These days, even the Good Old Days aren’t as old as they used to be …

Ahead of Buxton International Festival’s Book Weekend, John Phillips delves into Simon Heffer’s The Age of Decadence to look at the parallels between our world and that of 1880–1914.

Next to an online review of Simon Heffer’s acclaimed book The Age of Decadence I found a wonderful headline which read ‘Calm down – Trump won’t become President and Britain won’t leave the EU.’

The headline was only from 2016 but now seemed to come from a different universe. The past is, they say, another country, and Heffer’s exploration of Britain from 1880 to 1914 reveals a nation which, while familiar in its geography, seems to occupy a different place in history.

That’s the beauty of good historians – finding something to say about the past which is both new and relevant, and Heffer achieves that in spades by demonstrating that this era when Britain was at the height of its power was also on a precipice from which to fall.

It looked like a contented and thriving country; the working and lower middle classes were enjoying greater individual freedoms and there was a revolution in leisure and entertainment whose legacy can be seen today in buildings such as the London Palladium, Blackpool Tower Ballroom, beloved of Strictly fans, and music halls celebrated by the television show The Good Old Days.

But a mismanaged war in a far-flung land – sounds familiar? – against the Boers proved Britain was no longer invincible. Acts of public protest verging on terrorism as the Suffragettes fought terrible injustices against women and the gulf between the rich and the poor created a crisis of confidence about the country’s place in the world.

Heffer builds his case against an arrogant ruling caste which saw progress only ever going their way despite warning signals of the break-up of the Union as Ireland crept toward civil war and the coming crisis in Europe which lead to a then unimaginable conflict.

But perhaps subconsciously they did see it coming, which is why they started to look back. Heffer claims these Edwardians created Britain’s national obsession with nostalgia, preserving the ancient buildings which the Victorians had been keen to tear down and romanticising the country in literature and poems such as A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, as well as creating the Arts and Crafts movement to counter the age of the machine.

Heffer is best-known as a newspaper columnist, and it was one of his colleagues in that club of soothsayers who came up with the Trump-Brexit prediction which just goes to show how close to the present date The Good Old Days can sometimes be.

But Heffer sums it up best with a quote from Britain’s most famous prophet of the future, sci-fi writer HG Wells, author of The War of the Worlds, who confidently stated: ‘Man will step from the pinnacle of this civilisation to the beginning of the next.’

Let’s hope he was also wrong about the Martians landing.

Simon Heffer will be speaking about The Age of Decadence in Buxton International Festival’s  Book Weekend, which runs from November 24 to 26. It also includes talks by the BBC’s Jeremy Vine, Time Team’s Tony Robinson and The Archers‘ Timothy Bentinck. For more details and to book tickets, click here.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard and the world’s worst journey

Credit: Eyewitness Accounts with Scott in the Antarctic by Herbert Ponting.

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The Odditorium: the tricksters, eccentrics, deviants and inventors whose obsessions changed the world (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) includes some amazing characters. Some you’ll have heard of, some you probably won’t. All of them have changed the world, although in some cases the wider world hasn’t noticed yet. They include Joshua Norton, first Emperor of America, and Reginald Bray, who carried out strange experiments with the Royal Mail. I was delighted to be asked to write about Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who is by far my favourite explorer. 

When I was at school, we were often told stories about adventurers and explorers as something to aspire to. Captain Robert Falcon Scott was held up as a great example, bravely sacrificing himself in an attempt to reach the South Pole. As Sara Wheeler once described Antarctica, our southernmost continent often seems to be “a testing-ground for men with frozen beards to see how dead they could get’”. Despite that, I find Cherry-Garrard’s accounts of his adventures uplifting and inspiring.

Scott intentionally framed his death as an act of heroism. Bruce Chatwin’s book What Am I Doing Here (1988) describes a note left by Scott reading: “I have done this to show what an Englishman can do”. This legend-making worked well, and Scott’s story has often been retold. But his account often overshadows the tale of his companion, Apsley Cherry-Garrard. When Cherry-Garrard wrote an account of his time in Antarctica, it was entitled The Worst Journey in the World (1922). This referred not to Scott’s fatal mission, but to Cherry-Garrard’s attempt to collect penguin eggs for scientific research. What Cherry-Garrard went through was about as bad a time as one could go through and survive to write about it. 

