A PAIN IN THE ARTS

Jon Ronson hates book fests: mud, rain, and absent speakers
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The Independent Culture
Last year's Hay-on-Wye book festival was located in a tent in a field of mud. To get a coffee, one had to queue in dark marshland with all of London's literati, while the fierce border winds hurled unsuspecting intellectuals into large piles of f ilthy sludge. The talk of the festival was how much more classy and upmarket they'd made it, compared to 1993. I'm glad I wasn't there in 1993. In 1993, one can only imagine, John Mortimer and Ruth Rendell and Gore Vidal just jumped into a large mud-pit and writhed around while everybody placed bets.

For some puzzling reason, international book festivals are perpetually housed in the world's least lavish locations - amid the dense industrial smog of Frankfurt, the dishevelled and crumbling Spud-U-Likes of the Swansea hinterlands, and the windswept rural abysses of the Welsh borders.

To add to the ordeal, the organisers continually employ amplification technology that make a karaoke machine sound like Madison Square Gardens. I shall never forget the day at Hay when Betty Frieden's PA system had become mysteriously entwined with the frequency of a local music radio station, and her entire scintillating discourse on "Inter-Generational Warfare" and society's "perpetual favouritism towards the youth", was performed to a subdued yet persistent hi-energy disco soundtrack. I'd l ike to report that the irony wasn't lost on the Grande Dame of feminism, but it was.

But the misanthropic locations and fourth-rate technology are not the most unsavoury thing about literary festivals. What distinguishes them most from all other arts fiestas is their unique and frustrating self-appointed policy of completely altering thebill at the last moment and not bothering to tell anybody.

I once drove 200 miles to see the South African journalist Rian Malan and Gary Gilmore's brother, Mikel, give a lecture on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. As I took my seat, a gentleman walked up to the microphone and announced: "I'm afraid that Rian Malan is still in Somalia, and Mikel Gilmore just hasn't turned up. So here instead, talking about the same subject are ... three people you've never heard of!" There was a rapturous applause.

I looked around, startled. Nobody cared. If this were the Reading Festival and someone had just announced that Pearl Jam couldn't make it so here's Mike Sweeney and the Thunderbirds doing a load of Pearl Jam songs, there would be a rampage. But this was a book festival, and they were all too mannerly to lob mud.

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