It has been a hectic week, starting with a day trip to York to run a workshop for the university, no mean feat from Highland Perthshire where I live, and culminating in a phone call from my 23-year-old son Jake, so excited he could hardly speak, to say that he has finally got the job he wanted after nearly a year of dogged perseverance with application processes, recruitment agencies and HR departments. I put the phone down with a picture of him bounding along the London street he was calling from like a cartoon rabbit.
I’ll be glad of a little calm and time for reflection this weekend. I’m chairing two events at the East Neuk music and literary festival, in Fife. The first features the biographer Artemis Cooper with her book Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure, the story of the extraordinary life of one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century, whose two-volume account of his walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople as a young man in the 1930s, A Time Of Gifts and Between The Woods And The Water, is a classic of English travel writing, and whose military exploits during the second world war included kidnapping a German general in Crete.
The second features the broadcaster Sally Magnusson, whose book about her journalist mother’s decline into dementia, Where Memories Go, is a touching personal memoir of a vibrant and much-loved storyteller as well as a serious investigation into one of the greatest health challenges facing society today.
Both books resonate strongly for me. I read A Time of Gifts when it came out, 40 years after the events described, in the late 1970s and was enraptured by the beauty of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s writing, by the descriptions of a bucolic pre-war Europe, of summer hayfields and Hungarian counts in crumbling castles, and by the endless but illuminating digressions into dusty corners of European history. At a time when I was starting to discover my own voice as a writer it was a profoundly influential book.
Where Memories Go strikes a different chord. My 86-year-old mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Although she can clearly recall events from her childhood and early adult life, she has no short-term memory at all. ‘How clever you are to find me, darling,’ she says every evening as I go and see her in her care home, which is mercifully just a few hundred yards down the road from my house. ‘New information just isn’t there,’ explained one of the care staff. ‘It doesn’t get filed any longer.’ I find that a helpful, if not very scientific, way of thinking about it.
My poor mum is also plagued by the idea that somehow she is not where she should be, that there is a right place somewhere that she needs to get to – though where that is, she is incapable of saying. It can make her very agitated. I used to think that it might be because my grandfather was in the navy and they moved constantly when she was a child, but I learn from Where Memories Go that it’s a typical characteristic of this cruel and indiscriminate affliction, which is currently thought to have 44 million sufferers around the world – known sufferers that is – and which claims a new victim every four seconds, according to the World Health Organisation. Sally Magnusson’s book tells a moving personal story while leaving one in no doubt that until governments wake up and science comes to the rescue we all face the spin of the dementia roulette wheel.
That may or may not be still to come. Today, however tired I may be feeling, I know that talking to these two authors tomorrow will recharge my batteries, fire up my imagination again and send me home with a head full of ideas. How important it is to fuel oneself in this way. As I’ve often said here, book festivals can do that like nothing else.
If you happen to be in the area, there are still tickets available here for both events.