Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Recovery weekend

This is a recovery weekend. Yep, after years of hard drinking I've finally dried out for good.

I jest. Good grief, I have no wish to be tee-total. Grapes, in all their wondrous and varied forms are my second favourite fruit.

No. I'm recovering from the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Actually recovery is the wrong word. Now I've caught up with sleep, I'm suffering withdrawal symptoms.

I'm staring wistfully at the bunch of used tickets littering my desk. There are more in my handbag.

I'd quite like to be looking forward to driving over there this evening, squeezing the car into half a space on the leafy Promenade and sprinting, late as usual, across Imperial Gardens, past the Holst fountain, skirting the book tent, jinking past the Garden Theatre and into the back of the Town Hall to land breathless and slightly dishevelled in my seat just as the lights are dimmed and the author is ushered on to the stage.

In addition to hob-nobbing with a couple of valued pals from this site, it was a hugely enjoyable and inspiring thing with very few disappointments. I was amused, entertained, I learned some things and had my mind opened to others, which is about as much as one can expect.

Not everyone likes Literature Festivals. The mother-in-law can't understand why anyone would be remotely interested in listening to an author and feels authors who go boasting about themselves on stage should be consigned to the fires of hell. She has a whole set of additional commandments waiting for ratification by the Almighty including thou shalt not wear nail varnish and make-up for such adornments are only for the vain and flighty etc etc.

She does have a point though. Why are we interested in the people behind the words? Why do the words not speak for themselves? Readers of discernment just like words, I'm assured. Nothing else. No images, no audio, just particular patterns of text which provoke, disturb and ignite the imagination. Yet the truth is the Festival is there to sell books therefore, like it or not, the author becomes part of the celebrity culture.

The MyT writers I met were just as warm, intelligent and full of interest as I expected yet writers can often be dull, weird or anonymous; the kind of people who blend into a crowd yet take in everything around them and mentally file it to be used later. Writing well doesn't bear any relation to being good to look at or being fascinating to listen to.

Yet I am intrigued by writers. Maybe there's an ancient conviction deep in my brain that if I get close to greatness, or touch the coat-tails of greatness, I too might be blessed with a fraction of their writing talents. I got pretty close up to the brilliant Richard Curtis but just stopped short of prostration. And I did make him smirk, even without the prostration, which was pleasing.

So many events. So many highlights. The outdoorsy afternoon at the Centaur Centre at the racecourse was excellent if short of practical tasks. Ray Mears and Bruce Parry both gave talks with a good hour between them – just in case there was jealousy in the car park with whittled pointy sticks.

I spent the interval sitting in the sun on the Tattersall terraces within sight of the finishing line staring at the splendid racecourse and the Cotswold escarpment and thinking up unlikely challenges for the two of them including the Greatest Survivor Contest subtitled Last One To Make Fire Using Only Wood and Newspaper Is A Sissy.

My money would have been on Ray. Some people think of him as a kind of Crocodile Dundee character. He recalled that one chap actually showed him how a revolving door works. The helper no doubt realised that in the wilderness, a revolving door is a redundant piece of tat whereas in the city they present very real hazards.

Bruce impressed less this time than last time I saw him shortly before he began filming his Amazon series.

This time his wholesome exhortations to grow our own food, consume less, save the rainforests blah, blah, sounded a tad lame in view of size of his own vast “green footprint” created while jetting thousands of miles with film crews and employing helicopters for local transport and aerial shots.

He talked of taking hallucinogens (which he insisted be kept in the programmes) vomiting copiously and tripping out in the expert company of friendly Amazonian villagers. It was a positive, mind-expanding and spiritual experience, said Bruce, and it was good to go to the “dark places” but obviously don't do it in your own homes, folks – only where the tribal shaman will hold your hand and keep you safe. Yeah right.

Being in the presence of at least some of the Blackadder creators was a joy. Richard Curtis, Tony Robinson and producer John Lloyd swapping memories of the making of the series, 25 years ago, originally titled “King Edmund and His Two Friends.”

