I’ve had several out-of-town literary treats recently. First off was a visit to Plymouth International Book Festival to discuss Victorian women’s fiction with two pals, Min Wild and novelist Helen Dunmore. Remarkably, the festival is only in its second year; charming helmsman Bertel Martin has big plans and outlined some of them to me over a coffee. Min is an academic, and Helen, alarmingly, seemed to have the works of all the Brontes, plus Gaskell and George Eliot at her fingertips, so I think I was only there for comic relief. But it was great fun and I met some lovely people.
I elected to stay overnight and was put up at the splendidly ornate Duke of Cornwall hotel. The next morning was Remembrance Sunday and a lot of people were walking around in naval uniforms, clinking their medals. I managed a walk round the Hoe in glorious sunshine before it all kicked off.
Down by the waterfront I found a great second-hand bookshop, The Book Cupboard, where I spent at least an hour browsing (and listening to the friendly bickering of the man and woman at the till). There’s an extensive poetry section, and I eventually came away with a fine copy of George Meredith’s sonnet sequence Modern Love (thinking of my friend Max Wallis, whose debut collection of the same name is both homage and update). I also bought The Faber Book of Chidren’s Verse, pub 1953, with an exquisitely designed and intact dust jacket. Gosh, children were erudite in those days. It’s a stunning and challenging anthology – heavy on rhyme and metre, as you’d expect.
Next stop was Edinburgh to interview the legendary Donna Tartt. This time the hotel was quite wacky: The Angels Share just off Princes St, where all the rooms are named after Scottish actors and singers. A massive blow up of Paul Brannigan’s face brooded over my bed, and the tea and coffee stash came with Tunnocks tea cakes. Bliss.
I got a bit lost on the way to the venue (and to be honest had popped into another bookshop) so Donna and her entourage were already there when I arrived. She’d already done several events on a hectic tour up and down the country but was relaxed and charming in the green room. She’d only been in town for an hour or so, but had already bought a kilt in a vintage shop.
On stage, she read beautifully from the end of The Goldfinch and responded to every question with warmth and candour. After an ‘in conversation’ I can never really recall what was said if it went well (you only remember the horrors) but one remark did stick in my mind. You’re never far from the sound of bagpipes in Edinburgh and for Tartt, they mean only one thing: the aftermath of 9/11. Bagpipe music, she explained, always signified the funeral of a policeman or firefighter, and the pipes played almost daily, for weeks on end.
At the end the staff of Waterstones presented her with a bottle of champagne and she insisted on immediately opening it and pouring me a glass. How lovely is that? She then spent time with every person in the lengthy and very patient signing queue, and I felt bad at the end asking her to get her pen out yet again, even as she was flexing her tired fingers, but I had to get my copy signed too!
The next day after breakfast (which included something called a ‘tattie scone’ – yum!) I wandered to 60 George St where Shelley spent his honeymoon after running away with his child bride Harriet. A note to the proprietors of the clothes shop that now occupies the premises – the commemorative plaque needs polishing.
Then there was enough time before the train home to check out the National Gallery of Scotland, where I admired the magnificent Titians that recently came to the NG in London, and Poussin’s Seven Sacraments, among many other masterpieces. But I was equally struck by four Arts and Crafts hangings by a Scottish artist, Phoebe Anna Traquair, entitled The Progress of a Soul. They were loosely based on a story by Water Pater which I tried to read later, but found deadly dull. Traquair, however, was inspired. The virtuoso embroidered panels feature a Orphic figure with a harp, clad in leopardskin, moving through states of Stress and Despair to final Victory. The lines are sinuous, the textures and colours scintillating and the subject matter intriguing and ambiguous. My 24 hours in Scotland were a treat for the soul and the senses.