Three dates of importance in the history of Cliveden House. 1666: George Villiers, second Duke of Buckingham, acquires estate to build a house for mistress. Wife not too pleased. 1961: John Profumo meets and begins affair with Christine Keeler. Wife not too pleased. 2017: IÂ attend inaugural Cliveden Literary Festival. Wife delighted.
I have loved literary festivals from the first time I went to Hay-on-Wye in the 1980s and sat in a pub garden discussing narrative technique with four other writers and an audience of one. University had been a letdown. No Gitanes-fuelled tÃªtes-Ã -tÃªtes with Sartre and de Beauvoir (and me as Camus) on the Boulevard Saint-Germain; no absinthe nights talking symbolism with Baudelaire and Rimbaud; just cycling to lectures in the rain and being in bed with a hot chocolate by 11pm. Now at last, at aÂ pub in Hay, I was exchanging ideas with men and women of letters for whom the impersonal discussion of a line of poetry was very heaven. The Hay festival has since grown into a Byzantium, but that excitement remains. There are few sights more cheering, in a naughty world, than crowds of readers tramping across aÂ field carrying books, some even by writers of adult fiction.
There are worse ways of measuring out the year than going from literary festival to literary festival â€“ Jaipur to Bath to Hay to Edinburgh to Mantova to Cheltenham and now to Cliveden â€“ whether youâ€™re there to listen or to speak. For the writer, itâ€™s a revelation to see your words materialise and wing their way across a room, giving that disinterested pleasure thatâ€™s the only justification for writing in the first place.
The Cliveden festival is remarkable, all considerations of architecture and landscape apart, for having arrived in the world fully formed. First it wasnâ€™t, then it was. You look out over the marvellously engineered gardens into country you hardly recognise, and count your blessings.
For this isnâ€™t just about being far from the madding crowdâ€™s ignoble strife. Where we celebrate the word, we celebrate freedom from the aggressive illiteracy and factionalism that have become the mark of our times. Beyond is Emojiland, where the undead exchange malicious tweets with their own shadows, gibber and squeak in spite and envy, hate what they cannot comprehend, rail at what they do not have the eyes to see, the ears to hear or the intelligence to read, and deposit malignant rumours like dirty needles where others as bitter as themselves might find and pass them on.
Do we need more literary festivals? You might as soon ask if we need clean air.