The London Book Fair, which opened this morning, looked more like the Gobi Desert at noon than a hub of industry. Many of the foreign stands were vacant, the publishers and sales staff having failed to reach London through the curtain of Icelandic stardust. ‘Half of our meetings are off,’ one publishers told me. ‘All we’re doing is swapping gossip with competitors.’
‘Do you publish any Norwegian books in Nigeria?’ said one lone foreign exhibitor to another across an echoing aisle. One in five semninars was called off.
The fair was supposed to be the biggest ever, seven percent up on last year and with a huge resurgence of European involvement. It will be remembered as a natural disaster. Only the French were present in significant numbers.
Across the cultural industries, the pattern repeats itself. Concerts are being altered, soloists substituted, lectures cancelled, exhibitions postponed. Tales of four-day journeys from Oslo to Brussels are standard conversation. One acquaintance signed on as crew in order to cross the Channel on a freighter. The BBC is looking for an alternative way of getting me to the Czech Republic next week: it may involve a hot-air balloon and a horse and cart.
There are personal tragedies involved among the many inconveniences – of lovers kept apart, memorial events abandoned. The nagging question is not so much whether any one of us is going to reach our intended destinations next week as what will happen afterwards? Will we all go back to square one and carry on flying just as before, or have we learned a lesson about planet abuse and will we review our habits? The longer the ash hangs there, the likelier it is that things will never be the same again. This could be a game-changing moment.
There has been pressure on the arts ever since 9/11 to curb travel budgets and rely less on flown-in stars. The headaches of the past few days will reinforce the urge to cast local. I’m hearing all sorts of alternative plans being floated. Most of them are eminently wise.