We were a motley duo as we wandered into the glowing grounds of Cliveden House in our denim jackets and dirty rucksacks, clutching star-studded festival programs, reeling amongst the well-heeled, well-read literati who had clearly made a great and glamorous exodus from Hampstead, Tuscany, and Manhattan’s Barnes & Noble. (Or so it seemed to a pair of disoriented and disheveled students.) Cliveden Literary Festival was launched this October in the rampant, Italian-influenced seventeenth century vainglory of Cliveden House, near Berkshire. The homepage of its website describes its ‘extraordinary history of politics and intrigue, aristocracy and espionage, sex and scandal … a character in the story of these isles.’ And the place fulfilled these promises, submerging us in a surreal dance of themes and discourses – even we were embroiled in our own small scandal, in the end.
The first twangs of discord struck towards the end of the first event we attended: ‘Zionism: 100 years of the Balfour Declaration’, a panel consisting of Lord Rothschild, Simon Schama, Howard Jacobson, and Simon Sebag Montefiore, and chaired by David Reynolds. The talk, as I had anticipated, began with a historically-based account of the Balfour Declaration, signed by panellist Jacob Rothschild’s ancestor Lord Walter Rothschild, a Jewish hero with a Victorian hangover of eccentricity. (He apparently liked to ride around on giant tortoises.) The present Rothschild called the declaration a ‘Magna Carta of liberation’, and the discussion continued in much the same vein, with Sebag Montefiore lauding the declaration’s ‘perfect timing’.
There was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a focus on the language of ‘home’ – the word was the metaphorical hearth of the conversation. Rothschild, a dominating, unforgettably aristocratic force in the panel, launched the linguistic yearning for home with a Robert Frost quotation, ‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.’ Sebag Montefiore leapt on the theme, attributing the impetus of the Jewish state as ‘a combination of longings with a just longing for home,’ and Schama did as Schama always does, marrying detail and imagery in one fell swoop. He cited the thousands made homeless by the Russian pogroms preceding the Balfour declaration. ‘Homeless;’ he said, ‘“home” is the most important word.’ He referenced the attackers who would, when terrorising Russian Jews from their homes, destroy their bedding and upholstery before committing horrors of rape and genocide, leaving feathers floating in the air and ‘furniture smashed up,’ as if to state, ‘you will never have a home. Your home is provisional.’ Schama and Rothschild argued, rather heatedly, about specifics of the current discord in Israel- Palestine, but it was heat that did not and could not undermine the chilling vision of those floating feathers. A discrepancy lay, too, between our comfortable positioning in the Great Hall, the heart of one of the most notorious ‘homes’ in England, and our discussion of sheer soil, of two peoples in crisis. We left the hall, not necessarily knowing more, but with the Balfour Declaration and its implications feeling far more tangible.
With lunch came a foodie talk on a new cookbook: I wanted to indulge in more Schama, and his interview of the River Café’s Ruth Rogers – who trained up such stars as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – promised some simulation of the tastes we couldn’t afford at the omnipresent Fortnum & Mason stalls. At first I was dubious: was this really literary? Did this famous restaurant offer anything that could resonate with students? Rogers spoke effusively about providing ‘a democratic good time’ at the restaurant and how ‘disgraceful’ it is that ‘our countries [the UK and the USA] feed children terrible food’ – rich, perhaps even saccharine, and certainly not democratic coming from the mouth of a restaurateur whose antipasti start at £18, and mains at £34. Her implication was that ‘our countries’ – that indistinct scapegoat – have a moral duty to feed their children at the equivalent of River Café tables. I felt mildly nauseated in the soup of her praise of good, honest cooking, fresh, ethically-sourced ingredients, and her moneyed audience nodding along to the self-effacery of expensive restaurants that refer to themselves as ‘cafes’, ‘cottages’, ‘stores’…
But there was, nevertheless, something valuable in the ethos that Rogers served with such disarming, quiet candour. She had lost her co-founder, Rose Gray, very recently, and spoke of her with grounded grief: ‘I tell people how to grate Parmesan or something and I know: she’s there.’ She was feisty too. In reply to one rather rude audience participator’s inquiry as to why her customers were so ‘boorish’ (oh! the irony), she explained her vision of the River Café: ‘we started eating in homes of the wine growers and that really influenced us a lot … I hope,’ she told us, ‘that you will feel taken care of and also that you are home … People who work for us want customers to feel that it is a home. People do very private things in a restaurant: cry, celebrate, propose.’ Under the celebrity status, the pricy pasta and the unavoidable name-dropping, there was an understanding of the importance of home; she attributed the restaurant’s success to it and the audience bought it. I emerged salivating, rather than tearing up, but there was something strange in the thread that tied the two talks together. It was Schama who had engineered it: both discussions had orbited around a search for home, a sense of displacement and grief, a desire to be rooted in a safe innocence that was fascinatingly out of place in the vast, opulent mysteries of Cliveden.
