I work in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, UK, and it’s just about Cheltenham Literature Festival time here at the moment. White marquees are springing up surprisingly like huge alien mushrooms in parks across town. It’s one of the biggest literature festivals in the UK and all very exciting.
The bill features very many celebrities from television and movies who have a book out for Christmas, plus a few proper authors who make a living writing books. Well, you have to put bums on seats after all.
Seeing it all magically appear reminds me of the couple of times I have been invited to the festival to read. Once was last year to launch my book – nothing fancy, just me and a few people in the festival book shop tent. The other time was a few years ago when I was invited to read my Bridport Prize winning short story on a bill with a few other ‘emerging’ authors.
I remember we met up in the reading room in the town hall which felt like quite a posh moment. I was hoping it would be crammed with famous authors, especially as Martin Amis was reading that evening, but he wasn’t there and the only well known face was a bloke called David Bellamy who was a TV naturalist and was surrounded by earnest young men talking about green issues. Still I was pleased to be there and sat in a corner trying to look writerly.
Top of my bill was the woman who had won the Orange prize that year, but she didn’t show up, then there was a guy whose first novel had just been published, then me, then a couple of writers from a creative writing website which was sponsoring the event.
So we followed one of the organisers to the venue which turned out to be the student union bar for the University of Gloucestershire. Which was fine, you can imagine what it was like – same as all the other student bars you’ve been in.
The first person to read was one of the writers from the website. She was a middle-aged American lady with quite bright bottle-blonde hair and she was a ‘big personality’ – all full of beans and enthusiastic, which was nice. I asked her if she had butterflies as she was on first and she said no, certainly not. She was all full of vim and get up and go etc. She even punched the air to show how keen she was. But then when she got up on the stage she died a death – completely crashed and burned. She went down like Justin Bieber on an oil rig.
It wasn’t like the Glasgow Empire – people weren’t booing and throwing stuff – there was just monumental indifference. They’d turned the juke box off and dimmed the lights a little but people were still playing pool, the fruit machines were still beeping away, people were talking to each other at the bar and so on. The only people listening were us other writers, because, let’s face it, you wouldn’t want it to happen to you.
She’d picked the wrong story was part of the problem, a sort of comedy about an elderly couple in the Cotswolds and the denouement was that the old boy had left the tickets to Crete in his other smoking jacket (I’m not making this up). And she tried so hard – she was even doing voices – impressions of the posh English couple. But it was just uphill all the way for her. It was much too young a crowd to be interested in that kind of story. At one point she stopped reading and shouted at the people by the bar that it was rude to talk. I really felt for her.
And when she came off stage she was crying – proper tears running down her face. At which point I went to the loo. Which I know might not exactly cover me in glory, but I had to follow this on remember. When I came back she’d gone, without even taking her money – I know!
But the next writer up, again from the website, was only a bit older than the students. She’d brought various stories so she could test the water before deciding what to go with and she read a thing about teenage vampires (again – not making this up) which went down quite well as you would imagine.
I didn’t get to choose my story – I had to do my Bridport winner which was like my hit single at the time (I was a one hit wonder). But when I came back from another visit to the loo the lights had been dimmed further, seats set out in rows, bar shut and everyone sat down like a proper gig. So mine went ok.
I think of that poor American woman when I occasionally do readings though – it shows just how bad things can go if you are unlucky. It helps me prepare for the worst and hope for the best!
Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.