JLF Soneva Fushi: A Bookseller's Diary

Updated: 6 days ago

Day 1

The festival began, as these things always do, with a deep-seated fear that it was going to be a washout, in this case quite literally! The day was gloomy and overcast and heralded a definite start to the summer monsoons in the Maldives. Michelle and Louise had just flown over from Bangkok and we were joined by the JLF team and spent the morning stuffing goody-bags (sustainable gifts, of course!) and anxiously staring up at the sky. We were having our own crisis as Maldivian customs were holding all the books in order to check their contents for religious items and Verna in our purchasing team was desperately juggling trying to get them through the clearing agent and then scouring Baa Atoll to see if there was another resort with a boat going from Malé that afternoon so that we could get the books across and ready for the talks to start the next morning.

At 6pm the skies heralded the official start to the festival by whipping up a hurricane in miniature with the palm trees flying and to even poke your head out of the window was to be dripping wet. At that exact moment, 22 cardboard boxes arrived on a small fishing boat, requiring a mad dash to the jetty, a trailer and as much tarp as we could carry. But they were safe and in the shop! And as gloomy as the weather may sound, in the Maldives even the rain feels warm and with just a last minute change of venue, we were no longer on the beach but could finally settle down for a well-deserved glass of prosecco. Malsa had braved the skies and the seas to arrive on Soneva Fushi and we spent the next hour being welcomed into the festival and feeling the relief of something long-anticipated finally coming into existence. Dinner was a fantastic mix of Indian and Maldivian cuisine so I tried a fish paste not dissimilar to marmite actually, and producing much the same division of taste, and the ever-present spicy tuna in dumpling, ceviche and all other forms. As the rain continued to pour, we decided that we wouldn't let it stop us enjoying all that was now around us and headed onto the beach for a performance of the Sufi Gospel Choir whose music ranged all the way from Persian verse to Leonard Cohen! Cue some very awkward dancing as we tried to encourage all the guests to get up off their feet, which was finally helped by Sonu's joining with some very unexpected dance moves!

The Sufi Gospel Choir

Day 2

Travel Session: Peter Frankopan, William Dalrymple and André Aciman in conversation

I think that we were all a little mealy-mouthed this morning from the night before but the rain was bracing and before too long we were all up and running and ready for the first session of the morning - fortunately a JLF tradition is to start each day with music so that we are all spiritually ready for the session. That and some good strong coffee definitely helped. As ever it was a frantic first day spent bouncing between the two event spaces and the bookshop, trying to discover who had what books and how many we would need, with some canny towelling to help keep everything presentable. Malsa and I said goodbye and good luck, I was off to Villa 11 to start the day with William Dalrymple and the Indian Art Historian B.N Goswamy and she was to take our trusty little tuk tuk to Down to Earth for André Aciman and Shivani Sibal.

We divided the talks between us to give us a little bit of everything from art and culture with Mira Nair and Vir Sanghvi to history with Peter Frankopan and Ben Macintyre to politics and ne'er-do-wells with Patrick Radden Keefe. I was an enormous admirer of Empire of Pain and so getting to hear a preview of Patrick's next book, Rogues, a collection from some of his best investigations as a journalist was a real highlight. From bad wine to drug lords, it was a talk that managed to cover all sides of wrongdoing but woven together beautifully with digressions into the role of the journalist and the psychology of the criminal. After an entire morning of sessions, speakers, guests and organisers were all united in their need for downtime! And so we all spent the afternoon cleaning up the debris of the morning before meeting again for a final talk and then an evening of cocktails and a screening of Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding.

Day 3

The end of the weekend was in sight but every so often we mouthed to one another '7 more days!' But we were more organised and had settled into the rhythms of the festival. Malsa and I swapped venues, to give her a chance to dry off out of the rain and so that I could spend more time with my precious Book Tuk Tuk which could be seen selling each author's books as the morning wore on. Ben Macintyre and William Dalrymple were back for a fascinating conversation about spying and the relationship between fiction and history, but the star of the day was undoubtedly Huma Abedin. Utterly poised and with a calm resonance that filled the room, she spoke with Patrick Radden Keefe and Peter Frankopan about her life under the Clinton Administration. So compelling was she that she may be the first author to completely sell out of books while at the festival!

A rather startling discovery was made just as Francesca Cartier and Radhikaraje Gaekwad settled down into a beautiful conversation, filled with pictures of tiaras glinting and even a mention of a jewel-encrusted tortoise, about the Cartier jewellers in India and that is that Malsa is completely incapable of whispering. Cue much frantic mouthing as she tried to get everything organised around us but was torn between some spirited mime and running the risk of talking over the guests. Guests and co-ordinators alike then decided to be bold and throw caution to the really quite strong winds that were gathering and to take the boat to the sandbank for a cocktail. It was a toast to the start of 'The Journey', the gala event for the evening. We toured the island, mingling with authors and with sounds of historical debate floating up and into the winds before eating under the stars on the beach. The night was rounded off with a performance from the Kabir Café and their fusion of traditional Indian and rock music.

Day 4

Vir Sangvhi, Radhikaraje Gaekwad, Francesca Cartier-Brickell and Sonu Shivdasani

As the guests chose between Qi Gong and paddleboarding as their pre-breakfast activity we were all a-go to consolidate the sessions into villa 11 and to set up for our first talk - a conversation about luxury and dynasty between Vir Sangvhi, Radhikaraje Gaekwad, Francesca Cartier-Brickell and our very own Sonu. The room filled with fellow hosts who had come to hear the talk, and possibly snag a free coffee too! The weekday events were a little different as we moved into the workshop elements of the festival and so there were opportunities galore for everything from cooking classes to discovering one's inner child again through meditation, crayoning and just all round unabashed fun and creativity.

