by Pauline Masurel
I’ve got a confession to make. It’s quite a while since I’ve been a regular attendee of literary festivals. In the past I’ve done the rounds of Bath, Cheltenham, Swindon and Cambridge WordFest. Then I reached a point in life (and lit) where I thought, “Look, what’s the point?” Literature festivals can be an expensive habit too; it’s not unusual for an hour-long talk to have a ticket price in the region of £10. I’d scan the programmes when they came out and they seemed to be the same old round of celebrities promoting their books. Equally, the lure of three writers that I’d never heard of before discussing some esoteric point of literature failed to excite me. Although I’m sure there were plenty of gems in there too and that I was looking with a jaundiced eye.
But earlier this year I went to see Jim Crace at the Bath Literature festival. He was eloquent, funny and thought-provoking. He talked about a book that I’d read (and re-read) and in which I was genuinely interested. I was reminded just how good a literature festival can be at providing a chance to encounter writers live, and really add something to the experience of reading their writing.
When I heard about Unputdownable (14-23 October 2011), the first Bristol Literature Festival, it was clear that this was going to be something a bit different from the usual run of lit fest fare. The venues weren’t in the more affluent, salubrious areas of the city, they were spread around – in a prison chapel, branch libraries, the old Coroner’s Court and in the vibrant, eclectic setting of Stokes Croft. Also, it was a grassroutes festival, actually involving writers from the Bristol area. As a performer of my own short fiction, who has read at the Bath Literature Festival and at Port Eliot, I can remember making several approaches to one literary festival (which I won’t name) to enquire whether there might be a chance to “get involved” and contribute in some way. These queries were met with no response at all, not even the polite form email I’d expected, saying, “Thanks but no thanks. Don’t call us, we’ll call you” or inviting me to do some voluntary work and take part in an open mic.
Enough sour grapes. Back to the Bristol Literature Festival. Due to other commitments I was only able to get along to the final day, for which I bought a handy Roving Ticket for £5 which included entry to all but one of the events that I attended. The ticket would have been good value simply to see David Goldblatt give an inspired and entertaining performance entitled Why do Hungarians want to beat Russians at Water Polo? He explained the entire Olympic sporting panoply in only thirty minutes. He also justified why, having already shelled out for the whole shebang, we should watch and enjoy it next year. Yes, he was promoting his forthcoming book, How to Watch the Olympics: Scores and laws, heroes and zeros – an instant initiation to every sport, but it didn’t feel like just a product plug. There were no book piles and he spoke enthusiastically to a small, intimate audience.
I listened to readings from a new collection of short stories and poetry by Bristol-based writers, called Love of Looking, published by the Bristol press Scopophilia Publishing. I joined a discussion lead by a Utopian Bristol book club that only reads books about utopias and dystopias. I recommended John Wyndham’s short story Consider Her Ways to them, on the grounds that (however much I love Margaret Atwood’s work) it tells the same story as The Handmaid’s Tale, only a whole lot faster. I also had a chance during the afternoon to read my own short and tiny stories, together with Bristol-based short fiction writer Tania Hershman, as part of a new venture called Short Umbrella. I was disappointed that a talk by Magnus Mills was cancelled because I enjoyed his book Eucalyptus, which wove many short stories into a novel in an intriguing way.
The most moving reading of the afternoon was given by Jari Moate, the festival organiser, and Lee Ford. They were reading the work of homeless ex-servicemen – short stories, poetry and unidentifiable fragments – from a new pamphlet called Dreaming under Fire. It was a humbling experience to hear writing by someone who uses words as a life support system and who said that reading his work to an audience made his palms sweat and was more frightening than being under enemy fire. For me, writing is really important, but I can use language as something playful, something designed to entertain or inform; I don’t depend upon it as a safety valve in order to survive. It was a privilege to be invited to share the words of writers like Lee Ford and Rich Harper and a rarity to hear something so raw and real at a literature festival.
I rounded off my Unputdownable day out with a session that launched the collaborative community story produced by citywide story groups and drawn together for its first performance that evening, together with a live, improvised, musical accompaniment. After which, Tania Hershman led a session offering a Cure for Writer’s Block. Using six writing prompts drawn from a random selection of publications, she got the entire audience writing flash fiction. The results were inventive, funny, chilling and quite unexpected. It was an impressive demonstration of what can be written in fifteen minutes if you don’t have to start with a blank page.
Enormous thanks to Jari Moate, Ali Reynolds and the other organisers of this festival for what must have been a tremendous amount of hard work. The sheer serendipitous diversity of my half day out was breathtaking. Unfortunately, I missed a debate entitled Has Banksy been good for Bristol? so I don’t know the definitive answer to that question but I do know now why the Hungarians wanted to slaughter the Russians at water polo. I hope that there will be another Unputdownable festival next year, by which time I’ll also know who won the 2012 Olympic gold medal for water polo.