The London Book Fair’s relocation from Olympia to Docklands this year was not unanimously well received. Before it opened, a prominent group of writers protested against the book fair’s links with the arms trade: its organiser, Reed Exhibitions, also arranges weapon fairs; and last September, ExCel London – the hundred-acre purpose-built conference centre to the east of Canning Town, and the new site of the LBF – hosted Europe’s largest arms fair. Once the book fair opened, most of the complaints I heard were about the immensely difficult and time-consuming business of getting there from Central London. ‘Reaching the London Book Fair can be part of the fun,’ the promotional material cheerfully promised, ‘if you travel by boat up the river. On a fine day, this will certainly be the most relaxed and enjoyable way of arriving.’ It was perhaps optimistic to rely on ‘good spring weather’ in London at the beginning of March. At least one delegate, having made the arduous journey east in order to speak at a seminar, was inexplicably denied entry to the exhibition floor. Perhaps he’d have had better luck if he’d claimed he was there to buy tanks on behalf of the Chinese government.
On the last day of the fair, showing a canny sense of timing, a press release was sent out publicising an event that implicitly promises to be in every way the antithesis of a soulless mass-corporate event staged in the post-industrial wasteland of the eastern reaches of Docklands at the arse-end of winter. Over the course of a weekend at the end of July, ‘visitors can pitch their tents and enjoy unique performances in hundreds of acres of 18th-century landscaped parkland and gardens in the grounds of Port Eliot, an ancient stately home.’ This will be the fourth annual Port Eliot Lit Fest, which variously describes itself as a ‘very different literary arts festival’ and ‘a literary happening with the craic of a festival site’. To put it another way, Port Eliot – ‘nearest station St Germans (change at Plymouth)’ – is a degree of latitude west of Cheltenham or Hay-on-Wye.
Port Eliot’s gimmick – or ‘unique selling point’, as they say in the advertising business – is that punters get to witness professional writers performing as amateur musicians, film-makers and dancers. Why this should be in any way appealing isn’t at all clear, and it’s certainly not the kind of thing very likely to happen the other way round: it’s hard to imagine anyone trekking down to Cornwall to listen to the drummer from the Arctic Monkeys, say, read a couple of chapters from a novel-in-progess. Still, the Sunday Times has called Port Eliot ‘a living, partying art installation with the rocking book set’, and the Observer has said that, ‘as literary festivals go, Port Eliot could not be more rock’n’roll if it tried.’ The telling phrase here of course being ‘as literary festivals go’, since, let’s face it, writers aren’t popstars, however much some of them would like to be, and publishing isn’t rock’n’roll. Twenty years ago, Port Eliot was the site of the Elephant Fayre rock festival, but that’s about as far as any connection goes.
The publishing industry’s misplaced desire for a piece of the rock’n’roll action doesn’t quite compare to the low hit recently by the Guardian, when it devoted the whole of page 3 of its main section, under the heading ‘Home News’, to the edited highlights of Pete Doherty’s ‘prison diary’. But teenage fantasies of headlining at Wembley or Brixton Academy die hard: I know I still fondly harbour them, though they only manifest themselves, along with cacophonous evidence of the reasons they will never be realised, if I happen to get my hands on a guitar when I’m very drunk. And a similar yearning may have played its part in the signing up of first novels by Willy Vlautin, the lead singer of the band Richmond Fontaine, and Will Ashon, who runs Big Dada Recordings: both will be published by Faber later in the year.
You wouldn’t catch Ludmilla, the ‘other reader’ in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, at Port Eliot. At one point in Calvino’s novel, she remarks:
There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. I want to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want. This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers.
So why not take a stand on behalf of reading, and stay at home with a good book, or take a few with you on holiday, preferably somewhere quiet, where there’s little chance of being disturbed by a novelist with a badly tuned guitar thrashing out a well-worn number by Donovan or Neil Young.