Felix Francis

Felix Francis 1 Felix FrancisThe Bull, Ballroom
13 November 2014
BR rating ***

By Nick Pitt

Felix Francis has inherited and extended a remarkable family franchise. His late father, Dick, a former jump jockey, was credited as the sole writer of a long series of best-selling thrillers set in the world of racing. Although she was not publicly acknowledged (by her own choice), Felix’s mother, Mary, was a key collaborator. Their 39th and final novel was published in 2000, the year Mary died. Four years later, Felix had lunch with his father’s agent, who said that the backlist had stagnated and a new Dick Francis novel was required to stimulate sales. “I’d like to have a go at it,” said Felix, a former schoolteacher already in his fifties.

He began to write Under Orders, which was published in 2006. The new Dick Francis had his father’s blessing and bore the hallmarks of his writing style and genre. But although all parties maintained the fiction that it was written by Dick, with the aid of his son, it was all Felix’s work. “I wrote it,” he revealed at The Bull. “I can say that now because 18 months ago I was released from the contract that prevented me saying so.”

It all started back in 1956 when Dick Francis, the jockey, was riding Devon Loch, the Queens Mother’s horse, at the Grand National. With the race at his mercy and the winning line in sight, Devon Loch collapsed, doing the splits on the run-in. At the time, it was a disaster, but it turned out to be the making of Dick Francis, indeed the family Francis, as writers. Dick wrote an autobiography, went into racing journalism and later turned to fiction.

Felix, a transparently happy man, showed the Pathé News film of the race at the beginning of his talk. “I’ve watched it a thousand times and I just wish he would win it once,” he said, not really meaning it. Damage, his latest, is the 50th in 50 years in the Dick Francis canon. Father (who died in 2010) and son seem indivisible. “He’s part of me and I’m part of him,” Felix said.

By |November 13th, 2014|Books|0 Comments

Christopher Nicholson

Christopher Nicholson1 Christopher NicholsonThe Bull, Hayloft
12 November 2014
BR rating *****

By Nick Pitt

Perhaps the ghost of Thomas Hardy was stalking The Bull. As Christopher Nicholson reminded us, Hardy, who helped restore St Mary’s church as a young architect, was familiar with Bridport and its coaching inn. He also had a healthy disregard for the telephone, or “telephonic apparatus” and would doubtless have grumbled when Nicholson’s talk was twice interrupted by the ring-tones of mobile telephonic apparatuses. Unless Hardy’s spirit set them off.

Such a flight of fancy is excused by Nicholson’s theme, the entwining of fact and fiction. His book, Winter, is about Hardy as an old man and two of the women in his life. “It is not a historical reconstruction, or a fictionalised biography,” Nicholson said. Rather, it is “a novel involving my personal Hardy”.

There are dangers in mixing fact and fiction, as Nicholson is well aware. It can easily become ridiculous, the worst of both. But judging from the extracts the author read out, his use of the novelist’s tricks and freedoms to reach for a deeper truth is a signal success. The marriage is authentic.

Four years ago, Nicholson had lunch with an old lady who had been friends with Gertrude Bugler, a young actress who played the part of Tess in a stage production of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and with whom Hardy had become besotted in his dotage. Nicholson was told that Hardy had written a poem in which he had imagined eloping with Bugler, and that Hardy’s second wife, Florence, had destroyed it. That was the spark and Nicholson began to write his novel.

So engaging was Nicholson’s discourse about Hardy, his women and the strange weaving of fiction and history, that its brilliance was not obvious. But when he read a passage from his book describing Hardy escorting Bugler to the gate of his house, never to see her again, the audience broke into applause. It was most moving, poignant in its detail, heavy with fatalism. Indeed, worthy of Hardy himself.

By |November 12th, 2014|Books|3 Comments

Alan Johnson

Alan Johnson1 Alan JohnsonElectric Palace
12 November 2014
BR rating ***

By Richard Lewis

Alan Johnson MP suffered an over-long and unnecessary personal introduction before being allowed to charm an attentive full house at the Electric Palace.

