Stephen Moss in Savernake ForestOn a misty Sunday morning the LitFest went al fresco: the naturalist, television producer and author Stephen Moss took a group into Savernake Forest for an autumn 'look and listen' walk. Adding local knowledge was Avebury's renowned ornithologist Robin Nelson.
Autumn, it was agreed, is not the best of times to watch and hear birdlife. However Savernake produced some good sightings and good sounds.
There were several robins showing how they were still marking out their territory - as they always do. And there were very close views of a fiesty nuthatch which responded with some anger when Stephen Moss played the nuthatch's alarm call from the ap on his mobile 'phone.
There were also thrushes and good views of a tree creeper. The latter spotted by the young eyes of Stephen's ten year-old daughter Daisy.
All in all there was more to listen to than to see. And just as we were leaving the forest, the sun broke through!
Back at the Green Dragon in the High Street, Stephen Moss gave a talk on birdsong with plenty of examples. He was co-author of the book of the BBC's popular mini-series - mini in duration though not in the number of episodes - of bird calls: Tweet of the Day. In case you wondered why you had missed it, it comes on Radio 4 just before 6.00am.
He is about to publish a book on bird names and noted that it was amazing how many of bird names in English and in many languages were onomatopoeic reflections of their calls - like our cuckoo, chiff chaff and crow.
Was that a distant group of thrushes?Stephen Moss is alarmed at the severe decline in hedgehogs (Daisy has never seen a live one) and house sparrows - among Britain's many 'at risk' species. But he says there are reasons to be hopeful.
Many habitats are doing well for wildlife - he cites the revival of wetlands. And he had nothing but praise for the Marlborough Downs Nature Improvement Area scheme - which had done so much to bring back the tree sparrow to Wiltshire as well as nurturing butterflies, raptors and other wildlife species.
He hoped the farmers who had run the scheme over 25,000 acres of Wiltshire's land with some government seed money, would continue their good work now the funding had ceased.
Bird fact of the day (courtesy Stephen Moss): Wiltshire has more corn buntings than any other county in the UK.
Peter Kosminsky & Jon Snow (Photo courtesy Ben Phillips Photography Ltd)Peter Kosminsky is the television director director who brought the first two parts of Hilary Mantel's trilogy about Thomas Cromwell to television - and six million BBC viewers. On the Sunday afternoon of the 2015 Marlborough LitFest, Kosminsky was grilled - in the gentlest possible way - by Channel 4 News' Jon Snow.
Wolf Hall the building - Jane Seymour's home before she became Queen - has vanished. Leaving a sad hole on Marlborough's tourist map. But it was obvious from the full house at the Town Hall, that 'Wolf Hall' - the novels (Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies), the Royal Shakespeare Company plays and the television drama - still has a firm hold on many people.
Snow's interview revealed a great deal about the directorial process and the production itself. Mark Rylance - described by Kosminsky as one of the world's best actors - was chosen to play Cromwell, and he chose Kosminsky as director: "A hell of an honour."
Kosminsky said he had "Searched for Tudor England in Belgium - and could not find it." He was saved from the familiar low-cost Eastern Europe locations with Dracula castles standing in for Hampton Court and Wolf Hall, by a change in government policy: "Just when we were cranking up the production the new tax breaks came in and we could bring the show home."
To get an authentic feel to the films, Kosminsky and his Director of Photography experimented shooting by candlelight - just one candle. The technology worked: "Unfortunately some people thought it was invisible as a result!"
Full house for Kosminsky & Snow (Photo courtesy Ben Phillips Photography Ltd)But the insurers and risk managers insisted on someone being hidden from the camera in case things caught alight and having a man with a measuring stick checking the candle was never too close to anything flammable - he tried the patience somewhat.
Kosminsky told the audience that his aim had been to portray Cromwell's thoughts without using explanatory voice-over. Mark Rylance's performance achieved this - with the director emphasising 'the space between the words': "Cromwell was powerful but terrified - he was so easy to get rid of. We had to show how thin the ice is on which he's skating."
Kosmisnsky also emphasised work done in the edit suite - what used to be 'the cutting room' and have a 'floor'. The series was six hours long on the BBC: "We shot a lot more than that - a lot more."
Later he was asked from the audience whether he might produce a longer cut - 'Wolf Hall the director's cut'? After some thought, Kosminsky said: "'No' is the answer - I watched the assembly [of all the final takes] and was glad I was going to be able to take quite a bit out. I think what we produced is better and editing is, I find, an intensely creative process."
But there is a downside too: "One of the hardest things I have to do is to write to actors and tell them their parts have been cut or decimated."
