Cheltenham literature festival memories

800px-Cheltenham_view_arpI work in Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, UK, and it’s just about Cheltenham Literature Festival time here at the moment. White marquees are springing up surprisingly like huge alien mushrooms in parks across town. It’s one of the biggest literature festivals in the UK and all very exciting.

The bill features very many celebrities from television and movies who have a book out for Christmas, plus a few proper authors who make a living writing books. Well, you have to put bums on seats after all.

DSC00849 (2)Seeing it all magically appear reminds me of the couple of times I have been invited to the festival to read. Once was last year to launch my book – nothing fancy, just me and a few people in the festival book shop tent. The other time was a few years ago when I was invited to read my Bridport Prize winning short story on a bill with a few other ‘emerging’ authors.

I remember we met up in the reading room in the town hall which felt like quite a posh moment. I was hoping it would be crammed with famous authors, especially as Martin Amis was reading that evening, but he wasn’t there and the only well known face was a bloke called David Bellamy who was a TV naturalist and was surrounded by earnest young men talking about green issues. Still I was pleased to be there and sat in a corner trying to look writerly.

800px-Cheltenham_town_hall_arpTop of my bill was the woman who had won the Orange prize that year, but she didn’t show up, then there was a guy whose first novel had just been published, then me, then a couple of writers from a creative writing website which was sponsoring the event.

So we followed one of the organisers to the venue which turned out to be the student union bar for the University of Gloucestershire. Which was fine, you can imagine what it was like – same as all the other student bars you’ve been in.

The first person to read was one of the writers from the website. She was a middle-aged American lady with quite bright bottle-blonde hair and she was a ‘big personality’ – all full of beans and enthusiastic, which was nice. I asked her if she had butterflies as she was on first and she said no, certainly not. She was all full of vim and get up and go etc. She even punched the air to show how keen she was. But then when she got up on the stage she died a death – completely crashed and burned. She went down like Justin Bieber on an oil rig.

It wasn’t like the Glasgow Empire – people weren’t booing and throwing stuff – there was just monumental indifference. They’d turned the juke box off and dimmed the lights a little but people were still playing pool, the fruit machines were still beeping away, people were talking to each other at the bar and so on. The only people listening were us other writers, because, let’s face it, you wouldn’t want it to happen to you.

She’d picked the wrong story was part of the problem, a sort of comedy about an elderly couple in the Cotswolds and the denouement was that the old boy had left the tickets to Crete in his other smoking jacket (I’m not making this up). And she tried so hard – she was even doing voices – impressions of the posh English couple. But it was just uphill all the way for her. It was much too young a crowd to be interested in that kind of story. At one point she stopped reading and shouted at the people by the bar that it was rude to talk. I really felt for her.

And when she came off stage she was crying – proper tears running down her face. At which point I went to the loo. Which I know might not exactly cover me in glory, but I had to follow this on remember. When I came back she’d gone, without even taking her money – I know!

But the next writer up, again from the website, was only a bit older than the students. She’d brought various stories so she could test the water before deciding what to go with and she read a thing about teenage vampires (again – not making this up) which went down quite well as you would imagine.

I didn’t get to choose my story – I had to do my Bridport winner which was like my hit single at the time (I was a one hit wonder). But when I came back from another visit to the loo the lights had been dimmed further, seats set out in rows, bar shut and everyone sat down like a proper gig. So mine went ok.

I think of that poor American woman when I occasionally do readings though – it shows just how bad things can go if you are unlucky. It helps me prepare for the worst and hope for the best!

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

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12 thoughts on “Cheltenham literature festival memories

  1. Oh what a wretched moment for all of you! I feel for her! What a terrible shame, Chris. I recently read somewhere that the first thing you need to remember as a writer is that nobody cares about your books or your work, except you and maybe your wife/husband. Okay, maybe this is a bit extreme, but in a way I get it. She might not have been greeted with such monumental indifference if she’d been playing a musical instrument, for instance. I’m glad yours went well, though. What is that story and is it published where we can read it?

