Literary festivals -- an author's view
Literary festivals are huge fun -- but also unnerving affairs if you're a performing author. The question is: what counts as a successful festival gig? Is it filling the hall they've assigned you? That's easier if the organisers have not expected a huge turnout and have given you a modest room with a modest number of seats.' Standing room only' is always good for morale, even if only takes 40 or so punters to achieve it. The other way round -- when a few faithful followers (usually friends and relations) are dotted around a vast hall fit for a best seller -- is at best a salutary reminder that one's own obsession with one's own book is not actually widely shared. At worst it's a real put-down.
Or do you judge it by books bought and signed? Is an audience of 40 each of whom buys a copy of your latest tome more a success than an audience of 500 if only 10 decide to take a copy home with them? There's a good deal of humiliation in store here too. I dont imagine that there's a single 'ordinary' author who hasnt been in a joint signing session, where the queue to get a signature out of the other authors snakes right out of the 'signing tent' -- while you're sitting there 'unbought', talking to an old student or a friend of your parents who has taken pity on you.
Anyway, these reflections are prompted by the Saturday evening gig that I did at the Bath Literary Festival -- a lecture on Pompeii, a 'tie in' with my new book. I should say that I had a great time (including a wonderful supper before the lecture). And on the first criterion I did just fine: every seat was sold, and more. But the sales weren't exactly brisk...ten or books altogether I would have said. The optimistic explanation would be that the audience had mostly bought it already (dream on, Beard . . . !). The truth must be that, even if I can deliver a good lecture (and I think it was OK), I haven't got much talent as a sales-person. Are you actually supposed to plug the book, I wonder? Imply that your kids will go unshod unless everyone goes away with at least a couple of copies of your latest book (and a few of your earlier efforts) under their arms?
But, sales apart maybe, it was -- for me at least -- a tremendous occasion. Until I came to go back to Cambridge . . .
Those of you who have no patience with Beard's hard luck stories about her travels had better stop here. Because -- you've guessed it -- when I got to Bath station on Sunday morning, there were no trains. 'Engineering works' meant a bus to Swindon, then a long wait, then picking up a train from Exeter to Paddington, then another long wait at Kings Cross -- and finally walking in my front door by 5.00 in the evening, a whole day consumed.
I felt a real idiot. I had figured that, as it was the weekend, the trains might be a problem. So I had checked everything about the outward journey very carefully indeed, not wanting anything to stop me getting to Bath on time. But I hadnt been quite so scrupulous about the return. After all, I had a booked seat. But it appears that they are quite happy to sell you a seat in a carriage in a train that's not going to run.
Is there any other country in the world where 'engineering work' simply stops large parts of the transport system weekend after weekend (the Circle Line wasn't running either as it happens)?
And is there any other country where they have no rubbish bins at stations? On Kings Cross, I had about 40 minutes to wait and was hungry -- so I bought an apple (weight watching not Lenten abstinence). But where was I to put the chewed core? Large notices explain that for 'security reasons' there are no bins, and urge travellers to hand their litter to one of the five mobile litter pickers who are 'always' at work on the station. With 20 minutes still to go to my train, I decided to put this to the test -- without success. I did at one point catch sight of what I thought was a litter picker, zooming off towards the taxi rank, but I failed to catch it/him up. Where the other four were, I havent a clue.
I ended up taking the core onto the train and putting it in the bin there. Apparently there is no 'security risk' on a train