It’s as if there is no joy left in the world. These days I feel like the satirical 1930s American comic strip character in Li’l Abner, the well-meaning Joe Btfsplk, who brings misfortune on everyone and has a dark rain cloud always hovering over him. Look at the global situation, almost anywhere. Then there’s FOMO and Farage. It’s depressing.
On the Suffolk coast, all is right again, and no matter what happens with Brexit or the general election England, with faults and flaws, remains quite extraordinary. There is an antidote to the gloom: the Ways With Words literary festival in Southwold.
My day and a half staycation took me first to East London, to the remarkable, beyond hip E5 Bakehouse in London Fields, my new spiritual home. For that rare moment, I felt my calling was to knead dough in their kitchen. Then, further along the route, we stopped at Darsham Nurseries for lunch, while London faded into the background, and blissful country life appeared.
Southwold, the final destination, is an undiscovered corner of the UK for me, although I have travelled pretty much all over in the decades since I moved here from Canada. And it is a place where the land is still green and pleasant. People are gracious and polite, mostly well-heeled and retired. This coastal area also attracts the glitterati and literati. Richard Curtis and Emma Freud have a home nearby. Everyone seems to know everyone and even people who don’t know each other talk to you. It’s a place of nostalgia, like a comfort blanket. There is a sense of community that doesn’t, and probably can’t, exist in the same way in the bustle of London.
At the literary festival, the brilliance struck me immediately. Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson talked about his new novel, Live A Little, which is about two nonagenarians who fall in love. He’s a man who can make you laugh about anything. Forget the bits of your body that disintegrate or fall off, he said: growing old is a much better time because people can talk to each other. When someone in the audience asked his advice if they should buy his book as a hardback, paperback or audiobook, his retort was: “Buy all three.”
When the Americans discovered his work, they started calling Jacobson the English Philip Roth. As a distinguished novelist in his own right, he soon got sick of that. After all, his literary references are British, not American. So he relabelled himself the Jewish Jane Austen.
Then Jacobson talked about what makes a serious writer, annoyed when critics denounce works that don’t include weighty topics like war or Napoleon. Austen’s brilliance was the very fact that she dealt with the minutiae.
I then listened to the historian Henry Hemming, who certainly deals with war in his book Our Man in New York: The British Plot to Bring America into the Second World War. It’s about how the British tried to draw in the Americans with fake news, dirty tricks and tales of espionage. His witty performance included humming a tune, playing 1940s music and setting tests for the audience to see if we could spot fake news. More difficult than you imagine. Even Roosevelt might not have known that he was being conned.
Hemming began his talk about his book by showing us a photograph. The guests in the ballroom at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. are wearing formal dress. FDR is about to speak. It is October 1941.
Hemming introduces us to an incredible cast of characters, including William Stephenson, the legendary British spymaster, known as Intrepid. Ian Fleming is said to have based James Bond on him (although there are other candidates for that dubious honour).
As a Canadian, I was pleased to hear that Stephenson, who came from Winnipeg, met Hemming’s Canadian great-grandparents and also saved Hemming’s father John, who fell into his lily pond at the age of three. Stephenson subsequently became John Hemming’s godfather. Hemming Snr, possibly as a result of that aquatic misadventure, became a legendary explorer and went on to run the Royal Geographical Society. He sat a few seats away.
Then there was Eric Maschwitz, who wrote one of the most famous songs of that decade: “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. He was another key player in the “the largest state-sponsored influence campaign ever run on American soil…possibly the most effective [propaganda campaign] in history,” as the Washington Post puts it. The British writer forged documents, including a letter, penned in June 1941, “revealing” plans for a Nazi coup in Bolivia. He also produced a “German” map of South America. In that ballroom, Roosevelt cited the map as part of Hitler’s plan to invade the Americas.
It was a time when the celebrated aviator Charles Lindberg, an American hero, was promoting an America First isolationist policy and fascists were on the rise. Six weeks later, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Did Roosevelt know that what he read was fake? As Hemming says, “you have to read the book”.