I’m just back from the Lahore Literary Festival in Pakistan. I first visited the city in 2003 when we were filming the Himalaya series for the BBC. I fondly remember its noise and beauty and bustle and when Razi Ahmed invited me to the Literary Festival I was instantly tempted. I flew to Lahore last Thursday night. Unfortunately that morning there had been another explosion in the city and the police were worried that the big Alhamra Arts Centre might be a target, so the Festival had been transferred to a local hotel.
Despite the news that the explosion was an accident, not a terrorist attack, the police were taking no risks and with only 15 hours to go to the opening event, the location had to be changed yet again and the entire three-day programme reduced to one day. The fact that the Festival took place at all was a triumph for Razi and his team. Overnight they transformed the 135-year old Faletti’s Hotel into three auditoriums and space for a few thousand people to congregate.
And it worked. I was on stage with novelist Kamila Shamsie at 10 o’clock on Saturday morning. In the audience were some of the many Monty Python fans from all over Pakistan. Despite all the security concerns I was welcomed and made to feel at home and the perfect weather and great cast of fellow writers made it a memorable day in Lahore.
It ended when a PowerPoint presentation of highlights from my Himalaya series was brought to a Pythonically abrupt halt when a crouched figure emerged from the audience and handed me a piece of paper with a message that read : “Sir, Time Is Over. Please Finish. Thanks. Lahore Police” I assumed this was something John Cleese had organised and made a joke about going on for another hour. Within ten seconds my mike was unplugged and the power supply switched off. It wasn’t a joke. The Lahore Police had the last word.
By then the Festival had done its work and brought thousands of people together on a beautiful day in a fine city to hear about books and writing and to exchange ideas and meet other people with open minds. The great sadness was that many local writers had their sessions cancelled because of the shortening of the event.
I only hope that the authorities in Lahore realise what a treasure the Literary Festival is for the city and will persevere with it in the future.
Literary Festivals are ten a penny these days but the Lahore Literary Festival is something special. Long may it last.
Python and Pakistan
One of the most extraordinary stories about the early life of Python is that Pakistan was one of the first countries to buy Monty Python’s Flying Circus from the BBC. After showing the first 13 episodes they complained bitterly that there were no clowns, acrobats, bareback riders or performing elephants in the Circus and demanded their money back. So it was very satisfying for me to find that nearly fifty years on there are so many Pakistanis who love the real thing and who know the Dead Parrot sketch off by heart.