on the Victorians and the Elizabethans. A more erudite speaker you could hardly find, but I’d no idea he was so witty.

In an hour-long talk at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival on his latest book Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, he made jokes about the Duke of Edinburgh, Boris Johnson, Sergeant Wilson, John Le Mesurier’s character in Dad’s Army and Tinkerbell, and held his audience effortlessly, with a disarming smile and a dry wit. Wilson argued that Prince Albert was worthy of a book in his own right ‘not just as a companion to my book on Victoria’. Albert was important, he said, ‘because we owe him’.

Developing the constitution

After the four Georges, the monarchy needed saving. Although Albert was very young when he came to England to marry his cousin, ‘he had a very clear idea what his function was going to be’. He’d studied at Bonn University (under the same tutor who later taught Karl Marx) and saw that the monarchy had to be woven into the developing parliamentary system if it was to survive. Queen Victoria didn’t have quite the same vision, but according to Wilson he kept her on track, developing the constitution as ‘a wonderful mix of the power of the executive and symbolism of the monarchy’, because he foresaw that the extension of franchise was inevitable.

I’m pleased that the portrayal of Victoria and Albert we’ve seen in the ITV series Victoria appears to have been accurate. Tom Hughes’ portrayal of Albert is exactly as AN Wilson describes him: a shy boy, who abhorred sexual promiscuity and impropriety and whose best friend throughout his life was his brother, but also an intelligent man who had a vision for the monarchy and for this country.

Cultural debt

Wilson told the audience at the opening night of the Book Festival in the Burlington Pavilion at Chiswick House, that we also owed a great cultural debt to the Prince Consort. He was a patron of the arts and a patron of music. The V&A was originally proposed as just the ‘Albert museum’. We have the Royal Albert Hall because he encouraged the building of symphony halls and we have one of the greatest scientific centres in the world, Imperial College, because he understood the value of modern science. It was because he was voted Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University that science was introduced as an area of study. Once Cambridge deemed science worthy of admission to the curriculum, other universities followed suit. Prince Albert was genuinely interested in how machinery worked – he could have been an engineer or a scientist – and he was also mad about photography. One of the early photographs to be on sale to the public was a photograph he took of the royal family at Osborne House.

Wilson told the audience that Victoria and Albert became personally very rich from the Duchy of Lancaster – from the development of the spa town of Harrogate and the docks on Merseyside, and their ownership of agricultural land in Wales whose coalfields powered the industrial revolution. But Albert was a compassionate Prince; he travelled around the country a lot and met people who worked in factories and mills and schools. As a result, he realised that the working-class lived in squalor and he pioneered model cottages in Kennington with sanitation, flushing toilets and living room – unheard of in the houses of the working class.

The mention of John Le Mesurier’s character in Dad’s Army was with reference to his situation vis-à-vis Ian Lavender’s character Private Pike. The youngest member of Warmington On Sea’s Home Guard called Sergeant Wilson ‘Uncle Frank’, though it was clear to the audience that he was far more likely to have been his son. Such quite possibly was the relationship between Albert and his Uncle Leopold, though his paternity was never proven.
The reference to the Duke of Edinbugh was pure name dropping. They met at a function while Wilson was writing the book. The Duke exclaimed ‘not another bloody book about Prince Albert’ and told him that as Albert had only lived a short life, so it only needed to be a short book.

Did you know?

Prince Albert visited Chiswick in June 1844. He was here to attend a banquet for Tsar Nicholas I of Russia at Chiswick House, hosted by the 6th Duke of Devonshire. Also there were the King of Saxony and around 700 members of the principal noble families in the country. It was described as ‘one of the most splendid fetes ever given in this country’.

Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment

Paul Conroy – Under the Wire: Marie Colvin’s Final Assignment

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Photograph above: Paul Conroy talking to Julia Wheeler in the Andrew Lloyd Webber theatre at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival

Paul Conroy’s hilarious. He’s talking about death and destruction in the war zones of the couple of last decades, so it shouldn’t be that funny really, but he has the Liverpool scally’s natural ability to tell stories, and he has some corkers.

He met Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin when they were holed up in a decrepit hotel on the border of Syria and Iraq with about 40 other members of the international press, all trying to get across the Tigris to report the war in Iraq. There was a boat operated by Syrian secret police which went over once a day. Once a day they all trooped to the office of the police, were offered tea, refused passage and they all trooped back again. After a few days Paul got fed up with this. He decided to build a boat, sent his driver off to buy inner tubes for lorry tyres and fashioned some sort of inflatable craft from tyres and ropes. They set off after dark. He’d given the driver money to bribe the border guards, but still, as he was pumping up his makeshift craft with a couple of others, they came under volley of fire. They were captured, had bags put over their heads, and were led to believe that they’d be shot. They thought they’d had it, until one of the guards asked him where he was from. “Liverpool”. “Ah Steven Gerrard” said the guard, excitedly. They started chatting about football, as you do. The bag came off. ‘“Any chance we could have the bags taken off us?” my two colleagues asked after about half an hour. “Nah, you’re all right.”’

They were let out, but when he got back to the hotel he was given the cold shoulder by the rest of the press pack, for making their chances of getting on the boat that nigh on impossible. So he drank alone at the other end of the bar, until Marie Colvin strode in, demanding “who’s the boat man and where is he?” “That would be me” he said. “I like your style” she replied. She bought him a whisky and it was the start of a beautiful relationship which took them to Libya, and ultimately to the war in Syria, where she was killed and he was injured.

Our job is to get the story out

Marie was famous for her fearless reporting from some of the worst situations in war zones – and for wearing a black eye patch because she’d lost an eye covering the civil war in Sri Lanka (she wore a diamante eye patch to parties). They shared a belief that it was their job to get the story out, no matter what. “She called me boatman till the day she died. It was very hard to hook her up with any other photographer. One found her scarier than the war. One she didn’t like because he was too ‘metrosexual’. He probably combed his hair or something”. How did Sunday Times deal with that? “She was a bit of a nightmare to manage”. While his exchanges with the Sunday Times picture desk in London were brief, she argued for hours with editors, persuading them that as she was on the ground, she knew best what the story was.

In Libya Paul took the famous photograph of Ghaddafi after he was killed. “We the got a call from London to say they wanted a picture of his unmarked grave. What part of ‘unmarked’ did they not get?”. Despite being given directions by her excellent contacts, it took them three days of wandering about before they found it because, he said, “Marie had a terrible sense of direction”.

Paul told the audience at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival that he was slightly shielded from the horrors they saw, being behind a camera lens: “You’re constantly seeing traumatic stuff, but the camera is a bit of a barrier. You’re concentrating on the light, on technical stuff. Whereas I was standing back, she was completely immersed in it, looking into their eyes as they told their story. If people are going to tell you their story you have a responsibility to tell it well”.

An incredible sense of humour

She dealt with the trauma she’d witnessed with humour. “She had an incredible sense of humour, but dark”. They both coped badly with being at home between trips. “People say ‘how was it?’ but what do you tell them? How much do you tell them? How much do they really want to know?” They couldn’t quite reconcile themselves to the fact that people around them were bothered about such things as car tax, so they got back to war zones as quickly as possible. They went to Syria once Arab Spring had spread across the region. “The Syrian army said any journalists found near Homs were to be executed and bodies thrown on the battlefield”. That was enough to put most foreign correspondents off. Marie and Paul found themselves a guide to take them in.

