It’s always a privilege to chat to authors about their work and it was my turn to start proceedings at today’s Festival chatting with writer Vicky Allan and photographer Anna Deacon about their beautiful book For the love of trees.
Vicky and Anna’s book is a wonderful immersive tree hug of impressions, stories and ideas. It’s a balm for the senses and a call to connect – or reconnect – to the nature around us and to the rhythms of a life force we depend upon. Just below, you’ll see pictures of friends and collaborators Vicky and Anna and a couple of Anna’s gorgeous photos from their book.
The next session of the Festival day took me into the dark and shallow lives of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor. A couple who, according to writer and academic Andrew Lownie, connected only with their own selfish and destructive desires.
Mr Lownie’s Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor picks up the post-abdication story of the couple. Which is ‘more interesting’ than the classic focus on the lead up to the 1936 abdication.
Andrew Lownie searches out primary sources to evidence and support his writing. He pursued archive material ‘scattered around the world’ – Germany, Paris, the Bahamas (controversial archive material in the UK was ‘often weeded’). His leg work proved he says that ‘the Queen’s uncle should have been executed for his treachery’.
The papers, letters and records accessed by Mr Lownie present a couple whose hedonism, selfishness and ‘lack of soul’ outdo any Scott F. Fitzgerald character. When interviewer Christopher Smith asked Andrew Lownie if the couple had any redeeming qualities, the answer was ‘no’. Although, under pressure, Mr Lownie scraped ‘a liking for dogs and sweetness with children’ from the tarry bottom of the barrel.
Mr Lownie talks of a man who had ‘no skills to do anything useful’. A man constantly involved in ‘financial skulduggery’. A man who colluded with Nazi Germany and prompted staunch royalist Winston Churchill to say: ‘Our cock won’t fight’. A man who remained anti-Semitic and continued to say Hitler was ‘a good chap’ until he died in 1972.
Wallis Simpson was also pro-Nazi. Andrew Lownie says of the Duke and Duchess: ‘Thank goodness they married each other. They would have made anyone else dreadfully unhappy’. Having said that, it doesn’t sound as if they made each other very happy. Wallis ‘bullied him horribly’ and Edward ‘was a boring man’ who was also ‘lazy, stupid and selfish’.
Mr Lownie sees parallels between the royals of then and now in their willingness or unwillingness to prioritise duty and public life over private. On one side he places the Queen and William and Kate. On the other, Andrew, Harry and Meghan.
Mr Lownie’s aim is to produce work that is ‘scholarly and readable’. Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor hit the Sunday Times best-seller list shortly after publication and promises to deliver on both counts.
Simon Garfield has written 20 books on a wonderfully eclectic range of subjects – including typefaces, the colour mauve and stamps.
The ideal book, he says, is a perfect combination of academic research coupled with telling people’s stories. Fortunately these ingredients play to Mr Garfield’s strengths – he enjoys making the technical accessible. His journalism background also means that he loves nothing more than talking to people and gathering stories to populate and humanise his research.
One of the many great things about Mr Garfield’s session this afternoon was his sheer joy – love – of his subject: Dogs.
Less than a minute in and we’d seen a photo of his childhood dog – Gus the basset hound (‘not the sharpest tool in the box’), heard about Chewy the dog his own children pestered him into getting, and seen a picture of Ludo his faithful black lab who sadly died just after his latest book Dog’s best friend: a brief history of an unbreakable bond was published.
The history of the domestication of dogs, Charles Darwin’s thoughts on dogs’ facial expressions, dogs as companions and comfort, dogs in oncology wards and in the cinema, the extermination of dogs (and cats) at the beginning of World War 2 – all got a mention in the flow of conversation between Mr Garfield and interviewer George Cochrane.
Mr Garfield seems to gather themes, stories and facts about his chosen topic like one of those sticky fly traps gathers flies. He then processes his goodies into a coherent, illuminating and engaging read about one of the most intense and complex relationships in recent history – between people and dogs.
Authenticity in many guises formed a central theme in the conversation between Alwyn Turner and Gerry Foley in the discussion of Mr Turner’s book All in it together: England in the early 21st century.
Mr Turner is a social historian who has a keen eye for picking up on ‘often seemingly trivial’ stuff that has a big impact. All in it together covers the years 2000-2016.
The conversation today gave a great sense of the book’s scope – and certainly made me want to read it and reminded me of some of those ‘trivial’ happenings as well as the more obviously seminal moments in this recent history (9/11, Iraq… Brexit!).
Yes, I’d forgotten about the so-called ‘pastie tax’ of 2013 (good old Gregg’s – what an amazing PR machine they are!). This was George Osborne’s failed attempt to make the takeaway food market fairer by taxing supermarket take-outs as well as restaurants. I’m not sure that I knew that Nigel Farage drove an ageing and ailing Enoch Powell to Newbury in 1993 when the Lib Dems took the seat from the Tories. This journey led to the suggestion that Farage was ‘Powell’s last great gift to the nation’ – and Russell Brand calling Farage a ‘pound shop Enoch Powell’ on BBC Question Time.
Mr Turner says Tony Blair undermined his own USP with his perceived lie over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This lie undermined Blair’s claim of honesty and therefore his authenticity. Potentially, says, Mr Turner it paved the way for the acceptance of politicians – such as Boris Johnson – overtly lying: at least his lies are authentic.
I am, of course, oversimplifying. If you want insights on facts and events carefully stitched together to deliver a great insight into what’s shaped the times we now live in, Alwyn Turner’s book must surely be for you.
For the love of trees: How people and trees have changed each other by Vicky Allan and Anna Deacon is published by Black & White
Traitor King: The Scandalous Exile of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor by Andrew Lownie is published by Blink
Dog’s best friend: a brief history of an unbreakable bond by Simon Garfield is published by Weidenfield & Nicholson
All in it together: England in the early 21st century by Alwyn Turner is published by Profile