A literature festival is lovely, right? Loads of book folk hanging around pretty lawns decked out in bunting and marquees (the lawns, not the book folk) with a Waterstones camped in the middle flogging bestsellers at maximum price JUST BECAUSE THEY CAN.
Sounds great doesn’t it? And you’d be right. You’d be right to think that if your husband buys you tickets to go and watch Sky Arts TV’s Book Show at the Cheltenham Literature Festival with the lovely, gravelly voiced Mariella Fostrupp (a name that sounds like a liqueur your Nan quaffs at Christmas) that all would go swimmingly. Especially if your kids were in tow, your two little daughters both younger than 11 and neither of them never ever having EVER heard of the novel that is Fifty Shades of Grey. What’s that now? Why did I mention that book of a sudden? Well, I hope you’re sat down because, writer or no writer, this week’s been a corker.
Now look, when I was younger I was no sprouter. By that I mean I had no idea about the birds and the bees. You could argue that I still don’t, but I digress. You see, in short, I was and still am, a prude.
When I was a kid I would stick my fingers in my ears if my sister mentioned that S word (no, not Star Wars) and sing the entire words to Madonna’s Lucky Star without a hint of irony. Yup, I hadn’t a carnal clue and that was the way I liked it. And I think I can say with pretty much 100% accuracy that when it comes to literature, I’m just as daft.
You see, we get to Mariella’s TV thingy all geared up ready to ogle at the cameras. Our kids have queued up patiently outside the recording tent. It is a Sunday. The sun is shining, it is my birthday! And we are at Cheltenham Literature Festival. Life, as they say, is good. Our eldest has her face in a Jacqueline Wilson novel as we queue like good British subjects. ‘Look,’ my husband whispers, elbowing me. ‘Look, they are filming her!’ After I look all around the sky, I eventually settle my eyes on a man dressed top to toe in black pointing a tiny TV camera at my daughter. For a moment I am alarmed: he looks like a very stylish stalker. ‘It’s Sky TV!’ my husband says. I squint. Sure enough, the man is from telly. I breathe out and resume inspecting how long the queue is. ‘Do you know,’ I say with a smug grin on my face, ‘our kids are the only kids in the queue.’ My husband leans back. ‘Oh yes,’ he confirms. ‘That’s because, they are so grown up.’ We both nod, partly because they are trustworthy kids, and partly because we are quietly self-congratulating our parental prowess.
The doors eventually open and we rush in. ‘Front!’ my husband barks. ‘Get to the front.’ Doing as we are told because that’s the sane choice, we dutifully file to the second row and seat ourselves. The first five minutes are spent ooing and ahhing at the cameras and Book Show set which is kind of cross between a stately home library and a brothel. Little do we know how apt that is soon to be.
After the very amiable floor manager does his intros, the guests for the show file in. ‘It’s Roger Moore!’ my husband yelps, forgetting the nice floor manager has just instructed us to be silent. As I do not want to seem too star struck, I flash a sideways glance at The Moore. ‘Omigod!’ I whisper. Not too star struck, my arse. The other two guest are Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans, and Michael Chabon, author of…um a Pulitzer prize among others. Once they seat themselves, an awkward silence ensues in which the audience do two things: a) try not to make a sound; and b) try not to stare at Roger Moore. Naturally, we all fail on both counts.
Eventually, clapping is required as the lovely Mariella Fostrupp enters the stage. And she really is lovely. So lovely in fact, that I mentally add her to my list of people I would invite to a dinner party. Oh, and she really does have nice hair. I instantly try to calculate how old she is.
Once in flow, Mariella begins to introduce her guests, starting with Roger Moore. And here’s where our problems grow. ‘Of course, I have Roger Moore,’ Mariella purrs. My husband smiles. ‘The man we know as James Bond,’ she growls. I smile. ‘The man who is the king of innuendo,’ Mariella tickles. We both smile. ‘And so, it brings us to our question this morning,; she says, ‘why is sex such a big thing in literature these days?’ Oh. Holy. Jesus.
Immediately I try to cover my daughter’s ears, but I fail as, from behind, it looks as if I am attempting to head clamp her. My husband and I flash each other a look. Up on stage, Mariella is now saying, ‘Let’s look at that popular phenomenon, Fifty Shades of Grey.’ Oh crap! Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap. We look to our right as a video reel plays.
This is when, as parents, time stands still. On the screen, we see a man. He is talking about Fifty Shades of Grey. Talking about SEX. Did I mention how old my children are? The next ten minutes are the longest of my life. The eldest is giggling her head off, while the youngest is slumped in her chair scowling. I look at my husband. His look says it all. This is why our kids were the only kids in the queue. Holy crap. We are terrible parents. I look to Mariella smouldering on stage, and as the whole sex talk continues I can only think of one thing: she used to go out with George Clooney.
Mercifully, the rest of the three parts of the filming do not cover sex. We sit quietly listening – or enduring and fidgeting, in my youngest daughter’s case – the rest of the show. It passes in a flourish of discussion of a non-carnal nature, and, once we are outside, filming finished, we retreat to a park bench to consume the birthday picnic my husband has packed.
We sit down and, like good middle class folk, get out the olives. ‘Now,’ says my husband to our youngest, ‘we’re very sorry about the start to that show, okay? You must not, repeat NOT, say at school that you saw that, yes?’ She nods solemnly. My husband offers her an olive like a good girl. I turn to the eldest. ‘No talking about the sex bit at school, okay?’ She groans. ‘Oh! That was the best bit.’ ‘No,’ I say. I look at her – she has that ‘I may ignore you’ look on her face. I narrow my eyes. ‘I’ll make it worth your while.’ She lights up. ‘How much?’ I look at my husband then back to her. ‘A week’s pocket money.’ ‘Done!’ she shrieks.
And with that we sit down to our picnic. ‘Well,’ says my hubbie, sighing, ‘crisis averted.’ I take a bite of quiche and nod in agreement. ‘Oh look!’ yelps the youngest. ‘There’s our head teacher!’ Me and my husband instantly hide behind our packets of crisps. ‘Don’t mention the sex!’ we hiss.
So yes, it was a lovely Cheltenham Literature Festival. Very lovely. And I think we’re both agreed – we make great parents..
Any similar agonising anecdotes? Come, let’s have them.
Out tomorrow “Thursday Thoughts” where I post my latest Gazette newspaper column to my blog. This week it’s all about how local boundary issues are all getting a tad too petty…**