Aldeburgh’s seaside special

Hunt out the birthday cake candles: it’s the 10th Aldeburgh Literary Festival next month. Steven Russell discovers that ‘dumbing up’ and trusting its instincts has proved the recipe for success

HAND John James a magic wand and one of his first flourishes would most likely improve the road and rail links between East Anglia and London – certainly by making them more robust and reliable. For when you’re bringing nearly two-dozen well-known literary figures to the Suffolk coast over a spring weekend, you’re relying on the traffic to flow and the rails to sing. It doesn’t always happen – and that’s John’s doomsday scenario. As co-founder with wife Mary of the Aldeburgh Literary Festival, he’s had to fill the breach if someone’s delayed en route. “My nightmare has been to have to go on stage and interview someone when I hadn’t properly prepared to do it,” he admits.

It didn’t take long for the gremlins to show their faces. During the second festival, in 2003, there was trouble on the railway line at Colchester, and cultural journalist and broadcaster Nicholas Glass was delayed on the M25. John had to interview, on stage, William Fiennes and Aminatta Forna.

“I had read both their books, but trying to remember, exactly, the full detail was quite hard!” Happily, he laughs, the audience “was absolutely sweet”. Still, it’s not the kind of panic one needs.

“The other really shocking thing is that on Sundays, on the whole, the line between Ipswich and London never works! It hasn’t worked for the last 10 years!” He’s talking about the propensity to schedule engineering work at weekends, with buses often replacing trains for part of the journey.

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“In our first few years we thought this was to do with making the line better. But, actually, not a bit of it! It’s pretty shoddy, actually. It’s interesting that in the last 10 years it hasn’t improved at all.”

More happily, there are nine successful Aldeburgh Literary Festivals to look back on and the prospect of an exciting 10th to look forward to from March 4 to 6, with 15 events covering history and biography to travel, fiction and humour.

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Household names who have journeyed to the North Sea coast since 2002 include PD James, Richard Dawkins, Anthony Horowitz, Doris Lessing, Alexander McCall Smith, Rose Tremain, Joanna Trollope, Beryl Bainbridge, Tony Benn, Michael Frayn, Ian McEwan, John Humphrys, Denis and Edna Healey, Sebastian Faulks, Nigel Lawson and Sandi Toksvig.

There was a big-name guest from the off, in playwright and author Alan Bennett, who effectively volunteered the previous November.

“It was largely due to the fact he was too late for the documentary film festival, so Craig Brown [author, satirist and driving force behind the Aldeburgh documentary festival] very kindly passed him on to us – and he came, which was a dream start. And PD James was another,” says John.

“The other highlight of that festival was Matt Ridley and Anthony Gottlieb talking about free will from the points of view of a philosopher and a scientist.

“It sort of set the tone. The audience quite likes intelligent conversation, and I think that’s probably what has taken us through, in that we don’t just go for books that people are trying to plug. What we’re trying to do is make it really, really interesting, and I think people do like subjects that challenge them.”

Speaking of which, Matt is back this year with a talk called The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

“We’re not afraid of controversies, I suppose. Matt says that, underlying everything, things are getting better. He gives quite a good example about how in the 1970s a lot of doom and disaster was being predicted – there was going to be cancer of epidemic proportions, universal famine and a nuclear winter – but by 2010 general prosperity’s increased, infant mortality has decreased, and despite an ever-increasing world population we’re still generally able to feed ourselves.

“Obviously, if your circumstances are that you live in a sink estate and are unemployed, then life is really difficult – it’s not very useful to you for someone to say things are getting better! – but I think probably things are generally better.”

Was that initial festival draining?

“Absolutely shattered at the end!

“The early problems were about ticketing. The main venue is quite small – the Jubilee Hall is round about 250 seats – and people were getting very irritated about not getting tickets.

“Something we started with joy in our hearts and enthusiasm just took off and speakers sold out – Alan Bennett in about an hour – and it suddenly meant we were doing something that was unpopular, in that people couldn’t get tickets, whereas actually what we were trying to do was something that was popular and fun!

