Revealed: the secrets behind a successful literary lunch

As Ian McMillan prepares to chair the 500th Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch, he reflects on the art of being the perfect raconteur

Ah, the literary lunch: a delightful and fascinating phenomenon that brings together writers, readers, publishers, eaters, disgruntled partners who’d rather be at the golf course/shopping mall (and who are finally won over by the charm of the speakers) and waiters and waitresses who’ve been warned on pain of death not to spill soup on the prizewinning author’s frock/suit.

I’m proud and excited to be the chair of the 500th Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch on the 17th; I’ll be stepping into the esteemed shoes of the great Bernard Dineen and I’ll be introducing a trio of wordsmiths I’d be more than happy to be stuck in a literary lift with: Dickie Bird, Ashley Jackson and The Countess of Carnarvon.

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My job in one sense is a simple one: I’ll stand. I may bang a gavel, I’ll introduce each of the speakers and I’ll lead the applause. I’ll sit down. I’ll do it all again. I’ll lead a Q&A session, keeping my eye on the clock in a professional manner.

But the apparent ease of my task masks a subtlety and a nuanced complexity which is what the literary lunch is all about. Perhaps it’s best to start with the things a literary lunch is not. It’s not a reading. It’s not a performance. It’s not (heaven forbid) a gig. On the other hand it’s not a lecture. It’s not a slideshow. It’s not a sideshow. It’s not a show of any kind.

It’s also definitely not a place where alcohol should be consumed to excess by any of the speakers. I was once one of the turns at a literary lunch in a northern town (I can’t be more specific than that.) My fellow guests were a romantic novelist and someone I’ll call Celebrity X. Someone had been sent to pick up Celebrity X to make sure that he or she did not get hold of any alcohol. They failed.

By the time of the starters Celebrity X was merry and by the main course Celebrity X was several sheets to the wind of the northern town I won’t name. It was a shame: people had come along to hear Celebrity X tell stories of life and adventure and not to hear Celebrity X harangue a bloke on the front row who may or may not have been wearing a toupee. Still, it made me and the Romantic novelist sound really good. The literary lunch is also not an opportunity to do a comic turn. I was one of the speakers at a Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch a few years ago and I made the mistake of slipping into my comic routine; my gags and jokes hung in the air of the hotel dining room like rejection slips; this wasn’t a comedy club. This was a literary lunch. It was at that literary lunch that I learned the difference between the comedian’s art and that of the raconteur. The comedian is more suited (as I learned to my cost that day) to the After Dinner Speech rather than the Literary Lunch. One of my fellow guests was William Roche, otherwise known as Ken Barlow from Coronation Street. He charmed that audience until it purred in a subdued Yorkshire accent and smiled smiles of content.

His anecdotes flowed like the river Nidd on a summer’s evening: not too fast, full of light and movement. He knew when to stop. They applauded and queued to buy his book, snaking round the room at least twice. If his queue was a snake, mine was a maggot. Served me right for trying too hard.

So, if that’s a list of things the literary lunch is not, then what is it? Well, for a start it’s abundant; Literary lunches abound at book festivals all over the world and publications from The Lady to The Oldie put them on. They happen in schools and universities, in businesses and libraries. They’re a success; after all, you don’t get to 500 Yorkshire Post Literary Lunches without doing something right. The literary lunch is also a (Celebrity X aside) a bastion of civilised behaviour. It’s like a book group with meat and two veg; people come along to share the love of books. They get to meet writers close up and observe whether they put a lot of salt on or eat their peas from a knife.

The literary lunch is a reflection of a golden age when men and women of letters swapped ideas and stories over food in a nice setting and then went home to sleep it off. And you don’t have to get too dressed up because it’s in the middle of the day; there’s nothing worse than trying to chew chicken in a dickie bow.

In the end, I reckon that the literary lunch is a perfect way to spend a couple of hours. In fact, I think I’ll write a book about the history of the literary lunch. Then talk about it at a literary lunch.

The 500th Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch will take place on November 17 at the Barceló Harrogate Majestic Hotel. For tickets call 07731 690163 or email [email protected]