I’d love to bring Dame Edna Everage to Aldeburgh!
Meet Mary and John James, the couple behind The Aldeburgh Literary Festival and The Aldeburgh Bookshop
We’re playing a game: which writers would you want at a book festival if you could bring them back from the dead? I lob in a couple of easy suggestions: Charles Dickens (good value) and George Orwell (could talk about living in Southwold). And then Mary James knocks me for six.
“Can I go for a live one? I want Dame Edna, below. Don’t you think that would be wonderful? I just think she’s very funny. We went to her farewell tour, but I’m sure she’d come back for Aldeburgh, don’t you think?
“We did ask once, and we got a nice ‘no’.”
I didn’t see that suggestion coming. The Aldeburgh Literary Festival, soon to be held for the 15th time and virtually sold out, has a reputation for “dumbing up” – such a glorious antidote in an age obsessed with web video clips of pandas sliding down slopes.
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A few years ago, for instance, there was a talk about how the power struggle between China, India and Japan will shape our next decade.
“People say that afterwards they’re in The Lighthouse (restaurant) and someone is talking about what is the nature of consciousness – which is what the last talk was about – and somebody at the next-door table says ‘Well, I think…’ and these extraordinary friendships have grown up over the 14 years,” says Mary.
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Luck or judgment means many of the sessions are highly topical. (This year has one about the correctness or otherwise of intervention in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.)
Then there are the well-known names. Aldeburgh, over the years, has seen Beryl Bainbridge, Tony Benn, Alan Bennett, Alistair Darling, Richard Dawkins, Roddy Doyle, Sebastian Faulks, Denis Healey, Ian Hislop, Anthony Horowitz, John Humphrys, Nigel Lawson, Alexander McCall Smith, Lionel Shriver, Sandy Toksvig, Rose Tremain and Joanna Trollope.
At the last count it’s played host to three generals, two Nobel prize winners, one Pulitzer prize winner, and three former Chancellors of the Exchequer.
Mary and husband John run the festival, staged at the Jubilee Hall over a long weekend in March, as well as Aldeburgh Bookshop. Who would he choose as an ideal guest?
“I think I’d like Theodore White, who wrote these books on the making of the American president and used to cover the elections in America. He wrote a really outstanding book called In Search of History, which is really his autobiography.”
“That’s nice and obscure!” teases his wife.
So, no Katie Price, for instance, on the horizon?
“I think she’d be very entertaining,” says Mary. “We’re not at all intellectual snobs. We like to have a good laugh and fun, too.”
We slip past the greeny/turquoisey doors separating the bookshop from the little office and make camp on fold-up chairs, amid boxes and books. John puts the kettle on. “He’s better at making coffee,” says Mary. The phone, loud and insistent, will sound four times in the first 15 minutes.
The Jameses took over the bookshop in 2000. John had been a chartered surveyor, specialising in investment property, while Mary was for more than 15 years an antiquarian bookseller in the West End.
Queen of Crime PD James bolstered their confidence for that first festival. “The reason we got started, really, was as a result of me sitting next to her,” says John. “She was so terribly funny, making ever so slightly irreverent comments. (The couple had been to a book supplier’s lunch in Norfolk. “We were the new boys on the block,” says Mary.) Her saying ‘Yes’ (to the inaugural Aldeburgh event) suddenly meant we had a festival on our hands.”
“She was a kindred spirit,” says Mary, of the author who had loved Southwold since she was a girl.
Was that first festival daunting?
“I hadn’t really been to any other literary festivals, and there weren’t that many then – only about 40 in the country, and now there’s something like 340. I don’t think we quite realised how scary it was.
“When the first speaker got up – Paul Heiney, introducing Ronnie Blythe, which was a great opening – I remember thinking ‘Crikey! What have we done?’ Then I really enjoyed it.
“But the second year I found very worrying, because I knew how many things hadn’t gone wrong but could go wrong, and was much more aware of the pitfalls. I have to say I didn’t enjoy the second year so much because of a knot of anxiety. We had an idea of the gravity of what we’d undertaken, and the responsibility, because we’ve got 250 people sitting there.”
At this point – rashly – I mention the Crossrail work during February and March that at weekends means there will be no train service between Ingatestone and London Liverpool Street – a headache if you’re an author heading for Suffolk by rail.
“Oh no!” says John, who still has vivid memories of trouble on the line during the second festival. In fact, rail headaches are virtually an annual event.
“Because of what you’ve told me, we’re probably going to have to spend extra money on cars. We’ll have to start asking questions. But that’s the kind of thing we have to deal with.”
It’s not just the trains. When journalist and broadcaster Nicholas Glass was delayed on the M25, John had to step in to interview, on stage, William Fiennes and Aminatta Forna. Then, later on, I had to interview Doris Lessing with five minutes’ notice. She said she didn’t want to be interviewed and then suddenly changed her mind.
“That’s the one that gives me nightmares most of the time, actually. That was probably the longest hour of my life, in which she came on stage and said ‘What do you want me to talk about?’ Oh no. She hasn’t prepared anything…
“Someone asked a question and she said ‘Yes’, and nothing more than that. The questions dried up, so I really, really had to interview her.”
