Monday, 31 January 2011


I have been chosen by the organisers of World Book Night to distribute 48 copies of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, my nominated book from their short list. My idea on the night (March 5) is to give them to long distance lorry drivers in Crawford, a village on the A74M much favoured for overnight stops. I will be picking the books up from Atkinson-Pryce Books in Biggar. Anyone want to join me?

Buildings That Go Bang, part two

On Saturday morning, an official explained that following the almighty bang heard by a capacity audience in the new Britten Studio during the discussion on Friday evening following a screening of Patience(After Sebald), a thorough examination of the building had been undertaken overnight. Experts had concluded that the reason for the bang was the rapid expansion (or was it contraction?) of steel components in the roof , because the building had been unused for some time before the capacity audience arrived on Friday evening, heating the hall up inside very rapidly while temperatures plummeted outside to minus -3. No damage had been caused to the building, only to the audience's nerves. Next time, the hall will be warmed up farther in advance.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Monday, Monday

I had the opportunity to chat briefly to two of the organisers (ArtEvents) of the W G Sebald book event at Aldeburgh yesterday. The final part of the event was a short boat ride across to the former nuclear research establishment at Orford Ness and a two hour walk there in the footsteps of WGS. ArtEvents have offered to visit Moffat at the end of Feb to exchange ideas on a followup event for MBE after our 'vintage' party on April 16. What people are looking for, they said, are ideas. ArtEvents are in the middle of a three year project 'Re-enchantment' which comprises books, films and symposia, on the theme of people and place UK-wide. There was a journalist covering the event for US magazine Harper's on the walk, and we discussed the pronounciation of 'scone'. I should have invited him to our 1930's-style tea! He, Damion Searls, is a writer and translator from four or five European languages, and his article will herald the publication of the last posthumously published work of WGS. Next month, Aldeburgh has its own book festival, run by the bookshop owner who I hope to touch base with this morning for tips. On WGS himself: I now know how to pronounce his name ('Zaybalt') and am far clearer about the nature of his genius, which was to evolve a style now known as 'Sebaldian' with as its principal theme the weight of history, and in particular the Holocaust, on the psyche. His mature work is instantly recognisable: a complex mix of fact and fiction (on of the most shocking 'facts' in the Rings of Saturn may not be true; other episodes - the walk itself which gives the book structure - may have been invented )illustrated by his trademark grainy black and white photographs without captions. I leave Aldeburgh today revived in mind and body and very optimistic about the future, including prospects for our own Moffat Book Event.

Lessons from the W G Sebald Book Event at Aldeburgh

This W G Sebald tribute book event has been an enormous success - all three parts (the Grant Gee film on Friday evening; the symposium on Saturday 11-5.30pm; Patti Smith concert 7.30pm-9.0pm) a deserved sell-out . So - what lessons have I learned which might be transfered to our own Moffat Book Events enterprise? First, the focus is on an exceptional writer, WGS, in an exceptional place - the place where he lived and the setting for his masterpiece The Rings of Saturn. Aldeburgh and The Maltings are exceptional venues. The presenters and speakers/performers were of the highest calibre. The audience was sophisticated and serious. ArtEvents, the organisers, have a quality national mission - see their website - to explore the nature of our relation with place. Practical points I have picked up: various local retailers have sponsored events by paying for their business details on the back of each ticket; Saturday's proceedings started at 11am (?is 10am for our event too early??); the audience wants to be in dialogue with the platform and at my suggestion the panel adopted the Russian practice of inviting questions on paper which could therefore all be considered and gave everyone a chance to put theirs; having an international rock/arts star can't do an event any harm. Patti Smith is a protean phenomenon, a legend in her own time, and I was very glad to have heard her remarkable set, designed as a tribute to WGS, readings from his long poem After Nature to musical accompaniment interspersed with her own songs

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Trouble at t'Maltings

After a viewing of the excellent Patience(After Sebald), in the new Britten Studio at the Aldeburgh Maltings last night, more book- event microphone-wrestling by platform party : maker of the film Grant Gree and author of Wild Places Robert Macfarlane. Once the microphones were sorted out to the satisfaction of the sell-out audience (by fixing them to the correct lapel to pick up the sound in the direction their heads were turned, ie towards each other, rather than - as was originally arranged - on the other side) the discussion that ensued was interrupted by a colossal bang like an explosion in a metal dustbin, followed at intervals by more alarming pings, squeaks and other percussive noises. As we left, I asked one of the organisers about this. 'It's a new building' he said. 'It's OK - the architect's in the audience.' I told him this seemed precious little by way of reassurance. I told him that the explanation - that these noises were caused by the extreme cold (well, probably -3) outside and the temperature generated by the capacity audience within - did not cut it for me. I do not wish to become a freak statistic on the front of the Sunday papers tomorrow. And, as my sister pointed out - what if it had been a concert?

