Friday, February 18, 2011

Read On?

As soon as the Bath Literature Festival publishes its programme I snap up tickets for events until I’ve drained my overdraft facility dry. This year I’ll once again be all over the whole shebang, from the Love-in at the Bath Poetry Cafe on opening day to Rumpole of the Bailey with Timothy West in the final hours. I’ll be clinging on to every word uttered, snapping up signed editions and developing fleeting, inappropriate crushes on cultural icons on a daily basis; yup, the BLF is my version of Glastonbury (without, of course, the loutish crowd, the uncivilised accommodation and the vulgar weather). But this year more than ever before, I know my annual arty indulgence represents little more than a tourist excursion to a cotton-wool wrapped satellite orbiting the culturally-depressed, cash-strapped real world where libraries are living on borrowed time, 9% of boys (and 6% of girls) begin secondary school with a reading age barely above that expected of a seven year old and Jamie’s 30 Minute Meals, George Bush’s autobiography and The Secret (don’t ask!) top the UK’s best-selling books charts; given such a climate, I’m acutely aware that a lit fest is a chocolate teapot sitting on the fringes of the surreal Mad Hatter’s tea party that Britain is swiftly turning into.

Given this depressing reality, it would be easy to write off lit fest fans as a drooling flock of head-in-the-sand sycophants who slavishly read everything on the Man Booker shortlist so they know which author’s names to drop at their next dinner party, but to do so would only serve to highlight my own confused, contradictory state: after all, I’ve already outed myself as being firmly ensconced in their swooning, star-struck ranks. But oh, how I wish the BLF would, for once, relieve me of the guilt that nibbles away at the corners of my temporary pleasuredome and mash things up a bit in order to address the state of the (increasingly non-bookish) nation.

Although I’m ridiculously excited at the prospect of attending an audience with Howard Jacobson, wouldn’t it be ace if he was in conversation with, say, Dave Eggers - a writer whose work with disadvantaged, vulnerable, illiterate American kids really is a Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius - about how to raise support for similar projects in the UK? As well as chairing the debate I’m most eagerly anticipating (Does Feminism have to start all over again? March 5, the Guildhall), I’d love to see Kate ‘Labyrinth’ Mosse - co-founder and Honorary Director of the Orange Prize for Fiction - involved in a prime time, rabble-rousing call to arms to Get Girls Writing rather than heading up what’s likely to be a polite, genteel chat attended by well-meaning lady lunchers killing time between the two Jane Austen-related events taking place at the Guildhall on the same day. And although there will indeed be a debate billed as an opportunity “to explore how educators are rising to the challenge of delivering high-quality, creative education in a time of budget cuts and an unpredictable future,” (Tuesday 1 March), I wish this crucial subject had been allocated a bit longer than the 60-minute time slot scheduled to take place when most of the people who’d benefit from (and input to) such a discussion are at work (or actually, maybe they’re not any more - in which case, the ‘no concessions’ edict on the ticket price is a farce too). And imagine if, instead of supporting the 5-day, non-stop God-book binge that is the ‘Bath Bible Challenge’, the BLF’s Great and Good embarked on a tour of Somerset to protest against the proposed closure of 20 of the 34 libraries in the county. But hey, at least there are still a few tickets left for Jonathan Bate’s introduction to the romantic imagination; at every lit fest, the most one can hope for is an opportunity to dream on.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dream on?

Love is in the air as “the most romantic date of the year” takes centre-stage spotlight halfway through February. But while many of us busy ourselves booking intimate tables-for-two, hassling Interflora and urging Cupid’s to programme his GMS properly, many more have an entirely different interpretation on the meaning of content coupledom...and the verses that put their feelings into words ain’t gonna be found on a Clinton’s card.

If you Google the term “advice on sharing fantasies”, you’ll be presented with a list over 5m sites focusing on the subject. The first 30-40 hits largely constitute beginner’s guides, translations of what particular fantasies mean and confessionals from people who claim that turning their dream life into reality has spiced up their love life no end - hats (and everything else) everybody involved; after all, nobody wants the words “sadly, he never did get his wife to wear stockings while she did the housework” included in their obituary.

Keep on clicking, however, and you’ll soon be cruising deeper and deeper into far murkier waters infested with bottom-feeders offering easy access to real life, “discrete” encounters with like-minded people, contact details for pay-as-you-go escorts who claim they can “make your wildest dreams come true”, horror stories that started with a kiss (albeit often on a studded leather gimp mask worn by a man who insisted he be called ‘Master’) and - sadly but perhaps inevitably - direct links to child pornography; within a matter of seconds, your back-of-the-mind idea about recreating “that” scene from An Officer and a Gentleman this Valentine’s Day could be likened to taking your loved one for a curry and ordering a korma when what you really want is a phal.

Now I’m not for one moment suggesting that harbouring a personal amorous fantasy is the first step of a journey into far more sinister zone; imagination is widely acknowledged as the most powerfully erotic outfit in our sexy dress-up box and makes a very interesting bedfellow indeed. But unlike Quality Street, fantasies aren’t necessarily made for sharing (who wants to be bullied into biting into the Toffee Penny when they’ve always been happy with the Vanilla Fudge?) and that weary old platitude involving being careful what you ask for never has more resonance than when it’s used within the context of a love life debate. The self esteem of all parties involved in your little bout of selfish indulgence is subject to severe threat: if your partner urges you to consider taking on an entirely different image, attitude and personality in the bedroom, might he/she actually be subliminally wishing you out of their life altogether? And what if the “new role” simply doesn’t wear well? A woman who believes that “sugar!” is a suitably expressive expletive when riled probably isn’t going to be comfortable telling you exactly what kind of dirty whore she is next time you’re in bed, a 21-stone, rugby playing macho man isn’t, in reality, going to look all that fetching wearing a nappy and few people have the emotional largesse to accommodate three in a bed for long; whoops, it looks like we’ve suddenly got a nightmare on our hands.

But the “Me!” generation is used to being encouraged to “go for it” in all aspects of life, and instant, egocentric gratification is the order of the day. Almost every relationship pundit in almost every from of everyday media concur that our private, innermost fantasies must be outed, offering hints and tips on how to broach the subject (over an intimate supper; by sexy text message; by downloading a template of a ready-written letter/email - honestly!) and even suggestions for fantasies for those with no imagination at all to consider making their own; only the very best professionals in the bunch offer warnings about the emotional havoc that the multilayered pressure of attempting to recreate a fantasy can wreak. Do you dream in X-rated Technicolor? Lucky you! Now keep it to yourself and dream on.