DJ Taylor: What the Dickens are we doing in Sri Lanka?

With his bicentenary coming up next month, a gathering in Galle shows how the British Council is retuning its antennae

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Like much else in the cultural firmament, the British Council has been hard at work over the past few years to recalibrate its activities to the demands of a modern age. A friend of mine who served as its UK literature director in the 1980s used to recall that one of her chief duties was to arrange overseas excursions for Sir William Golding and his wife. "We rather fancy Germany next year," Sir William would confide, and my friend would diligently find some conference which the great man could attend under the Council's auspices or some celebrity lecture to which his presence might be thought to add associative lustre.

A quarter of a century later, all this seems to have changed. Rather than acting as a high-class travel agent, the Council's antennae are finely tuned to the aspirations of its international audience. Just now its literature department is rolling out a programme for the coming Dickens bicentenary. Yours truly is in Galle, Sri Lanka, shaping up to deliver a lecture on Reinventing the Victorians. The roadshow then moves on to Berlin, where A S Byatt and Philip Hensher, among others, will discuss what Dickens might or might not have written had he still been with us today.

Beneath the surface of this Herculean endeavour lurks the faint scent of cultural patronage. Among other remits, I am booked to address several hundred Sri Lankan schoolteachers on the ways in which Dickens's novels can be taught to teenagers, a subject on which, as Anthony Powell might have put it, one is not outstandingly hot. What do the citizens of a developing nation think about some Westerner come to lecture them on the work of what a left-leaning US cultural theorist would undoubtedly stigmatise as an old, dead white man?

A Sri Lankan Council employee soon reassures me on this point. The English, she maintains, have gone all trendily multicultural over literature. It takes a former colony 65 years out from under the imperial yoke to appreciate the true value of the giants of Western Literature. On a more mundane note, surveying the file of festival passengers lined up at Heathrow for the outward flight, I can't help noticing that whereas Professor Richard Dawkins is travelling business class, D B C Pierre and myself are lodged in economy. But these are proud scars.

***

In the UK, the literary festival is, with certain exceptions, a rather genteel affair: the burghers of Cheltenham, say, queuing to meet Claire Tomalin and John Carey; the Oxford quadrangles a-judder beneath the feet of seekers after high-grade literary chat. Abroad, on the other hand, everything is a great deal more contested. Sir Salman Rushdie has been prevailed upon not to show up at Jaipur, not so very far away to the north, in the wake of Muslim protests. British participants here in Galle have all been issued with a report from English PEN detailing the human rights abuses and freedom of expression curtailments inflicted by Sri Lanka's crony-ridden government, and including a jaw-dropping article written by Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of The Sunday Leader and published a few days after his unsolved murder in January 2009. At the writers' dinners everyone consoles themselves with the idea that there is no proscription on debate, that everyone bidden here can say exactly what they like and that several of the events are positively buzzing with code words like "freedom", "reconciliation" and "forgiveness". None of this is probably much comfort to the family of Lasantha Wickramatunga.

There is also the thought that most European literary festivals have their skeletons dangling in the back-stage closet. I once attended a gathering in Turin shortly after the city had been awarded the Winter Olympics, where the sponsors' dinner was full of local Berlusconi MPs exulting in their area's good fortune. A journalist could have had a whale of a time investigating quite how many palms had been greased.

***

"It's odd that we've come 5,500 miles to sit in a room listening to Tom Stoppard," my wife ruminates on the opening day. As well as offering a splendid opportunity to see Sir Tom – amiable if slightly diffuse – in action, the event also gives us a chance to observe the extreme deference of the modern literary festival audience. Sir Tom's fans are an eclectic crowd: burly expats in linen suits; schoolchildren clutching copies of his plays; unidentifiable scene-swellers of unfathomable provenance. What unites them is their almost abject subservience in the presence of a great man.

The moderator's omission of Sir Tom's title is triumphantly rectified by anyone who asks a question. When he announces that he is going to read from one of his works, a woman in the row in front gives a little elfin shriek of "Oh good". A truculent ingrate, enraged by Sir Tom's encomium to the late Vaclav Havel, who suggests that the Czech president was a king-sized reactionary, is nearly shouted down. While not agreeing with the Havel question, I am rather glad that it was asked. On the other hand, someone in Simon Sebag Montefiore's session on the history of Jerusalem wonders if there isn't a serious discrepancy between what is written on page 237 of his book and the information on page 239. This is much more like it.

***

Meanwhile, Professor Dawkins looms everywhere: allowing himself to be questioned on his life and work; presiding over something billed as An Atheist's Feast with his wife, Lalla Ward ("marvel at the natural miracle of the world, which needs no Supreme Being to enhance its wonder") and staring out across crowded rooms with a faintly fanatical glint in his eye like a kind of secular witch-finder-general hot for dissent. Sir Tom, prompted by his moderator, offers a graceful tribute, to which our man, parked several rows from the front, modestly attends.

As invariably happens at these gatherings, you are struck by the substantial gap separating the pronouncements of intellectuals at public forums from the rhythms of ordinary life. Sir Tom at one point stirs himself to observe that the "myths of Romanticism have been dispelled". Have they? And if they were, did anybody bother to tell the other 95 per cent of the population? I can think of half-a-dozen areas of our national life in which romantic myths are still going strong. It is the same with Richard Dawkins's harangues on the impossibility of religious belief, which, whether or not one believes in God, have the fatal defect of merely ignoring the vast amount of displaced religious sensibility that sloshes about in the world looking for a home. If the professional atheists, not to mention the post-Romantics, could be a little more precise about what a wholly secular morality might look like, we would all be that much more interested in what they had to say.

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