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Off to a book event

Today I'm off to a book event at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, all about the works of W G Sebald. Patti Smith will be there too, so how cool is that. I am packing my long johns and two vests because snow is forecast along the east coast and the wind is set from the east. So far, I have read one WGS, 'The Rings of Saturn' and was immediately hooked. His themes are memory, and often of loss but not in a bad way, just as part of life. His powers of observation for detail - he writes about walking in East Anglia, the place where he lived, ie of places as well as people- and his use of language are what makes his books so exceptional. Oddly, although the exquisite use of English is one of the books' strong points, he actually wrote in his native German so three cheers for his translator, Michael Hulse. I will keep a close eye on the way this event is organised with a view to our own book event in Moffat on April 16 (book now). On the train, I will be reading 'Five Days in London May 1940' by John Lukacs, sent to me by my friend Barty in Sweden. I started it last night and was gripped - it's a bit like watching those thrillers set in real time ((24 Hours?). I'll let you know how it turns out ( for those under 30's who didn't 'do' WWII at school)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Other book festivals, other times

As a first-time book event co-organiser, I am trying to remember as many book events or festivals as possible I have attended in the past. But they are so various I am not sure any lessons can be drawn. At one, in rural Russia, the books hadn't arrived or had been diverted elsewhere so pseudobooks were 'received', wrapped in brown paper, by the Russian organiser in front of the packed audience. That was the UK Children's Books of the Year exhibition, which I travelled with as author of one of the books. My sister was presenting her book on Rodin at the Cheltenham Book Festival. I bought a bunch of irises and put them on the platform table in a vase during the coffee break, but when my sister appeared with the chairman of the session, the flowers had disappeared. Health and safety? Middle class larceny? Well, at any rate a pattern of substitution and sudden removal is emerging. Two book events stand out in my memory for other reasons: one featured Lord Aldington, the other Michael Frayn. Lord Aldington gave a strange 'Last Testament' address, shortly before his death, in front of an invited audience at a small venue in Hampstead. Questions were not invited and - as far as I remember - the event was chaired by a member of his family, perhaps a grandson. Aldington had been accused in a book which subsequently became the subject of legal action, of responsibility for the forced repatriation after the war of many Soviet and non-Soviet citizens - Cossacks, White Russians and others - from camps in Italy. Michael Frayn's event was stunningly theatrical, and took place in a West End theatre on a Sunday evening. He stood on the stage alone and described having received a mysterious message during rehearsals for a transfer of his smash hit comedy 'Noises Off'. No, I tell a lie, it must have been 'Copenhagen' (thanks Wikipedia). To cut a long story short - I believe the incident was afterwards recorded in print as Celia's Secret: An Investigation (US title The Copenhagen Papers ), with David Burke (2000). - , Frayn found himself the victim of a rather clumsy hoax devised for his own amusement by a bored member of the cast. Frayn described the hoax , the unveiling of the hoax and the hoaxer (Frayn had been completely taken in) and then - most interestingly - he analysed the possible reasons,psychological, emotional, personal why he a sceptical intellectual should have fallen for it. The hoax concerned the Second World War, prisoners of war and military secrets. Frayn and Alan Bennett both learned Russian during their National Service and like the rest of us who have learned the Russian alphabet, report the routine experience of compulsively reading some car number plates as if they were written in the cyrillic alphabet, for example 'CYP' in cyrillic is 'SUR'in latin script.

Can you hear me at the back

The auditorium was full, every seat sold, for Will Self in discussion on Montaigne on Thursday Jan 20 2011 with the literary ed of the Independent at the Institut Francais in South Kensington, London, England. The auditorium is state of... the art, v v expensively modernised recently. The two great men entered and sat down on red velvet Louis Quinze gilt armchairs on the platform. Breathless hush. Then the microphone thing started. I kid you not. There were two microphones on the little round table in front of them which were either not calibrated or just technically incapable of picking up the sounds coming out of the GM’s mouths. The gentille organisatrix in a pert little brown trouser suit tick-tacked up the steps to the platform and showed the literary ed that he must hold the clonking ice cream cone up right near to his mouth. But he couldn’t remember to do it. So every now and then as he held it too low, too far away, the videocam operator started forward, Will Self intervened – all the time I was thinking: this is the proverbial get together in a brewery, this is the great culture with which we are in agreements for our defence and they can’t even build a modern auditorium with a working sound system. In her introduction, the GO pointed out the French Cultural Attache who happened to be sitting directly behind me, so at the end I turned round and made congratulatory noises about the series (including Edmud de Waal on Proust which I have booked for) but what is he going to do about the sound system? I had a good idea for a provocative question too late:did Montaigne visit Alsace on his travels (the day before president Sarkozy had appeared to believe he was in Germany while visiting Alsace)

Monday, 24 January 2011

Books and plays I have written

Books I have written:
Focus on the USSR (updated and re-issued after 1991 as Focus on Russia);

Glasnost: The Gorbachev Revolution; Georgia & Armenia; Belarus; Ukraine.

Strong Enough For Two (a self help book for women having to take the strain in a relationship);

Diary of a Young Capitalist (in Russian) and The NATO letters (in Russian);

The Xenophobes Guide to the Russians and

Christianity for the Twentyfirst Century - the life and work of Alexander Men, with Ann Shukman (Available as a download on Kindle. UK edition out of print; US edition available from me - just let me know)

Translations include 'Armenian Tragedy' and 'The Soviet Mafia' (with John Roberts).
Wallace's Women (with Margaret McSeveny)
Murder in the Cathedral - A Russian Rehearsal (with Mark Rozovsky)

how to start a book event

It's Day One of my Moffat Book Event blog! So here goes:

I have never been part of a group started to run a book event before. Luckily, I a) love books b) have good friends and neighbours who enjoy books and book events c) live in a place very conducive to such festivities but lacking - until Moffat Book Events came along - a book event.

My business day to day is growing trees. The trees I grow make the finest paper in the world. Chances are if you are reading The Guardian or a glossy magazine, my kind of tree, that is Sitka spruce, went to make the paper. Aha I hear you cry, so that's the connection with books. Correct!

But growing trees is a slow business. Spruce trees grown for paper are probably in their 40's when they get cut down. Older spruces, I'm talking about hundreds of years old, go to make guitars and pianos - by which time they are called 'music wood'.

So, I am sponsoring the Moffat Book Event partly because I am an avid reader and partly because I grow trees. Simples!

But back to the Moffat Book Event.