At this point I tried to sneak away for a small nap but was pulled back into Bollywood Dancing with Gilles Chuyen. Unfortunately having not just two left feet but two left arms and hips that creak like a rusty gate I had to choose a convenient moment to disappear. Karma then struck me for my cowardice as we discovered that a pocket hole had lost the keys to the Tuk Tuk! Cue the entirety of our engineering team scouring puddles and squelching into mud in an attempt to find it! It was too late to bring her to the readings in the afternoon so we had to make do with tricycles full of books. But we had another fascinating and impromptu insight into Indian Art by BN Goswamy before he departed from the island, a mosquito talk from our very own Akib and a small reading from Shivani Sibal. The evening was then rounded off with a world premiere small screening of the film adaptation of Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat and an enormous tropical storm right at the climatic denouement of the film.

The team's best attempts at Bollywood

Day 5

Olivia Fraser signs her book

By today we were pretty settled into our routines and everything was running like clockwork. While guests danced, swam and stretched before breakfast we were putting out Olivia Fraser's gloriously beautiful coffee table book, A Journey Within, in preparation for her opening session. Intelligent questions were put to her, biscuits were munched and the rain poured down again. Unfortunately that necessitated a rescheduling of our permaculture workshop but meant that everyone could concentrate on discovering their inner child.

By the afternoon, we had handed everyone over to the glass-blowing and the Soneva Soul spa team for ayurveda and something much hotter while we raced around to prepare for tomorrow, when we would split the team with half of us heading off to Malé for a day-festival arranged so that more people would have an opportunity to hear our fantastic speakers. Lakkhita was happy to step in and live out his dream of being a bookseller for a day so I briefed him and packed up two big suitcases of books that were coming over the water with us. The final event of was a lovely session at Down To Earth with the eternal crowd pleaser André Aciman, who discussed young love and anticipation to a riveted audience.

A glass-blowing session with Sam

Day 6

Everything was going too well! Just when we thought that we had a nice rhythm starting to the festival a new spanner was thrown into the works. We all arrived on the jetty at 9.45 am promptly to catch the seaplane to Malé, and as ever, the larger the group the more fuss and mess and standing around there inevitably is. Unfortunately a last minute realisation that a passport was missing meant that we missed our flight and that the weather was too rough for a second landing! Cue some anxious pacing and phone calling from Louise where two hours later, we managed to jump on a domestic flight instead. The time pressure was on as we were due to arrive at the venue at 1.15 pm and while we had been fortunate enough to convince the former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, to speak about his book, another engagement meant that he had to leave at 2pm. We dashed across the waves - sometimes more in than over them! - and ran across to Dharavandhoo airport. Of course, when your luck turns, you really do watch it racing away and so we got there to discover that my name wasn't on the flight but a 'Mr George Georgy' certainly was. Malsa stepped up to the task and commenced a frantic argument in Dhivehi with the airport staff but managed to get me on the plane! However, the TV that were were bringing from Soneva Fushi unfortunately did not and had been left with the Butlers on the boat.

By now we were seriously late and even Louise's gallic serenity was shaken. But Thoriq from the Malé office was there to rescue everything and the staff at the Salt Café were lovely enough to set up the entire venue for us. We scrabbled in and after some frantic gift-bag packing in a corner and some soul-destroying negotiation with a card machine, the rest of the day ran completely smoothly. President Mohamed Nasheed's speech was a fantastic insight into the culture of the Maldives, while our two JLF authors, Marcus du Sautoy and Shobhaa Dé, appealed to both halves of the audience with very different speeches. Shobhaa had a queue of giggling audience members hoping to snag a signature on one of her romance books while Marcus had the audience in stitches from reading out some AI attempts at Harry Potter. With musical interludes from Ammaday, Igyan Rafeeu and Ahnaf Ibrahim in collaboration with Fannuge Dharin, we moved on to the Maldivian cultural portion of the event. Some excellent dystopian fiction was read out by Ahmed Mauroof Jameel, followed by a fascinating talk into the architecture of the Maldives and the coral stone Mosques in particular from Mauroof Jameel. But the final note on the event was struck by the charming Zaahie Saeed reading out from her self-illustrated and authored children's book, Laiba's Sea Adventures.

Back on Soneva Fushi, throughout the day we had had a focus on sustainability and the future of our world, with first a talk between Peter Frankopan and David Wallace-Wells that managed to encapsulated both our history and our future on this ever-changing earth followed by a brilliant workshop by Soneva's own resident Marine Biologist Laura Tranfield. Running alongside the environmental focus were sessions from Ranjit Hoskote and a photo walk with Aparna Swarup that taught new ways of seeing and capturing the world. The final treat of the day was the sunset reading session with Namita Gokhale.

David Wallace-Wells and Peter Frankopan sign their books

Day 7

Vikas Swarup & Shobhaa Dé

After the buzz and excitement of putting together another entire day festival in Malé yesterday, we were all fairly blanched with tiredness and drawing on the last reserves of our energy to propel us into another grand weekend to close up the festival.

The charismatic and straight-talking Shobhaa Dé joined us for another session discussing riots and trolls and how to stay indomitable in the face of protest while Ranjit Hoskote treated guests to a poetry workshop. But the surprise star of the day was that writer Sarfraz Manzoor joined us to talk about his first book, a tale of a boy from Luton discovering the magic of Bruce Springsteen and how it changed the course of his entire life. It was very refreshing to hear a very different type of talk at the festival and you could practically see the Spotify downloads of Burce's greatest hits at the end. Finally it was time for Malsa and I to run our usual creative writing class for guests followed by a sunset reading from Vikas Swarup.

Sarfraz Manzoor talking about his book Greetings from Bury Park