Book Festival: Jonathan Agnew | Alan Spence | Rupert Thomson
Edinburgh International Book Festival Scotsman review: Jonathan Agnew, Alan Spence and Rupert Thomson, reviewed by Ninian Dunnett
We are a hard-bitten lot, us Book Festival veterans. Not much can shock anyone who witnessed the disgraceful mud-slinging (with mud) between Rowling’s Radges and the Tolkien Tong.
Still, few were prepared yesterday for the revelation that within the BBC Test Match Special cricket commentary box, you will not encounter a single glass of wine. “In the past, Jonners had a glass or two,” disclosed an insider, “and John Arlott had a bottle or two. But did it make them better?”
This was Jonathan “Aggers” Agnew talking, a radio commentator who drew as avid a crowd to Charlotte Square as any of the literary lions, and a figure so comfortable with the relaxed style, the mellifluous cadence and the reflexive witticism that you wonder if this is truly the person Alan Partridge imagines he is.
A cheerful hour found him opining on W G Grace (“one of the biggest cheats there’s ever been”), batsmen challenging umpires (“just not the way the game is played)”, the suitability of trumpet-playing (Headingly yes, Lords no) and the joy of being at Chester-le-Street at quarter to eight on Monday describing England winning the Ashes. And if this disappointed any book-lovers who had hoped for a commentary on the role of cricket in the works of George “Dod” Eliot and Virginia “Wolfie” Woolf, it sent its partial listenership home happy.
Remarkable restraint popped up again in the session featuring the novelists Alan Spence and Rupert Thomson. Both have written stories – set respectively in 18th-century Japan and pre-Renaissance Italy – propelled by the imperatives of strict moral codes, and there was a sense in both authors’ readings of the emotional harvest to be reaped in settings of repression.
The Scottish and the English authors both spoke, too, of how they had made imaginative capital out of the gaps in the historical records about their real-life protagonists. For Thomson, there was great potential in the “scarce and contradictory” biographical details about Gaetano Zumbo, a plague-obsessed sculptor who made grotesque tableaux of the dead and dying. And even when the facts did intrude, he explained – as when, after seven or eight drafts of his novel Secrecy, he discovered that his hero had actually lived with his mother – it was possible to exploit them to advantage: “I think it made the book richer.”
Originally published in The Scotsman