Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Twelve new things I learnt last week

Notes from the Henley Literary Festival 2017

Blogger's son and children's author Katherine Rundell, writer of The Explorer
My son meets children's author Katherine Rundell,
who researched her latest novel The Explorer
on an expedition to the Amazon rainforest
What a journey! I've travelled from the Ottoman Empire to the Tudor Court, across Russia, dipped a toe into Georgian and Victorian England, scurried through a few war zones and glimpsed behind the scenes of a coalition government. 

It has been exhilarating, mind-blowing, delightfully informative and, at times, a little exhausting. My conduit for this dizzying tour of culture was the Henley Literary Festival, a book fest that pops up every autumn like a mushroom in my back yard.

I couldn't possibly share everything I've learnt during the past week of attending talks (fifteen at the last count), but I've plucked out a few edifying highlights...

1) Doubting Darwin - if Charles Darwin was alive today he would have thought some of his evolutionary theories were "complete baloney," argues A.N. Wilson, who has written a controversial biography, Charles Darwin, Victorian Mythmaker.

2) Lenin, the ladies' man - the force behind the Russian Communist revolution of 1917 apparently spent many years living in a ménage à trois with his wife Nadia and his lover Inessa Armand, a French-born revolutionary, according to Victor Sebestyen, author of Lenin the Dictator. The two women became very close as a consequence.

3) How to be a good spy - think on your feet and spin a story on the spot! So says Mihir Bose, author of Silver: The Spy Who Fooled the Nazis. Silver, an uneducated Hindu from the north-west of India, spied for the Italians, the Germans, the Japanese, the Soviets and the British during the second world war.

4) Notes from the front line hanging out in Sarajevo in 1993, war correspondent Martin Bell wrote in his notebook: "Everyone's lying but it doesn't matter because no one's listening." Later, when he was injured by a sniper, he noted, "Every day after that becomes the first day of the rest of my life." Bell has now written War and the Death of News. He asserts that Trump would never have become president without the internet (and fake news). "He wouldn't have got within a prayer of it."

5) World-shaping speeches - Barack Obama was one of the finest orators of his time, but only the second best in his family. Philip Collins, Tony Blair's old speechwriter, explains why his new book is called, When They Go Low, We Go High, a quote from Michelle Obama's speech supporting Hillary Clinton's presidential bid.

6) Secret lives - can you name our most prolific playwright of the Restoration, the period after Charles II regained the English throne? No? I'll give you a clue - she's a woman... called Aphra Behn. She has since been written out of our literary canon, even though she was also a successful poet (and a spy). In her new book, Janet Todd reveals The Secret Life of Aphra Behn.

7) Dear Sultana... Elizabeth I fostered a trading alliance with the Islamic World in the 16th century after she was excommunicated from the Catholic faith and shunned by the rest of Europe. She exchanged letters with the mother of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, occasionally sending her pen pal gifts, such as a mechanical organ. All this and more in a fascinating book, This Orient Isle, by Jerry Brotton.

8) Tea with an assassin? Peter Conradi, author of Who Lost Russia, interviewed Andrei Lugovoi, the man suspected of poisoning the former Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, in London by slipping polonium-210 into his tea. At Lugovoi's restaurant in Moscow, Conradi made a point of ordering a cup of tea!

9) Besotted with Jane Austen - A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh, wrote an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the stage, early on in his career. This gem comes from Paula Byrne, author of The Genius of Jane Austen.

10) The art of empathy - "Fiction is the best thing we have to understand what it is to be someone else," says debut novelist Nathan Hill, author of The Nix.

11) Speak up Theresa! Birmingham, Yardley, MP Jess Phillips says the prime minister should not tolerate misogynist coverage of her behaviour and appearance. Phillips, who describes herself as a "mouthy feminist" has written Everywoman - One Woman's Truth about Speaking the Truth.

12) Wounds of war - war correspondent Fergal Keane won't cover Syria anymore because it's too dangerous. In his latest book, Wounds: A Memoir of Love and War, he explores the Irish conflict and his own family's involvement. For the first time, he begins to understand where his lifelong fascination with war has come from.


If you liked this, read about my close encounter with Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, by clicking here.