Someone should write a guide to the best literary festivals. Sydney and Auckland would certainly be there, along with Sri Lanka, Jaipur and Dubai. Later this year I’m off to Mumbai and I’ve been invited to Mandalay. I swear there are writers who never actually have time to write any more, they spend so much of the year shuffling around all these exotic places. I’ve just come back from the festival of writing at Borris, which I loved. It’s a beautiful house in County Carlow, two hours from Dublin, and the whole weekend was one long party in the company of Michael Morpurgo, Simon Schama, Carl Bernstein and others. Writing is such a lonely, solitary business that this comes as a great reward, though I was stumped by a ten-year-old with a killer question: ‘Have you ever written a book in which someone didn’t die?’ The answer, I was horrified to realise, was probably not. Is that an admission of failure? Or something worse?
The two highlights at Borris for me were Fiona Shaw performing both Beatrice and Benedick at breakneck speed, and a debate on Brexit with Misha Glenny (McMafia) in conversation with Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole. I didn’t want to go but I’m glad I did. The talk was lucid, objective… and terrifying, with British influence and prestige, they say, evaporating around the world. Coming out, I was tempted to throw myself under a car. It would be comforting to find one that had still been made in the UK.
Speaking of Brexit (though as seldom as possible), I’ve noticed a particularly insidious form of one-upmanship that’s beginning to appear in the UK as friends of mine announce that they’ve managed to acquire a foreign passport. At Borris, one speaker had found ancestors from Dublin and apparently this was enough to make him an Irish national. Someone else had lost grandparents in the Holocaust and this gives them automatic entry to Germany. It’s probably distasteful of me to regret that my family escaped unscathed, but I’m getting very irritated by all the people who have smugly told me that they’ve found a way to escape whatever’s coming our way.
Even so, I’m having a stab at Greek citizenship. I’m writing this in Athens where I’ve been invited to a book award ceremony and I’m assured that my wonderful Greek publisher has vizma, which is the Greek word for connections — with just a hint of Mafia-style influence thrown in. I spend a lot of time in Crete and my books are doing well over here. I even speak some Greek… though sadly not very well. It’s a horribly difficult language. Even the words you know can shift and transform themselves until they’re unrecognisable. And I make stupid mistakes. Recently, someone told me their mother had died and I meant to say salipiteria which is the Greek for ‘condolences’. Instead, I said singhariteria — and when I saw them staring at me in consternation, I realised I had actually just congratulated them.
While I’m out here, I’m writing a new novel — a sequel to Magpie Murders. It’s another book within a book, this time about a murder set in a hotel in Suffolk, and the strange thing is that the moment I arrived at Borris House, I knew I’d found my location. It was like walking into something out of my own head. Morgan McMorrough Kavanagh, the current owner in a line that goes back to the 11th century, gave me a tour of the property, including the very fine library (no body here, I think — it’s been done) and the mysterious cellars, or dungeons, that stretch out beneath the garden. I shall uproot the whole place and transfer it to Woodbridge. And the ancient Figeen, a silver brooch once worn by a king, will be a clue.
All this talk of Borris makes me think of the other one— with one ‘r’ — and the leadership contest which I’m watching from afar. When he was mayor, I interviewed Mr Johnson for The Spectator and I have to say that having written perhaps nine or ten million words in my career, those are the only 2,000 I now regret. He bamboozled me. I knew he was doing it but he was so warm, so humane, so entertaining that I ended up writing a much more generous piece than I had intended. This was before the so-called Garden Bridge and the loss of £53.5 million in extremely dubious circumstances. It was also before Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe ended up in an Iranian jail. But he still lied to me, going through that shtick — he’d used it before — about having not a scintilla, not a snowflake’s chance in hell of becoming prime minister. I finished the piece by saying that I might vote for him, so I’m glad to have this opportunity to say that on reflection, even if I was being given the chance, I wouldn’t.