Speaking out by the book

Literary festivals have become unexplicably popular. So why do people travel long distances to visit them?

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The spread of literary festivals – and I suppose I should extend that to festivals of all kinds – is one of the stranger and more benign phenomena of the globalised era. Thirty years ago Hay-on-Wye was an isolated town on the English-Welsh border with a few second-hand bookshops. You would not have guessed that a highly successful literary festival would evolve there, beginning in 1988 and now attracting more than 100,000 people each May: where would they all fit, for a start? Some of the pubs in Hay are so small that half a dozen is a crowd. But if anyone had predicted that the Hay Festival would become a global business, organising other Hay festivals in Colombia, Kenya, India, Beirut, Spain, even the Maldives, for God’s sake, that person would have been written off as a lunatic.

You can’t deny that literary festivals are popular. At the end of January at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, I marvelled at the queues of fashionable people lining up in the blazing Caribbean heat to attend talks by writers they might well never have heard of, or at least never read a word of. So why on earth do people go to literary festivals – that is, apart from authors who have books to sell?

You can understand people going to music festivals, where they will hear, with any luck, inspired performances of music in intimate settings – and may get to mingle with musicians. But the primordial literary experience (with the exception of the poetry reading) remains a private affair conducted between the reader and the book. Hearing an author speak is a second-order thing: why pay good money to do it?

As I spent more time in South America’s most beautiful colonial city, I began to figure out an explanation. Writers, unlike politicians or presenters (if there is actually any difference between the two), or actors, are not expected to be the smoothest of performers. Some authors, who may be very good at writing, are poor speakers. Most are incapable of handling the technicalities of a lapel microphone.

Part of the attraction is surely the very lack of technical polish, the sense that what you are getting is not so much a performance as what lies behind the performance, some glimpse of a true essence of humanity. We are fed a constant diet of glibness and apparent fluency; but it becomes harder and harder to find someone who really speaks their mind; as the closing lines of King Lear have it, those who “speak what [they] feel, not what [they] ought to say” are rare birds.

One of the headline speakers in Cartagena was Germaine Greer, who gave a rambling, improvised but extraordinarily moving talk. She was remarkably honest; not least about the fact that the young woman who achieved global celebrity with The Female Eunuch (1970) was in many ways ignorant and arrogant. Greer had, she said, taken herself off to rural India after the publication of The Female Eunuch to learn what life was actually like for women who young westerners might have considered backward.

This was all part of a strange and compelling odyssey whereby the famous proponent of the Pill became an advocate of chastity. Or rather of intimacy, and honour, and other mysterious slow, old-fashioned things. The talk was a brave one, because you might well argue that what a macho country like Colombia needs is a good dose of first-generation feminism. At points Greer seemed on the point of tears, as if even she was only on the verge of taking in the implications of what she was saying.

The beautiful early 19th-century Adolfo Mejía theatre was not packed when Greer spoke, though a decent Sunday morning crowd turned up, but the singer, writer and politician Rubén Blades filled the place to bursting. Blades is a local celebrity – he hails from Panama, which used to be a Colombian province.

As this immensely engaging and intelligent man spoke, it struck me that he represented a peculiarly and positively Latin American figure: the popular singer or poet as statesman, offering, as he put it, not just protest but also constructive proposals (it sounds even better in Spanish, “protesta y propuesta”). Being a protest singer for him is not just about being vaguely left-wing or ideological, as it often is in Britain and America; it is about being rigorously critical, which means criticising both left and right.

Most movingly he spoke of his grandmother, who lived in modest circumstances but was an omnivorous reader, especially of German poetry. “She taught me to read, read, read,” said Blades; “poverty is only here, in the mind,” he went on, tapping his head. And then he disappeared to fetch a guitar, apologised that he was only a modest performer (he plays beautifully), and sang his most famous song, “Pedro Navaja”. The song, about a prostitute’s revenge on a pimp, is as grim and bleak as could be, but the well-dressed crowd cheered Blades to the rafters.


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