I love the Byron Writer’s Festival and try to go every year – in 2017 I could only manage one day, Friday 4 August, but absolutely loved it! This year, in contrast to 2016, the weather behaved beautifully with glorious sunshine and no wind, perfect spring-like conditions.
The very first session I attended was the Radio National Broadcast, Books and Arts with Sarah Kanowski. Her guests were Indian authors, Kunal Basu and Vayu Naidu. I had not heard of either author previously but I have quite a love affair with India, having travelled there quite extensively in my youth and more recently spending time there again when my son and daughter-in-law were married in Rajasthan.
Vayu Naidu is a very elegant woman, born and brought up in Chennai (previously Madras) and is a performance storyteller and novelist and now lives and teaches in England. She explained that her book, ‘The Sari of Surya Vilas’ is set in two different times in Indian history, the Madras presidency in the early 1900s and the Indian Mutiny (in India known as the first war of Indian Independence) during the mid 1800s. The disappearance of a beautiful and important sari passed down through the female line is the central premise. I later bought the book at the wonderful ‘Mary Ryan Book Tent’ – a very dangerous place to enter as you will want to purchase every book you see!
I well remember Chennai, I was pregnant with my first child and had just spent spent days luxuriating on the beach under palm trees and in the water at Mahalbalipuram before buying provisions and cashing traveller’s cheques in Chennai for the long drive north to Kolkata. At one stage an Indian holy man approached me and pointing at my pregnant belly, proclaimed that I would have a son and indeed I did some two months later!
Kunal Basu is actually a Professor of Marketing at Oxford University in England, has two engineering degrees and writes books in English and Bengali. He was born in Kolkata (previously Calcutta) which he describes as a fascinating and chaotic city.
Kolkata was the end of our overland journey from London back in 1978. We had to get a camper van onto a boat for Australia and I had to get home to Sydney safely as I was by then 35 weeks pregnant and anxious that the child might be born in the midst of the chaos. At the time it was even crazier than usual, there had been devastating floods around the city and we had too little petrol to go the long way around, so drove through floodwaters for kilometres with the water to the base of the doors.
Anyway, Kunal’s book is set in Kolkata, but in this book ‘Kalkatta,’ it is the story of a Gigolo and others in his twilight world, providing services to wealthy and middle class women with a need for love. It was extraordinary to hear how Kunal came to know about the existence of this ‘other world’ on the edges of society.
Then a session about art and artists and their books led me to hear from Kim Mahood, who lives part of the time in the very remotest parts of the outback west of Alice Springs and collaborates with Aboriginal Artists making maps and topographical images. Also Venkat Shyam, a Gond artist and writer from India and Joshua Yeldham, one of my favourite artists who talked about ‘playing at the boundary of your potential’ and that living in a landscape including at night will change the ‘wiring’ in your brain – a concept that thrills me!
Another passion, history! I have ever been a nerd and particularly interested in English social history so I just had to go to hear Julia Baird in conversation with Caroline Baum. They talked about the process of writing a biography of Queen Victoria and how to gain access to the Windsor Royal Archives – not at all easy.
Quite a discussion too on the rewriting of history – how Queen Vistoria’s youngest daughter, Beatrice actually rewrote much of her diaries and burned masses of correspondence, how some notes were later found and King Edward VII was blackmailed, then eventually got hold of these notes and promptly burnt them. Sad, really, how we need to plaster over and sanitise the lives of those who have died rather than let them speak to the future as themselves!
There was more, of course, a really interesting session about ‘The Case Against Fragrance’ by Kate Grenville talking with Ashley Hay. Kate, like myself and many others is afflicted with headache caused by fragrances and has written about the bombardment of fragrance into our lives and how debilitating that can be.
I also listened to the art critic, Sebastian Smee discuss rivalry in art – in this case between Degas and Manet…..to the extent that canvases were cut in two!
Anyway I will stop here today and get on to do some reading…..