Ban­ish­ing the ba­nal

Here and over­seas, lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals are in fash­ion. learned why when he vis­ited what Bill Clin­ton called the Wood­stock of the mind Peter Wil­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

GOR­DON Brown is wor­ried about Big Brother . Not the in­tru­sive state mech­a­nism that he will soon be run­ning as the prime min­is­ter of Bri­tain, but the television show that rev­els in hollow celebrity. As the solid Scot pre­pares to re­place Tony Blair later this week he is still strug­gling to come to terms with a pop­u­lar cul­ture dom­i­nated by shal­low re­al­ity TV, tabloid news­pa­pers and best­seller lists that are full of books about tal­ent­less in­stant celebri­ties.

‘‘ It is a re­mark­able cul­ture where peo­ple ap­pear on TV and are fa­mous sim­ply for the act of ap­pear­ing on TV,’’ Brown said with ob­vi­ous ex­as­per­a­tion in an in­ter­view a few weeks ago.

Brown is not alone. Paul McCart­ney knows a bit about celebrity, hav­ing been one for 44 years, but he is just as baf­fled by to­day’s form of fame. When the eighth Bri­tish se­ries of Big Brother kicked off two weeks ago, at­tract­ing an au­di­ence of eight mil­lion view­ers, the for­mer Bea­tle said there was some­thing wrong with a show that li­onised peo­ple whose only dis­cernible tal­ents were men­tal prob­lems and- or breast im­plants.

‘‘ I’m against the cel­e­bra­tion of medi­ocrity,’’ he con­cluded.

McCart­ney can sim­ply shrug his shoul­ders and sigh, but Brown has to sound pos­i­tive and in touch as he takes over from Blair, who has al­ways seemed at ease with even the froth­iest forms of mod­ern cul­ture. A man of se­ri­ous in­tel­lect who spends his hol­i­days de­vour­ing suit­cases full of books on phi­los­o­phy, his­tory and pol­i­tics, Brown in­sists there is a grow­ing hunger for ‘‘ big and se­ri­ous is­sues [ to be dis­cussed] in a way that does jus­tice to them’’.

‘‘ Peo­ple are want­ing the con­cerns that they have dis­cussed in a rounded way. So I’m not sure that the pub­lic are in love with trivia,’’ he said. ‘‘ I think we’re mov­ing from this pe­riod when, if you like, celebrity mat­ters, when peo­ple have be­come fa­mous for be­ing fa­mous. I think you can see that in other coun­tries, too; peo­ple are mov­ing away from that to what lies be­hind the char­ac­ter and the per­son­al­ity.’’

For ev­i­dence, Brown pointed to a boom in read­ing groups and lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals, say­ing: ‘‘ There are 250 book fes­ti­vals hap­pen­ing around Bri­tain ev­ery year and 10 years ago there might have been 10.’’

The im­age Brown con­jures, of pock­ets of thought­ful re­sis­tance fi­nally fight­ing back against the ba­nal cul­ture that has swept the land, might have come from Re­sis­tance , a new novel by first­time Welsh au­thor Owen Sheers. Based on re­al­life Bri­tish prepa­ra­tions in the 1930s for an armed re­sis­tance move­ment in the event of a Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Bri­tain, the novel tells of a group of farm­ers who take refuge in the Black Moun­tains of Wales in­tend­ing to hold out and even­tu­ally lead a fight­back.

Oddly enough it is there, at the foot of those Black Moun­tains just across the border from Eng­land, that the main re­doubt of Brown’s cul­tural re­sis­tance is flour­ish­ing.

Twenty years af­ter 22- year- old univer­sity stu­dent Peter Florence and his fa­ther, Norman, held the first Hay fes­ti­val in the de­clin­ing mar­ket town of Hay- on- Wye, the event is thriv­ing and send­ing out new shoots around Bri­tain.

