Judging a book by its jacket
In the last of his reports from the Hay-on-Wye festival of literature, Michael Glover considers the lure of the celebrity writer
Tuesday 06 June 1995
Three years ago the festival had flown Mario Vargas Llosa in from Heathrow by helicopter. "When I ran for the presidency of Peru, I got a car. When I come to Hay, I get a helicopter," he'd quipped at the time.
Why, you might ask, should a festival pander to the whims of an individual who makes demands that it can ill afford to satisfy? And why should a sponsor subsidise a festival to do so? The answer is quite simple really: everyone feels a little more eminent in the presence of an eminence, grise or otherwise.
Never mind - David Lodge and Jill Paton Walsh were here, talking about their latest novels - and they got on to the subject of maps fairly quickly. "I do a lot of preparation work when I write a novel," said Lodge. "But I like to leave quite a lot of space on the map." Paton Walsh agreed. "I need a destination," she said, "but not a road map. I need to know I'm going to Hay-on-Wye before I set out."
But 20 minutes before he was due to talk on Louis MacNeice, Jon Stallworthy had still not arrived. Had he lost the map? Mrs Lodge had been heard to warn someone that the talk might not be very good anyway, because she had already heard it in Birmingham, and Mrs Lodge was right. Stallworthy's lecture, which laboured over MacNeice's mythic terrain in heavy gumboots, demonstrating how the facts and topology of childhood can shape a poet's imagination, had a kind of unearthly lit-crit dreariness about it. Even Stallworthy seemed a little bored to be back in Birmingham again. These were the kinds of phrases that came and went as we drifted in and out of sleep: "This poem is one of the jewels in the crown of the collected poems; like other crowns, it is circular..." Things only came alive when question time came around, and Stallworthy got to talking about MacNeice's string of pearly mistresses. Not one of them showed him the door. Not one of them clawed out his eyes. And no one had sued him - at least not yet - for letting the whole reading world have a taste of the beans that they'd all spilled into his waiting lap.
But none of these questions was quite as good as the one that Margaret Atwood told me she had been asked in Ontario. "This woman got up and said: 'Is your hair really like that - or did you get it done?' " How writers look, the way they speak and behave -these things are just as fascinating and as important as what they write about, and this is one of the purposes of a literary festival: to bring the written word to ground by giving physical proof that these artefacts called books are fashioned by the likes of you and me.
Consider Enoch Powell, for example, who appeared at the festival towards the end of this week. No one could have prepared themselves for the terrible fixed stare in his eyes as he gave his talk on the evolution of the gospels in a quavering, weirdly high-pitched voice. It was like the stare in the eyes of a man who can't get rid of some pernicious vision of a river flowing with blood until eternity.
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