Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

Literary festivals, as usually reported, sound like pop concerts, with happy audiences and complacent writers, but that is only part of it. They are not alike. You may need wellies for one and sunscreen for another. Nor are the provisions alike. In Edinburgh this year my publishers forgot to send the book I was promoting, or rather selling. When I complained, much more in sorrow than in anger, there was a flurry of concern, and then the report came, 'But it wasn't us, the fault was in Glasgow.' That's all right then. But HarperCollins is usually very good, and often better than good. Edinburgh may be a place too far, but in China, where I went for the British Council, wherever I went my books were there too - showers of them. It is all a gamble and one has to see it as part of the fun and wonder what will happen this time.

The most glamorous literary festival is in Mantua. Off I set, with no idea of its splendour, but not far from Milan the pilot of the British Airways plane, in the matey way they have when disorder threatens, said that a bit of smoke had been noticed and we were going to divert to Geneva, to be on the safe side. How well we all did behave, Brits and Italians; a philosophical boredom is what we showed: Oh lord, here we go again. In Geneva a couple of hundred of us were isolated in a transit place, without information. Later it turned out that the cell-phoners among us had had contact with Milan, and were being told 'Another hour.' 'No, two hours.' 'No, nine o'clock.' 'No. . .'. Three hours passed and the engineers told us that on no account should we dream of getting back on the plane, confirming our suspicions about the bit of smoke. We were to go by coach. How easy that does sound. British Airways had ripped my trusty case to bits, my companion of a hundred flights, and had encased my possessions in thick white plastic. The coach conductor took one look at the old woman with her ugly bundle and said there was no room on his coach for me. But there was plenty. People spoke up for the waif, and he relented, but put my bundle ostentatiously in a separate place in the belly of his coach, where it could not infect the good luggage. He had taken a dislike to me. Quite exhilarating, instant dislikes, but this was not the time for one. He baited me in the jokey look-at-me way of the amateur comic. Luckily I don't understand Italian but people were laughing and annoyed with him. Then the lavatory was locked.

Only people with elderly bladders will understand the horror of it: four hours with a conductor reluctant to stop. I had armed myself with Coca-Cola, against car sickness (it is used in hospitals for nausea), but he whipped it away when I wasn't looking. Four hours. Then Milan, and two hours to Mantua and I woke in that city which surely must be one of the most beautiful in the world, a fairytale inside its towers and moat. I forgot the long night and the bullying conductor and that I had travelled through some of the most beautiful landscape in Europe in the dark. Wandering through streets which the princes of the Renaissance had known, where there is not one ugly building, suddenly we heard a drum and pipe and dancers, and there around a corner appeared plump Bacchus wreathed in ivy, smiling in his chariot, but I think a bit embarrassed, surrounded by stilt dancers in their carnival masks and escorted by an elephant whose back emitted assorted nymphs and satyrs. …

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