FROM THE PULPIT
KATHRYNHUGHES FESTIVAL FROLICS
come to unveil a plaque. There was the ‘bohemian intellectual’ incarnation which resulted in my disappearing whenever I stood next to a beige wall. And then there was the ‘Sky weather girl’ phase (personally my
TIME WAS WHENwriters were expected to write, and not much else. The particularly confident or clubbable might appear on the occasional BBC radio show, but mostly it was considered infra dig to tart yourself around like a travelling salesman offering a nice line in printer cartridges or ladies’ underwear. How different it is now. Over the next four months any market town which can run to a marquee and a patch of off-street parking will be mounting a ‘literary festival’ at which you, as a writer with a book just out, will be expected to do a turn. Your publicist expects it, your agent says it will do your ‘brand’ the world of good. You tell anyone who will listen that you happen to know that Alan Bennett confines himself only to the major gigs – Cheltenham, Edinburgh, Hay. The looks you get back tell you that, frankly, Alan Bennett’s options and yours have little in common. And while your spirits may sink as you board yet another slow Saturday train for who-knows-where, you remind yourself sternly that, actually, it is quite flattering that a hundred or so strangers are prepared to pay up to £5.50 to spend an hour under canvas with you. And it’s not as if you’re alone. At the station, in the cab queue, hovering at the hotel check-in, you will see the same faces over and over again, that cohort of novelists, historians, poets and biographers whose latest book happens to coincide with yours. Immediately, though, a dilemma presents itself. Should you acknowledge your literary fellow-travellers with a ‘here we are again’ shrug and smile, or is it more dignified to pretend you haven’t recognised them? And what if they happen to be terrifically famous? Would offering P D James a ‘had a good journey, Phyl?’ or ‘do you know if we get dinner thrown in?’ count as friendly icebreaking or shameless brown-nosing? I was once in the ghastly situation of coming down late to breakfast and finding myself directed to the last remaining empty place, which happened to be directly opposite Salman Rushdie. Now what’s a girl to do? A. Chew slowly on your Full English and fix your gaze determinedly several inches above the Great Man’s left shoulder? B. Ask him to pass the marmalade and in the process throw in a clever, knowing reference to Midnight’s Children. C. Pretend you’ve choked on your kipper and run from the dining room never to return? But if eating at literary festivals is difficult, getting dressed is even worse. You like to think, of course, that the audience has come to hear your words of wisdom but actually you know that there are plenty of beady-eyed ladies of a certain age who attend these events simply to decide whether they like your frock. Since I first started out ten years ago I’ve been through several changes of image. There was the ‘minor royal’ phase in which I favoured linen coats and matching court shoes and looked as if I’d
favourite), where I looked colourful but slightly common. Not that festival dressing is all about visuals – there’s audio to consider too. Remembering to pick an outfit which will accommodate a radio mike is something I always overlook. Devoid of pockets, the only solution is for the brick-like contraption to be stuffed into the top of your tights, from where a wire snakes up under your clothes until it reappears in public, coyly clamped to your lapel. Inevitably there’s a spasm of embarrassment as the technical person – always male – attempts to put the radio mike in place without actually touching your person. Doubtless terrified of getting slapped with a lawsuit, the poor man stands at arm’s length and theatrically averts his eyes while fiddling perilously near your cleavage. You, in turn, stare into the middle distance and remind yourself that you have endured far worse over the years at the family planning clinic. Suitably ‘miked up’, as we like to say in the festival business, it’s time to get on stage. What you do and say during the next hour is pretty much up to you. Writers mostly want to fill the time by reading straight from their books, which everyone else secretly thinks is a terrible waste. So, with this in mind, I try to do an apparently off-the-cuff talk instead. I say ‘apparently’ because I come from a generation where it wasn’t cool to admit that you’d done your homework, ever. The truth is, of course, I practise like mad. I make a particular point of marking up any difficult words on my script so that there’s no danger of mis-speaking or, worse still, dissolving into helpless giggles. You’d be amazed how easy it is to muff innocent words like ‘sect’ and ‘public’ when you’re under pressure. I once did a whole hour’s talk on my first book, The Victorian Governess, in which I managed to use the phrase ‘male member’ half a dozen times before realising that I should really find a happier way of describing the men who happened to live in the same households as my governess-heroines. And then it’s back to the Green Room, where you join your fellow performers. Those who’ve already done their turn are gulping down warm white wine, even though it’s still only 11.30 in the morning. Those waiting to go on look pale and tense and are scribbling things on the backs of their hands. The place is heaving, not just with authors but with organisers, journalists and publicity people from the various publishers. You’re desperate to sit down, because those mile-high wedge heels which seemed just the ticket this morning are now killing you. There’s just one problem. Only one seat is free in the whole room. And, yes, it’s next to Salman Rushdie. There’s nothing for it but to totter over, slump down, and look straight through him.
LITERARY REVIEW July 2007