AUTHOR, DJ, musician, songwriter, composer... archaeologist? Henley resident Mike Read is a man with many
AUTHOR, DJ, musician, songwriter, composer... archaeologist? Henley resident Mike Read is a man with many strings to his bow — almost as many, you suspect, as are to be found on his beloved tennis racket.
Having last year published his autobiography, Seize the Day, the 68-year-old former Radio 1 and Saturday Superstore presenter returned to print this year with an updated edition of Forever England, his 1997 biography of the First World War poet Rupert Brooke.
Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Brooke’s death on April 23, this was accompanied by the release of a CD of Brooke’s war sonnets set to music written by Read and performed by the choirs of King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton College Chapel.
A productive 2015 by anyone’s standards, you’d have thought.
But that’s not all, for Read has just put out another book — this time on a topic somewhat closer to home.
Caversham Park and its People BC to BBC is subtitled “the remarkable history of a Berkshire stately home”.
Just how remarkable is something that book lovers attending this year’s Henley Literary Festival are being encouraged to discover for themselves.
For while the festival proper gets under way on Monday, September 28, and runs until Sunday, October 4, anyone booking tickets for any of the events is also being invited to attend a free “curtain-raiser” event at Caversham Park on Sunday, September 20.
Today, the park is best known for being home to BBC Berkshire and BBC Monitoring, but Read, who will be hosting proceedings on the day, is keen to flag up the site’s history over the past 1,000 years or more — including the fact that it was home to William the Marshal, a knight regarded by historians as one of the architects of Magna Carta.
He said: “Normally [with events at the literary festival] everything is in a hall, but this is a living piece, so we’ll do one at midday and another at 2pm. Rather than sitting in a hall, they’ll come round, because Caversham Park’s not open to the public, full stop. It’s got tank traps at the front [because of everything that’s there].
“What I’ll do is show them around the building, all the artefacts we’ve found, show them around the grounds, Capability Brown’s gardens — there’s a hundred acres there. So we can talk about the history and they can look at the old house, they can look at the geophysics...”
The geophysics? It turns out that in recent months Read has been busy making a series of local radio specials for the BBC to mark the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta.
One of these featured the findings of a series of geophysical surveys at Caversham Park, where it is thought the aforementioned William the Marshal, the first Earl of Pembroke, had his estate, and where he died in 1219 aged 72.
Marshal is one of the key characters populating Read’s book on Caversham Park. So who was he?
“William the Marshal lived at Caversham, and he had his palace or mansion or castle, whatever you want to call it, we don’t know — there are no existing pictures of it, or drawings, but it was there somewhere.
“And that’s where he — he ran the country from there because he was a confidant of King Richard and he was the guiding hand behind Magna Carta with King John.
“He and his nephew were on John’s side — his son was on the barons’ side. He then became regent on the death of King John. He was running the country — he was running it from Caversham Park. Because Henry III was the young king, so at the age of like, 70, he was running the country.
“The average life expectancy [at the time] was probably 27 and a half. He lived into his seventies and knew five monarchs. Extraordinary.”
And how is the search for William the Marshal’s house going so far? “We’re doing geophysics on all the areas that we’re hoping to find some underground images of previous houses, because nobody knew where his house was, nobody knew where the Elizabethan manor was. So we did geophysics and we found loads of big black images coming back from underneath the lawn...”
“Something. We don’t know what’s there but we’re going to sink some trenches. We did surface stuff, didn’t find anything, but we’re doing a proper dig in the spring. Go down and see what we can find.”
The story of William the Marshal may be one of the highlights of Read’s new book, but don’t let anyone think that was the end of the story.
“When Lord Craven owned the place, he was around the time of the  Bill of Rights, which was begat by, you know, Magna Carta. And Thomas Jefferson came there before he did the American Declaration of Independence, which was a kissing cousin to Magna Carta. He came to Caversham Park to look at the gardens because he had some ideas for his garden back in the States.”
With so much ground to cover, so to speak, how did Read go about structuring his book?
