Georgette McCready meets Alex Clark, artistic director at The Bath Festival, to hear her ideas behind this year’s literary line-up and to talk about her personal reading list
Dog lover Alex Clark would like everyone coming to The Bath Festival talk by India Knight to be able to bring their pet along to the event. “Then I thought, we could all take the dogs for a walk afterwards and take the discussion on from there,” enthuses the new artistic director of the literary strand of the 2017 festival.
But, lovely as that idea was, Alex was persuaded that 300 dogs within the confines of Komedia might just drown out the sound of India Knight talking about her book The Goodness of Dogs. But Alex, a literary judge and national journalist who has taken the helm for the first time for this year’s festival, has plenty of other ideas for giving us the space and time to discuss topics close to our hearts.
Alex’s literary line-up has been drawn up with collaboration from Bath Festivals’ literary programmer Judith Robinson and takes in subjects as diverse as mental health (with Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon), living with cancer (with Sophie Sabbage, author of The Cancer Whisperer) and whether Brexit is a good thing or not.
Alex has been coming to The Bath Festival annually for several years, where she’s been an interviewer for writers’ events and chaired debates. “When Viv Groskop, the outgoing director, said she was moving on I let it be known that I’d be interested.”
She already knew that Bath audiences enjoy the chance to debate controversial issues and wants to continue this tradition in the festival. “Last year there was a Brexit debate and I can remember standing in the Guildhall foyer. The event wasn’t just sold out but people were queuing for returns. So there is a hunger and enthusiasm for debate in Bath. We’ll be having another Brexit debate this festival.”
There will also be a discussion about President Trump’s first 100 days in power, in which feelings are also bound to run high.
One of the things that Alex feels will be different about this festival is that it’s being held in May – the old literary festival was traditionally held in February. “I’d love there to be spontaneous debates and parties spilling out after events. I know it’s trivial, but as it’s May it will be a bit warmer and lighter – there might be some Pimms action in the evenings.”
There will be a tented green room for the writers and musicians, based outside the Assembly Rooms. Alex says, from her long experience of festivals, that the artists enjoy being able to mingle and chat.
Alex writes for The Guardian, the Observer and The Times Literary Supplement. She was the first female editor of Granta, a former Booker and Granta awards judge and is currently chair of the Encore awards for second novels. She lives in central London with partner Danny Kelly, fellow writer and former editor of the NME and Q. She says she would love to own a dog of her own, but that dream is so far unrealised.
If the obsessions of childhood form the adult it’s no surprise that Alex has a career in literature. An only child of peripatetic parents, she lived variously in Devon, Essex, Surrey and Kingston on Thames.
As a schoolgirl she read voraciously, raiding her local library on an almost daily basis: “Libraries were my gateway to knowledge. I just didn’t know who some of the writers were, I just launched myself at them. I’d pluck things at random and often challenge myself to work through someone’s entire collection.”
At the age of 11 Alex produced The Surrey Bugle, a lovingly hand-crafted magazine (cover price 5p) with bright felt pen illustrations and a circulation of two – Alex’s mother and father. Not surprising either is that she was her school’s librarian.
“…there is a hunger and enthusiasm for debate
Her passion is still reading and writing about books. She enjoys being in conversation with a writer on stage and hearing about their thoughts and ideas, in company with an interested audience. She’s also a woman fired up by ideas, her latest being to set up a forum for refugees to tell their stories at an event in London. At the time of writing Alex has yet to confirm a venue for this project.
She is excited about this year’s Bath Festival. “This is an amazing time to be alive if you’re interested in language. There’s so much noise, on Twitter, with post truth and fake news.
I hope that this means that festivals where people talk are really important. We have moved on from ‘them and us’ – from a political class that’s totally different from us, who were for so many years, the gatekeepers of culture.
“When you have unstable times where there’s so much noise, it’s good to have somewhere people can come together as a community. We do need (sorry to use a cliché) ‘safe places’ where people can talk about ideas. And we at The Bath Festival will come togther to hear India Knight talking about dogs and Mary Berry talking about cake . . .
