Sunday, 23 April 2017

Learning how to wrong-foot a villain at The Old Ship Hotel

The Malcolm Saville Society Literary Conference, 
Friday 21 April, 2017 at the Old Ship Hotel, Brighton

The Old Ship, side-street view. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Overlooking the seafront, The Old Ship is the oldest hotel in Brighton.  Parts of the building date back to 1559. Dickens stayed there in 1841 – a prolific year for him that saw the publication of both The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge. The hotel is also mentioned in Graham Greene's 1938 novel Brighton Rock (‘This gentleman’s invited me to the Old Ship,’ she said in a mock-refined voice. ‘Tomorrow I shall be delighted, but today I have a prior engagement at the Dirty Dog.’)

With so many historical and authorial associations, the hotel seemed an ideal location for a literary conference. And so it was that the Malcolm Saville Society chose this setting for their first literary conference on the life and work of the children's author. In fact, the Society was holding their annual weekend-long gathering there this year, but I had come along just for this stand-alone event. The conference was aimed at society members and was also open to members of the Alliance of Literary Societies. Elder statesman of the Malcolm Saville Society Frank Shepperd had long thought it would be a good idea to run such a conference. As Frank astutely pointed out to me when we chatted, some members of the society are not as young as they were and, for all our enduring fondness for the real-life locations in which Saville set his books, the prospect of scrambling up the Long Mynd or across Dartmoor in the wind and rain may not be as feasible as it once was. 

Brighton pier sunset. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Instead, we were treated to a series of talks in which various members of the society reflected on what Saville's books meant to them. All the presentations were peppered with little gems of information and affectionate insights.  

I particularly enjoyed Phil Bannister's talk on Strangers at Snowfell (1949) – the only Saville book set in the Lake District. Phil broadened the discussion to compare and contrast Saville's approach with that of Geoffrey Trease who set five novels for children in the Lake District. 

Patrick Tubby gave a delightful account of his rediscovery of Saville books and subsequent membership of the society, claiming that he was nearly thrown out when it was revealed he had never visited Saville's spiritual home of Shropshire.  Happily, Patrick has since remedied this and his description of his encounters with the county and the Lone Pine locations were as poetic and sublime as Saville's own.

Another sunset on Brighton Pier. Tony Gillam (c) 2017
Alan Stone's talk explored some of the environmentalist aspects of Saville's books.  I hadn't appreciated quite how often Saville used the device of baddies posing as birdwatchers who are (repeatedly) caught out by their lack of ornithological knowledge.  How many modern day children would know enough about bird-watching to wrong-foot – and thus unmask – a villain?

It was great to meet so many members of the society in such a lovely old building.  My grateful thanks to Frank, who hosted, and to all the contributors and organisers for their hard work in preparing and presenting such an entertaining and informative conference. Also thanks to The Old Ship Hotel staff who provided novel refreshments to accompany the tea and coffee in the form of popcorn, chocolate and ... of course, sticks of Brighton Rock.  

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).