Ways with Words, Dartington

For much of the last week I have been at the Ways with Words festival of ideas, held at Dartington Hall, in South Devon. So much did I enjoy this year’s festival that I thought I’d write a quick note on it here.

For those of you who don’t know, Dartington Hall is the greatest medieval secular building in the west of England. The hall itself, together with the surviving offices (pantry and buttery), kitchen and some of the outbuildings were built by John Holland, earl of Huntingdon, between 1388 and about 1400. The kitchen – which today serves as the restaurant for the bar – is one of the most spectacular early kitchens anywhere in the country, with two huge fireplaces, each more than twenty feet wide. The hall is the treasure though. As I said to someone beforehand, there is nowhere which demonstrates more clearly how light and graceful a medieval hall could be. Indeed, one gets the impression that light itself is the most valuable element in a medieval aristocrat’s house (even that of a thug like John Holland).

I had done my homework so my talk on Monday morning, chaired by the very affable Dr Richard Ryder, was stress-free and enjoyable. Speaking there, in that special medieval place, is like speaking in the Royal Albert Hall. A real privilege. People came up to me afterwards and expressed their gratitude – which was lovely. Later I found that one person in the audience was kind enough to include a short description of my talk on her blog. I had lunch with Sam Leith, and gave him my opinion on Wikipedia, which he duly repeated on his blog. My point - in case you're wondering - stemmed from the use of the internet as a means of finding out about which books are good and which are bad. No, it is not always accurate, but neither was the internet's predecessor in this regard: word of mouth. Wikipedia is no less reliable than asking someone in the pub. The reliability of the information depends on whom you ask, but you don't know who they are or what their credentials might be. Hence Wikipedia equates to the 'world-wide pub conversation', as I put it.

After lunch I watched Sebag Montefiore deliver his charismatic anecdote-laden one-man cabaret of Eastern-European revolution reminiscences, which I always enjoy. This was to explain how he came to write his novel, Sashenka (written under his shortened name Simon Montefiore). I do admire his style – and of course his thoroughness in incorporating original material within his fluidly written and exciting non-fiction books. I listened to two novelists – Rebecca Abrams and Poppy Adams – later that afternoon, both of whom came across as glamourous and insightful (a great combination). After dinner with a lecturer from the LSE, much wine was drunk with other writers, and I managed to cadge a lift home. The whole feeling was satisfied surprise – as if I had thrown a pack of cards up in the air and every single one had come down and landed face-up.

This is the great thing about Dartington. It is so easy to meet and talk to people. Often people recognise you, having seen you talk, and come up and introduce themselves. And you can do the same with other writers. On Thursday I was able at last to meet a fellow historian who is also a publisher who sent me a book for endorsement last year. You can talk over lunch or dinner with other people about publishers, writers, reviewers, etcetera. It’s a forum like no other in that respect. And of course you can talk about the subjects you’ve heard about. Poppy Adams, in discussing her book The Behaviour of Moths, brought up the subject of free will, and whether moths exercise free will when turning from larvae into liquid in their chrysalises. The ideas this gives rise to, and the assumptions connected with it, provide scope for fruitful discussion. And since Dartington is relatively isolated – it’s set within its own beautiful grounds, not within a town – there is no alternative but to start chatting with other people about such things. So it is quite unlike a town-based literary festival; the discussions after every talk become an important part of the event. In this wonderful, very English setting we all turn to do that very un-English thing: talk freely to lots of strangers. And, moreover, talk about things which really interest us, and move us.

My last night at the festival was Thursday. My role was to introduce Dan Cruikshank. I was worried about getting a lift home and had suggested to the wonderfully calm organisers, Kay Dunbar and Stephen Bristow, that I should end Dan’s talk with a question from me to the 300 people in the audience: ‘can anyone drive me home?’ As it happened, it was not necessary. I spotted someone in the audience who lives in the same street as me. As I say, it’s like throwing a whole pack of cards in the air and seeing them all land face-up.

Ian Mortimer
18 April 2006


The queue to see John Sargeant at dartington, 17 July 2008


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