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Friday, 21 November 2014

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Festival serves up literary delicacies

IT will go down as one of the most memorable moments of our generation, when an incredulous nation watched as that Leicester car park was dug up.

Until that point, the tweets had been unkind: Philippa Langley was a woman obsessed, unhinged even.

The £34,000 archaeological dig, which had arisen from nothing more than her ‘overwhelming urge’ to go into the car park and her ‘feeling’ she was walking over the grave of King Richard III, had seemed nothing short of divining-rod quackery.

But as we all know now from the Channel 4 documentary that followed her, she had the last laugh.

Secretary of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society, she had, in fact, spent 10 long years on the search for Richard’s final resting place.

She has since co-authored a book, The King’s Grave: The Discovery of Richard III’s Lost Burial Place and the Clues It Holds, and started on the script for a biopic.

So she will have plenty to talk about during her ‘turn’ at this year’s Hexham Book Festival, the programme for which is out today.

Set to run during the fortnight beginning April 24 – although there is also a one-off event on April 3 featuring crime writer Val McDermid – it promises to pack a punch.

Four dozen or so writers will between them cover everything from politics and economics, to cookery, to some of the best selling fiction of the day.

But it is the biographies and biographers that, for me, stand out from the crowd.

Conservative grandee Douglas Hurd has the slot in the Queen’s Hall theatre immediately before Philippa Langley, debunking myths about another name that has loomed large in our history.

Benjamin Disraeli, said to be Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister, was a school drop-out and a populist novelist before turning to politics. So how did he come to be one of the most highly esteemed statesmen in Europe?

Douglas Hurd will assess the dual life of the ruthless charmer and devoted public servant.

Historical novelist Alison Weir will turn the spotlight on another royal when she entices Elizabeth of York, the first Tudor Queen, out of the shadows.

The woman who united the warring houses of York and Lancaster has yet been overlooked as a consort of no significance – until now. She was much more than a decorative rose, it transpires.

And Lucinda Hawksley – who happens to be Charles Dickens’ great, great, great granddaughter – will mete out the same fair, balanced treatment to another royal maiden misrepresented by her peers.

The life of Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s sixth child, was recorded more through rumour and gossip than hard facts. But she was a fascinating woman, Ms Hawksley will say – artistic, tempestuous and modern before her time.

And then there is the story of Dora Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, the life-long friends who lived in the shadows of their famous fathers.

They dedicated themselves to maintaining the poets’ literary legacies, says writer Kate Waldegrave, but at the huge personal cost of depression, anorexia and drug addiction.

Renowned journalists Hugh Pym and Faisal Islam will fast-forward a couple of hundred years to analyse political and generational crises of another sort: the banking and economic meltdown that has blighted our times.

They will each attempt to answer the question: why did it happen?

Cookery writers Jans Ondaatje Rolls and Tony Singh will do their bit to fuel the cerebral gymnastics by serving up food for body and soul.

The latter, one half of the BBC2 duo The Incredible Spice Men, will travel down from his native Edinburgh to talk about culinary innovation and all things tangy.

Jans, meanwhile, will invite you to ‘dine’ with the eternally fascinating Bloomsbury Group.

Boasting some of the greatest artists, writers, economists and politicians of the age – Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes and Lytton Strachey among them – the group was more often than not to be found in heated debate, gathered around a table.

In The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art, a book that is as much social history as food, she takes us to the heart of their lives, recreating the meals around which they argued, laughed and loved.

There is fiction on offer during the festival, of course, most notably from Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

She will be talking about her latest novel, The Last Runaway. In keeping with the mood of the moment, it looks back to Ohio in the 1850s and slaves making a bid for freedom.

Janette Jenkins will be talking about Firefly, her colourful and contemplative novel that evokes Noel Coward in his final years spent in Jamaica.

Far from being a sun-soaked idyll, the sunsets, brandies and cigars were no compensation for the lost characters and elegance of pre-war London.

And Newsnight supremo Kirsty Wark will unveil her debut novel, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle, set on the Isle of Arran.

But the personalities who have been allotted the festival’s prime, headline slots, on the Friday and Saturday evenings (May 2 and 3), are Penelope Lively and Nadine Dorries.

As different as chalk and cheese – think cooing dove v. tropical bird of paradise – they will each talk about the personal experiences that have influenced their books.

Mrs Dorries will wax eloquent, no doubt, about the journey that has taken her from a poor working class upbringing on Merseyside, through nursing and the Houses of Parliament and on to the set of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

She will be conducted on her way by political journalist, broadcaster and host extraordinaire, Gerard Foley.

With additional delectable dishes of crime, history, the great outdoors, creative writing and children’s activities – oh, and a golden evening with stand-up comic and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue staple Jeremy Hardy – Hexham Book Festival 2014 will serve up a feast fit for a king.

The programme is available now at the Queen’s Hall, among other places and online at www.hexhambookfestival.co.uk

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