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I read over 100 books a year. Here are my thoughts on the best (and worst).

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Flying carpets in Bath

I spent last weekend at the Bath Literature Festival - I was interviewing two of my favourite contemporary writers, Salley Vickers, who's just published a fine collection of short stories, Aphrodite's Hat, and Andrea Levy, whose novel, The Long Song, was shortlisted for the Man Booker. Andrea and I are a bit of a double act now; we've been 'in conversation' three times, but it's always different, stimulating and enjoyable. There's no particular reason why authors should be performing seals, and I get the impression it's not Andrea's absolute favourite way of passing the time. But the audience, in the splendid setting of the United Reformed church on Grove Street, were very enthusiastic and Andrea was spellbinding as ever.

Salley, an old friend of mine, is a very polished performer. I especially love what she calls her 'supra-natural' stories; it seemed appropriate to be discussing them in the grand surroundings of Bath's Masonic Hall, a fascinating building which was previously the first Theatre Royal. It was especially thrilling to have the art critic Matthew Collings in the audience; I caught up with him afterwards (I'm a big fan) and had a brief chat with him about the neoclassical painter Jacques Louis David. (Why? I'd just read Collings' book Civilisation and was especially struck with his insights on David.) What a charming fellow! (Collings, I mean; David, the ardent ally of Robespierre, was a shocker.)

The nice thing about festivals is the folk you bump into: like the wonderful Kazuo Ishiguro whom I met in the Writers' Room. We chatted about a newspaper article on best new writers, and about the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list that launched him, Amis, Barnes and Tremain in the early 1980s. 'Ish' was warm, approachable and unpretentious. I had a briefer chat with Howard Jacobson who was a bit more distant; the Man Booker effect, maybe. I couldn't get to his event but apparently it was a riot.

I nipped out on Sunday to one of my favourite small museums, the Holburne still being closed for renovations. (It looks fab - but what's happened to the tea-shack? Worthy of preservation in its own right.) The Museum of East Asian Art, 12 Bennett St, is a little gem: three floors of jade carvings, netsuke, Buddha statues, ancient bronze, lacquered bowls and dazzling ceramics, all the collection of one man and kept open as a labour of love. I recognised favourite pieces such as a tiny plate decorated with pink bats, a thimble-sized yellow and green cup for an imperial courtesan, and an elegant blanc-de-chine Ming vase with lions' heads.

Marina Warner is a strange one. She looks as if she's teleported from an Oxford college for the day; her illustrated talk on flying in The Arabian Nights was delivered earnestly from notes as though to a room full of undergraduates. No performing seal she. But what a talk! Mindful of her surroundings, she began with a reference to the legendary founder of Bath, King Bladud, King Lear's father, a magus who died while attempting to fly from the walls of New Troy (London): 'By Necromanticke Arts, to flye he sought...'

Warner herself flew on in this spectacular hour, taking in King Solomon, the djinns who bear the flying carpet (they are only supposed to carry those who know the secret name of God), the first balloon ascents, which coincided with the western popularity of the Nights, two 'flying bishops', one of whom, John Wilkins, was the brother in law of Oliver Cromwell and a serious scientist; then on to The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, Man of Cornwall (1730), a racy, Gulliver-esque narrative about the discovery of a race of flying (naked) beings. The talk was full of astonishing leaps and strange assertions; at one stage Warner noted, that while eastern stories feature flying furniture, such as sofas, 'Corsets, umbrellas and waterproofing is what flies in the west.'

Finally Warner touched down with a splendid slide showing a gleaming J-Lo reclining on a flying carpet with her husband. She was even more impressive during audience question time, effortlessly fielding queries about astral flying, pantomime and witches' broomsticks. I'm sorry she didn't take in the flying sequences in The Mighty Boosh - Naboo's flying carpet, you will recall, observes aerial one-way systems - but I expect Warner has that filed away somewhere in her giant brain.

The Bath LitFest continues until 6 March; do try and check it out if you're in the area, and if you see him around, say hello to the festival director, the ebulliently rumpled James Runcie. He's doing a great job.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Sounds like a lot of fun. I've downloaded podcasts of quite a few conversations with Andrea Levy and her readings are fantastic. She goes all out with the accents. She should be on radio.