His first volume of autobiography, This Boy: A Memoir of Childhood, provided anecdotes of a difficult upbringing in a North Kensington slum. His father deserted the family, his ailing mother eventually died when he was only 12, and Alan was bought up by his older sister, herself only a teenager.

Johnson joined the Post Office, where he became an officer of the Union of Communication Workers, rising to General Secretary, a career recorded in his second volume of memoirs.

He has held five cabinet posts and while he praised the concept of the removal of government by popular vote, he regretted his own transition from Home Secretary to Shadow Home Secretary, the move from thinking about what you are going to do, to what you are going to say.

After this near-faultless performance, it is easy to see why Alan Johnson remains that rarest of beasts, a popular contemporary politician.

By |November 12th, 2014|Books|0 Comments

Philip Marsden

Philip Marsden 1 Philip MarsdenBridport Arts Centre
11 November 2014
BR rating ***

By Alison Lang

Philip Marsden’s latest book is about the sense and power of place in the human story. His illuminated and illuminating talk began with the business of moving house. He fell in love with a farmhouse in Cornwall and jumped through hoops for two years to get it, knowing that it should, must, belong to him.

The focus was mainly on Cornwall. Marsden paid tribute to Charles Henderson, a Cornish historian who was captivated by the land around him from childhood. His obsessional activities, such as identifying the flora and collecting postmarks from the most obscure corners of the county, were really excuses for exploration. Henderson died at the age of 33 but lived a full life, leaving behind 16,000 documents which form an important archive of Cornish history.

Ever since his own childhood in the Mendip Hills, Marsden felt the same pull. He became intimate with the nooks and crannies of caves, caverns and potholes. Years later, after the advent of carbon dating and DNA, he was taken aback to hear that one of his caves was proven to be the earliest scientifically dated cemetery in the world, a final resting place thousands of years older than the pyramids.

In his research, Marsden walked all over Cornwall, examining and musing over prehistoric and ancient monuments of man and the pull of landscape. In ancient cultures, the sun setting over the sea is a rehearsal for death.

By |November 11th, 2014|Books|1 Comment

Daisy Goodwin in conversation with Jason Goodwin

Daisy Goodwin 1 Daisy GoodwinBallroom, The Bull
Monday 10 November
BR rating ***

By Alison Lang

It was a warm, fun evening at The Bull with storms outside. The packed audience in the ballroom had the pleasure of eavesdropping on a chat between siblings. It was easy and relaxed, like a tennis match between the Williams sisters, as Jason Goodwin, the historian and novelist, recalled how his sister, Daisy, “gobbled up books” while growing up.

He feigned a little envy at her success. My Last Duchess and The Fortune Hunter (the latter made the Richard and Judy list) were both written while Daisy was producing television shows such as The Apprentice.

The Fortune Hunter, a rollicking romantic read, is based on real people in the time of Queen Victoria. Sisi, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, the Princess Diana of her day, was a brilliant horsewoman who could perform circus tricks on her mount. Escaping marriage, children, mother-in-law and the elaborately decorous Austrian court, she ventured abroad on protracted equestrian excursions, and despite being strictly chaperoned by her slightly comic entourage she still managed to leave a trail of scandal.

When she wrote her first book, Goodwin formulated the plot but found like many other writers that the characters took over and refused to behave. Now she just sits down and sees what happens. According to her American publisher, “it’s Henry James without the boring bits.”

Goodwin first noticed Sisi in a jigsaw puzzle. The interest grew during her visit to Neuschwanstein Castle. The audience at The Bull was curious too and much of the talk was about Sisi’s life, with her miniature waist, beauty regimens, including veal face masks tested by the author, and two-hour coiffures suspended in the air as she slept.

Goodwin explores Sisi’s relationship with the great English horseman, Bay Middleton, describing an intense affair and a love triangle involving Middleton’s intended. But, Goodwin wondered, did it actually happen? She revealed that at one talk she gave an audience member answered the question. “I’m Bay Middleton’s great-great grand-daughter,” the lady said, “and this is the ring Sisi gave him.” Goodwin looked at the ring, a piece of bling from the 19th century, with BAY spelt out in diamonds. She knew it was true.

By |November 10th, 2014|Books|0 Comments