PUBLISHED: 10:26 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 15:51 20 February 2013
The tenth Essex Book Festival welcomes some of literature's hottest stars to the county. Pat Parker picks out some highlights and speaks to Joan Bakewell and Roy Hattersley about their visit
TEN years ago, Essex Libraries took the bold decision to launch a book festival. In March 2000 it was a fairly low-key affair with only 13 public events. But since then, the Essex Book Festival has become one of the most successful literary events in the country.
'This year's festival, marking the 10th anniversary, will be bigger and better than ever before,' says June Turner, Essex Libraries' reader development manager, who has been involved with the festival since it started. 'We have 67 public events, and are expecting more than 5,000 people to attend.'
Big names this year include Joan Bakewell, Roy Hattersley, Melvyn Bragg, Louis de Bernieres and Kate Atkinson. The sheer range of events is breathtaking and includes Chinese writers such as Xinran as part of the Essex-Jiangsu Festival, graphic novel creators Alistair Duncan and Tony Wicks, antiques expert Tracy Martin and top Essex journalists Francis Wheen and Simon Heffer.
Organised by the library service, and supported by the county's 400-plus readers' groups, the festival has flourished. 'We are a month-long, countywide event,' says June. 'We know what we're doing is different, and it really is something special.'
Events are held in rural communities and big urban areas, from the 500-seat Civic Theatre in Chelmsford to Jaywick's Martello Tower. Smaller venues are ideal for showcasing new writers. 'We had Lionel Shriver in Ongar in 2005 talking about her book We Need to Talk about Kevin, and she was practically unknown at the time,' remembers June. 'She was worried that no one would have heard about her, but the event was hosted by the local reading group, who had all read her book. She was thrilled to have such an enthusiastic audience.'
It's a winning formula which has seen a host of literary greats attending over the years, including Fay Weldon, Joanna Trollope, Julian Barnes, Germaine Greer and Kate Adie. 'When we first started, the publishers didn't know us,' says June. 'But the authors who did come had such a positive experience, our reputation grew by word of mouth.'
The festival supports Essex writers, and local writing groups such as the Harlow Writers' Workshop and Ellipsis in Colchester, will be taking part, as well as established local favourites such as Wivenhoe poet/musician Martin Newell and novelist Barbara Erskine.
The festival has many contributing partners, including this year Colchester's Sixth Form College and Lion Walk United Reformed Church, which are hosting, respectively, John Sutherland and Kate Atkinson. The North East Essex Partnership NHS Trust is also helping arrange several events tackling mental health issues.'
The festival has played a significant role in helping boost the county's reputation. 'So many big names have enjoyed coming here, and the success of the festival, and the fact we have more reading groups than anywhere in the country, is helping create a really positive
image for Essex.'
Here Pat Parker speaks to two of the festivals most famous names, Joan Bakewell and Roy Hattersley, ahead of their appearance in Essex.
In the wars
ROY HATTERSLEY is such a political heavyweight, it is surprising to remember that the last time he served in Government was back in the 1970s - and that was only as prices and consumer protection secretary.
It was his misfortune that for most of his parliamentary career, Labour was in opposition. He fought to recapture Labour from the clutches of the far left in the 1980s, and, after the party's devastating election defeat in 1983, stood as leader, only to lose to Neil Kinnock. As deputy leader, he worked hard with Kinnock to try to make Labour electable again, but by the time the party stormed to power under Tony Blair in 1997, Hattersley had already decided to resign his seat.
Baron Hattersley, as he now is, however, has remained very much in the public eye as a distinguished journalist, political commentator and author of 19 authoritative books.
He is coming to the Essex Book Festival to discuss his latest book, Borrowed Time - a series of essays about Britain between the First and Second World Wars, ranging from politics to cinema and from broadcasting to sport.
The present recession gives the 1930s Depression a whole new relevance, and Roy believes there are clear lessons to be learnt.
'I would have liked to lead my party. But I have had a marvellous time - and still am'
'The lesson is that politicians can bring the recession to an end more quickly if they do the right things. In the 1920s and 30s, most politicians didn't have the faintest idea how to deal with it. And they were badly advised by economists. They should have devalued the pound, which made our exports far too expensive, and, crucially, spent more.'
Roy says that the British and American governments have learnt the lessons of the 1930s. 'Very clearly, President Bush didn't take the right action quickly enough. But if President Obama stimulates demand with his multi-billion programme, it should start to calm things down.'
He also believes - staunch Brownite that he is - that the Prime Minister is right to run up a huge national debt in order to prop up the banks and stimulate demand. 'I can understand exactly why people resent money being pumped into banks. I resent it myself. But it's necessary because if banks collapse, we all collapse. The only way to save the economy is to get it moving again by spending.'
Roy was born in 1932 into a staunch Labour family and remembers delivering leaflets in the 1945 election. 'I was Labour before I knew what Labour was. It was a tribal thing initially, but by the time I was 17, I was convinced by its philosophy.'
He decided early on he wanted to become a politician, reading economics at university and later becoming a Sheffield city councillor. In 1964, he was elected MP for the multi-racial Birmingham Sparkbrook constituency - a seat he held until he stepped down in 1997.
So does he have any regrets about his own political career? 'Of course, I would have liked to lead my party, which I hoped to do, and I would have liked to have held one of the great offices of state, which I would have done, had we not lost the 1979 General Election. But I have had a marvellous time - and still am. Life's been very good to me. If I had my time again, I would want to be a Labour member of parliament in an inner-city constituency, with a mixed race population, and I would want to do all the things I set out to do - only do them better.'
