Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Canter Around The Cheltenham Literary Festival


As I grow older time seems to pass more quickly. A whole year has now passed since I visited the Cheltenham Literary Festival and enjoyed a weekend listening to some our most famous contemporary authors talk about their lives and work. Unfortunately, I couldn't make it to the festival this year so here for your enjoyment (I hope) is a review I wrote for The View last year.... 

I've often wondered about authors’ personalities and how much of their characters are reflected in their work. There are so many colourful stories about past literary giants it’s become almost impossible not to speculate about some of our more influential contemporary writers.

So, a few weeks ago, I took the opportunity to travel down to Cheltenham, the home of Britain’s oldest literary festival, to have a nose at some of our most revered authors as background to a possible review. Would I hear stories of pimples and pox, quail’s eggs and quills or just boring biros and messy manuscripts?  Either way, Cheltenham with its wide avenues, imposing Regency architecture and pavement cafes is the perfect place for luvvies from the arts to meet up and discuss the latest gossip in the book world.

My first stop was The Everyman Theatre where I’d lined up a whole day of literary events. The first of which was an audience with the very popular Sebastian Faulks, author of the prizewinning Birdsong, who was there to discuss his latest novel A Week in December.

Faulks, in a voice which reminded me of a smooth creamy latte, related how he’d approached  A Week in December, a novel which traces the lives of a group of Londoners over a period of 7 days. Originally, his ambition was to portray London in an almost Dickensian manner, as a reflection of modern times. However, as the novel progressed it started to alter becoming more cynical and humorous as he began to suffer from the peculiarly British habit of self-mockery.

Whilst Faulks might have felt a little thwarted by his change of direction, I don’t think many will complain about the end result or the wonderful characters in A Week in December such as the obsessed banker and the mean spirited book critic to name but two. However, it is clear that he still aspires to produce an epic, meaningful novel, recounting modern life.  Faulks says he continues to remain an “idealist” and a “romanticist” and listening to him added weight to my thought that he is, in essence, an emotional man who is very much concerned about society and how relationships and individuals function within it. I’ll certainly read any epic he might yet produce although I’m hoping his “romanticism” won’t extend to another Literary Review Bad Sex Award as it did for Charlotte Gray. Fingers crossed anyway.

Right, up next was Salman Rushdie. Now, I’m going to plead the ignorance of motherhood here; I’ve been so busy (for 22 years) I haven’t manage to read The Satanic Verses. The truth is when my children were younger my brain was so befuddled I could barely read. So, regretfully, I went to see Mr Rushdie with an opinion coloured by the media and the furore over The Satanic Verses.

Rushdie entered the auditorium with the gait of a man heading towards old age and, in a rather priestly manner, stood at a lectern to read from his latest novel Luka and the Fire of Life. For a moment I thought I might nod off as his voice doesn’t have the appeal of Faulks’ mellow tones but is more of a Tesco’s own brand. Decaffeinated. However, suddenly he gathered momentum and was off narrating Luca’s adventures with the pace and intonation of a skilled actor. He totally blew away my preconceived ideas of him and his writing.

Like Luka and the Fire of Life, the story of a boy who goes on a quest to save his father’s life, on stage Rushdie is witty, imaginative and highly entertaining.  There’s definitely a bit of the showman and raconteur in him and one gets the impression too that he rather likes being centre stage. But then, when you’ve been stuck in the limelight for most of your adult life that’s probably just as well - although I’m sure with the controversy over The Satanic Verses there were many times he might like to have hidden in the wings. Unsurprisingly, its apparent Rushdie strongly advocates free speech and dislikes political correctness. He believes that if people wish to set their own personal boundaries, as he does, that is perfectly understandable. However, when societies dictate to the individual he believes it is unethical and an infringement of civil liberties. And as he good humouredly put it- if people are rude about you “if possible just say stuff they don’t like in return.” Rushdie is currently working on his memoirs and I can only imagine that with his wit and wisdom it will be a thoroughly compulsive read.

So during a coffee break I jotted down my thoughts about Mr Faulks and Mr Rushdie;

Faulks: Obviously sceptical about book critics. (Blast- scrub review.) Was that really a brown suit??(Get eyesight tested.) Aspires to literary genius. (Send frilly shirt.)
Rushdie: A bit kinder about critics. (Hurrah -order backlist.) Nice suit and tie.  (Check M&S website) Have suspicion he thinks Dan Brown is tripe. (Shred Da Vinci Code.)

