Sunday 30 December 2012

Bath Literature Festival 2013

Now I can be a bit Bah, Humbug about Christmas, as my children will tell you (they're used to me by now). It's not that I mean to be, but I've got to that age where too many people aren't around any more and they're specially missed at Christmas time. The constant shopping and unending 'to do' list (with too little time for the 'do' bit) also tends to get me down. I do surface occasionally, though, by way of an enchanting carol service or a relaxing meal, away from office parties, catching up with friends.This year, reading lots of sparkling literary blogs has also helped me reconnect with the non-commercial aspects of a 21st century Christmas.

Another high point I've come to anticipate is the arrival in my inbox of the steward's availability form for the Bath Literature Festival, which in 2013 runs from 1-10 March. The festival has grown steadily over the time I've been volunteering, and it's a delight to scroll through the programme and absorb the combination of old favourites and new names alongside the headliners for the year.

This programme is the ever-fragrant James Runcie's fourth and last as artistic director, and, as usual, he's drawn together an eclectic combination of talks, debates, performance and workshops. Contributors range from big-name fiction authors like JK Rowling and Hilary Mantel to arts correspondents, historians, broadcasters and politicians. One difficult decision for every festival is which events to volunteer for (which brings with it the possibility of missing some of the event through latecomers or problem coughers) and which to pay for (which guarantees a seat alongside family and friends but tends to get expensive when there's lots you want to see).

My unmissables for 2013 so far are

AN Wilson on Wedgewood - absorbing and knowledgeable on all his subjects and I grew up in the Potteries.

Pat Barker - quite simply, I love her writing.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Long List Announcement - I've been dipping into foreign fiction since reading the brilliant Kamchatka (I've picked up lots of recommendations through winstonsdad's blog). Frank Wynne is Kamchatka's translator and I'd love to ask him whether there are any translations of Marcelo Figueras' work in the pipeline).

Ben Goldacre - an informative and lively critic of scientific journalism - one to take my (teenage) children to.

And which to volunteer for? That's a tricky one, but I've often found the events I know least about turn out to be the most entertaining, so nowadays I simply base it on my own availability. This way I've discovered Jon Ronson, Franny Moyle, Simon Baron Cohen, Tim Dee, James Fenton and many, many more. Being a Bath Festivals steward is an enjoyable and highly rewarding thing to do - the permanent team are endlessly supportive and my fellow stewards enthusiastic and well-informed. And you come away with that warm glow of feeling you've made a contribution (however small!) to the cultural life of the place where you live and work.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

There's a bit of a Greek theme going down chez Clairethinking at the moment, when we're not battling our way round the good city of Bath that is. The whole centre has been reduced to a bone-crushing frenzy by a Christmas market overrun with ladies of a certain age (like me!) sampling mulled wine and asking directions to the toilets in Marks and Spencer. My daughter termed it 'a sort of Welsh Hajj'.

I've just finished reading Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles (this year's Orange prizewinner) and my elder daughter has been occupying her gap year thus far by co-directing her old school's play The Bacchae by Euripedes.

Now you couldn't find anything much further from a classical scholar than me, I dabbled a bit years ago at grammar school but gave up in favour of modern foreign languages. I know next to nothing about The Bacchae and my knowledge of Achilles is limited to him being a great warrior who had something to do with the Trojan War. Oh and wasn't he dipped into the river Styx as a child by his goddess mother to render him invulnerable, but as she held him by his heel that bit didn't get protected, hence the term 'Achilles heel'?

The Song of Achilles is narrated by Patroclus, a young Prince exiled to the court of Achilles' father Peleus. Achilles chooses Patroclus to be his companion when the two are boys, and, despite the disapproval of Achilles' mother Thetis, they become firm friends and then lovers. But Achilles is destined to be a great warrior, and is called to fight in Troy. Despite his less-than-average skills as a soldier, Patroclus elects to go with him.

