I have reached the age when I look forward to a literary festival more than a rock concert. I relish the pre-opening canapés, the excited buzz around the bookstall, the effusiveness of the organisers as they greet their guests, the agreed myth that the authors are there to entertain us rather than sell their work.
Last week I was on holiday in a sun-baked country. On the hotel reception desk was a stack of invitations to the opening of just such an event – and it was 5 minutes away. The venue was a theatre, rather oddly approached by walking through a car wash facility but once we arrived, all was familiar. True, the food was more akin to that produced at a village fete than an international cultural event – but that just added to the charm; it was obvious the organisers had worked hard to put on a good show. Since the festival was sponsored, amongst others, by the British Council and UNESCO, I had little doubt they wanted to do them proud. Lined up to read from their books were Henning Mankell, creator of the gloom-ridden Swedish detective, Wallander; authors Deborah Moggach, Abdulrazak Gurnah (whose work has been short-listed for the Booker and the Whitbread prizes) and MG Vassanji – who has won Canada’s most prestigious literary award twice, latterly for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Also on the platform was Virago Press founder, Carmen Callil.
So far so good. Then, precisely ten minutes before curtain up, as the audience were finishing up their drinks in the foyer, a dozen heavily armed police and soldiers in full battledress filed into the theatre – several taking up positions on the stairs to the balcony while two bewildered-looking young recruits stood by the doors. In the confusion we moved to our seats but no sooner had we done so than the theatre manager came in waving a document and announced that he had been ordered to close the theatre by the Minister of the Interior. ‘Why?’ demanded an outraged British author. ‘Ask them’, said the manager waving at more automatic weapon wielding uniformed men in the Dress Circle.
As we filed out, those who had been cheerily dishing out the snacks began to pack them into foil. A voice rose over the hubbub: the director (I think) of the French Cultural Centre had invited the entire festival to decamp to his establishment a couple of hundred yards up the road. Our tattered middle-class procession weaved its way out into the road, now blocked by several police vehicles. At the cultural centre, chairs were hastily lined up in the garden, a microphone was rigged up and the bemused authors led onto a makeshift platform.
So, even before a word was spoken I had learned the difference between a literary festival at home and one at my holiday destination. The latter, it seems, is a political provocation – even though the programme promised that nothing more dangerous to the state was to happen than a handful of distinguished authors would tempt us to buy their books.
If the plan was to humiliate and demoralise the organisers and the participants, then it was a failure. The director started by announcing that, as a Frenchman, he valued freedom which is why he had invited us to use his building. Henning Mankell stated that instead of reading from one of his novels he was inspired by what had happened to tell us about his experiences of freedom and oppression in Africa. He enjoined the audience not to despair – ‘Remember, even the apartheid regime in South Africa is no more,’ he said. In a trice a non-political event had become the opposite.
Paradoxically, the English language uses ‘Philistine’ (from which the word Palestine is derived) to describe someone insensitive to or frankly destructive of anything cultural. But the event I was attending was the 2nd Palestine Festival of Literature. The opening ceremony was in Jerusalem and the attempt to silence authors, poets and publishers was by an Israeli government minister. I looked round in vain for sight of an agitator, let alone a terrorist. All I saw were precisely the same sort of people I might see at Hay-on-Wye. About the most subversive person I identified, looking lugubrious (or perhaps just tired as it had taken him 5 hours to cross the border) was Michael Palin.
We left with a quotation from Edward Said in our ears: ‘Pit the force of culture against the culture of force.’ I look forward to the usual avalanche of emails.