You may have noticed – from my inclusion of Instagram and Twitter – that there were musical interludes my day. Not only were the musicians (extremely) talented and entertaining, it was just what I needed to break from concentration and note-taking. I read my book(s) as the music played, it was like being in a cosy living room or (as is my dream) a personal library.
Alas, the majority of the books were not mine.
Robert Muchamore talks to Philip Womack
- Robert Muchamore is a YA author, famous for the Cherub series. His most recent novel is Rock War
- Philip Womack is a children’s novelist and literary critic for The Guardian
[I got given a free book by the lady sitting next to me prior to this event. Sure it was slightly coffee stained, but I’m not going to a) turn down something free b) turn down a book c) be rude. Stains don’t bother me anyway, especially if the book is good (which I was assured it was).]
Free books aside, I’ve never read the Cherub series before. Muchamore was both unfamiliar and not a writer of the usual genres I turn to. Very interesting for any YA fan, however.
Cherub – like Harry potter (I doubt Muchamore would enjoy this comparison) – is a series many children have grown up with. Speaking to Womack, Muchamore discussed Cherub, his writing and new children’s series Rock War.
Womack began by asking why Muchamore decided to move from spies (Cherub) to Music. Muchamore explained he had always loved music and the idea had always been in the back of his head. He felt both were fantasy novels, different subjects but offering the same things to the reader.
Muchamore said that being a parent could be a barrier to being a children’s novelist, as it opened you to the darker side of being a parent and the worrying that goes with it. Being an uncle is easier for him. He wrote the Cherub books with his Nephew in mind, imagining what he would want growing up, such as a girlfriend.
Questions were then opened to the audience, and it was adorable to see how many kids loved his writing.
Spies in Fact and Fiction
Charles Cumming & Christopher Andrew talk with James Naughtie
- Charles Cumming is a spy fiction writer, author of A Spy By Nature and A Colder War
- Christopher Andrew is the author of Defence of the Realm – an authorised history of MI5 – and Professor at Cambridge
- James Naughtie is a broadcaster and writer, author of The Madness of July
I began my notes with, “I would be a good spy.” This is both arrogant and absolute rubbish. I’d crumble like a biscuit under that sort of pressure.
I think this may have been my favourite talk, even though spy fiction isn’t a genre I dip into. It was just so fascinating! Sadly, the only thing I can recall without looking checking my notes is that I’ve been pronouncing Le Carre incorrectly (it’s ‘le Ca-rey’, not ‘le car’ as I had thought). The embarrassment. And that Andrew was wearing a Blue Peter badge, which reminded me how much I have always wanted one.
Andrew stated that the British are the best at spy novels as they are often written by ex-spies. He also found it interesting that Intelligence is the only occupation where the fictional characters are more known than the professionals. People think they know about spying, but they don’t. Cumming agreed.
The discussion then moved to the difference between old spy fiction and the new – the inclusion of tech, for example. Naughtie stateed that politically it feels as if a Cold War-esc atmosphere has returned, and Cumming agreed that there is certainly a demand for that type of fiction. He referenced Putin as the cause of this, referring to Putin as fictionally “the gift that keeps on giving.” Andrew added to the humour with, “Putin is the first world leader since Mussolini that thinks he looks better with his shirt off than with his shirt on.”
Unsurprisingly Snowden was soon mentioned, Cumming explained that he is an interesting figure as he is mostly regarded as a hero. Which is demonstrative of how the world has changed, he would have been seen as a traitor. Cumming stated that he thought Snowden had the best intentions but did not consider the consequences. Andrew considered him stupid, as it makes spying more difficult when you show people (and the enemy) how to do it.
The success of the secret service, Andrew went on to explained, is based on things that don’t happen. Fiction, on the other hand, is different as you need action to push the plot forward.
Naughtie asks Cumming if, post-Snowdon, he found his books have gone out of date. With the readers knowing more than the characters. Cumming hadn’t noticed much difference but has had a plot occur as he was writing. He wants to avoid meeting too many spies in order to keep his stories fresh.
