Eighteen months ago I chaired an event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with a novelist I know well, someone whose work I admire and whom I like very much as a person. Halfway through the event, in front of an audience of about six hundred people, I began to ask a question and lost my thread.
My mind went blank and I broke into a cold sweat. I mumbled something to buy time and after what seemed like an agonisingly long moment another question popped into my head and I was able to continue. In fact the whole episode lasted only a few seconds; but the novelist noticed it, he told me afterwards when I mentioned it, and I’m sure the audience did too.
It happened to be the last event I chaired that year. It left me feeling shaken and wondering whether perhaps I was starting to lose my touch. It called to mind a moment in Akira Kurosawa’s beautiful film Dersu Uzala, when the character of the title, an ageing hunter in the Siberian forest, misses an easy shot for the first time, and we know from the look on his face that this is the start of his decline.
A year later I felt anxious when I came to chair the first of my events in the 2017 programme. In fact it went off without a hitch and I left thinking that my recollection of the old hunter had been over-dramatic. Nevertheless, I thought about it again when I listened last week to a radio programme about three artists who take great risks in their work in order to create it live and in the moment.
Pianist Mark Springer described giving performances in which he composes in real time as he plays; no one knows what they are going to hear at his concerts, including him. Actress Juliet Stevenson spoke of confronting a growing crisis of confidence by taking on the lead in Samuel Beckett’s play, Happy Days, an exceptionally challenging role. Singer Laura Mvula talked about going almost overnight from bedsit songwriter to international sensation despite crippling stage fright. As I listened to them I was reminded of this poem by Christopher Logue:
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
and he pushed,
And they flew.
Each of the three artists seemed to have a drive to ‘fly’, in their cases perform, that was greater than their fear of falling. For them it was that drive that was the ‘he’, the pusher, in the poem; some kind of innate confidence in their own ability and experience that got them off the cliff the first time, and from then on ensured that the exhilaration of the performance would continue to trump the risk of failing.
Juliet Stevenson explained how remaining aloft is only possible for her by being so completely ‘in the zone’, so absorbed in her performance, that it commands her entire consciousness and becomes her universe. But it can be a fragile universe, she admitted, in which a stray thought or sudden distraction can undo the whole thing.
I don’t know what distracted me in that moment in Edinburgh, and I would never presume to equate the experience of chairing an event at a book festival to that of delivering what amounts to a 90-minute monologue on the West End stage. But I do know that we all face clifftops, of varying heights and degrees of terror, at various moments in our lives, and it is only by letting ourselves be pushed by whatever internal or external force comes to hand at those moments, that we discover if we can indeed fly.
Usually, in my experience, as in Christopher Logue’s, we can.
If you feel like flexing your wings, come and join us at our next The Stories We Tell weekend, 25/26 November. More details here.