‘‘ I had been to the Chel­tenham fes­ti­val in 1986, which was then the only lit­er­ary fes­ti­val in the coun­try, and came back think­ing how fan­tas­tic it would be to have that sort of dis­cus­sion here in Hay,’’ Florence tells Re­view .

The first gath­er­ing of­fered 35 events and drew 1200 peo­ple. For this year’s fes­ti­val more than 90,000 peo­ple trav­elled to a half- dozen large tents in a muddy field on the edge of Hay, four hours’ drive from Lon­don. Rugged up in Welling­ton boots and warm jumpers, they packed out ev­ery spare room and pub in the lit­tle town for 10 days, trudg­ing be­tween 435 events fea­tur­ing speak­ers rang­ing from four No­bel lau­re­ates to Dire Straits gui­tarist Mark Knopfler and the fu­ture prime min­is­ter him­self, whose ses­sion was the first to sell out.

Those crowds were up 25 per cent on the pre­vi­ous year and for the first time the pro­ceed­ings were broad­cast in a daily TV show on the Sky satel­lite net­work. They were also re­ported ex­ten­sively by BBC ra­dio and the fes­ti­val’s news­pa­per spon­sor, The Guardian , and cov­ered heav­ily on the in­ter­net.

Hay draws more peo­ple than any such event in the world and, even more im­por­tant, it has helped to in­spire an ex­plo­sion of sim­i­lar events.

‘‘ Over the [ past] year or so we have had 25 or 30 groups call up and say they want to start their own fes­ti­vals, so we tell them what we know, then they go off and do it them­selves,’’ Florence says.

Brown’s es­ti­mate of 250 lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals is an ex­ag­ger­a­tion, but there are prob­a­bly 100 to 150 across Bri­tain, many try­ing to dis­tin­guish them­selves by be­com­ing in­creas­ingly spe­cialised. They in­clude a chil­dren’s book fes­ti­val in Brighton and new­com­ers this year such as a Lon­don fes­ti­val of Asian writ­ing, the York Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val, which fo­cuses on 19th- cen­tury folk sto­ries, and an event in Coven­try based on Caribbean writ­ing.

This bloom­ing of 100 flow­ers is new. Even Hay strug­gled for sur­vival as re­cently as 2001, when Florence says it was look­ing at bank­ruptcy and clos­ing down. The out­break of foot- and- mouth dis­ease had kept the usual large con­tin­gent of Amer­i­can vis­i­tors at home and the gath­er­ing was saved by ap­pear­ances by the Big Brother - phobe McCart­ney and Bill Clin­ton, who dubbed Hay ‘‘ the Wood­stock of the mind’’.

‘‘ If those two had not come we would have been fin­ished, but in­stead we made our first real sur­plus and that gave us the money to pay off our debts and set up a non- profit foun­da­tion to re­ally carry the thing for­ward,’’ Florence says.

The Hay op­er­a­tion runs fes­ti­vals in Spain, Colom­bia, Brazil and Italy, and will soon set up Hay- branded events in Kenya and the US. Aus­tralia will not get the Hay treat­ment, Florence says, ‘‘ be­cause un­like the US, you al­ready have some of the best writ­ers fes­ti­vals in the world. I am re­ally in awe of them. In­stead we are co­op­er­at­ing with some of your fes­ti­vals. We have just sent our chil­dren’s pro­gram di­rec­tor to Bris­bane as part of an ex­change and we work with Syd­ney on things like shar­ing speak­ers.’’

The Aus­tralia Coun­cil this year spent $ 10,000 for the first time to send three au­thors — Thomas Ke­neally, Tim Flan­nery and Anna Fun­der — as an in­vest­ment in de­vel­op­ing the Bri­tish mar­ket for Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture. It was a rea­son­able in­vest­ment, as pub­lish­ers say Hay has be­come a cru­cial fo­rum for any­one want­ing to get at­ten­tion in a Bri­tish pub­lish­ing mar­ket that is swamped by 120,000 ti­tles a year.