Questions are then open to the audience.
A question is asked about the role of women in the spy fiction genre. Andrew (or perhaps Naughtie) immediately mentioned Dame Stella Rimington, writer of spy fiction and ex-head of MI5. Andrew went on to give a brief history of the absorption of women into the intelligence fields. During the First World War it was decided that the cleverest female secretaries should be brought in. Some men hated the idea, others were happy their “secretaries could do their accounts.” Apparently, Russia in the 80s never thought to question that the woman next to them may have been a spy, women were underestimated.
Naughtie feels women are underrepresented in fiction, referencing authors such as Le Carre and Ian Flemming, who disliked female characters.
One of the final questions was on the role of tech in spy fiction. Cumming explained it is for storytelling purposes, and not reflective of actual intelligence work.
Fun (it’s not fun) fact: even if an iPhone is off it can act as a live microphone.
Palin on Place
Michael Palin talks to Brett Wolstencroft
- Michael Palin is a comedian, actor, writer, traveller and general hero of mine
- Brett Wolstencroft is manager of the Marleybone branch of Daunt Books
[I got chatting to another couple as we were waiting for Palin, who were also absolutely lovely – I’ve had some wonderful people take pity on me and chat at this event.]
Miraculously I manage to refrain from screaming the Lumberjack song at Palin. An experience I can guarantee he would not have enjoyed and I would have had anxiety dreams about for… well, the rest of my life.
It also would have been completely off topic, as Palin wasn’t there to talk about Comedy or Python, but place.
Palin, post comedy years, is known for his travelling: Around the World in 80 Days, his travel diaries and various other ventures. Interestingly, he wasn’t the BBC’s first choice, he was in fact 5th. Both Noel Edmunds and Clive James could have toured us over the world – how different that would have been!
Wolstencroft felt that Around the World in 80 Days changed the nature of travel programmes from then on. “I’m still not sure to this day if I did what the BBC wanted me to do”, said Palin. He had no script and decided early on that he wanted to make it about the journey. Palin explained that travelling like this meant being open and considerate, “empathy is very important.”
He had to enter each situation with humility, as you couldn’t just direct people in all the places he visited, they are offering hospitality and you are the visitor. Wolstencroft referenced Clarkson and his particular method of diplomacy while travelling, Palin was delicate with his response but felt, “you need to respect everyone you meet along the way.”
The conversation then moves to Palin’s travel diaries, which Wolstencroft described as very different to usual travel writing. Palin described how he was always writing while travelling, noting things down in his diary. He wanted to make the book that would accompany the series a personal experience, an extension of the show rather than a replication.
Palin feels that travelling isn’t about escape, but learning. Travelling changed his attitude to life. He praised Daunt, where he bought all his book before travelling. He always had a novel with him to correspond with the country he was in. For those of you who are unaware, the Marleybone branch of Daunt organises fiction and non-fiction along with travel guides for each country.
Wolstencroft went on to ask Palin about his affinity with Hemingway, whom Palin discovered at school and lost his “literary virginity” to. Palin finds Hemingway an amazing traveller, who lived with the people from the towns in the countries he visited, rather than hotels.
Palin then read a portion of his latest fiction before questions began.
An audience member asks what was the most difficult place to get to that he then found disappointing, to which Palin responded, the South Pole. To get there, you go over a very bleak landscape only to arrive at somewhere that looks like an Argos depot or Ikea, he explained.
Palin has never done any unplanned travelling, not knowing where the next place to stay would be, although at times he has been allowed to go off piste while filming.
Another audience member asked what travel writers he read, and how they may have affected what he then wrote. However, Palin explained that other than Theroux he avoided travel writers, preferring local novel/writers to get a better idea of place.
And so ended my time at the festival.
Emily and everyone at Daunt did a wonderful job putting this festival together, it made for a marvellous little holiday.
Again, I believe recordings of these events will go up on the Daunt website, so do go have a listen.