Judy Blume

A confession first (as I think Judy* would want, given that all her heroines are confessing everything, all the time): I spent most of this talk just staring at Judy in adoration and so didn’t take as many notes as I usually do.

I was sat in the front row, practically on Judy’s lap** and it seemed only right that I should at least look like I was paying her all the attention she deserves.  But here are my starry eyed memories of what she said:

First: excellent Judy trivia, in case you ever happen to be doing a Judy Blume pub quiz: her mum and Philip Roth’s mum went to high school together.

Second: the good stuff, the books.  She believes there’s far too much hysteria and fear about what children read: books are actually a really safe way to learn about life.  Children know what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable, and if they get to something they don’t understand, they simply read over it.  (I am a case in point about this: does anyone remember that Deenie had a ‘special place?’ I didn’t.  But another young reader decided that her special place would be under her rib cage…)  Or they’ll ask questions.  Or they’ll just put the book down.  Whatever, they can cope with it.

Third: the bad stuff – censorship.  She said that the 70’s were a great time to be writing: they were much freer, there were lots of young readers and publishers were more willing to take a chance.  It wasn’t until Reagan was elected that censorship hit.  At first, Judy thought, well this is America, we don’t ban books, we’re all about freedom of speech.  She was alarmed and even scared to find out how wrong she was: she said it was a very isolating time, since her publishers got scared too.  Interestingly, her most banned book is not Forever, but Deenie because – apparently, in the eyes of people who freak out about this sort of stuff – masturbation is WAY WORSE than sex.

Forever, by the way, was written for her daughter who had been reading too many books where girls had sex and ALL SORTS OF TERRIBLE THINGS HAPPENED TO THEM, and she, not unreasonably asked, ‘couldn’t there be a book with two nice kids where they do it and nobody has to die?’  Forever is about taking responsibility for your own actions, she said, but not about being punished.

Later on, I got to chat to her quite a bit in the signing queue (as I was shamelessly asking her to sign four books because, if I haven’t made this clear yet, I’m sort of a fan) and asked about the Tiger Eyes film.  Did you know there was a Tiger Eyes film?  No?  That’s because it didn’t have a UK release.  But if you go to the Tiger Eyes facebook page and like it, she is hopeful that it might come out over here on DVD.  PLEASE DO IT, DO IT FOR JUDY (and me, because I really want to see it).

Basically, thanks Judy for this talk and for saving every teenage girl I know and just for being SO AWESOME.

*note that we are already on first name terms.

** it is possible that I was first in the queue for this event, in the manner of a teenage girl camping out for Harry Styles (or indeed a Hay Festival goer wanting to see Benedict Cumberbatch).

Siri Hustvedt: Living, Thinking, Looking

‘I’m not interested in confession for confession’s sake’ said Siri Hustvedt, about her most recent book of essays. It starts with living, she said, as you can’t do much thinking or looking if you aren’t actually living.

Her series of essays, modelled on Montaigne, are an attempt to chase after various ideas and explore different concepts: ‘the essay is a way to explore what you think,’ she said. Hustvedt thinks about everything under the sun with depth and insight that most of us can only dream of. Some of what she thinks about is illness, as a sufferer of chronic migraine and other symptoms, and about the ways in which personalities adapt to and accommodate those challenges. She also has strongly-held views on art and artists – discussed in the ‘looking’ section of the book. And she argues strongly for more interaction between different disciplines: she comes from a background in literature but believes that speaks to philosophy, psychology, neurology…..there’s too much specialisation and not enough conversation, in her view.

She doesn’t like to say ‘I am this, or that’ because she has a sense that we are constantly moving; but neverthess, she is endlessly interesting and certainly worth a read. Rosie Goldsmith, the chair, called this book ‘a personal guide to being human’ and you could do a lot worse than having Siri Hustvedt as your personal guide.

Tom Hollander and Andrew Davies on Dylan Thomas

‘The wobble gets people’ said Tom Hollander, comparing Dylan Thomas to….Adele, of all people. She would probably appreciate that, not sure about him. Thomas’s unique voice was a big topic of discussion today: Hollander said he had to tone it down as it was too ‘fruity’ for modern ears.

Hollander has just played Thomas in ‘A Poet In New York,’ scripted by Davies. Clips from the film were shown during the talk, and the podgy, retching, pasty Thomas on-screen was hardly recognisable from the tanned real life Hollander. He tried to put the weight on sensibly to avoid getting diabetes but in the end just gave up and ate chips.

