Rit is rarely advisable to catch the bait, but sometimes one is tired and surly and, like a child, very eager to be centered in speech. So it was that, sitting at the ferry port waiting for dark to return to Ireland after a week of interviewing writers and performers at literary festivals in the UK, I tweeted with irritation about Nadine Dorries.
Do I care if she believes people are booing Boris or, in her version, expressing joy and gratitude in his presence? No. But, it struck me, I really wish the culture secretary would tweet about culture, not his made-up wars, and acknowledge that the arts are all over the country. That my message seemed to find favor in my little echo chamber was nice but, perhaps, a somewhat Pyrrhic victory.
I had just driven from Hay-on-Wye, where thousands of people had come to listen to hundreds of writers during the festival. Specifically, another army of people, many of them volunteers, did it all: locals set up entertainers in their guest rooms, don high-visibility jackets to outfit makeshift parking lots, fetch coffee and sandwiches.
The tents were full. Lines for book signings stretched for miles. But this isn’t just fan mail for Hay, so they’ll be inviting me back, because it happens all the time, everywhere – even now, as the organizers recover from two years without an audience and all the costly and ingenious efforts they have made. do to offer digital alternatives. How heartening it would be if there was even a hint of public recognition from the government. Isn’t that the least we can expect?
One of my interlocutors was The repair shopby Jay Blades, whose memoir Do it might also be useful reading for those who pontificated this week about how we quantify and characterize the success of working-class people. My main takeaway from the Blades story: it can take years to figure out how to live your life, even longer to get there, and trying to impose a linear narrative on it is futile and counterproductive. All we should ask is that society, its structures and agencies, do not confuse the right of every citizen to find a way forward. Again, isn’t that the least of expectations?
But Blades gave me something more personal. I mentioned to him that my 87-year-old mother-in-law was a huge fan and that — sorry, writers — his ears really perked up when I said I was going to meet him. Immediately, he commandeered my phone and gave him an utterly delightful video message, which, of course, I forwarded directly.
To finish! My family thinks I have a real job.
Costa bows out
In a less Pollyanna vein, there will no longer be a Costa Book Prize. The awards, in which five category winners ultimately compete, have been running for 50 years, sponsored first by Whitbread and then by Costa.
A strong selling point was their ability to combine widespread appeal and draw public attention to lesser-known writers – previous winners include Hilary Mantel, Philip Pullman and Kate Atkinson, but last year’s winner was the poet Hannah Lowe, a boon not just to her, but to a genre not always associated with the spotlight. Organizing literary awards is expensive, and presumably the returns, in terms of corporate marketing, are difficult to measure; Costa isn’t the first to bow out, and he probably won’t be the last. But hopefully someone else with deep pockets and an appreciation for the value books bring to our cultural life will emerge on a metaphorical horse.