I’m going to be honest here. I love a literary festival. Bookish people. Good conversations. A chance to fangirl over rarely seen in public writers, (George Saunders, George Saunders, George Saunders). Tote bags and talk of tote bags. Spending all your hard-earned cash in the festival book store and then not being able to lift your cabin bag into the locker on the Easyjet flight home. Free wine. Not free wine. Presence of Peggy Hughes, (book festival to PH ratio is currently running at approximately one Peggy Hughes sighting for every three literary events in the UK, and surely this is no bad thing). The opportunity to catch up with old friends. The chance to meet new friends. A wee ice cream consumed in the street. I’m easily pleased. So long as all the above are met in some measure, I will basically sleep in the back of my car, run on salt and vinegar Hunky Dory’s for six days straight and call the experience a tremendous success. I’ve lost track of how many book festivals I’ve been to this year. It’s somewhere in the dozens. It feels like it’s in the hundreds. (I have at least a hundred tiny little bottles of thieved hotel shampoo which bear witness to my bookish travels). However, in the middle of all the book festivals, West Cork Literary Festival stands out as a beacon of all that is best and most special about book festivaling and I am extremely grateful to have spent a wee week there, hosted by Eimear, her wonderful staff team and the, (occasionally quite odd but), thoroughly warm and welcoming people of Bantry. Here are my highlights.*
- Scenery, scenery, scenery– I have never been in West Cork before. Why have I never been in West Cork before? Driving round West Cork is like being repeatedly punched in the face by beauty. Boom – it’s an enormous mountain. Boom – it’s the most gorgeous little cove. Boom – it’s a big field of picturesque, standing cows contemplating the heather. My eyes are actually tired from looking at beautiful things. I may well have to spend the week contemplating Castlecourt multi-storey until I recover.
- Great readings – Sarah Perry was my favourite, (mostly because I have never heard her read before and she was just as excellent as I’d imagine in my head and the Essex Serpent is completely wonderful), but I also particularly enjoyed hearing Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume, Sarah Moss and Doireann Ni Ghriofa, who were all stellar.
- Catching up with old friends – ’twas great to spend time, (mostly in pubs), talking and talking and talking to people I truly love but only get to see at book festivals. If nothing else this summer has led me to believe that book festivals are basically just summer camp for writers and this is probably no bad thing. There should be much more getting together to talk in pubs organised for writers. The Arts Council should probably fund this.
- Meeting new people – I met some wonderful people at West Cork Literary Festival this year: Hild and Od from Norway, the Irish language poet Doireann Ni Ghriofa, Maggie Smith, (the lovely, American poet rather than the actor), Vona Groarke and two very chatty nuns. It would have been worth the six hour drive just to meet the chatty nuns but the other folks were also great acquaintances to make.
- Hotel: It is nice to be put up in a hotel. I am often put up in a hotel. As long as it has a bed and no coffee table in the middle of the bathroom I am usually pretty happy. If it has little bottles of shampoo and a working hairdryer I’m delighted. If it has eggs benedicte on the breakfast menu, I am generally ecstatic. West Cork Literary Festival put me up in a suite. Three rooms. Only one of me. And I had a toaster. I bet Hilary Mantel doesn’t even get a toaster in her room when she travels. What a treat.
- Jacuzzi afternoons– when attending literary festivals of three days or more it can begin to feel a little like you are running a marathon with your mouth. It’s not so much the public readings which tire you out, as all the chatting and socialising and constantly having to explain the DUP coalition as soon as people hear your Northern Irish accent. I have now discovered that the antidote to marathon mouth/brain/body is half an hour sitting in the jacuzzi every afternoon. It does help if the hotel has a jacuzzi. Half an hour sitting in reception probably wouldn’t be as relaxing.
- Workshops – I had six people in my introduction to the short story class for three hours every day across five days. Normally at the end of such a series of classes I would email/text/phone Hils and say, “that workshop would have been wonderful if it wasn’t for this one person.” There was no “this one person” in my workshop this week. They were all delightful, talented and very encouraging. I suspect that I lucked out.
- Readings – I got to read with Mike McCormack and Mia Gallagher. Being on stage with a man in an Indiana Jones hat and a strikingly beautiful woman with a killer reading voice, instantly makes you feel like you are in an indie band from the 90s who have aged quite well and are still making really good music twenty years after their initial rise to fame. It was a delight to talk David Lynch, Brexit and Bon Jovi with the two of them and be so expertly chaired by Sasha de Buyl-Pisco.
- So and So and So – everyone in West Cork says so after everything. “There’s your pint, so.” “Your rooms just on the second floor, so.” “I’ll be back in a minute, so.” It is brilliant. It is like encountering Donal Ryan everywhere you turn.
- Bunting of your own face – you quite literally haven’t lived until you’ve seen bunting of your own face strung across the outside of a library or the window of a ladies’ dress shop. Perhaps this might work as an alternative to the usual street dressing in East Belfast next Twelfth season.
*Apologies for the fact that all my blogs seem to have descended into ten point lists these days. If I was going to make an excuse it would involve time constraints, tiredness and something about book editing sucking all the imagination out of me, but in all honesty I just really love making lists.