Thursday. Cheltenham. A city designed to feed the ivy and red-brick industries. The literary festival had been running for a fortnight, and the dots of pop-up bookstores and poetic conversation has settled into its groove. Everyone was used to the small assortment of plastic and glass hamlets that sprouted in this park and that. It was calm. Quiet, even, if you’ve seen the organised chaos of the festival at Hay-on-Wye.
A packed-out Times Forum buzzed. Julian Barnes on art: it was the first event of the final few days. As with most speakers, it was the subject of his latest book, Keeping An Eye Open, essays that dissect the novelist’s unique perspective on the ‘greats’. They’re not the usual artistic-critical affair of headaches delivered in verbose academese. Barnes is an intelligent, well-read human insistent upon mining age-old aesthetic questions, and his apologetic mode of doing provides refreshing and enticing reading.
Barnes’ oratorical ability, similarly, hinges upon the same controlled elegance as his written prose. Never loud, Barnes pulled apart the long gestation of his book with a schoolmaster’s charm. It was not so much confidence that spurred him as the tried and hard-tested eloquence that 26 published books will provide.
Indeed, Barnes spoke of nearing a birthday to which he didn’t associate a number and of the relationship between age and creative stamina. Barnes seems to have no intention of pulling a Roth and retiring at 93, quoting multiple further novels and extended pieces of nonfiction as ongoing. If anything, Keeping An Eye Open wouldn’t have been possible without a lifetime of appreciating art.
The afternoon left and evening came. George the Poet, a younger speaker than the last, performed a sell-out show at the Town Hall. The “socially motivated poet of exceptional ability” (i-D Magazine) discussed his first published poetry collection and its subject, his life so far. George spoke with cool candour, more than once moving from speech to poetry without the audience realising he’d done so. It was a performance polished by talent, practice, and breathtaking social vision.
The London-born wordsmith guest-directed the festival in association with Black History Month and was the most lauded and applauded speaker of the final weekend. How could he not be when he instils hope in so many who feel naught but a statistic? George went from being misunderstood and under-stimulated to dazzling scholar merely by unlocking a single truth: “How can you not love a thing that only grows when you take from it? Because that’s what knowledge is”.
How fitting that the freedom to learn, read, and express was the departing point when the next person that grace that same stage was Sir Salman Rushdie. The “Man Booker of Man Booker winners” discussed Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, his speculative reinterpretation of A Thousand and One Nights. Interviewer Mark Lawson had other designs, however, and used the strangenesses – or the theme thereof – to discuss a different chapter in Rushdie’s life.
On Valentine’s Day 1989, Grand Ayatollah of Iran Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Rushdie on Radio Tehran for writing The Satanic Verses, in which a flawed Mohammad-esque character is portrayed. Rushdie and his family hid for years and evaded multiple assassination attempts. To this day, Rushdie receives letters from the office of the Grand Ayatollah every Valentine’s Day, assuring him that the death sentence stands. It was interesting to discover that Rushdie, although in no mind to forget, was “able to draw a line under the whole thing” upon completing his memoirs, Joseph Anton.
The final event was X-Rated, a small roundtable between prominent YA authors. The question was thus: what can YA authors say and what should they say? Present were veteran Melvyn Burgess, late-blooming Hollywood success story Andy Mulligan, and award-winning newcomer Louise O’Neill. Each took their turn to present extracts from their respective texts before the floor was opened to the questions of a notably young audience.
Burgess tried to play the relaxed conversationalist, but his irritation at the media’s vacuous treatment of mature themes in YA fiction betrayed him. One question, when an audience member made reductive comments about video games, tested his restraint, and he was riled into raising crucial issues about parental engagement with how their children engage with art and entertainment. Burgess also compared the largely negative treatment of video games to the ill treatment received by the novel at the start of the 18th century.
The conversation moved to O’Neill, who, too, insisted that parents should take responsibility. Her novel, Asking For It, was perhaps the most befitting for the venue: an all-female boarding school. The novel explores prevailing errors around sexual consent and the ways in which hysterical conservatism perpetuates them.
Mulligan wanted to discuss his growth as a writer but was candid and eloquent enough to provide emphasis and support to the festival’s salient complaint: that those who publicly attack a text almost always have not read it. This was the case with Burgess and O’Neill on chat shows. It was the case with Rushdie and the international community. If there was anything to take away from the festival, it was the paradigmatic relationship between literacy, knowledge, and freedom.
Where there is freedom to read and write, there is freedom to think and express. Where civil liberty is hindered, reading is often a rare pastime. Knowledge, art, and understanding are therefore the most perfect of emancipations in that they require only the human mind to (DO NOT CHANGE VERB) effect (DO NOT CHANGE VERB) them, and this isn’t something beheld only by the festival-goers at Cheltenham. Literature festivals around the world stand as beacons to the idea that the literature and the discussion thereof elevates the human species above fears and ignorance of hatred. No mean feat for scribbles on a page.