Woodstock Literary Festival: Magic words

From a Fifties Hollywood siren to a royal biographer, the Woodstock Literary Festival had it all. John Walsh reports
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The Independent Culture

If the other Woodstock, the one in New York State in 1969, was billed as "Three days of peace, music and love", what was the Independent Woodstock Literary Festival 2009? Five days of books, lectures, passionate encounters between authors and readers, earnest discussion, relentless interrogations, frank revelations, free wine, strolls in the grounds of Blenheim Palace, power naps by the lake and Victoria sponge in the courtyard restaurant? It was all that and more. Ninety events on every subject from religion to organic tripe. A dozen venues, from the parlour of the Bear Hotel to the Palace's ancestral kitchens. We discussed Lolita, Catch-22, Middlemarch, God, the Peasants' Revolt, bodyline bowling and the early life of Queen Victoria. Non-history students piled into this event to gaze at the baby-blue eyes and Titian locks of the young academic Kate Williams, while aspirant gamblers piled into the Woodstock Museum to hear Victoria Coren explain how to win £1m at poker. Everybody was there: veteran novelists like Penelope Lively, veteran actresses like Leslie Caron, television faces like Julian Fellowes and Martin Bell, sportsmen and historians, foreign correspondents and gardening writers...

There was even a fantasist. Just as some villages feature a village idiot, some festivals boast a fantasist, who crops up at events to assure the on-stage talent that they have a great deal in common with him/her, and that they should collaborate on a future project. They're something between a festival leitmotif and a company mascot.

A crush of ladies d'un certain age piled into The Bear to hear food writer Tom Parker Bowles slag off the grub he'd been served at school, stuff that's still being served at motorway service stations; and to voice his suspicion of organic produce in supermarkets. But when he spoke about the individual food-growers, cheese-makers and ham-curers, the "passionate, dedicated artisans" that he's met on his travels, you could hear the authentic voice of culinary conviction. Jamie Montgomery's Cheddar received a fervent plug, as did Tom's mother's cooking. Asked if he was invited much on to TV food shows, he replied, "No, I think they're a bit bored with toffs. Except for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall." The throng of ladies went "Ahhhh..." After the event, the fantasist approached, confided that she was writing "a musical about vegetables" and hoped he could help with the lyrics. A well-brought-up youth, Tom kindly gave her an email address (though possibly not his own.)

Thursday night brought 150 punters to the Marlborough school just outside the town, to hear a panel of Independent columnists (Johann Hari, Alex James, Dom Joly and Tracey MacLeod) discuss the motion, "Does Reality Television debase modern culture?" The discussion was hampered by the fact that nobody on the panel actually disliked reality TV, but Dom Joly made a brave stab at, well, stabbing it through the heart. "There's no reality in reality TV," he said firmly. "It creates a completely false world in which everyone is encouraged to throw things at each other." Johann Hari, a devoted Big Brother fan, spoke eloquently about how the show "dramatises tensions in modern society that you can't see dramatised elsewhere." Tracey MacLeod thought it was good for "people living in a monoculture to discover what people from other cultures are like," and celebrated the fact that someone with Tourette's could win a TV show. Alex James thought that shows like The X Factor, which invite an audience to laugh at inept performers at auditions, "have always existed" and said that the record sales of contest winners have outstripped the Beatles – neither of which assertions would withstand much scrutiny. After that, things became a little freeform, as the panel discussed grotesque reality TV formats and abused "Dr" Gillian McKeith. But in the end they all voted against the motion.

A literary quiz in the snug environs of the Woodstock Arms pitched a score of teams against the Indy's gallant quartet. Quizmaster James Walton, from the Radio 4 quiz show The Write Stuff, pitched 80 questions at the wine-flushed literati, including "What links a 1967 single, played on the Saturday night of the Woodstock music festival in 1969, with the most famous Oxford don of the 19th century?" The Indy's editor-in-chief excelled himself by spotting, in the "Words" round, that "Monday" is an anagram of "dynamo". The Indy won by two points (and the answer to the above question was "White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane).

On publication day of his vast biography of the Queen Mum, William Shawcross appeared on stage to explain how it came about. Shawcross put the idea of his being the official memorialist into the ear of a senior royal equerry after the funeral of the nation's First Granny in 2002. He said to be asked had been "a great thrill and an honour." It is surely rare for a biographer to love his subject as much as Shawcross adores Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. She had, he said, a "heavenly childhood" supervised by her mother Lady Strathmore's "exemplary kindness." Lady M was a "superb hostess" and Elizabeth was, naturally, "the belle of every ball" when she wasn't tending soldiers at Glamis Castle, a temporary convalescent home in the First World War, where the stricken combatants "all liked her very much indeed." The author's delight in his subject's, you know, delightfulness, was emphasised by the indulgent chuckle with which he recalled her every quoted remark: such as her toast, during the Second World War, of, "Tinkerty-tonk old fruit, and down with the Nazis."

