Roving on the literary circuit

By A.S. H. Smyth

Thursday: Never been to the GLF, and am very excited. A long weekend of bona fide book-nerdishness is just what I need – if only to stop me lying on the sofa for four days with a book. Also I have, or am supposed to have, one-on-one time lined up with Wendy Cope and Rana Dasgupta. Wendy Cope is my heroin(e), the woman who showed me that poetry could be funny (before I read any Shakespeare and discovered that he’d been doing it all along: cf. Titus Andronicus and King John). Dasgupta is Delhi’s enfant génial, or so says Sir Salman Rushdie, and I’ll take his word for it.

Brought along a couple of books: Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage (‘How can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?’) and W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo. More heroes. We lit. geeks are like that.

Not brought: Sarnath Banerjee’s graphic novel Corridors (I don’t really know what he’s up to in his books, but anyone who wants to write stories in which Karl Marx rubs shoulders with blue movies, constipation and second-hand bookshops is fine by me); Dasgupta’s Solo (heavy HB); Michael Frayn’s Travels With A Typewriter and Stage Directions; Cope’s If I Don’t Know. In short, all the books I’ve paid for recently and wanted autographed.

Tremendous Writers’ Welcome party. Had hoped I might casually offer Wendy Cope a glass of free wine; but no sign of her. I remember myself to Michael Frayn. He does not remember myself, and so begins a lengthy story about door-knobs and novels he didn’t adapt for the stage. He tells me Geoff Dyer is here, and I get very excited; but turns out Frayn’s brain’s still on Jaipur time (it must be very tough, what with all the foreign travel and drinks parties).

Am introduced to Ru Freeman, Claire Tomalin, Shyam Selvadurai. I keep my head down, having read not a word between the three of ‘em. Catch up, less bashfully, with Ashok Ferrey, David Blacker and Michael Meyler (read Dictionary of Sri Lankan English in one sitting. Cracking stuff. ’Specially the car chases).

Lots of fun gossip going round. Someone leaks the rumour that the ‘special festival rate’ at the Lighthouse is actually higher than the usual. After-party at The Sun House with Rana and his wife Monica (Narula, an artist), Diran Adebayo, and Ulrik Plesner. Plesner gives me a manuscript of his forthcoming Bawa memoir. No detailed memory of conversations.

Friday: Monstrous hangover. Opening event prefaced by David reading some kid’s short story: Our Secret Island. Pretty good, in the Maurice Sendak vein. Event proper – ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ – would have been better if there’d been fewer panelists: five (not incl. moderator, who absorbs her own portion of time) is two too many.

To Pedlar’s Inn Café with Pradeep Jeganathan, Gratiaen-shortlister and foodie-blogger (amongst other things). Am supposed to review coffee and tuna toastie, but still can’t write straight. Eventually find relief with two litres of water, under a tree (it was proper bo). Thank Whomever it’s a Poya! Don’t think I could handle so much as a half of EGB.

Back to hear Slovo talk about her mother, Ruth First, but waylaid by Rana. Potential interview degenerates into photo-shoot… with beer. Seek sanctuary at Mac Barnett’s talk about the legendary McSweeney’s publishing empire. From the carpenter who became an editor to the appeal/sale that saved their fortunes in just a couple of weeks, everything McSweeney’s touches turns to gold. When it comes to questions, one woman asks straight out for a job. Another chap offers his book on Buddhist humour for publication.

To Wendy Cope’s poetry reading. Wonderful. Poems alternately funny and touching (she has, as she makes clear, a real beef with the Establishment-type poets who treat her as fundamentally unserious) and classic anecdotes, with a world-beating deadpan tone. Much laughter as she talks about aspiring to found the Women’s Merchant Navy, making a small fortune out of Jools Holland, and how a change in British licensing laws ruined the punch-line to one of her poems. When the microphone comes round, I consider declaiming my love for her through the medium of a tribute poem I have written… but chicken out.