“I go pretty speedily through, you know, the Palaeolithic, Neolithic periods, and come through to the Norman Conquest.
“So the essence of the book is a thousand years of Caversham Park. I go into prehistory as well — you know, what it would have been like before that — so it has the natty title ‘BC to BBC’, as it were.”
That takes care of Read’s first Henley Literary Festival engagement, but at the start of our interview he had mentioned that this year he would be doing “two and a half events”.
The second of these, at 10.30am on Thursday, October 1, will see him chairing the session featuring Unity Spencer and Carolyn Leder at the town hall.
An art historian and trustee of the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, Carolyn will be interviewing Unity about her memoir, Lucky to be an Artist.
Then at 10.30am the following day, Read, who back in 1999 co-founded the Rupert Brooke Society with two friends, will be stepping into those shoes once again for a discussion of “Frederick Kelly and Rupert Brooke’s Great War” at the Kenton Theatre.
His partners in the discussion are Jon Cooksey and Graham McKechnie, the authors of Kelly’s War, which tells the story of Frederick Septimus Kelly, a musician, composer, Olympic rower and close friend of Rupert Brooke, who was killed in action in the First World War in November 1916.
In April the previous year he had been among the party who laid Brooke to rest on the Greek island of Skyros following the poet’s death from sepsis arising from an infected mosquito bite.
Shortly afterwards, Kelly composed a musical tribute to his friend, Elegy for String Orchestra: “In Memoriam Rupert Brooke”.
Asked about his own 100th anniversary tribute CD, Read says that during the recording sessions at King’s College, Cambridge, the conductor Stephen Cleobury had told him: “You’re very lucky — we normally only sing pieces by people who’ve been dead for 500 years!”
Read’s interest in Brooke clearly goes back a bit.
“Yeah, I mean, what first intrigued me at school was that he looked very modern. I looked at him and I thought this guy’s got a modern haircut for someone that, basically, you know, was at school and uni during the Edwardian period.
“His friends all looked of the era, and he was like someone from the Sixties or the Seventies, you know? Quite unusual.
“And then I became intrigued by him and his circle because I suddenly realised that they were what the Sixties became — they thwarted their parents for the first time, they went to places unchaperoned, they grew their hair, they all went to a camp, you know, like beatniks or hippies — and somebody took a guitar, and would sit there writing poetry.
“And, you know, they made overtures to each other and it was extraordinary — they went around barefoot and stuff like that.
“So I thought, well, actually, they were what the Sixties would have become a lot earlier, but it was capped by the First World War, which put a long cap on everything — the austerity of the Twenties and Thirties, and then the Second World War, the austerity of the Fifties — and it wasn’t until the Sixties that what he [Brooke] was trying to live really burst out, you know? Poetry, music, growing your hair, walking around in bare feet, growing a beard.”
Brooke had links with the Bloomsbury Group — who are also often regarded as cultural precursors — didn’t he?
“Yeah, he was on the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group. [They] were very literary and very arty and he was on the fringes of it. I mean, his first publishing contract, Virginia Woolf is the witness on it.”
Which publishing house was that with?
“His mother paid for it. The only book of poems he had out in his lifetime was vanity publishing because his mother paid for it.
“He was a poseur, Brooke, no doubt about that. He could write five letters in a day and come over as five different people.
“When he was in Tahiti he’d send a letter to his mother saying ‘I get up at nine and work hard till lunchtime and then I’m writing in the afternoon’ and so forth.
“And to someone else he’d say, ‘This is the life! Free love! Everything I wanted to do in England!’ So he was a very chameleon-like character.
“It’s interesting because Brooke, before he died, said oh, you know, hang on to my papers and my workings because, you never know, someone one day might want to write a biography of me, ha ha!
“And a hundred years later I’m sure he’d be delighted to know that, you know, he’s still being written about and talked about.”
Caversham Park and its People BC to BBC is published by Woodfield Publishing at £15. Henley Literary Festival ticketholders wanting to sign up for the Caversham Park curtain-raiser are asked to email isabelle@henleyliteraryÂ festival.co.uk