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Books Britain England

My England Diary

Cheltenham Literature Festival

Listening to the radio on the drive to Heathrow after two weeks in England, host Richard Coles (current vicar, former pop-band member) mentions the “deep seams of embarrassment” that are core to the British psyche. His assertion is that tapping into these seams is the key to British stand-up comedy. It strikes a chord with me, too. This more than tea and scones, Shakespeare, cozy pubs or any other emblems of twee Britannia, is the root of my Anglophilia. I am, at heart, a congenitally embarrassed American.

Embarrassment has been a sort of leitmotif of my visit, which coincided with the annual Cheltenham Literature Festival. As with past years when I’ve been able to attend, one of the festival highlights was the event featuring four of the Man Booker Prize finalists (alas not the winner, Anna Burns). When Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room, stood at the lectern and started to read, she immediately interrupted herself to ask the person in the audience that sounded like they were slurping their drink through a straw to please stop. She did this with a sort of comic abrasiveness that elicited a laugh from the audience. No sooner had she started again than she interrupted herself once more to ask the offender to really, please stop. At this point someone near the front of the auditorium helpfully called out to Kushner that the noise distracting her was someone with breathing difficulties. I died inside for Kushner, wondering how she would handle the faux pas. In her shoes, I would have apologized profusely and immediately left the stage while self-flagellating with my belt or whatever object made itself available. Kushner instead gave a subtle, self-deprecating wince and immediately got back to her reading, which was dazzling and therefore effective on its own at moving the audience on from what had just happened.

After the event, all the authors shared a table for the book signing. Robin Robertson, author of The Long Take, a novel partially in verse that was one of the long shots for the prize, sat quietly with his hands folded, waiting for an autograph-seeking reader to materialize while his fellow nominees wielded their Sharpies with abandon. I was in line waiting for Kushner to sign a copy of her book, but such was my unsolicited self-consciousness on behalf of Robertson that I almost bought a copy of his book and asked him to sign it to alleviate my own discomfort—despite having enjoyed his reading the least of the four authors on stage. (Now I feel bad about saying I didn’t particularly enjoy it. To atone for this, I will add that it’s an epic novel about a World War II veteran set in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and you should definitely buy it if that sounds like your kind of thing.)

Me looking not at all embarrassed to be holding a book about poverty while eating in a gastropub.

 

In the end I bought four books over the course of the festival. In addition to Kushner’s The Mars Room, I also got Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (his talk was the other highlight of my experience at the festival), Olivia Laing’s Crudo, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People (from the delightful The Suffolk Anthology bookstore). In the past I’ve feigned embarrassment on social media over my unbridled acquisition of books, but this is at least one area where I’ve managed to cure my own feelings of self-consciousness. My corporate job is fine as far as corporate jobs go, but the one unfettered joy its compensation brings me is the liberty to buy books whenever the mood strikes, which is often. It’s a pleasure to compensate authors—who pour years of their lives into this work—and stimulate my intellect, or simply decorate my shelves, with this sort of material indulgence. For this I offer no apology, feigned or otherwise.

***

After Cheltenham, we spent a couple nights in London, including one with an old if not particularly close friend of my husband’s. He and his family live in a home in North London that’s like the kind of home you see in a film like Notting Hill. He’s very hospitable—especially considering we see him approximately once every seven or eight years—and most striking, perhaps the least embarrassed British person I’ve ever met.

One way this manifests is in the almost-delightful-in-its-unselfconsciousness amount of namedropping he manages over the course of the ten or so hours we spend in his home. The next morning over coffee my husband and I tot up the list and come up with:

  1. Neil Kinnock, a former British politician who, apropos of nothing, our host informed us was the father of someone he and his family had recently vacationed with.
  2. The actor Damien Lewis’s brother, who is either a producer (like our host) or a director and whose profession I misstated as one of those at some point in the evening, only to be sternly corrected. Our host also gleefully explained how he and Mr. Lewis’s brother refer to Mr. Lewis as a cat’s arse because of the way he puckers his mouth. It is an image I can’t quite shake and am worried is going to affect my enjoyment in watching Billions.
  3. A British actor who plays a captain on Star Trek whose name I can’t remember, but is not Patrick Stewart, who I definitely would’ve remembered.
  4. Richard Curtis (screenwriter of Notting Hill, appropriately), his partner Emma Freud (great-granddaughter of Sigmund), and their daughter Scarlett, who coincidentally interviewed her father at an event I’d attended in Cheltenham the previous Saturday. Our hosts reliably inform us the Curtis clans runs herd over an entire village in Suffolk before thrusting a copy of the new Scarlett Curtis-curated anthology, Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and Other Lies, at me and insisting I take it. The implication is that their connection to the Curtises has somehow resulted in them having a stash in a cupboard somewhere.
  5. Elton John, mentioned when I asked about a painting hanging in the hallway—a riff on a Penguin book cover—that I liked. Apparently the painter, Harland Miller, is “big with celebrities” like Sir Elton, but our host acquired this piece long before that was the case, natch.

If our host is reading this—which he’s almost certainly not—please don’t be mad, and please keep inviting us to stay at your house every seven or so years so you can regale us with throwaways about famous people. We shamelessly like it.

***

And now on a plane back to California, where I’m writing this. Early in the flight I was annoyed by a young woman speaking loudly. Assuming it was someone wearing headphones who didn’t realize they were talking at such a high volume, I was keen to catch their eye and give them the kind of disapproving look I’ve perfected for such occasions on shared transit. Then, in a flash, I remembered Kushner’s misstep in Cheltenham and wondered if the person speaking loudly may have an impairment. She did, which I discovered shortly into the flight when she was helped to the bathroom by her caregiver. I breathed a sigh of relief I hadn’t given her daggers earlier and said a silent thank you to Kushner for sparing me the mortification if I had.

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