Howard Jacobson: There is nothing like a good arts festival in a small market town to replenish the soul

The sun shone, and people skipped about from a recital to an opera without an apparent care
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The Independent Online

I've never understood why modern readers turn up their noses at Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach". You know the poem - it begins "The sea is calm tonight" and ends "Where ignorant armies clash by night", with some good lines in between about the grating roar of pebbles sucked in and flung back by the sea.

It's a poem about loss of religious faith essentially - we should have such problems! - but it also reflects upon man's helplessness in the face of conflict. It's one of those stepping outside the quarrels of nations poems, and listening to our hearts. So what's wrong with that?

We've all done it: swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight we walk the beach, hear only sadness and futility in the sea's withdrawing roar, and speak of love - that's if we are lucky enough to have someone to speak of love to. When the world turns dangerous, love is the only certitude. I make speeches of affection to everyone I know the moment one country starts firing on another. If I am in the middle of a novel I secrete the manuscript where it might be found in another 500 years, burn anything I don't want futurity to see, put on a fresh shirt, and say goodbye. "Ah, love, let us be true to one another."

Only I get my English usage right. Ah, love, let us be true to each other. "Each other" when there are just two of you, "one another" when there are more. Arnold, as a classical scholar and inspector of schools, should have known that. Unless he was standing on Dover Beach with two women. Ah, loves, let us be true to one another. Which opens the poem to entirely new interpretations.

It doesn't solve anything, whether you get the usage wrong or right, I accept that. The spectacle of Bush and Blair being true to each other at the G8 summit calmed no one. But you and I on Dover Beach together aren't Bush and Blair. We are no more than pebbles which the waves suck in and fling away. Confused and ineffective on a darkling plain.

I haven't been anywhere near Dover Beach this last week, but I have been to Buxton. And the effect on my nervous system was not dissimilar. The sun shone, the healing spa waters gurgled underground, and people attending the Buxton Festival, as I was, skipped from a reading to a recital to an opera without an apparent care. Only if you turned the television on or read a newspaper would you have known the world was in flames. Not indifferent in fact, but only in appearance, we tended art and the life of the feelings because there was nothing else we could do.

I love Buxton. Long before there was a festival I used to go there in the hope of finding erotic adventure. I was 14 or 15 - the romantic years. I wore purple corduroy trousers, a red smoking jacket I'd inherited I do not remember from whom, a white opera scarf of the kind music-hall drunks favour, and smoked a cheroot. This was my idea of being attractive to the sort of classy older woman I imagined would live in Buxton and have nothing to do but wait for sexually deranged 14-year-olds to get off the train from Manchester.

I never met such a woman. Or at least I never fell into conversation with one long enough for her to discover that the inner boy was superior to the outer. But I made a nuisance of myself to dozens of them over the couple of summers I haunted the place - a junior emissary from adolescent hell, exhaling fumes and sweating like a steam engine.

More than once on this latest visit - I was there to talk about my new novel this time, not pick up matrons in the Pavilion Gardens - I saw a face I thought was familiar to me. Were there women in my audience I had harassed 50 years before? I made my apologies, just in case. The smartest of them pointed out that they had not been born when I made my erotic raids on the town, and I was probably confusing them with their mothers and not impossibly their grandmothers.

Splitting hairs, I call that. Ah, love, let us be true to one another even if you are only the grand-daughter of the person I said that to the first time.

It was a pleasure to be back. Buxton Festival is as good as an arts festival gets. It has a beautiful dinky opera house at its centre, from which all other venues radiate, as do the pubs and tea-rooms indispensable to a festival, everything visible and easily accessible from everywhere else, and in the sunshine an atmosphere of village carnival.

But carnival not at the behest of the church. It has a pagan feel, Buxton. There are churches in the town, but architecturally, at least, they keep their distance. The opera house is the real place of worship, and before the opera house it would have been the wells. The Romans were here 2,000 years ago. Aquae Arnemetiae, they called it - The Waters of the Goddess of the Grove. Which is something I must have known in my own waters when I was a boy. Was that not why I came? To find the Goddess of the Grove?

Not the place for you if you lack the deep springs of paganism in your soul. Hence the miserable time Jerome K Jerome had in Buxton. Sent there for his health, he would go down in a Bath chair twice a day to drink the waters at the Colonnade. But the waters disgusted him, reminding him of Sam Weller's description of them as "having a taste of warm flat-irons", and his confinement to a chair was torture. The wrong sort of idleness, you see. "I like idling when I ought not to be idling," he wrote after his Buxton experience, "not when it is the only thing I have to do." He was not a true hedonistic idler, in other words; just a respectable god-fearing gentleman wishing to be temporarily perverse.

Arnold similarly - entirely Christian in his godlessness. Ah, love, let us be true, is a very Christian aspiration. But when ignorant armies clash by night, when every sound you hear from far away is fearful and perplexing, when there is no peace nor help for pain, you take what consolations are on offer - whether in Dover on a melancholy night or in Buxton on a glorious English summer's day.