“We had to walk through minefield, sneaking past an army checkpoint 50 yards away. We could hear them talking. We were following the guide’s white trainers. I had hold of Marie because she had a tendency to veer off to the left as she just had the one eye”.

Journey into Homs

Their journey to Homs was made by motorbike and in the back of trucks. Finally they had to walk the last three kilometres through storm drain, bent double. “Coming out the other end into Homs was like walking into hell. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it”. There was a small, civilian neighbourhood being demolished by huge firepower. “There was no fighting, just slaughter. There were a few rifles against this massive artillery. At the field clinic there were bodies stacked up, blood everywhere”. Paul took pictures of Marie with hundreds of women and children, widows in a basement trying to find shelter from the almost constant bombardment. “That was probably the best piece she ever wrote. It was Mediaeval slaughter and her piece conveyed the horror”. The photograph in the basement was the last one he ever took of her, and one which he said greatly annoyed the Syrian government.

“The Free Syrian army was getting intelligence that Assad’s ground forces were coming”. They went back through the tunnel and filed their story. The army didn’t invade then, and the Sunday Times told them under no circumstances were they to go back in. So they switched off their phones and went back through the tunnel. “All the people who had helped us to get in the first time were dead”. They realised the situation had deteriorated so much that if they waited till Friday to make their despatch to the Sunday Times it would be too late, so Marie did a broadcast for the BBC by sat phone. She did three broadcasts in all, knowing that it would attract fire.

Their last night before she was killed “we were like kids at a sleepover”. She thought she was going deaf. He shone a torch into her ear and fished out the rubber cover off an earphone which had been wedged in her ear. They couldn’t sleep for giggling. “Every time one of us began to doze off, the other one started up again”. They got up later than planned next morning and left at 6.30am rather than 5.30am. As the rockets began landing on either side of them, he realised the operator was finding the target, as they were getting nearer. Marie was killed instantly with French photographer Remi Ochlik. Paul was injured. He would have bled out from a gaping hole in his leg, had he not made a tourniquet from an ethernet cable.

His book Under the Wire came out in 2018 and is now available in paperback.

The Art of the Thriller

Peter Hanington & Alan Judd: The Art of the Thriller

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Photograph above: Left Julian Worricker; Centre Alan Judd; Right Peter Hanington

Broadcaster and journalist Julian Worricker discussed the art of writing thrillers at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival with one veteran and one fairly new writer of the genre: Alan Judd, (real name Alan Petty) and Peter Hanington. Alan is a former soldier and diplomat who writes both fiction and non-fiction, with ten previous thrillers under his belt. Peter worked as a journalist for over twenty-five years, most recently at The World Tonight and Newshour on the BBC World Service. He has one previous novel to his credit: A Dying Breed.

Spoiler alert

Julian Worricker, who broadcasts on the BBC’s News Channel and on Radio 4, used to present the Breakfast show with Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live. Discussing the release of the film Titanic, they had been careful not to let slip what happened to Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters, he told the audience at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival. He did however say that the Titanic had sunk, and received an angry email from a listener greatly irritated that he’d given away the end of the film!

Mindful of that, he was careful not to give too much away about the plot of either book, but rather focused on strategies for writing a thriller. Alan said he always set out with a beginning, an end and a ten point plan, so he knew how he wanted to finish but he didn’t necessarily stick to the route he’d planned to get there. Peter on the other hand is a writer who develops the plot as he goes along. Interestingly both said they’d had whole chapters ruthlessly chopped by their editor. In Alan’s case, his first editor told him he didn’t need the last chapter of his first book. “As she said it, I knew she was right” he said. Peter’s editor “tends to remove the first two or three chapters”. A thriller is like an engine. It has to motor on.

Both authors have read a lot of thrillers themselves. Alan reminded the audience that Raymond Chandler famously said that if you were stuck as to how to develop the plot, just have a character come in to the room with a gun in his hand.

Photographs above: Alan Judd; Accidental Agent book cover

The importance of speaking with an authentic voice

They both also have a perfect background for writing thrillers. Alan had served with the British army in Northern Ireland, so his chief character, Charles Thoroughgood was introduced in his first novel A Breed of Heroes, as an army officer in Northern Ireland. You can write a perfectly plausible story, he said, as long as people don’t know the circumstances in which your story is set. He worried about his peers in the army and later in the diplomatic service finding his plots plausible. Authenticity is important and it is appreciated.

British historian Peter Hennessy described A Breed of Heroes as ‘one of the best spy novels ever’. Alan brought back his character twenty years later, by which time he had graduated to the diplomatic service. The problem he’d found with his most recent novel Accidental Agent, was that he’d painted himself into a corner by promoting Thoroughgood to the head of MI6. “The trouble with the head of MI6 is that they just go to meetings all the time. They don’t have assignations in back streets”.

Photographs above: Peter Hanington; A Single Source book cover

Peter’s character William Carver is the ‘dying breed’ referred to in the title of his first book. An old hack who is set in his ways, cannot be doing with meetings, BBC bureaucracy or internal politics, and cares only about the story. He’s grumpy, he’s difficult, does not suffer fools gladly and is a damn good journalist. Peter was a senior editor on the Today programme and had ample opportunity to work with such reporters. “I used to ride the tube home after a 12 hour shift and fill notebooks full of jottings” he said. He took aspects of character and experience from a pool of journalists. I interviewed Peter about his first book at the 2016 Chiswick Book Festival. You can watch the interview here.

His second book A Single Souce has chapters set in Eritrea and in Egypt during the rise of the Arab Spring. Kevin Connolly told him he had to use an inhaler when reporting on the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo, as tear gas brought on his asthma. The Eritrean part of the story has to do with “one of the greatest moral crises of our time”, said Peter, the movement of people as refugees and their treatment as they crossed borders. He and his wife have hosted three Syrians and a Ugandan for the charity Refugees at Home. Eritrean refugees had told him first hand accounts of the conditions they had risked hazardous journeys to escape.

Photographs above: Julian Worricker; Alan Judd; Peter Hanington

A sense of place

Physical locations  are hugely important, they both agreed. You have to describe them correctly if they are to be recognisable. If you manage that, you can set the scene and create the atmosphere you want for your characters to be at home in and your plot to develop. Georges Simenon once started a story with a man on a barge coming on deck in the early morning and lighting up a cigarette. “He had you right there” said Alan.

Language can get in the way of creating the atmosphere you want. Asked if he’d had any disagreements with his editor, Peter said he’s been determined to keep in the description of a fountain ‘plashing’ instead of ‘splashing’. His editor had been right, he admitted, that such poncy use of language made the reader aware of the writing and distracted from the creation of the scene. An editor’s job is to ‘kill your darlings’ – a phrase attributed to William Faulkner. Or as Peter put it “an editor’s job is to tell you to get over yourself”.

Inspiration to write

Peter grew up in Chiswick and went to Chiswick School. When asked what inspired him to write, he said: “my English teachers at school”.

Success

What does success look like? Why do they write? Lee Child apparently sells a book every nine seconds; that’s certainly one incentive. “I’d be happy with one every nine months” said Peter. “It would be nice to have a better bank balance” said Alan, but mostly what he hopes for is respect for his work, or appreciation. “I’m trying to make sense of the world” he said.

“It’s amazing when someone says they like one of my phrases” said Peter. Alan read out one of Peter’s descriptions, of a man with spiky black hair, gelled so he looked like ‘an oil stricken sea bird’. If someone praises his syntax Peter said, “it’s like someone has paid a compliment to one of your children”.

“Better” said Alan.

