What do Joanna Lumley and the Duke of Wellington have in common? There may be some obscure answers to that which I’m unaware of, but so far as next weekend is concerned, they’ll both be appearing at the Boswell Book Festival (BBF), which runs from Friday to Sunday at Dumfries House near Cumnock. That’s the present Duke of Wellington, by the way.
And what does any of that have to do with classical music? Well, Cumnock-born composer James MacMillan is appearing (in conversation with me) as he divulges his “private passions” – a format borrowed from the long-running BBC Radio 3 programme of that name – on Sunday 10 May at noon.
But what place does a composer have at an event that claims to be the only festival in the world dedicated to biography and memoirs? The answer is that the BBF is as much about celebrating Ayrshire within an international cultural context – who would deny the land of Robert Burns that? – as it is about the simple joy of books and the personalities behind them.
And it’s well-known that Boswell, one of history’s most famous biographers, whose family home was Auchinleck House only a few miles from Cumnock, had a love of the arts – dangerously so, according to his disapproving father. “Actors, singers, and particularly actresses, played a huge part in his life,” says James Knox, chairman of the five-year-old festival. “He attended the theatre in Edinburgh much against his father’s wishes. He was fascinated by actors.”
It’s not surprising, then, that a festival named after the famous 18th century biographer of Dr Johnson should, itself, be open-minded in its gathering of guest speakers. Knox is primarily fascinated by people and what makes them tick, so this broad-based programme, administered by Knox’s wife and BBF artistic director, Caroline, reflects that.
But why MacMillan? “I am interested in James on two levels,” he explains. “Firstly, he brings to the fore the fact that Ayrshire – Cumnock in his case – can be the seed bed of genius, just as it was in the shaping of the young Boswell. Secondly, we’re just thrilled to have him in any case, given the creative force he is in the international composing and musical world.”
I’m looking forward to our chat on Sunday. This is MacMillan in his own territory, the environment that shaped his creative DNA, his political and intense religious beliefs, his musical language, and that paradoxical persona – the introspective family man with a tendency to stir things up now and again as a mischievous provocateur.
Will the one-time communist, who told me in the 1980s he’d like “to take Thatcher’s anglophile puppets by the collective throat and throttle them”, but who now admits that politically he has lost all his “youthful certainties”, open up on his current issues with the independence debate and the failings he accuses the National Collective of?
And what of the wilderness years, that period following the contentious 1999 Edinburgh Festival lecture in which he castigated anti-Catholic bigotry in Scotland? The public and media reactions were extreme; he was branded “public enemy number one,” resulting in his noticeable withdrawal from the public gaze in Scotland, and a period of creative self-examination. He just needed to get out of the heat. There were politicians who declared him “mentally ill”, he recently told me.
But, some 15 years on, MacMillan is back in the big time in Scotland. Hardly a week goes by without major performances of his music; recordings – both as conductor and composer – are coming out thick and fast. It was announced last week that his Fourth Symphony will be premiered at this year’s BBC Proms by the BBC SSO, he is now a proud, contented grandfather and he and his wife Lynne have founded an annual music festival, The Cumnock Tryst, in the town where they grew up. In a festival that thrives on interesting people’s stories, this is one that is crying out to be told.
It isn’t the only musical content in this year’s BBF. Friday night’s opening event features the charismatic actor John Standing. As well as talking about his life and career, the 80-year-old veteran performer will sing songs by Noel Coward and Cole Porter.
Otherwise, on Saturday, journalist Alan Taylor broadens the picture on Muriel Spark, herself a biographer, playwright, essayist and reviewer as well as authoring the novel she’s best known for, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
But not before the present Duke of Wellington, Charles, talks about his illustrious ancestor, the Iron Duke. “His mother is from Ayrshire and he still has a home here,” says Knox. “This year is the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, and to mark this, he has published a wonderful book on images of his ancestors; there are hundreds of the Iron Duke. He was one of the most painted and sculpted figures of the pre-photographic days of the 19th century. The greatest artists queued up to portray him.”
Also on Saturday, another Ayrshire luminary, Andrew O’Hagan, talks about his latest book, The Illuminations, while Selina Hastings and Candia McWilliam discuss distant fathers, their own included, and why they make such strong literary characters.
And Joanna Lumley? A recent activist at the forefront of the Gurkha Justice Campaign, her own memoir, Absolutely, showed this actress to be much more than the eye candy of the 1970s New Avengers team and the drunken lush of AbFab. Whatever she talks about, she has the charisma, and the voice, to hold any audience spellbound.
After Sunday’s chat with MacMillan, I’m looking forward to catching Jung Chang, author of the mind-blowing family autobiography Wild Swans. I can’t help thinking that Boswell, had he been around this weekend in the company of such creative spirits, would have had himself a ball.
• The Boswell Book Festival is at Dumfries House, Cumnock, 8-10 May, www.boswellbookfestival.co.uk