If you were in the LitFest audience of the Memorial Hall last year, you may have caught a glimpse of me. I was hovering in the wings while William Boyd, the great author, told the story of my artistic struggles and tragic demise to a spellbound audience.
I get the applause, but why the laughter?
Nevertheless, I was mightily gratified to hear that Nat Tate still dogs his footsteps all these years later. Well, you can’t beget someone then expect them to lie down and take it when you deny their existence. Even imagined figments have feelings! I’ve lost more lives than a cat, but I still keep resurfacing.
My first reported demise occurred in 1960 when I purportedly jumped off the Staten Island Ferry. Come on! If I were going to jump off anything it would have been one of those hundreds of bridges I painted. Oh dear, more laughs, burning my bridges before committing suicide!
Then, in 1998 David Lister denied my very existence, ”a literary hoax” he called me, cooked up by an unlikely alliance between Boyd and Bowie. I mean, how believable is that? Yet I refused to go away.
In 2010 I made an appearance in the TV adaptation of Any Human Heart. In 2011 one of my paintings sold in Sothebys for £7,250. I’m very proud of that: thank you, Ant.
Amazingly, there are still some in the art world, who wishing to bathe in reflected glory, claim to have known me personally and Mr Boyd, despite his best efforts, can’t stop talking about me. Try as he might, I’m still here, part of his life, by popular demand.
And your tumultuous applause was testament to the wonderful evening of literary reminiscences we provided.
Here's a variation on our competition - different but absolutely valid:
Stopping off at Dyffryn Gardens near Cardiff on the way back from a walking week in Pembrokeshire, I came away with a plant I’d been looking out for and a copy of The Salt Path which I found on the shelves of a second-hand book shop.
It somehow seemed the right sort of book to be reading after walking along short stretches of the Wales Coast Path, but I had to wait my turn as my husband got there first.
A few years ago he’d started a photographic project of recording memorial benches along the South West Coast Path, which kept him for rather a long time in Minehead. This book took him a lot further.
Having now read their story too I almost want there to be a bench to Raynor and Moth somewhere along the path, dedicated to their dedication and a place for other walkers to reflect upon this rather remarkable journey.
Each reader, as with each walker, will take something different away from this salted path. For me the overriding feeling was the reminder of how thin a line there is between having it all and losing the familiar securities we most of us live by and largely take for granted and the resilience and love required to prevent us from drowning.
One of our family has been homeless for very many years – he could have been the man they met in the underpass. It struck a chord.
But the moment I most vividly recall is the poignant loss of the very much needed £2 coin, rolling down the hill to be pocketed by a small boy - with Moth’s blessing. With it, he suggests he buys an ice cream cone. My £2 coin, my pocket change, bought me a copy of their story.
To sit in front of Alan Johnson at Marlborough Lit Fest in 2018 and hear him so gleefully describe his joy at discovering music was an absolute privilege. The charisma of this man - slum inhabitant, orphan, postman, union rep, MP then Secretary of State - shone from the Town Hall stage as he enthralled us all with his tales of playing his first ever discs to being a band on the run.
Such is the magic of the Lit Fest. Not only do you get up close and personal with enigmatic authors, you also become enveloped in their thoughts, views and stories. You get to ask them questions directly, laugh with them and chastise them. The interviewers are always thoughtful, respectful and extraordinarily well informed. Everyone is interested, so you’re in the company of like minds, and there’s a proper sense of bonhomie. Against this background, Alan Johnson became, for me, the best guest author so far. He was eloquent, funny, self-effacing, persuasive and - most important of all - he was clearly delighted to be in Marlborough and thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to his audience.
There was no sense of ‘just another book tour’ or ‘market town Lit Fest’. Alan Johnson had around an hour but I suspect he would have gone on and on, regaling tales of fifties London and bringing to life his family members and mates, and the formation of his band. His descriptions were so evocative it was as though the people he told us about were all on stage together with him, playing out his memories - initially trying to make the best of life in the squalor of a Notting Hill boarding house, to the excitement of receiving knock-off guitars, to the auditioning of band members – all against a background set list of rock ‘n roll, rockabilly and skiffle music.
So my favourite visiting author was Alan Johnson. Very humbling, very moving, and very entertaining. The very best of Marlborough Lit Fest.
In the late 80s or very early 90s, it was a warm morning in Avebury that I came across a young man, mug of tea in one hand and sheaf of paper in the other, leaning on the front fence of his parents’ house, learning his lines. He was still in his pyjamas and dressing gown.
I didn’t take a lot of notice. I was new to the area and supposed Avebury people might be a bit odd.
Over the next 25 or 30 years, I saw that same young man many more times, principally at Stratford or the National. Each performance was more arresting than the last. Simon Russell Beale was becoming a very great actor.
At the 2016 Marlborough Lit Fest, in the Town Hall, the finest actor of his generation chatted to us in what must have been for him a tiny auditorium with a tiny audience.
But that voice was still the same. The voice that brought to life many of the greatest characters in English drama chatted to us. And he let us in on the secret of the RSC’s upcoming production of ‘The Tempest’. Ariel was to be given a high tech makeover – digital wizardry!
And then, would we like to hear him give a speech from the current rehearsals? Yes, please, we said. And we were, as they say, blown away.
My wife and I saw that “Tempest” at Stratford. Blown away. Not by digital magic. By Simon Russell Beales’ Prospero – real magic.
I had been asked to have the author of the 2017 Big Town Read to stay at my B&B, and was delighted to be able to offer her a room.
‘I’d better read her book before she comes’, I thought, and so picked up a copy of The Bees by Laline Paull.
‘Oh, my goodness! This really isn’t my usual choice of genre’ I thought, ‘but I must persevere so that I appear knowledgeable when she stays with me’. So I battled through the first chapter or so wondering how anyone could write a book from the point-of-view of a bee!
Gradually I relaxed into the story and I became familiar with my surroundings; I began to feel at home in the beating heart of the bee hive and I got to know my fellow bees.
I became the constant companion of the Flora 717 and she worked ceaselessly to keep her home pristine, working with thousands of other workers to ensure the hive was exactly right for the queen to lay her eggs.
I learnt to understand their language as they communicated through dance, working together as though they were just one organism on a mission to achieve perfection, and I became a follower of their religious sect, trying to keep up with their rituals and rites.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. I worked alongside Flora as she survived innumerable threats from her queen’s guardians, taking personal umbrage from their unreasonable attacks on her when she was ‘chosen’ to be fertile too.
Once she began foraging, I flew with her into the open space outside the hive, enjoying the early abundance of flowers, and later, searching for the last blooms of summer - and facing even greater dangers outside the hive than in.
And as the days shortened, so did the energy of Flora 717, until she quietly rested as the rest of the hive swarmed away into a tree.
‘Ah, I’m smitten!’ I couldn’t wait to meet Laline, and she didn’t disappoint. What a charming lady. I was thrilled to host her stay in Marlborough and her talk in the Town Hall was excellent.
Formerly of Kennet House B&B, Marlborough
Now running 1 The Paddocks B&B in Aldbourne