Sue Limb: Festival feedback

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams - Credit: Archant

I tried to follow Mortimer Wheeler’s advice, but decades later, the nearest I’ve come to archaeology is cleaning out the fridge

I grew up in Cheltenham, and even in those medieval times there were festivals a-plenty. They gave us an excuse to bunk off school, so they were popular. The Festival of Music was fun because a lot of contemporary music was performed. Even before puberty I learned to discriminate between Adrian Horseharness’s Chorale: ‘Trilly-willy, trilly-willy waaaaah!’ and Peter Fox-Grinding’s ‘Klank klank klank klank wurlizzzzza! - a concerto for tin-opener and hairdryer. In fact, I often used to sing them in the bath.

To be serious for a split second, glimpsing Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the highlights of my young life. He was sitting in the auditorium of the Town Hall, a huge, slumped rumpled figure with a swathe of tow-coloured hair and a massive square head. Even as I tip-toed past him, I sensed that this was a monumental moment. ‘When I’m old,’ I thought, ‘I’ll bore everybody with my memories of seeing Vaughan Williams in the flesh!’ And here I am doing just that.

When I was about 12 I attended a lecture by the first TV archaeologist, Mortimer Wheeler, and I even waited at the stage door afterwards in order to intercept him and impart the exciting news that, inspired by his talk, I wished to become an archaeologist. “Learn Greek and Latin!” he commanded, dodging past me and heading for his taxi. I tried to follow his advice, but decades later, the nearest I’ve come to archaeology is cleaning out the fridge.

The most handsome of the performers I saw was Ted Hughes, reading his electrifying poem Hawk Roosting. He was tall and rugged and fearsome. It was as if Heathcliff had sprung out of the pages of Wuthering Heights and materialised in Cheltenham Town Hall. He was inspiring, but I’m not sure what he inspired me towards, although for a while I cherished a schoolgirl ambition to be his muse, his mistress or perhaps his hawk.

In the course of time I became a writer myself, and I’m occasionally invited to perform at Cheltenham. And now it’s my turn to meet members of the audience afterwards. People say things like, “You were at school with my great-grandmother” or “I knew you at Pate’s but I would never have recognised you.”

Where’s the veneration, folks? Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever wanted to be my mistress or my hawk. Nobody has tip-toed past me, storing up details of my massive head for posterity. Nobody has confessed that, inspired by my talk, they have decided to become a writer – or even emigrate to Australia.

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I have had one or two memorable responses, though. A precocious boy once came up to me afterwards and announced, “Name an animal and I’ll tell you about it! Preferably the Cloudy Leopard!” I think he was one of those children educated at home. Then there was a far from precocious little lad who came up clutching one of my books, pointed to the printed page and asked, “How do you keep your handwriting so tidy?”

But perhaps most memorable was a welcome I received when I arrived to give a talk at a festival in Stroud. There was an audience of two: a stern-looking middle aged man and his sulky daughter.

“Hello lovely audience and thank you for coming!” I trilled, genuinely grateful.

“We’re not fans of yours,” sneered the man. “But it’s just that my daughter is interested in literature.” His daughter whirled round and glared at him.

“I am NOT interested in literature!” she hissed.

I’m not sure if I bored them to tears. But I certainly hope so.


This article by Sue Limb is from the October 2014 issue of Cotswold Life