Six or seven years ago, a group of writers took a punt and decided to hold a literary festival in Chipping Norton. Why? Well, why not?
That first glorious weekend of what has become ChipLitFest was great fun. It seemed the ideal way to publicise our fledgling ‘boutique bibliophile’ publishing company. Besides, being based in Warwick made us practically local. So we took a stand in the hall next to Naked Wines, put a few books on display and took bets on how long it would be before the lovely ladies next door would offer us a taste.
“So what brings you to a literary festival?” I asked one of our neigbours as she uncorked a beautifully chilled blanc.
“We’re signing up members,” she said. “What about you?”
Good question. We had half a dozen books in print – all memoirs – and a notion about the intrinsic value of publishing worthwhile personal stories. Here we were at Chipping Norton, our first event, hoping to strike it lucky and meet one or two unpublished authors, but not knowing how to go about it – when one passed our table and stopped to chat.
Her name was Jenny Selby-Green. She was a retired journalist and had written a story for her grandchildren about her early career. “I don’t suppose...” she said hesitantly. We couldn’t have bitten her hand off because she still has two, but the metaphor is apt.
And what a great story. In the early ‘50s, the bright young Jenny was bored with her office job (actually she was fired for having the temerity to ask for holiday time) so she answered an advert for a young man to join her local newspaper. They turned a blind eye to the obvious, she got to grips with the paper’s arcane practices and idiosyncratic personalities, and never looked back.
She started at the bottom, as everybody did in those days, waiting for her turn on the office typewriter, and worked her way up from ‘meeting the bus’ through writing obits, covering parish council meetings and so on, accompanied (and occasionally pursued) by an assortment of interesting, eccentric and downright odd characters throughout her patch in the Cotswolds.
When Robert Maxwell was campaigning for office, she covered his meetings with a certain distaste. When Eisenhower joined Macmillan for matins at a nearby church, the paper’s photographer handed her a rose he’d nicked from a nearby garden and persuaded her to offer it to the president for a photo opp. Good heavens, I thought, we’re dealing with world history here!
We worked together over the next year to polish her manuscript and in late 2013, ‘To Bed on Thursdays’ appeared. It’s a good read and an eye-opener to a different time. It hasn’t made Jenny rich and famous (yet), but judging by the Guardian’s recent piece on her, she’s already a little famous. How many people can claim to have had a coffee and ciggie with Sophia Loren – and have the photographic evidence to prove it?
Jenny will be at ChipLitFest again this year, in her usual role as a volunteer. She’ll have a smile and friendly word for you, if you’re at one of the events where she’s working. There will of course be someone better known and perhaps instantly recognisable on the stage, but here’s a thing about literary festivals: sometimes the person at the back of the room has an interesting story too. Have a word: you may be surprised.
If you'd like to be a ChipLitFest volunteer, we'd love to hear from you. Please get in touch.
Chuck Grieve is a writer and editor.
To Bed on Thursdays, published by Mosaique Press, is available from online retailers at £6.99 (paperback) and £3.65 (ebook).
Photo of Jenny Selby-Green and Sophia Loren © Maurice Cousins/The Bucks Herald