Thomas Hardy Society Conference 2010 Report
As with most of you reading this, I am somewhat obsessive about Thomas Hardy. So when I go to Dorchester, especially to conference, I change into another gear. I literally move into a Hardy novel.
The golden cornfields of Dorset and the drive over the stone bridge into the town are so much the scene that Hardy knew and loved more than a century ago that it is impossible not to be immediately transported into his world. I don’t see Marks and Spencer and Boots, Waitrose and Tesco unless I need them, of course. I’m angered by Waterstone’s who can’t be bothered to put one Hardy novel in the window let alone a window display during conference week, but we were all there, the members of the Thomas Hardy Society at the 19th International Thomas Hardy Conference and Festival, marking the 170th anniversary of the writer‘s birth…..keeping the great name alive. And Dorchester’s wonderful architecture, even if it houses some less than appealing businesses these days, is still there and not to be missed. You only have to raise your eyes to the bay window and the chandelier at the King’s Arms to be back in Hardy’s Casterbridge.
It wasn’t the biggest conference gathering ever, and I was there in 1968, although admittedly not at every conference thereafter, but I came away this year with an especially warm feeling that 2010, had been one the best conferences I had attended. No wonder there were complaints about the sound system in the hall, delegates were so busy talking about last night’s concert, this afternoon’s walk, or tea at Max Gate, it proved a major problem settling everybody down for the morning lectures. We are sorry if you couldn’t all hear everything you wanted to properly, but getting sound levels just right for all of the people all of the time is very difficult. But we will try even harder next time.
A well balanced conference is what we aim for, offering as much for the academic as the lay reader. And we seemed to have pulled that off in good measure this year with both tragic (Andrew Motion and Christopher Reid) and comic (Brian Patten) poetry; with high profile lecturers including Claire Tomalin, Professor Barrie Bullen and Alan Chedzoy, plus Chedzoy with his talented granddaughter.
It was a packed programme with something worthwhile going on from 9a.m. to 10.30p.m. Some of you thought it was too busy with parallel events overlapping. Given we only all get together every two years, we would hate it to be otherwise. For what better way to spend a day with all the senses being stimulated by riveting morning lectures---and some were quite outstanding not least from some of the inspirational postgraduate students; a walk taking in some of Hardy’s most magical places--- on occasions with musical accompaniment---followed by an evening concert and then some eventful poetry readings which meandered from the pub, to Maumbury Rings to the cloisters of the Casterbridge Hotel.
Not all of us made it to end of play each day, but one man who did was our current chairman, Tony Fincham. It was his first conference as chair, and did he work hard! His enthusiasm and stamina were quite remarkable.
The conference saw the launch of two new works on Hardy--“Thomas Hardy and the Jurassic Coast,” compiled by Patrick Tolfree and Rebecca Welshman, a quite delightful guide of the coastline that had such an influence on Hardy’s work. It is a conveniently sized book for the walker and beautifully illustrated by Somerset based artist David Brackston. Published by the Society it costs £5.
Tony Fincham’s “Hardy’s Landscape Revisited” is quite the best read on Hardy for many a year. It is enchanting and if a bit weighty for the rucksack is a wonderful fireside partner enough to encourage the laziest of us to get out and explore Hardy’s Dorset. Fincham’s love for the author is totally laid bare and I defy anyone only partly committed to Hardy not to be bowled over by this. Published by Robert Hale at £25 it is available from Amazon.
It was former poet laureate Andrew Motion who opened the week’s proceedings with some particularly beautiful readings, not only of his published work, but also a preview of new work to be published next year. Many of you felt his work was particularly moving, his references to his parents for instance, while others of you felt it was a rather sad Saturday night programme. Dare I remind you that Motion was greatly influenced by one TH, and his poetry was far from comedy.
But if you were looking for good laugh, then Brian Patten, the Liverpool poet, was certainly your man. You didn’t have to understand his “scouse” to enjoy every minute of his performance. He had most of us rolling in the aisles---not literally, we are talking about the Hardy Society, but you get the picture. Don’t be fooled into thinking Patten is simply a comic poet, read some of his work and you will be amazed by the variety encompassing love and tragedy as well as lots of fun.
