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Brian Morron’s ‘Desert Island’ Memories

Oh, happy day! I’d been living and working in Suffolk for a couple of years when I happened upon an SBL flyer at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich. I went to my first speaker meeting on 11th September 1991 – George Clare, the author of Last Waltz in Vienna. It didn’t take long before I was hooked. I particularly recall the visit of a relatively unknown writer called Hilary Mantel in April 1994. Who would have predicted that she would return 16 years later as the much-garlanded author of Wolf Hall? She is just one example of the SBL’s success in attracting talented writers early in their careers. Looking through the archives I’ve identified Pat Barker (1983), Rose Tremain (1993), Louis de Bernieres (1997), Jonathan Coe (1999), Nicci French (2001), Sarah Waters (2003) and Jon McGregor (2006). More recently I would point to Aminatta Forna, Charlotte Mendelson, Susanna Clarke, Jill Dawson, Louise Doughty and Evie Wyld, to name but a few. We can certainly pick ‘em. Or, I should say, our outstanding programme secretaries can do so.


For large parts of the last 40 years, we have been well served by three in particular: Jean Hill, Jacquie Knott and David Ryland. I can thank one or other of them for most of my special memories. I had the privilege of chairing the SBL from 1999 to 2016 and for 5 years before that I was Anne Parry’s deputy.


Trying to select my favourite memories over such a long period has been as difficult as choosing eight records for a desert island. So, I’ve grouped them into categories.


Fun and Laughter

My first meeting in the chair was with Valerie Grove on Dodie Smith in April 1999. She turned up in a dalmatian hat with dalmatian accessories, accompanied by Anne Harvey, who gave readings impersonating Dodie and was similarly attired. I couldn’t have wished for a better start. When Dan Jacobson came in June that year to talk about his memoir, Heshel’s Kingdom, I wanted him to read an amusing account of his visit to a Lithuanian hotel. For some reason, he asked me to do it, but when I got to the mouthwatering menu (natural chicken with plumps) I began to giggle and tears ran down my cheeks. He held out his hand, took the book and finished reading.


If anyone thinks SBL meetings are intellectually desiccated occasions they should think again. Selina Hastings had us in fits with the correspondence between Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford; John Crace of the Guardian invited us to call out the name of a writer and gave us his digested reads; and Francis Wheen of ‘The News Quiz’ made us laugh but also ponder with How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World. Few writers are natural performers, but Alexander McCall Smith had us in the palm of his hand. As with Hilary Mantel at the height of Wolf Hall and Louis de Bernieres when we were suddenly all reading Captain Corelli, we’d invited McCall Smith just as The No. 1 The Ladies Detective Agency was taking off. By the date of the meeting, there wasn’t a spare seat in the Methodist Church Hall in Museum Street and as we waited to go in, he asked me if I was intending to say a few words of introduction. I confirmed that I was, and he suggested that if I was looking for something amusing to say I might mention that he played the bassoon in The Really Terrible Orchestra. A few minutes later he was thanking me for my kind words but reprimanding me because I’d got my facts wrong. He did not play the bassoon. He only played a two thirds bassoon as he’d had to saw the end off to get a sound out of it. I have to say that I’ve never known anyone quite so amused by his own jokes and, of course, his laughter made us laugh all the more.


For me, however, the most amusing talk was given by David Nobbs, the creator of Reginald Perrin and author of many more funny, thoughtful, and humane novels. Two hours disappeared in a flash.

Oddities and Eccentricities

Our speakers have often commented how impressed they are with the quality of our questions. We rarely ask them whether they use a fountain pen. It is, however, often interesting to compare the very different approaches of writers. Robert Radcliffe brought along all his working notes to demonstrate how he plans his novels in meticulous detail before writing the first word. This includes creating full back stories for his characters even if they don’t appear in the book. Bernice Rubens on the other hand told us that she composed her books from beginning to end with minimal preparation and absolutely no revision. Hard to believe! A. L. Kennedy (on her first visit, in July 2002) said that she did all her writing in the wee small hours and that she sometimes forgot what time it was. She said she’d been known to phone a friend for a chat at 3 am.


Manda Scott didn’t want to stand in front of an audience; so, she perched on a table, cross legged, to talk to us about Boudicca. The multitalented Eleanor Bron was a reluctant speaker – she was only persuaded to come by some mutual friends – and made it clear to us that this was not something she felt comfortable doing. Remarkable for such an accomplished performer. She was very particular – insisting that we sat on bar stools to have our conversation. She announced that she had agreed to speak for 40 minutes only. At the due time, an alarm clock went off, much to the amusement of all octogenarians

Michael Foot came to speak on two occasions, thanks to his friendship with James MacGibbon. By the time of his second visit in June 1997, to talk about his biography of H. G. Wells, he was 84 and James was 85. I met them at Ipswich station, where Foot struggled over the bridge on a pair of crutches. A group of us took them out for a meal before the meeting. I began to be a little concerned at the frequency with which he tendered his wine glass to be topped up. His lecture on Wells was, shall we say, discursive, but always interesting and the Q & A session afterwards was lively. I drove them both back to the station and waited with them on the platform. They were both anxious to know whether there was a buffet car on the next train. No one seemed to know but, as the London train rolled in and stopped, there, right in front of us, was the buffet. James went ahead to order two whiskeys. ‘Make that doubles!’ Michael Foot called after him as I helped him clamber up onto the train.


