This post concludes my first week of volunteering. The festival ends next weekend, and I don’t want to think about writing these posts without the excitement of the next event.
Ruth Scurr on John Aubrey
Ruth Scurr, Historian, literary critic and biographer of John Aubrey (the man who redefined the way in which biographies were written) was in conversation with Erica Wagner.
Ruth Scurr (RS) began by talking about John Aubrey and his role in revolutionising the Biography format.
RS explained Aubrey was obsessed with the past from a young age. ‘Born in the shadow of the reformation’ he gathered manuscripts scattered from the monasteries. He was an antiquarian wanting to preserve the past.
Unlike biographers of his age, who wrote based on documents, Aubrey went and interviewed people who knew the person he happened to be writing about. (He interviewed Milton’s widow after his death – people were surprisingly open to talking to him.) He was interested in the details others overlooked, details that went beyond the academic. Eventually, Aubry compiled Brief Lives, which is how we know what we do about his talented (art, science etc..) contemporaries.
RS came to Aubrey as she wanted to give a biography to the man who did so much for the form. She also wanted to step back to restoration after previously writing about the French Revolution and Robespierre. Unfortunately, Aubrey did not keep a diary like Pepys did, so RS compiled all the scraps of information on him and decided to bring them together into a diary-like format. To write his tale, RS explained, as fiction would have gone against how he felt about writing. Aubrey was never interested in fiction, he cared about detail.
Jeanette Winterson is an author of books such as Sexing the Cherry and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. This event was hosted by New Writing South, their 5th annual lecture.
I’ve been a big fan of Jeanette Winterson (JW) since reading Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit a few years ago.
This was a wonderful lecture on the importance of storytelling and reading.
JW began by talking about stories in everyday life. Language is a memory system, we pass information on through each other.
“We created language so we could express ourselves to ourselves and others.”
JW argues that nothing is objective, stories of one event can be told differently. Oral history changes like Chinese whispers as they are told and retold.
She explained that ‘we delight in the digressions along the way’, and novels are compiled of digressions along the way.
Language is necessary for storytelling, and stories are necessary to connect to the past – without communication your ideas are stunted.
We learn through storytelling.
‘Imaginative fiction does more that tell a story, it gives us a language to tell our own story.’
Where fiction reveals our feelings language gives us the missing words to describe them, to express them. The more we read, the more our vocabulary expands, the more we can express who and what we are.
The fiction and poetry that has lasted carries a lot of weight – a resilience of language. Complex literature lights up the brain. These stories don’t necessarily represent their time, but they address the human. Jane Austen never wrote about war, she wrote about how cute the militia were, focusing on the people rather than the event.
Reading is a very personal experience, and often two people who love the same book read it very differently. We each have our own version of events, our own vision of the story.
JW expresses that reading is a different pace to the rest of the world, even if you read quickly. People say they don’t have the time to read anymore, and that should be a warning sign and not a fact of life. New tech is rewiring our brain and we’re not quite sure how yet. (Although, I think it makes us unable to concentrate as well and crave short bursts of information over anything long.) It’s important that we don’t see reading as a chore to be done.
Questions followed, including one very funny woman asking why JW is ‘so delicious’. She meant, of course, her writing, but that wasn’t made quite clear at the first asking.
Usually I end these posts with questions for you, but today I want to end with the following JW quote:
‘Reading is good for my brain, good for my mind, good for my heart.’