Lit Chic: Mud and medicine

Originally published August 2011 on Fest magazine’s website:

The Glastonbury spirit returned once again to Charlotte Square today, although Saturday’s sun-soaked atmosphere seemed a distant memory. Instead, mud prevailed, with the crowd correspondingly moving from the gardens to the cosiness of the Bookshop Cafe or that haven from reality, the carnivalesque Spiegeltent.

Instead of fighting for a seat in the cafe, I went to see Chris Adrian chat with Audrey Niffenegger. Having only previously read an essay he wrote in the Observer about cheating his way to becoming leader of his summer camp, I was looking forward to hearing him talk about his latest work The Children’s Hospital, which I’ve been intending to read for a while. I wasn’t disappointed. Niffenegger (who, incidentally, has the best laugh I’ve heard yet at the Festival  – it kind of crackles) admitted to being a huge fan of Adrian’s work and asked him searching and stimulating questions. Adrian’s work focuses on medicine and illness, which could seem somewhat downbeat, but he flits between fantasy and reality with such ease that listening to him read I was left with a lasting sense of hope: this is work that celebrates life – although admittedly in all its fragility.

Speaking of hope, today’s Amnesty event was definitely the best I’ve been to so far. The focus was on writers from the 1970s, with readings from the work of Steve Biko, Vaclav Havel, Alicia Portnoy and Sonia. I was particularly touched by Portney’s poetry, which deals with themes of loss and desperation; in her poem To My Daughter she questions whether she’ll ever see her again and discusses how she now, after enduring months of abuse, only cries when she writes to her family. Maybe it was the rain pounding onto the roof of the Peppers Theatre, but this was truly atmospheric, spine-tingling stuff.

This event also confirmed a growing inclination I’d had that the exit music to Festival events is deliberately chosen: having heard Blur’s Girls and Boys after an event that discussed hermaphroditia, and Abba’s Take a Chance after Ali Smith discussed whether their music could be proven to be chemically addictive, I was suspecting that some wag was having a good time behind the sound desk. But walking out into the rain today to Teardrop by Massive Attack seemed totally and utterly fitting.

Today had a different, less frenetic atmosphere to previous days – not necessarily a bad thing given that I’ve been struggling to achieve my aforementioned aim regarding my sleep:Festival ratio. A bit of space to think about some of the many ideas articulated over the first long weekend was welcome, in fact, with almost two weeks of literary adventuring still to come.


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