A few weeks ago it was Cambridge Literary Festival again and I ended up spending most of the weekend there. Usually I buy one or two tickets for whichever events I am most interested in, but this time around I saw seven different events. I had been most interested in seeing James O’Brien on Saturday evening, and Ali Smith on Sunday evening, and filled out the afternoons with whatever else was on that seemed like it might be interesting.
I was really excited to see Ali Smith. I had been hearing about her for years, then when she started her seasons series I took that as a chance to give her a read and really loved them. I had bought a copy of the latest, Spring, before I saw her speak but hadn’t got to reading it yet. I saw her twice on the Sunday actually, once in the afternoon where she presents three debut novelists that she has selected to feature, and then again in the evening where she spoke about the new book.
There is something magical about Ali Smith. She wandered up onto the stage in a t-shirt that was a little too big for her, her floppy fringe hanging over her glasses and stood there looking a little awkward and out of place. And then she started talking. She speaks about reading and writing with such love, such gushing enthusiasm, it’s hard not to get swept up by her. And when she read from Spring in the evening it was one of the most captivating readings I have ever heard. The whole audience were just sat forward in their seats, hanging on every word she said. I got the feeling of being in the presence of someone really special, and I have a feeling her writing is really going to endure, even the specifically time-sensitive series she is currently writing. They are magnificent.
I had bought a ticket to see Max Porter just so that I would have something to do while waiting for the Ali Smith event to start. Max Porter wrote Grief is the Thing with Feathers and had just had a new book out called Lanny. I had been seeing Grief is the Thing with Feathers in the bookshops for months. It seemed appear out of a storm of critical acclaim and take over the tables by the front of the shops for ages. I remember seeing it and thinking cool title but never once picking it up and taking much of a closer look than that. Not sure why. But I needed something to do for an hour before Ali Smith so that I wouldn’t just be standing in the rain waiting, but then it turned out that Max Porter was amazing. He read from Lanny theatrically and was so interesting to listen to I decided I would read both his books. I had considered stopping and buying them both at the event and getting him to sign them but I didn’t have a lot of time to get across the city to the Ali Smith event, so I didn’t bother. I don’t usually stop for a signed book, even though I know I should, but this time I just didn’t have time.
So I bought both Porter’s books a couple of weeks later and have read them both now and let me tell you, they are brilliant. He writes with a kind of poetic, experimental, free-form prose style but the stories are grounded and honest and simple. Grief is about a family dealing with the death of the mother. In Lanny a small village is rocked by the disappearance of a local boy. Both books are kind of quiet and energetic at the same time, with some beautiful observations and turns of pace. They both have a sinister shadow cast over them, the crow in Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Dead Papa Toothwort in Lanny. Porter is spectacular and I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.
So it was a shame not to meet him and get a signed copy. He seemed like a really nice guy, but once I had made it over to the Ali Smith event and taken my seat I was glad I made it in time. I’m not going to lie, I fell a little bit in love with Ali Smith in that hour. I think everyone did. At the end, when we were all clapping and she was hiding her face with embarrassment I turned to look behind me and there was Max Porter, stood on the stairs. He must have rushed over after his signing was finished and crept in quietly while she was reading. He was clapping as enthusiastically as the rest of us, the same misty eyed admiration on his face as I had on mine while she shuffled off the stage in her big glasses and that baggy t-shirt.