Festival style

<p>Antonia Fraser, with whom I am secretly in love, has given several talks at my shop and they are informal affairs&mdash;unlike a literary festival talk which she was told to begin with the phrase: &ldquo;I am sponsored by H&auml;agen-Dazs.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Literary festivals can still be creaky, featuring the same old suspects, orating to an audience of Rotarians, divorcees, solicitors, and what Alan Bennett calls &ldquo;Saga louts&rdquo;.</p>
<p>The atmosphere is reverent; one longs for the Pink Panther&rsquo;s assistant Cato to come flying through the wall during a discussion with Julian Barnes. It was a festival-style audience member who once berated me for not wearing a suit to introduce an Edward Heath talk. I wanted to say: &ldquo;I do not possess a suit and I have not spent 15 years organising 1,200 bookshop talks to be insulted by a <i>Daily Mail </i>reader.&rdquo; But I didn&rsquo;t.</p>
<p>There is so much to admire in the blossoming book festival scene, but I wish its directors could reflect wider reading tastes, attract a broader demographic, stream more happenings on the internet (Edinburgh is excellent at this), and move away from the &ldquo;talking head&rdquo; event.</p>
<p>And fewer literary novelists, please. They are rarely good at public speaking. In Canterbury we recently launched Robyn Young&rsquo;s Crusader novels with a medieval procession which brought Canterbury to a halt: crusader horsemen, falconers, medieval musicians and a crier.</p>
<p>For another event, Richard Mabey&rsquo;s nightingale talk was followed by an evening walk to hear the real thing. Tibetan lamas have led group meditation. Hay-on-Wye had yoga this year, but will we ever see reflexology or oil-painting demonstrations at festivals? Or sci-fi or transport represented?</p>
<p>Part of the answer lies in sponsorship. Big banks and legal firms want the predictable: ex-presidents and Martin Amis. But bookshop sales show that biography and fiction together account for less than 30% of what customers buy.</p>
<p>Councils are another big sponsor, and I fear that &shy;festivals will remain risk-averse until they desert the withered dugs of local government funding.</p>
<p>Then a Venetian spirit of commerciality could arise and, like the self-funding Albert Hall which hosts anyone from Shirley Bassey to J S Bach, they could become an adornment to the nation. Meanwhile, pop festivals are muscling in on the genteel lit-fest world; at Latitude last year, I found a packed and lively book tent: no &pound;10-a-seat torpor in there.</p>
<p>So, if at the big Cheltenham marquee this year, you see a crazed figure with a Swiss Army knife sawing at the guy ropes&mdash;comb-over, cheap shirt, merlot-stained chinos, signed copy of Marie Antoinette&mdash;that&rsquo;ll be me.</p>