I've been a member of the Suffolk Book League for about thirty-five years now, and I have many fond memories of guest speakers over the years, and especially of the privileged experience I have had during my time as Chair and even longer ago when I was programme secretary. Back in those days we booked all our speakers by writing letters, usually via their publishers. It often involved a lot of anxious waiting for replies. I recall inviting Doris Lessing, who at the time was in her early eighties, and I had almost given up waiting for a reply. Then one Sunday afternoon my husband called up the stairs to say ‘there's a Doris Lessing on the phone for you!’ She was so lovely and personable. We were so excited when she agreed to come to us, and we enthusiastically publicised the event. However, several people then warned us that she had a reputation as a surly and unforthcoming speaker. Somewhat nervously, Brian Morron and I met her at Ipswich railway station and took her off to The Greyhound pub for a meal before the event. Well, she was an utter delight. She insisted on having Suffolk ham and eggs from the menu, as it was a regional dish! She then went on to give us all a highly entertaining evening.
Another particular favourite meeting of mine was the first occasion that Julia Blackburn came to speak to us. Her talk was on her book about the jazz singer Billie Holiday, and she accompanied it with several rare films of Holiday performing with various bands to show her in action, although it was also to point out the members of the bands for whom Holiday had been doing what was euphemistically referred to at the time as 'a little light housework'. Another memorable combination of film and the written word was when Angela Carter and the film director Neil Jordan came. They brought their film 'The Company of Wolves' to a meeting which we held in Ipswich Film Theatre, today the King Street Cinema. A few years later we spent an SBL study day talking about Angela Carter in the company of her biographer Lorna Sage. I do recall that the morning of that day was somewhat more formal than the post-lunchtime gin session afternoon! Lorna was passionate and knowledgeable about Carter, who had been a close friend of hers.
These SBL study days were always memorable, and I recall the one led by Professor Clive Hart of Essex University, an internationally renowned expert on James Joyce. He surprised us by starting the day by telling us that he no longer read anything written after the 12th Century, but we were relieved to find that he obviously remembered much about Joyce from the days when he did. Not long after, Hermione Lee visited us for a study day workshop on Virginia Woolf. Again, it was a privilege to be with someone who knew their subject so well and shared it so skilfully, though I do remember that she set us a large reading list to get through before the event, something we were not used to.
As the programme was planned so far ahead in those days, we were often fortunate to book writers early in their career who had then become well-known by the time that they visited. We invited Sarah Waters on the strength of several of us reading and loving her first novel Tipping the Velvet. By the time she visited it was an acclaimed series on television. For others, we have benefited simply by being persistent. I had so wanted Jonathan Coe to come after reading his brilliant What a Carve Up!. I invited him three years in succession, and in the end his acceptance letter to us began 'I think that now I must bow to the inevitable and agree!' It was worth the effort, for he was a brilliant and funny reader and speaker. He returned a couple of years later to talk about Like a Fiery Elephant, his biography of that maverick writer B. S. Johnson.
Looking back over the years, the Suffolk Book League has not only given us the chance to hear some remarkable people speak about their work, but also to ask them questions. When I met A.L. Kennedy for the first time I couldn't resist asking her if she really hated taramasalata as much as she said she did in her description of it in her novel. In answer she gave a passionate 'yes!', her face appalled that anyone could think otherwise! The intimacy of our meetings has long been a source of pleasure, and I'm sure many older members will remember Terry Pratchett, who we hosted at Copleston High School. He was nearing the height of his fame, but was so generous with his time talking to his many fans, many of whom had never been to an SBL meeting before. Someone asked him what sex was Great A'Tuin, the giant turtle who carries the Discworld on his back. He thought for a moment, and then replied 'you know, that really only matters if you are another giant turtle'.
Perhaps the interaction between the speaker and the audience is the greatest joy of SBL meetings. When Hollie McNish came to us the room was packed, and it was so lovely to see so many young people, many of them sitting on the floor, enthralled while she read her often anatomical poetry, and to see them talking to her about it afterwards. And I recall the excitement of meeting George Szirtes via Zoom in one of our meetings during Covid. Another poet and also a translator of novels from Hungarian, he was someone so utterly accomplished yet also so humble with it. Despite his brilliance he told me that he honestly ascribed all of his success to simply saying yes to any opportunity that arose. He explained to me that the joy of writing poetry that rhymed was that you could be completely surprised by what you found yourself saying. These are the things you remember.