December 16, 2011 11:45 pm

The Diary: AN Wilson

The author on the difficulties faced by writers with public speaking, a film about Nazi occupation set in Wales and Cameron’s No at the EU summit

The literary festival, and its younger sister the literary lunch, are now more or less inescapable if you find yourself having written a book. I went to yet another this week. The other two speakers were Alexander McCall Smith, who is an urbane wit – but then he is also a man of the world, a professor of medical law. Talking in public is his métier. Craig Brown, the best parodist of our generation, is not merely a comic writer, he is also an actor who appears regularly on the stage of the National Theatre. Whereas someone who only writes books and newspaper articles ...

In the past when I accepted these engagements I would spend about a week being sick with worry, actually throwing up. Now this only happens on the day before and on the morning of the show. Writing and speaking are such very different skills, it is astonishing that we should expect them to go together. The huge majority of writers at these things simply can’t hack it. They do not have even the first clue about how to speak in public. Deadliest of cop-outs is when they read (very badly) from their latest novel. How can that be interesting if you do not know who any of the characters are?

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On this occasion, Craig (sort of) puts me at my ease by asking me to do a double act with him. His latest book, One on One, as original as it is hilarious, is a daisy-chain of unlikely encounters and, unlike his previous books, which are fantasy, this one is all real. Hitler meets Lord Howard de Walden. Lord Howard de Walden meets Kipling, and so on, through 101 meetings until you get back to Hitler. In one of the chapters TS Eliot meets the Queen Mother and, since this bit of the book came from something I had written myself, Craig asked me to play the part of myself. It’s harder than you’d think, if you aren’t an actor, to be yourself. I actually found it easier to play the other roles assigned to me in this unlikely playlet – George VI, Edith Sitwell and, finally, Dorothy Wellesley. Wellesley’s only line is a repeated obscenity beginning with the letter “f”, uttered because the state of her inebriation was such that the various literary figures assembled thought she was not in a fit state to entertain George VI and his family. The monosyllables flew out as the critic Raymond Mortimer tried to hold her down on the pavement in Bond Street. They were the last words I myself had to speak during my ordeal and there was something liberating about yelling out this monosyllable to the assembled lunchers. I felt like a real luvvie. (For half an hour I felt swollen headed; then reason resumed her throne and I realised that being able to shout out that word really isn’t a difficult accomplishment.)

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Illustration of TS Eliot meeting the Queen Mother

A PS on this writers and speaking business. I think that being a mellifluous speaker would probably make it impossible to be a good writer. If you could say it, you would not go to the increasingly tortuous trouble of writing it. Tolstoy never gave a speech. He wrote one – an acceptance speech for the first ever Nobel Prize for Literature – but then withdrew from consideration. (Had he been offered the prize and gone to Oslo, the Russian authorities would never have let him come home.)

Poor old PG Wodehouse – as emerges from his sublime Letters (just published), which I have been hugely enjoying – never gave a speech until the fateful occasion when the Nazis asked him if he’d care to say a few words into the radio mic to his American fans. His harmless jokes about being interned in German prison camps were interpreted in the crazy spirit of wartime as some sort of collaboration with the monsters. The incident, which provoked Quintin Hogg, later Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, to call for Wodehouse’s death by firing squad, did reveal the yawning gap between the sunny England of the Bertie Wooster novels and the rather nasty reality of things. As Larkin said on a different occasion, useful to get that learnt.

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The old chestnut of how any of us would behave under Nazi occupation is resurrected by Resistance, a rather beautiful new film set in a wintry Welsh farmhouse in the years after an (unsuccessful) D-Day.

It is a gripping story, beautifully filmed and acted, but it misses an obvious trick: namely the enormous advantage enjoyed by Welsh speakers over potential invaders. It would be safe to guess that, had the Germans invaded, none of them would have been competent to understand the indigenous language of these islands. In the film, however, all the participants converse in English with the Germans. Surely hill farmers would have spoken in Welsh to avoid being understood by the invaders? My English-born mother, who lived in Wales for 50 years, always found it painful that they switched to Welsh whenever she came into the post office. There would surely be an element of this sort of thing had the Nazis had the temerity to occupy the principality?

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Our appeasing prime minister kowtows to his backbenchers with disastrous consequences. He seems intent upon imitating the dingiest of his predecessors. It is 20 years since the unsatisfactory Maastricht treaty. What a pity John Major did not sign up to membership of the euro. Had he done so, we might now at last be forced to place our fiscal and financial affairs on a sound footing.

The awful baying noise made by the Tory backbenchers during this latest phase of the euro crisis poses the obvious question: who would you rather have running the economy: these buffoons with their off-the-peg views and ill-fitting suits or nice, sensible, brisk Angela Merkel?

Almost every European country has sailed close to bankruptcy in the past 12 months. The one country that has not done so, which has highly intelligent politicians who are not corrupt, and a sound banking system, is Germany. As Der Spiegel put it this week, Germany’s economic strength makes it the natural leader for the first time since 1945, though, as Der Spiegel adds with charming understatement, the continent’s other citizens do not yet seem comfortable with this state of affairs.

AN Wilson’s most recent book is ‘Dante in Love’ (Atlantic)

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