The original scripts, Lloyd said, were the funniest things he had ever read. Then during the cast read-throughs, people would make them even more amusing, bejewelling and enriching them with extra wit from the likes of Stephen Fry and Rik Mayall. There was hot debate on the funniest vegetable – courgette or cucumber – but no arguments about halibut being the funniest fish.

I've always disliked Frank Skinner the comedian but being interviewed, he was much better than expected. He told stories too risque to repeat here with finesse and wonderful timing. I laughed so hard that it actually hurt.

The three-hour screenwriting workshop was excellent. Great shame that Carla Lane (Bread and Butterflies. TV series, not a sandwich) couldn't make it because the guy who took her place had a poor sense of humour.

He asked if there was anyone present who'd never read a screenplay. Feeling frank (who raised no objection), I raised my hand.Then he posed the question “You would hardly go to a novel-writing course if you'd never read a novel would you?”

Eeew. Was that a teensy weensy bit of a put-down? I might have retorted something about him being a disappointing replacement for Carla Lane anyway but I politely held my tongue. And in fact I did complete the screenplay for a short amusing film (really short....about ten minutes!) about two dogs. I am going to print it out, roll it very tightly into a scroll about two inches in diameter and send it to him with a suggestion as to where he might usefully put it.

Vesta Chicken Chow Mein enthusiast and neuroscientist Susan Greenfield was brilliant, as usual, propounding her theories with clarity but I'd really like to have seen her in debate with Rick Stein, who was not well liked by some of his audience who murmured “too commercial “ as they left. He and Susan could have a good spat over her assertion “Cooking. Why bother? It's all over in ten minutes.”

Ruth Rendell – I forget her Lords title, Baroness something - is a great writer but, as a person, a bit spooky. If I was an interviewer I'd feel nervous. She sits extremely still and straight, her hands resting on her thighs, concentrating on the floor of the stage just ahead of her, answering questions in an ascetic, economic, dry way.

She revealing that her latest Barbara Vine book features the latest craze for wealthy yet sexually jaded metropolitans. Called “adventure sex” it's a service offered by an agency where a guy pays £30k to have his girlfriend (who gives consent in advance, being of an adventurous nature) blindfolded, bound, gagged and taken to a mystery location where the boyfriend has wild sex with her.

Rendell – who's a well-preserved late seventies if she's a day - was gently probed as to how she dreamed up the details and replied:

“As you know, a writer of fiction doesn't need much to go on. Henry James said 'A young lady of talent has only to walk past the windows of the officers' mess in order to write a novel about the Army.'”

There was Richard Fortey talking about the little-explored backrooms at the Natural History Museum and the fake dodo which is made of cygnet feathers thanks to a member of staff who snaffled a swan from under Hammersmith Bridge one night. It didn't break his arm, either.

Edward de Bono tried to teach me some perceptual thinking using six hats. I usually enjoy trying on hats, especially big brimmed hats with ribbons or a snazzy flower but due to the lack of tangible hats, I must have succumbed to a long blink and so missed the significant of the triangle, the circle, the square, the lozenge and the heart that he was scribbling frantically on his projected whiteboard. I wrote the words 'Truth Paste' but I have no idea what they mean.

Dr Who producer and writer Russell T Davies, the man who made us hide behind the sofa cushions again, proved to be very Welsh and very gay displaying a hearty mirth that shook him from head to toe. He recalled the time he and a colleague auditioned the dazzlingly-toothed John Barrowman for the role of Captain Jack.

As Barrowman finished the audition, left the room and shut the door, they turned to each other and both went “PHWOARRRRR.” A sentiment echoed by the entire audience, male and female who seemed to adore him in equal measure. Jilly Cooper, Alan Carr and others..well I've droned on too long now so I'll spare you those.

I've written about the Miles Kington tribute already too but I've just remembered another idea he had which you could nick if you're finding a rainy Sunday a bit depressing....

"How Whingeing Can Work For You!” a self-help book about self-pity...

.....an ideal subject for a collaborative effort!

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