So many memorable moments, so many vivid memories

Guest blog by Torin Douglas

September 2019

Photographs above: Chiswick Book Festival Director Torin Douglas; the sun shines on the festival

Can it be just a week since I went to pick up the prizes for the Festival’s annual ‘Quiz Night at Fullers’ from Foster Books, the oldest (and most photogenic) shop in Chiswick High Road? Stephen Foster had kindly donated four copies of ‘A Vicarage in the Blitz – The Wartime Diaries of Molly Rich’ to reward the winning team. It is beautifully illustrated by the late artist Anthea Craigmyle, who grew up in the Vicarage of St Nicholas Church, where her mother was the vicar’s wife.

As I walked in to the bookshop, who should I see but John Rowe, the Chiswick actor who has achieved new fame – and great reviews – in The Archers, as his character, Jim Lloyd, has moved centre-stage. I offered him a complimentary ticket to our Archers Academics session, to be chaired at the weekend by Jane Garvey, and he accepted with thanks.

Cryptic, classy and crammed – the hors d’ouevres

Photographs above: Festival Quiz night at the Griffin brewery; AN Wilson in the Burlington Pavilion at Chiswick House. Photograph below: Local authors night at Waterstones. Photograph by Roger Green

The Quiz Night in the historic Hock Cellar at Fullers Brewery is technically a ‘pre-Festival event’ because the opening night is always held at Chiswick House. It still got the Festival off to a terrific start on Tuesday evening. Quizmaster Alan Connor (former editor of BBC Two’s Only Connect) was on entertainingly cryptic form, urging teams to shout out as soon as they identified Harold Pinter, Iris Murdoch, John Betjeman and other names on the Chiswick Writers Trail. The brewery’s new owners, Asahi of Japan, were as generous as their predecessors and, with finger food from the wonderful Cookbook Festival team, a great time was had by all.

On Wednesday evening, we were at Waterstones for the Local Authors Party, where 20 writers are each given two minutes to ‘sell’ their books – or be cut off in mid-flow by a loud blast on a horn from Jo James, the Festival’s charming and indefatigable author programme director. 150 people gathered to hear a wide and inspiring range of speakers, among them Maggie Pigott, whose new book ‘How To Age Joyfully’ has a foreword by Dame Judi Dench. As if to prove her point, she was followed by Pat Davies who, in her mid-90s, has just been awarded France’s highest award, the Legion of Honour, for her wartime service, and spoke eloquently about the wartime memoirs of her father. Another speaker in her 90s was Lotte Moore, grand-daughter of AP Herbert, who still visits schools talking about her childhood memories, Lotte’s War.

James O’Brien of LBC Radio, currently one of Chiswick’s most celebrated authors, took his 2-minute turn and signed books downstairs, generating a long queue down the High Road. Waterstones sold more than 75 copies of his book ‘How To Be Right’ – a proper reward for the hard work of manager James Barber and his team, who were to sell many more books over the next few days. Local distillery Sipsmith donated cans of gin and tonic, to mark the launch of its own book – ‘Sip: 100 Gin Cocktails’, and we also gave a platform to Better Mental Health in Chiswick to launch its new initiative, the Read Well Book Club, which attracted great interest.

On Thursday evening, some 250 people came to Chiswick House to hear one of the Festival’s favourite authors, AN Wilson, talking entertainingly about his new biography ‘Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy’ – a follow-up to his sparkling 2016 Festival appearance discussing Queen Victoria. An exhibition highlighted Albert’s own visits to Chiswick House, notably 175 years ago in 1844, when he hosted a fete for the Tsar of Russia and 700 of the great and the good – described at the time as one of the finest fetes ever seen in England.

