Guildford Book Festival 2008

The Guildford Book Festival runs 80 events over ten days. All the events are book related and most are in the form of a 45 minute interview of an author on his or her most recent book, followed by 15 minutes of questions from the floor. Depending on the popularity of the author the venues vary from a 500 seat lecture hall at the university to an audience of ten in a corner of a bookshop. There are a few panel discussions with a chairman leading a panel of authors on subjects like ‘the realities of modern women’s lives in fiction’ and ‘a celebration of Mills & Boon’. There are workshops on writing romance, crime, short stories, children’s books, the process of writing and how to get published. There are also school and children’s events. In general I was a youngster at many of these functions with the average age being into the sixties. I went to the following:

The Mellstock Band is four eccentric musicians in their fifties combining songs and tunes to create the sound of a 19th century village band as they provide a musical tour of Thomas Hardy’s books. They played violins, clarinet, concertina and the serpent (similar to a tuba). They also sang. Most pieces were introduced by a reading from Hardy which normally described an event, often a dance. I am sure that there were people around me who knew the literature and/or the music well but for a layman like me it was a delightful two hours of fun. 8/10

Katharine Whitehorn has just published her autobiography ‘Selective Memory’. She is 80 years old, has been a journalist for most of her life and was a columnist of The Observer for 30 years. She spoke of interesting episodes in her life, of the advancement of women, of the change in attitudes to sex, marriage and divorce and what life was like before one had a fridge. She spoke with wit. I was surrounded by devotees who remembered and agreed with oohs and aahs. 7/10

Harry Mount talked about his book ‘A Lust for Window Sills; a lover’s guide to British buildings from portcullis to pebble-dash’. Secretly I am a frustrated architect and so am drawn to related subjects. He knew his subject incredibly well and could relate it to buildings around us but there were few highlights in an overheated room. I caught myself nodding off. 3/10

Roger Nicholas, has edited the Diaries of Henry Peak who was a Guildford architect in Victorian Times. He talked about Peak’s arrival in Guildford in 1851 as a young man with a very basic architectural knowledge, how his career developed including being both the Town Surveyor and eventually the Mayor. He showed pictures of buildings that Peak designed and which are recognisable today. He also talked about the environment of Guildford in the second half of the nineteenth century including population numbers and mix, water supplies, sanitation and the impact of the railway. Really interesting. And the 85 year old woman sitting next to me also loved it! 7/10

Ray Mears talked about his book ‘Vanishing World’ which is principally a collection of photos taken in wild places. He is the presenter of BBC TV’s Bushcraft programme and has travelled the world studying and teaching the art of survival. He had interesting stories to tell about his approach to photography, travelling in wild places and his experiences with tribal people in Canada, Africa, Australia and on Pacific islands. He had a very full and interesting question and answer session with a big audience. 8/10

Simon Hoggart belongs to a specialist profession. According to him there are only five political sketchwriters in the country, each one working for one of the serious newspapers. He writes for the Guardian and has just published ‘The Hands of History: Parliamentary Sketches 1997 – 2007’. He read extracts from the book and gave additional background. His dry wit and observation skills on politicians had us rolling in the aisles! He also read extracts from a book that he has published on Xmas letters that people send with their Christmas Cards – which either focus entirely on the successes of the family or the list of disasters that have occurred in the year. Funny, funny, funny. 8/10

Jenni Murray is the author of ‘Memoirs of a Not So Dutiful Daughter’. She is principally known as the presenter, for the last twenty years, of BBC’s Women’s Hour which has developed a reputation for tackling controversial issues. The book focuses on an eighteen month period when both her parents died and she had breast cancer. It deals with, and she talked about, her lifelong difficult relationship with her mother. This was a fascinating and very touching event. 9/10

Carol Drinkwater is the author of ‘The Olive Tree’. She bought a property in the south of France that coincidentally had olive trees and this led to a deep interest in olives including travels throughout the Mediterranean basin. Her experiences were interesting but I was left with a sense that she was making more of her experiences than was warranted and that she was a little self satisfied. 5/10

Gerald Scarfe has been drawing political cartoons for fifty years and is published each week in the Sunday Times. He has collected many of his cartoons in a book entitled ‘Monsters – How George Bush saved the World – and other tall stories’. He talked about his early life, how he got into drawing political characters, his approach to his work and his subjects and illustrated his talk with his cartoons. He does not want to meet the people he draws as he feels he might be influenced to treat them differently but is an avid student of the political world taking five newspapers and watching three TV news programmes each day. Fascinating. 8/10

Rick Wakeman is the author of his autobiography‘Grumpy Old Rock Star’. His rock career, principally with the Strawbs and Yes, spans 40 years and he has recently had several appearances in the TV show Grumpy Old Men. He talked in a funny way about experiences over the years but did emerge self satisfied. 7/10

Simon Brett chaired a panel discussion with other crime writers, M.C. Beaton, Peter Lovesey and Catriona McPherson on The Golden Age of Crime, which was apparently between the World Wars. This was a disappointing event which meandered with little purpose. 2/10

Tracy Borman and Kate Williams have published ‘King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant’ (a biography of Henrietta Howard, George II’s mistress) and ‘Becoming Queen’ (about Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne) respectively. They each spoke interestingly about the background to their subjects leaving one keen to read their books. 8/10

Chris Patten has published ‘What Next? Surviving the Twenty First Century’. He is Chancellor of Oxford University and was a European Commissioner, an MP and the last Governor of Hong Kong. It was a humbling experience to listen to such an intellectual giant as he moved coherently and competently through various subjects of international significance. His speech (45 minutes without notes) was impressive but even more impressive were his answers to questions from the floor. A real tour de force! 9/10

I attended thirteen events of which ten were a success. I was entertained and informed and am a more knowledgeable person. A good result.

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