On my way to Clapham Junction, a picture in the window of a charity shop catches my eye. It’s a portrait of a woman: with tousled, Pre-Raphaelite hair and a commanding gaze. It says, “Laura Pesel, c1898”, and is mine for £5.99. On the train to Waterloo, as I indulgently ogle my picture, a passenger nudges me. “Great purchase!” Then words to delight any Antiques Roadshow viewer’s soul: “I work at Sotheby’s.” He turns it over and points out the chalk marks from an earlier auction.
At the office, I Google “Laura Pesel” and am soon obsessed. She was one of five Yorkshire daughters who attended Bradford Girls’ Grammar School. A curator at the University of Leeds tells me she was born in 1874, so would be 24 in the drawing. In the 1901 census she is listed as a medical student. A Miss Laura Pesel addressed students of the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts on June 30 1926. Her elder sister, Louisa, is even more interesting: helping to found the Khaki Handicrafts Club for shell-shocked soldiers. There are photographs online from a travel scrapbook showing Louisa in an absurdly long skirt, atop a seated camel in the Khyber Pass, next to earnest quotations such as: “The past is a story told; the future may be writ in Gold.”
An email from Sotheby’s arrives: “It doesn’t jump out as an artist we recognise and we suspect not by a well-known name. Looks like something that might have been produced at the Slade School, in the vein of Augustus John, although not by him.” So, alas, no gold yet in my future, but if anybody knows more ...
Over the past week, FT writers and editors have been commuting to Oxford to chair events as part of the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. In the 15th-century Divinity School, editor Lionel Barber and columnist Lucy Kellaway trade anecdotes about famous Lunches with the FT, including state secrets on whether lunches have ever been spiked and how we select interviewees. “Our readers are making us more PC than we would be inclined to be” laments Kellaway.
Over at the Sheldonian Theatre, columnist John Gapper is talking to Robert Harris about the latter’s thriller based on the Dreyfus affair, the political and military scandal that tore France apart in the 1890s. Harris’s earlier novel The Ghost was made into a film by Roman Polanski. Harris happened to notice Polanski’s collection of books about Dreyfus. Casual curiosity turned to obsession and, six months later, a novel: An Officer and A Spy. “I found [the story] very powerful in an age when everyone is weeping. It’s a world we have lost; that spirit of duty.”
Harris talks about the parallels between the Dreyfus case and modern whistleblowing. “It was the biggest news story in the world at the time. There were 400 journalists present, with a press-room with funnels from the windows through which they posted their copy.” As for the movie, the script is already written. Polanski starts shooting in November. In a nod at his legal exile, Harris notes Polanski could film on Devil’s Island because it is still a French dependency. Polanski replied: “Yes, ironically”.
The next day I am off to another FT-sponsored festival, this time in Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast, for Names not Numbers. It is a festival of ideas or, in the words of its founder Julia Hobsbawm, an “experiential residential”. We are thrown in the deep end – a panel on “What Matters Most: Faith, Belief, or Mind” with rabbi Julia Neuberger and psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz.
After the session, I escape to the beach to hunt pebbles, skipping a session on “Love” and miss a moment of drama from author Michael Wolff, who, unable to contain himself, agitates for more “numbers”. “I got annoyed at all the blather about the difficulties of love in a digital porn age and said, or heckled, ‘Where’s the data? Stop talking, start empirically proving,’” he tells me.
Wolff is dubbed henceforth “the angry man”. In a panel interview the next day he is introduced as “the angry man in the crowd”. “Hmm. Churlish, maybe,” he protests. Even Jemima Khan, during an interview with Ruby Wax on mental health, scanning the audience in the Aldeburgh cinema, asked, “Are you the angry man that was in here earlier?” Wolff concedes he might be. Ruby proceeds to address her advice on how to manage cortisonal stress (one approach: look at someone’s nose) directly at his bald head.
The cover of Names Not Numbers’ programme depicts a four-metre-high giant steel scallop, by the artist Maggi Hambling, installed in 2003 on a nearby beach. Hambling, who once caused consternation at the FT by lighting up in the board room, loves to harrumph. “I made it because I was cross,” she tells the audience. “The people of Aldeburgh did not want a statue of Britten. So I set about trying to do something myself.” She raised the funds and presented the piece. The local reception was cool. “I thought they’d be grateful and kiss my raiment. Quite the opposite! I was shocked really.” A pause for effect. “It was ungrateful. Impolite!”
Later, on the festival’s “rock star” bus heading to Snape Maltings, I sit next to Wax and, inspired by last week’s Lunch with the FT, we discuss Ultimate Fighting – as you do, when driving through a bucolic Suffolk town. I tell what I think of as my Ultimate Transplant story. A number of years ago, a friend researching a book on the bin Ladens interviewed a pilot hired by a sheikh. The passenger manifest included the sheikh’s very own heart donor, who always accompanied his employer ready to provide the ultimate sacrifice. Wax gives a gratifying squeal of “Nooooo!”
As always, it is what you learn from other attendees that defines such a festival. There is a brilliant Syrian filmmaker, with hair worthy of Ali G, whose hair I rudely pull to see if it is real. (I let him pull mine, to make amends.) The final night involves a nostalgic wallow in the 1980s. Magazine editor Dylan Jones recalls Live Aid and its impact on David Cameron’s Big Society. Journalist Rachel Johnson, aptly attired for the decade in a dress that could double as a glitter ball if removed and hung from the ceiling, talks wittily about Oxford and being one of Thatcher’s children. It culminates with writer Peter York’s prop bag of 1980s memorabilia including a much-prized Heaven 17 album cover for Penthouse and Pavement (1981) complete with its images of pinstriped bankers with ponytails or holding a pink phone.
The FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival finishes on Sunday
Caroline Daniel is editor of FT Weekend.