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Havant Literary Festival, 25th to 28th September 2008

by Christine Hewitt


The inaugural Havant Literary Festival ran from 25th to 28th September 2008 in Havant and Emsworth, Hampshire. Some festival visitors chose to interest themselves in matters such as Keats, Nevil Shute and Kate Summerscale; there was even a poet in a shed in Havant High Street. I went to see what they had laid on in connection with P G Wodehouse.


On the Saturday morning I set off from Havant for the Brookfield Hotel in Emsworth where an exhibition had been mounted telling of Wodehouse's time as a local resident and the letters he exchanged for many years afterwards with Lily, his former housekeeper. The exhibition was small and bijoux, fixed to 3 panels. I spent more than an hour there chatting with a succession of visitors who were eager to learn about Wodehouse. They were absorbed by the copies of the letters and the photograph of the old Emsworth House School building (now replaced by a later building that is a residential home). There was a thirst for more knowledge and a wish for a bigger display, or at least more space for the nicely prepared material.


Wodehouse went to Emsworth in 1903 at the invitation of his friend Herbert Westbrook who was teaching at Emsworth House School. Wodehouse was glad to go to the quiet and pleasant little town where he could write in peace and he was based there (between visits to America) until the start of the First World War. At first he lived in the school, subsequently he moved to an adjacent house called Threepwood. At this point one is reminded that Wodehouse grabbed handfuls of local names and scattered them throughout several of his novels. The exhibition suggested some, there are more suggestions in Emsworth Museum.


Lily was Lillian Barnett, a housemaid at Emsworth House School who became Wodehouse's housekeeper at Threepwood and remained a friend and correspondent until her death. Lily married local postman Bert and her letters are full of charming family chat. His are about his work, life, pets and so forth.


Lily's house


There was a warm breeze and sunshine as I moved the car into the centre of the metrop of Emsworth and, clutching my literary festival leaflet guide (25p from the Brookfield or the Museum), began to walk the Wodehouse Trail. A look at the railway station revealed it to be probably pretty similar to how it looked whenever Wodehouse passed through on his way to and from London. Two steps down the road I encountered a distraction in the form of an open day at the Fire Station. Beguiling smiles from a group of chaps who had clearly not stinted on their Swedish exercises drew me in to admire the fire truck, purchase a pen or two and chat about smoke alarms. Well one has to be polite.


Tearing myself away I toddled along the High Street to gaze upon The Crown Hotel which the leaflet tells us is virtually certain to have been the model for the Marshmoreton Arms in A Damsel in Distress. At the harbour we were reminded of the great oyster scandal when Emsworth's flourishing oyster industry ceased abruptly when people became ill and it was discovered that the oysters were feeding on sewage. Wodehouse used this bit of Emsworth history in Damsel in Distress when he described Belpher.


Turning into Bridgefoot path beside the Millpond I encountered a brace of assertive swans and felt a little uneasy as the lovely weather meant that I had no handy raincoat with me in order to deal with them using the Jeeves method. Luckily the swans decided to just look pretty so I was able to linger and admire Lily's house, a cottage in Westview Terrace.


On the Havant Road the leaflet drew my attention to Forbury, former home of Wodehouse's aunt Marion (his mother's sister) and her husband, Wodehouse's uncle Walter Deane. Finally the trail brought me to stand reverently in front of Threepwood in Record Road with its blue plaque and garden of cheerful flowers. You realise why Wodehouse was happy in Emsworth.


Threepwood


The trail ends here. The leaflet does not make it clear that the building on the Emsworth House School site today is not the building that Wodehouse would have known, and the trail could carry on down Beach (the butler) Road where the view of the harbour at the end of the road is just as Wodehouse described it. I admired the view, sniffed the salty air and made off in search of lunch.


During the afternoon I made a pilgrimage to the excellent Emsworth Museum where there was as always a charming and very warm welcome, and more delightful Wodehouseana.


Back in Havant there was a book sale in a church hall with some second-hand Wodehouse novels, some first editions and some Arrow paperbacks. Nearby the excellent independent Nineveh bookshop was deeply into the festival spirit and strong on Arrows. A lady at the exhibition in the morning told me that she had re-discovered Wodehouse at Nineveh.


The best bit of the day was still to come: an early evening talk “The Art of Wodehouse” by Tony Ring at the Havant Arts Centre studio theatre. Speaking from a lectern and supported by a delightful husband and wife team of amateur thespians Tony treated the audience to an hour or so of highly entertaining information. Starting with his own summing up of Wodehouse as a “cartoonist in words” Tony spoke with clarity on life history, novels, cricket, poetry, lyrics, journalism, Hollywood, later life in the USA, characters, stories, influences and much more. He explained how Wodehouse came to be in Emsworth and how the area and its people influenced him. From time to time the jolly supporting cast (yes, I regret that I have forgotten their names, sorry) jumped up to deliver a nifty or two or a spot of banter, plus we listened to some recordings of songs from the CD Where The Good Songs Go.


The audience lapped up the talk in rapt happy silence. I saw smiles of recognition and nods to one another and heard interested murmurs when they heard something new. There were plenty of questions for Tony to answer at the end ranging from his opinion of the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster TV series to who is Tony's favourite character. Tony revealed that he has a sneaky wish sometimes to be Uncle Fred. Dear readers you have been warned: beware of Tony suggesting that you might like to accompany him on a pleasant and instructive afternoon.


At the Arts Centre talk we met lively Festival Director Lucy Flannery who told us that we were one of the very first calls she made when setting up the festival as she felt Wodehouse to be an essential element. The festival was a great success and it's coming back in 2009, bigger and better, from 25 September to 4 October.