Christschurch College . Oxford Literary Festival. March 17th. To hear Edna talk.
Edna O Brien knows how to work a room. She’s the consummate host. The generosity that saw her, decades ago, throw open the doors of her Chelsea home on Saturday nights to the London Bohemia ( Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, Judy Garland all crossed her threshold) extends to her generosity of spirit as she recounted for us nuggets from her recently published memoir, Country Girl.
We took our seats in The Great Hall, rows of chairs against varnished tables running the length of the room. Little wonder it looked so familiar – it was replicated as Hogwart’s Hall in the Harry Potter movies. Over the years I’ve been to numerous book readings and literary events but none had this arrangement. We were sat as if for a banquet. Edna O Brien took her seat on a raised platform in the centre next to her inquisitor, the cultural historian and critic Robert Hewison. Her honesty, her warmth, her humour and her spirit served up to the 240 lucky ticket holders of this sold-out event. Though a full house, we could have been visitors to her front parlour, such was the reception.
Towards the end of our audience with the great scribe, Hewison asked for questions from the floor. Maybe it was fear of breaking the spell she’d bound, or dumbstruck in the presence of such eloquence but questions weren’t forthcoming. When Edna herself made a plea I saw my arm shoot up. So much of what she said resonated with me. While the microphone was passed to ‘the lady at the far end of the hall’ and I stood up to pose my question I hoped and prayed that what would follow would make sense. And it did. I was happy with Hewison’s interpretation as he repeated my words for Edna. I can’t recall it verbatim but it went something like this “When writing a memoir that spans so many decades, so many versions of herself, was there any one self that Edna identified best with or was proudest of or is she a culmination of all those selves”. And then I added something about looking for the essence of self (Get me!). As I sat down, my pals nodded in approval and encouragement. I think Edna O’Brien liked the question and the room seemed to enjoy the response and Hewison was happy to use it to wrap up the session.
Then we filed out of the hall and presented our books to Edna for her signature. A lady next to me (within earshot of the author) agreed that we were in the presence of Greatness before adding that she’d seen her last year and “she was all over the place, not lucid like today” (SAID WITHIN EARSHOT).
We left the college and through light snow showers drove to Woodstock, 8 miles outside Oxford. We passed the gates of Blenheim Palace and caught a fleeting glimpse of the sandstone manor where Winston Churchill drew his first breath. We found a pub and had the best Sunday Roast with the smoothest House Sauvignon Blanc. We texted our husbands, who, with children, we had thoughtfully booked for pub lunches at our London local. None of us had heard how things were at home. We took this to bode well. One of us had a chicken poxed child, another’s son had the norovirus and I’d left my daughter sobbing as she woke to realise she’d fallen asleep ‘prematurely’ during our St Patrick’s Day party the night before.
I was able to tell her honestly that she hadn’t missed much. Indeed a question I could have put to Edna would have been about what makes a good party because, I’m loathe to admit it, there was something lacking in ours. I wanted it to trump last years. Once again I’d cooked and baked for a couple of days. Quiches and potato bread, cheese boards and salads displayed to best effect (DH knows how to dress a table). And for desserts – Guinness truffle cake and Baileys Irish cheesecake. DH had cleaned the house top to bottom, and the kids and I had decked the halls with shamrocks. I’d borrowed a laser light projector so that green and red beams bounced off the ceiling and walls as our guests entered. I’d updated last year’s Paddy-o-meter quiz with new questions and great prizes. We’d laid a fire, attached the laptop to the TV screen and loaded Irish ‘nostalgia’ programmes. There was a documentary from 1973 with fantastic footage of traditional music played and old vox poxes from men in flat caps (long since dead I’m guessing).
One of our guests came dressed in an emerald green polyester trouser suit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Ireland of that day. Two other TV programmes – one showing highlights from the Pope’s visit to Ireland in 1979, the second following the Queen on her recent trip there, waited in the wings for a more inebriated screening, later I’d hoped. But our empties scarcely filled one recycle bin. When the last guest left shortly after midnight (says it all!) DH and I remained by the fire trying to figure out what wasn’t present. Edna would have known.