A mystery solved. What are literary festivals for? All became clear at Dartington Hall last weekend ...

  • @johnhenrywalsh
Rum things, literary festivals. Nobody knows why people go to them. (To meet bookish, stay-at-home types like themselves? A logical impossibility. To listen to politicians pretending to be keen on Trollope? A horrible prospect. To acquire a signed copy of the recently remaindered first poetry collection by someone you have hitherto never heard of? I expect that's it.) Not a single on-stage insight into the creative process has been knowingly offered by a writer or gleaned by an audience since the lit-fest thing began at Cheltenham in 1949. No increased levels of writer-reader understanding have been recorded during "signing sessions" in draughty tents or hastily co-opted "bookshops". Yet these curious excursions from the private act of reading to the public debate, accompanied by cheers, microphoned contributions from the floor and lashings of wine, have become the biggest growth industry in literary circles, though their significance remains a mystery.

Until now, that is. At Dartington Hall in Devon, where I passed a blissful weekend at the "Ways With Words" festival (sponsored by us, naturellement), it all suddenly fell into place. Despite the presence of poets, novelists, thriller writers and thespians, the central dynamic wasn't about literature at all. It was about psychotherapy.

Everywhere you looked, it was Shrinks Ascending. Adam Phillips, the curly- barneted child psychiatrist with the gnomic prose style and the fancy titles (On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored) was grilled about his writings and retreated behind a wall of baffling pronouncements, at least one of which turned the apprehension of literature into a kind of creative inattention ("Reading for me is like thinking - I'm not aware of doing it, and I forget it immediately. I can't remember if they catch the whale in Moby Dick, though I've read it a dozen times").

Ruth Rendell submitted to Anthony Clare's analytical embrace in a bookish version of In the Psychiatrist's Chair, but failed to reveal anything about why she was so keen on wrecked and desolate characters. She did, however, reveal two suggestive things: that she was an only child, and that she was a stickler for punctuality. On an impulse, Dr Clare asked the ranks of Ruth fans if they shared either condition, and a forest of hands rose. Could 72 per cent of the audience really have been solitary time-obsessives? Or did they just want to star in the next Rendell chiller?

But it was the Doris Lessing experience that really decamped with the digestive. Ms Lessing, a writer of steely and uncompromising mien, is famously unimpressed by people who ask about how much of her fiction is autobiography. Yet for an hour on stage, tactfully steered by Jan Dalley (my glamorous opposite number from the Independent on Sunday), Lessing talked happily away about the personal feelings behind her new novel, Love Again, which concerns a woman falling cataclysmically in love in her sixties. Doris couldn't be drawn to name names, but her disparagement of inconvenient passion made the audience swoon with empathy. Even when she demanded, with the bitterness of hindsight: "I mean, what is it for? What is the use of love?", she got a reply. "It's very good for you physically," said a pert thirtysomething at the back of the hall, "it makes my hair shine." "How odd this is," commented Jan Dalley. "Nobody seems to want to ask anything about literary form ...".

Extraordinary how the right setting ennobles the things that are said. Virtually any sentiment, however banal, uttered in the Great Hall at Dartington instantly takes on the force and quality of myth, so grand is the circumambient architecture. The mile-high roof with bare timber beams, the El Cid banners like dangling magic carpets, the blackened grate approximately the size of a railway station, the vast blank marble wall against which the speakers declaim their stuff - it's like a dream of the medieval "mead-hall" through which, it was said, a sparrow's flight represented man's life (at least it is when you've consumed enough of the festival's excellent House White). You could read the list of vitamins on a box of Cheerios and it would come out sounding like Gormenghast.

Another extraordinary thing you encounter is the unmistakable whiff of lust. Amid the ranks of arty ladies painting the noble towers in watercolours, the female philosophy dons in their kiss-me-quick cardigans and the phalanx of burly men crashed out on the greensward like fallen warriors, an unusual heat seems to build up at the languorous end of summer. "Look at the dreamboat over there in the Rapunzel locks," remarked a passing hack to The Indie's David Aaronovitch. "I wonder if by any chance she's anxious to get into journalism?" "Not half as anxious," replied Aaronovitch smartly, "as journalism is to get into her."

Remember Irina Ratushinskaya? The Russian dissident poet with the schoolgirl looks and the beauty spot, jailed for four years in a Soviet labour camp, where she wrote in her head the verses that became the John Majorishly- titled Grey is the Colour of Hope, was a big hit at Dartington. She told stories of her homeland and received a standing ovation. My favourite one was about the encounter between a Western friend and the people of Chechnya. The friend ran a harmless travelling puppet theatre, amusing children in towns and villages in the former Soviet Union (this was pre- 1989). Nobody, unfortunately, advised her about the hard men of the soon- to-break-away republic. The puppeteers drove into town, hired a theatre, advertised their performance and set up the show. Just before it started, one of the performers peeped through the curtains and saw, not ranks of expectant children, but a score of grimly unsmiling, hairy-mugged Chechens holding guns. As the show got under way, the theatre manager, hitherto all smiles, appeared, looking frantic. "You must get away," he said, "At the interval, gather all your stuff and get in my van. Otherwise they will shoot you in the second act." The puppeteers did as they were told, drove hell for leather, heard some wild rifle shots and escaped with only a few bullet holes in the screen. What had gone wrong? "In Chechnya," explained the manager, "the wolf is a sacred animal, wild and free. The most unclean animal is the swine. I did not realise your puppet show would be The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf."