So the weather was good, and that always helps, even if you’re seated in a blacked-out marquee, because when you’ve walked past families settled on the grass, or students gathering at the promotional tents, and the rest of us are milling between those seven other possible gathering points that have been fitted into the grassy square, well it could have got messy.
But we had sunshine slanting across the autumnal leaves that line the main route into Cheltenham, so there was a lot of cheerful chattering as people compared notes and ‘book bags’. I was in literary mode well before I found my seat.
I was early. There was time to settle down and take a good look about. A woman squeezed past to take the seat on my left. ‘How many have you read?’ she said. ‘We’ve done them all. I passed them to my husband as I finished each one, and then we discussed them.’
‘Which one would you like to win?’ I asked.
‘Somerset Maugham,’ she said. ‘Isn’t he marvelous?’
And that’s how it seems to be at the literature festival, people are ready to talk book at the drop of a smile.
The audience was divided, evenly at the first straw-pole, between the five novels that had been chosen as ManBooker contestents. It was an eclectic selection: The Thirty-Nine Steps (John Buchan), The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford), Of Human Bondage (Somerset Maugham), Psmith, Journalist (P. G. Wodehouse) and The Voyage Out (Virginia Woolf).
The panellists, Victoria Glendinning, Andrew Lownie, Selina Hastings, Alan Judd and Robert McCrum championed a novel each. If you’ve ever wondered about one of the most often repeated pieces of advice given to would-be writers that they should read, lots, events like this demonstrate what it’s about.
After writers have read for pleasure, they go back and think about how the story got written. So, that’s what we heard, writers thinking aloud about the nuts and bolts of creation, assessing not just the literary merits, but also the creative skills.
Chairman, James Walton was not impartial. He anticipated which of the novels would fall at the first and second hurdles as he pushed for a decision on the titles that could be quickly discarded. But, he pointed out, half of his job was time-keeper. This panel could not luxuriate in arguments about what was clearly lesser literature. The winner would be decided within an hour.
Was this a fair collection of titles? How come Joseph Conrad’s, Victory, or The Rainbow, by D. H. Lawrence weren’t included? I’d wondered about how this list had been put together when I booked the ticket.
It was only after the event that I realized how artful the compilers had been. What we had were titles to appeal to all sorts of readers – adventure, comedy, social issues, female writing and a mystery. Many had, like my neighbour, read all of them for the first time in preparation for this event. Some were going home to read one or two again, some to try them for the first time.
What the panel had done, was to rouse our curiosity. As we filed out, all round I heard people discussing those five, 1915 novels. Is it me, or isn’t the idea that something published one hundred years ago can still grip us, wonderful and somehow reassuring?