Our afternoon immersion led us into the novels of literary giant and Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks, as he discussed ‘his obsession with love and war’ with journalist and author Miriam Gross. My companion fell instantly in love with Faulks’ easy humour and public school charm. I’d like to say I resisted in favour of a more journalistic and discerning critical eye, but reader, I would have married him. Part of the seduction was, of course, the topic of love, which got me all hot and bothered. As he put it: ‘Most people in this country are quite reserved, or they’re not eloquent enough. But also, there aren’t enough words for feelings … your feelings for someone are actually a mixture of about 40 different emotions.’ Boy, were they. Faulks made no secret of his people-pleasing abilities, confessing that, ‘I think about pleasing the reader to an almost whoreish extent.’ It clearly works, considering Birdsong came 13th in a 2003 BBC survey called the Big Read, which aimed to find Britain’s favourite book – for whatever that may be worth. He read from his upcoming novel – working title In Paris, out Spring 2018 – championing love and literature, but I was most interested by his analysis of love when Gross asked him whether ‘literature has elevated love to an unrealistic position.’ He didn’t think so: ‘Love,’ he said, ‘is an emotion which has a place in our legal system … for the protection of children, et cetera … it holds an enthroned position in our life.’ In so short a time I had travelled from men discussing the dethroning of space for families, to a woman talking about making a space for families, to a man analysing familial space. I could not help but sense that the real anxiety that kept unearthing itself from the PR promotions and agendas was that oh-so-English preoccupation, the desire for space, even for privacy – perhaps it was just my frenzied undergraduate mind, cluttered with pressing deadlines and the memory of the cramped coach from Oxford to Maidenhead.
The next morning the mighty Ian McEwan spoke, in conversation with the Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig. He announced that he was 20,000 words or so into a new novel, and sounded his excitement at the upcoming film adaptation of On Chesil Beach in January 2018, starring Benedict Cumberbatch: this prompted ripples of excitable murmurs in the crowd. As with Faulks before him, though, more intriguing than news bulletins of his upcoming work were his analyses of wider topics – where Faulks had been eloquent on love, McEwan was reasoned but thoughtful when discussing the future of print. He eschewed the prediction that the advent of TV and film would be the death of the novel: ‘Reading remains a powerful private pleasure,’ and I wondered if this was what really tied the cacophony of speakers and discussions together. Howard Jacobson, way back on the Saturday morning, had spoken of Israel as ‘an opportunity to rescue Jews from themselves … a place where people would write poetry and be intellectually free.’ But on reflection, it seemed that the place – or space – for people to be free was and is, always and inevitably, whether reading or writing, in literature and books.
As it happened, though, Cliveden was not our place to be free. We were escorted – by which I mean kicked – out on the Saturday afternoon. Our scandal: a regrettable series of events involving a gazebo, my National Trust card, and a cynical security guard. It had been an Arcadian few hours – a literary paradise with a clock on it – perhaps it was even Elysian in its saturation of celebrities: the literary great and good, gathered in palatial fields. We left, still motley, but flushed with the Cliveden glow.