Wolf Hall is intensely political and was very expensive to make. There followed some gloomy to and fro about the future of such productions. Kosminsky had worked in the old, regionally based ITV which had made brilliant programmes like Brideshead Revisted: "ITV was destroyed - it's now a vehicle to make money for its shareholders. It was destroyed quite wilfully."
"It looks like the sights are set on Channel 4 and the BBC. That's a slightly terrifying thought for all of us who care. The government does not own the BBC - we do - you do."
Snow asked Kosminsky what his ambition was: "To make a bit of mischief. It's felt to me for sometime that people are quite passive - politically." He recognised that people could be pushed too far: "The British public are slow to anger - unlike the French. But once you've pissed them off - stand back!...Maybe I'm being over optimistic."
Snow asked, slightly tentatively, whether Mantel had liked the BBC Wolf Hall films. He described sitting in the viewing theatre with her watching two episodes ending with Wolsey's death - she was so moved she could not speak and just raised an arm with a thumbs up: "You're talking about one of the best moments of my life."
Hilary Mantel is still writing the third volume of her decidedly revisionist history of Cromwell: The Mirror and the Light. The audience hummed with pleasure at the thought of Peter Kosminsky turning that into another television masterpiece.
But it will be matter of all the team - writer, actors, technicians and the director too - being available at the right time: "We will find a way to bring us all back together." "Perhaps in five years?" "I hope it will be in two years."
John Crace – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdLabour leader Jeremy Corbyn dominated the discussion during at least two events at the Marlborough Festival of Literature last night.
The Saturday night headliner was the Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer John Crace. His most recent book is I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, a reference to the short-lived honeymoon of David Cameron and Nick Clegg after the 2010 coalition deal was signed.
Crace read from the book, but he knows, as well as any of us, that politics is a fast-moving game, and he was keen to discuss Corbyn, pig-gate, and the struggles David Cameron will face honouring manifesto pledges written for an election he never thought he'd win.
May 2015 seems a long way away now. Crace admitted that everyone had called the election wrong. Even ten minutes before the 10pm exit polls were published, he told his Town Hall audience, senior Tories were braced for defeat.
"No-one looked more surprised than David Cameron," Crace recalled. "There was a noticeable hiccup in his throat when he promised to uphold his election promises - this was never the plan."
He recalled the Labour Party Conference of 2014 - and Ed Miliband's speech, delivered from memory, in which he forgot to mention the economy. "It was the beginning of the end," said Crace. "A car crash."
The election surprised everyone, he admitted. No-one predicted the SNP winning all but three seats in Scotland, or the Liberal Democrats being reduced to eight MPs. And no-one called the Labour leadership contest correctly either, with the 100-1 outsider winning the race.
"It was weird being at the Labour Party Conference this year, where Corbynmania was so intense,” said Crace, who recalled how, in the new leader's speech, Corbyn read aloud the stage direction 'strong message here.' "They loved him even more for it."
Crace applauded Corbyn's stance on austerity and a 'making people pay their taxes' but his support came with a note of caution: "If this was an aeroplane and a voice came over the tannoy saying none of our pilots are up to it anymore and it's about time one of the baggage handlers had a go, most people would be running for the door."
Next stop for Crace will be the Conservative Party Conference. “When Cameron makes his speech on Wednesday everyone will be thinking ‘Yes, but did you do that with a pig’s head?’
“When we look back on 2015 we will remember two things: that Jeremy Corbyn didn’t sing the national anthem, and that David Cameron may or may not have have done something unpleasant with a pig’s head.”
John Lanchester – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdEarlier in the day, the question of Corbynomics was raised during a Q&A session following a lively presentation by John Lanchester, author of Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, and the novel Capital, which is said to predict The Crash of 2007.
His new book, How to Speak Money, promises to explain the language used by The City, politicians, and financial journalists like Observer economics editor Heather Stewart, with whom he was In Conversation.
The book, says his spiel, is aimed at those who don’t know the difference between debt and the deficit, or what a Dead Cat Bounce is.
“The language creates a gap in our understanding, and reinforces the structures of political power,” said Lanchester. “It’s a fault in our education system – I didn’t know the difference between fiscal and monetary policy until I was 50.”
He reckoned some words and phrases were purposely confusing. “Quantitative easing sound like a brand of laxative,” he said, “rather than a radical technique that allows governments to print money like it’s going out of fashion.”
On Corbynomics, he said: “It’s interesting how freaked out a lot of the banking establishment is. The genie of QE is out of the bottle. They are worried that printing money and linking it to projects (People's QE) will look too much like the government seizing the printing presses.
