Thursday, 1 October 2009

Virgin on the risky

I’d intended to write something about the excellent three-day first-ever Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival, but somehow it’s already slipped weeks into the past. And I’m well aware that my postings have been rather spasmodic of late and feel that some sort of explanation is needed for my regular readers. Especially as this post I’m writing now is the sixth in my block of six-bulletin summaries that I’d been emailing to them. And more especially as it could be the last! But I hope not.

Today, as I discovered by chance in this morning’s newspaper, has been specially designated by the Government as Older Person’s Day, so what I’m going to write sounds appropriate.

This is all getting rather personal and rambling, isn’t it? But maybe I’m just turning into a boring old blogger after all.

I’m going to start again.

Let’s go back to the Literary Festival. By now, everyone in Budleigh Salterton knows that it was a great success. The fine weather helped of course. But a lot of work had been put into the organisation, the festival-goers were full of anticipation, and some interesting, entertaining and successful writers came to talk at packed-out venues.

The first talk I went to on 18 September was given by the journalist Virginia Ironside. Now you can tell what generation she belongs to from the first words of greeting on her website at “I’m not sure whether to say Good Morning, Good Afternoon or Good Evening, because I’ve no clue when you logged on, but I hope you will consider yourself duly greeted. Anyway, I’m delighted you’re here, so hello.”

No casual “Hi!” from this seasoned journalist, author and agony aunt who’s been dispensing sensible advice to magazine readers for what seems now like half a century. No assumption here that we’re all highly web-literate and can dispense with those old-fashioned little social niceties that mark her generation, and mine.

Virginia Ironside, you see, is old. Not ancient. Just post-60. And that means she (and I) have joined the Club of people with free bus passes, no prescription charges, liver spots and sometimes unmentionable ailments. And of course why she writes for The Oldie, rather than Cosmopolitan. (Is Cosmopolitan still out there?)

In fact she started her talk by asking if there were any young people in the audience, and hinting that they should leave.

She had of course come to the right place, and she knew it. Budleigh Salterton, otherwise known as ‘God’s waiting room’, had greeted her by turning up in droves at a packed-out Temple Methodist Church. Indeed, within a few minutes I got the feeling that we were at one of those Evangelical or Pentecostal churches where the pastor’s rhetoric is rewarded by the sight of thousand-strong congregations swaying to his every beat.

Ms Ironside knew which buttons to press. She had come to Budleigh to deliver a performance that had been just previously well-rehearsed at the Edinburgh Festival, a show based on her new book, The Virginia Monologues, 20 Reasons Why Growing Old is Great.

It was a clever celebration of grannyhood that she entertained us with. “The years after being 60 have, no question, been the happiest years of my life,” as she told us, and as she writes on her website. Her talk was full of amusing one-liners and possibly contrived senior moments when she needed a sip of water or a few seconds’ pause to consult her notes. We learnt of the joy that comes with rejection of the need to appear young and sexy, the acceptance of crows’ feet in women and the ridicule of ageing would-be male lovers with beards and glasses who now, as she pointed out, look like mass-murderer Dr Harold Shipman. (True, since coming to Budleigh I’ve never seen so many King George V look-alikes).

Silvery heads all around me nodded fervently in agreement as Pastor Ironside recalled those little household economies appreciated by the baby-boomer generation brought up on wartime rations. Like paring the mouldy bits off cheese rather than throwing it away. And how we all laughed together when she mocked that unnaturally radiant ultra-active retired married couple modelling for Saga magazine, and the too-glamorous older woman advertising step-in baths when she’s clearly just stepped out of the hairdresser’s in her bath-towel.

We were just a little taken aback as the 65-year-old tried to share with us her more shady lifetime memories of occasionally dabbling in cocaine and even smoking heroin. “No, no, no” went the silvery heads, and I thought for a second that voices of protest might be raised – this is Budleigh, after all. But we continued to listen, enthralled. Pastor Ironside held us all in the palms of her liver-spotted hands.

She managed to entertain us even with grotesque images familiar to the Older Person: of “paps” reaching to belly-buttons, and cruise ships converted to nursing homes which return to port with morgues filled to portholes. She ‘came out’ at one point, admitting that after an op she now had a bag, and that she had suggested an article about it for Saga magazine. And made us laugh when telling us the story of how her editor assumed she would be writing about her shoes as well.

She mentioned death, and there was a hushed silence from her audience. We needn’t have worried. Her book You’ll Get Over It: The Rage of Bereavement has been praised by readers for its sensitive approach to such matters.

She used the ‘F’ word, though I didn’t notice it at the time. Understandably some members of the audience were upset that she had used it in a church. But on reflection I can see that non-gratuitous bad language can have its place in a sacred environment. If I were staging a modern setting of the Passion, for example, it would be highly appropriate for the brutes who torment Christ to use ‘F’ words and worse. Language can be as wounding in its way as any nail or thorn.

Virginia Ironside’s talk was quite a tour de force, lasting for just over an hour. But she’s a professional who knows her business. She even confessed to feeling that she should enclose an invoice when she writes a message on a Christmas card. I’d certainly pay up. This Festival event was good value.

And ever since then I’ve been thinking of the ageing process, and how one day we all have to join the Club. She didn’t use the ‘C’ word, but perhaps now is an appropriate moment for me, inspired by her frankness, to say that ‘health reasons’ will explain my erratic postings of late, and that I may be away from the blogosphere for some time thanks to my own op which I hope will sort out my little problem with the ‘Big C.’ I look forward to my next posting.

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