Who organises the Chiswick Book Festival?

Who organises the Chiswick Book Festival?

Organising a book festival is a phenominal amount of work. There are many volunteers to give their labour to ensure the smooth running of the festival each year but there are two people who bear the responsibility for organising it all.

Torin Douglas is the Director

Douglas was the BBC’s media correspondent for 24 years and has reported on media issues for over 40 years. He left the BBC in 2013 and now speaks, writes and chairs events for a range of media, arts and academic organisations.

Since he left the BBC he has been able to put more time and energy into directing the Chiswick Book Festival, but his involvement in arts and community events in Chiswick goes way back before he ‘retired’. He has been organising and promoting the Chiswick Book Festival, the Bedford Park Festival and events at Chiswick House, St Michael & All Angels Church, the Arts Educational Schools, the Tabard Theatre, and Chiswick Library for years. In recognition of this work he was awarded the MBE in 2013 for ‘services to the community’ in Chiswick.

Torin has lived here with his family for more than 30 years and now dedicates most of his time to raising money for charities and churches by bringing together performers, writers, arts lovers, local businesses and volunteers to enhance the social and cultural life of Chiswick. Read a full profile of Torin here.

Jo James is the Author Programme Director

Jo James has been in the book trade for more than 25 years, firstly as a bookseller and bookshop manager of an award-winning independent, and then managing the events for the bookshop chains Ottakar’s and Waterstones. She has created and produced events with speakers ranging from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, to David Beckham, JK Rowling, Sir David Attenborough, Michael Palin, David Walliams and Jacqueline Wilson.

Jo also helps to run and programme a number of festivals, including the Times & Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, The Stratford Book Festival, the Stanfords Travel Writers Festival (part of the Destinations Show at Olympia), Live at the Hive (an arts festival in Worcester), the Cheltenham Science Festival and the Oxford Science Festival. Jo is also the Author Programme Director of the Chiswick Book Festival – 2020 will be her fifth year in the job.

Although now living in Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire, Jo has strong family ties to Chiswick and the surrounds, “My parents had their first home together in Chiswick, and I spent six happy years living here whilst working for Waterstones. It’s such a lovely area, with so much going on. I love it, and look forward to my regular visits.”

Chiswick Garden ‘most important in UK’

Chiswick Garden ‘most important in UK’

Images above: Dutch Codlin apple 1820 painted by William Hooker, grown at Chiswick by Robert Thompson; Hoya pottsii brought back from China by the Socety’s plant collector John Potts; Penstemon ovatum

Royal Horticultural Society Garden

Chiswick was once the home of ‘the most important garden in Britain’ according to Fiona Davison, Head of Libraries and Exhibitions for the RHS.

In the 19th century the Horticultural Society (before it became the Royal Horticultural Society) chose Chiswick to be their nursery, to which they brought exotic plants from all over the Empire and worked out how they could thrive in our climate. ‘They scoured all of London’ she told an audience at the Chiswick Book Festival in 2019, ‘and chose Chiswick because it has the most fantastically fertile soil.’ The area had been a centre for market gardening for centuries for the same reason, ‘so residents of Chiswick really have no excuse not to have lovely gardens’ said Fiona.

Images above: Jospeh Paxton 1853; Plan of the arboretum at Chiswick 1826

The Hidden Horticulturalists

Her fascinating book The Hidden Horticulturalists, The Untold Story of the Men who Shaped Britain’s Gardens tells the tale of the working class young men who applied to work at the Horticultural Society’s garden in Chiswick, based on hand written notes she found in a book in the RHS library.

Among them was Joseph Paxton, who was in his early twenties when he met the Duke of Devonshire, whose land adjoined that of the Horticultural Society. So thoroughly did he charm the Duke that he offered him a job on the spot, as head gardener at Chatsworth. That was the start of a rags to riches career. He designed Crystal Palace and through his association with Prince Albert over the Great Exhibition, made connections which enabled him to end his life as a millionaire and an MP.

‘This little patch, 30 acres in Chiswick, was the most important place in the world for gardening. The East India company sent people off to get new samples and gardeners in Chiswick had to work out whether they were able to grow here’.

Images above: Rhododendron dalhousiae brought back from Himalayas by Joseph Dalton Hooker; Pink Quilled Chrysanthemum, collected in China by John Reeves; A yellow calceolaria and a rose illustration from The Horticultural Magazine 1837

Chrysanthemums from China caused tremendous excitement when they realised they could get them to grow, and also Chinese roses, which flowered for much longer than native Western European ones (of which Dog roses are a good example).

‘We should be very proud of the gardeners and what they achieved’ she says. They developed the technology for making glass houses too, ‘though they fried a lot of plants by accident’ in the process, she says.

The Hidden Horticulturalists is available in hardback in book shops and online. Thanks to the RHS for permission to reproduce the images.

Image below: Cartoon showing the rain-soaked flower show at Chiswick Garden in 1828

W B Yeats Nobel prize winning poet

W B Yeats, Nobel prize winning poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature

Profile by Lucinda MacPherson

January 2019

Chiswick-based Irish poet, Cahal Dallat, is a man with a mission: to remind Chiswick, in a tangible and permanent fashion, of its major role in the history of English Literature in fostering the poetic/dramatic genius of early Bedford Park resident WB Yeats, the only poet writing in English and brought up in Great Britain to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Yeats died 80 years ago ( January 28th 1939) and while his place as one of our most popular poets has never been more assured (his poems When You Are Old, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, The Lake Isle of Innisfree and Easter 1916 always feature in ‘best-loved’ lists) his standing as theatrical innovator and founder of a national theatre, and his reputation as a Modernist poet, a political poet, and a visionary, has increased exponentially in international academic circles over those eight decades.

A number of Yeats favourites were actually written in his Bedford Park years. Though born in Dublin he spent two-thirds of his first three decades in London, the majority of that time at two addresses in Woodstock Road and Blenheim Road.

And his interest in drama began with amateur dramatics in the Bedford Park Club (now the London Buddhist Vihara) and became a reality with his first West-End-staged play, Land of Heart’s Desire, written as a favour for actress Florence Farr, a Bedford Park neighbour.

Most Yeatsian academics and biographers are aware the Yeatses lived in Bedford Park, variously described as the first garden suburb or that Bohemian artists’ colony: but most concentrate on his Irish background and his interest in the landscape, legends and lore of his mother’s native County Sligo, side-lining the significance of Bedford Park in the development of this major international literary figure.

That’s something that Cahal’s WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project will put right, he says. Known to BBC Radio 4 audiences for his regular Saturday Review contributions, to the literary world as a critic, poet, and resident musician at London’s famous Troubadour Earls Court Coffee-House #poetrymondays organised by his wife, poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, (a former chair of the nationwide Poetry Society and both of them also well-known for their jointly-hosted Bedford Park Festival Poetry Nights) Cahal has explored, and expounded on, the impact on Yeats of Bedford Park’s aesthetic, avant-garde and occasionally anarchist attitudes, at academic and literary conferences, festivals, universities and colleges all over Britain, Ireland and the USA over many years. It’s a story of Chiswick influences and interconnections that he also re-tells regularly on foot, on what Yeats described as London’s pavements grey around the many Bedford Park, Chiswick and Hammersmith locations that played a major part in the poet’s early poems.