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Cherry and his two companions travelled 60 miles on foot to reach the Emperor penguin nesting grounds, all in the darkness of an Antarctic winter. Pretty much everything that could do wrong did. Cherry’s teeth shattered from shivering at one point. Yet there was no triumphant return home and, according to Cherry’s account, officials at the Natural History Museum couldn’t care less about the eggs that had been retrieved at such high cost. 

Scott gets most of the glory from that expedition, despite his mistakes. But, for me, Cherry-Garrard’s story is the most precious – his graceful description of suffering and how to bear it has as much to say about daily life as it does about Antarctic exploration.

The Odditorium at the Buxton Festival is a chance for me to talk about one of my favourite people. Cherry’s account of frozen misery is inspiring, and is one of the greatest treasures that has been found in Antarctica. We’ll also be talking about Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, who created the most important work of art in the 20th-century, the bestselling author of books on Tibet (who didn’t even own a passport) and an Italian time lord who built the world’s largest underground temple. In just two hours, you’ll hear an alternative history of the world told through the lives of these remarkable people. 

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James Burt

Book Weekend favourites

As the Buxton Festival Book Weekend is now less than two months away(!), the Festival team decided to share which events they are looking forward to this year.

“I’m very much looking forward to the Book Weekend this year with the added bonus of having some opera available to attend too! English Touring Opera will be performing one of my favourite operas, The Return of Ulysses by Monteverdi on the opening day of the Weekend this year.  And then on Saturday afternoon one of my favourite speakers, Matthew Parris will be giving us another one of his entertaining talks. I love listening to Matthew’s programme Great Lives on BBC Radio 4 which he delivers brilliantly and it is always a joy to hear him speak at the Festival. A lovely autumnal weekend of culture in a beautiful spa town – what more could you ask for?!” Lee Barnes Administrator

“As a Derbyshire farmer’s daughter who has many memories of being in and driving Land Rovers I am of course looking forward to Ben Fogle’s talk on Friday evening! The Mary Queen of Scots talk will be the first official event in the newly refurbished Pump Room in The Crescent – a little historic event for Buxton and the Festival!” Liz Mackenzie PR & Press Manager

“I first met Helen Keen in 2008 when I reviewed her show It Is Rocket Science at the Buxton Fringe. In it, she managed the unique trick of being engaging, informative, educational and very funny, as she told the history of manned space travel. The show was a hit, not just in Buxton, but wherever it was performed, leading to it being expanded into a series on BBC Radio 4. I was thrilled to see that Helen had her first book out, using the popularity of TV series Game of Thrones as a jumping off point to look at the scientific and historical questions it throws up in her own unique style. I’ve never watched Game of Thrones myself, but I know that won’t matter – looking back on my review of her Buxton debut I wrote: ‘Helen herself has a highly engaging personality and such an obvious enthusiasm that the audience cannot fail to be captivated.’” Robbie Carnegie Marketing & Web Manager

“As a Tudor fanatic, particularly Elizabeth I, I am really interested to hear David Templeman’s talk on the Queen’s Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (or Mary Queen of Scots). Mary (like Josephine Wilkinson’s talk on Katherine Howard at the 2016 Festival) is largely a misunderstood character who really had a sad and unfortunate personal life. I am also looking forward to William Sitwell’s talk on Lord Woolton who was Minister for Food during WW2. I’m also a Game of Thrones fan (though I’m still on season 3 – need to hurry and catch up!) so I’m interested to hear Helen Keen on Saturday afternoon.” Lily Bracegirdle Artists & Engagement Manager

“I really like the line-up for the Literary Lunch on Sunday. Matthew Dennison who will be talking about the life of Beatrix Potter (it’s also the 150th anniversary of her birth), which is complemented nicely by Marina Warner’s book about fairy tale and Clare Hartwell’s book which looks at the landscape and history of Derbyshire.” Lucy Durack Development Director

