My name is Rachel Johnson and I am a “lit fest” addict. It started with Write on Kew: I sneaked into a tent on the greensward where Mel Giedroyc, a presenter of The Great British Bake Off, interviewed me and Prof John Mullan about our favourite books (although I think she said “reads”, just as cakes must only be “bakes” on Bake Off). Nobody really paid attention to us, or bought our books. The draw was Mel. Not only does she host the most popular show on British TV (the final had a peak audience of 14.5 million) but she brought plates and plates of “bakes”, including sticky caramel brownies from the set of Celebrity GBBO, fully loaded with melted Curly Wurlies. Resistance was futile.
Grey American novelist
Then it was the Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, via Henley Literary Festival (in case you think I really am addicted, I should point out that I was promoting a book). I was on the same train as Jonathan Franzen. He had gone a bit grey. At first, I thought it was the Great Western catering trolley but then I remembered his pasting in the Times the day before.
Jenni Russell went “ad librum” in a column, calling his latest Great American Novel, Purity, overhyped by publishers and bad. You can see why Franzen might have been a bit browned off by this inside hit job. His UK publisher is HarperCollins (owned, like the Times, by Rupert Murdoch). He had come from New York partly to do the festival sponsored by the paper that took him down. I felt sorry for him but I think that the Times should be commended for its independence, not faulted for its careless lack of corporate tact. Russell was inevitably at CheltLitFest as well as Franzen (and everyone else from Jilly Cooper and Charles Moore to Don McCullin). To have been a fly on the wall in the green room when their paths crossed . . .
Love on the hoof
Jilly Cooper – whom I interviewed – was smuttier and funnier than anyone else in Cheltenham, at the age of 78. Our conversation ranged from political correctness and lesbianism to the love of dogs and attractive politicians (she confessed to a surprising tendresse for John Prescott) but my two favourite bits were when she cried with laughter as we read out our winning scenes for our Bad Sex in Fiction awards and her detailed descriptions of research for her new book, Leading Sire. The novel is all about the wild world of stud horses. So there are lashings of horse sex. It was touching when Jilly described in detail the shy stallions that could only rise to the occasion in the paddock when certain faithful mares were waiting patiently back in the stable or when trusted vets were present. We all know men like that and have at times even loved them.
Mum’s the word
In Manchester for the Tory conference to chair events, listen to Boris and Theresa and Zac – but mainly to go to parties. Every time I penetrated the secure zone, angries wearing pig’s head masks chanted, “Boris is a wanker!” at me or, “Your mother hates you!” I wondered if they’d read my artist mother’s interview with Michael Cockerell in the Radio Times (tied in to a Sky Arts doc about her last week). In it, she said that she was amazed to find she had “four Tory children”, had never voted Tory and was thrilled about Jeremy Corbyn.
Before I got to Manchester, I said that everyone should man up and put on their ties and wear their lanyards and T-shirts saying “Tory Scum” with pride. As soon as I got there, however, I was terrified by the gobbing and abuse and wanted my mummy.
Twitter? You mean antisocial media
After attending a party to celebrate the £3 Corbynistas who had helped to elect the new leader, I tweeted a picture of Paul Staines (also known as Guido Fawkes) and the journalist Toby Young making a victory oration. To my unconfined joy, a Labour MP tweeted in response, “. . . what a bunch of nobs you are.” There were two priceless aspects to this. First, Anna Turley clearly meant “knobs” as opposed to entitled poshos but couldn’t spell. Second, the potty-mouthed MP is, needless to say, the shadow minister for civil society.
Escape from the flea circus
At the Midland hotel in Manchester, I ran into a friend who works for Der Spiegel. He told me that in Germany, authors don’t sit onstage, trying to remember their “funny stories” like performing fleas. They go on a circuit tour of cities and do readings. “For how long?” I asked. “A Lesung is an hour. An hour and half,” Christoph said. I dimly remember someone (probably a Mitford) saying that National Socialism could never have taken off in Britain because everything – rallies, speeches, and so on – went on for so long. In England, lit fests thrive, as Auberon Waugh once put it, because writers hate writing and readers hate reading.
When I got back from “eventing” at the annual mass gatherings of the chattering classes all over the country, my husband said, “Even you must be bored of the sound of your own voice.”
Spitting out Pip
I am writing this from Lycia, Turkey, where I am on a brief walking holiday to celebrate a recent milestone birthday with a group of friends. I won’t bore you with descriptions of the flora and fauna, the sea views, the waterfalls where we strip off our socks and technical trousers with many pockets. We’re doing a stretch between Fethiye and Antalya. Out of eight of us, four are reading the Franzen, or have read it, or are listening to the audiobook. It pains me to write this, as I loved The Corrections and Freedom and I’m a believer in the Great Male American Novel – I refuse to believe in the entire concept of “chick lit”, for gender balance – but so far (I’m on page 67) it is annoying and knowing and has a tediously wack and possibly deranged female main character in Pip. Though the others are telling me to persevere, I agree with Jenni Russell.
This article appears in the 14 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn supremacy