The third of the poets, who was to conclude the conference, was this year’s Costa Prize winner, Christopher Reid, who brought a tear to almost every eye with his poems about his actress wife who died an untimely death a few years ago. His pain was obvious, and naturally we compared his work with Hardy’s love poems---but Reid’s were so much more subjective, so new and so raw. We loved him for it, but was not an altogether happy ending to the conference lectures. But no doubt Hardy would have approved---he who rarely sent us away happy and yet managed to secure our everlasting devotion.
The evening entertainment throughout the week was as varied as the conference itself. I won’t write about them all and I hesitate to single out any, but I think the most remarkable was the wonderful Iuventus String Quartet who played for us in the Victorian Gallery at the County Museum. They played works from Haydn, Beethoven and Dovrak and their leader told us that her father, who was in the audience had shaken hands with Hardy when a small child. Needless to say everyone wanted to shake his hand during the interval. And he was more than happy to oblige.
In another concert at the museum, Sarah Deere-Jones (harp) and her husband Phil Williams (cittern and guitars) had set some of Hardy’s poetry to folk music. I think the great man would have approved.
The new Hardy Players performed the Mayor of Casterbridge for us, and on another evening Alan Chedzoy and granddaughter Jane enacted some wonderful dialect pieces. Jane was quite captivating showing great promise as a future star.
Four talented Dorset poets read from Hardy and a selection of their own work; and in a setting called “Love Lures Life On”, it was good to see our own Furse Swan in action with Bernard Palmer and Margaret Howard, Roy Burton and Sue Theobald accompanied by folk violinist Colin Thompson. Both evenings proved delightful. We were simply sated with fine words----many of them TH’s, and some superb acting. Sue Theobald’s day job might be designing and making silver jewellery, but put her on stage and she is a very different person.
It must be obvious from this report of the conference, that I am one of the lay readers, rather than an academic, but the lectures were far from lost on me----Dr. Sophie Gilmartin’s: ‘Storms in Teacups: Hardy’s Quiet Catastrophes’, was riveting. Professor Barrie Bullen held his audience spellbound with ‘Expressive Places in Far from the Madding Crowd’ while Claire Tomalin, a Hardy biographer, proved popular when she told us of Hardy’s Cambridge connection and his friendship with Sydney Cockerell. Not surprisingly from Tomalin we heard more about Hardy the man, than Hardy the novelist and poet. It sent most people home anxious to re-read her splendid biography
The talent and obvious love of Hardy amongst the post graduates was terrific to hear proving what we know to be true that Hardy’s work has a significance and relevance for every new generation. There were more post grads than ever this year and may the trend continue.
The only tinge of sadness this year was the fact that we have seen the last of the delightful tea parties hosted by Andrew and Marilyn Leah at Max Gate. They have been a highlight of the conference for many years now and not to be missed, but things are changing at Max Gate and Andrew and Marilyn will no longer be in residence. But have no doubts they will remain very much a part of the Hardy Society, and hopefully the National Trust will arrange for someone to give them tea next time around.
And so the week of lectures, walks and talks, music and dancing drew to a close with the annual meeting, a farewell buffet supper and a barn dance at the Corn Exchange and if that was not enough, the Rev John Travell delivered a fascinating sermon at the United Reform Church Sunday service on ‘Thomas Hardy and the Chapel Folk’ and finally a new work by Peter John Cooper, ‘She Opened the Door’ a play about the women in Thomas Hardy’s life played to a full and appreciative house at the Corn Exchange. And making her traditional one off appearance at the conference, the now 104 year old Norrie Woodhall, the only living survivor of the original Hardy players, came along to applaud the cast.
I think it traditional in this piece to thank everyone for the hard work in making the conference such a great success. Tony Fincham, Mike Nixon, Heather Shean and our Academic director, Dr. Jane. Thomas. It wouldn’t have happened without them. There were, of course, many more of you from tea ladies, to sound men and et al. Thank you.
If you were there, you will know well what you best enjoyed; if you weren’t there I hope this will inspire you to attend in 2012 after any Olympic exertions. In the meantime, if you need to get yourself into a Hardy novel, just take a trip to Dorchester. It’s all there.