Steward’s enclosure

Last week I was a steward. No, I wasn’t managing property, household affairs or dining arrangements, nor was I recommending wine or being a flight attendant. I was in fact helping out at a local literary festival, one of a team setting up venues, checking in ticket-holders and selling books.

‘Steward’, by the way, comes from the Old English stigweard, which is a compound of stig, hall or building (it survives as ‘sty’ in Modern English, as in the lowly pigsty) and weard, a ward, guard or keeper. In the 13th century one of the High Stewards of Scotland — those who managed the Scottish king’s finances — took the title as the family name of Stewart. The seventh High Steward became King of Scotland in the 14th century, thus initiating the Royal House of Stewart, and this spelling survived until the period when James Stuart became king of both Scotland and England.

This is all well and interesting, I’m sure, but as usual I’m wandering around the houses. Back to the literary festival, the second one to be held in this Welsh border town.

So, stewarding. Out of the sixty-odd events at the Crickhowell Literary Festival I managed to attend nine as a glorified usher, meaning I was also able to enjoy the excellent talks and even take some notes. Several of the speakers were authors with books to promote, and as I purchased a few of these (books, not the speakers!) I hope to be reviewing them in due course. As it happened most of the speakers were academics, but the odd one or two recounted experiences that formed the basis of their work.

Helen Taylor spoke with authority on Why Gone with the Wind Still Matters. Considering that I’d neither read the Margaret Mitchell book nor seen the film (except for excerpts) you may be excused for wondering why I’d opted for this. Well, Professor Taylor’s study Scarlett’s Women: Gone With the Wind and its Female Fans (1989) had looked at how and why the book had exerted such influence on writers, film-makers and popular culture; in this talk she aimed to explore how in a multicultural century the issues of slavery, race, class and gender touched on in the book has as much if not greater relevance than ever. In particular the figure of Scarlett O’Hara continues to fascinate despite, or probably because of, all the paradoxes she embodies.

Pencil sketch by Charlotte Brontë, which new research reveals is a self-portrait alongside George Richmond’s portrait.
Pencil sketch by Charlotte Brontë — which new research reveals is a self-portrait — alongside George Richmond’s portrait.

I next attended Gail Cunningham‘s stimulating talk on Plain Jane: Does Jane Eyre persuades us that looks don’t matter? 2016 is of course the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë, and though I’d only read her early novel The Professor I was keen to see how much of herself she’d put into the character of Jane Eyre. Quite a lot, it appears. Interestingly, Professor Cunningham asked if the novel was an appeal for women to be valued for themselves rather than for their looks, or if it was a revenge fantasy against the privileged and beautiful? Rather a lot of the women who thwart her (and even some who don’t) seem to come to a sticky end: Mrs Reed dies, for example, and even the young Adèle — with whom you’d think Jane would sympathise — gets sent first to a strict Lowood-like school and then to another where her perceived defects are to be ‘corrected’. And then there’s Mr Rochester, who rejects her for another just at the happy-ever-after point when we’re only halfway through the novel, and we all know what happens to him.

Robert Penn is a journalist, TV presenter and cyclist, but it was as the author of The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees** that he came to CrickLitFest. Cutting down an ash tree in a managed wood in the Welsh Marches he aimed to see how many objects could be made from it. These included arrows, wooden wheels, furniture, toboggans, tools and sports equipment like baseball bats and hurley sticks. The properties of the third most common tree in Britain are its superb tensile strength, the general lack of knots, its straight grain, its prolific growth and the ease of working it; archaeology has shown that humans over at least six millennia have recognised its virtues as a material for tools. In his entertaining talk he also discussed how threats to woodland trees like ash dieback and irresponsible logging will invariably impact on our future world, though he emphasised it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Alison Baverstock is author of several books on publishing (such as the recent The Naked Author: a guide to self-publishing) in addition to being an academic, a publisher, an industry consultant and until recently on the management board of the Society of Authors. So when it came to the title of her talk, How to get Published, it’s a given that she knew whereof she spoke: from traditional deals to self-publishing, from short- to long-term goals. She ranged from the positives and negatives of being an author to the characteristics of published writers, from the subjects and genres that tend to sell well to aspiring writers’ ‘supporters’ and sources of inspiration.

I was only able to attend the first part of Brian Cathcart‘s talk but it was both informative and entertaining. News from Waterloo** was the title of both his talk and his recent book, with the subtitle The Race to tell Britain of Wellington’s Victory. Cathcart is well-versed in journalism — he is a co-founder of the press reform group Hacked Off, a professor of journalism and a published crime writer — and the dissemination of news in the days before mass communication clearly piqued his interest. It took three days for Wellington’s communiqué from the Belgian battlefield to reach London, and Cathcart recounted the context as well as the detail of how that news was conveyed in the aftermath of Waterloo.

