So I dusted myself down from the hunt (hosed, more like — I was soaked to the skin and covered in mud), staggered home from West Sussex and fell into bed. The damned clocks would choose last weekend to go forward, so up at 6am to get dressed and organized for the Oxford Literary Festival. My lovely daughter (sleeping on the sofa downstairs because the painters are in) groaned when I woke her and declared daylight savings time “a disgusting concept.” Couldn’t agree more.
I love the Oxford Literary Festival. Hard to explain why some are so much nicer than others, but Oxford has wonderful audiences, a great programme and a Green Room in Christ Church which is simply glorious. Had a surreal conversation with Jean Seaton, moderator for a talk on the importance of the BBC — she talking about David Mitchell and Ed Vaizey, me getting the wrong David Mitchell, and gushing about Cloud Atlas.
Meanwhile, daughter and agent’s son, Greg, had accosted the actual David Mitchell (of Mitchell and Webb fame) and were texting their friends excitedly and bringing him cups of tea and biscuits that he only requested in order to get them to stop drooling on his shoulders.
I would have much preferred to listen to the BBC talk than my own (had a quick fantasy about standing up and shouting “the BBC is the best thing about Britain so stop messing it about!” before being ushered out in a strait-jacket), but it’s considered rude not to show up to your own event. And we were sold out, which always warms the cockles of a writer’s heart.
Mal Peet was his usual riveting and charming self (if you haven’t read his Paul Faustino trilogy, do so immediately), describing to the audience the Mynah bird that sits on his shoulder and squawks “crap crap crap” in his ear when he writes; we agreed that plot is impossible and trying to make flow-charts of plot even more so; broke a little taboo of our own by talking about some fairly unmentionable subjects; talked of the despair of being introduced cloyingly as “a children’s writer”; signed some books and broke for lunch before racing off to the Sheldonian to hear Hilary Mantel (interviewed by PD James) talk about Wolf Hall.
What a woman HM is. Brilliant, modest, funny, sharp…there was a real sense of being in the presence of literary greatness. Her description of filling in the bits of history left out of diaries and letters was breathtaking (what were Cromwell and Cranmer talking about during that half hour described in Thomas More’s diary, during which he sat outside their office considering his position?) PD James ended one of the finest literary hours of my life by saying “none of us will ever forget the time we sat and listened to you today.” How true.
I’d like to sign on as HM’s official stalker, but don’t know where you register.