There’s an old piano and they play it hot
Behind the green door,
Don't know what they’re doin’ but they laugh a lot
Behind the green door,
Wish they’d let me in so I could find out what’s
Behind the green door.
So sang Jim Lowe in 1956, in a song that epitomizes the experience of the excluded, of the Outs who wish they were In. It’s a universal aspect of the human condition, no doubt, this feeling that someone else is having a better time than you, and that if you could just get beyond the Green Door – whatever form it takes – then your happiness would be complete. Writers experience it quite starkly, for every published writer was once an unpublished writer, pressing his or her nose up against the glass and pining for recognition; but human discontent assumes many shapes. C. S. Lewis wrote a very insightful essay on this subject called “The Inner Ring”, and if you only have time to read either this post or that essay, I recommend you choose the latter.
Well then; last Sunday I went to the Cheltenham Literary Festival to take part in an author session. It was only my second visit to the Festival – to my shame, for it’s less than 50 miles from Bristol, an easy trip up the M5 or by direct train. But small efforts can be more daunting than big ones, as you know.
My first visit was a few years ago, to hear Alan Garner. On that occasion I was very much a fan, standing happily in the signing queue with my copies of The Owl Service and Elidor. In fact I found myself next to another author in the shape of both halves of Tobias Druitt. Garner’s a writer’s writer, I think, so meeting other authors there was not surprising, but because he signs in a careful calligraphic script his queues move slowly. There was plenty of time to chat.
Last Sunday was different. This time I was a stand-in for Ursula Jones, who was herself a stand-in for her sister Diana Wynne Jones. When Diana died in 2011 she left a not-quite-finished novel, The Islands of Chaldea, which Ursula was asked by the family to conclude – and conclude it she did, quite masterfully in my opinion. The plan had been for Ursula to do an event “in conversation” with the Australian fantasy writer Garth Nix, who’s on tour promoting his excellent new book Clariel, but unfortunately she had to pull out at short notice. I was suggested as a replacement, since I know Diana’s work well and had been consulted about The Islands of Chaldea in the early stages.
The event was a success: Garth Nix is a fascinating and funny speaker, and Julia Eccleshare made an excellent host. I hope the audience weren’t too disappointed at having me there rather than Ursula, but if they were they hid it well. But that’s not what this post is about. It’s about the Authors’ Tent (otherwise known as the Green Room), where speakers at the various events are able to relax and take refreshment. I’ve been in Green Rooms before, at fantasy conventions and the like, and have helped myself to coffee and trail mix by the bucket, but none has been quite as prestigious or luxuriously appointed as the pleasure dome decreed by the powers that be in Cheltenham. (I am as yet a stranger to the Edinburgh Festival's fabled Authors’ Yurt, though in my personal mythology it’s on a par with Arthur’s Seat.)
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to spend much time in Cheltenham's Authors' Tent, and since I was driving I was unable to indulge in the free beer and wine, but I did stop for a few minutes to eat a scone and take in the scene around me. Writers sat here and there, chatting merrily. Some I recognized, some I felt I ought to recognize, but all looked entirely comfortable – and who wouldn’t, in a setting that was in itself a comforting reassurance that, “Yes, you have arrived”? In one corner a crèche of authorial children frolicked, and everywhere the tireless employees of the Festival served, cleared up, replenished and gave a general masterclass in the anticipation of whims. They were all fantastically cheery and helpful. They were so helpful, in fact, that I began to feel a little suspicious. Could they really be that anxious for my happiness? Anyone who’s spent as much time as I have pondering “Hansel and Gretel” knows that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Might the scone be drugged? Would I wake to find myself chained to a gang of midlist authors in one of GCHQ's notorious data mines?
But no such calamity ensued. “Ooh, a bowl of miniature chocolate bars!” I exclaimed as I was getting ready to leave. “May I take one?” They were Green & Black, after all. “Take several!” they exclaimed. “We’re so grateful you were able to come!” Though I peered closely, I could detect no trace of irony in their expressions. They really seemed to mean it.