Awaiting the speakerThe next event I helped at was Brian Brivati‘s enlightening discourse on how Iraq fares in the aftermath of another rather different war, this one far from Europe. The Last Optimist in Baghdad focused on Ghassan Jawad Kadhim, one of the Iraqis “trying to bring peace and reconciliation against terrible odds” to this region. Brivati talked at last year’s festival about his late friend the Labour politician Michael Foot, whose writings he edited, but his main work these days is as lead facilitator for UN projects in Baghdad, principally international development and conflict resolution. A booklet, also entitled The Last Optimist in Baghdad,** was published jointly by The Stabilisation and Recovery Network and Crickhowell Literary Festival, and I hope to review that in rather more detail in the near future.

Adam Baron is not only a writer for TV and radio but also the author of the Billy Rucker crime series and a recent novel. He fronted three events but the one I helped at was a creative writing workshop, How to Make a Story. Taking a short story by Carson McCullers (“The Jockey”) he got participants to discuss and analyse its narrative structure. Along the way he introduced T S Eliot’s concept of the objective correlative, a set of objects, a situation or a chain of events serving as the ‘formula’ of a particular emotion; the inciting incident, the occasion that serves to trigger the action of the story; and defamation professionelle which describes a tendency to view things from a limited perspective, thus distorting the overall appreciation of a person, thing or situation.

Lara Feigel is a cultural historian whose academic specialism is modern literature. A previous book, The Love-charm of Bombs, had chronicled the London blitz through the writings of five prominent writers; The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich** describes how cultural denazification and re-education of war-torn Germany was tackled by the Allies through the sending in of writers, artists and film-makers. Figures such as Marlene Dietrich, Martha Gellhorn, Lee Miller and their male counterparts such as George Orwell, Billy Wilder and W H Auden were sent in to shape hearts and minds and were regarded as equally crucial as physical reconstruction and the bringing to trial of war criminals. Dr Feigel read extracts from her book before being interviewed by Owen Sheers, author of the alternate history novel Resistance in which Britain is successfully invaded by the Nazis in the 1940s. She successfully conveyed the utter devastation of the German cities in which 7.5 million civilians were rendered homeless, and she noted how the advice given by historians on the necessity for long term international support and commitment, like that provided by the Marshall Plan after 1945, was largely ignored in the invasion of Iraq, resulting in continued unrest in the country and surrounding region.

The final event I was involved in was a talk by Elizabeth Siberry, co-editor with Robert Wilcher of Henry Vaughan and the Usk Valley**. You may be forgiven for thinking that this book would be of only local interest, but the 17th-century physician Vaughan is now highly regarded as a metaphysical poet who only subsequently gained recognition and widespread admiration for his writings, with works from Silex Scintillans for example being set to music by composers such as Holst, Finzi and Parry. Vaughan lived through the disturbed period of the English Civil War but his poetry largely reflects higher matters, such as Man’s relationship with God and with Nature. Siberry’s past publications have included studies on attitudes to the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries and later in the modern period; here, as the title of her talk suggested, she narrowed her focus to examine one man and his place in history, in a landscape and in the hearts of his admirers, distilling the contributions of five other writers as well as herself in a publication with the same name.

You’ll note that almost all these speakers were authors of non-fiction studies, indicating my selected preferences for stewarding. That’s not to say this was a festival that didn’t include fiction writers and others: there were children’s authors and poets, and artists and artisans, as well as crime writers and writers of historical and contemporary fiction. But I rather relished factual input for this year, hence the preponderance of scholarly talks. Many of those speakers were from Kingston University, which is where one of the Festival Directors, Anne Rowe, is an Emeritus Research Fellow, but there were representatives too from the likes of King’s College London and the universities of Swansea, Oxford, Cardiff, Manchester Metropolitan and Glamorgan.

And here’s the place to give yet another shout-out for Book·ish, a regional indie winner at this year’s British Book Industry Awards and which not only sponsored the event but provided the books for the events. The good news is that a third festival is already in planning for next year.

[caption width="640" id="attachment_7492" align="aligncenter"]The Bookish bus, Crickhowell The Book·ish bus, Crickhowell

** All the books asterisked will be reviewed over the next few weeks and months


10 thoughts on “Steward’s enclosure

  1. A red wine … oh, sorry, you said you weren’t that kind. Or won’t be so kind. Or that kind of thing.
    Not a selection of books I would be rapt about or wrapped up in, but interesting nevertheless.

    1. Yes, no wining, only whining on occasion in these blog posts! As for the selection I aimed to expand my knowledge and reduce my ignorance about areas and matters I was unfamiliar with — but it’s a bit like unsuccessfully recounting a personally significant occassion, only to have to fall back on the lame excuse of “You had to be there …”

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