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Viv Groskop and the Bath Literature Festival

PUBLISHED: 13:07 18 February 2014 | UPDATED: 15:06 18 February 2014

Viv Groskop

Viv Groskop

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Stand-up comedian/journalist/literary editor Viv Groskop is the new artistic director at Bath Literature Festival, taking place later this month. And there are 100 good reasons (at least) as to why she’s a fantastic choice, says Katie Jarvis

Viv GroskopViv Groskop

How long does it take a feminist, Cambridge-graduate, journalist to change after having a light-bulb moment?

One hundred days. Consecutively.

No, no, it’s not a joke (especially not to her husband, Simon); but, conversely, it is very funny.

Now, I am going to talk (a lot) about Bath Literature Festival in a moment. (Bear with me.) But I first need to explain why Viv Groskop is a great choice as its latest artistic director. And to do that, the scene needs to go all wavy (in a flashback sort of way), replaying the events of 2011 and the looming of her 40th birthday.

The point is that Viv was trucking along very nicely as a freelance journalist, working for a panoply of nationals. She had a charming radio-producer husband, and three delightful children. What more could a woman need, you might ask? Especially a feminist, Cambridge-graduate sort of woman.

The answer (to Viv) was obvious. “I had always dreamed of being a stand-up comic, but in the way that you might dream of walking on the moon,” she writes, in I Laughed, I Cried (her equally funny book about pursuing that dream). “It was only after I hit my mid-thirties that I realised that there are some things in life which you can just do if you want to. No one is stopping you.” And so, with that landmark 40th birthday looming, she embarked on a new stand-up career.

But Viv isn’t one to do things by halves. She decided the only way to see if it would work was to perform 100 gigs in 100 nights. With an increasingly-resentful (but amazingly supportive) husband left to juggle childcare, housework and laundry duties, Viv set off to tour the clubs on the comedy circuit, which varied from Greenwich (“Unspeakably lovely gig!”), to Kentish Town (“Ego-crushing near-death in a stinking dungeon with walls painted the colour of blood”), taking on a bemused but amused Atlanta in between times.

Now I’m not saying her madcap venture and the resultant book are the reasons why she was appointed Bath’s artistic director. (As literary editor of Red magazine and a regular on Radio 4’s Front Row alone, she has more than enough credentials.) But such a sense of daring and determination can’t exactly have hindered the CV. That, and the fact that she grew up locally in Bruton, and loves the city of Bath with a lively passion.

“I think it’s very easy to have a superficial view of Bath because it is one of the most beautiful cities in the UK and one of the most beautifully-preserved cities in the world,” she says, loyally. “But people can assume that it is just as perfectly preserved in aspic on the inside as it is on the outside. And that’s not the case at all. There are a lot of new businesses coming to Bath – especially digital – and there’s a huge social media community around Bath and Bristol. Plus, there are a lot of people moving out of London and raising their families around the Bath area. So it’s a very vibrant and a culturally-challenging place.”

As an ambassador for the literature festival, she’s busy spreading the word around London, where she and the family live (“Though I really miss the West Country,”). And people are responding. “They’re starting to realise there are lots of urban hubs outside London, where often there are more exciting and more innovative things going on, especially in the arts. And now that all the arts are under such pressure, including in London, I think the playing field has been levelled a bit. Everybody is having to be more innovative in how they come up with ideas; how they come up with events and get people to come to them. So I think there’s more scope for doing stuff outside of London now.”

Does that mean the squeezing of arts budgets isn’t all negative?

“Well, I think it is negative,” she says. “It’s through the arts that we find meaning for our lives: a society that invests in the arts is the most civilised and forward-thinking. So it will always make me sad if they’re not a priority for government funding.”

Her most important task, of course, is to put together the festival programme. She takes over from James Runcie – now a big player at the Southbank Centre – who did a fantastic job in helping the festival to grow. But it’s always fascinating to put a new filter on an event – and Viv’s influence on this year’s array of international names is obvious. There’s Germaine Greer talking about taking on 60 hectares of dairy farm in her native Australia – and saving the planet. “It will be her first big public appearance following her 75th birthday,” Viv says. “She’s just the most electrifying public speaker; completely unmissable. She always says something really challenging that you’ve never thought of before.” And Hanif Kureishi will be discussing his controversial new novel, The Last Word.

Viv’s degree, in Russian and French, has prompted an injection of new writers such as the innovative Gary Shteyngart, an American born in Leningrad; and Boris Akuninm, making a rare UK appearance. “He’s Russia’s best-selling contemporary author, who writes these amazing Sherlock Holmes-type detective novels. It’s as if Dostoyevsky wrote Agatha Christie: exciting and funny and suspenseful. He’s typical of the sort of person that I really love and that I think more people should know about.

“I also think that the festival should be about having fun and making literature more accessible to everybody: that’s the whole thrust of what we do. So we’ve got people like Mark Watson from Live at the Apollo who’s also a bestselling novelist. [Crap at the Environment was a Radio 4 Book of the Week]. He’s headlining our Great Big Comedy Night at Komedia; and we’ve got Austentatious, my favourite comedy troupe, who do an improvised Jane Austen novel, based on audience suggestions. They sell out every year at the Edinburgh Fringe.”

And there’s so much more, of course, including other best-selling names (Joanna Trollope, Jennifer Saunders); a WW1 poetry special; and a unique series of Bliss lectures (TED style), in which nine writers and thinkers will be talking about their particular passion: Rowan Williams on Tolstoy; Olivia Laing on drinking; Anna Pavord, the gardening writer, on a love of pears; Patrick Barkham on badgers…

As for Viv, aside from chairing numerous of the events (“I’m the understudy, basically!”), she’s performing the show of I Laughed, I Cried, a five-star Edinburgh success.

So – apart from getting the dream Bath gig – what have her 100 days done to change her life?

“Well, I’ve gone from being a not-happy not-stand-up comedian to being a relatively happy stand-up comedian. I still do a lot of writing and I love broadcasting; but I also love live performance and making people laugh. I do a lot more public events now than I ever imagined I would – mainly comedy, but also acting and improvising.”

And has her technique inspired others?

“Yes, loads of people! I’ve a neighbour who’s doing 100 days of exercise; another is doing 100 days of drilling German words. I was really excited about that because I wrote the book in the hope that other people would read it and think, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do the one thing that I really want to do’. If you can do it in 100 days, then it’s really not that disruptive. But it can make a profound change. You’ll end up knowing whether it needs to be part of your life or just something you should turn your back on.”

So – feminism, literature, comedy. The definitive question remains. What would Jane Austen make of Viv Groskop?

“Umm,” she ponders. “I’d very much like to take her to a performance of Austentatious - I think she would absolutely love it. Would Jane Austen have made an amazing stand-up comedian? I’d love to think so but, sadly, we have no evidence. All I can say is, it’s a shame they didn’t have Youtube back in those days.”

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Bath Literature Festival takes place from February 28-March 9. For full programme details, and to book tickets, visit bathfestivals.org.uk/literature

This interview by Katie Jarvis is from the February 2014 issue of Cotswold Life.

For more from Katie, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis

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