But Cahal does admit to a personal angle: most people discover Yeats at school, he says, but Cahal had already grown up with the poems and songs before realising they belonged to the world of the A-level syllabus. His maternal grandfather, like Yeats’s, was from Ballisodare in County Sligo, and when Cahal and Anne-Marie first visited London after a Paris trip, it was to call on Glens of Antrim friends who were, as it happens, cousins of Yeats’s famous love-rival Major John McBride, who married the beautiful Maud Gonne who had troubled Yeats’s heart since their first meeting in Bedford Park in 1888.

As Irish writers choosing to bring up their family in London, Cahal says, he and Anne-Marie can understand why Yeats’s painter father, John Butler Yeats, wanted to be at the cultural centre of things. Hence his move to Bedford Park where, with the development of the new Turnham Green District Line Station allowing him to pop into the West End or Westminster to paint portraits of actors and aristocrats, his young Irish family could enjoy a healthy pastoral atmosphere, walks by the river and, in the case of the young Willie Yeats, when he wasn’t walking to Godolphin (then a boys’ school) in Hammersmith, the chance to play at cowboys or pirates among the foundations and half-built houses of the world’s first garden suburb, or simply to dream in winding, leafy avenues.

What John Butler Yeats can’t have imagined is quite how much this new speculative housing development (dreamt up by Dublin-born Jonathan Carr) would influence his growing sons, Jack, who became Ireland’s leading twentieth-century painter and Willie, for whom Chiswick’s incredible cultural diversity (Indian gurus, Russian anarchists, German socialists, American Utopian philosophers, Scottish story-tellers, Icelandic folklorists…) and his father’s well-placed Bedford Park friends (including, poetry publishers, newspaper editors, engravers, actors, set-designers, playwrights, translators, and political thinkers) would foster his early poetic ambitions.

It’s a complex, fascinating, multi-faceted story, Cahal admits, and in his two-and-a-half-hour walks, from Hammersmith by way of William Morris’s house and Old Chiswick Churchyard to the winding avenues, artists’ studios and Queen Anne architecture of Bedford Park, he can only sketch the many fertile interconnections and relationships in what was the hub of an dazzling nineteenth-century social network with amazing implications for twentieth-century politics and art.

A multi-faceted project too, as the story, and the proposed artwork, aren’t simply about acknowledging Yeats’s genius or celebrating Bedford Park’s pride in the progressive and aesthetic ideas and aspirations that fostered that genius, but about recognising, for example, how a supportive community can bring out the creative best, especially in the young; how well planned neighbourhoods – even trendy, speculative nineteenth-century housing developments – allow individuals to achieve their full potential; how migrants like the Yeatses have found in cities, in multi-cultural London in particular, not just economic opportunity but the cultural networks that have allowed them to enhance the host culture – London’s creativity being a microcosm of world culture – and to give something back to their own culture as Yeats’s poetry and drama, flourishing in a West London garden suburb, sparked a major cultural revival in Ireland, a key part of his home country’s growth to political independence in the twentieth century.

Not least among the artwork’s aims is to suggest to tomorrow’s schoolkids and college students, heading from their Bedford Park or Chiswick homes to tube station or bus stop en route to school, that like one young local schoolkid 140 years ago, they might dream of becoming an artist, a writer, a poet, might even win a Nobel Prize and be remembered as Yeats will now be, properly remembered!

With a committee of Bedford Park residents including Chiswick Book Festival Director, Torin Douglas, St Michael and All Angels Vicar, Fr Kevin Morris, councillor Gerald McGregor and author Polly Devlin, together with academic Matthew Fay whose great-grandfather, actor Frank Fay co-founded the world-famous Abbey Theatre with Yeats, and with patrons including Rowan Williams, poet and former archbishop, Chiswick journalist Fergal Keane, actor Ciarán Hinds, Marie Heaney, poet Eavan Boland and Sligo’s Yeats Society Honorary President, Martin Enright, the WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project has already begun receiving donations and commitments from a number of organisations, and can be contacted via info@wbyeatsbedfordpark.com.

The committee have spent recent months looking at potential artwork locations at the entrance to Bedford Park, viewing recent public art in Britain and Ireland, especially examples associated with literary figures and major heritage sites as Bedford Park certainly is, and discussing with likely artists how the complex synergies and synchronicities of Nobel-Prize-winning WB Yeats’s Bedford Park life might be expressed visually. So watch this space!

[Line-up for November’s lecture, On the Pavements Grey: WB Yeats in Utopian Bedford Park, the official launch of the WB Yeats Bedford Park Artwork Project, hosted by the Embassy of Ireland in Grosvenor Place and sponsored by the Irish Literary Society (estd. 1892, in the Yeatses’ Blenheim Rd, Bedford Park home, and still going strong!)

From left, lecturer, project founder/organiser, and local Chiswick poet/musician, Cahal Dallat; with his wife, poet Anne-Marie Fyfe, who read excerpts from Yeats’s letters and autobiography; actor Ciarán Hinds (centre, fresh from his National Theatre run in Brian Friel’s Translations but also well-known to Game of Thrones fans) who gave moving and impassioned readings of some great Yeats poems; Irish Literary Society chair, Shevaun Wilder; and Ireland’s Ambassador to Great Britain, Adrian O’Neill, who hosted the lecture, launch and reception after having taken the annual WB Yeats Bedford Park Walk last summer with Cahal and having become, along with a number of Chiswick and Bedford Park organisations, as well as poets, artists, actors, historians, politicians, writers and academics, a keen supporter of the project.

The poet WB Yeats was the subject of a session at the 2019 Chiswick Book festival, to mark the 80th anniversary of his death.

Ann Cleeves – author of Vera & Shetland books

Ann Cleeves – author of Vera & Shetland books

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2018

Where books and TV series meet

When you start reading Ann Cleeves’ latest book Wild Fire it’s slightly discombobulating. Cassie, step-daughter of the main character, detective Jimmy Perez, is still a child. In the TV series Shetland, developed from Ann’s books, Cassie has already been to university in Glasgow, dropped out and has come back to Shetland to figure out what to do with her life.

Does it bother her that her characters have been taken from her? Not a bit of it she told her audience at the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival. “It’s lovely for me that Jimmy Perez can continue without me having to write him.” The TV crew are now filming series five and only the first two series were taken directly from her books. Her character Jimmy has ‘wild black hair and a hooked nose’ which couldn’t be more different from the sandy haired actor Dougie Henshall who plays him. She says “I feel the books don’t belong to me once they’ve gone out into the world”. She sees reading as an active process not a passive one and feels that handing over a finished book to the public is “like handing a child over for adoption”. Once you’ve done that, you have no further say in their development; you just hope that others will care about them as you have done. The directors and writers of the TV series “might consult you but they don’t take any notice” she says, and she genuinely seems not to mind even though in one of the Shetland episodes they even changed who did the murder.

Ann has sold some five million books around the world which have been translated in to 30 languages. She is credited with increasing tourism to Shetland by more than 40% and also for bringing tourists to Northumberland, where another of her heroes turned TV stars, Vera is set. Both Shetland and Vera appear in the top ten best British dramas in a recent Radio Times poll.

Her success has been a long time in coming. She has published 32 books in 32 years and most of the time she says she “just bumped across the accountant’s line”, just enough for the publisher to commit to publishing the next one. For most of her career she’s also had another job, so she doesn’t hold with writing being hard work. “I worked in the probation service in Liverpool. That was hard work” she says “sitting at my kitchen table in my pyjamas making stuff up is pure joy.” Her breakthrough novel was Raven Black, the first of the Shetland series, which won her the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger, regarded as the Oscars of crime writing. But she says she wouldn’t achieve such success if she were starting out now. “The publishing world is much more ruthless” she says. If you don’t succeed straight away you’re branded a failure and you don’t get a second chance.