“It could work. A controlled, focussed, careful use of QE tied to infrastructure could certainly work, but it’s interesting to see people scared of a monster of their own creation.”
And he said right wing governments – which are more naturally trusted by the general public with economic affairs – would find it far easier to introduce radical solutions like QE than left wing ones.
To prove the point, he quoted the ‘old Vulcan proverb’ delivered by Mr Spock in Star Trek IV: ‘Only Nixon could go to China’.”
Another question from the floor asked whether any of the money issued through QE had made it out of the banking system. Both Stewart and Lanchester doubted it had, although no-one seemed quite sure where the £375bn of printed money had gone.
“A lot of it is in emerging markets,” said Lanchester. “It tended to benefit people who already had assets,” said Stewart.
Lanchester compared it to the £24bn in fines paid out to account holders in the wake of the PPI scandal. “It was three times the cost of The Olympics. But that money has gone to people, and they’ve spent it. It’s had a positive effect on the economy.
“It’s a hell of an indictment on the way banks work that paying fines is better for the economy than the way banks actually function, because we’ll do something with it.”
“Modern money is so strange. There’s something strange about the way we willed money into being. If you take out a £20 it says ‘I Promise to Pay the Bearer on Demand the Sum of £20.’ But £20 of what? It’s not gold – that ended in 1976.
“Money is fictional, but it’s a fiction we all believe in.”
Jasper Fforde – picture courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography LtdThe signature of novelist Jasper Fforde’s father – John Standish Fforde, the 24th chief cashier for the Bank of England – used to appear on all sterling bank notes, back in the days when you could demand a quantity of gold in exchange for your £20 note.
Fforde is probably the only author on the Marlborough Lit Fest line-up to have his very own festival in his honour. Every two years, the Fforde Fiesta (obviously) is held in Swindon, the setting of his popular Thursday Next series. Fans play croquet (an important sport in Fforde’s Swindon) and some dress as lobsters.
These devoted fans were not easy to come by, though. Fforde suffered 76 rejections between 1993 and 2000 before anyone considered publishing him.
His method of writing, he explained, was to set himself a ’narrative dare’ which he had to write his way out of. ‘Humpty Dumpty is murdered and someone is responsible’ became the first of the Nursery Crime novels, police procedurals starring Jack Spratt and Mary Mary.
After The Big Over Easy (finally published in 2005) was widely rejected, Fforde wrote the sequel, The Fourth Bear, an answer to the narrative dare of explaining the porridge conundrum in the Goldilocks story – just why was Baby Bear’s porridge ‘just right’ when Mummy Bear’s porridge, in a larger bowl, had gone cold, and Dady Bear’s porridge, in the largest bowl, was still too hot?
“It’s thermodynamically impossible,” said Fforde. Someone ate the porridge and refilled it from the pot – that suggests the existence of a fourth bear.”
Fforde’s first book in the Thursday Next series – The Eyre Affair – was the first to be picked up by a publisher. In this case, the narrative dare was that Jane Eyre had been kidnapped from the eponymous book, and that someone had to get her back.
Fforde told the audience he set the Thursday Next series in Swindon, as he was familiar with the town from his time living in Bedwyn, but also because it’s not a conventional place to set a novel.
“Swindon is a shorthand comedy town. The well trodden path would be to make fun of it. I made it vibrant and exciting. The Clary-Lamarr transport hub is named after two of its most famous sons. Swindon is considered The Jewel on the M4.”
He urged aspiring writers “Follow the path less trodden. If you look down and there’s no path at all, you might stumble on some originality.”
Marlborough Town HallMarlborough’s sixth annual Literature festival opened yesterday (Friday) in a blaze of publicity, as the BBC Wiltshire Drive Time show came entirely from the High Street.
Presenter Lee Stone was on the steps of the Town Hall, interviewing authors, organisers, volunteers and ticket-holders about the festival experience.
Meanwhile, inside the building, sponsors and VIPs mingled at a private launch party. In a short speech before author Salley Vickers gave the annual Golding Lecture – the festival’s tribute to Marlborough’s greatest literary son, William Golding – festival chairman Jan Williamson found time to praise everyone who had been involved in the event.
And there were particularly fond words for Angus MacLennan and the White Horse Bookshop. “You can’t have a literature festival without a bookshop,” she said. “and we have one of the best independent bookshops in the country.”
- Marlborough News Online will be carrying reviews across the festival weekend
Pictures courtesy of Ben Phillips Photography Ltd
Lee Stone interviews author Sean McGlynnJan WilliamsonSalley Vickers