David Lister: The Week in Arts - Make Hay indeed – and forget about literature

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The Independent Online

I was until this week a Hay-on-Wye virgin. Attending the world's most famous literary festival for the first time, I found I had to learn the literary festival routine. On the first day it was at least easy to see the rain through the thunder and lightning as it came at you horizontally. On the third day, the rain was even heavier, but this time vertical. As the deckchairs on the central lawn were tossed in the gale, and the Pimm's signs battered the wall, I wondered if it might not be an idea to hold this tent-based festival later in the summer.

If that was a naive thought, then it was probably even more naive of me to be startled when a household name interviewer in one session said he could not see if anyone wanted to ask a question at the back as he did not wish to put his glasses on. Of such stuff are riots made.

I did enjoy something I have not seen before, the literary festival heckle. This is very different from a stand-up comedy show, when a member of the audience dishes it out. At literary festivals, the listeners are refined, sophisticated and patient, and, it seems, the comments fly in the opposite direction. At Hay I witnessed this being executed with great skill from the stage by Christopher Hitchens. When a lady asked politely if some of the conclusions in his book might not be thought to veer towards the racist, he exclaimed: "If you want to call me a racist, then do it directly. Don't beat about the bush." She refused to rise to it. But he would not let up. "Come on. Come on. Do it!"

It was as expert a piece of heckling the audience as you will see. No one dared to heckle Gore Vidal in his session. To me the octogenarian wit in his wheelchair seemed monosyllabic, hard of hearing and probably in a little pain. He did not seem to be enjoying himself. Yet the audience hung on his every word, few as those words may have been. When his interviewer, Sky News's Adam Boulton, reminded him that he once said that Bill Clinton would be America's last president, Vidal, after a lengthy pause, eventually replied: "Yes..." The audience fell about. It reminded me of nothing so much as Peter Sellers's character of Chance the gardener, uttering the odd banality, and it always being greeted as a profound insight.

But, watching the new literary celebrities such as Cherie Blair, Jamie Oliver and Jeremy Clarkson, and the film directors who happened to have filmed novels, all supplying headlines, sound bites and gossip of a sort, I did begin to ponder on the purpose of a literary festival, and what bibliophiles hope to get out of them. That is not to say that they are not interesting. It is fascinating to see one's literary heroes perform, and to see literary celebrities under interrogation. Add a few book signings and the chance to tell them they are wonderful over lunch, and it's more than worth the train fare.

But, oddly, there's one thing a literary festival can skimp on if it's not careful – the examination of literature, little exploration of the actual process of writing, analysis of character or style. Certainly, such an approach would garner precious little publicity. When I sneaked off from the big names to attend an early-morning lecture by an academic on Milton's Paradise Lost, I knew the lecture would not supply a single headline, but it was invigorating partly because the lecture itself seemed like forbidden fruit.

Perhaps the opening session at Hay next year could discuss the proposition that literary festivals should be more literary.

Unavoidable typecasting

There was much to enjoy in Neil LaBute's new West End comedy Fat Pig, a story of a doomed romance between a thin man and a fat woman, doomed because he couldn't bear the jibes of his office colleagues over her size.

The British cast all put on American accents for the apparent, though unspecified, American setting. But I felt it would have worked just as well, if not better, if they had forgotten about the accents and set it in Britain. Isn't fat more of a norm in America, and unlikely to set tongues wagging? Emma Smith, pictured, had a winning charm as the oversized girlfriend in the title role. But, throughout the evening I couldn't help but wonder what her audition must have been like. "Now, Miss Smith, we want you to be a woman with a pleasingly pretty face, but so repulsively large that you are the butt of jokes, and there is a stigma attached to anyone who dates you. Actually, you'll be perfect."

Could give a girl a complex for life.

* It has to be good news that there is to be a legal crackdown on those misleading quotes plastered on the outside of theatres. Producers seem to think it's all a bit of a game, and that it's churlish to complain about them. But deception is deception, and misleading the public into parting with their money isn't that funny. I shall monitor the extent to which theatres and producers comply with the new regulations.

I must admit, however, to retaining a perverse affection for what must be the most extreme example of the practice, one that involved this paper. Outside a theatre showing a stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird was the quote: "One of the best experiences of my life – Georgina Brown; The Independent." What Ms Brown actually wrote was: "Reading the novel was one of the best experiences of my life. How could they have turned it into this abysmal play?"

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