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

Monday, July 18, 2011

Harrogate times two - and not a happy Betty

On July 2 I went up to Harrogate to interview the bestselling authors Douglas Kennedy and Sadie Jones as part of the Summer Festival. It was the first of two visits to this beautiful and elegant former spa town.

Both their novels deal with the breakdown in trust between partners under the pressure of dire historical predicaments. The Moment is set in grim East Berlin before the wall fell, Small Wars tells of a military marriage in '50s Cyprus against a backdrop of guerilla warfare and brutal reprisals. Alhough the books are very different in tone, it was an apt pairing and both were on terrific form. Afterwards Douglas and I repaired to the prosaically named Restaurant Bar and Grill for cocktails and supper. The barman's Negronis got the thumbs up from Douglas, a very discerning fellow.

The next day I had to return to London to interview Michael Cunningham in the Purcell Room at 4pm. The gods were against me; vandalism on the line meant all trains to London from Leeds were cancelled. A saintly man at Harrogate station reorganised my train times. 'I'm on stage at the South Bank in front of hundreds of people!' I said, self-importantly. 'Are you a comedian?' he asked, which made me laugh.

I made it to the green room with ten minutes to spare. Fortunately Michael Cunningham is supremely laid back and it was a relaxed hour's conversation, during which he revealed that he is a secret silversmith and sells his wares under a pseudonym at Barneys in New York. Which has to be one of the weirdest things an author has ever told me.

His new novel By Nightfall is a terrific piece of work, a graceful story of love and betrayal with the heft of a book twice its size. What's brilliant is the way he sketches a whole life with the economy of a short-story writer. The story, which lightly echoes Death in Venice, is set against the backdrop of the New York art scene, about which he talked fascinatingly.

Later that week I went to Liverpool to interview Libyan novelist Hisham Matar about his new book Anatomy of a Disappearance, which I think is even stronger than his debut, In the Country of Men. Part of the Bluecoat's Arab festival, it was a mesmerising event as Matar talked unselfpityingly about his own tragic family background and his hopes and fears for Libya and the Arab Spring. The next night it was back to London for Alan Hollinghurst at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Alan is quite intimidating, but also witty and thoughtful. The highlight was his excellent reading, bringing out to the full the sly humour of The Stranger's Child. I made a light-hearted suggestion that the book's sections would still make sense if read in reverse order. This seemed to perplex him, though I meant it as a compliment. I thought it was a brilliant trick he must have deliberately planned. It seems not.

Last Monday (11th) I chaired a quiet, intimate event with the lovely Helen Oyeyemi, who was reading from and talking about her latest, Mr Fox. First she read out the dark fairy tale of the same name, about a young woman who outwits a dastardly murderer: 'Be bold, be bold, but not too bold...' Mr Fox the woman-killer crops up in all cultures, she pointed out, sometimes in unsuspected guises - I hadn't spotted that Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is a variant of the story. I could have happily discussed fairy tales with Oyeyemi all night.

And so, back to Harrogate again to interview Laurie Graham and Wendy Holden about At Sea and Marrying Up respectively. The discussion ranged widely from why we're all fed up of Pippa Middleton, the joy of writing about wicked characters, feminism with large and small fs, Carmen Callil (who discovered Graham) and comic influences. It was great fun.

We decided to celebrate afterwards by going to the famous Betty's Tea Shop. I went to the one in York years ago, and remembered its atmosphere of elegant indulgence. I even remember what I ate: a unusual confection of cream, pastry, black cherry and cinnamon. Things have changed a little, it seems.

We may have been a bit annoying. We were directed to a side room we didn't fancy, so remained hovering in the main tea room. Directed to another table, we suddenly saw that a prime table by the window was being vacated, so swiftly nabbed that instead. Maybe this caused offence. We sat there... and sat there... then when we asked if we could order, a young woman dressed as a waitress informed us that it wasn't waitress service. You have to go to the counter and pay in advance. 'It's a bit like Russia,' Wendy muttered.

Finally, our goodies arrived. I have no complaints about the plate of zingy, chewy macaroons that Wendy and I shared, nor about the exquisite rose-scented China tea that accompanied them. But the service was so joyless. On leaving I caught the eye of two waitresses, both of whom looked stonily back at me. Weird.

My visit to Harrogate was rounded off in fine style, however, with a visit to the Mercer Art Gallery to see an exhibition by Yorkshire's answer to Caspar David Friedrich, Atkinson Grimshaw. His enigmatic moonlit scenes of Victorian docks, rain-wet city streets, autumnal gardens, lonely brick mansions and leafy suburban lanes (often with hurrying female figure in the distance), are familiar from many a Penguin Classic jacket. The exhibition traces the development of this most mysterious and apparently self-taught artist, from early pre-Raphaelite-influenced landscapes and nature studies to experiments with light and mood, often based on photographs; then on to tender female portraits and clear attempts to ride the Aesthetic wave with Whistler-esque Thames scenes and fashionable interiors. Many of the paintings are in private hands, loaned to the exhibition, so this really is a must-see. It's Grimshaw up north!

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