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

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Who needs Downton Abbey?

Thursday 9 June

Off to the 8th Althorp Literary Festival in Northamptonshire. This is my fourth year. It will be hard work: I have 11 events to chair over three days, starting tomorrow morning.

Arrive to find that it's just me and the Antonius Players, who are rehearsing next door while I sip sherry in a magnificent sitting room filled with oil paintings of rectangular cattle. After the introductions we have dinner and return for coffee and liqueurs and much hilarious theatrical and musical gossip. The six of us file off to our bedrooms. Mine seems miles away from everyone else's; I briefly feel unnerved, marooned in a house set in a park the size of Monaco (as Charles Spencer puts it in his book Althorp: The Story of an English House). The stable clock chimes. I fall asleep.

Friday 10 June

Breakfast with the Antonius Players in the Tapestry Passage, then a quick walk to the lake before the day's visitors arrive. It's deserted, apart from a friendly gardener edging the path, and an indignant flurry of ducks. Bliss.

To work. This year the Green Room is the library, a sumptuous room painted in 13 shades of cream to maximise the light. Through the large windows, rolling parkland, dotted with mature trees, stretches to the horizon; early that morning, when I peeped out through my shutters, a herd of deer appeared like a benediction.

First gig: the wonderfully energetic Evan Davis, talking about his book Made in Britain. A very entertaining hour; Davis is not afraid to tussle with the audience on the subject of Thatcher, immigration and unemployment.

There's a half hour break and I'm back in the marquee, interviewing our host Charles Spencer on the topic 'Althorp: A personal view'. And personal is what we get, with funny anecdotes about stepmother Raine, and touching portraits of his father and grandfather, not to mention favourite members of staff, including the housekeeper who used to descend into the cellars with a poker to do battle with the rats. (I wonder briefly whether he's ever uttered the phrase: 'You can't get the staff.')

After lunch I introduce a very entertaining lecture by Professor Gordon Campbell on Bible: The Story of the King James Version. I point out that the house we're in is actually 100 years older than the KJV. In the evening there's a grand old lit fest tradition: supper outside on the Portico, whatever the weather. Old hands like myself know to bring a warm shawl; others position themselves under the heaters. It's worth it for the stunning view of the park; but as night falls we're glad to return to the warmth of the library and its open fires. Yes. Open fires in June...

Saturday 11 June

Phew. A whirl of events today. Start off with the regular morning walk: encounter Rachel Johnson and her adorable dog, Coco, by the lake and walk back with them. Over breakfast am amused to read Blake Morrison's piece on country house fiction.

First up is Henry Worsley's tale of Antarctic derring-do, In Shackleton's Footsteps; and a fascinating one-on-one with David Baddiel, whose excellent fourth novel The Death of Eli Gold, tackles the life and troubled legacy of a Roth-Bellow-Updikean Grand Old Man of American literature. Baddiel politely dissents from my view that, his work aside, the phenomenon of Comedian-Writes-Novel is on the whole to be deplored.

In the marquee, Craig Brown's mirthful One-Stop Literary Festival takes no prisoners. Compiled from his spoof celebrity diaries in Private Eye, it takes in W G Sebald, Jeanette Winterson, D H Lawrence, Anthony Powell and many more. He continually toys with one of his recent victims, Kay Burley, who is in the audience. Finally she stands up, delivers a spirited plug for her book and ends ringingly, 'I'm on at 5pm in the house, not in a tent.' Thus encouraged, Brown reads his Burley spoof, which is brilliant - but she gets a round of applause too, for being such a good sport.

The last event is a brief introduction for Peter Snow's To War With Wellington, a thrilling worm's-eye-view of the Peninsular Campaign told via diaries and memoirs from Wellington's troops. Swingometer Snow really is as excitable and enthusiastic in real life as he was on all those election broadcasts.

It's been a busy day and myself and Fiona Lindsay, the other chair, have kept going on adrenalin and the constant chocolate biscuits provided in the library. Dinner is in the magnificent State Dining Room, and we all tiptoe back into the marquee to see the second half of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's brilliant set. 'Genius,' says Charles Spencer. 'Proper genius.' Finally, those who can tear themselves away from the drinks trolley get another treat: the now traditional late-night tour of the house. Stay up chatting to the affable Craig Brown until 12.30am.

Sunday 12 June

Up late; no morning stroll. At 10.30am, I'm in conversation with political grandee Michael Dobbs, who's talking about his new thriller Old Enemies. It  reintroduces us to his long-running hero Harry Jones, an MP with seemingly very little time for constituency work as he swings into action to foil a complex Zimbabwean/South African kidnap plot. Top stuff.

Dr David Starkey only requires an introduction and a helping hand on to the stage as he's done his foot in. You can tell he'd rather be striding around than sitting in a chair with his foot up on a stool, but his waspish and penetrating talk on marriage and the monarchy is perfectly to time and delivered without notes. It is rather mean-spirited - what on earth does he have against the Archbishop of Canterbury? - but since he has promised to outrage us, we can hardly complain about that.

The very last event for me is an interview with Simon Sebag Montefiore about his new book, Jerusalem: The Biography a work of vast scope. He mesmerises us with tales of the Herodian dynasty, the death of Jesus, the point where archaeology meets politics, and his prognostications for the future and views on the Arab Spring. Erudite, passionate and humane, it is a brilliant talk. Most impressive of all, his two children, each clutching a stuffed toy, sit through it without making a sound.

Then, in a last flurry of goodbyes and chocolate biscuits, it's over for another year. Roll on Althorp 2012!


  1. Exhausting just to read it all! Bravo to you. I can only imagine the mental energy and physical stamina it requires, as I was tired after hosting one single literary talk, my first ever, at Belfast Book Festival this week. (In fact it was with Greg Baxter, whose memoir/book of essays A Preparation for Death you reviewed in the FT. A mixed response you gave but still ended up on the back cover!)

  2. That was a very strange book... lots of scope for debate though. What was he like? And yes, doing back to back events with half an hour's break in between was a killer.

  3. He was very nice, much less intense than I feared! I think fatherhood has mellowed him somewhat...