“I’m so excited for the book weekend this November as it encompasses all my favourite things – food, heritage, poetry and Derbyshire! I’m particularly looking forward to seeing The Odditorium on Saturday evening, I’ve been listening to David Bramwell’s podcasts (http://www.drbramwell.com/podcasts/) and I can’t wait for him and the other speakers to introduce their wonderfully eccentric characters from history. I’m also looking forward to buying all my Christmas presents early at the Waterstones pop-up shop!” Claire Barlow Literary & Outreach Manager

 

Buxton Poetry Competition – Now Open!

Buxton Poetry Competition is now open!

Our annual poetry competition is now accepting entries on the theme of Hidden. Here we talk to the competition organiser Claire Barlow.

Hi Claire, please can you tell us a bit about the history of the competition?

Hello, I’ve been running the competition for eight years now and every year it is a delight to be involved! The competition started when Buxton Festival and the University of Derby got together to create a joint project which would encourage people from across the country to have a go at creative writing. We had no idea that we would get so many great entries over the years and from people as far away as Australia, the United States and Brazil!

Wow, do people really enter from Brazil?

Yes they do, and we get entries from across Europe too. Every year I look forward to getting a parcel of entries from the same school in Slovenia, it puts me to shame that the young people can write poetry in English when I can’t say ‘hello’ in Slovenian!

But you don’t judge the competition do you?

No I don’t (thank goodness, with 600 poems to read!) We have a great team of judges each year who do take the time to read all the poems entered and to create a shortlist of poems. Then the judges whittle that list down further to choose a first, second, third, Highly Commended and Commended winner from each category. We have three categories allowing poets of all ages to enter, there is Children’s Poetry for those under 12 years old, Young People’s Poetry for those aged 12 to 18 and our Open Category for poets over the age of 18. What’s great is that the Children’s and Young People’s Categories are free to enter so young people from all backgrounds can enter the competition without any financial barriers.

Are the judges the same each year?

Matt Black
Poet Matt Black

No, I like to have a few new faces each year to keep things fresh and fair. All judging is done totally anonymously, I make sure of that, but it is nice to know that we get new perspectives and opinions from our judges each year. This year we welcome Matt Black as our Open Category judge. Matt won the competition in 2013 so we’re delighted to welcome him back as a judge this time.

This year’s competition theme is Hidden, can you tell us why the poetry competition has a theme?

The idea behind having a theme is to focus writers’ attention and to provide a stimulus to spark the imagination. We want people to create new work for the competition not to just enter something that was written a few years ago that they submit to every competition going. I also really like the idea that we are creating a collective body of work. Each year we publish an anthology of the shortlisted poems and I feel that a theme gives that document added purpose and impact. It is also fascinating to see how poets interpret our theme. I usually have a few ideas of what people will write about, but each year there are winning poems that surprise me in the way they answer our brief, and that’s great!

Can schools enter the competition?

Yes, we love getting entries from schools from across the country. The entries can’t be group efforts though, each child needs to write their own poem. I think kids will love the theme this year, I imagine poems from the younger entrants about hidden treasure, hide-and-seek and lost toys.

What do people need to do to enter the competition?

You need to visit http://www.buxtonfestival.co.uk/outreach/poetry-competition/ to download an entry pack. This has all the competition rules and entry information plus a form to fill in to send back with your poems. The closing date of the competition is 26th August, so you have plenty of time to perfect your work. For any more information please send me an email at claire@buxtonfestival.co.uk.

When will the winners be announced?

The winners will be announced at the Buxton Festival Book Weekend in November 2016. At this special event we’ll hear all the shortlisted poems read by their authors, plus some work from our current and past judges. Then our Patron Lady Jasmine Cavendish will announce the winners of the competition for 2016. This year our top prize in the Open Category has been increased to £500 so it’s really worth having a go at entering the competition.

Thanks Claire, we’re off to write our entry now…

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