Cheltenham Literature Festival: Mistaken Identity

Sitting down with my lunch (it’s not all cake) in the Writers’ Room, I was asked “So, have you done your talk then?” by a smiling Australian gentleman sitting opposite me. Rather taken aback, firstly, by the ludicrous idea of being mistaken for one of the Cheltenham literati and secondly, that someone had spoken to me first, I could only laugh before coming to my senses and realising that there was a person waiting for a response sat across the small circular table. “No,” I replied, “certainly not… one day, maybe [entering dream mode] but for today I’m here in a reporting capacity [exciting dream mode].” This didn’t seem to shelve his interest however, and we embarked on a lengthy conversation about children’s literature, public speaking, Australian politics and oh, The Reader.

The man was children’s author Morris Gleitzman, an Australian writer unafraid to bring up some controversial issues in his literature. In Boy Overboard Gleitzman charts the story of a refugee from Afghanistan seeking asylum in Australia but it does not turn out to be the idyll he imagined. The Australian government has been heavily criticised for opening scores of detention centres for immigrants and PM John Howard’s reaction to Boy Overboard was, “why can’t Gleitzman leave children to their innocence”, to which Gleitzman said to me, “Can you believe that, from the man that has locked up thousands of these children?” No. Or actually, I think I can.

The overriding theme of this festival for me so far has been the extent of the media’s manipulative power, blending fact and fiction to create so much grey area that the ‘truth’ seems a genuine impossibility to discover. The festival’s theme, ‘What does change mean to us?’ is emerging as an unanswerable question: who is this ‘us’ anyway, shouldn’t that be ‘me’? As advancements in technology and communications further infiltrate our existence, we are less and less able to disengage from that world to our real world. Call me pessimistic, but in a world dominated by the media and one where news is entertainment, entertainment is news, there seems no way out. There is an inherent contradiction in us all: we want integrity but yearn after sensationalism, we hate the paparazzi for infringing a celebrity’s privacy but we will buy the newspapers nonetheless.

Of course, this brings me back to thinking about issues raised in Iannucci and Kunzru’s talks over the last few days: what is real and what is surreal? We think that the news is real but the ‘news’ is chosen for us and reported in such a way that is deemed appropriate, we think that surrealist art is just that, surreal but is it not just another representation of reality, like the news? At least a reality, we all have our own. I shan’t get started; I could go on for hours.

‘Question, Debate, Discover, Engage, Enjoy’: Cheltenham Literature Festival is delivering what it promised in its promotional material. I may have been mistaken for one of the festival’s guest speakers (by one of the festival’s guest speakers) but I feel my identity has slipped further out of my reach after absorbing the disquieting notions that have been explored during the last few days. Iannucci picked Wallace Stevens’ ‘Six Significant Landscapes’ as one of his most admired poems on Sunday evening, explaining, “I didn’t understand it as an undergraduate, I still don’t understand it but it sounds great and the images are fantastic.” I am now experiencing my life as if it were a Wallace Stevens poem, simultaneously knowing what’s going on and not having a bloody clue!

From ‘Six Significant Landscapes’

Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses—
As, for example, the ellipse of the halfmoon—
Rationalists would wear sombreros.

1955

Posted by Jen Tomkins

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