Many members will recall the visit of Doris Lessing in 2004, aged 85. Jacquie Knott and I were apprehensive about entertaining her before the meeting, given her fearsome reputation. We needn’t have worried. She was a kitten. There was a full house packed into the lecture theatre at Ipswich School. After saying a few words, she began reading at length from her latest book. Unfortunately, she tended to gabble and I realised that people were becoming somewhat restive. At the end of one passage, she began looking for the next. This gave me my opportunity and I suggested she might like to rest her voice and take questions. There was a hum of approval from the audience and at this point the meeting took off. It was one of the best we ever had. We put her back on the train to London.

A couple of months later our speaker was Diana Athill, then aged 87. She also preferred to do the round trip from London, having declined our offer to pay for a hotel, and, after a spirited and impressive evening, Jacquie and I tried to persuade her to charge us for a taxi home from Liverpool Street as it was so late. She would have none of it. A remarkable person and a wonderful writer. On 7 January 2003, we were due to host Elizabeth Jane Howard, then in her 80th year. She had recently written an engrossing and admirably honest autobiography, Slipstream. Unfortunately, it started snowing at lunchtime and didn’t stop. I knew she lived in Bungay so I gave her the option of rearranging her visit, but she wouldn’t hear of it: provided I picked her up from Bungay and took her home. The roads were treacherous, but I had the pleasure of sharing her company for several hours and the meeting was a great success. It takes more than a few inches of snow to deter the members of the SBL.

Most treasured memories

I had been particularly impressed by Brian Keenan’s account of his years as a hostage in Lebanon, An Evil Cradling. David Ryland managed to lure him from Ireland, and I collected him from Stansted airport. I spent most of the day with him and we had a good rapport by the time the meeting began so you can imagine my horror when he told the large audience that despite his horrendous experiences in Lebanon the most frightening moment of his life had been earlier that day when I drove him the wrong way round the Stansted one-way system. I do hope he has now recovered.

I’m comfortable interviewing writers but I was a little apprehensive when I knew I would be interviewing Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary and prize-winning author of This Boy and other superb memoirs. I needn’t have worried. If anything, he put me at my ease and for 90 minutes I felt that I was chatting to an old friend. I’ve concentrated on speaker meetings but there’s been much more to enjoy over the years. We had joint meetings with the Ipswich Film Society, literary quizzes (organised by Janet Bayliss), A Good Read sessions where members brought their own favourite books to share, and Saturday workshops where an expert would guide us through the work of a classic author. I remember booking Lorna Sage, the acknowledged expert on Angela Carter, for a workshop in 1995. She told me that she would be in Ipswich for a showing of her favourite film the week before and we agreed to meet. The film, incidentally, and somewhat to my surprise, was The Girl Can’t Help It with Jayne Mansfield. Lorna was already seriously ill, and we agreed to limit the length of the sessions and that she could have a two-hour break for lunch to recuperate. We had expected to treat her to a meal, but her preference was for a liquid lunch. She remained as impressively lucid in the afternoon as she had been in the morning.

The late Tony Tanner was somewhat unimpressed when we asked him to pick three novels by Henry James as our pre-workshop reading. I think he had expected us to read the lot. I must confess that I have a blind spot where the longer novels of Henry James are concerned and particularly the later ones. I read The Portrait of a Lady and wasn’t encouraged to read more when he asked us to note the significance of drawing the curtains and laying the table.

In 2010, we had a Jane Austen day and later that year Louise Denyer organized a coach trip to Austen’s old house in Chawton. It was a most convivial occasion. There are no limits to SBL members’ ability to enjoy themselves.

In 2011 the Suffolk County Council was threatening to close the majority of its public libraries in order to save money. Most of us felt strongly that this was a retrograde step and particularly damaging for children and less well-off families. We organized a letter of protest and contacted as many writers as we could with a Suffolk connection. Signatories included Margaret Drabble, Ronald Blythe, Esther Freud, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Ruth Rendell, Blake Morrison, Meg Rosoff, Julie Myerson, Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. When I forwarded it to the EADT they made it their front-page story and it made quite a stir. When the Council decision was reversed, we felt that we had played our part.

Celebrations

As we celebrate 40 years, I recall the splendid evening of words and music in the Woodbridge Theatre to celebrate our first 25 years. We had a packed house of members and non-members enjoying readings by Jenny Agutter with music from Diana Ambache on piano and Jeremy Polmear on oboe. Our ever-supportive honorary president, Margaret Drabble, came with her husband, the renowned biographer Michael Holroyd and a wonderful evening was had by all.

We know how to celebrate at the SBL. We celebrated the life of the inimitable James MacGibbon with a memorial lecture in 2001 given by his friend, Claire Tomalin. She gave us a fascinating preview of her biography of Samuel Pepys, prefaced with a personal tribute to James. When I finally retired in 2016 Margaret Drabble generously came to visit us yet again but this time I asked her to choose some extracts from her favourite writers and the actor, Anthony Carrick, a longtime member of the SBL, read them for us. It was a magical evening.


WIth many thanks to Brian Morron for generously assisting in collating these memories.


Jeff Taylor



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