We have a Literature Festival in Ilkley. It’s in full swing as I type. It was launched by WH Auden in 1973 and since then has gone from strength to strength, attracting writers and visitors from all over the country.
Each summer, the programme is published with great trumpeting from the local rag. Those organised enough to have become a friend of the festival the previous year get priority booking. This is a prerequisite to acquiring some of the more sought after tickets. Everyone else queues up, in very British fashion, outside the book shop and the tourist information office on the appointed day to snap up what they can.
There then follows an entertaining few weeks of chopping and changing whilst people barter with their tickets amongst their friends and relations. ‘I’ll swap you two Ellen MacArthurs for one Alistair Campbell.’ ‘Anyone got a spare John Simpson?’ On it goes. Someone is always left with extra tickets that they can’t shift and texts fly backwards and forwards so that nothing goes to waste.
The visiting writers seem to me to fall into two distinct camps. Firstly, there are the people who make a living doing something other than writing but then write a book ( or get someone else to write a book ) all about it. In the main these seem to be the big hitters of the festival. Worthy politicians, political commentators, sports people. Tickets to see them fly out of the door and they fill the big venues with no difficulty.
But I’m not really bothered about them. If I could attend everything without having to arrange babysitters then I would probably go but as my resources are more limited, I keep my powder dry for the second type of writers.
These are what I like to to call the real writers. The ones who actually make a living from writing books. Endlessly fascinated by the actual process of writing a novel, I go early, sit myself right at the front and invariably ask the incredibly dull question at the end about how they plot their stories or what their working day looks like.
I love it. I can’t get enough of it. I would be happy if they dispensed with talking about the actual book entirely and just talked to me about what it’s actually like to be a real author.
But this year it’s slightly different. I still ask my questions but now the answers are even more fascinating to me because I too am having a go. My little book is almost complete. This adds a whole new dimension to my interest. I can nod sagely as the eminent, talented and, most importantly, published authors before me talk about the frustrations of plotting and characterisation.
Now, having dipped my toe very gingerly in the water, I am able to appreciate how very difficult writing a book is. In many ways, it is awfully disheartening knowing that my meagre little offering will never stand up against the greats. Everyone thinks they can write a book. Actually discovering that the book that you write does not to turn out to be what you expected is slightly peculiar. I will never again be able to think of myself as the next Hilary Mantel or Sebastian Faulkes if only I got round to putting pen to paper. I now know that it will never be. My book is not like that at all.
This time next year, I will take my seat in the front row, surreptitiously following the rover microphones, knowing that my novel is finished and tucked away somewhere and that I can place a large tick next to that particular ambition. But this year I can still pretend that I too am a writer and I’m having a ball..