In the competitive world of literary festivals Alderney, a small island of 2,000 inhabitants, punches above its weight. This year there are over 350 literary festivals in the UK alone. Despite being just three years old the Alderney litfest attracted award-winning authors with international reputations whose regular speaking engagements include the venerable Hay Book Festival, and even the exotic Dubai Festival of Literature.
So why did eleven busy and successful authors make the adventurous journey in a tiny plane to this three-mile-long rock off the coast of France? Andrew Lownie, an author and literary agent, sums it up. ‘I’d heard from writers who’d come in previous years that Alderney was a charming island and the festival was well-organised and fun – as it proved to be.’
The Festival’s annual theme is ‘History fact and fiction’, and this year’s focus on the difference between reality and fantasy proved timely in an international media storm about false news. Alderney has more history per square foot than a small island deserves. From the Nunnery, considered to be Britain’s finest small Roman fort, and links with the Duchy of Normandy, to Tudor wrecks, Napoleonic forts and Nazi fortifications the island has it all and the Festival’s programme skilfully reflected its broad span of history.
Ruth Downie, author of seven mystery novels centred round a Roman doctor, regaled her audience with medical practices in the first century AD. Still in the Ancient World, Simon Turney who writes military novels based on Julius Caesar’s campaigns contrasted them with the historical fantasy stories which he also creates.
Elizabeth Chadwick , a New York Times bestselling author, discussed the dilemma of sifting fact from fiction when writing a historical novel. She quoted descriptions by other novelists of Eleanor of Aquitaine as a blonde, brunette and redhead, but carried out her own research to establish the known facts about this intriguing medieval queen among the many myths that were spread to tarnish her reputation during her lifetime and later.
Fact can be the jumping-off point for a novel, as Anna Mazzola, the Festival’s first Debut Novelist, explained. A newspaper account of a murder in nineteenth century London inspired her to explore the aftermath of the event in fictional form. She hadn’t expected truth to catch up with fiction but a descendant of the murderer contacted her when her book was published. Fortunately they considered that having a criminal in the family immortalised in print was a plus point.
The practical details of war was a theme taken up by Joyce Meader, who has the impressive title of historic knitter. Her research – and collection of over 10,000 knitting patterns –revealed the intricacies of knitting soldiers’ balaclavas and long johns, along with woollen bandages and slings for military hospitals. She kept her audience entertained by the large assortment of historic knitwear which she brought on the plane despite the restrictive luggage allowance.
The ripples of World War 1 reached out to the Channel Islands, and Jason Monaghan’s first historical novel traces its effect on a community in Guernsey. Jason is well known on Alderney where for the past nine years he has led an archaeological dig for Roman remains at The Nunnery.
Military historian Dr. Matthias Strohn discussed the challenges of separating fact from fiction particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries which offer so many primary sources, both reliable and unreliable.
Guy Burgess ‘Stalin’s Englishman’ lived in a world of deception and intrigue. His biographer Andrew Lownie identified some of the influences which turned a middle class civil servant into a spy who betrayed his country. Wallis Simpson was another 20th century figure whose life can appear to be more fiction than fact. And like Eleanor of Aquitaine she was the subject of rumours, myths and attempts to blacken her reputation. Through meticulous research her biographer Anne Sebba, an acknowleged expert, has been able to dispel many of the scandalous stories and focuses on the sometimes surprising truth.
In a group discussion Imogen Robertson, chair of the Historical Writers Association, talked about the links between research, reality and imagination with Anna Mazzola and Elizabeth Chadwick. Should historical fiction attempt contemporary styles of speech or use authentic swear words, and most importantly should historical facts be overlooked for the sake of a good story? The three authors concluded ‘We’re not historians, we’re giving readers an experience and providing entertainment.’
A highlight of the Festival was the Dinner Debate at The Georgian House on the motion ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’ Ably umpired by the Festival’s chair Simon Scarrow, the Roman case was forcibly put by Simon Turney in full Roman military uniform, while Ruth Downie in an elegant Celtic costume defended the contributions of the Ancient Brits. In law, medicine, marriage and much more, the debate achieved an amicably even score.
The writers were generous in their advice for would-be authors among the audience. Imogen Robertson revealed the myths and realities of being a writer, while Alderney’s very own best-selling novelist Rachel Abbot swapped opinions with author and literary agent Andrew Lownie on the relative merits of the traditional and independent routes to publishing.
Simon Scarrow’s latest novel weaves real-life events in Greece during World War Two with family history and fictional romance, an appropriate combination of fact and fiction to round off the Literary Festival.
History changes every time we tell it according to Hilary Mantell. Over a weekend of fourteen sessions – many of them sell-outs – the lively audience heard from eminent historians and novelists how the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy can blur. But one fact was obvious – the festival was a huge success with speakers and audience alike. Authors loved the warm welcome they were given by Alderney as well as the opportunity to get to know each other and their readers. ‘One of the best festivals I’ve ever done’ claimed Lloyd Shepherd while Jason Monaghan went further. ‘This has to be the best literary festival in the land (if you count the tiny island of Alderney as ‘in the land’). It’s cosy, it’s intimate, with a focus firmly on history.’
Islanders and visitors from Jersey, Guernsey and the mainland were equally enthusiastic. Residents Anne and Michael Doury attended many of the talks. ‘Alderney’s festival is so special because its scale gives it an intimacy not found at larger events’ says Anne ‘and the authors were around for questions and conversations throughout the weekend. We’re already looking forward to next year’s programme.’
Visit the Alderney Literary Trust website at http://www.alderneyliterarytrust.com