I was a bit surprised to see a report from the Sydney Writers Festival the other day. I didnt even know it was on. It's one of the older, more serious festivals and I don't get invited nearly as much since I started writin' the splodey.
It's cool. I'm not bitter.
Still, that report did jog my memory about a piece I wrote for someone, somewhere, possibly The Spectator, about bad behaviour at literary festivals. I dont think it's ever been available online so for all those people who wondered what they're missing out on if, like me, they didn't score an invite to this year's SWF, enjoy:
I’ve never understood writers who complain about the festival circuit. Fuck me, what’s not to love? You get flown in like James Bond, put up in some plush hotel, fed like a fucking potentate, and over the course of a week you might have to do about fourteen minutes ‘work’, which mostly involves gobbing on about the fascinating fellow who is you to a room full of adoring groupies. Other than that, it’s all hookers and blow.
Plenty of blow, if you’re the visiting international super author who swept through Sydney a couple of years ago like a tornado through a trailer park. Plenty of blowjobs if you’re the handsome, visiting, young literary lion who cut a swathe through the ranks of doe-eyed publishing grrrls at festival after festival, leaving it to his grizzled old agent to explain that the knee trembler out the back of the wharf restaurant was just ‘festival sex’ and, really, the duly ravished editor, publicist or marketing maven shouldn’t plan on a Mills and Boon ending.
In fact, the standard of behaviour amongst overseas authors is so uniformly and despicably lower than the local scribblers, that you could only put it down to being a long way from home and surrounded by strangers, none of whom you plan on ever seeing again.
While there have been a few embarrassing incidents of Australian writers getting caught out in the wrong room, or the hotel foyer wearing only a short white bathrobe and an unsightly bulge, for world class roistering and rogering you almost always have to turn to the international talent; the hugely successful overseas crime writer who, having wowed the audience though a two hour session, then wowed one of the lovely young ladies selling his tomes at the festival bookshop, through a six hour sesh back at the hotel; the cheeky Kiwi author whose surprisingly successful pick up routine involved wandering into the ladies toilet as if lost, and chatting up whoever he found, trapped in there; the French philosopher who managed to paw, grope and fondle every single woman who crossed his path during his brief, action packed visit. And, having learned the ways of the foreign johnnies, the ex-pat Australian scribe who methodically propositioned a vast number of women over the course of a night, all to no avail. His essayed his final attempt to get laid in a taxi going home with three distinguished lady publishers. After being turned down by two he turned to the last one and said 'Surely you'll fuck me?'
Surely, she didn’t.
Not that it’s always the writers who are on the tool. A dashing young British agent – no not Bond, the literary sort of agent – ran his pork sword through a brace of local industry loverlies a couple of years back. While some of the loverlies themselves fell into a screeching cat fight over who was going to bag a visiting super poet, which ended only when the limerick legend tossed them all out of his hotel room at omigod-thirty in the morning.
There must be something about poets. Another one, a local lad this time, once took all of twenty minutes after his arrival at the festival to find himself in a shower with a sixteen year old admirer.
It’s not all about the sex though. There’s also the drunkenness. I chose my agent Annette Hughes, many years ago because she’d passed out and fallen under the tables at the casino, a vantage point from which I was certain she would understand things from my perspective. In fact, I’m somewhat proud of the fact that of all the drunken, rambling, pointless and offensive performances I’ve seen on stage at writer’s festivals, nobody can top mine and Hughesy’s after a whole day of throwing back the complimentary fizzy drink before staggering out in front of a couple of hundred strangers to disgrace ourselves on a panel with the late great Grant McLennan and actor-turned-writer William McInnes. Neither of the Macs had ever been to a festival before, and were completely blindsided by our foul mouthed, drunken hysterics, but neither of them were as unbalanced as the chair of the session, poor Andrew Stafford, who looked like all he wanted in the world was for the earth to open up and swallow him.
Anyone who spends any time at a festival will eventually see, or trip over, some God of Letters, crawling around on the floor, covered in their own vomit, and possibly taking up skirt photos with their mobile phone cam. A Brisneyland-based author recalls stumbling across one legless Brit Lit genius, being unexpectedly and unwantedly pashed by another, before getting ‘belly-butted’ outside the dunny by a Nobel prize-winning Irish poet and novelist, all in short order.
While it’s all good fun for we 'umble scribblers, the burden of these piss poor shenanigans has to fall somewhere, and for the most part it’s the heads of our publicists and agents; again, another reason I chose the hard-bitten, two-fisted take-no-prisoners Hughesy as my personal consigliore. Ever ready with a fresh drink or a strong arm, she’s steered many a gullible newbie through the shoals of their first festival. She once had to frog march a tired and emotional author away from a group of internationals, whom he’d decided to lay into with grog-addled gusto. By the time the world famous, prize winning Indian writer had been told that he was a slimebag and a talentless lowlife, Hughesy came over all Maori bouncer and took it upon herself to muscle the provocateur off the premises.
Ironically, she herself was later ejected for delivering a fearsome rant against street performers from a wobbling table top in the hotel foyer. A bit harsh really, given that the security goons hadn’t done anything about the senior editor who decided it was just too hot for humans, staggered to her feet, and lay down, fully clothed, in the decorative pond in the foyer.
Less forceful agents and publicist however, have long memories and lots of scar tissue. There is always one monster among the visiting literati, one writer so irredeemably vile that nobody wants to wrangle them. And for some reason they often seem to be crazy American crime writing ladies. One such best selling creature, put out that nobody would carry her bags for her, spent her entire visit complaining about the wretched food, and pissy coffee and the horror of being dragged to this shit hole at the end of the world. She even alienated her fellow best selling Americans, with whom she had to share a platform, asking, in front of them, ‘What I am doing on stage with these fucking nobodies?’
Another author of massively popular pot boilers used to insist that a peeled Mars Bar be readied for him in the Green Room, before he went on stage, while a morbidly obese female novelist, now dead, simply couldn’t leave her room until some long suffering publicist had given her swollen, blue veined feet a good rub down. One poor publicist was forced to follow yet another Indian writer with a bottle of wine, ever ready to top him up should his glass drop too low. A colleague was forced by an American ‘cult’ author, to act as her valet, packing her stinky underclothes into a suitcase while the literary genius stoked the fires of her personality cult on breakfast radio. And a hugely credentialed writer once insisted a festival director bring him some bed pillows from the directors own home, because, having sampled the entire ‘pillow menu’ at the hotel, he couldn’t find anything remotely appropriate upon which to wrest his noble noggin. Perhaps he should have done as a colleague did, and stripped naked in the foyer until his demands we met.
None of this should put you attending of course, unless you fancy a career at the bottom of the food chain in the publishing industry. For you, as for us, the drunken, drug addled dilettantes, the Festival is all about the good times. And the foot rubs.