Outdoor literary festivals are fragile concepts at the best of time given the British climate but legend has it that Cornwall in May can be beautiful. Certainly the little town of Fowey, perched on the edge of the sea and beloved home of Daphne du Maurier, one of last century’s most accomplished and popular writers, must be stunning when the sun shines. One can imagine people strolling across the lawns towards the festival tent, stopping to look down on the great river mouth, imagining tea on the hotel deck after an invigorating encounter with a little literature.
Inside the festival tent where I am the “little literature” there is so much wind that the screen set up to show my images of renaissance paintings is behaving like a galley under full sail. I am delivering the first ever Daphne du Maurier lecture for a festival that used to bear her name but it is now called Fowey Festival of Words and Music. While the ways of festival committees and tourist boards are a marvel to us mere writers, it is possible that someone higher up the chain of command has taken exception to the name change, and is now tossing thunderbolts down to make the point. The audience huddle together for warmth at the front of a 600 seater venue. It is early afternoon on a Monday and while Bruce Springstein or Dan Brown might pull a full house I doubt anyone else could. Even Ken Livingstone over the weekend only reached half way to the back. Still of course we all make the best of it: in fact that flapping screen rather suits the image of Botticelli rising Venus who appears to be dancing in front of our eyes, though it works less well with Bellini’s great portrait of the Doge of Venice whose magnified lips vibrate in a kind of sneer.
I go to bed that night almost buoyant at the prospect of the next days session when I talk about Blood and Beauty, the novel’s first outing outside London since it hit the bookstalls ten days ago. I am woken long before dawn by the sound of water lashing against the windows of my room. By morning the sky is so low and the rain so dense that you can’t make out the sea. Torrential is the only word, though horizontal would better to describe the way it is moving. Daphne would have loved it. I can almost see her striding out across the fields with her dogs at her heel, another macabre twist in a story of deceit and betrayal arranging itself in her mind as she walks. I would join her, only of course I packed for spring and my cute canvas shoes are in danger of giving me trench feet.
At the back of the great tent I cower in a little green room made of furled sheets next to small fan heater. It is never good form to ask the festival organiser how many tickets have been sold because that way lies humiliation, but when I mutter something about loosing audiences to flooding his smile is not reassuring. The wonderful academic who is interviewing me – Helen Taylor is her name and an OBE would be not enough – takes my mind of the weather by running through her questions, which will keep me pirouetting on my literary toes.
As we fumble our way through expanses of black curtains I hear someone laugh. Whoever is out there, he/she has a sense of humour. Perhaps I could invite them back to my hotel room and we could do the session there. Then I walk out on the stage. And guess what? There are people there. I have no idea how many, but many more than I can count and while some of look as if they are wearing their duvets (how I envy them) they are smiling and give us a hearty round of applause. We spend the first five minutes congratulating ourselves on how we all got there at all (thank God for the Dunkirk spirit) and then we get going.
What can I say? I love every minute of it. The adrenaline flows and when the questions from the audience come, they are smart and engaged. As are all the people who come up later to the signing table. I sit with an early glass of wine (and why not?) listening to their stories with a huge grin on my face: the couple where the husband read Sacred Hearts at loud to his wife every night, or the trainee English teacher who wrote her A level dissertation on “The Birth of Venus.” Of course I am flattered. Who would not be? But it’s more than that. Suddenly ten hours on trains, soaking feet and the imminent need to build an ark, don’t matter any more. There is a Jackson Brown track of which I am particularly fond. It is about being on the road and it contains the memorable line.
“The only time that seems too short is the time that we get to play.”
It is exactly how I feel. I must go back to my hotel room and take some drugs (ibuprofen comes to mind) and wreck the furniture. If I don’t fall asleep first.