Reading, Ruins… and Spies
We travelled to the Garden of England and Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival to attend the first of what will hopefully be an annual event
Review by Adrian Peel
From Sunday 1st to Tuesday 3rd May, the inaugural literary festival took place in and outside the castle at Chiddingstone, a picturesque village in Kent owned by The National Trust and used to splendid effect in the 1985 Merchant-Ivory classic, A Room with a View.
I noticed the vintage food and ice-cream trucks parked out in front of the castle (which doesn’t come under the Trust’s jurisdiction, as it wasn’t deemed worthy enough, apparently) as I approached the front door to one of the few buildings of its type in the county of my birth that I’d never visited before.
The last resident of Chiddingstone Castle was antique-loving womaniser, Denys Eyre Bower, who lived there from 1955 up until his death in 1977. According to the second of his two wives, the former bank clerk, who served time in prison for accidentally shooting one of his girlfriends (she survived), preferred acquiring antiques to seducing women – just the sort of character that one likes to see inhabiting houses of this magnitude.
Bower’s vast collection, bequeathed to the nation upon his death, includes Japanese and Egyptian relics and I browsed through some of these while waiting for the presentation – held outside in a kind of see-through marquee – to start.
The talk in session when I arrived (the second of the day after Juliet Nicolson, author and granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West) was being given by ex-Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis and writer Erin Kelly and, although I seem to remember finding Ms. Ellis curiously attractive as a child, Andrew Lownie, writer of Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess, was the person I had come to see.
Joining the Cambridge graduate and founder of the Andrew Lownie Literary Agency on this beautiful spring day was Adam Sisman (author of a new biography on John le Carré entitled John le Carré: The Biography) and mediator, Alan Judd.
Apart from Fleming, I’m not too familiar with spy fiction or the world of espionage so despite knowing the name, I know very little about le Carré himself and have never read any of his books.
I did know one or two things about Burgess, however. A member of the infamous Cambridge Five spy ring and a very much out-of-the-closet homosexual at a time when such behaviour was not encouraged, he eventually fled to the Soviet Union.
Apparently preferring British communists to their Russian counterparts, this complex and divisive figure struggled to adjust to life on the other side of the Iron Curtain, refusing to learn Russian and ordering his suits from Savile Row, before eventually succumbing to his love of alcohol in 1963 at the age of 52.
A return to the UK would have seen him imprisoned for breaking the Official Secrets Act and it was pointed out by Lownie that spying in itself is not a crime in this country, but breaking the Official Secrets Act is.
The two men discussed the advantages and disadvantages of digging the dirt on people who are still alive and those who aren’t for life-story writing purposes. Sisman revealed that le Carré (born David John Moore Cornwell in October 1931) hadn’t been much help during their face to face interviews, providing information the biographer knew to be factually incorrect.
Both told amusing anecdotes about their experiences while writing their respective tomes and about their subjects. Lownie recounted the time Burgess got arrested for speeding three times in the same day in the same US state and tried to get out of it by propositioning the “burly” police officer.
Burgess seems to have led a charmed life, full of near-misses and close calls (hence the use of ‘lives’ in the sub-title). He was never brought to justice or asked to explain himself and was even able to continue his homosexual exploits – largely unhindered – in the notoriously intolerant USSR. I’ve no doubt Lownie’s biography makes for fascinating and perhaps quite shocking reading.
Sisman, who has also documented the life of Hugh Trevor-Roper and the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, stated that le Carré, along with Fleming, has helped cement British spy fiction as the world’s best-known example of the genre and that thanks to them, proclaiming “I’m with British Intelligence” can help escape or diffuse a difficult or potentially dangerous situation anywhere in the world. Although the pair never met, Burgess’s strange life and tragic demise could have come straight from the pages of a le Carré novel – or so I’m told.
There is plenty to suggest that Sisman’s look at the life of the man who wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Night Manager (recently made into a successful TV series) is another book well worth reading.
In all, the festival was a very enjoyable day out. A friendly atmosphere in a delightful country setting, interesting talks and good food (I had the cheese and homemade chutney sandwiches). I hope the event pleased the organisers enough to warrant a return in 2017.
Enquiries: Chiddingstone Castle, Hill Hoath Road, Chiddingstone, Edenbridge, Kent, TN8 7AD /www.chiddingstonecastle.org.uk