Althorp Literary Festival

Saturday 15 June 2013

Alexander McCall Smith, matching the subject matter of his books, provided a gentler, light hearted final talk for us.   We learned why, in the Scotland Street series, Bertie’s irritatingly pushy mother can disappear for months (she’s trapped in an aid convoy lorry and then put into a harem – where she organises a book club), but never die.  We were given a glimpse into the next Ladies Detective Agency book ( there will be a baby) and learned that Sandy ( as we now call him) wrote an opera based on baboons with Lady MacBeth instincts.  Don’t worry: he’s sticking to the novels and, at 1,000 words an hour (!) we should have our appetite for his moralistic and philosophical, but humorous, novels well satisfied.   


Twelve members gathered for our visit to the Althorp Literary Festival. We attended a late morning session, and another mid afternoon talk. At 12 noon a political history: Return of a King with William Dalrymple and at 2pm a linguistic delight:  The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection with Alexander McCall Smith.

William Dalrymple spoke passionately, and from memory, about his latest historical novel, Return of a King.   The packed marquee was transported back to 1839: the East India Company and Britain invades Afghanistan for commercial reasons, ignoring advice from a real life “Kim” who has used a Trojan horse to obtain information – specifically four shire horses and a re-gilded carriage from the Lord Mayor of London.  The invading army has hundreds of camels carrying uniforms and cigars, and even one carrying Cologne.   Woefully short however of suitable clothing.   Their Sepoys are marched out across a dessert in winter uniform, but back through four feet of snow in shorts.   (The horrific tales from Sepoys who later escaped helped fuel the Indian mutiny.)   Within 18 months of a triumphant arrival, backed by payments to the locals, 18,000 troops are dead or enslaved.  The author’s own great-uncle was one of the 150 hostages taken, intended to be swapped for a harem girl, until rescued after an avenging force razed Kabul to the ground.  Washington DC asked William how the army then got a king, who was put back into power after a truce, to keep his word (as happened after 1842).  His reply: after an overwhelming retaliatory destruction of Kabul, the general told the king: you leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone.  It worked.

Our group then quickly navigated the queues in the café to eat their lunch under the shelter of The Portico, by kind permission of one of the sponsors, Hewitsons LLP, while listening to the background music of the Stowe School orchestra.   We exchanged deep commentary…. Oh well, we enjoyed chatting.  Then back for the second event.