Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Other book festivals, other times

As a first-time book event co-organiser, I am trying to remember as many book events or festivals as possible I have attended in the past. But they are so various I am not sure any lessons can be drawn. At one, in rural Russia, the books hadn't arrived or had been diverted elsewhere so pseudobooks were 'received', wrapped in brown paper, by the Russian organiser in front of the packed audience. That was the UK Children's Books of the Year exhibition, which I travelled with as author of one of the books. My sister was presenting her book on Rodin at the Cheltenham Book Festival. I bought a bunch of irises and put them on the platform table in a vase during the coffee break, but when my sister appeared with the chairman of the session, the flowers had disappeared. Health and safety? Middle class larceny? Well, at any rate a pattern of substitution and sudden removal is emerging. Two book events stand out in my memory for other reasons: one featured Lord Aldington, the other Michael Frayn. Lord Aldington gave a strange 'Last Testament' address, shortly before his death, in front of an invited audience at a small venue in Hampstead. Questions were not invited and - as far as I remember - the event was chaired by a member of his family, perhaps a grandson. Aldington had been accused in a book which subsequently became the subject of legal action, of responsibility for the forced repatriation after the war of many Soviet and non-Soviet citizens - Cossacks, White Russians and others - from camps in Italy. Michael Frayn's event was stunningly theatrical, and took place in a West End theatre on a Sunday evening. He stood on the stage alone and described having received a mysterious message during rehearsals for a transfer of his smash hit comedy 'Noises Off'. No, I tell a lie, it must have been 'Copenhagen' (thanks Wikipedia). To cut a long story short - I believe the incident was afterwards recorded in print as Celia's Secret: An Investigation (US title The Copenhagen Papers ), with David Burke (2000). - , Frayn found himself the victim of a rather clumsy hoax devised for his own amusement by a bored member of the cast. Frayn described the hoax , the unveiling of the hoax and the hoaxer (Frayn had been completely taken in) and then - most interestingly - he analysed the possible reasons,psychological, emotional, personal why he a sceptical intellectual should have fallen for it. The hoax concerned the Second World War, prisoners of war and military secrets. Frayn and Alan Bennett both learned Russian during their National Service and like the rest of us who have learned the Russian alphabet, report the routine experience of compulsively reading some car number plates as if they were written in the cyrillic alphabet, for example 'CYP' in cyrillic is 'SUR'in latin script.

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