This year sees the centenary of the birth of Edith Pargeter, better known to crime lovers as Ellis Peters, the creator of Brother Cadfael. Although she often travelled abroad, set many books overseas, and was a noted translator of works written in Czech, she was first and foremost a woman of Shropshire, the county where she was born and spent nearly all her life, and which featured in many of her best books. Pleasingly, Wellington Town Council in Shropshire decided to celebrate her at its Literary Festival this year and I was honoured to be asked to be the guest speaker, discussing her life and work.
I imagine the invitation stemmed in part from the fact that I edited a collection of obscure Peters stories for a book published by Crippen and Landru some years ago, The Trinity Cat, and in part from the fact that I've written about her work on a few occasions, for instance in Following the Detectives, edited by Maxim Jakubowski. So I was glad to accept, although as I journeyed down the M6 to Wellington through ghastly traffic, I reflected that travel hasn't improved as much as it should since Cadfael journeyed around in the twelfth century.
One thing that impressed me enormously was the venue for the Festival. This is a large and recently built leisure centre which includes a public library, and much else besides. The very pleasant town councillor who introduced my talk was clearly proud of the centre, and quite right too. This is exactly the sort of project that provides tremendous benefits to a community, and my impression was that the facilities are well used and much appreciated.
Putting a library together with other leisure resources may sometimes be complicated and far from cheap, but the social dividends can be hugely rewarding if it is done well (in a more modest way, it's been done in my home village,Lymm, and again the results have been admirable.) In the 21st century, when maintaining social cohesion is, in many ways, as important as ever it has been, a high calibre venue such as this brings people together and ensures that events like the Literary Festival are not only possible but likely to be successful and greatly valued.
The festival committee had certainly done a good job in getting an eclectic list of speakers: it's not often that Germaine Greer and I are metaphorically rubbing shoulders in the same programme. Although I've visited nearby Ironbridge before, I 'd never stopped in Wellington previously, but I was really struck by what the local people, and their authority, have created. And I'm sure Edith Pargeter would have been impressed as well.