Okay, this is a Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship blog, not a Barbara Pym Society blog, and I'm aware I wrote about her only recently. However, having just experienced one of the most enjoyable weekends I've had in a while (at least since the last SSF event), I really wanted to fill you in on the details and describe some of the behind-the-scenes work that went on. I'm pleased to say that the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship was well represented, and there was much interest expressed in our activities. My stock of membership leaflets had completely disappeared by the end of the day, which can't be bad.
It was wonderful to see how many "Pym people" turned up for the annual conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies, whose work generally goes unnoticed by most regular members of the Pym Society, even though we have belonged to it for many years. It was equally satisfying to see members of other literary societies being familiarised with Barbara Pym's work through lectures by Clemence Schultze and James Booth, both of which somehow succeeded in being simultaneously both scholarly and entertaining. Elizabeth Llewellyn-Smith, who was Principal of St Hilda's at the time the Barbara Pym Society was founded, gave a masterly ("mistressly" somehow doesn't sound right) welcome speech, in which she managed a name-check for virtually every society represented on the day, and this was certainly appreciated by her audience.
Tea and cake followed the main business of the conference - two cakes, in fact, as, besides being Barbara Pym's 100th birthday, this year is also the 40th anniversary of the foundation of the ALS. As for the annual dinner, the St Hilda's chef truly rose to the occasion, providing us with a fabulous cut of fillet steak among other delicacies. And then the readings: it has become an ALS tradition for members of the various societies to offer a taster of the works of "their" authors. The star, on this occasion as on so many others, was ALS Secretary Anita Fernandez-Young, whose impersonation of "the friendly waiter" from David Copperfield was a comic delight. However, Kayleigh Fitzgerald made an excellent show on behalf of the SSF, reading a passage from the "Sherston Trilogy".
Meanwhile, what was going on behind the scenes? Clemence, Martin and I arrived at the Jacqueline Du Pre Building at what felt like the crack of dawn, and waited outside for some time, not realising that the doors were just stiff, not locked after all. There followed much heaving of cardboard boxes, sticking of tape and laying out of sale items. Shortly afterwards, Lorraine arrived to be given the job of minding the Pym "stall" just for a few minutes - she ended up being run off her feet! There was also much hammering of glass as visitor after visitor approached the conference venue, understandably, from the footpath, only to find they could not enter through the fire exit and had to go around to the front of the building.
There was some panic when one of the players involved in the dramatised reading (of a scene from "Crampton Hodnet") had not arrived for the first session. Various less suitable individuals volunteered to stand in for him, but at the last moment he strolled in, confessing ruefully that he had not in fact been held up in traffic but had been walking around Christchurch Meadow in the sunshine. Just to add insult to injury, the reading had to be postponed until after lunch in any case, so his pastoral idyll need not have been interrupted after all!
Eileen Roberts probably had the most difficult job. Eileen is the semi-retired Alumnae Officer of St Hilda's College, Oxford, and has devoted the past 18 years of her life to making the Barbara Pym Society such a success. Eileen is present at all our events, and is indispensable when it comes to getting support from the college. Thanks to her efforts, members of the BPS are able to enjoy good meeting accommodation, a high standard of catering, and endless other little touches (such as pre-dinner drinks on the lawn) that are not always experienced by other groups holding conferences at St Hilda's.
Later, while everyone else was enjoying "free time" between tea and dinner, the BPS committee met to discuss future events. Various conflicting views on the desirability of acquiring a Paypal account were forcefully expressed, and it all started to feel a little like a scene from a Pym novel - perhaps a scene in which a distressed gentlewoman, helping out at the village fete, finds herself taken advantage of by a titled lady wishing to purchase the perfect cucumber at a knock-down price. Fortunately, although we may disagree on minor points, the committee's activities are underpinned by a true and lasting friendship among the individuals concerned, and there is never any residual bad feeling or (to quote Pym) "umbrage taken".
I believe this is the case with most literary societies (though I have heard of one or two cases where splinter groups have broken off or where societies have been brought to near-bankruptcy by the recklessness of rogue committee members; these are the exception that proves the rule). Certainly the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship, just like the Barbara Pym Society, is essentially a community in which the "like-minded individuals" of the old adage find more common ground than they do differences of opinion. Friendship blossoms quickly in such a convivial environment. Try it for yourself and see.