For some reason the crowds kept away today, perhaps because no Bollywood stars were making an appearance or because it was Sunday and everyone was going to have a lie in.
We walked to our first session and sat to hear Helen MacDonlad talk about her book “ H is for Hawk”, moderated superbly I thought by a slightly hung over Chiki Sarkar who asked the most probing questions of the author.
Perhaps because of this I found it one of the most fascinating sessions, listening to this woman talk about her father's death and what a devastating loss this left in her life. She coped or worked through it strangely enough by training a goshawk, as she descended into a rather dark and bleak time of loneliness and separation.
As she put it – a death, a miserable woman and a bird – doesn’t seem the most exciting subject matter but she had a fascination with birds of prey as a young child and kept a kestrel which she brought home on the train and somehow this became part of the answer when she was grieving for her father.
When Chiki probed, why a bird? Most people keep cats and dogs, Helen made the point that they become a part of the family, while birds of prey did not – they have a presence but also an absence. It was a relationship that had to be based on kindness and trust, so Mabel as the goshawk was called, was her companion on long and muddy walks into the countryside. Training it was a distraction as well as an addiction.
Walking around Cambridge with a goshawk on her shoulder she received some strange comments and stares. She fell into a terrible depression and isolated herself from family and friends but finally she realized that she needed to incorporate the grief into her life and seek the help of anti depressants.It took her five years to write the book which is as much about loss as it is about the environment and the changing landscape of the UK.
My burning question was, what happened to Mabel. You need to buy the book to find out about that. Helen's reading describing meeting Mabel was captivating.
Today was also the day when Swacch Bharat - the need for Cleanliness in India was debated in a session and for the first time I hear speakers pronounce loudly and clearly how unacceptable the lack of civic duty has become all over India, how necessary it was to introduce young children to differerent norms of cleanliness and to give communities a sense of ownership to their community matters. At the base of it - something that I have always said - is the existence of the caste system. Until that goes these issues will still remain.
Listening to Peter Frankopan talking about "The Silk Roads" was wonderful because the author, who spent many years researching and travelling in the area, wanted to take away the Eurocentric focus on history and return it to the areas of the Middle East, Iran and the East where it all began. Even Alexander the Great described the area as the Omphalos - the navel of the earth. This is where all the religions were born as well as major languages and trade interacting. It was along these silk roads that all this was played out - until Britain and other European and US forces tried to exercise control. This is the area which is the most crucial to the world at the present time, and how the powers will deal with it will determine the outcome for this century.
The Literature festival isn't just about literature - it is also a place where scientists can put forward their points of view as Sharad Paul did with his session on "Skin." I learnt some fascinating things from this session. Skin darkens to preserve folic acid which is necessary for reproduction. As populations moved northwards, people needed a more effective cooling system and their skin lightened to enable it to absorb vitamin D.
The day was not even half way through when Anthony Sattin gave a most rewarding and illuminating session on "Young Lawrence" - he has written the biography of Thomas Edward Lawrence- Lawrence of Arabia with an emphasis on his early years.He was the product of an illegitimate liaison between his father Sir Thomas Chapman and his nanny. He eventually left his wife and changed his name to Lawrence and Ned was raised in this family with the secret of his birth casting a shadow. He was not tall, but he was fair and blue eyed. He was always interested in archaeology and became the youngest donor of artefacts to the Ashmolean. He travels to the Middle east and undertakes long walks and campaigns which are unusual but he is determined and curious and above all fearless. After Oxford he ends up heading an archaeological dig in Carcemish in northern Syria and becomes acquainted with Dahoum with whom he develops a lasting and deep relationship though there is no real evidence that it was sexual in nature.
As if this was not a surfeit of speakers and subjects I ended up listening to a panel of Biographers. They were Victoria Glendinning whose recent biography is on Raffles. How he came to be in Singapore, the difficulties he has to face, the intricacies of his personal life and the building up of his massive fortune.Tristram Hunt, a Labour MP, has written about Frederich Engels who was an industrialist in Manchester, supporting Marx in his efforts with Das Capital.- He was a cotton magnate and a great Capitalist supporting Marx even to the point of adopting a child that Marx had with his maid. The correspondence between them was voluminous and there is plenty of fascinating insight to this era of industrial development in Manchester. Hannah Rothschild was fascinated by the story of her great aunt Nica - who escaped from the clutches of the family and ended up in New York supporting Jazz musicians, at one point living with Thelonious Monk. Her book which has become a bestseller is called "The Improbability of Love".Ben Macintyre, author of "Agent Zig Zag"also spoke about his recent publication which deals with the life of the double agent Kim Philby- a character who he still feels is morally repugnant particularly given the relationship that Philby had with a very close friend Nicholas Elliot who he betrayed to the KGB.Ben concluded that there is private element to everyone - but Philby's was an extraordinary tale of betrayal and duplicity.
So what is your dark secret ?