The main course

Photographs above: Sir Mix Hastings; Cahal Dallat; Lucy Briers with James Hogg and Peter Egan

On Friday evening, the focus switched to Bedford Park and St Michael & All Angels Church, where another Festival favourite, Max Hastings, spoke about his new book on The Dambusters to an audience of around 250. As a preamble, he showed a clip from the 1955 film which helped build the legend and he asked our new sound team to turn up the volume on their excellent equipment. The pews shook as the aircraft prepared to unleash Barnes Wallis’s deadly bouncing bomb – an unexpected precursor of life as it may sound in Bedford Park when the Third Runway gets underway and the flight paths change! Max was in his element – delivering a pitch-perfect lecture – to the delight of the audience. “Even better than last year” and “Max never disappoints” were two of the comments as people filed out into the night.

Meanwhile at the London Buddhist Vihara, 100 yards away, Cahal Dallat was giving a lecture about one of Chiswick’s two winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature – ‘WB Yeats in Utopian Bedford Park’. The building was, from 1877 to 1939, The Bedford Park Club, where Yeats’s father, painter John Butler Yeats, joined in debates with fellow artists, writers, critics & political thinkers; where the young WB Yeats witnessed the pageants that were to inspire his drama & co-founding of the Irish National Theatre; and particularly appropriate, Cahal said, because of Yeats’s search for a spiritual dimension, in Hindu & Buddhist literature & teachings.

At 8pm, we were in another of Chiswick’s iconic venues – the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Theatre at ArtsEd in Bath Road. The session there was ‘Remembering Richard Briers’ – Chiswick’s own national treasure – with the actor’s daughter Lucy; his friend and Ever Decreasing Circles co-star Peter Egan; and Richard’s biographer James Hogg. It was a wonderful evening – warm and full of very funny anecdotes about Richard appearing in an commercial for his local garage and how Lucy first introduced him to Kenneth Branagh, who transformed his later career by casting him as Malvolio, then Lear and as the blind man in his film of Frankenstein with Robert de Niro. There were occasional tears too, as they recalled a last lunch with Richard just before he died – and we watched a TV clip (including black and white pictures of a very young married couple), in which Annie Briers recalled how she had to improve Richard’s diet, after discovering he used to fry everything, including scones!

London’s most literary location (?)

Photographs above: Cookery writer Trine Hahnemann; the audience for Cressida Cowell in St Michael & All Angels Chuch; gazebos outside the church; the cake stall, the queue and BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey with Dr Cara Courage and actor John Rowe

And so to the weekend itself, where we were blessed with beautiful weather and made the most of the green space around St Michael’s. It was filled with marquees (for the Cookbook demonstrations and children’s events) and gazebos containing the famous Book Festival cakes (and sandwiches and savouries); valuers from Chiswick Auctions; books and merchandise from the Cookbook Festival and a raffle from The Chiswick Calendar; and representatives of the three Festival charities – InterAct Stroke Support, Doorstep Library and, for the first time, The Felix Project which distributes surplus food, that would otherwise go to waste, to charities and schools.

Plenty of room too for the queues that formed ahead of the most popular sessions – most notably for Cressida Cowell on the Sunday, when over 350 children and parents lapped up her inspiring talk and then queued again for well over an hour in the sunshine for her to sign their books.

Along the Bath Road, we had a new venue – the ‘early years annexe’ of Orchard House School in Rupert Road (famous for many years as the Wendy Wisbey Dance Studio). The first speaker there was local novelist and former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis (watched by daughter Sophie Ellis Bextor and family and many others). Later came the eagerly-anticipated session on Women In The Archers, chaired by Jane Garvey – and that was where I met up again with John Rowe. He was slightly late and Jane had begun her welcome as he arrived, so I escorted him to a seat in the front row. Apologising for interrupting her, I introduced him with four words – “John Rowe, Jim Lloyd” – and the whole audience erupted in spontaneous applause, to John’s great surprise.

Just one of the highlights of an unforgettable weekend, which helped reinforce the Observer’s recent verdict that ‘Chiswick may be Britain’s most literary location’. Thank you to everyone who helped make it happen.

Torin Douglas is the Director of the Chiswick Book Festival

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Lucy Cufflin’s guest blog on the 2019 Cookbook Festival

See also: Turnham Green Terrace piazza launch