Posts Tagged ‘literature festivals’

Poole Central Library, where I have been invited to give a talk about The Mango Orchard, is sandwiched between a KFC and a Primark store, and housed in a concrete shopping centre. Inside, I am pleased to see, it is light and airy. In addition to the regular librarians – including the charming Jenny Oliver who has organised the event – there is an army of green sash-wearing volunteers welcoming people and directing them towards the drinks and refreshments.

With Judy Butt before the talk

Two volunteers heave the books I have brought with me on to a table. I feel a bit like a travelling salesman arriving at an event with a boxful of books. It’s always difficult to know how many to bring. I once travelled six hours to an event in Halifax and sold not one. I have a good feeling about Poole, though.
I am given a very generous introduction by the former mayor, Judy Butt. She is now an executive counsellor with one of the best titles I have ever come across. She is (deep breath) Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Leisure, Sport & Recreation, Culture, Libraries & Community, Learning Public, Engagement and Participation for the Borough of Poole.

The talk goes well and the questions are intelligent and thoughtful. Among the people who put their hands up are a former priest who worked in Mexico, and asks his questions in Spanish, a couple whose daughter is planning her own Latin American adventure, and a woman whose Indonesian grandmother had killed her grandfather with black magic.

“We sold all the books,” the volunteers tell me sadly as they hand me a brown envelope stuffed with cash. “Shame you didn’t bring more.”

From Poole I head to Plymouth, approximately 100 miles away. It takes over five hours. I calculate (I have run out of reading material) that Robert Stephenson’s Rocket would have gone to Plymouth and be half way back by the time we get there. I am joined, between Yetminster and Dorchester, by a group of students. They look a thoughtful, intellectual bunch. They sit down in the seats next to mine. “You know?” says one, “I had a dream last night that I could only get drunk by licking Clarissa’s knees.” The others nod and plug in their iPods.

It’s another good night in Plymouth. This time I don’t have to bring any books and a nice lady from Waterstone’s does brisk business on my behalf. And it’s back to London.

Next stop, Chicago.


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Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Last week I took part in the Woodstock Literary Festival, a boutique festival sponsored by the Independent and The Independent on Sunday. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting for a literary festival than Woodstock, a town eight miles northwest of Oxford and home to the glorious Blenheim Palace, where much of the festival is held. As I walk through the village en route to my talk about The Mango Orchard, I pass well-kept greens, Georgian houses and medieval pubs. The only traffic is a rally of vintage Rolls-Royces and I feel thoroughly as though I’ve just stepped into a novel by PG Wodehouse. It’s no surprise to learn that they filmed the Miss Marple TV series here.

In the festival green room I am handed a pleasingly plush goody bag. Included is a box of “Real strawberries Enrobed in Chocolate.” Enrobed? How posh is that? I am suddenly infused with the feeling that I must finally have made it.

I leaf through the programme, which lists a hugely impressive and diverse list of speakers including Dom Jolly, Alistair Darling, Martin Bell, Robert Fisk, Terry Wogan, Richard Ingrams, Pam Ayers, Richard Dawkins and Margaret Drabble to name but a few. In such illustrious company I feel slightly nervous before beginning my talk, but am soon rattling away comfortably, encouraged by my attentive audience.

The attendees are an interesting bunch, and after I finish my talk I am engaged in conversation by a man who spent several years in Columbia prospecting for gold and a globe-trotting botanist who went plant hunting in the Amazon. Their questions on The Mango Orchard are intelligent and their comments are kind. I leave the festival enrobed in a warm glow. Toodle-pip!

