Review: Marlborough Literature Festival: Why do we read? It’s not as simple as you think, suggests Golding Speaker

Written by Peter Davison.

Salley Vickers  picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdSalley Vickers picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdThere was no gentle easing into the weekend for the audience at the first night of the Marlborough Festival of Literature. Instead, attendees of the Golding Lecture were mentally challenged, as Jungian psychoanalyst, lecturer and author of eight novels, Salley Vickers, asked us to consider: Why do we read?

Vickers argued that there was nothing wrong with reading to be entertained, but suggested that "the reader who seeks merely to be distracted will be left feeling abstractly hungry."

Conversely, there are writers who seek to be insufficiently entertaining. “There is an intention to shock or mystify, and a good deal of ‘literary books’ fall into this category,” she told a packed Town Hall. “On the whole these impenetrable books are so because the writer doesn’t have real faith in what he or she has to say.”

We read, she suggested, to know more about the world: by reading we are taken out of ourselves: to another time or another place, and learn about those times and places. William Golding, she reminded us, was an admirer of Homer. “We can learn a lot about archaic armour, and ships, and military tactics by reading The Iliad,” she said.

But we also gain an insight into human nature. Achilles’ dragging of the corpse of Hector around the funeral pyre of his friend Patroclus tells us about grief and the desire for revenge, while the grovelling of King Priam for Hector’s body tells us of a father’s grief for his son.

“In moments like these we learn something wholly familiar; we learn something about human kind and human nature that doesn’t change."

And reading, said Vickers, affords us an insight into human nature – through the gods’ eye view of the novel “we come to know characters in ways we can never know our partners, children, or best friends.”

In fact, she argued, we can vicariously experience things we would not want to experience first-hand through the actions of characters in a book. She called this the ‘scapegoat factor’. In Lord of the Flies we are vicariously experiencing the state of being both the victim, and the oppressor, through Golding’s writing.

“I can never be a man, or 21 again, or a virgin, or a rapist, or a murderer, or a rally driver. But when I read I can be any of those things,” she said.

“We read to get away from ourselves, but we also read to find ourselves. I think it may be part of our evolutionary process: in doing so we are perpetually recreated.”

Sean McGlynn  picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdSean McGlynn picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdEarlier in the evening we were taken to another time, and another place – although not always so far away – by historian Sean McGlynn.

One of the leading authorities on King John – although far from a fan of the monarch – McGlynn took us back 800 years to the signing of the Magna Carta.

Knowledgeable and entertaining (“If there’s one document that could benefit from bullet points, it’s the Magna Carta”) McGlynn brought his subject to life.

And as the title of his book, Blood Cries Afar: The Magna Carta and the Invasion of England 1215-1217 suggests, there was more to this short but pivotal period of history than the pow-wow at Runnymede.

Blood Cries Afar is hailed as being the first book to examine the dramatic – and largely forgotten – French invasion of England by the French prince Louis at the invitation of the barons.

McGlynn argued that the arrival of a French army on English soil constituted a ‘second Norman conquest’. "At one point, two-thirds of the barons paid homage to Louis, and most of England was under his rule,” said the author. The prince was a de facto Louis I of England.

In fact, the action came close to home as, in 1216, Hugh de Neville ceded Marlborough Castle to the French invaders. King John may have granted the town its charter in 1204, and was married within its walls, but, for a brief time at least, the French occupied its defences.

A cause for commemoration next summer, perhaps?