In Praise of Literary Festivals

Franschhoek Literary Festival 2108
Franschhoek Literary Festival 2018

The Kingsmead Book Fair should have been taking place around now. I would’ve been teaching a scriptwriting workshop, schmoozing and taking selfies in the green room, not to mention attending a wonderful panel with Marian Keyes and Qarnita Loxton moderated by none other than Schim (Gail Schimmel). Alas it was not to be. I feel very sad and sorry for all of us who won’t be able to attend but I feel worse for the hardworking teams that put together the fantastic programmes year after year and make these events so memorable.

This blog post, where I asked bookish friends to share their memories, is a tribute to the organisers of both the Franschhoek Literary Festival and the Kingsmead Book Fair together with the Sunday Times Literary Awards. We salute you and we will be there with bells on (and drinking Bells – and Porcupine Ridge) in 2021!

I loved reading these, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did…

Last weekend I should have been at the Elephant and Barrel, shooting the breeze with authors Steven Boykey Sidley and Mark Winkler. I should have been talking Brahms, Liszt and Mozart with broadcaster Rodney Trudgeon and finding out what it’s like to live the lives of Bassie Khumalo and Ndileka Mandela. Israeli author and academic Meir Shalev would have shared his notes from a writer’s den at the Congregational Church. 

We would all have pounded the pavements from talk to talk, drunk the delicious wine from sponsors Porcupine Ridge and eaten far too much at any of the top restaurants that make Franschhoek arguably the food mecca of South Africa.  Pamela Power might have got me into trouble again (I have no idea what she means). We would have smiled and waved at friends and strangers alike all eager to connect, learn and experience.

With Lesley Pearce and Tamara LePine-Williams at THAT dinner Franschhoek Literary Festival 2017
With Lesley Pearce and Tamara LePine-Williams at THAT dinner Franschhoek Literary Festival 2017

I will even miss the annual drama – usually caused by someone not flying in who should have or someone who definitely shouldn’t have flown in, who did. Since its inception, the FLF has been the highlight of my year way before I was honoured with an invitation to participate.

Early memories include meeting the late Chris Van Wyk, author and poet (Shirley, Goodness and Mercy: A Childhood in Africa). You could spot where Chris was over the three days because of the laughter that followed him. He read to the children from his children’s edition of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and spoke of his early childhood in the Coloured community in Riverlea under apartheid.

Standout panels were with journalist Jacques Pauw, cartoonist Zapiro and Mark Shaw (Hitman for Hire) when they discussed the dangers they encounter in bringing their stories to publication. 

We knew about lawsuits, we didn’t know about threats to children, buggings and armed bodyguards at book launches – all expertly engineered by journalist Mandy Wiener (Ministry of Crime).

Most laughter since An Hour with Barry Humphreys at the Globe was ‘Gossip with the Old Goats’  lightly chaired by Michele Magwood with Gordon Forbes (I’ll Take the Sunny Side), Richard Steyn (Churchill and Smuts), and James Clarke (Overkill: The Race to Save South Africa’s Wildlife). These three meet monthly over lunch to tell jokes. The ‘old goats’ stole the festival with their amusing anecdotes. We all felt like we had been on holiday by the end.

Until 2021, I wish you all the freedom to write a few thousand words a day and new pathways to bring them to us readers. 

Tamara LePine-Williams

With Karen Lane, Helen Moffett and Jenny Crwys-Williams FLF2018
With Karen Lane, Helen Moffett and Jenny Crwys-Williams FLF2018

The highlight for me of the Franschhoek Literary Festival is always Jenny Crwys-William’s glorious dinner at La Motte’s Pierneef restaurant. Authors at every table, a heavenly meal, fine wines, stimulating conversation, chandeliers made of teacups, a roaring fire and most of all Jenny’s entertaining interviews with the authors. Years of lovely memories.

So very sad to miss it this year.

Karen Lane

I love the Kingsmead Book Fair. It has a great Jozi feel to it – buzzy and social and stylish and intelligent, and they put so much back into the community. So here are a couple of memories of KBF, specifically the outreach programme which does excellent work.

In the week before the Fair, we would take authors around to talk at schools. Chris van Wyk (the much-loved author of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, amongst others) was very committed to literacy and to children and was always a willing and eager and fun participant on these outings. We chatted and laughed all the way around Joburg in that combi. 

Chris was the most warm and hilarious man, and the kids absolutely adored him.

The noise! You can’t believe. At one school he just about caused a riot with his story of Mandela and the R100 note – he had an actual R100 note and he kept dropping it accidentally-on-purpose and the kids could hardly contain themselves from storming the stage. 

With the two Kates and my Paul at FLF2018
With the two Kates and my Paul at FLF2018

One year, we took another Chris, Chris Bradford, to schools. He wrote the Young Samuari series and he did a great presentation all dressed up in his samurai outfit with a huge sword. We were super excited to have him, and the children were psyched! Except that he had come off the plane with a terrible bug. We arrived at a big school – I think it was H A Jack – and he had to dash off.

The children were assembled in the hall, no sign of the author. This went on for a while and the children were getting restless and someone suggested we read them a book. My outreach colleagues (thanks guys!) decided I should be the one to read The Smartest Giant in Town. So instead of getting the cool guy from overseas with a great story and a giant sword, the children got a middle-aged lady with a book. I gave it my all and it’s testament to the genius of the author Julia Donaldson that I wasn’t evicted from the stage!

They loved the book. Luckily, Chris arrived just as I finished and was incredibly engaging and brave, if a little green around the gills.

I look forward to KBF2021 and to FLF 2021 and our other festivals, when the people who love books and stories will gather with renewed enthusiasm and a great appreciation of the opportunity to be together.

