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Edinburgh International Book Festival – Monday, 16 August – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Edinburgh International Book Festival – Monday, 16 August

August 18, 2010 | by SRB

by Alan Taylor

Jeanette Winterson 11.30

Hilary Spurling 14.30

Simon Callow 16.30


IT”S twenty-five years since Jeanette Winterson published her autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, which remains as fresh and tangy as it was when it first appeared. Winterson, a gamine 50 year-old in skin-tight jeans, took to the stage with elfin zest, and started by reciting the novel’s first few sentences which she’d learned off by heart in case she forgot  to bring a copy. Which she had.

Adopted by a Lancashire couple, she was brought up in Accrington, a Wintertson byword for a dead-end. Her adoptive mother, to whom she referred throughout as “Mrs Winterson”, was a fat, fundamentalist Christian who tried to drown out her neighbours’ “fornication” by singing the hymn ‘Yield Not  To Temptation’ at the top of her voice. She also longed for the Mormons to call.

As a mother she left something to be desired; but as a potential character, she was a gift. Her favourite bit of the Bible, remarked Winterson, was the  Apocalypse. “During the Cuban missile crisis, if she could have pressed the red  button she would.”

When Winterson, having fallen in love with another girl, finally decided to leave home, her mother swooned and a varicose vein in her leg burst. As blood spurted everywhere she looked up and moaned that she’d only recently decorated the ceiling. Asked why she was leaving, Winterson said it was because she wanted  to be happy. “Why be happy when you could be normal?” replied her mother.

Mrs Winterson had much in common with the father of Pearl S. Buck, the latest subject of the celebrated biographer Hilary Spurling. Buck, perhaps the most puzzling of Nobel Literature judges’ choices as laureate, was born and brought up in China in the early part of the last century. Her father was a  missionary who fervently believed he could convert the entire Chinese population.

Buck’s unfortunate upbringing, while personally damaging, was priceless, however, when she came to write The Good Earth, published in 1935, the novel on which her reputation and claim on posterity rests. Spurling, speaking in a soporific monotone with her handbag slung over her shoulder, credited her with  recasting China in the eyes of the West, which may well have been the case. She was certainly popular; even today in America The Good Earth sells three-quarters of a million copies.

Flower in his button-hole, the actor Simon Callow, who is also appearing at the Fringe, read from his autobiography and regaled the audience with anecdotes about the likes of Olivier, Gielgud and Scofield. He writes as well as he talks which is incontinently and in a voice with the authority that commands attention.

When the metaphorical curtain on his performance rose a child immediately behind your reviewer began to whimper softly. As Callow went on the child offered the gamut of reactions. It whimpered. It screamed. It blew raspberries. It squealed as if pierced with a pin. It gurgled with sheer pleasure. It has a  promising future as a critic.

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