Three days at the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019

I read that Ian McEwen has read everything on Brexit, admitted to being an obsessive. He’s just written a book, Cockroach, about a cockroach which wakes up to find it’s become prime minsiter. He admits to a lack of subtlety.

I keep reading on Brexit. Never was a subject so pervasive and invasive. But any kind of orginality requires deep reading. And life just now has other attractions!

What can a literature festival offer? The Cheltenham Literature Festival is on my doorstep. One of the great advantages of living out of town, in the country, but not as much in the country as you might think. Maybe the Hay Festival is my favourite, by a small margin – the scale and vibe is overwhelming, and I love it. Cheltenham is urban, and you’ve a cafe and street culture which sets it apart.

I’ll take language as my theme. Not maybe what the organisers of the Cheltenham Literature Festival had in mind. They’re celebrating their 70th birthday. But what is literature if not language. Though language may not be literature.

It’s Saturday morning. I’ve yet to read David Nott’s book, ‘War Memoir’, about his life as a frontline surgeon, operating, literally, in the world’s most violent places. He was our first event, and he came across, initially, in interview, as out of his element. But honest. He’d found when working under fire in Sarajevo a kind of high, an excitement, this was where he wanted to be. Less a moral compass than a vocation. But he found that compass and now trains surgeons to work beyond the specialisations into which they’re shoe-horned by modern hospital practice. He has met Mullah Omar, met ISIS, and his dedication to life made his denunciations of those who seek and exercised power and the language of power for its own sake, careless of death, all the more powerful.

Our next event, the debate ‘Populism: Death of Democracy’, was topical, though there was always the danger we’d simply be re-visiting well-trodden territory. So it proved. The debate was chaired by Leslie Vinjamuri, of the think-tank Chatham House. Matthew Goodwin brought a British perspective to the subject, and Amy Pope, ex Obama advisor, an American perspective. Do the origins of populism lie more in cultural or economic issues? Identity or issues relating to jobs and income? Populist leaders exploit both – the apparent undermining of national cultures, of ways of life – being left behind – victims – of a political system, of elites operating in their own interest. The issues are real, and the crisis, with hindsight, inevitable. But the debate went round in circles.

Focusing on language would have helped. The misuse of language has turned a crisis which might have brought people together in a common understanding into conflagration. Language brings together, its misuse divides. Post-truth was well-established before 2016. Fake news and disdain of real expertise took hold in 2016 and beyond. Current parliamentary debates have coupled disdain and anger in a way that challenges truth in language still further.

Amy Pope contributed an American standpoint: she sees hope in the wider race and gender representation in the House of Representatives. But as she admitted, that doesn’t address the issue of the resentments of the ‘flyover states’, everything, that is, between the East Coast and California.

Sunday morning. Time for my next event, a celebration of the life of the American novelist, Toni Morrison, who died in August. As an editor at Random House, the first black editor in US publishing history, she opened doors for black writers, and she herself opened up the realities of Afro-American life as never before. She didn’t whitewash, or glorify, or sympathise. She allowed language to tell it as it is, and as she saw it. And the language is wonderful, inspired, magic passages of writing which capture all the hurts and hopes and failures, resignation on the one hand and the search for identities and roots on the other. The panel were black women, writers and publishers, and I’m a white and male, and in a big minority in that Cheltenham tent. But I came away inspired. The panel spoke Morrison’s language – Miss Morrison as two of then called her. They quoted favourite passages, and the most resonant was the speech she gave at the Nobel-Prize-giving ceremony.

‘…the recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.

Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction.’

‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’

Next, another debate, ‘Who’s Next for the White House’. Leslie Vinjamuri again, joined by Sarah Baxter and Adam Boulter, both now of the Sunday Times, festival co-sponsors. As a choice, this was interesting, intriguing, but probably a mistake. We were on the same ground as the populism debate. And the same radical uncertainty of outcome. I may for my part see hope in a new and raised awareness coming through, or at least a cause we can identify with, in the opposition to populism. But where lies hope in the battle to be president? The Democrats are divided centre and left. Theirs is at least a debate I can connect to. Elizabeth Warren a powerful candidate, but with big-state ideas which could panic centrist voters. Trump is Trump, widening his river of no destination ever further and carrying his supporters along in the turbulence. We were asked for a show of hands at the end. Who do you think will be the next US president? Two-thirds, at least, thought Trump. Not me. I’d thought – Trump, no way, last time. Not again, that I cannot believe. Though were I to expect a Trump victory maybe my penchant for guessing wrong would somehow influence the outcome – and Trump would lose …

In the evening we had ‘An Evening of Joni Mitchell’. Note the ’of’. She is recovering slowly from a brain aneurysm, re-learning how to walk. She is not travelling. I knew that. Some didn’t. They expected Joni to be there. A 40-minte four-way ‘expert’ conversation talked about her childhood polio, speculated on its influence, touched on her relationships – but never on the detail of her songs. We’re back to language. They never touched on the language of her songs. What inspired her to write them. They are her legacy to the world. Would that come over in the second half? No. Her songs were given the full jazz band, wild sax, treatment, and the words got drowned. Very occasionally her rhythms came through. But while the music was almost OK, the treatment was a travesty.

And, finally, two events on the Monday. Smaller venues. The first in The Pillar Room, in the Town Hall. Two writers. Philip Marsden writing about a single-handed boat journey from Cornwall via the west of Ireland to the Summer Isles (the title of the book as well – I love the name) off the north-west coast of Scotland. You’re face to face with the sea, with the world, when single-handed. He’d walked with his aunt who lived in the North-West Highlands, and she’d died out there in an accident. Her library was full of books on (if I recall aright) on simplifying life, on Zen. Also talking at the event was Dan Richards about his book, ‘Outpost’, where he writes about bothies and cabins and lighthouses and even sheds at the bottom of gardens – your stepping-off points, as an explorer, of wilderness, or as a writer, the open spaces of the mind. The idea appeals, and I will buy the book. The authors are different as personalities,  Marsden aspiring to the slightly grizzled loner, Richards rather more (if he will forgive me) urbane. But for both experience is everything, and truth to experience, and truth to the way it’s expressed in language.

And finally, Laura Cummings, chief Observer art critic, and her family memoir, ‘On Chapel Sands’. Another smaller venue, The Nook: we sit round small tables, in greater comfort and more intimacy than usual. This was better for a writer whose book is about the brief and unexplained disappearance of a little girl for five days from a Lincolnshire beach, when she was only three years old. The little girl was the author’s mother. A long-time unsolved family mystery. She bravely followed the story where it took her. The small venue allowed intimacy and author tears.  In pursuit of the truth about the abduction, she dug behind family stories, as we’d expect, but she also interrogated family images. Her art critic skills proved useful. Photos can tell lies, or they can be bland – just another family photo. Or they can, as in this case, hide secrets which only a practised eye can reveal. A husband and wife photo from 1910 – but posed like a Vermeer, but Vermeer was all but unknown in England back then.

So, three days at the festival. For me it’s been, so far, above all about language. About the integrity of language. The natural substrate of a book festival you might think. But what’s struck me this time around is the importance of awareness of the role of language. A surgeon whose role would be so much less needed round the world if only power was subservient to truth. Politicians will, they must, use language as best they can to put an argument across. But to weaponise truth, which quickly becomes weaponising untruth, is a very different story.

Toni Morrison, and Philip Marsden and Dan Richards, opened/open up not narrow down the world. Language and shouting don’t go well together. Toni Morrison – a writer who engaged with an agonised world with extraordinary honesty – a writer of genius. And two writers who talk of quieter times, sailing or walking or writing. They’re not out to change the world, they don’t insist or demand. But they tell it like it is.

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