Love of Shetland

She first went to Shetland 40 years ago. She had dropped out of university and was looking for something to do when a chance meeting in a pub in south London led to a job as a chef on Fair Isle. Despite the thirteen hour journey by ferry from Aberdeen (apparently even the crew themselves are regularly sea sick) and her lack of culinary skills, she survived the experience, made friends and has gone back each year ever since. She arrived in spring when the wild flowers were out, there were birds wheeling in the up-drafts by the cliffs, the whole community turned out to meet the mail boat and she just fell in love with the place. When she met her husband and they lived together in Northumberland he had no objection to visiting the islands as he was a keen bird watcher. She herself is not. “In my first book I killed off a bird watcher” she says with feeling. The weather can be a problem. When she went there recently with the Swedish crime writer Arne Dahl he opened the car door in ‘a bit of a breeze’ and the door just blew right off.

Some of her characters would definitely be considered odd balls. One she remembers fondly, a great fiddle player who lived on his own in a croft on Fair Isle, never married and was fond of a dram, has found his way into the character Magnus. “I think we need to be a bit more open minded and open hearted about people who are a bit different” she says. When she first went there it was at the time that the oil industry was being established and there were islanders who’d never been anywhere else meeting incomers from all over the world, with plenty of potential for drama. Ironic now to think that Raven Black was going to be a stand-alone novel because her editor thought it would stretch credibility to have more than one murder in such a small place. (Had she never heard of Midsummer Murders?!) She created Jimmy with his dark good looks because she wanted a central character who was a Fair Islander who wasn’t. Jimmy had been away and come back and that marked him out as different.

Thanks to a charity shop in Crouch End

Her career picked up when TV producer Elaine Collins found one of the Vera books in an Oxfam shop in Crouch End. She was looking for something to read on holiday and ITV were looking for something a bit different, with a female lead, to replace Frost. Vera Stanhope, played by Brenda Blethyn, is a Geordie DCI who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. On first introduction Vera is described as bursting in, looking more like a bag lady than a senior policewoman. “She’s based partly on my daughter’s French teacher … I grew up in a small town post war where there were some formidable spinsters – teachers, hospital matrons, competent women who didn’t care what they looked like.” On first read through she says Brenda got half way through the script thinking she wasn’t in it. “I thought I was supposed to be the star!” Ann says Brenda now owns the part so much that “I hear her voice when I’m writing… what she does beautifully is those witty put downs… Her accent wasn’t quite right at the beginning but it’s very sharp now.” Ann gets invited to the wrap parties and the two have become good friends.

Ann thinks we’re in a new golden age of crime writing . There are younger people coming through and we’re being influenced by translated fiction. “Emma Flint in Little Deaths does stuff in crime which I wouldn’t have thought possible”. Ann is now working on a new series with a detective based in north Devon, which is where she grew up. Her father was the village school teacher, which she says imposed on her a certain detachment. She describes the area around Ilfracombe as “another marginalised community,” a transient community which people come to in order to work in the big hotels or where old hippies have developed communities around art and music. So we have this to look forward to, and more episodes of Shetland and more from Vera.

Ann Cleeves, thank you so much!

anncleeves.com

Richard Briers CBE actor

Richard Briers CBE actor

Biography by James Hogg reviewed by Bridget Osborne

July 2019

Photographs above: Richard Briers; More Than Just a Good Life cover; The Good Life BBC photo

The actor Richard Briers CBE lived in Chiswick for about 50 years. He died in 2013. He had become something of a ‘National Treasure’ through his role as Tom in The Good Life with Felicity Kendal, Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington in the 1970s. Less well known now is the fact that he was also very much identified with the early success of Alan Ayckbourn’s plays around the same time or that he went on to play major Shakespearean roles, making no fewer than eight films with Kenneth Brannagh.

In More Than Just a Good Life, his biographer James Hogg quotes many of the people he worked with as well as his daughters Katy and Lucy. The actors who shared their memories of him read like a Who’s Who of British film, television and theatre. James writes The Good Life was the pinnacle of a 60 year career and ‘sits atop a mountain of roles that represent one of the most productive and varied careers in British entertainment history’.

The 2019 Chiswick Book Festival celebrated the life of one of Bedford Park’s favourite residents with biographer James Hogg, Lucy Briers and and Ever  Decreasing Circles co-star and friend Peter Egan.

Early life

Richard Briers grew up in Wimbledon during the war. His mother served as an ARP warden and his father worked on ambulances. School didn’t interest Richard. He became a ‘junior spiv’ according to his younger daughter Lucy, selling sweets to other kids at school. He himself once said that he might have become a real life Arthur Daley is he hadn’t discovered acting. He loved PG Wodehouse, Danny Kaye and the Victorian actor-manager Sir Henry Irving. He read PG Wodehouse, impersonated Danny Kaye and studied Sir Henry Irving and by the age of 15 had become obsessed with Shakespeare.

His first job, as a clerk in an electrical company bored him to tears. He kept his spirits up by acting in an amateur dramatic society, and joined another group when he was stationed at RAF Northwood for National Service. It was his cousin, the comic actor Terry Thomas, who persuaded him he should try for drama school. He applied to RADA and auditioned the same day as Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole, who both got much higher marks than him. He reckoned it all came naturally to them whereas he had to work much harder. Alan Bates and Peter Bowles were also contemporaries. Peter Bowles (who became a really good friend) remembered he was really bad at accents, which was one of the reasons he specialised in playing ‘rather nervy, up-beat middle class types’. He won a prize for diction and was known for the speed and precision of his delivery. His daughter Lucy (now an actress herself) thinks his nerves might have helped him – ‘no one could match dad for speed and clarity’.

His first acting job was ‘in rep’ at the Liverpool Repertory theatre, where he met his wife Annie, though on first impressions she thought he was gay. She was the assistant stage manager at the theatre, earning more than he was at that stage. Richard played all sorts of parts ‘you learn so much doing rep. It’s the variety’ and it was where he honed his craft.

His breakthrough came when director Harold French gave him the lead role in There’s Something About a Sailor in 1957. After that, offers came flooding in for West End roles. Not long after, Frank Muir and Denis Norden cast him in Brothers In Law for television – 13 episodes with an audience of 16 or 17 million (nearly half the population) in the days when there were only two channels. Denis Norden told James Hogg: ‘TV was a very placid medium. It needed energy. Anybody who brought energy to the screen immediately stood out’.

That led to a show called Marriage Lines, written specially for him – ‘a pre-cursor to just about every British middle class sitcom there has ever been’. It captured the public’s imagination in the early ‘60s and in it he played opposite Prunella Scales (best known later as Basil Fawlty’s shrewish wife in Fawlty Towers).

Photographs above: pages from More Than Just a Good Life

‘I enjoy being recognised’

By 1963, when their first daughter Katy was born, Richard and Annie were living at 16 Pleydell Avenue in Stamford Brook. By now Richard was earning enough money to buy a house. Annie put her career on the back burner, as they couldn’t both be away, but carried on doing a bit of acting. Seeing him go out every day and do what she wanted to do, while she stayed home, would have driven her mad says their daughter Lucy, who is herself now also an actor.

TV adverts were in their infancy and Richard was very much in demand. Marriage Lines had made him popular, instantly recognizable, the bloke who everyone wanted as their neighbour. He was always insecure about money, always very hard working, a reaction perhaps to the insecurity of the war years and his father’s rather patchy ability to provide.