Brown, who also trav­elled to the Brighton and Chel­tenham fes­ti­vals to pro­mote his new book pro­fil­ing eight peo­ple he con­sid­ers he­roes, de­clared at Hay that Ke­neally was one of four peo­ple he planned to read dur­ing his sum­mer hol­i­days, along with his friend J. K. Rowl­ing, Se­bas­tian Faulks and Al Gore.

Ke­neally and the other tax­payer- funded vis­i­tors were not the only Aus­tralians ap­pear­ing at an event di­verse enough to fea­ture bar­ris­ter Ge­of­frey Robert­son talk­ing on war crimes and le­gal his­tory while his wife Kathy Lette pro­moted her own brand of mid­dle- aged chick lit.

About 1300 peo­ple jammed into the largest tent to hear Clive James crack wise about his new work, Cul­tural Am­ne­sia . James spent an hour on a stage fit for a rock con­cert, com­plete with 70 spot­lights, de­light­ing the crowd with his usual mix of se­ri­ous and pop­u­lar cul­ture and his favourite gag about Blair, not­ing that the out­go­ing Prime Min­is­ter has the unique po­lit­i­cal gift of be­ing able to put Ge­orge Bush’s thoughts into words.

Hay now draws more peo­ple than any such event in the world

Blair has been ridiculed by Hay’s left- lean­ing in­tel­li­gentsia since the Iraq war, and any joke that mocks Bush is guar­an­teed a huge guf­faw at Hay, where war and the en­vi­ron­ment are al­ways strong themes.

Free tick­ets for univer­sity stu­dents have helped to lower the av­er­age age from 58 to 48 in re­cent years, but pro­fes­sion­als, es­pe­cially teach­ers, med­i­cal work­ers and en­ter­tain­ment work­ers, still dom­i­nate the au­di­ences and Hay is proud of its re­mark­ably well- read and de­mand­ing pun­ters.

When jour­nal­ist Pa­trick Cock­burn spoke about his latest book on Iraq, the ques­tion- and- an­swer ses­sion quickly re­vealed that most peo­ple in the au­di­ence knew more about the topic than Rosie Boy­cott, the for­mer news­pa­per ed­i­tor who was on stage to in­ter­view Cock­burn.

Other fes­ti­val- go­ers were dis­cern­ing enough to walk out of a pre­ten­tious in­tel­lec­tual lec­ture by fash­ion de­signer Vivi­enne West­wood.

For­mer Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary Douglas Hurd was asked at the end of a speech about Robert Peel why a statue of the 19th- cen­tury Con­ser­va­tive prime min­is­ter was erected in his home town of Bury with the but­tons on his jacket the wrong way around.

It was im­pres­sive enough that Hurd knew the an­swer — Peel had lost a thumb in a shoot­ing ac­ci­dent so his tai­lor re­versed the but­tons on his clothes so he could use his other hand — but it was even more sur­pris­ing that the wo­man who asked the ques­tion had no­ticed such a de­tail in the first place.

The re­sult can be a touch pre­cious; the po­etry read­ings in Ara­bic and Welsh were a bit much and oc­ca­sion­ally smug and self- con­grat­u­la­tory. But ev­ery­one seemed to en­joy them­selves.

Well, al­most ev­ery­one. David Put­tnam, the Char­i­ots of Fire di­rec­tor who is deputy chair­man of Bri­tain’s Chan­nel 4, took part in one panel and was ham­mered about the fact the chan­nel’s flag­ship pro­gram is Big Brother . Put­tnam squirmed when asked about racist at­tacks by cast mem­bers of the pre­vi­ous BB se­ries.

‘‘ I am not proud of the Big Brother row, I am not even proud of Big Brother ,’’ he ad­mit­ted. ‘‘ But Big Brother ac­counts for 15 per cent of the to­tal rev­enue that keeps Chan­nel 4 afloat.’’