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A Report from behind the scenes at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

If the Hay Literary Festival is the book world’s Glastonbury, then Oxford is its Reading. It’s simply huge. Over a ten day period, three hundred writers talk about their work in theatres, halls, oak-panelled rooms and marquees.
As a writer appearing at the festival, it means I find myself chatting with travel writer Hugh Thomson, former BBC correspondent Sarah Mukherjee and legendary novelist Edna O’Brien; having lunch with David Starkey, or passing the time of day with Alan Yentob. If you will allow me to continue my musical analogy for a moment, I imagine like this is what X-Factor’s Olly Murs might feel like if he ever found himself rubbing shoulders back stage with Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.
I first see Edna O’Brien when I enter the Green Room. She is sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room, bright sunlight back-lighting her hair, giving it the appearance of a halo. I had left my bag by her chair and I am about to collect it when she stops me with an extended hand. “Are you here to interview me?” she asks.
“No,” I reply, wishing I was. “But would you like a cup of tea?”
“My dear,” she says, touching my elbow, “That’s just what I want. They only offered me gin.”
I had been offered gin too “for Dutch courage”, and in a tea cup “so no one will know.” Edna and I agree that facing an audience half cut is not a good idea.
Just before my talk is due to begin, I am asked to sign a book that has been signed by all the writers at the festival. The signature before mine is that of Ron Moody, he has drawn the figure of Fagin – a role that helped to make his name. I sign. No one will be able to read that, I think, so I draw a Mexican sombrero to give a clue. I am feeling quite pleased with it, until Edna points out that it looks like a traffic cone in a puddle.
It’s then straight into the talk. It takes place in one of the oak-panelled chambers just off the main quad. The audience listens attentively, asks intelligent questions, and then buys a pleasing quantity of books.
From there I go to the main tent to give my second talk, to a different audience about exactly the same thing. This talk is sponsored by Highland Park whisky. The concept is for the audience to sample their whisky, while they sample some readings. Clever, eh?
I generally try to start each talk with a joke or something that relates to the event. I wrack my brains, and the only link I can think to connect whisky with The Mango Orchard is that my great grandfather’s father drank too much of it and died of dropsy. Perhaps this is not the kind of thing I should mention.
As I am waiting to be introduced, there’s an announcement for the beginning of an event with Terry Jones. At a stroke, I lose almost my entire audience. I start anyway, and bit by bit, the seats begin to fill. Eventually the crowd spills out beyond the entrance.
Afterwards, a man approaches me. He congratulates me on the book and tells me how much he enjoyed my talk. He moves closer and says, conspiratorially, “Could you do me a really big favour?”
“Sure,” I say, reaching into my pocket for my pen to sign his book.
“Could you possibly use your influence to get me another wee dram?”

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For the second time in two days, I find myself on the train heading from Liverpool Street station towards Essex. Today, I’m going to Prettygate Library in Colchester, to speak at the Essex Book Festival.
I had allowed enough time to walk from the station, but when I arrive in Colchester, and I see the spitting grey sky, I jump into a cab. I arrive at the venue half an hour early so I while away the time in the nearby pub. The Jefferson Starship song We Built This City on Rock and Roll is playing on a loop on the jukebox, to about four regulars.
Sylvia, the library supervisor, welcomes me. She introduces me to Karen, the Audience Development Officer (what a wonderful title!) and the rest of the staff.
“Thanks for your Tweet,” Sylvia says as she takes my coat. “And we heard you on Radio Essex as well. We had a few people phone up after they heard you.”
She takes me up to the staff room which looks out on to the car park. It is empty. I look up at the sky. It’s still grey and spitting. Will anyone come?
Karen comes up to collect me, and she has a smile on her face. I take comfort from this. As Audience Development Officer, I figure she wouldn’t be smiling if she hadn’t managed to develop a decent audience. Indeed, when we come down the stairs, I see that the library is full.
Karen’s job of developing the audience, I see, is not limited to getting them to come, she also acts as compere. “I think we have some of the local book group here,” she says, and the whole of the front row cheers.
The highlight of many talks is often the Q&A session; today is no exception. All the questions are intelligent and thought-provoking. One man tells me how much the book had meant to him because of his own family story which, in different circumstance, had also taken him to Mexico. There is real emotion in his tale, and I’m not the only one to be brushing away a tear.
Back to London and I go straight to the premiere of the Colombian film, Los Viajes del Viento, or Wind Journeys, screened as a fund-raiser for Friends of Colombia for Social Aid. The film is stunning. I particularly appreciate it because the Colombian landscape is extraordinary and reminds me of the journey I did through Colombia with my friend Pedro (chapter 3 in The Mango Orchard) to La Guajira at the northern tip of South America.
I arrive home and check my e-mails. For the first time in nearly a year, I have a mail from… Pedro.

