At the end of the street is a huge banner mounted on steel poles. The bottom half is a confectioner’s swirl of sponsor logos – ANZ, Casa Luna, Planet Wheeler, ExxonMobil, RBS, Intercontinental, Jakarta Post, The Egyptian Embassy, the Australian Government. Above are the faces – Nurri Vittachi, Chris Abani, Andrew Fowler, Alicia Sometimes, Fitri Yani, Jaya Savige, Marieke Hardy, Rebecca Starford, DBC Pierre. It’s the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, mounted on a scale of which Hay would be proud, and starting next week. In an act of reverse serendipity my ticket home is dated tomorrow.
Bali is one of the most unlikely places imaginable in which to hold a predominantly English language festival. A lush, tropical, Hindu island almost as far away from the Western world as you can go. They speak Bahasa Bali here, frighten off the bad spirits with endless ceremony, make offerings to volcanos, waterfalls, trees, tend the tourists with meals of fried rice and stringy chicken. You can get beer but books don’t loom large.
Yet this is the eighth time they’ve run the festival and even if tickets cost more than they do at Glastonbury people come. Their lists of stars from the literary firmament are almost entirely unknown to me, world-striders Tariq Ali and DBC Pierre excepted. Australians dominate, Hong Kong Chinese, Japanese, New Zealanders, Indonesians. This is, after all, an Aussie back-yard. A place, now the bombings have been and gone, to be nurtured.
What’s surprising is the format of the events they run. Change the names from Om Swastyastu and Djenar Maesa Ayu to Twm Morys and Robert Minhinnick and this could be Bay Lit or the Dylan Thomas Festival back in Wales. How to write folktales. Journalism and Creative writing workshops at the local library. Turn your blog into a book. Words in motion – lose yourself in a lust for language. Storytelling: the secret society of the dragon protectors. Latin rhythms – sip on margaritas, graze on tapas, listen to Latin American words. The sun may be different here but what’s under it remains much the same.
We head back up the road to Nyoman Sumerta’s family temple where, for the first time in thirty years, the world is being purified. The twenty-eight strong Gamelan orchestra, suited and squatting, make Philip Glass sound old fashioned. The masked dancers act out Balinese morality plays, hands bent backwards, moustaches flying. Family members, and there are more than a hundred of these, are dressed in unison – the men in orange collared white polo shirts; the women in silken green blouses. Everyone is saronged. The men wear headscarves, the women flowers. They dance, they offer rice, blossom, chickens, water, fruit, roasted pig and fish to the gods. They sing, they chant. They photograph each other on their mobile phones. They all smile, they never stop.
In the corner on a raised platform two Bob Cobbing clones read from the ancient books as if this were a Cabaret Voltaire dada performance. I can’t understand a word but it sounds like Schwitters or Hugo Ball or Tristan Tzara, syllables bent and stretched, consonants crashing. Someone hands me two cakes and a bottle of water. If I’d wanted a cigarette I could have had one of those too. Almost every man present is smoking. There is nothing bad here now, shouts Nyoman, face a mass of smile, it is all banished. He claps me on the back. Beside him a small boy is imitating the leg bends of one of the masque-wearing dancers. His friends are laughing. Solemnity doesn’t feature in this religion.
The meal which follows, and to which we are invited, has rice and a raft of other unlabelled dishes all of them laced with high grade chilli. I’m given another bottle of water but one certainly isn’t enough to drown the fire. I feel like a dragon on the walk back to the hotel. Ogoh Ogoh – Balinese Monsters, a photographic guide to what they are and how to deal with them, gets launched next Friday. I’d have enjoyed that. But by then I’ll be back to reading the Western Mail and coping with changed rubbish collection days and the first of the new season’s rounds of endless drizzle. Next year, then, next year.