One of the consequences of living a supposedly literary life is being invited to attend, and to speak at, literary festivals. It is not compulsory to accept, but publishers tend to take a dim view of refusals. For me, for the moment, the experience is still a novelty, and I mostly enjoy doing it. But some literary festivals are better than others, of course. The best of all has been the Festilitt in Parisot, which I attended in late October.
Parisot is a small village in the Tarn-et-Garonne, a little way north of where we live in France. It is not quite within the ‘golden triangle’ of Albi, Gaillac and Cordes-sur-Ciel, so beloved of local estate agents trying to entice English buyers, but it is close. So there is a reasonably large, if scattered, British community in the area. Even so, it is something of a miracle to have conceived, and then executed so brilliantly, a British literary festival in a remote corner of the French countryside.
It is not, in fact, an entirely British festival. A British festival and a French festival run alongside each other, with talks at the same time in nearby community buildings. At moments over the weekend, the two festivals came together, most notably at the grand dinner on Saturday night. You could tell that this was a French-led evening, though, because the Mayor made an interminable speech and managed not to mention any of the British writers.
You might think that attendances at the talks would be low. Not at all. Considerably more people came to hear me than at the prestigious Frontignan Festival in June, or even at the Edinburgh Literary Festival in 2010. And more people came to hear many of the other speakers than came to hear me. It was an extremely well-attended event.
Nevertheless, it is the quality that matters more. I was surrounded by people who are vastly better read than I am, who were immersed in what they had come to hear, and who asked a stream of pertinent questions at the end. Before that I had been interviewed, charmingly and perceptively, by Festilitt organiser Liz Stanley. Anything less like an ordeal would be hard to imagine. It was a pleasure from beginning to end.
We managed to catch three of the other events, and wished it could have been all of them. The literary agent, Andrew Lownie, talked about his book on Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman. If you think you know everything there is to know about the Cambridge spies, think again and read Andrew’s book. The former journalist and crime reporter, Fiona Barton, spoke of the writing of her highly successful novel The Widow, and how the idea had emerged from her own experiences. On the Sunday morning, we heard Susan Elderkin talk – not about her novels – but on the imaginative (not to mention impossibly well-read) background to her book The Novel Cure, in which a vast range of literature is pitted against a vast range of physical and psychological ailments, to suggest novels that will help to remedy them. We haven’t yet got round to validating the individual prescriptions, but even without them this is a great reading list.
So, if you can picture all this: a series of stimulating talks set in a pretty village deep in the heart of the French countryside, attended by people with a huge fondness for the event and an appetite for literature, organised with flair and sympathy. What more could a writer possibly ask for? A charming hotel? Certainly not: we stayed with a local English family, and were wined and dined in splendour.
The events themselves were free. This was possible because the French state, at every level, contributed funds. Even the local MP found something in her cultural budget to offer. That would not be possible in Britain. We may sometimes finance big events, but we seldom finance small and local ones. Post-Brexit, will we be financing anything much at all in the field of culture?
Unlike other literary festivals, this was not a collage of individual talks, but a holistic event in which everyone played their part. I got the feeling that no one there could quite believe their luck that an event like this existed on their doorstep. And I could not believe my luck that I became part of it for a weekend.
We shall be back as visitors next year, and probably every year. And, it occurs to me as I write, you could come here too, even if you live in Britain. If you love literature, why not spend a long weekend in Parisot next October. There are cheap flights to Toulouse. It needn’t cost much more than going to a festival at home. And it will be hugely more enjoyable and more stimulating.