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The Hay team go to books festival

Dan Carrier makes his annual Welsh pilgrimage to talk to those from our neck of the woods

06 June, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Tracy Chevalier and Deborah Moggach at Hay

FROM Steven Spielberg green­lighting an adaptation of her book, to the Harvey Weinstein scandal all but scuppering its success, Gospel Oak-based author Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever did not enjoy a happy transition from page to screen.

The author joined Dartmouth Park writer Tracy Chevalier at the Hay Festival last week to discuss two of their works, Tracy’s The Girl With A Pearl Earring and Deborah’s Tulip Fever – and revealed some of the pleasure and pain of seeing a novel adapted for cinema.

The north London authors spoke of how they had been writing about the same period of 17th-century Dutch history, through the prism of painters, at the same time in the mid-90s, from their homes half a mile from each other across Hampstead Heath – without either of them knowing it.

They would have wandered up to Kenwood House to see a Vermeer, oblivious to each other’s presence.

Deborah’s Tulip Fever used the boom in growing bulbs in Holland in the 17th century as the backdrop to a love story between a married noblewoman and a painter.

Tracy based her story on one of Vermeer’s paintings – and told the audience she had first noticed it on the wall of her sister’s flat as a teenager. She has since seen in person every Vermeer work – a total of 35 paintings dotted across the globe.

“I fell in love – the face, the skin, the colours,” she said, and years later it provided inspiration. “I thought – what did Vermeer do to make her look like this? Is she happy or sad? And she isn’t looking out at us, the viewers, but at Vermeer.

“I wanted to ask what their relationship was. No one knows who she was – or even much about Vermeer. I thought, yes – this meant I could make up whatever I wanted.”

And for Tracy, the visual brilliance has never left her.

“Vermeer elevates the every day,” she said. “His pictures often feature a woman doing some­thing – playing a lute, weighing gold – the focus is on her task.

“It somehow becomes elevated by his attention.”

Both books were bestsellers, and both were bought by film companies.

“We managed to get away with the books coming out at the same time, but two films about 17th century artists? We weren’t so sure,” said Tracy. “We made a bet that who­ever’s book came out first would take the other to lunch at The Ivy. I paid.”

For Tracy, it was a breeze from page to screen.

“Mine was bought before it was published and there was one screen writer,” she said.

“I had a great relationship with them. It was an independent English film studio, it was small budget and we managed to get Scarlett Johansson at the beginning of her career and Colin Firth as Vermeer.”

She liked the final cut.

“It felt like they were two sisters,” she said.

“It was respectful to the feeling and the tone, it looked beautiful and the music was great.”

The same could not be said for Deborah’s experience, a process that she shared with the audience with a sense of unbridled joy at quite how bad it was.

“It was bought by Spielberg, had a nice big fat plot and was very filmic – but turned into a complete nightmare,” she admitted.

Deborah was called to Hollywood and as she left her Hampstead home to catch a flight, she bumped into her milkman.

“He was a film buff and was walking up the path with his milk bottles,” she recalls. “He said ‘Where are you going, Deb?’ and I said ‘I’m going to Hollywood to meet Steven Spiel­berg.’ I said to him, ‘You and me Ron, we’ll be extras’.”

Scarlett Johansson in The Girl With the Pearl Earring. Photo: Generation Bass

So far, so good. Deborah settled down into a business class seat and saw film critic Barry Norman sitting opposite. She told him where she was going and gave him a copy of the book, which was intended for Spielberg.

Norman read it on the flight, and then handed it back with the words: “I have written ‘Steven Spielberg is a w****r’ inside,” prompting Deborah to frantically flick though the pages to try and find the message within.

“Then I got home to find the local paper had an article on the front page with a headline saying ‘Ron The Milkman to star in Spielberg film’, which meant fending off calls from the nationals, who wanted to know all about him.”

Unfortunately, no film was forthcoming. Script issues meant it stumbled from one screenwriter to another – “and they lost track of what it was about,” she added.

As shooting started, the law regarding film tax credits changed, bringing further delays – until it was taken on by the Weinstein Company.