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A big thank you to everyone who came to hear me speak at Words by the Water last week, especially to Maggie and her book group, who suggested the festival to me in the first place.
I had fully intended to tweet in between readings, but had forgotten that the Lake District is almost entirely a mobile free zone.  There was apparently a weak signal next to the lake, a few hundred yards from the theatre, but it was raining stair rods most of the time, and when it wasn’t, it was too cold for me to have any practical use of my fingers, so the update has had to wait until now.
Someone described Words by the Water as being in like “an interactive Radio 4”. Indeed, Melvyn Bragg was there and I attended some wonderful talks by the likes of Peter Hennessy, Roy Hattersley   and Jean Baggott. I also got to meet the brilliant John Gray and Ted Nield and had been promised an introduction to John Simpson, but Muammar Gaddafi had other ideas.
During my stay there I learned that there is only one lake in the Lake District (Bassenthwaite, all the others are officially “waters”, “tarns”, “meres” or reservoirs) and that David Lloyd-George sired over 50 illegitimate children in Carnarvon alone. I learned that in the 1950s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent depended on AA phone boxes and the Prime Minister’s driver having some loose change. I also discovered that JG Ballard refused to invest any money and kept everything he ever earned in his current account. I was told by a highly respected broadcaster and national treasure (who shall remain nameless) that he keeps fit by running up and down stairs… in the nude.
Also in attendance most days at the festival was six-foot-something Welsh drag artist, who spent her days walking grandly through the theatre foyer claiming to be “the world’s first female baritone”, and trying to lure people up to the Sky Arts den to ‘see her arias’.
Ps: Thanks to Jo-anne for her media advice!

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In The Lanes shopping centre in the centre of Carlisle, there’s a camera pointing at a booth specially erected for people to tell jokes for Comic Relief. A little boy with spiky hair is being urged by his friends to tell a joke. It looks like he has several in mind. He smirks to the camera: “What did the elephant say when he stubbed his toe?” He pauses for effect, and shouts, “Shit!”
His friends shriek with laughter. The camera operator smiles as rolls his eyes. Another bit of footage that they won’t be able to play out. 
I’m here to be interviewed by the BBC Radio Cumbria legend, Gordon Swindlehurst, to promote my appearance at the Words by the Water Festival. Being a native of Lancashire and having lived in Mexico for a time, Gordon is the ideal person to talk to about The Mango Orchard.
I had expected a massive bank of record decks and mixing desks, but thinking about it, that’s probably because the last outside broadcast I attended was a Simon Bates Radio 1 Roadshow, in about 1985. Things have obviously moved on.
Gordon wears a pair of headphones and wanders around with a microphone with the casualness of someone chatting on a mobile. A woman from the local café delivers him a pasty and he gives a wink of thanks and continues to talk away.
As he takes a break for the news, a couple of women laden with bags of heavy shopping, approach him. “You must know some jokes,” he says.
“Oh no,” replies one. “Only my husband.”
Someone in the studio plays Day Tripper by the Beatles. I sit down next to Gordon and prepare for the interview. I notice that he has two sheets of paper on his clip board. On one I can see my name and a summary of The Mango Orchard. On the other sheet, the word “Duck” is written on the top.
“What’s that all about?” I ask him just before the red light comes on. “You’ll see,” he says, enigmatically and then, in the space of 15 seconds, manages to link together some news about lager prices with some concept about a virtual pub, while some vaguely duck-like sound effects play in the background.
Just as he deftly segues from this surreal monologue to introduce me and my book, a pneumatic drill starts up and a hailstorm begins to hammer down on the roof above us. Gordon, a true pro, carries on regardless and we have a great chat. Like all good broadcasters, he has the ability to make an interview seem like a chat in a pub.
Interview over, I am encouraged to tell a Mexican-themed joke in the Comic Relief booth. I can’t think of one, so I opt for: “What’s green and sits in the corner? A naughty frog.”
Another joke that I’ll be surprised if they want to play out …
PS: Thanks to Adam for the photos

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