HeadRead – a Pentecost of tongues

Jason Goodwin © Dmitri Kotjuh

Jason Goodwin

‘If upon upon my demise God presents me with a choice between an eternity in Heaven or a week at a Headread Festival, I’ll say, “Put me on the next bus to Tallinn, Oh Lord.”’

– Jon Steele

I’m sitting in the British Ambassador’s residence in Tallinn, which is a rather beautiful Nordic-inspired house among the birches and rocks, listening to Benjamin Zephaniah recite his poem that riffs on Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy to an audience of diplomats and writers.

Or we’re at a restaurant in central Tallinn, where Margaret Atwood is explaining to my son how the director of the Toronto Ballet, sent with a platoon to the trenches of World War I, choreographed his men to advance safely under enemy fire.

Or I’m standing in the ghostly light of midnight in a cobbled street, with John Banville and Antonia Byatt, waiting for a door to be opened to a secret bohemian bar…

These are fragments of my waking dream of the Headread festival. Writers who have been lucky enough to also spend time there have their own versions, gleaned from those four days in early Summer when Tallinn plays host every year to writers from all over the world.

Back in 2008, when Krista Kaer and Jan Kaus and their team set out the parameters of the Headread festival, it was not that they consciously decided to do things differently. They established their festival in the prescribed manner, with guests and a marquee, perhaps unaware that what worked on the lawns of a stately home in England transferred a little awkwardly to a patch of frozen grass on Harju Street in late winter. Tallinners, not sure what a literary festival involved, kept their distance, while guests chatted and froze inside the white tent. A good time was had by all, nonetheless. The following year the festival moved to late May, and into the Writer’s House, from where it has gone from strength to strength.

Modestly low key, and utterly without pretension, the festival was uniquely Estonian from the outset. As Andrey Kurkov, the bestselling Ukrainian author, points out, the Writer’s House ‘looks more like a greenhouse than a club or restaurant’! They are not a very pretentious people, the Estonians, and hate to offer more than they can deliver. So what they offer is home.

Tallinn is, notoriously, one of the best preserved mediaeval cities of Europe, and has all the accoutrements of a modern European capital in spite of its small size: the bookshops and the bars, the embassies and trams, fantastic restaurants with some of the best Nordic cooking, and good hotels. Yet its size does matter: it may not be absolutely true to say that everyone knows everyone else, and nothing is more than a walk away, but there is a sense of cheerful egalitarianism, like the gathering of an extended family. Andrey Kurkov calls it ‘a unique acoustic phenomenon. Tallinn for the duration of the festival,’ he writes, ‘is filled with the voices of writers, sounding both in the hall, and broadcast on the streets of the city.’ Estonia is perhaps the only country in the world where the President, a professor of psychology, would interview a playwright: Toomas Hendrik Ilves talked to Tom Stoppard at the 5th Headread festival in 2013. No wonder Lionel Shriver describes the city as a revelation!

Zinovy Zinik recalls his second visit as a kind of redemption. His first had been as a fellow-soviet schoolboy. ‘Suddenly, I felt at home at the city with its double name (it used to be known in Germany and Russia as Reval), its chequered religious past,  mixed ethnic origin and political history of the vying influences of Germany, Sweden and Russia, and yet, with all that complex background, retaining its strong identity and integrity. Walking around the city with my guide (and publisher) Märt Väljataga I saw in Tallinn an encouraging example for myself – as a bilingual writer with my Russian past, Jewish ethnic origin and British citizenship.’  

I doubt the organisers suspected that ten years on the HeadRead festival would still be going strong, or that its guest list would read like a roll of honour of contemporary literature. Novelists, biographers, poets and historians from all over the world have now spent time in this tiny capital, sharing the long nights and the wine, the discussions, the debates. They bring their books and their ideas, and find themselves among friends.  

Describing the festival as ‘a delightful surprise’, the Irish novelist John Banville says he ‘enjoyed every moment…The intellectual level of the occasion was impressive, it was greatly encouraging to know that culture and literature are thriving up there on that northern coast.’

AN Wilson, the noted biographer and novelist, puts it like this:

‘The unique quality of the Tallinn Festival is the fact that the hosts – Krista, her daughter and the other members of the team, Ursula at the British Council, and the other Estonian writers and academics, have their eyes open to the rest of the world, and are so  literate in so many languages. This was not a monoglot festival. It was a Pentecost of Tongues, with poets from the Faroes and Botswana, crime writers from Venice and Russia, novelists, biographers, essayists and commentators all encouraged to speak in their own languages and to engage with the rest of us in ours. A truly inspirational event!”

Wilson’s experience is echoed by others. The leading Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin’s first childhood visit to soviet-era Estonia taught him the grim lesson ‘that you are responsible for everything: for your language, your country, its history.’ Coming back in happier times, HeadRead struck him as ‘a wonderful meeting of free people in a free country.’ Historian Keith Lowe recalls ‘the insatiable sense of fun we all enjoyed’, and Antony Beevor describes ‘wonderful conversations’ with fellow-guests who have since become friends. Indeed, many of the participants discover lasting friendships, as they are guided through the city – and beyond. For as Lionel Shriver says, ‘the festival went out of its way to show us some of Estonia outside the capital’, referring to the regular outing in which the festival takes guests to visit castles, museums and the Baltic sea. Writers these days can feel the world tugging at their sleeve, insisting that they respond to the peoples’ demands to be entertained, instructed, and amused. At HeadRead they are taken by the elbow, instead, and shown what the country has to offer them.

As the poet Annie Freud explains, ‘every day offered new experiences: passionate authors writing in many different genres and languages, a richness of ideas, stories and cultures, a day out by the sea with a delicious lunch of baked salmon served with fluffy potatoes in a fascinating nautical museum, and new friendships made at every turn.’

It takes a particular atmosphere to allow some of the world’s most feted and lionised writers to feel that they are among friends, rather than performing literary monkeys. Dave Hutchinson recalls that for the first time he ‘felt like a writer rather than someone who just did it for a hobby,’ and was most struck by ‘the kindness of everyone, both the organisers and the participants’. ‘We felt a community of spirit and creativity,’ writes AN Wilson: ‘At Tallinn, we all listened to one another’s work, and became friends, and this was what helped make it so special.’

If anything stands out at HeadRead, it’s the sense of pleasure – and surprise. ‘Crime writing has taken me to all kinds of places,’ writes crime queen Natasha Cooper, ‘from a cell in Brixton Prison to Buckingham Palace, from Austin, Texas, to the wilds of north London.’ Describing HeadRead as ‘one of the best and most interesting of my working journeys,’ she adds that ‘I even bought my favourite wedding hat at a small shop in a cooperative of artists in the city.’ Antony Beevor admits to ‘being shaken on stage when my interviewer Dr Maria Mälksoo asked whether I knew that I was now liable to five years in prison in Russia for what the Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu defined as insults to the Red Army in the Second World War.’ Keith Lowe recalls an appearance on Estonian breakfast TV at 7am sharp, after a night out with the festival crew and guests. ‘I struggled through my live interview with a fixed grin on my face. I’ve never felt so awful. But I never blamed them for it – they were such good company, it was impossible to say no!’

Britain’s leading publisher of work in translation, Christopher MacLehose, has the last word. Headread, he says, ‘is so intellectually stimulating, so rewarding in its cast of authors, as well as being set in one of Europe’s loveliest cities, that it is a surprise that it does not have a franchise as diverse and international as that of the Hay Festival. No author and no reader should miss the chance to be there.’

This year, 2018, this Pentecost of Tongues known as the HeadRead Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary.

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