“Say Anna, what are you like at chairing events?”
A message popped through on my phone from a rather lovely lady who I knew was helping to organise the Cheltenham Literature Festival. As it turns out, after a last minute change of plans, the festival were in need of someone to chair The Times and Sunday Times panel on Microadventures – with Alastair Humphreys (Godfather of Microadventure) and Phoebe Smith (editor of Wanderlust Mag).
Of course, being invited to host a discussion at arguably the most famous literary festival in the world was no biggy. Who am I kidding?! This was a BIGGY! Like, if Mr Biggy had got jiggy with Mrs Biggy and made little Biggy babies, it couldn’t have been more of a biggy. Naturally, I styled it out.
I confirmed that I could indeed do chairing – because chairing is mostly talking and asking questions – and talking and asking questions is what I do best. I always find chairing events rather lovely, because I don’t have to talk about myself for a change. Instead I can just focus on making sure the audience are having a ruddy good time, and on bringing out the best in the stories that others have to share. How marvellous.
Plus, being a chair is like juggling cucumbers (have you ever tried juggling cucumbers? It’s more tricky than juggling balls). And every time I chair, I learn something new. So what better place to learn something new than at one of the greatest literary festivals in the world?
So why is Cheltenham such a big deal? Well, I’m an independent author. That is, I decided to publish my book using my own editors, proof readers and designers – all of that jazz – as opposed to opting for a large publishing house to do it for me.
Independent authors mostly distribute their work online, and very rarely get stocked in traditional book shops. So when I was told that, as part of the chairing deal, Waterstones would stock my book for the duration of the festival, I slapped my thigh and danced a merry jig. A few weeks passed before I got an email from a lovely man named George at Waterstones:
‘Hello Anna, we’re having trouble getting hold of 40 copies of your book ‘The Pants of Perspective’ through the traditional purchasing channels. Could you let me know how Waterstones would go about placing an order?’
‘Dearest George, Yes of course, I’d be happy to oblige. I will get up very early, drive to Cheltenham in my car that is guaranteed to fail its MOT next week. I will then struggle to find somewhere to park, realise that I have thrown two odd flip flops as footwear into the car in a pre-caffine morning haze. I will then proceed to carry the 40 copies of ‘The Pants of Perspective’ through Cheltenham town centre on my shoulder to Waterstones, sweating lightly and struggling to stop my jeans from falling down as I go. That is how you’ll get them.’
… would have been the honest answer. Instead I replied with: ‘I shall arrange delivery of the books, no problem George.’
Walking through the entrance to the quintessentially English area of Montpellier Gardens on Sunday the 8th of October, I felt uneasy. Everyone seemed very well dressed, the Cheltenham punters oozed sophistication as they gathered in small packs and drifted to and fro along the neat network of pathways like clouds in the breeze. The air was thick with literary wisdom and the tents bulged at the seams – books dripping from every scrap of shelf and surface available.
Needless to say there were a lot of people, and that meant a lot of eyes. Eyes which I felt at any moment would turn upon me and rumble that I wasn’t supposed to be here. With each step I took deeper into the gardens, I feared I was one step closer to the sound of a large bell being rung – after a which a flare would be set off (in my face), nets would descend from the assortment of surrounding trees and a booming voice exclaim: ‘INTRUDER ALERT! INTRUDER ALERT!!’
They knew. They all knew. And worse than that – they knew that I knew, they knew. They were just waiting patiently for a convenient time to strike, and to eject me from the gardens in a way that was the least disruptive to the surrounding high-class clientele.
So you can imagine my surprise when I made it to the entrance to the VIP tent without having been captured in a giant independent author imposter-tastic net. Or shot in the eye with a flare gun. I was feeling most chuffed as I approached a woman at the entrance, clad in a very sensible yellow safety vest.
‘Hello’ she said.
‘Hello.’ I replied, staring at my feet and trying to avoid eye contact. ‘Is this the central writers room?’ I mumbled.
‘Yes it is. Are you a writer?’
