Friday, 16 October 2009

Cheltenham and back

I'm not sure when I first went to Cheltenham as a writer. It might have been 1989, when Lawrence Sail was director and there were a good number of poets on the programme. I think I did a reading with Stephen Romer. The next time was with Christopher Reid, or it might have been in reverse order. I also, that first time, chaired a discussion on translation with Ewald Osers, Adam Czerniawski and Danny Weissbort. If it was 1989 than I would have been thirty-nine and certainly a good deal younger than the other translators. On the other hand it might have been 1988. Or even 1987. I can't remember very much about it except that Adam C insisted that the true measure of a translation was how few words it had. The more it had the worse it was. But I might be imagining this or it wasn't exactly what he said. The session wasn't very grandly attended - some thirty people perhaps on a sunny morning. Later I saw Jeremy Reed perform, green fingernails and tiny scraps of paper bookmarks that he discarded with an imperious gesture after each poem.

Since then, as at most general literary festivals, the poets are a much diminished presence, and celebrity events (of a respectable kind) much expanded. This is not a complaint as such, it is simply the world, to which it behoves one occasionally to say hello. On this occasion I read with Roddy Lumsden to a good sized audience that was in complete darkness from my position on the podium. They were very nice, and bought books and said very nice things. Kapka Kassabova is writer in residence and she and I being old friends she joined Roddy and I for a writers' dinner. Kapka is splendid and beautiful and her memoir, Street Without a Name, is really a very good and very enviable memoir, she having packed a great deal into a life that is twenty-five years short of mine.

Then Roddy and I hunt for a pub in which to have a drink but either we go in the wrong direction or Cheltenham has very few pubs. We see The Slug and Lettuce, and, opposite that another less crowded pub so I have my Jamesons and Roddy his pint and we talk poetry and poets.

Back in my hotel room (one day I shall write a book called The Last Hotel) there is a large television, a marvellous shower, a beaut of a basin but no shaving plug by the bathroom mirror. This is no disaster, certainly not last thing at night, and in any case my electric shaver has batteries, but it still puzzles me why, having set up an all mod-cons relatively elegant room, the hotel should have decided - and it must have been a decision not an oversight - that 'they shall not have shaving plugs'. Wondering how the design meeting might have gone kept me awake a while. Then I was just awake, like on many recent nights. Not a good thing.

And today I stop off in London to meet another good friend, the magnificent Alison Croggon, whose intelligence is worth its weight in something better than gold and who has recently been named Australia's best critic, a prize that comes with cash, as a result of which she insists on buying me the meal rather than vice versa. By way of thanks I load her down with a hundredweight of books. She is currently on a tour that takes her to Ireland next, then the Lake District, then Edinburgh and Glasgow. We walk down past St Martin's-in-the-Fields and I tell her it reminds me of the time one night in the mid 80s when I walked down the same street with the Romanian poet, Grete Tartler, then in leather jacket and equipped with small vodka bottle, later, after the revolution, in smart suit and proper diplomat hair as Ambassador in Vienna. I am not sure how much this interests Alison but I recall it all being very interesting at the time. But then that is generally the way with things.

This is so much like a social diary I feel I should be signing off with a toodle-pip. But I am home now and tend not to use the expression while seated at my desk.

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