Sri Lanka's Literary Festival, Galle 2019
Updated: May 7
January is a big month for literary festivals on the Indian Ocean rim - Perth, Western Australia, Galle in Sri Lanka and Jaipur in Rajasthan, India, all celebrate the art of writing by hosting festivals over 4 or 5 days of pure bliss for readers. Having attended all three, most recently The Fairway Galle Literary festival (FGLF) for the first time, it’s easy to know which one I’m heading back to next year.
Perth is my home city. I’m a little one-eyed about the beauty of the grounds of the University of Western Australia as a perfect high-summer location for languid loafing beneath spreading Moreton bay fig trees in-between well-organised speaking events in comfortable theatres, spacious tents and garden venues. With the grand Winthrop Hall tuned into an easy-access book shop and fresh food vendors gathered near umbrella’d grounds, the Perth Writers’ Festival under the directorship of author and journalist William Yeoman has grown into an important event in the Perth International Arts Festival’s annual calendar, and is a must if you’re in town.
With more than a million attendees over its previous 11 years, the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF), is the largest Writers’ Festival in Asia, and an incredibly successful export product with its 6 international sister events from Adelaide to Houston.
With stellar speakers, 6 simultaneous speaking activities in tents erected around the grounds of a delightfully rambling heritage hotel, and all the trappings one associates with a corporate event of this size - VIP passes and fancy dining areas, well-organised food vendors and boutiques, it also offers stupendous after-hours entertainment amongst the picturesque settings of the legendary Pink City’s palaces and Moghul gardens.
Stretching over 5 heavily-programmed days, one needs stamina, determination and patience to make the most of the pricey access-all-areas ‘delegate passes’, and a thorough orientation of the tent city in which it is held as well as a strategy to ensure that you can exit one event and make a dash for the next one with a reasonable chance of snagging a seat, and you have to hope that the event you’ve chosen will be conducted in English (most are, and those that are not often draw a very informed and vociferous audience whose participation is usually as fearless and entertaining as it is argumentative).
The Front Lawn tent of the JLF 2 years ago : The JLF recorded over 1 million footfalls in its first 11 years.
Once you’ve got all that together, the JLF is an extraordinary event that never fails to leave me in any doubt as to why so many of those tables at the front of bookstores are piled high with authors of the Subcontinent. The programmers aren’t scared of pitting famously opposing writers on religion and politics and poetry and I’m always enlivened by the relevance and passion with which the personalities of India’ s creation stories are discussed as if the latest research on Shiva was breaking news. It is an event as fabulous as its location.
nothing by halves in Jaipur - its your Rajasthan fairytale come to life at the evening events of the JLF
If the JLF is the jewel in the crown of Sub-Continental literary events, perhaps Galle is its consort’s diadem. Smaller and a tad less sparkly, it is unquestionably a more comfortable fit.... more of a tuk tuk, than a truck, to mix my metaphors.
This year the FGLF celebrated its 10th anniversary, and although William Dalrymple, director of the JLF and a headline act for this year’s GLF failed to materialise, Jill Macdonald’s curatorial skills brought together an impressive collection of writers around themes as diverse as of James Bond, theatre, travel and fashion.
Sporting head-to-toe Chanel, with a T-shirt decorated by none other than Karl Lagerfeld himself, (R.I.P. ... Karl passed away today)., Justine Picardie, Editor-in-Chief of Harper's Bazaar magazine chatted for hours about Coco Chanel in the cool lounge of the divine Amangalla Hotel
Uniquely situated in the incredibly pretty UNESCO Wold Heritage Galle Fort, this festival also offers one an entrée into a variety of boutique villas and hotels via small ticketed events of a rather elite nature, allowing you to chat over intimate drinks or dinner with authors in charming villas overlooking the sea or sequestered within the private courtyards of the beautiful Amangalla hotel.
This is a rarefied environment, where Colombo ladies in pearls will tell you, two evenings in a row, that their “mother was British”, their neat husbands gallantly offering to hold one’s glass whilst one hogs into the hors d’oeuvres. It is a world away from the JLF’s boisterous democracy.
Getting things right at the Amangalla Hotel, one of the more lovely venues for the GLF speakers
I enjoyed lots of conversations about family histories in tea planting, eventually got the hang of a bit of Colombo gossip, and came away thinking that a version of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family could be told by any of the delightfully genteel couples I met.
Over 4 days I had a comfortably packed timetable during the day, interspersed by uncrowded boutique events including lunch in a colonial villa with Dinah Jefferies, whose The Tea Planter’s Wife is the perfect holiday escape into 1930s Ceylon;
cocktails with Justine Picardie, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, who returned after much acclaim last year to continue her account of Coco Chanel.
Sir Don McCullin, right, chatting over cocktails on the lawn against a softly lapping Indian Ocean just beyond
Unexpected highlights for me was sea-side snacks with world-acclaimed war photographer Sir Don McCullin and dinner-with-readings by celebrated Sri Lankan author Romesh Gunesekera, who was celebrating 25 years since his beautiful story, Reef was a finalist in the Man Booker prize.
Lucy Fleming, Ian Fleming's niece, talks all things 007 to the breathlessly interesting Anthony Horowitz, author of one of the latest reincarnations of James Bond
The last evening was an enchanting evening with actors Simon Williams (that handsome chap of Upstairs, Downstairs fame), and his wife Lucy Fleming, niece of James Bond’s creator, Ian, and daughter of his adventuring brother, Peter.
Under the stars on a warm Sri Lankan night, they recreated the long-distance and well-mannered war-time romance between Peter and Lucy’s mother, Celia Johnston, the heavy-lidded beauty of Brief Encounter as told in their love letters, with Lucy brilliantly emulating her mother’s ever-so-prim voice.
What I splurged on soirees I made up for by staying in a comfortable guest house within the fort, just 5 minutes’ walk from most events (I like it because it’s owned by an old Galle family descended from Moroccan muslims …. but that’s another story), and Galle’s many splendid restaurants offer brilliant seafood, some for as little as $5 for a traditional curry and rice.
There’s so much to come back for, so don’t be deterred by the fact that writers festivals are notoriously last-minute in publishing their programmes, and often dates, so an assiduous eye need be kept on deadlines for when on-line bookings open.
The Galle Literary Festival traditionally precedes the JLF, and with the JLF just announcing its dates (23-27 January ), I’m plumping for the GLF to start on the 15th January 2020, but they're likely to make a late call, as usual, and in the light of Sri Lanka's 2019 terrorist tragedy, it wouldn't be surprising if 2020's GLF was postponed, sadly. I'll keep you posted.
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