He also loved being recognized. ‘I have a very gregarious character and I enjoy being recognised’ he once said. ‘If I played baddies all the time, people might not want to talk to me and that would never do’. He said of himself that he played characters which were quite old-fashioned, middle class Englishmen – in contrast to the prevailing trend for northern working class actors playing bleak, gritty realism.

‘One of our greatest farceurs’

Noel Coward asked him to star in Present Laughter. He described him as ‘one of our greatest farceurs’. From there Richard did Relatively Speaking with Michael Hordern, Celia Johnson and Jennifer Hilary, which was considered by critics to be Ayckbourn’s best-crafted play. Ayckbourn was young and still working at the BBC when he wrote it and they became good friends. Ayckbourn called him ‘Anadin’in reference to the advertising slogan – ‘nothing acts faster’.

Relatively Speaking was very well received and ran for 350 performances (about a year). The play was the toast of the West End. Noel Coward’s reaction on discovering Alan Ayckbourn was only in his twenties was simply: ‘Oh, dear God’. Richard Briers became identified as one of Alan Ayckbourn’s coterie of actors and he was very much a part of the playwright’s early success.

Voice of a generation

Richard and Annie’s second daughter Lucy was born in Queen Charlotte’s hospital in 1967 (as Katy also had been). Two years later he started presenting Jackanory, a children’s TV show in which really famous actors sat and read children’s stories. He said he felt better qualified to do the show as a father. His daughters describe life with him as great fun. When he was working in theatre and coming in late, they had to creep around in the morning so as not to disturb him and they weren’t allowed anywhere near him if they had a cold. But when he wasn’t working he was great fun, with a very mischievous sense of humour. If there was any telling off to be done he would stand back and let his wife do it, while he pulled faces behind her back.

In 1973 he was asked to do Roobarb and Custard – mad tales of a very energetic green dog and a pink cat, for children’s TV, with a great script and very distinctive, scribbly graphics for the animation. He did the voices. He had a reputation for being tremendously hard working and his work in TV, radio and theatre often overlapped While recording Roobarb and Custard he was also doing Absurd Person Singular alongside Sheila Hancock.

Roobarb and Custard went to air 21st October 1973 and got 7 million viewers straight away. It meant his voice was instantly recognisable to a whole generation of children. Grange Calveley, the creator (who based the series on a very energetic sheep dog he and his wife rescued from being euthanised) says Richard was a master of the art of swearing. That’s a recurrent theme. He called everybody ‘love’ and regaled them with tales redolent with some very ripe language. Richard’s agent thought Roobarb and Custard would only last six weeks. In fact they made 30 episodes which were shown just before the evening news and the show was brought back in 2005 – Roobarb and Custard Too. more than thirty years later.

Photographs above: Penelope Keith, Richard Briers, Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendal in The Good Life – BBC photos

The Good Life

After Lucy was born in 1967 the family moved into a much larger house in Chiswick. Katy remembers them not going on holiday much until the 1970s because their father was always afraid of being out of work, or being forgotten, but in the 1970s he was evidently feeling more confident, as they started going on regular holidays to Cornwall.

When he was offered The Good Life by the BBC, he had mixed feelings about it, unsure whether a return to sitcom was best for his career or whether he should concentrate on being a serious actor, but once he got to know the writers and the team which was being assembled, James Hogg writes that ‘he bought into it 100%’. Richard’s character Tom had reached the age of 40, was doing a job he loathed and was unfulfilled. He and his wife Barbara decided to use their garden to become self-sufficient. The idea of self-sufficiency was catching on in the seventies but seen as a leftie, hippie kind of thing, so the comedy was based on snobbery: ‘we don’t do that kind of thing in Surbiton’. Richard is quoted as saying that what made it work was that the neighbours got on and that both couples, Tom and Barbara and Jerry and Margo, were likeable.

Richard said: ‘Making the Goods and the Leadbetters old pals and Tom and Jerry colleagues, at least initially, was a stroke of genius on the writers’ behalf. It gave the show a wonderful platform and led to conflicts of loyalty, making the whole thing a lot more interesting. With Tom, who I actually thought was quite selfish and conceited, there wasn’t a great deal to latch on to, unlike Jerry and especially Margo, who was a marvellous character, and so we started making the show and the character began to mature, just based on myself’. In 2007 he described Tom as a ‘selfish parasite’, obsessed: ‘it was always about him and his plans. Poor old Barbara never got any presents, any treats’.

He carried on doing theatre while he was recording The Good Life, working with Peter Bowles in Absent Friends, another Ayckbourn play. Richard was considered one of the ‘definitive interpreters’ of Ayckbourn’s work, writes James Hogg. Alan Ayckbourn said: ‘He recognised what I wrote very quickly and his instincts were always right: when to speed up, when to slow down, when to leave that moment and when to darken things. He was a true interpreter’.

His wife Annie said Richard loved being in his plays and loved being part of something successful. It was Richard who brought Felicity Kendall to the cast of The Good Life. He saw her in The Norman Conquests (for which she later won the Best Newcomer award). He was then a big star and she was was just starting out in her career. Her co-star was Penelope Keith, so they got both actors from that play. Paul Eddington was also acting in an Ayckbourn play when The Good Life started.

Life after The Good Life

By the end of the seventies Richard was desperate to do straight theatre again. The public’s perception of him had changed. Before The Good Life he’d been known as a versatile actor who was good at comedy, says Lucy. He had a reputation rather than a brand. Afterwards he was Tom Good, Middle Englander, and approaching National Treasure status. The antidote was to play Ibsen’s The Wild Duck (about which the critics were quite condescending) and then Bertie Wooster on radio. In the 1980s he started doing pantomime. Then he did another TV sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles and continued as a jobbing actor – in everything from a Restoration comedy at the Chichester festival to Extras on TV with Ricky Gervais. In 1989 he received an OBE and in 2003 a CBE.

Partnership with Kenneth Brannagh

Kenneth Brannagh offered him the part of Malvolio in his production of Twelfth Night in 1987. Brannagh was 26 and had no money to offer. Briers did it because he wanted to do something that challenged him as an actor again. ‘He had an almost permanent twinkle ad was on the edge of a laugh at all times’ recalls Kenneth Brannagh. He could be ‘waspish and sharp’ when tired, but was always kind. The reviews for Twelfth Night were like nothing he’d ever had before, with several critics describing his performance as a ‘revelation’. It was the start of a great partnership.

Richard Briers went on to play King Lear, the complete opposite of a sitcom. Brannagh said: ‘Richard had to take a few deep breaths before agreeing to the world tour of King Lear, but he had a really strong capacity for creative risk and was at a point in his life where a new adventure for him and Annie was something intriguing’. … ‘The biggest challenge was leaving Fred the dog behind’. They did 102 performances in 30 countries and Annie went with him. He’d done a coffee advert with Penelope Wilton just previously, which had paid enough that he hadn’t had to worry about how successful the King Lear tour was. He was worried because after The Good Life, the public didn’t like him playing characters which were nasty or unsympathetic.

