Memoir, Biographies and Boswell’s Book Festival
Memoir and biography have always been my favourite genre, with historical fiction a close second. I like to read about interesting lives, interesting incidents in history especially if they relate to things I care about. That’s why when I recently attended Boswell Book Festival at Dumfries House in Ayrshire, I was surprised that Michael Morpurgo was one of the main speakers. Had he written a memoir I wondered?
Well, he hadn’t, as he freely admitted in his opening lines – in case anyone felt he was attending Boswell’s Memoir and Biography Festival under false pretences. He had indeed written a children’s story that was a semi-biographical memoir of King Charles III, and if that wasn’t enough, he explained that much of his writing indeed touched on memoir and biography, in that he liked to write about things that have happened in his lifetime and that he had some recollection of living through. He was also keen to stress that he wrote about themes he cared about. Thus, ‘The Boy Who Would Be King’ semi-biographical memoir. He remembered watching Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on a tiny television screen as a schoolboy. The sight of the diminutive queen perched on an enormous throne overshadowed by the huge mitres and robes of the bishops, left a lasting impression on the young Morpurgo. Seventy years later, this time as a guest at Westminster Abbey, not much had changed, he said. From his position, he saw only a little monarch, perched on a large throne, dwarfed by huge mitres and robes of the clergy. His book however is a warm appreciation of the young prince Charles, missing his parents while at boarding school and finding a way to face his fears.
I had come however to see Michael because I was a great fan of his children’s books. He has a real following among school children in the UK and I often spot his books while on holiday in France, and these do wonders for my written and oral French. The book he suggested that was most like a memoir to him was: ‘Mouth of the Wolf’ – a true account of his uncle who had been a conscientious objector in the second world war and had been sent to do agricultural work in rural England. However, when a friend, who had joined up, died in action, this compelled his uncle to abandon farm work and go do whatever it took to defend his country. He ended up as a spy – working in the French Resistance and ‘Mouth of the Wolf’ tells his story. There was so much Michael had to talk about and I felt an hour and half with him was all too short. He finished his talk with a beautiful poem about trees, and trees were what I had noticed when first entering Dumfries House Estate. Firstly, it was the uplifting birdsong, then it was the sweet, perfume of the peachy-yellow azaleas that were growing everywhere. And then there was the feeling of stepping into a secret, undiscovered world of nature, growing under my very footsteps.
Dumfries House, situated in the deepest part of Ayrshire, saved for the nation by the then Prince Charles in 2007, still feels a little like a work in progress as you walk through the wooded glades and walkways to reach the House. It is not yet a well-trodden path as other stately homes have become. Visitors are not quite sure where to go. There are signposts, but so discreetly placed, you almost miss them, and this perhaps is its charm. It's the perfect setting for a Book Festival and it truly connects the shared passions of Charles and Camilla; his - ecology and conservation; hers - literature and conversation. There was a mixed crowd of enthusiastic readers: attractive Sloan-Ranger type ladies of a certain age; Suzanna Constantine asking for directions in preparation for her slot; family groups with children and buggies and the occasional super-slim fake-tanned influencer, on the arm of a bulked-up boyfriend. It was book promotion and enjoyment at its best with the local Ayrshire Waterstones hosting a marquee with piles of pre-signed ‘collectable’ hardbacks. The author’s programme promoting their work was wide, from Sally Magnusson to Ricky Ross; from Esme Young of Sewing Bee fame to Andrew Cotter with his beloved labradors. There was plenty of staff on hand who were wonderfully articulate local guides. When I asked about the original chapel that had been created by one of the earlier Marquis’s, I was immediately taken to see the beautiful stained glass-window, albeit now in a linen store off the conference centre. It was a later Marquis who had changed the use of the chapel, but at least he had kept the stain-glassed window.
There were plaques and engraved stones all-round the grounds, dedicated to the donors for the avenue of trees; the opulent fountain; the restored stone bridge and the walled arboretum. But by far the most amusing part of the visit to Boswell Book Festival was overhearing the snatches of conversation, (as many readers and writers tend to do), as I walked through the gardens: “So, it was William and Harry’s da’ that done all this up then?” asked a young fake-tanned, social influencer to her mum and dad. On the magnificent, giant bluebell-like plants that grew abundantly, one passer-by said, “I think they’re agapanthus. I’ve grown these at home.” “No’ lik’ these yins ye huvnae’!” came the reply from a local group. And as I passed over a lovely little stone bridge, spanning a tributary over the Lugar waters, a little boy charmingly asked his mum: “Is this the London Tower Bridge then? “Naw!” came the abrupt reply. She wasn’t even going to venture an explanation. That would be a story too far.
Maura McRobbie will be presenting Children’s Workshops, based on her novel: Vikings and Skylarks on Cumbrae at Irvine Maritime Museum on Thursday 13th July 2023 and at Belladrum Festival in Inverness on Friday 28th July 2023
Maura has also recently edited and published a memoir based on a missionary priest who has spent 50 years in Brazil. ‘People I Met on the Way’ is currently available through Amazon
The semi-biographical memoir of Maura’s grandmother ‘Howth’ was published in 2019 and is also available on Amazon