We returned last night from our annual family pilgrimage to the Aldeburgh Literary Weekend. This was aptly described by Charles Moore last year as “quite the nicest literary festival” (though the organisers deliberately avoid the “f” word) and as “pleasantly small”, with around 250 people crowding into the Jubilee Hall for each event.
The talks I attended this year were:
- Carmen Callil on her book Bad Faith: the talk itself was a little disappointing, but the book itself, combining a history of Vichy France with a biography of one of its more revolting minor officials, looks like it may be worth reading when it comes out in paperback. Callil gave an interesting reply to the question of whether France has come to terms with its wartime history: she suggested that the answer to that question is “yes”, but that France hasn’t come to terms with what happened before the war – in particular the growth of its own fascist and ultra-nationalist movements which then formed the core of the Vichy regime – nor of the role of big business (such as Eugene Schueller, founder of L’Oréal) in the prewar years and during the occupation.
- David Profumo and Nicholas Mosley on their respective memoirs of their infamous fathers, John Profumo and Oswald Mosley, chaired by Craig Brown. Very interesting discussion, and all terribly English (“Oh, so your father was disgraced like that? How fascinating. Y’know, my father was disgraced like this. Funny old world”). Incidentally, Nicholas Mosley – a volunteer army officer during the Second World War – abominated his father’s politics (at one point in the 1960s they stopped talking for “7, 8, 9, maybe 10 years” after Nicholas confronted Oswald on this subject), and his Hitler-adoring stepmother, Diana Mosley, never spoke to him again after he published his father’s biography.
- Matt Ridley on his biography of Francis Crick: probably the best talk of the ones I heard. Like Richard Feynman, Crick was a long way from the stereotypical image of the socially-dysfunctional lone-gun scientific genius. His collaborator on the discovery of the DNA double helix, Jim Watson, told Ridley that Crick’s three great driving passions were “science, atheism and au pair girls”. Watson opened his own book, The Double Helix, with the words, “I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood”. (His publisher’s lawyers tried to make him change this to, “I cannot recollect having seen Francis Crick in a modest mood”. Bless ’em.)
- Helen Castor on her 15th-century history based on the Paston letters, Blood and Roses: The Paston Family and the War of the Roses. This came a narrow second to the Matt Ridley, and is the only talk where I felt moved to buy the book. There are a couple of good reviews of Castor’s book in the NYT and the London Review of Books (“This is a book that demonstrates how serious history can now achieve a generous market beyond the academy, without compromising its standards or its priorities”).
In addition to attending these talks, I also picked up a couple of other books unconnected with the weekend’s events. Keith Ward’s Is Religion Dangerous? demolishes the commonly-held notion that religion is uniquely responsible for much of the world’s conflict and misery. According to Ward’s introduction, the book is written partly in response to attacks on religion by the likes of Polly Toynbee in the Guardian (which he describes, all too accurately, as “an excellent quality British newspaper that seems to have an obsessive aversion to religion”).
And the secondhand triumph of the weekend was finding a pristine paperback copy of Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx (“A magnificently lively, compulsively readable book … Wheen’s triumph” – A.N.Wilson) for two quid. One of those moments where you clutch the book protectively against you before paying, in case someone snatches it out of your hand on the way to the till…