‘Oh no!’ I blurted out quickly. She looked confused. ‘I mean… yes! But I’ve only written one… ( I felt I must make this confession) I’m errm…. chairing for others. Other writers, I mean…they have LOTS of books.’ And breathe.
‘Righty-o.’ she beamed. ‘In you go’
Once across the writers room VIP threshold, I said hello and hugged a nice lady with a very important looking earpiece. She said hello and hugged me back. This now seemed to be an awfully long and painful game to be playing if the Cheltenham organisers intended on slinging me out on my ear, and I so relaxed – just a little.
There was some light chitter chatter in the VIP room and rumour had it that Hilary Clinton would be making a visit to the festival this year to talk about her new book – which centred on where ‘it’ all went wrong, and quite how Trump had made it into the Whitehouse. Hilary would be arriving by helicopter, naturally.
AND THEN I SAW HER
I was close enough to know that she smelt of rose perfume and freshly baked biscuits. As I sat down to enjoy my hoard of free VIP food, I discovered that on the table adjacent to mine was none other than Mary Berry. The Mary Berry (or Mezza Bezza to her friends) She was deeply engrossed in the task of signing books, stopping only briefly every now and then to nibble on a plate of biscuits. They weren’t Garibaldi, certainly not Rich Tea – they looked like shortbread, but I couldn’t be sure.
Mary was a pastry princess, encased in her crumb-castle and surrounded by towers, nay turrets, of her own cookery books. She looked resplendent in a salmon pink blazer and a black shirt, her grey-blonde hair glowing like a halo atop her head and framing those infamous piercing blue eyes. She looked up, nibbled, and ploughed on in her autographing mission.
THE MAIN EVENT
All went well in the Microadventures session with Phoebe and Al. I managed to have some fun with the audience, as we tried desperately not to let the plush black leather chairs upon which we were sat encourage us into behaving too much like fully grown adults. I loved the chance to chat openly to two people I hold in such high regard, and soaked up their words of wisdom like a giant sponge.
After a short book signing in Waterstones, during which we looked across longingly at Mary Berry’s signing line – we all returned to the VIP room for a spot of luncheon.
Somehow, despite having a line around the block, Mary had beat us there – she was clearly a pro. Or she has been cloned and there are actually more than one of her in the world (I favour the latter theory. #DoubleMary).
The room was packed, so much so that the only spot left to sit down was at the same table as Mary. I looked sideways at Phoebe for confirmation before engaging in operation ‘Berry-Lunch’ – and she nodded that I should go ahead.
We moved on over to Mary’s table and hovered. ‘What do I now?!’ I thought. I don’t want to seem impolite and ignore Mrs Chelsea Bun herself, but equally I didn’t want to appear like a fangirl either. I decided that if I didn’t look Mary straight in the eyes then I couldn’t possibly be accused of ‘bothering her’. And so I loosely directed my question to her agent, who was sat next to her.
‘May we sit here?’ I enquired, in an accent I didn’t recognise as my own, and one that resembled a cross between the Queen’s and Loyd Grossman’s.
‘Yes of course’ the friendly lady-agent replied.
A small quiche crumb fell from Mary’s mouth as she too politely gestured that we might sit down.
Her agent spoke again: ‘As long as you don’t try to talk to us.’ She smiled.
‘Nah, don’t worry. We’re not interested in anything you have to say.’ I quipped back, now sounding more like my Kingston-girl-come-good self. It was official. I was having BANTER with Mary Berry’s agent. Glory be!
A TOP SUNDAY OUT
Nothing could quite top lunch with Mezza Bezza. And so ends the tale of my day at Cheltenham Literature Festival.
I crawled into bed that night and stared up at the ceiling for a moment’s reflection. I had run the independent author gauntlet. I had spoken at Cheltenham Literature festival. I had sandwiched myself between two adventure heroes and sold some books in Waterstones. And, I had bathed in Mary Berry’s biscuitty-perfume glow. That’d do for a Sunday out, I resolved. That’d do indeed.