… gang aft agley” as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s Shakespeare (or is Shakespeare England’s Burns? Hmmm. It’s a democracy, you decide.) once said.
To continue the “dark art of chairing” strand, having prepared for the two events I was to chair on Saturday, the flexibility mentioned in an earlier post was brought home to me. The preparation all done for the Clare Mulley and Alexander Masters discussion on biography, the event turned out not to be quite as I’d expected or planned for.
Clare is a brilliant writer and researcher and I was told that she had a prepared piece with visuals from her computer. Indeed she did and for just over forty minutes the lecture she gave was a fascinating précis of her book, a wonderful tour around her subject Eglantyne Jebb – the charismatic and adventurous woman who founded Save the Children – and a superb stand-alone piece that would have worked extremely well as an entire event of itself. Alexander Masters rose to the occasion magnificently, not least when asked by Clare to click the images forward from her computer on her command, a very generous contribution from a co-programmed, equal-billed author.
The problem from the chairing perspective was that to then ask Clare the questions I had in mind before turning to Alexander would mean cutting into his already shaved time allotment, it being a matter of courtesy, the chair’s responsibility and the unwritten literature festival norm for the time available to be equally shared between the number of authors on the stage. Solution? To distil the questions that I wanted to ask Clare down to three before attempting (rarely has one word done so much work in a sentence) a seamless segue into the very different nature of Alexander’s biography of Stuart Shorter, a young, alcohol and drug dependant homeless man with an extraordinary ability to cut to the heart of his dreadful situation.
Alexander spoke emotionally and eloquently about his subject and one could feel the crowd warm to this gentle, funny and humane writer. Not least during the revelation that when Stuart had read Alexander’s manuscript (the product of two years of interviews and literary endeavour) and was asked his opinion, Stuart replied “It’s b*ll*cks boring.”
We rather raced through Alexander’s tale, but covered the main themes in some detail before I encouraged the two authors to compare and contrast their differing dynamics – Clare’s dealing with a subject no longer living but about whom much has been written, Alexander’s being with the complete opposite. They riffed magnificently for ten minutes or so before I realised that were in rapid danger of running over time (a literature festival faux pas of sackable magnitude) and invited questions from the audience.
How can you tell if an event has gone well? Two simple ways really. Are there any questions from the audience and if so are they equally divided between the authors? And do people then buy the book. I’m very happy to report that by both yardsticks the event was deemed to be a success. There is of course another test: were the authors happy? Well only they could tell you but my eyes remain unblacked and I’ve received a charming email from Clare. You will be the judge.
So when the “scheme” has “gang agley,” as the Bard of Ayrshire put it, remember the watchword, flexibility, flexibility, flexibility.
Next in this slightly odd series, “What to do when one of the billed authors can’t make it to the event at the last minute.”
If you have been, thank you for reading!