Cheltenham Literature Festival: Conflict and resolution

This is not to say that there have been enraged confrontations and then gracious reconciliations at the festival, rather that the topics of covered in yesterday afternoon’s events all presented varying ideas of conflict. In my attempt to absorb all the ideas of the day, sitting in the Writers’ Room at 10pm last night (the latest that I have been there, no cake but cheese and wine will do) I decided to create an old fashioned spider diagram on a piece of paper. I believe that all the questions that are being raised by this festival are testimony to its success, a celebration of literature should do what literature does – open up our minds rather than narrowing our horizons. More fool me though, it doesn’t stop me trying to answer them.

I heard Stella Rimmington and Henry Porter discussing Spy Fiction and surveillance, Dom Joly delivering swift gags about British embarrassment and the ridiculousness of some of our traditions, John Walsh and Patrick Gale examining the role of obsession and its part in the creative process, and Al Murray, well, being obnoxious. You will understand that such a diversity of speakers and ideas means that drawing any sort of strands together is rather tricky (and essentially unnecessary) but I have too many questions swimming around in my head to let it lie. Prompted by Walsh and Gale, I was thinking about the essence of creativity – its roots and its outlet, the potential for damage that comes with obsession and the idea that creativity arises from some form of personal damage and then the process of artistic creation attempting to heal that – each of the people listed above are creative and they use it in remarkably different ways but a cohesion began to appear to me, they all present a conflict.

Rimmington and Porter write about visible and invisible conflict (the Cold War, terrorism and the espionage) but they also explore moral conflicts: how far is the government allowed to go to defend us at the expense of the members of the intelligence service? Dom Joly, particularly annoyed with the rules and regulations of golf clubs, has written a book, Letters to my Golf Club, where he sets about writing a series of confrontational (and far-fetched) letters in order to infuriate board members. Humorous, yes – especially the ones to Denmark – but it’s setting up a conflict. Gale and Walsh directly address monomania and the overwhelming, often devestating power of creativity, for their fictional characters and their own personal creativity, “You send yourself into a world with these obsessives,” says Gale, “they become more real than the flesh and blood around you, their obsession becomes yours and your obsession becomes them.”

Dare I bring Al Murray into the mix? I think so, for one good reason: his abbhorent ‘Pub Landlord’ character is set up purely to present conflicts, “We need rules because if we have no rules we’re French, if we have too many, we’re German”, sexist, racist and generally offensive, he seems to give the audience what they want: a chance to indulge in conflict. I must say that I left two-thirds of the way through.

Is the idea of conflict a necessary one for creativity? Are some obsessions more dangerous than others? Is the idea of a damaged soul and a need to repair it our fundamental drive to want to write, paint or sing? There is little to make me believe that creativity is a gentle force, not with the lives of many of our most admired artists and painters being so tumultuous and damaging. Talking to my friend Rob Watts last night (who was also my A-Level English teacher and harboured my obsession with Keats – oh dear, there’s that word again), I put the question to him: “Why do people feel they need to create?”, his answer, “I hate to be pretentious but I can’t get that ‘we possess (and therefore create) art lest we perish beholding the truth’, good cynical answer to contradict.” It is indeed, Rob, and it throws yet more conflict into the very notion of the essence of creativity itself. The self-indulgence of creativity is something I certainly don’t want to be going into now but it could be that it helps to resolve (or at least go on the way to) resolving some of our internal and external conflicts.

Posted by Jen Tomkins