“But it has all settled down and people are aware they can go for things that are less well known – because what we do is concentrate on interest. People have learned that we produce interesting lectures, and therefore they’re prepared to experiment a bit. That’s really our big aim, I suppose.”

Has the approach changed over the years?

“I think we did start (off) trying to do a lot of fiction. I suppose we’ve decided we want half fiction and half non-fiction.

“I suppose we’ve been doing more on economics, which has become very popular, and I think that’s everything to do with the credit crunch and the failure of the banks; and so to a certain extent what we are doing is responding . . . this sounds a bit pompous . . . we’re responding to the news and what’s going on in the world.

“I suppose what we’re trying to do is give people an idea, a view, which is not just what you read in the newspapers.

“For instance, last year we had Gillian Tett (Fool’s Gold) talking about the credit crunch and the failure of the banks, and the year before that we had (economics commentator) Anatole Kaletsky talking about that same subject.

“We’ve had Charles Moore and Barnaby Rogerson talking about Islam and Christianity. So there’s the kind of underlying discussion that people are having at the moment – with two very clever people talking about the differences and whether or not we need to be worried about the resurgence of Islam, the good points of Islam etc.”

Neither is John picky about speakers needing to have recently-published books.

“For example, artist Susannah Fiennes this year doesn’t have a book out. But she has an interesting lecture about how she thinks too many curators spend their time putting paintings into historical context, when they’re forgetting completely about the mind of the artist and what the artist is doing. It’s a good subject.”

It’s about June time each year that John begins thinking about the next festival, and contacting prospective speakers. “Some write back almost immediately and can say ‘yes’. Some we have to wait for for months and months. Gradually it takes shape. Sometimes people say yes and you’ve almost got a festival by the end of August. Then they come back in September and say they now can’t do it, and you start again!”

Things come to a head before Christmas, with the programme booklet being written.

Strongest memories?

“Golly! One of the best was last year: Kate Charlton-Jones, who was at the University of Essex. She gave a fantastically-good academic lecture on the writer Richard Yates.” He wrote Revolution Road.

Events that lodge in the mind are often the most unexpected. “I think one of the most moving was Craig Brown interviewing Pascal Khoo Thwe about his life in Burma. He’s whisked out of Burma and comes to Cambridge. It was beautifully done and very moving. There’s a connection in that he comes to Aldeburgh and sees an image of his grandmother...”

Pascal had been working as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant in Mandalay when he by chance met academic Dr John Casey, from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. Dr Casey held out the prospect of reading English at Cambridge and later brought Pascal to England – and, a few weeks further on, to a house in Aldeburgh with a small, private, art gallery. There the student came face to face with a bust of his grandmother created following her visit to England with a circus in the 1930s.

“Another one was Sam Newton.” A regular contributor to Channel 4’s Time Team programme, he’s a freelance tutor in Wuffing and early medieval studies. “He did a most beautiful lecture. He recited something in early English and went on to talk about the wonders of Sutton Hoo – these beautiful agates that had come from India – and finished it off with poetry, too. It was the perfect lecture, really.

“An obvious one was Harold Pinter, although he was a little bit miffed because he gave a rendition of a play and people didn’t really laugh at the jokes. I think perhaps we didn’t do him justice. We were a bit too in awe of him, really.”

Is there anyone he’s pursued but hasn’t been able to net?

“Tom Stoppard. I think he’s one of the best playwrights of his generation – witty, funny, an all-round interesting person – and I’d love to have him. We have asked. The problem when you’re dealing with theatre and cinema is they’re suddenly required to go off and do something at a moment’s notice.

“The other people like that are journalists, because they are suddenly called upon to go and visit somewhere in the world – particularly war journalists like John Simpson and Jon Snow, both of whom jacked at the last moment. That’s all understandable. I don’t blame them at all.”

John (the Aldeburgh one) doesn’t anticipated rocking the festival boat in the near future.

“We want to keep on doing it the way we’ve been doing it. I think it’s nice and small. People make a mistake in expanding.

