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
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.