Kate Sidley

I know it’s a cliche, but that’s what a literary festival is to me: theatre for the mind. I’m guaranteed at least one good cry, a whole bunch of laughter-sessions and edge-of-your-seat debates about books – on burning issues ranging from the looming eco-crisis to the dark shenanigans of politics in SA. 

Karin, Pumla and moi at KBF2017
Karin, Pumla and moi at KBF2017

The month of May each year for me means driving from my home in Stellenbosch across the beautiful Helshoogte pass enjoying the autumn colours and mountains.

I go through sleepy Pniel and past the gabled homesteads of historical wine farms to Franschhoek to attend the Franschhoek LitFest. I book for almost everything, wall-to-wall, and have rarely been disappointed. 

Best memories? Laughing my head off at the likes of the lovable Alexander McCall Smith and drinking hot chocolate at one of the many coffee stands.

Call me a LitFest junky. I gladly plead guilty. (Me too!)

Karin Brynard

I remember the bibulous British historian who during our interview sank lower and lower into his chair until he fell asleep; a jazz personality in similar shape who dropped her mike and fell off her chair, and an elderly reader from Fish Hoek who daintily vomited on the table during one of the Sunday Times’ legendary dinners while I carried on the discussion on stage (bwahahahahahaha!)

I remember the bacon and peanut butter sandwiches in the Green Room, the burble of the audiences before the event began and Jonathan Ball’s fabulous cocktail parties up the hill at Haute Cabriere. The best view of all was from the podium in the Dutch Reformed Church, looking out over the vineyards.

Most of all I remember the conversations, and gales of laughter, in restaurants, in halls, in the streets and on the lawns. 
Hilarious panel discussion at FLF with Richard Steyn, Gordon Forbes and James Clarke moderated by Michele Magwood
Hilarious panel discussion at FLF with Richard Steyn, Gordon Forbes and James Clarke moderated by Michele Magwood

Michele Magwood

With Victor and the two Jo's. Franschhoek Literary Festival 2017
With Victor and the two Jo’s. Franschhoek Literary Festival 2017

What I love most about the Franschhoek Literary Festival and the Kingsmead Book Fair is the vibey, electric atmosphere! All these wonderful bookish people – writers, readers, publishers – coming together to celebrate the true magic of what books do by giving us escapism, hope, knowledge, the experience of other people and places, and the knowledge that in our owlish lives, we are not alone. No matter the state of the world, our nation or our lives, there are still stories and storytellers, and that’s a source of profound joy for me!

 Joanne MacGregor

My favourite #FLF2019 memory is from the first panel I moderated, “For The Thrill Of It”, with Mike Nicol (Sleeper) and Vanessa Raphaely (Plus One).

Magazines were a staple in my life and Cosmopolitan Magazine was an actual item on my budget in my twenties. I was such a bundle of nerves when I first walked into the venue but when I saw familiar faces in the audience, gratitude washed over me, and I looked forward to my first ever moderating gig.

With Fi Snyckers and Lorraine Sithole KBF2019
With Fi Snyckers and Lorraine Sithole KBF2019

Vanessa and Mike were such gems. Very easy to chat to and they were so open and funny that I momentarily forgot that I was in a crowded room. It felt like I was chatting to friends about my favourite subjects, fashion and crime. I do love me a good “skiet en donner” especially locally based ones. Here’s to @umuzi and @panmacmillan for keeping me in and around stories.

I loved The Green Room. I practically lived there.

The snacks were delicious, the drinks were flowing, I was surrounded by authors – my favourite past time – and the vibe was electric. I am so looking forward to 2021. If I have to be masked and gloved, so be it. Of course my PPE will be sequinned! (can’t wait to see that!)

Lorraine Sithole

Let me finish off with a few memories of my own. For Franschhoek there was the dinner with the Penguins which included author Lesley Pearce and Tamara LePine-Williams. Let us just say the wine flowed a bit too freely and I had to take two panados before my panel the next day with Joanne MacGregor, Joanne Harris and Victor Dlamini (who thoroughly embarrassed me by reading out some of my tweets.)

Another highlight was signing the contract for my third book at the Sunday Times do in 2016 with Andre Brink’s pen (thank you, Mrs Brink!)

At Kingsmead, Lesley Pearce had a coughing fit during our panel in 2017, so we all just got up and sat on the edge of the stage and had a lovely informal chat. It was a freezing day and Lesley had only brought summer clothes so the lovely Dom from PRH had to rush around finding her something warm to wear.

With Paige and Ryno KBF 2016

The year before at KBF I remember sitting with Paige Nick and Ryno Posthumus and my Paul at the end of the day listening to fabulous classical music and drinking Porcupine Ridge. Paige and I had a competition to see who could top the leader board for Most Tweets (best Twitterer?), I cheated by getting my daughter to tweet for me during my panels but 702 still beat us both. In the evening there was the wonderful Sunday Times cocktail party where they announced the longlist for the Sunday Times Literary Awards.

We’ve shared so many wonderful bookish experiences together and we will again – but until we get to see Lolo strutting around in her sequinned PPE at the next book fair, let’s try and support the literary festivals online.

I know Kingsmead are doing book giveaways and other bookish activities on their social media pages so please do follow them: @KingsmeadBF on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and you can follow the Franschhoek Literary Festival @franlitfest on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Happy reading, everyone and stay safe! Xx

One of THE BEST panels I've ever attended Franschhoek Literary Festival 2017
One of THE BEST panels I’ve ever attended Franschhoek Literary Festival 2017

Ps…if you’d like to order some vino from Porcupine Ridge, you can do so here: