Marlborough’s Debut Literary Festival

Posted: September 26, 2010 in Literature

Margaret Drabble (front-left), Mavis Cheek (front-right), Nick Fogg (rear-left) and Mayor Andrew Ross

Originally in my Wiltshire blog.

Marlborough’s first ever literary festival started with drinks in the town hall.

“The great thrust of this festival is about writing. Good writing, as opposed to celebrity books. We are going to go on supporting that.”

This was the main emphasis of Mavis Cheek’sspeech at a party celebrating the first talk of Marlborough’s debut literary festival on Friday.

Looking around the room I saw a couple notable faces – Mavis herself, of course, and the guest speaker Margaret Drabble. But there was no one who was likely to appear on the cover of OK! Magazine anytime soon. The organisers had succeeded in keeping the festival a celebrity-free event.

I went to the party as a representative for Wiltshire Magazine. As a newbie in journalism I still find entering a room full of distinguished strangers a little intimidating. Thankfully such events are always well stocked with alcohol. Being a classy event, the Marlborough Literary Festival had a good supply of the local bubbly from a’Beckett’s Vineyard near Devizes.

After a few sips of the sparkling wine I began to wonder what literary events in the old days were like, when writers like Dylan Thomas and Ernest Hemingway – both of whom were famous for their heavy drinking – were alive.

When Dylan Thomas toured the US with Under Milk Wood, was the bar at every venue stocked with his favourite whisky? And before Ernest Hemingway gave a talk about his latest novel, did he knock back half a bottle of wine as his characters so often do in his books?

Imagine what a Beat festival in the 1950s must have been like, when William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were about – all of whom enjoyed experimenting with “mind expanding” substances. There must have been drugs galore at those festivals!

As my mind slowly returned to reality – it took a few seconds to end that bizarre train of thought – invited guests mingled and chatted with each other. A relaxed vibe came over the place as the organisers of the festival, who had worked for months to make it happen, were starting to let loose.

I stopped the mayor to ask for a photo and he began joking with his friend about whether or not he should be photographed holding his champagne flute. “Why pretend to be something you’re not?” his friend responded. I photographed the two of them next to each other: the mayor standing flute-less and alert, the friend holding his bubbly with a sly grin.

To some, this would be a humorous example of a country town trying to embrace the world of culture and the arts. It would be the sort of event that the Spinal Tap creator Christopher Guest would use as the subject of a mockumentory – an English version of Waiting for Guffman set in Wiltshire.

Yet I imagine that a bigger, more established event – such as the Cheltenham Literature Festival – would have much less zest than this small, provincial appreciation of the arts.

And, on reflection, zest was the dominant feeling of evening: Zest for good writing by good writers, with not a single celebrity in sight.

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