Wednesday, 13 April 2011

For Those About to Rock… a Cup of Gin

 A Report from behind the scenes at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

If the Hay Literary Festival is the book world’s Glastonbury, then Oxford is its Reading. It’s simply huge. Over a ten day period, three hundred writers talk about their work in theatres, halls, oak-panelled rooms and marquees.

As a writer appearing at the festival, it means I find myself chatting with travel writer Hugh Thomson, former BBC correspondent Sarah Mukherjee and legendary novelist Edna O’Brien; having lunch with David Starkey, or passing the time of day with Alan Yentob. If you will allow me to continue my musical analogy for a moment, I imagine like this is what X-Factor’s Olly Murs might feel like if he ever found himself rubbing shoulders back stage with Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.
I first see Edna O’Brien when I enter the Green Room. She is sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room, bright sunlight back-lighting her hair, giving it the appearance of a halo. I had left my bag by her chair and I am about to collect it when she stops me with an extended hand. “Are you here to interview me?” she asks.

“No,” I reply, wishing I was. “But would you like a cup of tea?”

“My dear,” she says, touching my elbow, “That’s just what I want. They only offered me gin.”

I had been offered gin too “for Dutch courage”, and in a tea cup “so no one will know.” Edna and I agree that facing an audience half cut is not a good idea.

Just before my talk is due to begin, I am asked to sign a book that has been signed by all the writers at the festival. The signature before mine is that of Ron Moody, he has drawn the figure of Fagin – a role that helped to make his name. I sign. No one will be able to read that, I think, so I draw a Mexican sombrero to give a clue. I am feeling quite pleased with it, until Edna points out that it looks like a traffic cone in a puddle.

It’s then straight into the talk. It takes place in one of the oak-panelled chambers just off the main quad. The audience listens attentively, asks intelligent questions, and then buys a pleasing quantity of books.

From there I go to the main tent to give my second talk, to a different audience about exactly the same thing. This talk is sponsored by Highland Park whisky. The concept is for the audience to sample their whisky, while they sample some readings. Clever, eh?

I generally try to start each talk with a joke or something that relates to the event. I wrack my brains, and the only link I can think to connect whisky with The Mango Orchard is that my great grandfather’s father drank too much of it and died of dropsy. Perhaps this is not the kind of thing I should mention.

As I am waiting to be introduced, there’s an announcement for the beginning of an event with Terry Jones. At a stroke, I lose almost my entire audience. I start anyway, and bit by bit, the seats begin to fill. Eventually the crowd spills out beyond the entrance.

Afterwards, a man approaches me. He congratulates me on the book and tells me how much he enjoyed my talk. He moves closer and says, conspiratorially, “Could you do me a really big favour?”

“Sure,” I say, reaching into my pocket for my pen to sign his book.

“Could you possibly use your influence to get me another wee dram?”

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