26 March 2007

Oxford Literary Festival

My experience of "minding" speakers at the Oxford Literary Festival last year encouraged me to volunteer again, but one of the sessions to which I was assigned clashed with parents' evening at school: another, I knew from experience of the format last year, hardly required a minder and I was not minded to trek into Oxford, incurring not insubstantial parking fees and bus fares, to do next to nothing. Anyway, it clashed with the International Intellectual Property Moot. To my great regret, the clashing event was Joanne Harris in a discussion about chocolate: I'd have enjoyed the event and would have liked to have met her.
In the end, I acted as minder to only one speaker, Terence Blacker, there to promote his biography of Willy Donaldson. My research showed that he writes a column for the Independent, a newspaper which somehow in my highly subjective judgement (on the basis of very little reading of it) exudes self-righteousness to a degree that puts me off it entirely. Between that, my point-blank refusal to buy, read or believe any Murdoch newspapers, and my sense that the Telegraph, having moved away from its natural constituency of little Englanders, Europhiles and flat-earthers, has now positioned itself as the newspaper of preference of the chattering-but-not-thinking classes, there's not a lot left. The Guardian has Doonesbury, of course, but the only newspaper that approaches my requirements is the Financial Times. Not all that long ago I sued to read it and The Guardian every day, but now on-line editions make it possible to pick and choose between writers whose work I want to read. I could even assemble my own daily paper. The office computer system firewall would almost certainly thwart me, somehow, perhaps not by design but no less effectively for that.
I'll also read Terence's column in The Author more avidly, for it had not registered with me that it was his work - happily, another minder gave me this useful information while I was hanging around the Green Room hoping to find my "mindee".
His talk was fascinating, partly because of his subject, who squandered three fortunes, the last one on drugs and women, numbered Carly Simon and Sarah Miles among his lovers, and promoted Beyond the Fringe, but also because Terence has written it so well. He read several extracts from the book, though he stumbled quite badly over them - I wonder whether he was nervous? He showed no sign of it that I detected - and included some hilarious anecdotes, but was almost upstaged by a gentleman in the audience who revealed at question time that he had responded to a personal advertisement placed in 1965 by Donaldson soliciting investments for a fund to promote West End shows. All he had to show for it was two lengthy letters from the man, which now he couldn't find (though Terence was sufficiently interested that I daresay he'll leave no stone unturned when he gets back home!).
It seems that there have been several revelations since the book was finished, people who had been impossible to trace suddenly appearing too late for their material to be included. This must be a huge problem for any biographer, although Terence had the advantage that most of the late-arriving information would not make it past the publishers' lawyers anyway.
For me, the most poignant aspect is that Donaldson's funeral brought together people from the several different worlds that he inhabited. I experienced something similar once, at the funeral of a friend who died far too young. The extent to which different parts of his life occupied completely separate compartments was greater even than Donaldson's; I had absolutely no idea that any other compartments existed, and he expended enough time and energy for two people in that part of his life which I knew about, which may be why he suffered a fatal heart attack in his early thirties, though alcohol and tobacco must have had at least as much to do with it. But - I hasten to add - none of the parts of his life was as disreputable as some of Donaldson's - depending, I suppose, on how you rate the Conservative party.

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