The 1997 Ways With Words Literature Festival; In Association With The Independent On Sunday


Stretching over nine days, with around 200 writers taking part, the sixth Ways Words literary jamboree at Dartington Hall was a festival of two halves. The first few days were warm but sultry, with the clouds never quite deigning to clear over the lofty medieval roof of the hall. Then came day after day of boiling, phew-what-a-scorcher, glorious Devon weather. But with the likes of Jung Chang, Ben Okri and Alan Garner to enjoy, intellectual pursuits didn't lose their allure - although there were a lot of people stretched out under the trees between events.

Excitements on the first day inclu- ded a complete evacuation of the Great Hall during John Mortimer's reading, when the fire alarm went off. Weirdly enough, exactly the same thing had happened to him the previous night in Manchester ...

Blake Morrison and Anthony Clare probed the Bulger case in front of a rapt and utterly sympathetic sell-out audience. Clare took as his theme "the most regrettable sentence of the decade": John Major's statement that we should all understand a little less and condemn a little more. An emotional and absorbing debate led inevitably to detailed questioning from the audience, and the event ran over by half an hour, ending in a standing ovation.

Hermione Lee had to endure less sensitive questioning after her lively lecture on Virginia Woolf: "Why did you think there needed to be yet another biography on VW, and what made you think you were the person to write it?" Lee's robust defence of her subject sent Woolfophiles scurrying to buy.

Not all events took place in the Great Hall. Over in the Barn, Tim Smit regaled a packed house with the romantic story of the Lost Gardens of Heligan: from forgotten wilderness to one of Cornwall's top attractions in a few years. Rattling his way through before-and-after slides with machine-gun speed, he explained how he originally just wanted to find a piece of land to raise pigs on. He met a man who'd just inherited a wilderness and went to investigate, machete in hand. He found a lost world: the gardens, decaying hot-houses, silted-up lakes and ponds of a once-great house. One of the most poignant discoveries was the wall on which the gardeners had signed their names before going off to the Great War. Many of the names appear on the local war memorial. It was an enthralling, uplifting tale, laced with humour ("I've seen better ordered flowers on a roundabout in Newquay" was one visitor's verdict on the garden). At the end, the first question was an anxious: "What happened to the pigs?"

The festival celebrated the most beautiful, elevated language - but also the most earthy. Theatre supremo Max Stafford-Clark roped in his chair, Chloe Dunbar, and some festival helpers for a brief play-reading: expletives not deleted. Similarly uninhibited was Jah Wobble, who came to talk about William Blake, but managed to cover topics such as Shinto myths, Essex men, the evils of the music business and "the first time I took cocaine". "I thought poetry was for ponces," he said frankly. An appreciative late-night crowd showed no sign of being fazed at this unusual event, which included our own Martin Rowson talking about turning The Waste Land and Tristram Shandy into graphic novels. At the end, Wobble presented his bottle of champagne to a silver-haired lady in the front row, who hugged and kissed him and promised to buy all his albums forthwith.

Ben Okri was another star, discoursing to a spellbound audience about life, art and creativity. He took time out to stroll in the grounds and lie on the grass, thereby becoming the most-photographed writer of the festival. At midnight, he was spotted in the moonlit courtyard, still surrounded by an adoring crowd. Did he want to be rescued, we wondered, or was he happy with his guru status?

Jung Chang and Kate Adie were neck-and-neck in the fastest selling ticket stakes. Both provided drama in different ways. On the morning of her talk, Adie was bitten by a bug: her leg swelled up and she had to be rushed to Torbay hospital. Never mind the Gulf War, rural Devon can be hazardous.

A thrilling moment in Jung Chang's talk came when she held up a tiny pair of shoes, no bigger than baby bootees, which had been worn by her footbound, crippled grandmother. She also produced her copy of the infamous Little Red Book.

Finally Roy Hattersley wound up events with an enjoyable lecture on political novels "from Trollope to Tripe". The tripe, most ungallantly, turned out to be Edwina Currie.

So the festival is over for another year - and we're already planning the next, to take place at Dartington from 8 to 15 July 1998. But there are Ways With Words events all year round, including Seawords, a celebration of the sea in literature, to be held at the National Maritime Museum on 24 and 25 October, and the Sole Bay Literature Festival in Southwold, Suffolk, on 7-9 November. Don't miss out - return the coupon to be included on the mailing list.

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