Britain has given the world both great things, and terrible things – literary festivals are among the latter according to WILL SELF
The literary festival circuit has become the tedious go-round of the contemporary author pushing her or his product. How many times I have looked out from the stage at the serried ranks of the British bourgeoisie, their expressions glazed over with the intense – almost avaricious – look of people consuming Kulture, with a capital K. Literary festivals offer municipalities the opportunity to look good for bupkes: All you have to do is put up a marquee and hang some bookish bunting. We writers – it is a truth universally acknowledged – will go anywhere and do anything simply to have an audience; no need to pay us, a few stale bourbon biscuits on a pale blue Tupperware plate is usually sufficient to buy our enthusiastic participation.
Britain has given the world both great things, and terrible ones – literary festivals are among them. This summer I was invited to the Auckland Literary Festival by its director, who – via email – informed me that “Australasia’s leading festival of books and ideas” would take place over six days, attracting some 82,000 attendees to more than 200 events. But this was no stale-bourbon gig: In return for participating in three one-hour events, the director offered to fly me around the world, give me a Maori welcome, put me up in a five-star hotel, and – here’s the kicker – pay me “a modest tax-exempt honorarium in cash” upon my arrival. No cheapskates, these Kiwis!
Anyway, the invitation arrived as the Amazon was going up in smoke – and while I don’t believe there’s a human solution to human-induced global heating, as the world begins to burn I’m finding these sorts of junkets quite unconscionable. Surely writers, whose entire raison d’etre is their words on the printed page, are the last people who need to fly around the world in order to read them aloud? After all, haven’t we developed a vast communications infrastructure capable not just of transmitting text in the blink of an eye, but our own virtual presences?
The director of the Auckland Festival was visiting the top of the world, so I met her at Garden Museum, next to Lambeth Palace – hoping that this combination of the sacred and the sylvan would make her more amenable to my plan; which was that she should host a Skype event for me at her festival, thereby enabling the festival-goers to hear me read my words, while I could see their serried bourgeois ranks. But no – she didn’t go for it at all. The festival was vitally predicated, she told me, on attracting international literary talent to New Zealand; if she didn’t get writers to physically attend she would not be fulfilling her remit, or honouring her stakeholders. ‘Remit’, ‘stakeholders’ – such calming and recherché words, so reminiscent of the happy years of the Blair governments, when all was right with the world. Just hearing these engendered in me the secure drowsiness of a man living under a firm constitutional settlement… and when I reawakened, the director of the Auckland Literary Festival had gone.
At around the same time I’d been approached by Auckland, I had another request to attend a foreign literary festival – this time in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Ahsan Akbar was offering a not dissimilar package to the New Zealander, but perhaps understandably – in view of the impact of global heating on his low-lying homeland – he was far more receptive to the idea of a Skype event. So it was that last Saturday morning I found myself sitting at my table in south London at 9am, while a room full of Bangladeshi bourgeois were assembled in a room in Dhaka at three the same afternoon. My interlocutor, Khademul Islam, handled the discussion well – and for almost an hour we ranged over matters literary, before he opened the event out to the audience.
There were a couple of questions about my oeuvre, before the inevitable: “What do you think will happen with Brexit?” I said that I thought the meaning of the Brexit referendum result was the same as the election of Donald Trump – both events signified the west’s loss of control of the future itself; so now Britons such as me could no longer pose as beneficent overlords, who know which way the world turns. Khademul leapt on this: “Yes,” he laughed, “before the referendum you were always telling black and brown people like us that we didn’t understand democracy, and that our institutions were immature – but now the boot’s on the other foot!” Behind him the audience also chuckled merrily.
I was glad to have united them in their very justifiable contempt; Wilde once described England as “the native land of the hypocrite” – and I don’t think that’s changed much, apart from some of those hypocrites being sent abroad as colonists. To New Zealand, for example, where half the children living in poverty are Maori despite them only comprising 15% of the population overall. That’s what I call a welcome!