I think it is important to keep things in perspective. I only organise a book festival and although it is very important to me that I offer the best possible programme, it’s not a question of life an death. This is why I’ve decided to stay zen whatever happens.
So last week, when a very contrite publicist called me to say that one of our opening night speakers would not be able to be at Jewish Book Week after all, just days (in theory) before going to print, I decided to stay very calm, take a deep breath in and be positive. The opening night is obviously very important, it gives the tone to the whole week. I’m sure people still remember Amos Oz interviewed by Jonathan Freedland two years ago. I am the first to acknowledge we did not always get it 100 % right in the past and the end result was not always exactly what we had in mind…
We are lucky that we had the ideal speaker to step in and help us at the 11th hour. The brilliant historian, Simon Sebag Montefiore, who was supposed to be with us on the first Sunday, will now open the festival with his extraordinary “biography” of Jerusalem. I still remember when I heard him for the first time at the Hay Festival, a few years ago, on Stalin. Here he was telling us the most thrilling story, sharing with us a subject he was obviously passionate about. I was struck at the time by the fact that non-fiction writers, particularly historians, had become the real story tellers. On the contrary, fiction writers found themselves put in that difficult situation of tediously having to explain and discuss their books, unless of course we were to go the American way and simply invite them to come and read, something we won’t do.
In the meanwhile, we got the good news that the conversation between Pascal Bruckner and Clive James would still happen on Wednesday 2 March instead of the 26 February as previously planned. Once Dorian Lynskey graciously agreed to reschedule his talk on protest music, the situation was saved. I’m certainly looking forward to his session! It would have been great if Bob Dylan or some of the others he’ll talk about had been available but in their absence, we’ve opted for video clips. Now who knows with protests and demonstrations multiplying, by the time of JBW, there may also be new songs to add to the list. Do read Dorian’s excellent blog on that topic.
So here we are, the programme is almost all on the web. A couple of speakers still have to agree on the title of their sessions but we are going live on Monday noon for the Friends of JBW who will be able to start booking.
Our designers are working hard on the print version. They’ve come up with lots of interesting new ideas which will give a slightly different look to the programme. It’s always a lot of fun to work with people who have completely different priorities from you. They would love to give the biggest place to those sessions which come with the most beautiful illustrations.
I also had to explain we cannot offend anyone which means that in the case of a talk with two speakers, we need to have both their photos or both book jackets. So far they seem to enjoy the challenge and will hopefully have sorted everything in the next few days.
We will have several pre-JBW events in the run up to the festival. They will take place at Woolfson and Tay, the British Library, the Tricycle, Union Chapel, the Jewish Museum and the South Bank Centre and are all listed on our website. The event at the South Bank is already open for booking. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the doctor from Gaza whose three daughters were tragically killed during Operation Cast Lead is coming to London to talk about his amazing book, I Shall Not Hate. We are doing this event in association with PalFest. The subject of Gaza will also be discussed at JBW by Gideon Levy, the Ha’aretz journalist, and it will be most interesting to hear both positions and their hopes for the future.