The past four days has seen Gibraltar at the centre of the literary universe (well sort of) as it hosted the 3rd Gibraltar International Literary Festival. This was only my second experience of the event as, I’m ashamed to admit, the first one passed me by. Last year though, I was determined to get a bit of the action and I was lucky enough to meet two of my literary heroines, Kate Mosse and Joanne Harris. I am still star-struck to this day. Kate Mosse borrowed a pen from Joanne Harris to sign my copy of The Taxidermist’s Daughter at the end of a very long queue! (It’s a great atmospheric read by the way).
The Festival brings with it a real buzz to the town and there’s always the chance you may bump into someone famous in the street, on Thursday while waiting to meet my son from school, Maureen Lipman walked past and Nicholas Parsons got out of a car in front of us.
I think the reason why I find the Literary Festival so energising and magical is that not only does it all take place within the small sphere that makes up my day-to-day life here in Gibraltar, but these clever individuals come all this way to speak to us about their work and do it in our everyday venues which my sons have done school plays and sung concerts in! Imagine if a big literary name came and gave a talk in your local village hall or church, it just doesn’t happen – except for here that is.
My first talk this year was at the Garrison Library and was given by William Chislett. Entitled ‘The Curiosos Impertinentes: 19th and 20th-century British Travellers in Spain’ Chislett looked back at accounts by eight British writers who travelled at length in Spain and documented their experiences. The term ‘curiosos impertinentes’ translates in this instance to mean the ‘annoyingly curious’ and comes from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. The writers in question ranged from Richard Ford who travelled across the country in the 1830s on horseback wearing a lambskin coat and with two layers of brown paper lining his hat during the summer (presumably to protect it from his sweat) to Michael Jacobs, who died last year, and relied on public transport to traverse the nation as he couldn’t drive and felt it was a better way of meeting real Spaniards than travelling everywhere by car.
The well received talk covered Spain’s clichéd representation as a land of conquistadors, flamenco, and bull fights before touching on more subtle aspects of the Spanish character like the sense of belonging to one’s village, town or city of birth, ahead of a sense of national identity and the national obsession with food, which according to one author was beyond that of the French or Italians. It was interesting to note that in some cases the observations and paintings recorded by the early British travel writers are the earliest documents available on certain parts of Spain, particularly within the rural centre.
(Photo courtesy of gibraltar-stamps.com)
Friday morning saw the launch of a commemorative set of stamps to mark the 800th Anniversary of the Magna Carta. Minister for Business and Employment, Neil Costa officially launched the stamps as an introduction to Dr Dan Jones’ talk on Magna Carta – The Making and Legacy of the Great Charter.
With a backdrop of the beautiful King’s Chapel, Dr Dan Jones’ conversation with Paul Blezard was highly entertaining and really brought to life what happened 800 years ago. His insight into the character of the “warlord and despot” King John was at times highly amusing and put a human narrative into the story rather just being a staid history lesson. He told how the Magna Carta was created in an attempt to halt a civil war (which it did, but only for two months) and that the King made promises ‘to his faithful subjects and free men’ which are still of legal importance today. Dr Jones spoke of how the ideas within the Magna Carta have “transcended the Middle Ages” and are believed to have formed the thinking behind the United States’ Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence.
In February this year, all four known remaining 13th Century copies of the Magna Carta were brought together for the first time, and Dan Jones was invited to see them. He explained how each one was very different as they were written on vellum (animal skin) and as animals come in different shapes it leads to different sized and shaped pieces of vellum. Also the styles of writing differ due to the use of different scribes and some are in much better condition than others. There could though, still be more copies out there just waiting to be discovered in library archives.
Dan Jones also discussed his newest book; Realm Divided – A Year in the Life of Plantagenet England which looks at what was going on six months before and after the Magna Carta was drawn up at Runnymede. Among the events he mentioned was the siege of Rochester Castle when King John broke through the castle walls by having his soldiers mine underground and fill the tunnel with wooden struts smeared with pig fat before setting fire to it and collapsing the walls above. He asked us to imagine what it must have been like for the desperately hungry people stuck inside, who had been without fresh food or water for weeks, to smell the roasting pig fat burning below them!
Last year, a number of my friends (who are also Mums) spoke very highly of Christopher Lloyd and his What on Earth? wallbooks. This year was his third visit to the Gibraltar Literary Festival and this time he brought his newest books The What on Earth? Wallbook Timeline of Shakespeare and The Magna Carta Chronicle. The presentation I went to, along with my offspring, was The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare in 60 minutes… at the John Mackintosh Hall. The festival shows which are directed at children are offered free of charge and I can certainly say that the one we experienced was fantastic.