“Another thing we always say – and it’s quite an important point – is that we don’t get any funding from anywhere else. And I think it has an advantage – a) in that we don’t have to fill out the forms, which is so boring; b) we don’t have to suck up to arts administrators, which is desperate; and c) we don’t have to do what anybody else wants us to do. We do it ourselves and it means we’re free to ask who we want.

“We’re not fulfilling an agenda for anything. I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with that. I think there are a lot of people in authority calling the shots who shouldn’t be. What a mistake, really – because the whole point is (about) freedom and being able to express.”

That first-festival debate about free will demonstrated how informed, intelligent and open to discussion were the folk listening. “The audience joined in, and really quite tough questions and remarks were made to the two speakers, so I really felt ‘You’ve got an audience for this.’

“Aldeburgh is a place where you can do this, I suspect, and we are very lucky. It’s a nice place to come to and you’ve got an intelligent audience, and I think that has probably helped.

“We don’t dumb down; we – and I don’t know how better to describe it – dumb up. We try really difficult subjects and there’s an appetite for it – something different that taxes the mind but is enjoyable.”

The Jameses bought Aldeburgh Bookshop in 2000 as the previous owners eyed retirement, moving themselves and their two small children up from London.

John had been a chartered surveyor, specialising in investment property, while Mary was for more than 15 years an antiquarian bookseller with the West End firm Bernard Quaritch. Neither was experienced in running a business, but they learned quickly – and in 2005 were named The Independent Bookshop of the Year at The British Book Awards.

At this point we need to apply the thumbscrews and ask John to cast modesty aside. What does he think the festival has brought to the area?

“Cor blimey! Do you know, I think it’s just fun – amusing and fun – and we have it at this time of year because it cheers people up after the winter gloom, really, and it’s something for people to look forward to in the new year.”

Plenty to thrill

MANY tickets for the Aldeburgh Literary Festival go like hot cakes, and it’s the case with the 10th seaside jamboree from March 4-6. A number of events are sold out at time of writing (marked * below) – but there should be places available for other talks that promise equally-enjoyable food for the mind.

Here’s the 2011 line-up:

Friday, March 4

10am-11am: Explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who has led expeditions to some of the planet’s most remote and dangerous regions.

12.30pm-1.30pm: Three authors. Paul Bailey on Chapman’s Odyssey, about a hospital-bound patient who hears the voices of people including Pip from Great Expectations; Andrew Barrow on Animal Magic, a memoir of his brother Jonathan; Frances Welch on The Russian Court at Sea: The Voyage of HMS Marlborough, April 1919.

3.30pm-4.30pm: Mary Chamberlain and Carmen Callil, Fenwomen: a Portrait of Women in an English Village.

* 5pm-6pm: Susannah Fiennes, The Language of Painting: Looking at Paintings from an Artist’s Point of View.

* 6.30pm-7.30pm: General Lord Dannatt, who as Chief of the General Staff criticised Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s commitment to the British missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

8pm-9pm: Terence Blacker and Derek Hewitson: Lyrics May Offend – a Short History of Musical Taboo.

Saturday, March 5

* 10am-11am: David Reynolds – Obama’s America in the Light of History.

* 11.30am-12.30pm: Caroline Moorehead – Dancing to the Precipice: [diarist] Lucie de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution.

* 2.30pm-3.30pm: Bill Emmott – Rivals: How the Power Struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our Next Decade.

* 4pm-5pm: Selina Hastings – The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham.

* 5.30pm-6.30pm: Lionel Shriver. Novels include the winner of the 2005 Orange Prize We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Sunday, March 6

* 10am-11am: Matt Ridley – The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

* 11.30am-1pm: Craig Brown with Eleanor Bron: The Lost Diaries (his collection of parodies of the rich and famous).

2.30pm-3.30pm: William Nicholson on The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life, which asks “How can we really know what others are thinking?”

4pm-5pm: A. N. Wilson and Paul Bailey: A Tribute to writer Beryl Bainbridge.

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