Move over Hay-On-Wye! Alan Bennett among stars at Primrose Hill Library Book Festival


Organizer Pam White and playwright Alan Bennett

The poster looked like a literary Who’s Who with a mix of broadcast royalties too, programming that would make the organizers of some of the biggest book festivals in the world green with envy.

And yet the names of the stars weren’t pouring in at Hay-on-Wye this weekend – but at the volunteer-run library in Primrose Hill.

To mark the 10th anniversary since its formation, organizers held a series of talks that included the likes of broadcaster Melvyn Bragg, Succession actor Brian Cox, novelist Deborah Moggach, Joan Bakewell, The split actor Stephen Mangan and his sister Anita and playwright Alan Bennett. Lucky ticket holders only had to pay £5 to hear them speak at Sharpleshall Street Library and ask questions.

A decade ago there was a risk of closure as Camden council refused to continue funding what was then Chalk Farm Library amid a series of spending cuts – but councilors agreed to entrust control and management to a group of volunteers, who have kept it alive ever since.

“We were determined not to lose it,” said Pam White, the organizer of the book festival held on Saturday and Sunday. “The library is books. Books are our heart and we would like to continue to be known as a library that cares about books, and also a library that cares about community.

She added: “When I do a book festival, I do it right. Every conversation was great.

That was perhaps the understatement of the year – and on Sunday afternoon an audience was enchanted by the thoughts of Mr Bennett, who lives nearby and had joined the campaign against the closures in 2012.

Still highly regarded by the public, his appearances at public events and in newspaper interviews have become rarer. Having him read excerpts from his diary and speak more broadly about the world was a welcome show of support for the way volunteers have kept the loan service alive.

He told the audience he was perhaps his ‘only subject’ to say a rude word in front of the late Queen, Her Majesty Elizabeth II, and also that he was the first writer to portray her in a British drama before Netflix “is not taking full credit” for The crown.

Mr Bennett said: ‘I’ve never met the Queen and I’m happy because I would have been cripplingly shy. To me she was a mythical creature and I was happy that she remained that way.

He remembers seeing her once while driving through Headingley: ‘Mam was ill but with Dad, in his eternal trilby and raincoat, we stood and waited in a crowd. We didn’t wave. But what happened was so different from my father that it almost brought a tear to my eye. As the car passed, Dad took off his hat.

He added: ‘Royalty, like most public ceremonies, he had referred to as ‘splother’. But somewhere beyond that, almost a surprise to himself, he was a loyal subject. And the same, I guess, could be said of me too. Mr. Bennett said his A question of attribution at the National Theater in 1984 was the “first time the Queen was portrayed on stage”, adding: “All publicity since has gone to Netflix and The crown. We thought they were the pioneers, but they weren’t.

The Queen reportedly said the depiction of Prunella Scales was not accurate as she never made ‘wise cracks’.

“But she did,” Mr. Bennett said. “As Prunella received the CBE and knelt before Her Majesty, waiting for the ribbon to go around her neck, the Queen whispered, ‘I suppose you think you should do this? “”

Mr. Bennett, whose journals have been a permanent feature of the London book review since the 1980s, said he had contributed to an obituary for the Queen made three years ago for Radio 4, adding: “When the Queen died I didn’t hear her and wondered if they had doubts. “I’m going to read it here now: ‘I must be one of the late queen’s subjects to have almost uttered the word erection in her presence’.”

He recalled a rude gag made on stage at a Beyond the Fringe show in 1961 which the Queen had attended. “There was no reaction the night the queen was there. Normally it was through bursts of hilarity.

While reading his diary, he also mourned the death of an old friend who passed away earlier this year.

“I love jokes and got some every week from Barry Cryer, who was a lovely man,” he read. “The last joke he told me was this: a couple is walking down the street and they see someone walking down the street. Canterbury?’ She tells husband to go and ask.

“The husband comes over and says ‘Terribly sorry, but are you the Archbishop of Canterbury?’ ‘Bugger off’, comes the response. “He returns to his wife. ‘What did he say?’ ‘He said fuck off. ‘Oooohh no, now we’ll never know’.”

Mr Cryer, the Sorry, I don’t have a clue panelist, died in February and the New review campaigned to erect a plaque in his honor at Mornington Crescent station. Mr Bennett lived for many years in Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town – where an old woman lived in a van outside the front, inspiring the hit film based on her memories.

He had played his part in the campaign to save the library from closure, warning the council at the time: “This is not just a facility. People who use a library, especially children, go there because it’s quiet and they won’t be disturbed.

Mr Bennett had added: ‘A child shouldn’t have to go to a library, it should be around the corner and the more convenient the better.’

Later he sent copies of the New review‘s article on its support – Following on p4 campaigners in the Isle of Man who were trying to save a mobile library from closure and said the risk of losing libraries was replicated across the UK.

During his Sunday speech, he drew smiles from the audience in which he explained that he had received letters from a man called Tom King, a fan who has a tattoo of the writer on his arm.

“Periodically, Tom King writes me news of the tattoo fortune,” he read. “It allows for fun conversation during sex. This suggests to me that the intercourse is less than fervent.”

Primrose Hill Library is one of three libraries in Camden which has been handed over to volunteers – the process was also followed to save Belsize Library and Keats Library from closure.

‘The controversy was that the council chose to close our library,’ Ms White said.

“I remember Pat Callaghan [deputy leader of the council and then-ward councillor] saying that the main thing is not to lose the building. And that’s what happened: we didn’t lose, it’s a big space. She added that there were plans underway to create a “hot bank” in Primrose Hill.

The New review reported how public buildings will become places where people can stay warm during the winter due to soaring energy bills.

“In some ways, we were once a warm bank. We have newspapers and seating. It’s really ideal,” she said.

Other speakers include planet alone travel book founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler, Guardian writer Hadley Freeman and Annabel Steadman – the author of Skandar and the Unicorn Thief.

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