“Harvey Weinstein kept interfering,” she recalls – and then, when the end was in sight, the scandal regarding the disgraced movie producer broke and the film, which had a cast that included Judi Dench, Christoph Waltz, Alicia Vikander and Cara Delevingne, was kiboshed.

But there was a happy ending.

The film company had bought 10,000 tulips as shooting stalled.

“They were waiting for their scene like darling little actors,” says Deborah.

“The nursery dropped 500 off in my front garden and I gave them to friends. It means every spring, a little piece of my film pops up out of the ground.”

His nibs…

Adrian Edwards at Hay

HOW will you send someone a birthday greeting in 50 years’ time? Will you send a text message or an email, record a video greeting – or will the humble, handwritten birthday card remain a treasured way of sending your loved ones good thoughts?

This was the question posed by Adrian Edwards, head of the Written Heritage Collection of the British Library, at the Hay Festival. Introducing a talk called Making Your Mark – a wander through how we have written down our thoughts over the past 5,000 years – the historian looked at the history of the written word, the technologies we have used, and considered what the future holds.

“Writing is an amazing invention – it allows communication across distances and times,” he said. “It allows us to read laws, sacred texts. It allows us to register personal memories and to express our creativity.”

Adrian has co-curated a show this summer with author and academic Ewan Clayton, drawing on the Library’s extensive collection and archive to show the impact the written word has had on civilisations.

He explained how the changing nature of communication impacted on the way the written word is used.

“The use of keyboards means some people say the use of handwriting is at risk,” he said.

“Young people now seem to use block capitals more for lists or short messages and in some countries – Finland, for example – children are no longer taught joined-up handwriting. But we can see where technology has made big leaps before, it still has not killed off handwriting. It didn’t happen with the printing press of the 1400s, nor the typewriter in the 1800s.”

Adrian described how writing emerged in four different parts of the globe around 5,000 years ago.

The show includes a piece of 2.2-metre-high Mayan limestone, carved with writing that has been loaned from the British Museum and dating from 647ad. It uses a series of stylised figures known as glyphs, and records the fall of an empire.

“Early writing emerged for three different distinct reasons,” he said. “Naming things, accounting for things and communicating with the afterlife.”

The influence of the Roman empire, which gave us the modern Latin alphabet, is considered. The show includes the Ravenna papyrus, which outlines the details of a land sale in ancient Rimini, northern Italy. and is over 2,000 years old. Laid flat, it is two-and-a-half metres long and cannot be folded due to its fragile state.

Writing tools are considered, and Adrian explained how printing spread from China. One script, called the Diamond Sutra, can be dated to precisely May 11 868, by translating notes at the back of the text. Carved on wood, it was then covered in ink and pressed up against paper to create an impression.

Fast forward to the 1400s and the Caxton printing press would revolutionise the world, said Adrian.

William Caxton learned the printing trade in Germany and Belgium – and then refined the techniques he had seen others use. Setting up a firm in Kent, he printed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales using his technique of moveable metal type – a huge leap for literacy.

The next big development, said Adrian, was the Remington typewriter, introduced in 1873. With 44 keys offering 88 options for writing, he showed how its design was utilitarian – especially compared to a Chinese typewriter the British Library used in the 1970s to converse with Chinese counterparts. It needed 2,450 keys.

Other highlights include Mozart’s detailed notes on his compos­itions, Florence Nightingale’s daily appointments diaries, Captain Scott’s final letter and the almost illegible scrawl of James Joyce.

Despite the leaps and bounds we have achieved in our ways of communicating with one another through the written word, Adrian told the audience the humble pen is not dead.

“What we have seen is the world of new technology does not usurp what has gone before,” he said.

“If anything, the keyboard is perhaps most at risk of being relegated. Perhaps we will see writing used less in some forms – signatures and typed passwords are under threat from the rise of biometrics for identification – but our handwriting has huge advantages over other forms. You can write on all sorts of surfaces, and there is something wonderfully personal about handwriting. Your personality shines through, and it shows creativity.

“But we do need to get people thinking about handwriting, to ensure it is saved for the future.”

• Writing: Making Your Mark is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, NW1 2DB until August 27. See


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