Germaine Greer, who will be speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April 2014. Photo: Getty
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Literary festivals haven’t always been as inclusive as they should be – but we can change that

Books and the act of reading are about removing barriers, and public events that celebrate them must do the same, as Alex Clark, guest programmer for this year's Cambridge Literary Festival, explains.

One thing I’ve discovered about planning a literary festival is that it’s good to fast-track the moment when you’re kneeling on a biscuit-crumb floor surrounded by spreadsheets, proof copies and despair; it will come no matter how enthusiastically efficient and Pollyanna-like you are, so try and get it out of the way quickly, around about the moment you get your fiftieth ‘I’d be thrilled, if only I weren’t out of the country’ note of the day. Another: when in doubt, focus on the green room snacks, and don’t be fooled into weighing up quantity v quality. Both are paramount, and a mini-quiche or seven go a long way to soothing an author who’s had a hellish journey, can’t find their reading copy and has just spotted a mortal enemy on the bill.

A few months ago, I was in a festival grey area – a frequent visitor to all sorts of different live literary events as a chairperson; what you might call associated personnel rather than staff, and definitely neither an author nor a punter. If I messed up chairing an event I might be in trouble; but if the building suddenly flooded or a writer failed to show, not my problem.

One festival that I returned to again over the years was Cambridge Wordfest; it always seemed to hit the right combination of writers you wanted to see plus engaged and abundant audiences plus beautiful setting plus generous green room snacks. (A treasured memory: sneaking into the back of a packed chamber with Ali Smith to hear Tony Benn in conversation with his daughter Melissa.)  Crucially, it had very little of the corporate over-organisation that has, perhaps inevitably, accompanied the rise in popularity of literary festivals over the last few years; but nor did it feel amateurishly thrown together. This achievement lies squarely with the festival’s founder and director, Cathy Moore, who twelve years ago felt like going to a local literary festival, discovered there wasn’t one, and so started her own. This summer, after I’d chaired a one-off, sold-out event with Zadie Smith, I asked Cathy if she needed any help and lucked into the precise moment when she was looking to transform Wordfest into the Cambridge Literary Festival. Half a bottle of red later, and I was a guest programmer.

It’s been an instructive few months. At one level, creating a festival is terrifically easy. It’s like being in a really well-stocked bookshop and working out who you want to invite round for a knees-up. But it’s also a party that you’re planning to open to the public and charge them to for entry. And now a whole separate issue emerges: the business of making literary festivals not merely attractive, but important. A couple of decades ago, they numbered only a handful, and their rarity both enticed visitors and preserved the sense that writers were distant, solitary creatures. Now, authors struggle to string together discrete blocks of time in which to write between public appearances. Readers who aren’t able to attend in person can often watch their favourite writers’ live appearances online, and interact with them via social media. While few would want to perpetuate the image of the writer as a shrouded, mysterious homme de lettres, do we really need permanent access to the literary zoo?

Obviously, I’m unlikely to be the sole Christmas-voting turkey (a mixed zoo-farm metaphor; apologies). If I didn’t believe in festivals, I wouldn’t go to so many. They are certainly not part of a get-rich-quick scheme, and nor are the service stations of the British isles endlessly appealing. Do we have too many festivals? Quite possibly. But do they provide something of genuine value to the literary landscape? I think so.

An unintended consequence of celebrity culture is that we’ve become suspicious of the personal encounter with an object of admiration. Why do you want to meet a writer if you’ve got their book? (Persuasive, given how happily we read books by dead people.) If literature’s a celebration of the life of the mind, then why are we turning it into a vulgar entertainment? Rather than stand in a book-signing queue, shouldn’t you be at home reading an unsigned book?

Perfectly true – and yet. All books are the start of a conversation, but most of the time it will be not be a literal one. It will begin with the writer and radiate gradually out to readers; it will splinter off as readers talk to one another, as critics deliver their verdicts, even as the book, as in the case of an adaptation, morphs into other art-forms. All these conversations are part of a healthy and exciting literary culture; but they rarely happen in the same room. At festivals, they can.

I’ve frequently experienced the thrill of a writer revealing something about the genesis of their book or the process of writing it that has been thoroughly and grippingly unexpected; it’s even occasionally happened that I’ve suggested something in their work that they hadn’t been aware was there. In general, audience questions are of a high standard – if you’ve come to sit in a draughty hall for an hour, you’re probably pretty interested. But even if you have wandered in by accident, there’s something especially magical about listening to a writer reading their own work. Some alchemy happens when you listen to someone read their own words, words that they might have spent years making go with one another. 

Obviously, we would like as many people as possible to come to our party. Therein lies a serious point, and one that applies to every single literary festival I’ve ever been to. Writers, publishers and festival organisers love their audiences, but they would also love them to be as diverse as possible: to include readers of every class, race and gender. Books and the act of reading are about removing barriers; and public events that celebrate them must do the same. Over years of going to festivals, I’ve been struck by a sense that this is not the case, or not nearly as much as it should be. I recall being at a festival – let it remain nameless because it could be any single one – and interviewing a writer of colour. It was a sell-out, and one of the most spell-binding events I have attended. But I would be surprised if the non-white members of the very large audience got into double figures. If we can start to change that at Cambridge, in whatever way we can, however long it takes, then the anguish over the coffee-spattered spreadsheets will have been more than worth it.

Highlights from the Cambridge Literary Festival:

Eleanor Catton, Tuesday 1 April, 6pm

Emma Donoghue, Tuesday 1 April, 7.30pm

Damon Galgut, Wednesday 2 April, 6pm

Carol Ann Duffy & Gillian Clarke, Thursday 3 April, 7.30pm

Kirsty Wark, Friday 4 April, 7pm

Hanif Kureishi, Saturday 5 April, 11.30am

Alev Scott, Saturday 5 April, 2.30pm

Jim Crace, Saturday 5 April, 4pm

New Statesman Debate, Saturday 5 April, 5.30pm

Germaine Greer, Saturday 5 April, 7.30pm

Alan Johnson, Sunday 6 April, 11.30am

Natasha Solomons and Charlotte Mendelson, Sunday 6 April, 2.30pm

David Owen, Sunday 6 April, 4pm

Simon Singh, Sunday 6 April, 5.30pm

Pat Barker, Sunday 6 April, 7pm

More details of the programme and how to book tickets can be found here

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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism