March 15, 2013 11:21 pm

Rubbing shoulders with the Plath people

Literary festivals are useful places to resize one’s ego
Illustration by James Ferguson of Sylvia Plath's book of poems©James Ferguson

I am rarely in the company of Jeffrey Archer. In fact, until recently, I couldn’t name a single occasion when we have been in the same room. But earlier this month I managed it twice in a week. The first time was when I had lunch with a girlfriend in The Delaunay and spotted him a few tables away.

I didn’t say hello, even though I could have let slip that both of us were going to be in Dubai the following week, for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. In between, though, unlike Lord Archer, I also attended Words by the Water, a literature festival at Keswick in the Lake District. I was somewhat alarmed to find myself speaking and even eating alongside people who read Sylvia Plath on a voluntary basis. (No, really. One author even had a Plath volume beside her at the dinner table. That’s when you know you are completely out of your depth.) But then, in my career as a literary festival speaker rather than attendee, I have quickly realised that such events are useful places to resize one’s ego. Try sitting next to Anthony Horowitz during a book signing.

Once in Dubai, I soon learnt that the festival’s director, Isobel Abulhoul, makes sure that her authors don’t just swan in and out but also do their fair share for the community. Quite right. So, in four days, I spoke to a group of school leavers on how to write a CV; chaired a panel in the women-only section of the festival; ran a workshop for aspiring weekly columnists; gave a talk on my careers book; and was on a panel of three journalists reviewing the Saturday newspapers under the direction of the BBC’s Nik Gowing.

OK, that last is a bit of an understatement, because my panel colleagues were the legendary former CBS anchorman Dan Rather, and Abdel Bari Atwan, editor in chief of the pan-Arab paper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. How did that happen? Perhaps someone thought, “She writes for the FT”, assumed I would confine myself to commodity prices and quantitative easing and hit the “Let’s book her” button. Mr M, whom I had taken along on the trip, was worried sick. “What are you going to do,” he said, “if they ask you about things you know nothing about?” As that happens to me on a regular basis, I was able to reassure him that I had a strategy in place, which would be to bat the questions off to Messrs Rather and Atwan. Which I did very effectively.

I did draw the line, though, at going out into the desert to watch the sun go down and hear poetry being read under the stars. I sent Mr M as my avatar. The reading was held, as I knew it would be, in a stunning location and afterwards Mr M even went so far as to say – uncharacteristically – that it was something of a landmark cultural event. But by then I was culturally exhausted. So while Mr M was out rubbing shoulders in the desert with people who read Sylvia Plath, I went to the spa and had my shoulders rubbed by a Thai masseuse, which I found a lot more relaxing. Plus, as I explained to him, I needed a bit of time to catch up on my comedy watching. Cost Centre #1, after seeing me on The Review Show on the BBC the previous week, had sent me an email appraising my performance. He ended it thus: “On a final note, I thought you were very eloquent and had some good, firm opinions. I liked your analysis of the comedy show, but I do rather wish your sitcom referencing could escape Miranda …” So I felt I owed it to him to expand my repertoire.

Mr M was a splendid avatar, even offering to stand in for me in the authors’ photo when it became apparent that due to an error on my part I was going to miss it. No matter, Jeffrey Archer was not in it either, having not arrived at the festival by then. When he did turn up, he was interviewed live on stage by none other than Anthony Horowitz, and received a standing ovation. I wonder if he reads Sylvia Plath?

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mrsmoneypenny@ft.com.

‘Mrs Moneypenny’s Careers Advice for Ambitious Women’ is out in paperback

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