Kenneth Brannagh was impressed by his professionalism and his leadership by example. He was always on time (early) and always prepared, lines learned. He went on stage in a broken ankle in a cast to play one of the most physically demanding roles in theatre. ‘He always threw himself at it’ said Brannagh. ‘Full energy, full voice, full commitment from day one’. He was also a great scholar of actors and acting, so drew on how the greats had played the part or how he thought they would have played the part. Lucy said ‘Ken was learning, but so was dad’ so it wasn’t just a case of an old, grand actor helping out an up and coming one. She found him playing Lear quite traumatic. He played him as a manipulative bastard who played his daughters off against each other. He gave the performance of his life in Zagreb and all the other actors just stood in the wings watching. Brannagh: ‘other actors felt what it was like to be in the presence of greatness’.

He went from playing Lear to Ratty in Wind in the Willows at the National. Alan Bennett’s adaptation with Gryff Rhys Jones and Michael Bryant in 1990. From the sublime to the ridiculous. Alan Bennett says ‘he could be quite crotchety’. He also played Uncle Vanya for Kenneth Brannagh. Peter Egan acted and directed (with a little help from Brannagh once he got called off on another project). ‘To watch Richard develop through a Chekhovian character like Uncle Vanya and to bring his wonderful suburban humour and his mania to it was a privilege’.

Richard made eight films with Kenneth Brannagh including Much Ado About Nothing, which they filmed in Tuscany in the summer of 1992. It had a huge Hollywood cast – Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Keanu Reeves – and also the cream of British theatre – Kenneth Brannagh, Emma Thompson, Kate Beckinsale and Brian Blessed. It’s considered one of the most successful adaptions of Shakespeare of all time, commercially and creatively and won loads of awards. His partnership with Brannagh enabled him to tackle big, classical roles and be taken seriously as an actor after his sitcom success. It was a career changer.

Monarch of the Glen

The came Monarch of the Glen, another long-running, successful TV sitcom, which aired 2000 – 2005 for seven series. Richard played Hector MacDonald, the curmudgeonly and extravagant father of the main character. It took him away from home for long periods, which he didn’t like. Going up to Scotland to film one time, he bumped into a group of American tourists in the bar on the train who were on a Monarch of the Glen tour. They thought he was part of it, so he just played along with it and went into full tour guide mode.

End of his life

Accepting his OBE in 1989 he did a comedy trip as he walked along the carpet to meet the Queen. She said: “I think you got this for making people laugh”. When he got the CBE in 2003 he took it more seriously.

He started coughing a lot an experiencing shortness of breath. 2007 he was diagnosed with Emphysema. He carried on working and enjoying being a grandparent. He didn’t do self-pity. His typical rejoinder was ‘I’m fine love, just a bit of a cough’ or ‘’I’m completely buggered. Would be surprised if I last a week’.

He managed to cram a lot of work into his final years. Miss Marple and Torchwood among them and London Assurance at the National theatre with Simon Russell Beale. The last film he ever made was Cockneys V Zombies, which he thoroughly enjoyed making. His role as an old man in a care home involved killing zombies with an AK47 gaffer taped to his zimmer frame.

He died of cardiac arrest on 17 February 2013, at home in Chiswick. He trended on Twitter for a day ‘which would have amused and baffled him’. His funeral was held at St Michael & All Angels Church. The last time Fr Kevin had met him at a church fundraiser he’d said “I do enjoy these things even though I’m not religious”. ‘ “Well” Fr Kevin told the congregation as he looked at Richard’s coffin covered in flowers and surrounded by candles, “you are now”. The congregation burst into laughter’. There was also a memorial 14 months later, with many of his actor friends present and a speech from Kenneth Brannagh.

His friends who contributed their memories to the book read like a Who’s Who of British theatre, including: Sir Alan Ayckbourn, Simon Beresford, Michael Billington OBE, Sir Kenneth Brannagh, Peter Bowles, Bernard Cribbins OBE, Dame Judi Dench, Ricky Gervais, Sheila Hancock CBE, Nerys Hughes, Griff Rhys Jones OBE, Dame Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal CBE, Dame Sian Phillips, Simon Russell Beale CBE, Prunella Scales CBE, Dame Emma Thompson, Sir Tom Stoppard, Kevin Whatley, Dame Penelope Wilton.

More Than Just a Good Life is available in bookshops and on Amazon.

Reading Between The Lines – graphology

Reading Between The Lines

Book review by Bridget Osborne

August 2018

Reading Between The Lines by graphologist Emma Bache

Emma Bache, the UK’s leading handwriting expert, lives in Chiswick and she can tell everything about you from your handwriting – almost. “It’s easier to describe what I can’t tell than what I can” she told me, so if you have contact with this woman and you’re planning a murder, don’t write her a note, send her an email.

Emma’s interest in graphology sprang from a chance weekend course in the subject in the 1980s, which led to her her studying it herself and building a career partly as a newspaper columnist, partly as an entertainer at parties, where she reads the guests’ handwriting and analyses their personalities for the fun of it (Rupert Murdoch and Richard Branson have employed her in this way) and partly as a consultant in the corporate world, analysing the personality of candidates for big jobs. 

She says she can tell from a person’s handwriting if they’re depressed or angry, alcoholic or even sexually violent. When in entertainer mode she’ll pick out the positives and keep her own counsel about the bad stuff, but in the corporate world it’s the bad stuff she’s paid for – is this person honest, hard working, someone who works well with other people? Do they have an addictive personality?

She’s analysed the writing of thousands of well-known people, from Donald Trump to William Shakespeare. She liked Rupert Murdoch by the way. “He’s intelligent, quick-witted, hard-working. I didn’t see anything negative” she told me.

Emma’s book Reading Between The Lines was published in September 2018 by Quercus books – not an academic book but a fun and family friendly book, she assures me, explaining how to read handwriting – the significance of each facet: the size, the shape, the spacing, the way in which the letters are connected and so on. She held a workshop on the subject at the Chiswick Book Festival 2018.

The three things she can’t tell from a person’s handwriting might surprise you: their gender, their age and whether they’re right or left handed.

emmabache.com

How to Age Joyfully

How to Age Joyfully

Book review by Bridget Osborne

July 2019

How to Age Joyfully: Eight Steps to a Happier, Fuller Life by Maggy Pigott

We’re living longer; we need to take charge of our own well-being in our third age says Maggy Pigott. In July 2019 she launched her book How to Age Joyfully and within a couple of weeks it was ranked 15 in the Amazon Best Sellers for books about ageing. Her book was also one of the online distributor’s ‘hot new releases’.

How to Age Joyfully is a practical guide in how to do just that. In one way it’s a statement of the bleedin’ obvious – keep active, eat healthily, stay fit – but in other ways it’s quite revelatory, her ‘eight steps’ set out in short, dense chapters, packed full of practical ideas and useful information, meticulously researched.

Her main message – ‘We’re living longer – let’s live better!’ is delivered with the fervour of a convert rather than the patronizing tones of a young, fit person imparting knowledge to those hopeless saps over 60 who know no better, to whom you have to speak slowly in words of one syllable. Maggy has had a career as a high powered civil servant and thought her enjoyment of life was over when a debilitating illness forced her to give up work. Her route back to physical fitness and mental wellbeing has been through dance.

Photographs above: Maggy Pigott; Maggy taking part in a dance performance; at her book launch 11 July

Her missionary zeal for living life to the full is infectious. Ageing, she says, has made her ‘bolder, not older’, which is how she came to approach Dame Judi Dench to write the foreword – now there’s a role model for old age if ever there was one. How to Age Joyfully has also received endorsements from Baroness Sally Greengross, former Director General of Age Concern, former Health Secretary Alan Johnson, and writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth.