Florence says: ‘‘ The rea­son our au­di­ences are so keen to en­gage and to bother turn­ing up to fes­ti­vals at all is be­cause they want a con­ver­sa­tion, they want to be able to talk back and in­ter­act. I think there is a par­al­lel in the growth of in­ter­net so­cial sites like MyS­pace: peo­ple like meet­ing and in­ter­act­ing, whether it is on­line or in the flesh.

‘‘ A fes­ti­val also gives you a chance of real depth and anal­y­sis, and peo­ple can make a deep con­nec­tion through books. If a book has changed your life, you are more likely to be pas­sion­ate to meet the au­thor and hear them talk. And I think a lot of peo­ple come along be­cause they are so busy all year with fam­ily and work that this is a chance to get a huge shot in the arm of sto­ries and ideas, like a sort of cul­tural vac­ci­na­tion.’’

Ed­wina Cur­rie, nov­el­ist and for­mer Thatcher gov­ern­ment min­is­ter who was at Hay this year, tells Re­view she finds the event too nar­rowly left­wing and too full of pos­ing.

‘‘ It is all very New Labour and sort of a hollow Zeit­geist,’’ Cur­rie says. ‘‘ I pre­fer fes­ti­vals like Ed­in­burgh and Chel­tenham, where there is more em­pha­sis on main­stream books that or­di­nary peo­ple read, like crime books. I was a Con­ser­va­tive MP so I haven’t been in­vited to speak since one of my book launches 11 years ago. I am only here this year be­cause the So­ci­ety of Au­thors asked me to rep­re­sent it on a panel.’’

Florence says Cur­rie’s com­plaints ‘‘ are just rub­bish. She has been in­vited in the past but the truth is she is not ex­actly a ma­jor writer.’’ In­deed, John Ma­jor, the for­mer Tory prime min­is­ter who was fa­mously in­ti­mate with Cur­rie, spoke at Hay this year about his new book on cricket. Fel­low Tories Hurd and William Hague also ap­peared.

An­other form of crit­i­cism has come from au­thor Mar­garet Drab­ble, who says Hay has be­come too big, too com­mer­cial and ‘‘ a celebrity fes­ti­val, not an au­thors fes­ti­val’’, stray­ing from se­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture to fea­ture fa­mous sports­men, politi­cians, co­me­di­ans, chefs, ac­tors and song­writ­ers.

‘‘ That is just un­fair,’’ Florence says. ‘‘ Hay was never just about high- minded lit­er­a­ture. We don’t even call it a lit­er­ary fes­ti­val. It is about writ­ing in what­ever medium. About ideas and sto­ries, the big­gest gifts you can give any­one. That sort of writ­ing can be in films, or po­ems, or songs . . . it doesn’t mat­ter. To say we are ob­sessed by celebrity is just a cheap gibe; you don’t have to be a great lit­er­ary fig­ure to be a writer that peo­ple want to hear.

‘‘ As far as get­ting too big, we are not go­ing to make the ac­tual event any big­ger. The way to ex­pand in the fu­ture will be to use the me­dia to reach more peo­ple, just like Wim­ble­don. And we will ex­pand in that way be­cause the pub­lic ap­petite is there, the hunger is there.’’

Brown cer­tainly hopes so, but other politi­cians are bank­ing on the growth of a dif­fer­ent sort of cul­ture. When Blair wanted a spin doc­tor to shape his po­lit­i­cal mes­sage he turned to the tabloid po­lit­i­cal re­porter Alastair Camp­bell.

David Cameron, the for­mer pub­lic re­la­tions man who now leads the Con­ser­va­tive Party and is openly styling him­self as the true heir to Blair, has just cho­sen as his own spin doc­tor Andy Coul­son, an en­ter­tain­ment and celebrity re­porter who be­came ed­i­tor of Bri­tain’s big­gest sell­ing news­pa­per, the News of the World , and crammed its pages with Big Brother celebri­ties.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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