I don’t write posts about every book event I go to – let’s face it, I wouldn’t have time to fit in all the reading. But last night I went to an event that was so special that I need to tell everyone about it, as it was the most perfect postscript to reading and reviewing a book I enjoyed so very much.
Organised by the Grove Bookshop in Ilkley – an absolute Aladdin’s cave I’d urge everyone within striking distance to visit – it was my pleasure to hear author Anna Hope in conversation with Alison Barrow of Transworld. If anyone hasn’t read The Ballroom, buy or borrow a copy as soon as possible, because it’s simply wonderful – my review is here (and there are many more, all telling people about its immense impact and the beauty of the writing).
I suspect I was one of very few people in the audience who’d read the book – people had, I think, largely been attracted by its setting, a fictionalised version of the nearby High Royds Hospital (closed in 2003, now converted into housing), also known as the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum. But Ilkley is alway able to assemble an audience with a passion for literature – the hugely popular annual literary festival attests to that – and the long queue of people buying the book after the event, excited about having their copy signed by the author, was an absolute joy to see.
The event – moved to the community centre from the usual bookshop venue to accommodate the audience – was totally sold out. The downside of that move was the choir rehearsal taking place in the next room, but in a strange way it only added to the event’s charm.
Anna Hope was totally enthralling – and Alison Barrow’s interviewing had the right sort of light touch that kept the conversation freely flowing. I took no notes – I really meant to, but I didn’t want to miss a moment. The author talked about her inspiration for the book – an initial search for her great grandfather on the Ancestry site, discovering that he was a patient at High Royds, her initial belief that he had been buried in one of the paupers’ mass graves at Buckle Lane – and how she used what she discovered to write the love story that she really wanted to tell.
She spoke about her research visits – her attempts to visit the now derelict ballroom, her visit to the Bradford mill where the windows really did obscure the view of the sky and the moors stretching into the distance. Mark Davis – whose photographs and historical research had helped provide some of the background – was in the audience, and his interventions really helped bring the era to life. We heard about her passion for social history – the poverty and social unrest that marked the end of the Victorian era, the respectability and acceptance of the principle of eugenics. And she spoke about her characters – how John and Ella were developed, and how Charles was perhaps the most tragic character of them all (but then remembered the other). And she talked about the ending, and how difficult it was to get it right.
And she spoke about her background and her writing – and the three years this book took to emerge in its finished state. It was really moving when she talked about how – when she knew there was something not quite right – she asked her mother to read the book and tell her honestly what needed to be done. And she did – and the book became perfect, and I became a little tearful at the telling of the story. And when the event was nearly over, I loved the intervention of her father – no longer known by his name, but always now as “Anna Hope’s father” – glowing with pride, and telling a lovely story about their research visit.
She also read two passages from the book, injecting them with the wonderful passion that shows in her writing – Charles’ guided tour of Sharston, and Ella’s first encounter with John.
If you ever have the chance to see Anna Hope talk, don’t miss it. But I suspect she might be otherwise occupied, and not on the road for a little while to come. But then again, perhaps the best way to experience her passion is to read her wonderful book.
If you have an interest in more background on High Royds – the inspiration for Sharston – I’d really recommend Mark Davis’ book, West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum Through Time. Even better, why not order it from the Grove Bookshop?