And we’ve got writer and philosopher Roman Krznaric coming to talk about his book Carpe Diem Regained, that’s what we should do and, as the festival slogan says – jump in!”
We asked Alex to pick her favourite books from different stages of her life.
ALEX’S TOP TEN BOOKS
Busy, Busy World – Richard Scarry
I remember poring over this book as a child. I still have my childhood books, I have kept the ones that were particularly precious. This is one I look at frequently. It’s about lots of tiny animals and a bus which went round the world. The characters included a German detective who was a sausage dog and a Belgian dog who was a policeman. I just loved it.
The Family at One End Street – written and illustrated by Eve Garnett
This is another childhood favourite, which was first published in 1937. The Ruggles family who lived at One End Street were this fabulous working class family who had adventures. And because I told myself I couldn’t just have animal books on my list.
99 Novels – Anthony Burgess
This relates to my love of libraries and of me getting obsessed by books. It came out in the 80s. I was a teenager and I am fairly certain I bought it. It was 99 post war novels that Burgess commended, they are quite extraordinary wide ranging in genre. It was like a challenge to myself – I can’t think I read all of them but I got as many as I could out of the library. I got introduced to people like Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, Iris Murdoch, who have remained favourite writers of mine. I know, this is really cheating, referencing 99 books under one choice.
Love in a Cold Climate – Nancy Mitford
I read Nancy Mitford in my teenage years. I had The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate in an omnibus. I was completely obsessed with the aristocrats, their love affairs, the hunting, the Hons in the airing cupboard – just all these extraordinary people.
Look at Me – Anita Brookner
I read Hotel du Lac when Anita Brookner won the Booker. I was librarian at my school library and it must have been 1984 we had a display of the Booker shortlist, which was an amazing shortlist – JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot. My favourite of Anita Brookner’s books is Look at Me, which I re-read recently. It’s deliciously painful. The central character is picked up by a terribly glam couple as a plaything and then just dropped. It’s incredibly savage.
When We Were Orphans – Kazuo Ishiguro
This has a Bath link as I interviewed Kazuo Ishiguro for the Bath Literature Festival for Never Let Me Go and then ten years later when he returned to talk about The Buried Giant which was the year before last. This is the most extraordinary book, as are all his books. It’s slightly dreamlike and slightly dissociated from reality. There’s a sort of chase near the end, which leads to the most breaktaking 40 or 50 last pages.
Still Life – AS Byatt
This is from the Frederica quartet, from one of my favourite writers. If I had to pick just one from the four it would be Still Life. I think it spoke to me because it’s about a young woman who was bookish and wanted to get out into the world. I love this writer’s scholarliness, her intense seriousness, and there is so much feeling and tension in her work.
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
To mark the 70th birthday of Salman Rushdie, this will be more retrospective event, which I have seen go down well with audiences, so rather than simply talk about a writer’s latest book we can have a wide ranging conversation about his writing career. The Satanic Verses came out as I was just emerging from university. It was the first time probably that I had a real sense of what a book could make happen in the world. Before then when I thought about banned books, they were generally being about smuttiness, but now we had the idea of a book having such a profound effect on society and groups of people.
It highlighted the importance of protecting people’s rights to speak freely, I can’t wait to talk to him when he comes to Bath. I have interviewed him before and he’s very charming, but I shall be guided by him as to what he wants to talk about. I want us to celebrate his contribution to world literature.
The Secret Scripture – Sebastian Barry
I have long been a huge fan of Sebastian Barry. I was on the Booker judging panel when this was shortlisted and I made no secret of the fact that I wanted it to win. I have chosen this as it reaches a whole new level of brilliant writing. His latest book, the Costa winning Days Without End, was my book of the year last year and I am thrilled that he is coming to The Bath Festival.
The Bath Festival runs from Friday 19 May to Sunday 28 May. Pick up a programme, visit: thebathfestival.org.uk. To book tickets call the Bath Box Office, tel: 01225 463362.