BLOG POST: The Marmalade Diaries author event

I’m writing this post with a bit of a fuzzy head – although the marmalade is helping. 

There were a lot of inspiring things that came out of Ben Aitken’s talk last night, one of which was reminding me of the restorative effects of a good old-fashioned piece of toast with marmalade on it.  The marmalade came courtesy of Wilkin and Sons, purveyors of preserves to her majesty, a sweet (sorry) gesture from the company which also served up as a visual aid to Ben’s extended metaphor for the tiny pots of sunshine. 

Marmalade on toast was the routine daily event by which Ben got to know Winnie, the 85-year-old widow that he shared a house with during lockdown. To borrow a phrase from Ben’s wonderful book, marmalade was the sticky glue that brought them closer together, and last night it was Ben’s humour and honesty, which ended up with a group of us, Ben included, drinking, laughing and chatting in The Other Monkey Brewery – hence the fuzzy head. 

The evening began with local author and walker, Mark Russell, whose most recent work, The Southern Shore, is the latest in his labour of love to explore the parts of Essex other books have not reached. He’s a knight of the highways and byways of a much-maligned county, defending its honour by highlighting the jewels in its glorious coastal crown. Tales of the Broomway, the Dengie Peninsula and the Chalk Pits near Grays, which if you didn’t know where you were, you’d be mistaken for thinking you’re on the White Cliffs themselves. 

Finding nuggets of gold in the most unlikely of places is what Ben Aitken does best from a year living in Poland (A Chip Shop in Poznan) to cheap holidays with pensioners (The Gran Tour). I suspect, after listening to him talk about his brief time with Winnie that forms The Marmalade Diaries, this might very well be his most personal book to date.  Telling us about what’s happened to Winnie since the book’s conclusion, with a noticeable glint and a palpable lump, the room audibly sighed with him. To reveal it here would be remiss, especially as I think there’s an extra chapter or two to be written about the incredible life of dear beloved Winnie. I’m hoping there’s another twist to be told. As I said later that evening, there’s always a slight dread when you meet the writers whose work you adore but thankfully Ben did not disappoint. He was eloquent, witty and fun. But most of all he was human. The experiences he has documented, the life and the person that Winnie is, will remain a lasting legacy, not only for Winnie’s family but also the rest of us who have, or have had, a Winnie in our lives. As one audience member said last night, the travel writer can add social historian to his long list of accolades. After we said our goodbyes, I asked him to return to Red Lion when the next book was out, and he assured me he would. If last night is anything to go by, you’d be missing out on a whole load of fun if you didn’t buy a ticket for it.


Neil Jones