The first class of Marlborough LitFest’s Saturday morning was (capital H) History – specifically Napoleon who was known on this side of the Channel as the ‘Little Corporal’.
For his new biography Napoleon – the Man Behind the Myth – Adam Zamoyski has gone back to the original sources. And to start his talk he went back to Napoleon’s origins in Corsica: “He was, one has to remember, just an ordinary man – and, yes, a little man.”
Tracing his rise to such extraordinary power, Zamoyski told us about his schemes and policies that chime with those of other autocratic leaders – then and now. Early on “He learnt that ends justify the means – you don’t get anywhere without being ruthless.”
It began to look as though Napoleon was a self-made man – in that he created his own myth. He rode hard that steed called ‘la gloire’ – and filled the spirit of the age’s need for strong heroes.
We heard, however, intriguing parts of his life that are not in the school textbooks. First, his obsession with money. And secondly his difficulties with sex: he was ‘a terrible prig’. We heard his own account of an attempt to lose his virginity with a tart – hilarious. And then he met Josephine who had ‘extraordinary love-making skills’.
As with most tyrants, along the way he did a lot of good things. If there had been railways then, he would have made the trains run on time.
Zamoyski summed him up as a parvenu soldier who was “A fantastic tactician but a lousy strategist”. He was eaten away by insecurities. Zamoyski gave us a truly fascinating start to the day.
The next history lesson spanned many, many more years than Napoleon was granted. Archaeologist Mike Pitts’ new book Digging up Britain – Ten Discoveries & a Million Years of History tells us about the new discoveries that are rewriting Britain’s history.
Mike Pitts, who lives in Marlborough and edits the magazine British Archaeology, centred his illustrated talk on Stonehenge. But he started with pockets of silt from glacial times he had spotted in ground workings at the Salisbury Road housing development. The kind of silt that could contain remains for stone tools made by very early Britons – vital evidence.
He then explained the recent explosion in archaeological discoveries in Britain – pinning the start of this revolution on legislation put through the day before Mrs Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister. It put the legal onus on developers to pay for archaeologists to check sites before houses, roads etc are constructed.
Add that to the amazing advances in science – especially new techniques with DNA – and grants and experts from the EU, and we were told new facts and new theories that tell an eye-popping story of our ancient history.
This new science has revealed two sudden changes in the make-up of Britain’s population. There have been some other surprises: from DNA evidence it is clear one of Britain’s earliest humans had dark brown to black hair and dark or dark to black skin. Later settlers in Britain had light brown skin – white Britons came later.
There is still much work to be done in analysing these new archaeological finds. And more excavations to start. Mike Pitts did point out that “If HS2 is cancelled, it will still be the largest archaeological programme in the UK.”
The talk ended back home at the Marlborough Mound. The two other mounds in the area, Silbury and Marden (long since flattened) had large scale henges nearby. Will new techniques delving beneath the town reveal that Marlborough too had a henge? It was a scintillating hour – now for the book!
LitFests would be impossible without publishers, so it was a stroke of genius to invite Toby Faber to talk about his book Faber and Faber – The Untold Story.
F&F is still an independent publisher – very proud of it history, its backlist, its successes and especially, in this day and age, of its independence. Toby Faber told us about some of the misses (Animal Farm – rejected. A Bear Called Paddington – rejected).
And about some of the near misses – Seamus Heaney saved from the rejects pile by Faber director TS Eliot. And William Golding’s Strangers from Within, at first rejected and then nursed into publishable condition as Lord of the Flies. As a regular GCSE text that book is worth 100,000 sales year.
Any advice for struggling authors? F&F receive about 3,000 unsolicited manuscripts each year – one of these is published every ten years: “First get yourself an agent.”
Toby Faber (who was F&F’s MD from 1990 to 2001) brought with him Claire McGlasson who is one of F&F’s brilliant debut authors of the year. She is a reporter with ITV News in Cambridge and in Bedford came across a cult of eighty women who were waiting for Jesus – the Panacea Society. It is a very remarkable story.
The founder, Octavia, believed she was the Daughter of God. The last member died in 2012 and Ms McGlasson got access to their extraordinary archive and decided to turn it into a novel: The Rapture.
She includes excerpts from the actual reports members had to make “To keep an eye on each other’s souls” – chilling stuff.
Her novel is 90,000 words long. As a reporter used to writing 200 words for a news bulletin, Claire McGlasson found fiction “Liberating and terrifying in equal measure.” She wanted to include the archive extracts to keep readers aware of the reality behind her story.
She spoke movingly about the impact of being published by a firm like F&F. When she says she’s written a book, people reply: “That’s nice – is it a romance? No. Has it been published? Yes by Faber”. Then they know it’s a real book. And as Toby Faber reminded us, every great novelist has to write a first novel!
Marlborough.news had a reporter at Saturday evening’s Town Hall sell-out interview with the ever popular Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin. He was talking about his life and his latest novel In a House of Lies – his 22nd book featuring John Rebus.
Rebus is now retired, but cannot let go and is operating ‘like a private eye’. Rankin has started a Rebus play – due, hopefully, later next year. What everyone wants to know is there another Rebus book due?
Rankin has a contract for one more crime book. The LitFest audience appeared to be chock full of Rebus devotees who were relieved to hear Rankin say: “It feels like a Rebus book…”
Coming soon – diary entries for two Sunday LitFest events.