It is surreal being a participant, but also a local - if only by marriage - at the Hay Festival. Fling your kids' fish-fingers in the pan, travel ten minutes through lanes of eye-high cow parsley to hear Harold Pinter - and you can still be back for their bath-time.
This year, for the first time, I also took part as interviewee. Now a certain etiquette attaches to author appearances. I've done a handful so far around the country, and I've noticed that the old troupers make little attempt to describe their books. What they do is repeat the title (again and again) and furnish anecdotes. At first I made unwise attempts to outline the themes of my novel - which proved so depressing to an audience digesting a literary lunch that silvered heads would nod gently and well- manicured hands reach for the Rennies. It also wasn't fair on the book itself, which - if I say so myself - has a narrative that doesn't hang about. At Hay, paired in a first-time novelist slot with Zoe Heller, I found myself at it again, apologising that my novel wasn't packed with cracking one-liners. Afterwards, a friend was cross. Don't apologise for it not being one thing when it is something else, he said.
Wind the clock back a few weeks, and in another context I was apologising not for excess of gravitas, but lack of it, demonstrating how short the journey is from worthy to worthless. A television director rang to see if I might travel with her to an African state that has suffered years of civil war. The documentary would examine the situation of women who had been subjected to the systematic abuses of war, rape as military manoeuvre and so on. This was one of those assignments that I would willingly have travelled to Terminal 3 for. Except, in this case, there was a prior commitment - and a commitment so painfully from a parallel universe that I had difficulty in articulating it. "I'm sorry," I told the director, "I can't come with you. I' m going to the Cannes Film Festival."
The low point of my trip to Cannes was an interminable documentary that was - for reasons that will become obvious - the talk of the seaside town for at least 12 hours. Sex was the story of one Annabel Cheong, porn star, featuring never-before-shown footage of the creative process involved in her work. In the crowded cinema foyer, I was separated ("Are you here for Sex?" inquired the PR girl) from the radio producer I was working with. He ended up down the front, among the earnest European art film hacks, while I sat at the back among the solitary males who simply seemed to have wandered in. Once the lights went down, Stephen, the producer, became progressively uneasy that he had suggested this film, especially when the first few minutes produced earnest discussion of triple penetration - and not in a marketing context either. Annabel Cheong's Big Thing - apart from the engagingly titled I Can't Believe I Had the Whole Team - was her best-selling video Annabel Cheong's Biggest Ever Gang Bang. Two hundred and fifty-one in ten hours, in case you wondered, but soon bettered by a rival, in case you had ambitions.
Aside from the obvious supremacy (in my contest anyway, pal) of eroticism over explicit image, a debate about the nature of pornography thudded around in my head. For me, the only truly pornographic moment of the film was when Annabel, born in Singapore, educated in a British convent, returned to Singapore to see her mother, who was apparently unaware of the nature of her daughter's success. But not for long. If the camera lingered on the mother's blithe reminiscence ("She was always an over-achiever . . .") before the terrible revelation, it peered and poked at the distress and shame that followed.
It was all very dodgy, a combination of cliches - the convent girl, the sleazy pornmeisters, her bravado undermined by moments of vulnerability. Stephen and I emerged separately, convinced that the whole thing was a fake - a postmodern joke by a group of film students out to hoax the cinema establishment into taking this figure seriously, the Nat Tate of independent cinema. But I now have it on good authority that Gang Bang is one of the biggest-selling porn videos of all time. Apparently the documentary is for real - which stretches my definition of reality.
A trip to Ikea is a journey in itself. There are no short cuts. You meander through the wild wood of Scandinavian lifestyle, assailed at every bend in the path by spending opportunities - an ice-tray here, a clothes rack there. At the top of the first floor, you glimpse daylight in the cafe - smoked fish and meatballs, red berries and dill - for the Scandinavian refreshment. It's all blond timber and well-adjusted menus. Balance and moderation are only disturbed by the customers.
At the next table sits a man bent in concentration over a catalogue from an electrical superstore. His wife scurries to and fro the self-service counter. She brings him food and drink, worries over his requirements ("Is that all right? Would you prefer the ham? I can get something else . . ."), pauses briefly to peck at a leaf or two and then launches into a querulous riff on the anxious question of coffee. Her husband keeps his eyes on details of Ram or watts or woofers. "We could have coffee here, or maybe in town. What do you think? It's better there, you know . . . espresso . . ."
Her exhausted worrying continues until he sighs, leans back from the catalogue, without disengaging his eyes, and finally, grudgingly, speaks: "Well, dear," he intones, "it's your day."