By Liz Bury
The London Book Fair 2010 will no doubt go down in publishing folklore as, like the title of an episode of Friends, “the one with the volcano.” Monday was to be the busiest day in Earls Court in London, but the aisles were noticeably quiet. Simon Master, former Random House deputy chairman and now adviser to the fair, said overall numbers were down by 30%. Collective country stands like those of Australia and the UAE were deserted. Americans were due to have visited in record numbers, but were almost nowhere to be found.
South Africa’s moment in the spotlight as the Market Focus, coinciding with hosting the FIFA World Cup this year, was badly reduced. South African authors and publishers unable to fly to the UK because of the volcano were reported to be throwing a “Not the London Book Fair” party in Cape Town. In Helsinki, Finnish publishing professionals organized their own London Book Fair substitute on Monday at a restaurant called Rafla.
Fair organizer Reed Exhibitions’ insurance broker Hiscox has named a contact specifically to deal with claims related to the fair. Reed sells insurance to exhibitors to cover eventualities like lost or damaged stands and book stocks. It is not known if those policies will pay out for the volcano.
But despite everything, the show did go on. The flip side to this story is how LBF 2010 is shaping up to be as much about those who can’t get out of the UK, as those who couldn’t get in. Meetings or conversations are happening that might not have occurred in the madcap rush of the usual fair schedule. Those organizing author events, especially, seemed to find interesting alternatives.
The original line-up of author talks, with its emphasis on South Africa, was hastily rearranged over the weekend. Serendipitous happenings sprang up to fill the gaps.
Richard Ford was in town appearing at English PEN’s Free the Word festival when volcanic ash drifted into UK airspace. He delighted the audience at the PEN Literary Café at London Book Fair on Monday by stepping in to give a completely unexpected interview to Jonathan Heawood, director of English PEN, in place of scheduled author Juan Gabriel Vásquez.
Ford said it is “a great time to be a writer in America,” giving a plug to The Privileges by Jonathan Dee which he described as “the best book I’ve read in a very long time.” One budding writer asked Ford’s opinion on creative writing courses. “They are victimless crimes,” he replied.
At the Literary Translation Centre, Mexican author Victor Teran recited a love poem in Zapotec, an indigenous, oral Mexican language, while his translator read in Spanish and English. The audience were stunned by the unfamiliar Zapotec. Heawood noted that had the scheduled line-up of speakers been present, “that would not have happened. It was a gem.”
Teran was one of three Mexican poets brought over by the Poetry Translation Centre for Free the Word. Translator Daniel Hahn, of the fair’s Literary Translation Centre, said: “Obviously there have been lots of people who couldn’t come, but there are people who were here earlier and couldn’t leave. It has been nice to be able to pull people in who are around and doing interesting things. A little wearing, but also surprisingly easy; people in the translation community know what each other are doing.”
Another late addition to the Literary Café menu was Palestinian author Ala Hlehel, who lives in Israel but was in London for Beirut39, an anthology of young Arab writers from Bloomsbury being launched simultaneously at Free the Word and Hay Festival Beirut (April 15 – 18). Hlehel was hanging around in London trying to secure a visa to enter Lebanon when the ash cloud struck. “He’s probably benefiting from being stuck in London,” Heawood said.
Arcadia, one of the UK’s most original independent publishing houses, saw the opportunity in adversity and brought in South African author Sam Naidu to give a talk. Naidu, who lives half the time in Britain, is published by Arcadia’s BlackAmber imprint, which put out her Navi Pillay: Realising Human Rights for All, a biography of UN high commissioner Pillay, back in 1998.
Meanwhile other South African writers resident in Britain –- including Ice Road author Gilian Slovo — may still step in over the coming days.
The big shame was that more of the business seminars, and especially digital discussions, were unable to reconstitute themselves so quickly as the author events. The possibilities of webinars, video conferencing, and online debates while raised, have not manifested themselves. Perhaps we needed the Americans for that. Or maybe writers are just better able to connect and to reinvent.