All literary festivals great and small

Christopher Bigsby on the hardships and high points of life under canvas

June 5, 2014

On the north Norfolk coast there is a small village, Cley next the Sea, population 376. It has a literary festival. Four miles away is High Kelling (population 515), which has a post office, a garden centre and a literary festival. Another two miles brings you to Holt, which also has a literary festival.

Where two or three people are gathered together, it seems, there shall also be a literary festival, and there are now some 250 and counting in the UK. Where once writers were allowed to roost in their attics, every now and then sending out a squeak to see if anyone was out there, they now have to emerge blinking into the light to charm the audience in a theatre, hall or tent (whether it is full, half-empty or almost completely empty of people), with anecdotes about their childhood and preference for writing with a quill pen.

Nor are inconvenient locations a bar to entry. Those slouching towards Hay-on-Wye (a town Arthur Miller thought might be a kind of sandwich), whose festival began in 1987, will discover that although it is in Wales (Y Gelli Gandryll to the Welsh, who have thoughtfully erected signs in their native language in case international festival-goers get lost), according to the Royal Mail it is in Herefordshire. Well, as William Empson almost observed, ambiguity is the stuff of literature. Meanwhile, for the convenience of festival-goers, the closest railway station is 20 miles away and hotels for 30 miles around are booked up a year in advance. Not to worry. For £90 a night you can rent a tent.

The real humiliation came from the fact that in the next tent Irvine Welsh was being cheered while I faced a sullen audience

Tents, indeed, are a feature of literary festivals. At Edinburgh, writers are likely to find themselves in a writers’ retreat reminiscent of Colonel Gaddafi’s desert home. One year, the roof of the tent containing all the books collapsed under the weight of the rain; rain also being a feature of literary festivals.

When my first novel was published, I was invited to Hay-on-Wye. I took it that I was on my way to fame when I learned that I was to share the limelight with Barry Unsworth and E. L. Doctorow. It turned out that there was very little light, lime or otherwise, as we found ourselves in a tent in the middle of a muddy field. Outside, it was raining; inside, there was a generator in the corner whose reassuring rhythm beat in time with the readings. Eighty people sat, wet and cold, if willing.

On another occasion, at Edinburgh, no sooner had Michael Holroyd been announced as the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize than the electricity supply to the tent failed and we spent the entire hour illuminated only by a pocket torch that Ian Rankin happened to have with him. As the evening progressed, so its battery began to fade. He held the torch over Michael Holroyd’s shoulder as he read from his biography of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, courteously not raging against the dying of the light. At one stage, a woman called out: “I didn’t pay good money to sit in the dark.” She was lucky to survive. Festival-goers like nothing better than disasters. She was roundly booed.

Today, then, writers are sent on literary pilgrimages, often rubbing shoulders not necessarily with Man Booker and Costa prizewinners but with celebrity cooks, sportsmen and those who have served time for perjury, having taken fiction-making to a logical extreme. The problem with the larger festivals (the Oxford festival has 550 speakers) is that there can be a competitive edge to them. The organisers are careful to match the size of the tent to the likely audience. At festivals, size matters. At Edinburgh, I once appeared in a small tent with an even smaller audience. The questioning was dominated by a drunken American woman who had to be physically removed, but the real humiliation came from the fact that in the next tent Irvine Welsh, Scottish, wildly popular, was being cheered and applauded while I faced a sullen audience and a deranged person. At the book signing I sat on my own, watching the queue for Welsh snake around the book tent.

Festivals, however, are not just restricted to the UK. They are pandemic, with British writers sitting in the noonday sun explaining that they are not postcolonial to Indian audiences who are, or talking about their novels containing an excess of gay sex and drugs in an emirate where either would be punishable by death. Hay is twinned with Timbuktu. I don’t think the West African city has a literary festival – although that was yesterday, so it probably does have by now – but Hay has satellite festivals in Beirut, Nairobi and Dhaka, the peace and serenity of Wales/Herefordshire evidently needing to be balanced with something more challenging. The BBC now broadcasts the festival around the world, doubtless to some people who actually live in tents.

There is no training for the literary marathons for which publishers have entered their authors. I remember chairing a session with A. S. Byatt. She had been in the US and was both exhausted and ill. However, she waited until she had answered the last question before collapsing, which I thought was very decent of her. And we think the SAS are tough.

The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, thought to be the oldest literature festival in the world, was founded in 1949; the Cley Little Festival of Poetry in 1950. While the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival has a budget of £1 million, Cley gets £200 from Norfolk County Council. Cheltenham does not pay authors, Cley pays £100. This year, though, the competition of local festivals is such that Cley is joining up with Cromer and Sheringham for a session with poetry and cakes. Since one author complained that the festival she attended offered her only a packet of biscuits by way of payment, Cley would seem to have the edge.

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