Literary festivals, as usually reported, sound like pop concerts, with happy audiences and complacent writers, but that is only part of it. They are not alike. You may need wellies for one and sunscreen for another. Nor are the provisions alike. In Edinburgh this year my publishers forgot to send the book I was promoting, or rather selling. When I complained, much more in sorrow than in anger, there was a flurry of concern, and then the report came, ‘But it wasn’t us, the fault was in Glasgow.’ That’s all right then. But HarperCollins is usually very good, and often better than good. Edinburgh may be a place too far, but in China, where I went for the British Council, wherever I went my books were there too — showers of them. It is all a gamble and one has to see it as part of the fun and wonder what will happen this time.
The most glamorous literary festival is in Mantua. Off I set, with no idea of its splendour, but not far from Milan the pilot of the British Airways plane, in the matey way they have when disorder threatens, said that a bit of smoke had been noticed and we were going to divert to Geneva, to be on the safe side. How well we all did behave, Brits and Italians; a philosophical boredom is what we showed: Oh lord, here we go again. In Geneva a couple of hundred of us were isolated in a transit place, without information. Later it turned out that the cell-phoners among us had had contact with Milan, and were being told ‘Another hour.’ ‘No, two hours.’ ‘No, nine o’clock.’ ‘No…’. Three hours passed and the engineers told us that on no account should we dream of getting back on the plane, confirming our suspicions about the bit of smoke. We were to go by coach. How easy that does sound. British Airways had ripped my trusty case to bits, my companion of a hundred flights, and had encased my possessions in thick white plastic. The coach conductor took one look at the old woman with her ugly bundle and said there was no room on his coach for me. But there was plenty. People spoke up for the waif, and he relented, but put my bundle ostentatiously in a separate place in the belly of his coach, where it could not infect the good luggage. He had taken a dislike to me. Quite exhilarating, instant dislikes, but this was not the time for one. He baited me in the jokey look-at-me way of the amateur comic. Luckily I don’t understand Italian but people were laughing and annoyed with him. Then the lavatory was locked.
Only people with elderly bladders will understand the horror of it: four hours with a conductor reluctant to stop. I had armed myself with Coca-Cola, against car sickness (it is used in hospitals for nausea), but he whipped it away when I wasn’t looking. Four hours. Then Milan, and two hours to Mantua and I woke in that city which surely must be one of the most beautiful in the world, a fairytale inside its towers and moat. I forgot the long night and the bullying conductor and that I had travelled through some of the most beautiful landscape in Europe in the dark. Wandering through streets which the princes of the Renaissance had known, where there is not one ugly building, suddenly we heard a drum and pipe and dancers, and there around a corner appeared plump Bacchus wreathed in ivy, smiling in his chariot, but I think a bit embarrassed, surrounded by stilt dancers in their carnival masks and escorted by an elephant whose back emitted assorted nymphs and satyrs. Lovely Italy, so generous with scenes like these.
When we Brits visit Rome, surely we think of Caesars good and bad, and gladiators, and writers and poets and Lesbia’s sparrow, particularly after the recent television series, but the people living in Rome, do they share it with the legions and the emperors? I asked my minder, but she said no, they were thinking about the rent and what to eat. It was only when she had returned from a year in Japan and saw her city with new eyes that she realised she lived in a pretty remarkable place. Now, do we think of our layers of history in London as we go about? I would say that yes, we do. Our river is the best of it, carrying such loads of memories. The Tiber is a tamed beast, sulking there behind its barriers.
In Cheltenham, what will I find? It is a pretty town, but it lacks piazzas and palazzos and even real pizzas. And it won’t have the hundreds of volunteers from all over Italy, dressed in smiles and smart blue jackets. But I have pleasant memories of Cheltenham festivals. After Cheltenham, that’s it, no more festivals this year, and the most interesting thing in a day is likely to be the visit of the plumber or finding my little toad under the slanting stone in the birds’ water dish. I say little, but sometimes it is a big toad, whose shoulders don’t fit under the stone. He sits palpitating as I come near and flattens himself on the bottom of the dish. If he is trying to look like an autumn leaf, he succeeds. On what principle do the big toad and the little toad decide it is their turn for tenancy under the stone? Dangerous for either, because young foxes roam these gardens, this year’s cubs nearly grown, and they would have a toad in one mouthful, pleased for a snack better than a mouse or a beetle. I have a cat. I have a toad, or two. If I had a besom (rather more difficult to find) I would be equipped for a new career as a witch.
From my high window I look down on a green meadow which is the roof of an old reservoir, now dry, which a lot of people are trying to keep as it is, home to foxes, hedgehogs, crows and magpies and jays and all the little birds, but the Water Board wants to build. It would almost certainly be another ‘complex’ of expensive housing and shops we don’t need. If they built housing for the Royal Free Hospital workers, we might not feel so bitter about it.
I feed birds. Apart from the grated cheese, which they all like, the favourite is the ‘porridge’, a mix of oats and water which they all line up for, particularly when they are feeding nestlings. In spring there are hundreds of starlings, the new ones in their apprentice suits of greyish brown that slowly get splattered with the spots and patches of their adult feathers. At the end of July, it seems overnight, there are a tenth of them. They’ve gone, the handsome squabblers, so tame they sat on their cut apples within touching distance and were not afraid. They are swirling about somewhere over fields and woods. When I first came to London, at sunset the starlings whirled in their patterns over Trafalgar Square. Millions of them, so it seemed. All gone now, and if the reservoir gets built on, our starlings will probably soon be a memory.