Patroclus' retelling of his life with Achilles, educated by the centaur Chiron and interspersed by the interventions of the gods, is believably written and an absorbing read, even if Patroclus does often seem to view events through the prism of modern values. Homosexuality is pretty well tolerated by everyone - well we are in ancient Greece, after all - apart from Achilles' mother and Miller does give some insight into some of the crueler episodes, such as the treatment of Deidameia, Achilles' so-called wife, explaining why what happens must be so.

Much of this novel is enthralling, especially once the massed army of Greeks arrives outside Troy and battle commences. Odysseus is shrewd and knowing and Achilles' stand-off with Agamemnon is suitably tense. I did feel at times as though I was reading a very personal interpretation of the Illiad 'lite' and that to understand fully I would need to get back to a closer translation - but then a story which stimulates your interest in further reading is surely no bad thing.

Patroclus' narration at the close had a tendency to become rather whimsical and weakened the ending of the novel. But my biggest disappointment was that, despite Patroclus' adoration of Achilles' feet in the first part of the story (which I decided must be highly significant!), Achilles' death didn't seem to involve his heels at all. I've since read there are alternative interpretations of the myth, and that the term 'Achilles' heel' did not in any case come into common usage until the 19th century.

And as for my daughter's co-direction of The Bacchae? An unmitigated triumph of drama, combining tragedy, comedy, circus acrobatics, broken bones and quite a lot of screaming (but then, of course, I may just be a little bit biased...)

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Marriage Lines by Julian Barnes

Do you often cry when you're reading? Maybe I'm hard hearted because, although frequently affected by the words on a page, I rarely burst into tears (a recent exception being Uncle Tom's Cabin). I wonder whether it has something to do with being able to sneak a glance ahead and pace yourself if you can see an emotional maelstrom's on the way.

Whatever the reason, I find listening is a whole other world. As a Radio 4 addict, I often catch a short story on the afternoon school run and get caught up in the narrative - unable to control its tone of voice or slow down the delivery. One such story which sticks in my mind is Marriage Lines by Julian Barnes. I think I probably heard it back in 2007 and was crying so much by the end I had to pull over! I quickly tracked it down in print but have only just got round to buying it, mainly because I was afraid of being disappointed, after such a reaction, with what I read.

Marriage Lines is one of the short stories in the 100th edition of Granta, edited by William Boyd. Granta 100 is a treasure trove of literary nuggets, with stories by the likes of Salman Rushdie, Doris Lessing and Allan Hollinghurst to name but a few. I have to admit I haven't read them all yet, but I'm really enjoying having something of such quality to dip into. Of course, it was Marriage Lines I turned to immediately, as soon as the book-shaped package plopped on to the doormat.

Marriage Lines opens with a Twin Otter landing on a Hebridean island and immediately you sense that the author knows this journey and this place intimately. The island is not named (although you can identify it from its landmarks) and nor is the subject of this story.We learn little of his everyday life but what we do learn is that his situation has changed.Waiting to collect 'their' luggage

 They, their, he knew he must start getting used to the singular pronoun instead. This was going to be the grammar of his life from now on.

He and his wife have been visiting the same small bed and breakfast establishment for twenty years or so, and in the history of their stays there lies the narrative of a marriage, the lines which hold it together but might also tear it apart. Bird-watching, flowers, clam-digging, the zigzagged pattern in a grandfather's sweater. The dignity and restraint of their hosts Calum and Flora, their few words but many small, kind deeds, is mirrored in the pared-down precision of the prose. By the closing paragraph there is an enduring sense that the traditions and constancy of this island, like the marriage itself, may be about to change, but not before imparting a final insight.

So did I cry upon reading this story for the first time? No, because I guess I knew what was coming. But this doesn't mean it was a disappointment. Far from it - I found I admired Marriage Lines all the more for the quality of its telling laid bare upon the page. No flashy literary showing off like his contemporaries Ian McEwan or Martin Amis: Barnes is the master of what is left unsaid, allowing you to fill in the gaps for yourself. But Marriage Lines should come with a warning; it may just leave your kids waiting in the playground for their red-eyed parent to pick them up...