Mary: “One of our friends tried to help out and said ‘Can you tell us about your childhood in Africa?’ She’d got bored by this stage and said ‘I’ve written two volumes of autobiography. I suggest you buy them and read them.’
“Our children, when they want to tease us, say ‘Stressy Lessi’!”
The author was nice afterwards, though. “I think she was probably tired and nervous,” Mary suggests. “We didn’t understand about comfort zones. We needed to get her there a bit earlier and settle her down and give her a meal. I think we should have handled her a bit better.”
Their sons, by the way, are now 21 and 18. Having grown up alongside piles of books, both are “bored to smithereens” by bookshop life, Mary laughs.
Aldeburgh Literary Festival is a lean machine – low-tech, personal, and all the cosier for that. It’s basically the Jameses’ baby, though they’re grateful for the volunteers who pitch in and help.
Mary laughs about their posters – just two of them produced, at a cost of £20 or something like that.
The lack of a committee or board represents freedom to follow their instincts – though they don’t always agree on everything, anyway! – and that’s good. Arts Council money is actively avoided, and sponsorship not sought.
It keeps thing uncomplicated. And, as Mary says, the focus should be on the speakers.
John does not regret eschewing Arts Council cash, and the application forms. “I took a look at one and just laughed. It was too boring. And I’m not sure if I understood the form, actually. The jargon! I yawned gently and thought ‘I’m not buying life insurance or something!’”
They’re determined not to fall into the trap of getting too big, either, and losing the coveted sense of intimacy.
Much brainpower is spent during the year, thinking and discussing and deciding and planning – particularly as the vast number of festivals means writers get booked up.
They asked Michael “House of Cards” Dobbs in July, but he was already committed to an event in Dubai. He’s on the wish-list for 2017.
Behind the office door, above the light-switch, is a list where bookshop staff can jot down suggestions for festival speakers. So far the contenders run to James Runcie, author of The Grantchester Mysteries, and Gerard Woodward (Vanishing, and more).
If they’re in Aldeburgh next year, you heard it here first.
Are they different in their approach? “I think I’m much braver about asking people,” says John.
His wife laughs. “We go to publishers’ parties and Johnny will rock up to anybody and invite them. ‘Oh, that’s so embarrassing; we haven’t been introduced…’”
John again. “My previous career was introducing deals to people who had absolutely no intention of doing the deal, so one had to be really thick-skinned. I tell you, this is a doddle in comparison. The hit rate is infinitely bigger than introducing property deals to people!”
Of their guests, “the only one we were quite frightened of was Harold Pinter”.
It didn’t go brilliantly. “I think he said the audience was dead meat,” says Mary. Maybe they were too respectful and in awe… “That’s a nice way of putting it. But his wife did write, later, that they’d had a nice time in Aldeburgh.”
There have been so many highlights over the years that it’s impossibly hard to nominate favourites, Mary insists. “I get Stockholm syndrome. I love them all! It would change – my list – if you asked me again tomorrow.”
She does enjoy the way great experiences emerge. Mary remembers Jenny Uglow talking about The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future. It’s about the curious and amateur experimenters in the 1760s who changed the world.
“You might think ‘so what?’ But it turned out to be about teamwork, co-operation, friendship, non-dissention. It was just marvellous.”
John says he enjoys the spark of the pairings, when two figures are involved. “There is always a moment that’s unexpected. Like Frank Gardner (the BBC correspondent left partly paralysed after being shot by al-Qaeda sympathisers) and John McCarthy (the journalist kidnapped by Islamic terrorists in Lebanon in 1986 and held for more than five years), who’d both had terrible times, and it was just very funny. John McCarthy said ‘Will you talk about your time in the Lebanon, because I was there’, and Frank said ‘But you didn’t get out much, though, did you?!’”
Is there an adrenaline slump once the weekend is over? “Yes, it’s a tremendous sense of anti-climax,” says Mary.
“I’m actually thrilled! I can’t tell you,” says John. “I’m going round singing for days. Just the relief that we delivered what we said we were going to do!”
Do they ever – whisper it – have thoughts of calling it a day?
“Interesting question, that. I think at some stage we’ve got to stop,” he says.
Mary: “I think if we feel we are getting stale… I think if we stop caring enough, then we definitely have to stop. At the moment we’re still passionate about it, though sometimes at four in the morning I think ‘Uh…!’”
The 2016 festival: March 3 to 6 www.aldeburghbookshop.co.uk
’Twas the night before Christmas...
Aldeburgh, like North Sea coast neighbour Southwold, draws its fair share of celebrities – “names” who either have homes in the town or friends and relatives there. Many find their way into the local bookshop, it seems.
“At one point, quite late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, we had Coriolanus, Dumbledore, ‘C’ the head of MI6 and Craig Brown,” says Mary James, still somewhat in awe of this coincidental constellation.
They were actor Tom Hiddleston, whose mother comes from Suffolk; actor Sir Michael Gambon; a former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service; and the satirist and long-time Aldeburgh resident.