Hazel McHaffie

Festival gems

I’ve done far less than usual in the Festival this year because I’ve been committed to raising money for Africa and had visitors to look after. But I thought I’d share a few gems from the Book Festival – just so you know I DID go when I could!

Audrey Niffenegger (Author and graphic artist who found fame with The Time Traveler’s Wife.)

She was asked how she knew when a book was finished. She replied that she interrogates her characters. Who are they? What did they do? Why did they do it? How did they feel? When she has no more questions for them, she’s ready to close the story.

A cool answer, I thought. I might borrow it some time.

Stuart Kelly (Literary Editor of Scotland on Sunday)

He was chairing in the main theatre marquee, and raised the subject of libraries struggling for survival. A bit later in the evening there was a blast from some fireworks clearly audible in the tent. ‘Ah, they’re bombing the local branch library,’ he quipped. Later an aeroplane roared over the tent. ‘That one’s for the National library!’ he laughed. The audience loved it. In other circumstances such comments would have been enough to get him arrested; in this context it just felt perfectly pitched. How I envied him that kind of speed of thought and presence of mind. A good chair can really lift an event.

Anthony Grayling (Philosopher)

A Secular BibleHe began by talking about the source of moral authority in a most eloquent introduction to his new publication: The Good Book: A Secular Bible, which he’s been compiling for decades. He described it as ‘a resource for people who are making up their minds about how to live.’ Chairman, Richard Holloway, ex-Bishop of Edinburgh, said he’d particularly liked the section called Lamentations, and wondered if it sprang from Grayling’s own experience of sorrow and suffering. The response was measured and gentle. We all need to be well informed, passionate about what we believe in, and sensitive to others. Letting someone know you understand their suffering is the greatest gift you can give, Grayling responded. How true. And ’to be a good guest at the feast of life is to be a good listener as well as a good speaker.’ Exactly!

Listening to him speaking without a single note, or hesitation, or infelicitous choice of words, it’s quite hard to think of him as a victim. But Richard Holloway questioned him about the ‘horrible monstering’ he’d received from his friends recently, because of his promotion of a private university. Grayling of course defended himself robustly. His new university will embrace three key desirables, he said: the liberal arts tradition of America; one-to-one indepth tutorials; a collegiate atmosphere where individuals are really known. It’s designed to produce really good thinkers who ask profound questions. Hmm. A bit like clones of Grayling then?

I took three pages of notes during his hour and came away buzzing. Imagine having this mighty thinker beside you at a dinner party. I’d be thrilled and terrified in equal measure.

AL Kennedy (author and stand-up comedian)

I’ve heard Alison Kennedy speak several times before, but this year I was seriously underwhelmed. She says she’s been ill. Sadly it showed in her performance. In a convoluted way I took heart from this. After listening to brilliance I can feel very inferior. Seeing an accomplished speaker having a bad day gives me renewed hope.

Only one event with AS Byatt and one literary party left to go. But thoughts from this week’s sessions are still buzzing in my head. What a gift. And I always learn something about presentation – even if it’s what not to do.

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