Surviving the London Book Fair

I’ve pinned my badge to my jacket lapel:

Katherine Gregor

Literary Translator


United Kingdom

The security man scans it.  A thin, red line crawls over it like a single spider leg.  I step  into the giant, dome-shaped Olympia building.  I think: Dante’s Inferno.  No, Purgatory, since there’s hope of redemption and success in all who enter.

Three days of a huge market crammed with stalls, displays, banners, desks, stages and counters, heaving with people buying, selling, promoting, negotiating, haggling.  Hundreds of voices rise to the vault and blend into a unique, steady drone that fills your skull and continues buzzing in your ears even when you go to bed at night.

In the central aisle, a row of young men and women in turquoise T-shirts offer a shoulder massage.  A few minutes’ relief from the tension within and without.  On my first morning, I breeze past them.  On the second, I consider coming back later.  On the third, I drag myself towards them, hesitate, then keep walking.  I fear that if I sit down and have a massage, I’ll melt into the bench and won’t be able to be scraped off it.

As I approach the Centre for Literary Translation, I smell a familiar scent.  One of the Arab stands is burning frankincense.  The altruistic part of me feels this is an imposition on the people around who don’t like frankincense, but my selfish core is delighted and I inhale, closing my eyes with pleasure.

My well-meaning intention of attending several talks and panel discussions evaporates within a few minutes of the start of each.  Once again, I wish more writers and translators were charismatic speakers.  I want to be entertained, as well as informed.  I am bored, my attention wanders and I don’t feel the least guilty about it.

This year, the focus is on Mexican writing, and I go and listen to Valeria Luiselli and Juan Villoro at the PEN Literary Salon.  Their passion for writing, their commitment to life, their political awareness are refreshing, inspiring.  I want to read their books.

The highlight at the Literary Translation Centre, for me, is a translation slam, or duel.  I always enjoy those.  Two translators are given the same passage.  The result is always different.  This time, the writer is present.  A word lover’s treat.

Upstairs, in the International Rights Centre, rows and rows of small tables with agents and publishers leaning forward towards each other, buying and selling book rights.  I picture them as characters in Renaissance Flemish paintings.  Velvet caps and tunics with many soft folds.  Gold coins stacked up on the tables.  Tiny scales for weighing them.

As I walk down the aisles on the ground floor, the people I pass glance at my badge, and I at theirs.  We quickly decide if the other person is the one we are looking for, or potentially interesting.  Potentially useful.

At the various food stalls, the sandwiches are expensive and inedible.  Thick slices of bread with little filling.  I search in vain for something I actually feel like eating.  All I can see is chicken salad and tuna sandwiches.  There’s a lonely egg one, but it looks far from appetising.

It’s lovely to see other translators you last saw this time last year.  What are you working on at the moment? Who’s the publisher? You know what it’s like – feast or famine. I’ve read this book I love: I want to pitch it to a publisher.  Does that ever work? Sometimes.  So they tell us at various seminars.

It’s lovely to be among people who practise their profession out of love.  People passionate about languages, books, words.

Writers Centre Norwich has organised a drinks party.  I take my customary glass of still water and edge my way among clusters of people, all absorbed in conversation, as though it’s been going on for hours, as though they’ve all known one another for years.  As though an “on” switch has been flicked.  I’ve always wondered how they do it.  I’ve never felt at ease at parties.  After a few minutes, I go and stand on the fringes of the party area.  I prefer the view from there.

I say hello to some of the publishers I’ve worked for.  We don’t talk about business but about our families, about travel, about books we’ve read and enjoyed.  A little parenthesis of human warmth.

By the third day, I drag myself around on automatic pilot.  My feet feel as though they’ve been mangled.  It hurts to walk.  I bump into a writer friend.  “Are you having a good Fair?” she asks.

“I’m having a Fair,” I reply.

We look at each other and admit in unison that we – we hate it.

She asks me if I’ve seen one of the banners showing the location of the various departments, which says, “Writers.  Remainders.” and we burst into an exhausted giggle.

Pretty much everyone’s eyes are glazed over with tiredness.  I decide that, next year, I’ll take two weeks’ worth of vitamins and minerals, early nights and rest before I come to the Book Fair.

I exit Olympia, take off my badge and throw it into my canvas bag, heavy with books – gifts from publishers.  Books in different languages, which I shall relish reading.

Yes.  It was worth going, after all.

Scribe Doll

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10 Responses to Surviving the London Book Fair

  1. Sue Cumisky says:

    Wish I could have been there with you. It sounds utterly fatiguing but full of interest. The noise would have been exhausting and oh for the peace of the old libraries, built by civic leaders which enfolded the readers into heaven! I love my library here but there are less and less books, it has become an offshoot of the council. Yes it is very useful. But it has lost the smell, but thanks to the excellent librarians, not quite yet the magic. And yes they always find he books I want to read. Long may it continue.

    • scribedoll says:

      You’re lucky to have access to a library at all these days, with our leading powers encouraging the fast-growing ignorance of the country! We’re very lucky in Norwich, which apparently has one of the largest public libraries in the country.

  2. evanatiello says:

    It always sounds exciting from the outside. I’m glad in retrospect you were happy to have gone. Make sure to tell us if you fall in love with any of the books!

  3. sammee44 says:

    Exhausting? Yes, but so worth it at the end when you can savour and truly enjoy the” treasures” you collected! I would have loved to have been there—if only for a day! Thank you, Katia, for showing us what the London Book Fair is all about. . . . 🙂

  4. Thanks, Katherine, for the insider’s view of the London Book Fair. I’m not much of a one for fairs, or conferences, or big meetings, but I suppose it comes with the territory in your profession. It perhaps should come with the territory for me too, as I like to consider myself a writer, but I’m too much of a loner to make a go of huge crowds of others like me. Today, I made pureed cabbage-vegetable soup with cashew butter as the thickener, and a spread that’s a cross between baba ghannouj and hummus, or as I like to call it, baba ghummus. That’s the extent of my creative activity today, but I can tell you that I think it takes a particular sort of creative mind to extend itself to others and their works and wares as you do, too, and I am sometimes sorry that I can’t manage it. I think how much more enjoyable reading would be if I could summon up the will power to attend book readings, signings, and fairs, but all I’ve ever been aware of when venturing anywhere close is the number of books I have to pass up, and that depresses me. You are a very good sharer, I think that’s what it comes to, and it shows in the enthusiasms you espouse: I am a gradually aging curmudgeon, but I love to hear what you have to say!

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