    • I think that’s very true Val – having a book published is certainly an exercise in humility. The story was called The Runner and was published in the Bridport anthology at the time. I’d love to have a story collection published at some point, in which that one would probably feature – I’m working on it a the moment but, as we all know, finding a publisher can be tough.

  2. We feel for her – a timely reminder that even the most skilled, best prepared can bomb if there’s no chemistry with the audience. But I’m glad you were ok (and your bladder fine after all those toilet trips).

  3. Yes I was indeed the one with the vampire story. It had been written many many years before that night, for the website Bloodlust. It was funny and seemed to please ’em. Thank God I had it with me. I had a (rather good – later won prizes) story for the original reading but it was again about middle-aged people. We had art students who were professionally bored even before we started. It would not have impressed them. But the first lady going on and coming off in tears, it is impossible to forget.

    I too remember that sweaty feeling of disappointment and gloom. I didn’t drink but I certainly needed a JD afterwards.

    You may have felt awful, Chris – but you actually did very well and looked calm. I also remember asking someone if there were any tickets for Will Self left and they said ‘Yes, loads – the Cheltenham old dears are frightened of him.’ Hilarious.

    You captured and remembered it perfectly, Chris. Also Magnus Magnusson (Mastermind) jumped the queue and took my taxi. I also forgot to cash my cheque from the festival. Wow – it was a bummer all round, wasn’t it?!

    • Thanks Julia – it’s funny how thinking about the festival this week brought it all back in a bit of a Proustian rush. It probably wasn’t a bad night for any of is in fact, apart from that poor woman who went on first and who was, I think, quite unfairly treated by the audience. Hey listen – at least there was an audience, I’ve done some since with pretty much nobody there, and ones where you don’t get paid.

  4. ooh poor her! I ‘did’ the Cheltenham Festival…on thee bill with another writer as a double act ..Spy Girls and Stunt Girls. They looked after us very well and I got to meet Michael Rosen. The trouble with events like this is that audiences have very high expectations of the ‘performers’ and that’s what you are! If you can’t ‘perform’, don’t do them! I’ve seen a lot of writers (some well known) tank. Usually because they just don’t know how to work an audience and their voice isn’t ”trained”. The best writer/performers are always children’s writers who used to be teachers! It’s not the fault of the rest – they’re writers, fgs, but nowadays that is not enough, is it!! Hope her experience didn’t put her off writing….

    • Who knows – it’s a mystery wraped in an enigma given I didn’t catch her name. I doubt it did put her off because it’s not writing is it? it’s reading. Also, she was naturally an extremely upbeat person. I quite like reading because it’s a form of showing off and I am, sad to say, a bit of a show off on the quiet. Doing them gives me the same adrenalin buzz that singing and playing guitar in a band used to long ago. I would probably do more if more were on offer.

  5. I had to turn down an invitation to Cheltenham a couple of years ago due to other commitments. Having read this I’m not overly disappointed!
    After a couple of similar problems I now ensure I write my own questions for radio interviews and never EVER entertain the idea of speaking on ANY subject at their AGM just in case the treasurer numbs more than bums by reading the balance sheet in its entirety.

    • It wasn’t that bad – well, for me anyway, I’ve done it again since – and will again if they ask me. It just turned out unfortunately for that one lady – I think the audience might have been a little kinder to her personally.

  6. Oh no, that poor woman! It definitely sounds like the venue was the problem; I can’t imagine a student union bar being a particularly encouraging place to read anything out.

    It must have REALLY put the pressure on for you and the lady going next!

    • I did feel sorry for the lady who went on first – I hope it didn’t put her off. I was fine as it turned out – and so was Julia who went on before me, in fact you can read her recollections of the evening just a little further up this comment string! I think you are right about the venue – though I also think if there had been seating and low lighting from the start then people would have behaved differently.

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