The Hay Festival 1994

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The Independent Culture
To inject Rory Bremner into a leisured literary festival of the kind that Hay has become over the past seven years of gentle nurturing is dangerous. After an hour listening to him sharing the secrets of the satirist's trade, the world is turned on its head. Respectable literati become figures of fun, and the most beautifully articulated thoughts are reduced to squawks and grunts.

Take Betty Friedan, that famous American feminist, who sounds as if she's gargling gravel when she speaks. Is she not a perfect example of Bremner's 'wrecked voices', to be ranged alongside other voices so tragically destroyed by tobacco or alcohol?

We think of Bremner's 'colour chart' of voices when we listen to Maggie Gee reading from Lost Children. Her voice sounds as pallid as the colour of her skin, as fragile at times as the family structures in the novel from which she reads. And then there is Andrew Solomon, the youngish New York novelist. What would Bremner have made of the preppy Solomon? Some stiff-limbed, ramrod- backed ventriloquist's dummy, perhaps - that mouth, for example, which drops open so suddenly; those swivelling eyes; the unnervingly unnatural smile that switches on and off like a light. And what of the English novelist Christopher Bigsby who, when he addressed the great E L Doctorow, looked so vulnerable, so schoolboyish? All this is deeply troubling. It suggests that organisers of literary festivals should not introduce a satirist into the proceedings. They are a frivolous distraction from the serious business of dismembering great literature.