On Saturday afternoon, the sun shone obligingly on a wedding party outside the Bear Hotel, and a troupe of morris dancers prancing rhythmically in front of the Town Hall. At Blenheim Palace's garden courtyard, a similarly elderly ceremony was in progress as three rock fans (Feargal Sharkey, Barney Hoskyns and myself) discussed whether rock lyrics could be taken seriously as literature. This debate (Is Dylan as Good as Keats?) goes back to the dark ages of the 1970s. Refreshingly, hardly any of the panel had a good word to say for Dylan, but located poetic excitement in unexpected places – in the nonsense lexicon of pop ("Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom"), in heavy metal lyrics such as Black Sabbath's "Paranoid", and in Mike "The Streets" Skinner's urban bleating. Everyone name-dropped strenuously. Hoskyns recalled a chat with Stevie Wonder, Sharkey brought up his mother's friendship with Seamus Heaney. I began a sentence with "The second time I interviewed Leonard Cohen... " By the end, we'd generously granted a score of rambunctious rockers, including Warren Zevon, Bruce Springsteen and Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout, their honorary diplomas from the academy of Parnassus.

On Sunday the Independent's popular political sketch writer Simon Carr talked about his book, The Boys Are Back in Town – about bringing up two boys single-handedly in an atmosphere of creative chaos – which has been turned into a movie, starring the tough, cadaverous Clive Owen as the genial, distinctly un-cadaverous Carr. The comedian and impressionist Ronni Ancona – startlingly tall, beautiful, motor-mouthed and extremely Scottish – revealed why she'd been forced to take action to stop her former boyfriend Alistair McGowan's violent obsession with Leeds United. To the crowd's great delight, the pair offered their celebrated routine as Sven-Goran Eriksson and Nancy Dell'Olio, in which the former knows nothing about football and has to be coached by the latter into the exact function of the midfield sweeper.

The critically acclaimed and best-selling Sarah Waters, of Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet fame, spoke with the fluency of a tireless researcher about the backdrop of her new novel, The Little Stranger, short-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize. It's a ghost story set in the aftermath of the Second World War, when all British notions of social stability went out of the window. As Waters explained, when the servant classes declined to go back to service, the mansion-owning classes went to rack and ruin, fending for themselves, cooking eggs on toast because they'd never learned to cook, watching their houses and their way of life gradually decay. She revealed the high number of books published in the Forties and Fifties with titles like Poltergeist Over England. Ruin and ghostly apparitions make a potent cocktail, one that she serves up nicely chilled in her Prize-bound novel.

As the sun declined behind Vanbrugh's matchless bridge on Blenheim Palace lake, the afternoon belonged to Leslie Caron, the actress who starred in Lili, Gigi, Gaby, Fanny and other mignon-titled movies in the 1950s, and is still working – she was in Chocolat with Johnny Depp in 2000. A petite, regal, evergreenly glamorous figure in black with an iguana bijou on her lapel, she glided down the central aisle of the Orangery to massive applause – and applauded the audience in turn.

On stage, she spoke feelingly of growing up in occupied France (where Nazi goose-stepping left her with a lifelong dislike of over-militarised display, from Busby Berkeley dancers to pom-pom cheerleaders) and her encounters with Gene Kelly, Cary Grant, Orson Welles, Mae West, Judy Garland and a dizzying array of Hollywood royalty.

About her marriage to Peter Hall, she was circumspect, though one memory clearly still rankles – of returning from an award ceremony with a Bafta, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination (for The L-Shaped Room) and being told by Hall to go and make sandwiches for his theatre company. Pressed to offer insights into why Warren Beatty (with whom she had a two-year affair) had such a reputation as a midnight swordsman, she emphasised his caring, attentive, concerned side – though she remembered him waking her once at 5am, and saying, "You're sleeping. You're not thinking of me." As she left the stage, she was mobbed by the ladies who grew up imaging they were Gigi in the 1950s, and was still signing books an hour later. Meanwhile, in the Green Room, the lady fantasist told me she was writing a song about her memories of playing snooker with Steve Davis at Buckingham Palace. Literary festivals, eh? They're all about imagination, and meeting people, and going slightly mad.

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