Chiswick Book Festival

I was delighted to be asked to talk at the Chiswick Book Festival for the first time last week. (There are some photos of the event online here.) The festival, which is run by the lovely people at Midas PR, is great fun: there’s a good sense of camaraderie and community, by no means dampened this year – and who knows, maybe even enhanced – by the September drizzle, and I was flattered to be included in such a stellar line-up.

I was speaking in the Tabard Theatre on Turnham Green, which I haven’t been to before, despite living fairly locally. It’s a really nice venue to talk in: it seats around 80, but there is quite a steep rake so the audience feels closer than in most venues of a similiar size, which gives things a more conversational and intimate feel. We didn’t need mics, for instance.

Speaking publicly about my work is a relatively new experience for me – privately, of course, I bore my friends rigid about the stuff on a pretty regular basis – so I’m usually somewhat nervous beforehand, both about the content and structure of the talk and my delivery of it. It’s always best when it feels more like a two-way exchange, a dialogue, rather than a lecture or seminar, but it can be hard to create that sense of spontaneity in larger rooms. I always try to include what I think are amusing asides because, while you’re talking, that’s pretty much the only way you know how receptive the audience is. (Not counting walking out, that is. I did do one library event where a gentleman at the back got up and left before I’d finished my first sentence. Trust me, it wasn’t a long sentence. I took the view that it must have been something he ate.) Also laughter, however mild, relaxes everyone, particularly me.

On the whole, I thought this one went pretty well, although I probably talked for too long, going off on one or two tangents too many, which was a shame since it ate into the Q&A session afterwards. I always enjoy the Q&As hugely, and I was particularly looking forward to this one since it was led by George Goodwin, author of the excellent Fatal Colours about the battle of Towton and its pivotal place in both the Wars of the Roses and English history generally. George hosted the talk brilliantly and gave me a great introduction, which included him reading a passage from The Favourite. I haven’t heard someone else read my work aloud before, so that was a little odd in some respects – the only voice I’ve heard is the one inside my head when I’m writing, trying to get the rhythms to work – but George hit it perfectly.

I’m very much looking forward to doing it again sometime – but I guess I’ll have to finish the next book first…

Haste, post haste: George Gascoigne and friends

Sometime in London in the autumn of 1577, Gabriel Harvey, the son of a Saffron Waldon ropemaker and a self-consciously brilliant young Cambridge academic, opened up his copy of The Steele Glas, and turned to one of the volume’s three commendatory poems. It was signed: “Walter Rawely of the Middle Temple”. A compulsive – indeed, obsessive – annotator of other men’s work, Harvey paused to note down a rebus he had heard, perhaps among his friends in Leicester’s circle, based on the poet’s name:

The enemy to the stomach, and the word of disgrace
Is the gentleman’s name, that bears the good face.

Beside this, in the margin, Harvey wrote by way of explanation: “Rawley”. This, a poem for his friend Gascoigne, was Ralegh’s first step on the public stage.

But when Gabriel Harvey picked up his copy of that book, the first thing he would have seen was a portrait of the author on the verso. George Gascoigne looks out at the reader, books over his left shoulder, an arquebus and other weapons over his right. Beneath the portrait is Gascoigne’s latest motto, tam marti quam mercurio – made for war as much as wisdom. This, like the commendatory poems, is another kind of advertisement, a personal strap line, articulating what ‘brand Gascoigne’ had to offer. Writing retrospectively to defend his first foray into print in 1573 Gascoigne would say: “Being busied in martial affairs (whereby I also sought some advancement) I thought good to notify unto the world before my return, that I could as well persuade with pen, as pierce with lance or weapon: So that yet some noble mind might be encouraged both to exercise me in time of peace and to employ me in time of service in war.”
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