Tales of the City: Doing festivals by the book

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The Independent Online

This is getting ridiculous. Literary festivals are breaking out all over the place.

This is getting ridiculous. Literary festivals are breaking out all over the place. I've just been invited to the Richmond Lit Fest; asked to help launch the Folkstone Lit Fest; opened the post to discover the Fresh Fiction Festival in Newcastle, from 21-27 June, (which features a "novel hospital", where you can bring your dog-eared, costive, writing-blocked masterpiece, and have it colonically irrigated); and I've just been talking to a lady who is looking for sponsors to launch a book carnival in the Caribbean. Soon there won't be a town in the British Isles or a holiday destination in the world without its own Creative Writing Workshop, its Ottakar's mini-bookshop, its tea-and-Virginia-sponge franchise, and its Rare Appearance by Louis de Bernières.

It's hard, though, to begrudge the ubiquity of these jolly events. I had a brilliant time at the Hay Festival last week, possibly because all the partying and lotus-eating in the sunshine were balanced by going to 20 serious and wildly heterogeneous events, and emerging a wiser - if not necessarily a sadder - man from them all.

And there were little revelations every day. Who'd have thought that Terry Jones would be such an electrifying lecturer (on the suspicious death of Chaucer)? Who'd have thought that Peter Blake, the God-the-Father of Pop Art, is still bearing a grudge against the Beatles' Apple organisation because they paid him only £200 for designing the cover of the Sergeant Pepper LP? And that when he asked recently if it was not an iniquitous sum to pay for such an iconic piece of work, they replied, "£200 sounds about right"?

Who'd have thought that Virginia Nicholson, author of a book about bohemian life experiments in the 1910s and 1920s, would so scarily resemble her great-aunt Virginia Woolf? Stern, beautiful, brittle, and dressed in a long peasant skirt, she radiated an alarming hauteur, especially when complaining about Nicole Kidman's impersonation of Virginia in The Hours - "Such a travesty ... the whole point about Virginia is that she made everybody laugh all the time". And not least when asked how social mores had changed over the years. She scrutinised her interviewer, the flamboyant Paul Blezard, and replied, witheringly: "Well, here I am beside a gentleman in a crimson corduroy suit, with no tie, who wore no hat out of doors, and who, for reasons best known to himself, does not call me 'Mrs Nicholson', and we're sitting here sharing a drink..." I'm sure she was joking. But we all resolved to mind our Ps and Qs if we met her.

And did you know (and had we all forgotten?) that John Updike supported the Vietnam War? "I don't regret it," he said. "I didn't like feeling out of step with the literary community. I wanted to eat and drink and dress like all of them. But a lot of liberal writers were against the war for faddish reasons." When goaded by James Naughtie to say what his blue-collar hero Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom would think of the Bush administration, Updike smoothly sidestepped: "I think he'd try to defend it. Perhaps, like me, he's gotten tired of the news. One right that Americans are allowed to have is the right not to have opinions."

At a literary festival, this sounded shockingly close to heresy. But their meeting did throw up, if that's the word, a brilliant double entendre. "You mentioned the word 'sperm'," said Naughtie. "One of the great things about your vast output over the years..." The audience yelled with laughter.

ONE LAST tale from festival land. Not since Harry met Sally in the last reel of the film has there been such an emotional rencontre as that between Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer, and the actor Ian ( The Saint) Ogilvy last weekend. They revealed to the world that it was the first time they had seen each other in 43 years, since they were at Eton together and had been dragooned into taking part in the inter-house boxing. Young Ogilvy had looked at the list of pugilists, found one called Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, and had gone to see him to discuss how they might avoid it. Both boys decided that beating seven shades of ordure out of each other wasn't sensible, so Ogilvy, already an aspiring thespian, suggested that they simply acted at boxing. Ranulph agreed to this ruse, and they rehearsed a convincing-looking bout, in which they girlishly whacked each other's gloves and grunted convincingly.

When the time came for the inter-house games, they reproduced this pale simulacrum of a fight, after which the umpire judged it "obviously a draw between two very fine exponents of the art of boxing - but we need a winner". They had to fight one more round, during which Fiennes hit Ogilvy in the face - completely by accident - and was judged the winner.

His triumph was short-lived. He was then fast-tracked to meet the school boxing champion in a ferocious winner-takes-all fight, which left him mashed to a bloody pulp. "So, it's very nice to see Ranulph again," said Ogilvy, "without the two black eyes, the split nose and the fat lip..." Ahh, these sentimental old schoolboys.

The cost of not pulling a punch

The transit of Venus has obviously dazzled the leader writers at The Guardian, who wrote on Tuesday: "Anyone looking today at the tiny speck that Venus is when set against the Sun ... can get some glimpse of the enormity of the Sun itself." As every van-driver's assistant knows, enormity means "outrageousness" or "extreme wickedness". What kind of shocking immorality has the Sun been up to now (apart, of course, from persuading thousands of people in the city parks to take all their clothes off)?

The enormity of the crime

Am I fighting a one-man campaign to keep words meaning what they are supposed to mean? And can anyone persuade Lynne Truss to bring out a sequel to Eats, Shoots & Leaves entited "The Enormity of Displaying Ignorance on the Leader Pages of the National Press"?