Ladies’ day at Wigtown Book Festival

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Is Victoria Beckham – aka Posh Spice – a lady?

That was a question that Sara Sheridan, historical novelist and self-confessed swot, had asked herself when preparing for her talk How to be a Lady at this year’s Wigtown Book Festival. And judging by the packed audience of mostly women, many of us were quite keen to find out if we too could consider ourselves ladies.

Sara was in Wigtown to look at what it meant to be a lady at different periods in history and whether awareness of the past affects how women see themselves today. She began her talk with memories of when she was young. Her father was an antiques dealer and it was partly through him and his friend Mrs Gifford that her interest in historical facts grew. Mrs Gifford regularly visited and grew quite close to Sara, so much so that every Christmas, Mrs Gifford would present Sara with a beautifully wrapped hardback book. In Sara’s eyes, Mrs Gifford was a lady, beautiful, kind and glamorous.

It was originally your birth title and who you married that constituted whether you were considered a lady or not, Sara told us, although in some cases this was not always the case. Nell Gwyn, the long-time mistress of King Charles II, was considered a lady despite her being a mistress, as was Flora Macdonald, the Jacobite heroine who helped Bonny Prince Charlie to escape from Scotland. Both women, although not ladies by marriage or birth, were considered such, through their good manners, kind soul and elegant presence.

So was Posh Spice a lady? Sara didn’t think so: after all, she told us, nowadays a lady is someone who reaches out and helps other people.

As part of the Wisdom of Wigtown/Audience as Artist project, Alison Ouvry, Curator of the Cabinet of Curiosities was asked by festival director Adrian Turpin to put together a collection of unusual and interesting items loaned by the public that would be rotated regularly throughout the 10 days of the festival.

The cabinet housed in the gallery of the County Buildings contained items that were a little bit unusual to say the least, among which a coin that had been to space and back donated by Lee Graham, an employee of NASA and also a speaker at the festival.

A piece of porcelain found by Robert Twigger, explorer and novelist, which had been part of an 18th century pot found in a ploughed field behind a parsonage in Norfolk, where Nelson was born and raised, suggesting the possibility that it could have been thrown out by Nelson’s mother.

What would it be like to live in the North West Territories before mobiles and skidoos took the edge off isolation. Keith Billington visited the book festival to give us a very enjoyable insight into life as a nurse in the 1960s, in one of the most isolated areas in the world. Keith and his wife Muriel, a midwife, moved to the Canadian Arctic to begin life working with the Gwich’in people, 1700 kilometres from Edmonton. Although barely in their 20s, they spent six years in the far north, raising a family and learning to live a completely different lifestyle. Supported by beautiful slides and reading excerpts from his book House Calls By Dogsled, Keith told us of the times he went on day trips with his family by dogsled, lived off the land and hunted cariboo as the locals did.

He told of the trust and rapport he and Muriel built up with the locals as they struggled to deal with gunshot wounds, illnesses made worse by the isolation, births and tragic deaths. Speaking passionately, he told of a local woman who, with her husband away, walked 15 miles, carrying her very ill baby only to find it dead on arrival at the medical centre.

There was light-hearted relief, though, such as the time he got lost with his dogsled on a trip to another village and his fishing trips with the locals. It was clear from listening to him that Keith enjoyed every minute of his experience and his book will no doubt convey that.