Then, having made my notes, it was time to take my seat for Martin Amis. Oh dear, dear, dear. You see, I’ve been struggling with his latest offering A Pregnant Widow and my struggling with a book often results in my reviewing it. Because basically- it’s a lot more fun. Sorry, I’m just shallow like that. But the problem is that Mr Amis went to Oxford and he’s clever. Frightfully clever.  What would happen if I totally got the wrong end of the stick about A Pregnant Widow? Would I incur the wrath of the mighty Mr Amis? I was shaking in my stockings at the very thought and decided the best thing to do was to shelve my original review title of Amis went to Oxford, I went to Bangor and his Book went to Oxfam and perhaps go for The Pregnant Pause- well at least till I finished it.

Amis is an intriguing character though. He has an air of confidence in his speech and language that goes with a man whose life has been steeped in literature, history and politics and who knows that even on a bad day he could probably win most arguments. Listening to his deep, slightly clipped, rich espresso voice I couldn’t help but edge forward on my seat to hear everything he had to say. Yet, despite his apparent confidence he also has an air of fallibility which is portrayed in his nervous movements; fiddling with tissues, touching his hair, his socks, his trousers. By the time the interview was over I found myself wanting to finish The Pregnant Widow - even if that did mean resisting the temptation to get out my red pen and do some slashing. Still, there are a lot of breasts in The Pregnant Widow so that always makes good reading- even if only to compare to my own (smallish) pair.

Amis: Likes women. (Excellent.) Probably likes sex- a lot. (Check to see if nominated for Literary Review Bad Sex Award.) Diminutive. (Send congratulatory note to Tom Cruise.)

With my three literary authors done and dusted it was time for me to take a sojourn to see my uncle, retired writer and practising yoga luvvie, who brews coffee that makes your head spin. So by the time I returned to The Everyman and sat through 75 minutes of Jilly Cooper (Double decaff raspberry syrup macchiato) and Libby Purves ( Fair trade filter) larking around in a frivolous and fun back slapping session, my head was spinning so much I thought I was a horse. Or maybe Jilly Cooper thought she was a horse? I dunno - I can’t remember - although I do remember I lost count of how many times the words “horse” and “larky” were mentioned. Apparently, Jilly’s heroines are all “larky.” Excellent. I’ll say no more for fear of being cast as critic Anne Chisholm was (as a goat) in Jilly’s latest novel Jump! However, just to give you a clue about the book; it’s about horses. And larky women. Now there’s a surprise!

Cooper: Likes Horses. (Obviously only because she’s one of the few women skinny enough to wear jodhpurs.) Too many “larky” women. (File complaint about overuse of said word.) OMG Jump! is over 700 pages. (Use as doorstopper after shredding Da Vinci Code.)

My day finally over, I made way to my hotel, mulling over which book to review now that I’d seen my potential victims up close and personal. Amis had been the initial front runner with his tale of 1960s sexual revolution but Cooper had jumped into the lead at the last hurdle with a dashing tale of horses, jockeys and incredibly larky women. Faulks was still tailing at the rear with his spiteful book critic but Rushdie was making a late comeback with a challenge in the final furlong on a magic carpet.

Oh what was I to do?!

Eventually, confused, bewildered and completely knackered I decided to sleep on it. But, alas, during the night as I was plagued by hideous, cruel dreams of Faulks incarcerating me in a mental hospital, Rushdie placing a fatwa on me, Amis calling me a flat chested imbecile and, worst of all, my turning up in Cooper’s next novel as a horse called Mrs Turdey.

Hmm… I guess that means that if I dish out some criticism I have to be prepared to take some back?

But let’s get real, criticism and discussion can be valuable tools for the fledgling writer and whilst most established authors may be interested in their reviews they’re mainly wise enough to know that life, and books, are rich and diverse and you’ll never please everyone all the time. And, whilst there may indeed be good and bad writers, when you’ve been at the top of the game for as long as Faulks the romantic idealist, Rushdie the magic realist, Amis the postmodernist and Cooper the queen of chick lit there’s no disputing their status as icons of British literature.

So, the next day, I left Cheltenham thinking maybe I should cast my potential piece aside and review dead authors just as the critic in A Week in December ends up doing. It wouldn’t be half as much fun though and, more importantly, who would I review? I could only think of literary geniuses until suddenly a thought crossed my mind….

Barbara Cartland.

But you know it seemed unfair as the dead can’t defend themselves. So guess what? I wrote this.


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