Head up the hill to Closenberg, to moderate Ashok’s Serendipity readings. The plan was to leaven (or unleaven, in fact) the humorous fare with a few semi-serious questions in between dramatised readings. The plan backfires, and the audience are painfully unreceptive to our attempts to bluff our way out. Horrible.

Dinner at a rooftop café. Most of the meal spent defending Wendy Cope against Rana’s exacting high-lit. standard, and analysing why Diran should never have been listed as one of London’s 100 Most Influential People.

Saturday: Kaveri Lalchand’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ talk is just the ticket for a 10 a.m session. Blaft, the pulp-fiction publishing house she (a garment manufacturer) and a friend (who edits maths textbooks) set up in Chennai, is like an Indian McSweeney’s. Many superb stories about how they begged tiny-money translation deals from million-selling Hindi authors, and why their Tamil folk-tale anthology has an adult section, tied up in a red ribbon, at the back. All very non-literary (from what I could gather, Tamil pulp fiction has all the literary clout of an episode of Neighbours) in all the right ways.

Brunch with Sarnath Banerjee, Pradeep, Smriti Daniel, then stroll over to check out the Rampart Hotel, my venue for this afternoon’s panel. 3.30: Panel discussion on ‘The Literature of Post-War Sri Lanka’, featuring Pradeep, David, Neluka Silva, and Malinda Seneviratne. Moderated by (ahem…) A.S.H. Smyth. Goes well, though I say so myself. Rampart bar basically full, several journalists and notables present, and a gratifying number of people voicing their opinion that this topic should have been included in the festival proper.

Rana talks about Solo, his second novel, on the Lighthouse terrace. Or doesn’t – instead telling the parallel story of his father’s migration from India to the UK. Smart move. Nothing worse than authors regurgitating stuff their fans have already read.

Closenberg again, for what Ashok told me was an open-mic session for ‘up-and-coming’ writers. Daunting company, and I have not written anything for the occasion.

I wing it, with a silly piece about morris dancing from the Spectator. After two hours of Ceylon-era cliché, I vow to kill the next person who uses jak fruit in her title (monsoons, ditto). Find relief chatting to Shehan Karunatilaka.

Festival party at Lighthouse. Fifty-year-olds chicken-dancing to Michael Jackson. Ian Rankin stalking about. A Colombo 7 matriarch stumbles over. ‘You were crap last night,’ she begins, before the look on my girlfriend’s face drives her to more flattering (and less ambiguous) chit-chat.

Sunday: Drop in to see Jehan Mendis moderating Rana, Diran and Claire Tomalin in ‘The ‘Lives of Cities’. ‘He’s a little nervous,’ his mum says. Must tease him about this.

Interview with Wendy Cope, mostly about teaching. She likes my poem and signs it. I am giddy, though not too giddy get Pradeep (and his mum) out of an intellectual property dispute when Wendy spots the photocopy Ms Jeganathan wants autographed. My winking Dictaphone suggests interview probably a wash-out, but I have what I came for.

Sarnath, Mohammed Hanif and Louise Doughty in conversation about ‘Endings’. Apropos of something (I don’t recall) Doughty makes a remark to the effect that a lot of late Philip Roth is ‘not very good’, but I Married A Communist is ‘rather fine’. Not sure which is worse.

Interview Rana Dasgupta, at Fort Printers. He signs my copy (unread) of Tokyo Cancelled, using a Mont Blanc. I ask if it was a gift for his first novel, or some such momentous occasion. No, he says, his father got it as a corporate freebie and passed it on. But then he lost it and, too ashamed to confess, forked out £400 for a replacement. Ouch.

One last boozing session with the Good People, before moving out. Surprisingly emotional farewells, and threats to crash on each other’s floors in the not-too-distant.

On the road back, news comes through that after two years in charge Sunila Galappatti is moving on to new things. To whom it may concern: I am hereby applying for the post of Festival Director, 2011.

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