The Franschhoek Literary Festival starts today, so my father-in-law has been telling me his Brendan Behan story again.
I have been in a cottage on the south coast for the last while, fleeing the world at first and then preparing for Franschhoek. I prepare for Franschhoek the same way every year: by reading the books of some fellow panelists with pleasure, by reading the books of some other fellow panelists with such obvious reluctance and distaste that yesterday my wife offered me a pair of braai tongs so that I could keep the book at arm’s length and still turn the pages, and by toughening up my liver through the judicious application of wines and liquors. It’s only the novice and the first-draft Franschhoeker that approaches the festival with an unhardened constitution, only to end the first night crumpled like a bookmark, wearing a lampshade like a fool’s cap, or being poured out of the Elephant and Barrel into a limpid puddle of their own bad decisions.
My in-laws have been staying with us, which is a genuine pleasure. Tom is a tough old Irishman who grew up in a huge Catholic family in a working-class area of Dublin. On Saturday nights his dad held a poker game in the kitchen of their terrace house in Glasnevin, and everyone would get drunk before arriving because his mum didn’t allow alcohol in the house that close to Sunday. One of the regulars was Brendan Behan who wasn’t famous yet and always arrived glassy-eyed and wearing the same cream-coloured cowl-necked Arran island jersey. He left his bottle outside in the rain and would slip away between hands to attend to it and end each evening singing IRA anthems and offering to fistfight an antimaccassar. Sometimes inspiration would strike in the middle of a hand and he’d suddenly pull out a notepad and scribble down snatches of sentences or half-pages of dialogue.
“But he was always respectful about it,” says Tom.
I think Tom imagines that Franschhoek is something like a long weekend playing poker with Brendan Behan, only with a higher proportion of Brendans, and he might not be entirely wrong. I did once see a famous visiting writer in the pub late one Friday night, tapping away at his laptop like a good ‘un.
“Shopping list?” I asked him.
“New chapter,” he said breathlessly without looking up. “Must write every day, even while travelling.”
I can’t imagine I was the only one that night who looked upon this instructive example of creative discipline and thought, “What a tool.”
Because I know I’ve said this before, but the reason I love Franschhoek isn’t the other writers. Some writers are fun – indeed some of my best friends are writers – and some writers are envious and self-regarding and aggrieved and entitled and just plain tools, like everyone else. And just like other people, writers are worse when they cluster in a group. There’s a nervous condition called the Franschhoek Twitch – a sharp, jerking motion, the head snapping over the shoulder, usually mid-sentence, as the speaker suddenly remembers to check that the person they’re gossiping about isn’t standing behind them. No, what I love about Franschhoek, and any literary festival, is being shoulder-to-shoulder for a weekend with readers.
I’ve watched my mom and my parents-in-law these past weeks. They’re all readers. They read in the mornings and the afternoons and at night and in between they walk and drink and swim in the sea. They read thrillers and short stories and non-fiction and literary novels and if a book is boring they chuck it and choose something else. They seek delight and new thoughts. They read not to pass the time but to enhance it and themselves, and they talk about the books afterwards with light in their eyes and press their favourites on those who haven’t read them yet.
I sometimes worry about my generation and those following. What will happen to them when they get old without reading? How will they keep moving their minds? How will they find new things to think and talk about? And what about me? No one says growing old is fun, but old age spent in the company of a generation slumped in front of Netflix or joylessly scrolling Facebook seems an especially unnatural punishment.
This thought alarmed me so I went in search of my wife. She wasn’t in the cottage. Finally I found her sitting under a tree, her knees pulled up and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara balanced on the back of her thighs. She didn’t notice me; she was frowning at the page with great intensity and I wanted to know what was happening and where it had taken her, but I tiptoed away because there’s plenty of time yet.