JOAN Bakewell seems to get busier as she gets older. Last November, she became the Government's champion for older people. She is much in demand as a journalist and broadcaster and now, at the age of 75, she has written her first novel.
Set during the last war, All The Nice Girls is a gripping romance about the ill-fated affair between the spinster headmistress of a girls' grammar school and a handsome sea captain. They meet after the headmistress, Cynthia Maitland, decides the school should take part in a Merchant Navy ship adoption scheme, in which pupils and teachers meet and correspond with sailors.
'Sometimes when I see plays about the war, I think, "No, you've got it wrong". I have first-hand experience of the past.'
Joan is obviously an accomplished storyteller - so why has it taken her so long to become a novelist? 'Well,' she says, in those polished tones, 'As a young girl, I wanted to write a novel, but my teachers were rather discouraging. I wanted to do the equivalent of A-level in English, but was told I couldn't. So it was actually quite tricky for me to write this book - it shows how powerful teachers can be when they discourage you.'
Joan set it during wartime because she remembers the period so clearly. 'As you get older, you remember your childhood a lot, and the war was a very dynamic time - terrible, but people lived in a very vivid way. There were great pressures to conform and obey the church, but women of spirit did seize the moment and take on lovers - because you could be killed by a bomb the next day.'
The conventional lower middle-class background which Cynthia comes from mirrors Joan's own. Joan's father grew up in an orphanage and became an engineer, and her mother was the daughter of a barrel-maker, one of eight children.
Her mother's depression tainted Joan's childhood and when Joan had her first baby, her mother told her the art of bringing up a child was to break its will. Her father, however, doted on his bright, ambitious daughter, urging her to go to university.
Joan, like one of the characters in her book, became head girl, and then won a place at Cambridge. She went on to become a 1960s icon, presenting the intellectual arts show Late Night Line-Up, and being dubbed by comedian Frank Muir as, 'the thinking man's crumpet' - not an epithet she appreciated.
She looks back on it as a golden time. 'It was a fantastic opportunity - I absolutely adored it. It was the making of so much of my intellectual life and my own personality.'
She was by now married to Michael Bakewell, who became Head of BBC Plays, and combined her work with rearing two children. She also - as was later revealed in the 1990s - embarked on a seven-year secret affair with the playwright Harold Pinter.
She feels no guilt or regret about the affair. 'It was wonderful - how I had the energy to combine it with the programme and raising a family I just don't know. I suppose it was because I was enormously happy. Joan's marriage to Michael finally ended in divorce, and she later married the writer and producer Jack Emery. The couple divorced in 2001, and Joan now lives alone in her elegant Primrose Hill house.
She went on to present several serious, thought-provoking series for the BBC, including Heart of the Matter, Taboo, and, most recently, Belief. She is fascinated by philosophy and religion, although she describes herself as, 'a non-believing member of the Church of England - because I was confirmed. You can't leave.'
She has recently been appointed to the unpaid role of champion for the elderly by the Government, and says she has been overwhelmed by the response. 'I've just received another stack of letters, and it's three inches high. So many people have turned to me for help. There's obviously a real need for people to be listened to.'
She is heartened, however, that many older people have written to her with positive stories of how active and fulfilled their lives are. 'There are lots of activities to help older people. I'm very pleased to have discovered what's out there. Now it's up to me to put people in touch with each other.'
Joan herself is enjoying a vibrant old age. She practises pilates to keep fit, and her intellectual curiosity burns as brightly as ever - she is already planning her second novel.
'I'm thinking of setting it in the 1960s. My strength is to have lived through those times. Sometimes when I see plays about the war, I think, "No, you've got it wrong". I have first-hand experience of the past.'
Top 10 highlights
from the Essex Book Festival
1. Melvyn Bragg
The author and broadcaster talks about writers who draw on their own lives for inspiration, including his own autobiographical novels.
Civic Theatre, Chelmsford March 2
2. Louis deBernieres
The author will be reading from his latest novel A Partisan's Daughter, as well as playing as part of the Antonius Players duo - a unique blend of music and literature.
King Edmund School, Rochford March 19
3. Joan Bakewell
The iconic writer and broadcaster talks about her first novel,
All The Nice Girls.
Felsted School, Felsted March 6
4. Roy Hattersley
One of the 20th century's key political figures and eminent writer talks about his latest book, Borrowed Time.
Anglia Ruskin University. Chelmsford March 10
5. Kate Atkinson
The award-winning novelist talks about her eighth book, When Will There Be Good News?
Lion Walk United Reformed Church, Colchester
6. Justine Picardie
The author and journalist talks about her novel Daphne, inspired by Daphne du Maurier.
Epping Library, Epping March 11
7. Susan Sellers
Susan explores the rivalry between Virginia Woolf and her sister.
Burnham on Crouch March 12
8. Simon Brett
The prolific mystery writer, former TV and radio producer, and creator of the humorous radio series After Henry is an entertaining speaker.
Champions Manor Hall, South Woodham Ferrers March 26
9. Helen Dunmore
Talking about her novels, including her latest, Counting the Stars, as well as her poetry, short stories and fiction for children.
Brentwood County High School, Brentwood March 12
10. John Sutherland.
Britain's best-known literary critic, who chronicled his Colchester childhood in The Boy Who Loved Books, discusses his evocative memoir, Magic Moments.
The Sixth Form College, Colchester March 9