Ever thought about attending an international festival? Our well-travelled creatives will give you the inside scoop, starting with Susan Swingler, author of The House of Fiction.
Bath is a tourist hot spot in the south west of England that teems with visitors at all times of the year. They crowd the narrow lanes around the sixteenth-century abbey and the wide thoroughfares lined with elegant Regency terraces and crescents – all built from honey coloured Bath stone. It’s a city that appears to be steeped in the past. Roman centurions in togas or Victorian ladies carrying parasols might be glimpsed around a corner. A carriage and horses transporting suitably attired coachmen could clatter by while musicians busk and jugglers entertain the crowds queuing for the Roman Baths or the Pump Rooms (if the tepid water tastes nasty it must be good for you). And Jane Austen is everywhere – it’s tempting to imagine her characters dancing in the Assembly Rooms, strolling through Sydney Gardens, seeing and being seen as they perform the social rites of the season.
It’s not all history, though. There’s also a strong and vibrant contemporary cultural life going on behind the grand facades of the Holburne Museum, the Guildhall and the beautiful eighteenth-century Theatre Royal, as well as in more modern venues of Bath’s libraries and cafes. The city provides a focus for festivals – music, cinema, children’s literature – and in March it’s the Literature Festival.
This year there were about 200 speakers ranging from Hilary Mantel on Bring up the Bodies to JK Rowling on her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, from John Batchelor on a new biography of Tennyson to ballerina Darcey Bussell; there’s poetry, song and performance and new writers as well as the more established names.
I’m a regular visitor to the Literature Festival, but this year I was invited to speak at the Guildhall about my book, The House of Fiction. While Elizabeth Jolley needs no introduction in Australia, she is no longer widely known in the UK. I wondered if anyone would turn up for my event! As it was the room was packed and the session went very well – people were fascinated by the story and asked penetrating questions. In addition to the larger events that happen in the city, the Festival organises a programme (Festival on Tour) in venues out of town that are free. My second event was an informal ‘meet the author’ session held in a branch library in the small ex-mining town of Radstock, in Somerset. Here the audience was relatively tiny, but the event was very enjoyable and we had a good discussion.
As well as the big names (I was able to get to see PD James and Kate Mosse), there were many other interesting authors’ events. I learned about Samora Machel, Mozambique’s first president, from Sarah LeFanu, the lives of Daphne du Maurier and her sisters from Jane Dunn and went to a fascinating talk about Cezanne by his biographer Alex Danchev.
While sales of digital books proliferate worldwide and no doubt amongst the population of Bath, the city still has several excellent independent bookshops as well as the more ubiquitous chains. Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights is the Festival bookseller and they made sure they had copies of my book (not yet available generally in the UK) on hand.