Maggy goes dancing several times a week and much of the rest of her time is taken up with Open Age, a charity which champions an active life for older people. They provide a wide range of physical, creative and mentally stimulating activities to enable ‘older people’ (over 50) to develop new skills, fulfill their potential and make new friends. Maggy is donating half her royalties to the charity.

How to Age Joyfully: Eight Steps to a Happier, Fuller Life was published on 11 July 2019 by Summersdale Publishers Ltd.

How To Age Joyfully

Journalism – Robin Lustig interviews Alan Rusbridger

Robin Lustig interviews Alan Rusbridger

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2018

“There’s this thing called the Internet. I think it’s going to be quite big”

Alan Rusbridger was editor in chief of the Guardian from 1995 – 2015, the twenty years during which a revolution happened that is every bit as great as the invention of the printing press 500 years earlier. “It was about 100 years before people got the hang of books” he told a packed audience at the 2018 Chiswick Book Festival: “This revolution is about ten minutes old”.

Alan Rusbridger’s book Breaking News -The Remaking of Journalism And Why It Matters Now describes what it was like trying to run a newspaper at the same time as dealing with huge new internet information companies moving in and hoovering up all the advertising revenue. It was a period in which not only did newspapers have to find other sources of revenue, but during which the whole nature of journalism changed.

The time when journalists were acknowledged authorities, the only people privileged to report on events, with time to consider how they crafted their story before it went to press, was gone. In its place was an era in which news had to be instant, and everyone was producing content, not just journalists. Looking back, he said, his generation had been privileged to have been writing at time when they held such a position of influence unchallenged.

Realisation of the magnitude of the change dawned gradually, he told Robin Lustig. He remembered saying in an editorial meeting “there’s this thing called the internet and I think it’s going to be quite big”. It took the industry a while to get to grips with just how big.

“If Facebook was a country it would be the most populous in the world” he pointed out, yet it is a young country and is still finding its way. Facebook is under pressure not to publish dangerous content, but Rusbridger said we should be patient: “Zuckerberg realises his position is untenable but doesn’t want to be responsible for all the content of his users … We have to help them and be patient … Let’s not ride in with hobnail boots and destroy them”.

“Potentially a very dark time”

This is “potentially a very dark time” he told Robin Lustig, who himself worked for Reuters, the Observer and the BBC, when 50% of people said they couldn’t tell the difference between information that is real and that which is fake. “The Washington Post is keeping tabs on Trump. He’s been caught out on some 5,000 lies to date. He is taking aim at the New York Times which is perhaps the best newspaper in the world … Delegitimising these processes … When people can’t tell what’s true everything works on emotion”.

In this situation he said “the only justification for journalism is that we are performing a public service in the public interest.”

In an age where young people get most of their news from Facebook, (including his very bright students at Lady Margaret Hall, the Oxford college where he is now Principal) we have to start teaching media literacy. “There’s a job of work to be done with young people” he said, enabling them to discern truth from falsehood. “If the world wakes up in time we may be alright”.

Robin Lustig’s own book, an autobiography entitled Is Anything Happening? My Life as a Newsman was published in 2017. You can buy either book from any good bookshop, including Chiswick Waterstones.

Kate Mosse – historical novelist

Kate Mosse – historical novelist

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2018

Cathy Rentzenbrink interviewing Kate Mosse at the Chiswick Book Festival 2018

Returning to Carcassonne

Labyrinth was Kate Mosse’s ‘break-through’ novel – a big fat book of archaeological mystery set concurrently in the Middle Ages and the present day in the South of France and England. Voted ‘Best Read of the Year’ in the 2006 in the British Book Awards and ranked number one best-seller in that year by the Guardian, it put her on the map and since then she’s gone on to write best-selling books set during the Great War (The Winter Ghosts) the Second World war (The Citadel) set in Nazi occupied France and a murder mystery set in Sussex in 1912 (The Taxidermist’s Daughter).

So why return to the French religious wars of Mediaeval times? Any why embark on a family saga of four books spanning three hundred years which will take eight years to write?

The Burning Chambers was sparked by a visit to South Africa for a book festival. As she drove from the airport towards Stellenbosch she noticed the main street of Franschhoek was called Huguenot St and all the wines of the Franschhoek valley bore French labels in an area where most European settlers were either Dutch or English. When she found the Huguenot museum and discovered the name of the family she’d written about in Labyrinth among the tiny handful of Huguenot families who’d emigrated to the Cape after revocation of the Edict of Nantes put an end to religious toleration in France, the die was cast. “Can I do this to myself?” The answer was an overpowering “Yess!” A desire to delve into the period again and immerse herself in the sheer joy of writing.

The Prologue is set in the Cape in 1862. Then she goes back 300 years to 1st March 1562 and beginning of the religious wars in France, with high born and powerful Huguenots and Catholics battling it out at court for power over the Prince Regent. “In France the wars of religion were about power and doctrine, almost never about faith” she says. There were eight or nine civil wars (historians disagree). Huguenots were only about 10% of the population but they made up the influential middle class.

“I’m not a historian, I’m a storyteller”

“I’m not a historian” she says, “I’m a story teller…” The story is of Minou and Piet is a love story. Minou is a Catholic girl and the daughter of a bookseller. Books were dangerous in those times and booksellers at the forefront of a battle for people’s minds and loyalty. The construct of having her go out to work in her father’s shop also gives Minou the opportunity to come across people from all walks of life and from very different backgrounds. Piet is a Huguenot engaged in dangerous business and they fall in love just as the Massacre of Vassy takes place and a period of religious civil wars kicks off.

Minou is also in danger personally, singled out by a heritage of which she knows nothing, but which unfolds during the book. Interviewer Cathy Rentzenbrink pointed out that JK Rowling had famously said she knew the last line of the last of the Harry Potter series before she started writing. Is that how Kate Mosse works? No.

“Minou gets a letter saying ‘She knows that you live’ and I’m thinking ‘Who the hell is she?’ I now have to find out!” she says she lets it flow in the first draft, posing questions and trying to answer them, “splurging it all out”. The writing begins with the second draft but “somewhere inside I do know the plot”.

With a Mediaeval thriller you know there’s going to be gruesome torture at some point. Kate says she really dislikes writing torture, but you have to have a bit of it. “I  want readers to think what would I do if that was me? You have to understand the real consequences of what might happen. What if Minou says the wrong thing? When the soldiers come and ask you to give up your Huguenot or your Jewish neighbours, you have to understand the potential consequences are not tiny.”

Kate and her husband have a house in Carcassonne where she says for about five days per month while writing. “Living in Carcassonne has made me the writer I am” she says. “The sense of history all around… I need to walk around and see where the sun falls at dusk, that kind of thing. You need to be there to research it … the research is the architecture. I have to have all of that in place before I can dream the characters”.

The Burning Chambers is a thriller, a real page turner and as you  breathe a sigh of relief that some of the characters you wanted to survive are still standing at the end of the book, she throws in a little hand grenade. They’re thinking of going to Paris to celebrate the royal wedding of the Catholic princess Margaret of Valois to the Protestant King Henri III of Navarre at the feast of St Bartholomew. “Saint Bartholomew’s Day?!!! We’re all thinking Nooooo! Don’t go!!!!!” she says, it being the date of the notorious St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which lasted several weeks and ended up with many thousands of dead.

We’ll have to wait until 2020 to find out who survives the next round of blood-letting, when The City of Tears is published. But says Kate, rather ominously “You can’t keep characters alive just because you like them. In adventure fiction you serve the plot.” So if the plot requires it, they die!

www.katemosse.co.uk