This is a wonderful and frustrating time of year: great weather mostly, gorgeous countryside to explore and wonderful book festivals but just too little time to attend everything.
I was supposed to spend four days at the Charleston Festival, near Lewes, but ended up going for one night only, mostly to say hello to its lovely director, my friend and mentor Diana Reich. Most of the events of the week were sold out. Here is a living proof that one does not always have to grow. The festival is limited by its fabulous setting in Vanessa Bell’s garden, with a narrow access road which means there cannot be more cars, tents and events. The ones they have are carefully chosen. The night when I went I heard Audrey Niffenegger talk to Sarah Waters about ghost stories. It was a fascinating conversation between two writers who had visibly enjoyed each other’s books and could not have been more different in style and technique. The mostly female audience was replaced by a mainly male audience for Bill Bryson talking about his travels around the home, proving the fiction vs non fiction gender stereotype. There was one particularly amusing moment for JBW when he mentioned a character called Katz who had accompanied him on the Appalachian Trail. Just as I was thinking, humm, this Katz might be Jewish so I might have found the excuse to invite him to the festival, Bryson explained how he had not realised at the time he had chosen a “semitic name” (sic) and had done so totally unwittingly coming from a part of the US where everybody is either Catholic or Protestant. Still the funniest moment of his talk was when he revealed his dream of writing a book about Canada and a member of the audience proudly got up and sang the Canadian national anthem.
The following week-end I went to the ever growing, ever more successful Hay Festival. The sun was shining on Wales and the atmosphere was wonderful. I first went to say hello to Paul Elkington and his technical team who have made such a difference to JBW over the last few years. No surprise they can do our little festival when they are used to dealing with hundreds of events over 9 days, fighting mud or heat and all this smiling and looking totally relaxed. Everybody that matters in books had been or was there and the programme covered every subject you might want. Peter Florence had all the reasons in the world to be beaming. Not only is he an amazing festival director but also a fantastic chair, relaxed, warm and conducting his interviews like a friendly chat, as if 1500 people were not sitting there hanging on to every word.
I heard Simon Baron Cohen talk about empathy. He started with the example of Nazi doctors conducting experiments on prisoners, the most shocking example of lack of empathy from those very people who should have it most. His study of various personality disorders from politicians to psychopaths was absolutely fascinating and I hope he will come and tell us more at JBW. I listened to Barbara Trapido’s interview by Claire Armitstead. She was incredibly honest and unassuming, revealing the difficulties and uncertainties of writing fiction and it certainly made me want to read her new novel, Sex and Stravinsky even though she admitted there was very little sex in it.
Stephen Green, the chairman of HSBC and the British Bankers Association but also an ordained Anglican priest, was interviewed by Jon Snow, himself the son of a bishop. As always with someone in a high position, one could feel he was not totally free to speak his mind but he passionately resisted the idea that all bankers are in the game for greed only. I would love him to come to JBW and engage with a Jewish speaker on ethics in the world of finance.
Yann Martel discussed his Holocaust novel Beatrice and Virgil with Jonathan Heawood. I must confess that having absolutely loved Life of Pi, I had come to his new novel with hope and anticipation. My conclusion after reading it was certainly not as harsh as the devastating reviews he got in some papers but, although impressed by his attempt to treat the subject in a completely original way, I don’t believe it was a total success. The process and the search for a new form of expression alone do make it worth reading and the very last part of the book is certainly a chilling and most powerful stylisation of the Holocaust. I hope at some stage Martel can take part in JBW in a discussion on how fiction writers can write about this huge topic today. In the last minutes of his session, he told the audience how, since having heard that the Canadian Prime Minister’s favourite book is The Guinness Book of Records, he’s decided to educate him and sends him a new book to read every other week. What a contrast with Obama who addressed him a hand written letter to thank him after he had read Life of Pi with his daughter. I wish Philippe Sands had asked Nick Clegg a few questions about literature the next morning but there were more urgent issues to discuss, even at a book festival.
David Remnick, the stunning editor of the New Yorker, gave the most brilliant talk on The Life and Rise of President Obama, the subject of his most recent book. As to whether Obama will be able to make a difference in the Middle East, he was definitely doubtful. Health care reform was hugely difficult to achieve but nothing compared to what would be expected there.
I was most curious to hear the famously reluctant Tom Stoppard interviewed by Peter Florence. He warned the audience that his sentences could be terribly long and that he modeled himself on Lego, putting all the different colour bricks in a variety of ways. He defined the theatre as the odd collusion between sound and sense and insisted on the strangeness of the genre, the huge team sport it was, involving not just the playwright of course but the actors and a large number of people doing very technical things interacting with an audience who also had a vast part to play to make the whole thing work. He also talked about the fact that he did not at all feel Czech but totally English. He finished on a tribute to Pinter and confessed he would have loved to write poetry with similar conciseness and perfection. In the end, it was obvious, gracious and playful as he had been, that he was much more comfortable putting thoughts together in the solitude of his study than analysing his art in front of a thousand people.
And it was time to hit the road, the head full of words, images, humbled by this huge machine but also inspired to start putting together the best JBW possible.