I have just returned from a visit to Rye for the 2008 Fiends of Tilling Gathering. For those who don’t know, “Tilling” is the fictional settings for E.F. Benson’s Miss Mapp plus the three Mapp and Lucia books which follow, but is actually Rye in East Sussex, where he lived for many years, serving three terms as mayor in the process. Unlike the E.F. Benson Society, which is a proper society with a permanent membership, the Friends are a group who come together on an ad hoc basis once a year to pay tribute to Benson and in particular to his Mapp and Lucia books.
The morning began with a visit to Benson’s grave, which is not in Rye churchyard (though many people unsuccessfully look for it there) but in a very pleasant cemetery a little out of town on a hillside overlooking the gorgeous East Sussex countryside. If you have to be dead, then I guess this is as good a place to do it as any.
Then on to Rye Old Books, run by the wonderful Aoife Coleman where I not only ran into a lady librarian (always a pleasure in itself) from Blackpool named Joan, but surprised her in the very act of buying Major Benjy, which I was delighted to sign for her. Rye Old Books is a delightful establishment, of a kind which is now a vanishing breed and I do urge you to visit and support it when next you are in Rye. Aoife is a genuine and expert bibliophile, a fund of knowledge and humorous anecdotes on any literary topic under the sun, and a warm and lovely person.
Luncheon followed, with a new Mapp and Lucia story written by an anonymous admirer and read by the actor Nicholas Grace, best known for his brilliant show-stealing performance as Anthony Blanche in the television “Brideshead Revisited”. I was sitting with him at lunch and am delighted to report that we had the most wonderful conversation about nasal sprays, facial steamers, and skin moisturisers. He really does have the skin of a twenty year old. (For my part, I had the body of an eighteen year old, but let go of it reluctantly in mid-afternoon.) Joking aside, he is a charming companion and witty conversationalist, and a mine of knowledge on books and plays. It was very kind of him indeed to make time available to attend, as he was literally in the middle of a filming schedule.
Just time for a quick visit to Lamb House, the home in turn of Henry James and E.F.Benson, and now a National Trust property. In the books, its serves as Mallards while Mapp lives there but Lucia changes it to the rather grander sounding Mallards House. Sadly the famous garden room which features in the books was destroyed by German bombing in 1940 and has never been rebuilt.
Then on to my talk on Benson, which meandered around various literary byways, via some rather well-worn jokes. As people started to show their appreciation in the traditional manner (by falling asleep), I drew matters to a close. I am happy to report that every one of the copies of Major Benjy which the publishers had provided was snapped up by the eager members of the audience.
Then dinner, with a speech by the renowned author Alexander McCall Smith, whom I had no idea was a Luciaphile, and who was very gracious indeed about Major Benjy. I had the opportunity of a chat with him after dinner. He said his four main literary influences were Auden, Naryan, Benson and Barbara Pym. I must confess that I have not read the latter, but as she has also been recommended by various members of the Yahoo Benson Group I really have no further excuse and have just ordered Some Tame Gazelle.
I had a strong recommendation from Erwin of the Yahoo group (whom I am happy to report won first prize in the Benson quiz) for Final Edition, which I have likewise just ordered. Taking into account that I also unearthed a J.G, Farrell first edition in Rye Old Books, my literary cup runneth over.
Many thanks indeed to Jonathan Dunlop and Darren Reynolds for their selfless hard work in organising such an enjoyable event. Such is their devotion to detail that they even visited the cemetery the day before to tidy up the grave and check that the country footpath was still safely navigable after the recent heavy rains. Anybody interested in attending the 2009 event (on 5 September) should keep an eye on the Friends of Tilling website.