The Gladfest buzz started in the middle of last week, when things began to happen not just behind the scenes, but in front. The arrival of two marquees for the lawns in front of the Library, teams of men to erect them. Tantalising... what was going to happen in those? A gardener hard at work, in the shape of Jean, the visiting Chaplain, on her intrepid voyage of discovery, uprooting and replanting an overgrown rockery and flowerbed. (I am convinced there is a layer of metaphor below that last sentence. However, the duties of Writer in Residence should include a period of gardening - for no reason other than this: I discovered in my paltry hour or so helping out, that it is rather brilliant for cracking previously insurmountable problems with the oeuvre.)
On Friday, the Library doors were flung open in more ways than one, and the invasion of the chairs began. The arrival of a stage borrowed from the primary school. Sound system. Lighting. And if anyone was thinking this was an ‘exclusive’ event in all senses of the word, the frequent signs exhorting visitors not only to queue here, but also to tweet @gladlib and #gladfest, to facebook, and to instagram photos and comments soon put an end to that. (Is ‘to instagram’ a verb? Note to self, look that up.) Other signs that something was about to happen: more trays of glasses than normal in the Gladstone Room, bottles of Hendrick’s gin, slices of cucumber and bowls of ice cubes. The arrival of taxi after taxi, the trundle of suitcases on the path. The beehive-like hum in the kitchen.
Held breath. Would it go well? The first literary festival at Gladstone’s Library.
Friday, 6.00 pm. Lift-off, and I can tell you that elderflower goes very nicely with Hendrick’s and tonic. The Hendrick’s is thanks to the presence of the wonderful force that is Damian Barr, and it helped a great welcome party get under way for everyone who wished to come, whether writer or non writer, resident or non-resident, staff member or not.
Later, in the Theology Room (actually, in the Library, for those who don’t know) Damian was interviewed by Peter Francis about his wonderful, funny, poignant memoir, Maggie and Me (Bloomsbury). (Yes, I know that should be ‘and I’. However, the narrator is the boy, growing up in Glasgow in the reign of Thatcher, and this title works stupendously well. That was to curtail any pedantry.) Looking back, this event, warm, generous, interesting, sometimes funny, always thought-provoking, set the tone superbly for the whole weekend.
By Saturday lunchtime, if anyone didn’t know what bibliotherapy was before, they did now. Ella Berthoud, resplendent in white coat and stethoscope, bibliotherapist extraordinaire (she might even have invented the word...) let a packed audience in on a diagnosis session, with Mr Barr acting as patient. How fascinating - an analysis of reading habits going back to childhood, likes and dislikes, and reading ‘ailments’ (oh I have so many of those...) culminating in a prescription - a list of guess what - more novels to read as a cure! But novels that the patient, well-read as he is, had not yet read. Ella, whose terrific book The Novel Cure (Canongate) has just been published to great acclaim, was inundated with requests for her ‘surgery’ sessions over the weekend, and was soon sold out.
These hallowed corridors were filled with people, young and old(er). The dining room overflowed with people grabbing coffees and snacks between events. Some started to relax in the Gladstone Room with the paper then realised there was something more interesting happening, and rushed out to catch whatever it was - including the poetry slam.
Leah Edge and Jeanette Wooden from The Reader Organisation ran ‘Make Friends With A Book!’ for children aged between 6 and 10 twice, such was the demand. And Andrew Tate, Senior Lecturer at Lancaster, had the Theology Room spellbound for his talk on Twenty-First Century Gospels - Jesus in Contemporary Fiction. Pullman, Crace, Alderman, Beard, Toibin... (I loved Jim Crace’s Quarantine. I didn’t love Pullman’s Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, but there you are. Chacun a son gout.)
Waterstones had set up a pop-up store, and was doing a roaring trade, by this point. Books were bought. Books were browsed. Books were signed. The marquees were home to craft stalls, to food stalls.
Sarah Perry’s lecture, Gladstone, Tennyson, Hallam, was a mesmerising exploration of Victorian friendship, and if there wasn’t an audience member who didn’t mourn the loss of such friendships when she had finished, I’d be surprised. Conversations flowed, afterwards, over gin, wine, coffee. Even on facebook!
Theatre, radio and television script-writer Shelley Silas’s Scriptwriting workshop was a sell-out. Crime writer Martin Edwards and his cast of thespians, acting out a Victorian crime for the audience to hone their skills as detectives, was a hoot.
Stella Duffy’s sparkling talk Wearing Many Hats, left us all inspired, moved, fizzing with energy! (Not easy for a lazy chair-loving animal like moi...) Deborah Wynne, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature at Chester, spoke about the history of Browns of Chester. Performance poet Martin Daws led an interactive poetry workshop for young people. And Emma Rees, Senior Lecturer in English at Chester - a packed audience hung on her every word as she explored the issue of talking about the female body in Western culture.
I will have such wonderful memories of this weekend, and am full of gratitude that it took place during my residency. (Yes, I had an event too, but that’s not the point!) It was very special to be able to spend time with other writers here, two of whom had also been writers in residence, and were so delighted to be back ‘home’. Stella Duffy, Sarah Perry. And when people ask, ‘What was your favourite event?’ I won’t be able to answer.
People say Gladstone’s Library feeds you, in many many ways, and that is truer than I can explain. Maybe then, a better question is what fed me the most, as well as giving me pure enjoyment? To which the answer is, Don Cupitt’s event, in conversation with Peter Francis. Sara Perry’s lecture, as it turned out to have a direct bearing on my novel-in-progress. And then, Wendy Cope’s reading, with Lachlan Mackinnon, for different reasons.
So why the silly title, Breakfast with Wendy Cope, which sounds as if it could be a poem by the lady herself? Gladfest was, as I said above, non-exclusive. Open to all. Something of interest for all. And all came. I met such terrific people, had such great natters over snatched coffees. I spent time with writers, published and not yet. I also spent time with writers who are far far more experienced than I am or will ever be, probably. There is no Green Room, separating the ‘greats’ from the merely ‘good’ and the ‘hoping to be goods’. At Gladfest, the writers on the stage do not scuttle away after their events, as if they and the rest can not mix, oil and water.
They mix at Gladfest. It makes quite a good cocktail, actually - Hendrick’s take note. I did have breakfast with Wendy Cope, and I’m not going to tell you what she ate. So there.
Gladfest was terrific. Congratulations and thanks to everyone who worked so hard to make it so. I am awarding it, and all of you, a medal which looks a little like an exclamation mark.