Presented by a man who is clearly passionate about his work and in front of the colourful backdrop of his Shakespeare wallbook, the audience of reception aged children through to grandparents were enthralled.
From early in his presentation, Christopher Lloyd had the audience participation cracked, picking out children (and amazingly remembering their names) to help illustrate his points and bring the stories of Shakespeare’s 38 plays to life. He talked about themes which run through the stories they tell like ghosts and death, love, doubt and fear.
When he donned his trademark ‘coat of many pockets’ he engaged the young members of the audience by getting them to guess the emotions connected to the colours and find out what symbolic item lay inside; a rose to symbolise love (pink pocket), a magician’s wand to symbolise magic (black pocket) and confetti to symbolise happiness (yellow pocket).
After collecting an ensemble cast of willing actors (adults and children) he put on a couple of performances, a potted version of Macbeth and another of Much Ado about Nothing. A rather stunned couple of middle school-aged pupils got married in Much Ado and a suitably attired trio of witches in pointy hats got to cast the famous spell of “Double, double, toil and trouble/ Fire burn and cauldron bubble” from the Scottish play.
I can now see what my friends were talking about when they raved about Christopher Lloyd’s previous performances at the festival. He was funny, engaging and brought the things he was talking about to life, whether it was the Big Bang, the extinction of the dinosaurs or Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream being turned into a donkey. I do hope he returns to next year’s festival as personally I’d like to see him again, never mind the kids!
The climax of my Gibraltar Literary Festival experience was a special edition of the BBC Radio 4 panel show ‘Just a minute’. It was held at lunchtime today (Sunday) onboard the Sunborn Yacht Hotel in Ocean Village. Despite being the ripe old age of 92 years old, the show’s chair for the past 48 years, Nicholas Parsons, held court brilliantly and was ably assisted with the stopwatch and whistle by his wife Annie.
The panel of Dame Esther Rantzen, novelist Felix Francis (son of the late Dick Francis) and comedians Marcus Brigstocke and Miles Jupp (who’s best known in our house as Archie the Inventor on Balamory) were welcomed by a sell-out audience packed into the Aurora Ballroom on the yacht. (Many apologies for the grainy quality of these photos but the lighting wasn’t particularly conducive for a phone camera!).
The show was kicked off by Marcus Brigstocke who was given 60 seconds to talk about the subject of Gibraltar without hesitation, repetition or deviation. He began a humourous monologue about being able to buy a bottle Advocaat on Main Street for £8 before being interrupted by Miles Jupp. During the performance, which lasted for well over an hour, the starting subjects were diverse (cricketing phrases in everyday use, Hallowe’en and conkers) although somehow the topic of Gibraltar, and it’s resident barbary apes made frequent appearances, much to the delight of the crowd.
On the subject of Literary Festivals, Brigstocke commented that “they are ten a penny” and allowed “bookworms to come together and pretend they’re ok with social interaction” which was much appreciated by the audience.
Felix Francis’s background was obviously taken into consideration when he was asked to speak about the subject of Thoroughbreds. This was hilariously turned around by Marcus Brigstocke who changed the meaning completely to ‘thorough breads’ and talked about toasted Hovis rather than racehorses. Also Miles Jupp’s account of school conker matches brought howls of laughter from the crowd.
Esther Rantzen won over the audience with her witty and very sharp knowledge of grammar and found every excuse to interrupt the other contestants on account of their misuse of the English language.
During the second half of the performance (it was separated into 2 ‘shows’) Marcus Brigstocke took a slightly more risqué approach on the subject of Getting up in the morning, much to the delight of the sell-out crowd. The topic in question was touched on again several times by other panellists and each time brought titters and howls of laughter. Nicholas Parsons described the comments as “suggestive naughtiness” and was grateful for the fact this edition of the show wasn’t being recorded to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4.
On the subject of the ‘real’ Just a Minute shows, Parsons said it was probably the least edited show on radio, as you can’t edit something that’s timed and commented that he’s “incredibly proud of the fact he’s part of such a show”. Today’s performance was testament to the fact it’s a great format and with such witty contestants it’s no wonder it’s clocked up 1,200 recorded shows over 48 years.
Looking back over the festival this year, it’s been great fun for me and I’ve only been to four events. There was such a diverse range of talks to chose from and I was spoiled for choice on what to attend, it was family commitments and timings which stopped me going to more. Well done to the organisers, the festival really does appear to be going from strength to strength and I can’t wait to see what the Gibraltar International Literary Festival 2016 has to offer. Thank you, it’s been a blast.