Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Woodstock Literary Festival

Blenheim Palace

A day spent at a world heritage site in the company of great writers is the perfect way to spend a cold and grey Sunday. This morning my alarm went off at 07.30 and as I rolled over to slam my hand down on the snooze button I remembered that I had to get the bus to Woodstock.

This was a new experience for me as I actually had to arrive at the bus stop for a specific time - after years of living in London I am used to just pitching up and hopping on one of the many buses that would all go to my destination. The Oxfordshire service is a totally different story. I caught the one bus that went that hour and as we chugged along country lanes I did start to wonder if the bus driver was frightened of the accelerator.

I arrived at Blenheim Palace when it was still sleepy and calm. I walked along the endless drive and was awed by the sprawling grounds and stunning palace. It is an incredible sight when you round on the palace but somehow it is too glorious. I found it hard to imagine it as a place of residence, rather than a visitor attraction. I wonder what it must have been like fifty or one hundred years ago when it was bustling with serving staff and groundsmen and was an entire economy in itself.

The first talk I went to was Adam Sisman talking about Hugh Trevor-Roper and it was absolutely fascinating. Trevor-Roper was a historian and academic at Oxford who had a thirty year feud with Evelyn Waugh. They never met but were arch-enemies due to fundamental differences in opinion about Catholicism. Waugh referred to Trevor-Roper as the "Demon Don" after he criticised the behaviour of the Catholic Church during the Second World War. In turn, Trevor-Roper thought that Brideshead Revisited was a fake portrayal of life at Oxford and that it over-romanticised Catholicism.

Waugh and Trevor-Roper's feud was very public as both would write letters to various publications in which they criticised each other. I couldn't help thinking that they both sounded as though they enjoyed goading each other to make the next move; like a pair of ego-maniacal schoolboys.

I also saw Lady Antonia Fraser talking about the book she has written about her thirty-three year relationship with Harold Pinter. I was inspired by her admission that she has kept a diary for over forty years as, in her words, "One good reason for keeping a diary is that you remember the facts but you forget the details" - so diary-keeping is how she can remember a lifetime of detail. Her relationship with Pinter sounds like a true love affair and he was incredibly romantic, writing her love poems and bestowing her with bundles of flowers. The thing that she said which really struck me was that Pinter would say to her "Happiness is not dramatic" - a true statement, articulated perfectly.

And lastly, I saw Colin Dexter talk about his life. He is incredibly witty and had the audience in stitches for most of his talk. It was such a great opportunity to see the author of the Morse novels which I love. He didn't talk too much about Morse but regaled us with tales from his schooldays and his inspirational English teacher who introduced him to Thomas Hardy. By the time he left school he had read all of Hardy's novels. He admitted that he will be appearing in all the Lewis episodes (he appeared in most Morse episodes) but he has to do about six takes even if he is just walking down the street as he isn't a very good actor!

If the Oxfordshire local bus service can take me to such an amazing location to hear fantastic speakers - I can't really complain about the infrequency or lack of speed!


  1. It must take a lot of energy to keep a feud running for thirty odd years. Imagine hating someone for that long. A literary festival in such beautiful surroundings must have been a wonderful experience.

  2. "Happiness is not dramatic." Love that. And Waugh. And the great locale for the festival. Truly green with envy. You are a lucky girl!

  3. I'm a bit of a fan of trevor - roper and waugh and love the idea of them feuding. Sounds like a great day, Blenheim is an amazing setting - my sunday feels very tame in comparison, but I'm glad to have avoided the 7.30 am start!

  4. Dear BB, What a wonderful event and all three speakers sound to have been most entertaining and informative. Although Blenheim is a splendid setting, I am afraid that it has always left me rather cold.

  5. The event sounds so good and you have had an opportunity to listen to very entertaining people! Thanks for the post.

  6. Interesting that you got to see Antonia Fraser "live", I would like to see her speak sometime..

    And like you, living in a slightly bigger city I've become spoiled when it comes to busses.

  7. Lucky you! I really want to go to Blenheim, it looks so wonderful in pictures! And I would love to hear Lady Antonia Fraser, you must have had an amazing day! Thanks for sharing the experience.

  8. You go to some fantastic events! Great speakers. Antonia Fraser is a favourite biographer of mine - I love her book "The Weaker Vessel".

    You must be so looking forward to your holiday in Italy. It's a wonderful time of year to visit. Have a wonderful time.


    PS I am in the throes of setting up a new blog dedicated to my favourite poety. The link is at the top of my bog if you want a lookie. I hope to copy over all my previous postings if I can sort out the technology!

  9. Thought I had posted a comment here earlier - apparently not!! This sounds so lovely and it's great that you're finding such fun things to do in your new patch. I must find out more about the Trevor-Roper / Waugh business... Fascinating, ad anything Brideshead related is always going to grab my attention! Lucky you.