I have just been to the Bath festival of books to talk with my esteemed colleague John Crace about his book A Farewell to Calm. It has been two years, more or less, without these events – two years when we had to pretend the experience was the same as we watched on a tiny screen, only half listening, only for it all to come rushing back: the steamy crowd (it had been raining), the thrill of the spoken word.
There is one specific thing I love about book festivals. It’s a convention that you have to spend the first five or even 10 minutes pretending to think the audience are politically neutral. You enter into the charade of thinking these are just regular, respectable people, who may disagree with the government but equally, may agree with it; they may be remainers, they may be leavers; they may be left, they may be right. Just think of them as shareholders, except instead of buying shares, they buy books.
Yet this is the absolute opposite of the truth. You will never meet a group of people more consistent in their views, and not because most of them also go to the same pilates class. Every man jack of them voted remain, and they are considerably more leftwing than those at any meeting of any political party. In the interests of sounding mature, I should probably pretend to think there are rightwing book festivals, which people attend to worship David Starkey or ask creepy questions of Niall Ferguson, but I don’t think that. If even the Cheltenham literature festival turns the town briefly into a people’s republic, I can’t think what town would host a Toryfest.
The audience absolutely hate being politically misidentified, and they spend those first 10 minutes desperately signalling, with spontaneous clapping and foot-stamping, to indicate that nobody hates the government more than they. So it’s like a panto, with an audience metaphorically shouting “He’s behind you,” but really meaning it – as if you might not know.
The atmosphere, it probably goes without saying, is electrifying. Sure, read this brilliant book if you wish, but you’ll have more fun buying it at a book festival.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
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