Just down the road in Grasmere in the Lake District is Wordsworth´s grave. His former country house, Dove Cottage, was a stone´s throw from the Prince of Wales Hotel, where I was staying with the other attendees of the 12th annual Weekend Book Festival. This was in February 1997.
The poet´s shadow cast a literary motif over the three-day conference, buttressed by the fact that the meeting was sponsored by the Wordsworth Trust, and about 100 Wordsworth scholars and a few punters like myself -- I was teaching at the time a Richmond University in London -- mixed comfortably enough. In the end, what drew me to conference was less William Wordsworth than Peter Ackroyd, who, at the time, was the much-heralded biographer of Dickens and Blake and who slated the festival´s keynote speaker.
There was more. I wanted to know more about the private life of Siegfried Sassoon, and these personal bits were going to be the subject of a paper read by Dennis Silk, a one-time friend of the World War I poet at Cambridge. I had also had hoped to catch up with Tom Hopkinson, an itinerant seller of 19th-century prints, who had told me that he´d be showing up.
Such would be case, as well, with John Maggs. Maggs was chairman of Maggs Bros. Ltd. and a member of the fourth generation of his family to deal in antiquarian books. Thanks to Larry Siegler, president of the Rowfant Club in Cleveland, Ohio, and a friend of my late father, Ralph, I had had an introduction to Maggs, and had met him the previous autumn at his shop at No. 50 Berkeley Square. At the time, I was the Caxton Club´s only UK-based member. Somehow (I've forgotten the particulars) John Maggs had become a Rowfant member. So, our relationships intertwined.
During drinks one night, up in Grasmere,I learned some news -- the sad news -- about another Caxton colleague, Louis Sathzmary, who, I was informed, had died recently in Providence, Rhode Island. I knew Louis when I had been teaching at Johnson & Wales University not long before, and he had been launching his culinary museum at the Providence-based school. Louis was the former chief-owner of the Bakery Restaurant in Chicago, and was known in his heyday -- the 50´s and 60´s -- as the King of the Beef Wellington. (He told me that, at the height of their popularity, he´d make hundreds every week).
The conference, as it turned out, involved a series of back-to-back lectures and some marvellous dining and ritual. (OK. Not the haggis, no favourite. But there's even some joy to be had in its presentation when, as the case at the Prince of Wales, the meal is piped in).
On the last day, John and I chatted a bit whilst on the London-bound train. Later, I moved on to have a word or two with Ackroyd, who had been a late-night drinking mate the night before. Not surprisingly, we dozed some, nodding off from our reading. His was Tennyson. Mine was O´Hara.