After her bravura reading from her novel Serious Sweet, in which she’d brought the inner lives of two would-be lovers – an embittered civil servant and a recovering alcoholic accountant – to life in front of us, it was a perfectly natural response.
The wonderful thing about Kennedy is her dazzling unpredictability. You could follow her around every book festival in the world and – unlike many authors – you’d never know how she’d reply.
So off we went. She turned the question into one about her own voice. Every year she took a week off, just to sing, to practise her voice and work with a voice coach. Doing what? chair Ruth Wishart asked. “Exercises where you speak higher and lower, so you try to get the kind of range David Tennant has, where he has everything the human voice can do right at his fingertips.”
When you get as low as you can, she said, your voice will be a death rattle. She heard that once, standing behind a curtain on another stage while in front of it a man literally died on stage. Some day, she thought to herself, one day that might be what I’ll hear too…
Someone else asked whether she’d ever consider recording the audiobook for Serious Sweet? Well, she’s done that once, she said, for her children’s book, and it’s more tiring than you’d imagine. As well as being a Scottish badger and a Welsh horse, she’d had to be four different depressed Peruvian llamas, which was quite a stretch, because she’d never even met a Peruvian.
“Then, two hours after I’d finished, I met my first Peruvian, And she was depressed. And I’d got it just right. So as she was telling me why she was depressed, I was just … so happy.” See what I mean about unpredictability?
Words spill out of her, impossibly fast and more articulate than anyone has a right to expect: whether they are about London (“You see strangers on the street, just crying: I’m always hugging them”); raging tweets about “the orange hobgoblin”; her loathing of the “shouting freaks” of today’s TV soaps; the unexpected charm of living (as she now does) in north Essex; or the sheer actorly technique of Bill Nighy (for whom she has now written three times, including the second series of Subterranean Homesick Blues which starts on Radio 4 on Monday).
“If the world was just one city,” Napoleon once said, “it would be Constantinople”. Bettany Hughes passionately agrees, and not, one suspects, just because she has a book to sell. She’s been visiting the City of the World’s Desire for the last 30 years, been writing about it for the last ten, and talked about it so eloquently that anyone in the audience who hadn’t already been is probably booking their tickets right now. It’s not the architecture or the monuments, though Istanbul has so many that it can almost ignore such glories as the Milion marking the centre of the Byzantine empire or the statue to Constantine, its first Christian ruler. It’s not the archaeology either, though the discoveries of a whole fleet of perfectly preserved boats during the Bosphorus tunnelling clearly excites her.
No, she said, the real reason is that the city, in all three of its iterations (Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul) has always been a place of civilisation and dissent, welcoming refugees (100,000 Jews fleeing Hitler, far more Syrians fleeing Assad), a crossroads between nations, often blunting the edges of religious bigotry and misogyny.
If Scotland has any links with the Queen of Cities, she didn’t mention them, but England has. The dig at Rendelsham (the so-called Sutton Hoo Two) is unearthing masses of Constantinople coinage, the one at Titangel has already uncovered more Byzantine goods than anywhere else in Western Europe, and many of the the Anglo-Saxon nobles who lost out in 1066 went east for further glory in the imperial court. The sultan’s mother even wrote to Elizabeth I asking for beauty creams.
In the audience, she mentioned, were her school history teacher and her own two daughters. On the basis of yesterday’s talk, they’re probably still glowing with pride.