It’s hard to dramatise the descent of an alcoholic which is basically dull as well as horrible to watch so Davies had to contrast the beauty of his words with the ugliness of his actions. Dylan is well known for being the great poet of mortality, but he was also described as one of the best writers on being young, falling in love and getting drunk. Hollander said his favourite line from the film was in response to a doctor who told him to stop drinking or he would die. Thomas’s answer (in Davies’s line) was ‘but we’re all dying aren’t we.’ True of course but as Hollander also said, ‘it’s not too long and easy to remember.’

Kate Adie

Kate Adie should now be renamed Kate Hay-die, Queen of the Festival. She was here to talk about the home front in World War One, but her views were very much informed by her time as a war correspondent in the Balkans, where many of the first British women fought on the front line. These women – like Flora Sands – are remembered and celebrated in Serbia today though all but forgotten at home.

Kate tried to get into the mindset of the minds of people entering the war in 1914 in ‘a world run by men for men’. The suffragettes had made their mark but not achieved their goal, and it was still legitimate for an MP to claim that ‘making decisions may overheat their brains to the point at which they may boil.’ But the war simply could not have been won without the contribution of women. They not only ran hospitals, joined the army corps, worked in factories and put up posters, they also – horror of horrors – wore trousers. They proved what they could do: but attitudes did not catch up, and there was still serious concern about what women should do.

Television doesn’t do justice to Kate’s facial expressions, ability to perform or comic timing and the audience could happily have sat listening for another hour. Interestingly, Adie doesn’t want statues, memorials or monuments to our lost heroines – instead she argued for endowments made in their name to train women in order that they can become living tributes. I hope there is already a Kate Adie scholarship bringing up the next generation of thoughtful and passionate journalists.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett on The Pike

‘The bad guys are every bit as interesting as the good guys and often more historically significant’ said Lucy Hughes-Hallet, explaining why she has spent seven years of her life working on the life of Gabrielle D’Annunzio, poet, politician and seducer of more or less any woman who met him.

Mussolini called him the ‘John the Baptist of Fascism’, Hemingway admired his work but called him a jerk, and he called himself ‘the greatest Italian author since Dante.’ He certainly seems to have had one of the all-time greatest egos: what is more surprising perhaps is that so many women loved him and so many men admired and followed him when he seems, for want of a better word, just horrible.

Small and rather ugly, he was also charming and charismatic to an unbelievable degree, ending by running the city of Fiume as his own personal city-state, or as Hughes-Hallet said ‘a stage for political theatre performance.’

D’Annunzio is fascinating as well as grotesque and Hughes-Hallett enjoyed making fun of his ludicrous side while not shying away from his dangerous and repulsive actions. She said she ‘knew him from the inside as well as from the outside’ and it was very interesting to hear from a biographer who didn’t love and admire their subject for a change.

Sarah Churchwell on The American Dream

If Jay Gatsby was alive today, he would be a Russian mobster with artistic leanings, Sarah Churchwell said at the end of this thoroughly entertaining lecture on the meaning and myth of the American dream. The dream itself is not, as we may have imagined, Washington’s dream, Jefferson’s dream or even Lincoln’s dream. In fact, it is coined at the beginning of the Great Depression as a way to explore the corruption of a society which had collapsed. The ‘American dream’ was invented to discuss American failures: to acknowledge the moral poverty and spiritual bankruptcy of the 1920’s. But the term was quickly ‘hollowed out’ and soon reduced to simple striving for better material prospects.

As Churchwell says, ‘if a novel is an American classic, it must comment meaningfully on the American dream’ and the novel which is thought to most epitomise that dream is Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. Churchwell’s own most recent book, Careless People, is a reflection on Gatsby, and she suggested today that popular understanding of Gatsby is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the work. Gatsby is a ‘lament’ for greed and acquisition not a ‘license’ for it, while the perception that Nick is a failure because he gives up on the dream ignores the fact that the dream itself is an illusion and a lie. It’s founded on greed and acquisition and Nick is right to be disgusted by it.

The parallels between the ’29 and the ’08 crash were brought out strongly today, though as Churchwell said ‘they had a crash and tried to change it; we had a crash and said let’s try the same thing again.’ Or, to take it another way, the ideals and aspirations of the dream are good, the problems are with the people who dream it.

At the end, there was some wondering what a ‘Welsh Dream’ might look like: any ideas?