Rising to the bait is rarely advisable, but sometimes one is tired and fractious and, like a child, very eager to be centered in the discourse. Thus it was that, sitting at the ferry port waiting for the night crossing home to Ireland after a week interviewing writers and performers at literary festivals in the UK, I tweeted irritably about Nadine Dorries.
Do I give a stuff whether she believes people were booing at Boris or, in her version, expressing their utter delight and gratitude at his presence? I do not. But, it struck me, I’d really like it if the culture secretary tweeted about culture, not its invented wars, and acknowledged that the arts were in evidence up and down the land. That my message seemed to find favor in my little echo chamber was nice but, perhaps, a somewhat pyrrhic victory.
I had just driven from Hay-on-Wye, where thousands of people had come to hear hundreds of writers during the festival. More to the point, another army of people, many of them volunteers, were making it all happen: locals putting performers up in their spare bedrooms, donning hi-vis jackets to staff makeshift car parks, fetching coffee and sandwiches.
Marquees were packed. Book-signing queues stretched for miles. But this is not just fan mail for Hay so they’ll invite me back, because this happens all the time, everywhere – even now, when organisers are recovering from two years without live audiences and all the expensive and ingenious efforts they’ve had to make to offer digital alternatives. How encouraging it would be if there was even a touch of public recognition from the government. Isn’t it the least that one should expect?
The joy of Jay
One of my interviewees was The Repair Shop‘s Jay Blades, whose memoir Making It might also be useful reading for those who have, this week, been pontificating about how we quantify and characterise success for those from working-class backgrounds. My main takeaway from Blades’s story: it can take years to work out how to live your life, even longer to make it happen, and attempting to impose a linear narrative on it is futile and self-defeating. All we should ask is that society, its structures and its agencies, do not confound each citizen’s right to find a way forward. Once again, isn’t that the least one should expect?
But Blades gave me something rather more personal. I mentioned to him that my 87-year-old mother-in-law was a huge fan and that – sorry, writers – her ears had really pricked up when I said I was going to meet him. Immediately, he commandeered my phone and made an utterly delightful video message for her, which, naturally, I forwarded straight on.
Finally! My family thinks I have an actual job.
Costa bows out
In less of a Pollyanna vein, there are to be no more Costa book awards. The prizes, in which five category winners ultimately go head to head, have been running for 50 years, sponsored first by Whitbread and then by Costa.
A strong selling point was their ability to blend widespread appeal with bringing less well-known writers to the attention of the public – previous winners include Hilary Mantel, Philip Pullman and Kate Atkinson, but last year’s winner was poet Hannah Lowe, a boon not only for her, but for a genre not always associated with the spotlight. Running book awards is expensive, and one can assume the returns, in terms of corporate marketing, are tricky to measure; Costa are not the first to bow out, and they probably won’t be the last. But it’s to be hoped that someone else with deep pockets and an appreciation of the value books bring to our cultural life will emerge on a metaphorical horseback.