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A glass of fizz with Donna Tartt

I’ve had several out-of-town literary treats recently. First off was a visit to Plymouth International Book Festival to discuss Victorian women’s fiction with two pals, Min Wild and novelist Helen Dunmore. Remarkably, the festival is only in its second year; charming helmsman Bertel Martin has big plans and outlined some of them to me over a coffee. Min is an academic, and Helen, alarmingly, seemed to have the works of all the Brontes, plus Gaskell and George Eliot at her fingertips, so I think I was only there for comic relief. But it was great fun and I met some lovely people.

I elected to stay overnight and was put up at the splendidly ornate Duke of Cornwall hotel. The next morning was Remembrance Sunday and a lot of people were walking around in naval uniforms, clinking their medals. I managed a walk round the Hoe in glorious sunshine before it all kicked off.

Down by the waterfront I found a great second-hand bookshop, The Book Cupboard, where I spent at least an hour browsing (and listening to the friendly bickering of the man and woman at the till). There’s an extensive poetry section, and I eventually came away with a fine copy of George Meredith’s sonnet sequence Modern Love (thinking of my friend Max Wallis, whose debut collection of the same name is both homage and update). I also bought The Faber Book of Chidren’s Verse, pub 1953, with an exquisitely designed and intact dust jacket. Gosh, children were erudite in those days. It’s a stunning and challenging anthology – heavy on rhyme and metre, as you’d expect.

Next stop was Edinburgh to interview the legendary Donna Tartt. This time the hotel was quite wacky: The Angels Share just off Princes St, where all the rooms are named after Scottish actors and singers. A massive blow up of Paul Brannigan’s face brooded over my bed, and the tea and coffee stash came with Tunnocks tea cakes. Bliss.

I got a bit lost on the way to the venue (and to be honest had popped into another bookshop) so Donna and her entourage were already there when I arrived. She’d already done several events on a hectic tour up and down the country but was relaxed and charming in the green room. She’d only been in town for an hour or so, but had already bought a kilt in a vintage shop.

On stage, she read beautifully from the end of The Goldfinch and responded to every question with warmth and candour. After an ‘in conversation’ I can never really recall what was said if it went well (you only remember the horrors) but one remark did stick in my mind. You’re never far from the sound of bagpipes in Edinburgh and for Tartt, they mean only one thing: the aftermath of 9/11. Bagpipe music, she explained, always signified the funeral of a policeman or firefighter, and the pipes played almost daily, for weeks on end.

At the end the staff of Waterstones presented her with a bottle of champagne and she insisted on immediately opening it and  pouring me a glass. How lovely is that? She then spent time with every person in the lengthy and very patient signing queue, and I felt bad at the end asking her to get her pen out yet again, even as she was flexing her tired fingers, but I had to get my copy signed too!

The next day after breakfast (which included something called a ‘tattie scone’ – yum!) I wandered to 60 George St where Shelley spent his honeymoon after running away with his child bride Harriet. A note to the proprietors of the clothes shop that now occupies the premises – the commemorative plaque needs polishing.

Then there was enough time before the train home to check out the National Gallery of Scotland, where I admired the magnificent Titians that recently came to the NG in London, and Poussin’s Seven Sacraments, among many other masterpieces. But I was equally struck by four Arts and Crafts hangings by a Scottish artist, Phoebe Anna Traquair, entitled The Progress of a Soul. They were loosely based on a story by Water Pater which I tried to read later, but found deadly dull. Traquair, however, was inspired. The virtuoso embroidered panels feature a Orphic figure with a harp, clad in leopardskin, moving through states of Stress and Despair to final Victory. The lines are sinuous, the textures and colours scintillating and the subject matter intriguing and ambiguous. My 24 hours in Scotland were a treat for the soul and the senses.









My Top Ten Man Booker Moments

I was privileged enough to go the (Man) Booker prize dinner for 11 years in a row. Here are my favourite memories.

1997 – The God of Small Things

My first year; I was overwhelmed by the scale of the event and blown away by the grandeur of the Guildhall with its gigantic statues of Gog and Magog standing sentinel. Arundhati Roy glowed with stardom and gave a heartfelt, gracious speech. Less thrillingly, Madeleine St John’s shortlisted title The Essence of the Thing was my first Booker ‘huh??’

1999 – Disgrace

The year I learnt an important lesson: if you’re going to the dinner, try to read at least some of the books. It’s embarrassing to wing it when you’re a literary editor. I was placed on a table of charming Booker employees who had read all the shortlisted titles and wanted some top-flight critical discussion from me. I still haven’t read J M Coetzee’s masterpiece but to this day I remember the passionate debate: Is it misogynist? Yes… no… Yes… NO…

2000 – The Blind Assassin

So this year I invented a new Booker tradition: read five shortlisted books, run out of time and then find that it’s the one you haven’t read that wins. Tchah! The shortlist was chiefly memorable for The Deposition of Father McGreevy, otherwise known as ‘the sheep-shagging novel’. I’m afraid so.

2001 – The True History of the Kelly Gang

The first year the longlist was published. I was, and remain dubious about this, but apparently it’s ‘good for sales’. Cracking shortlist this year, including McEwan, Andrew Miller (Oxygen), David Mitchell’s stunning Number9Dream and Ali Smith’s Hotel World. But I hadn’t read the Carey. The long tables a la Hogwarts were uncomfortably crammed: Booker was outgrowing the Guildhall. As we all sat down I asked Ali how she felt. ‘I’m just so pleased to be here AT ALL,’ she beamed. The best moment for me this year actually came after the dinner, when I sloped off with my friend, Michele Roberts, one of the judges, and sat on her rooftop overlooking the Thames drinking red wine. I also discovered that knowing one judge does not necessarily mean you know in advance what the winner is going to be. I got the impression Michele thought the voting was going to go a different way…

2002 – Life of Pi

My memorable moment came long before Booker night. I was loafing around the Groucho club late
one night when a familiar tousled-haired figure hoved into view. Barely listening to the usual impassioned spiel, I let Jamie Byng of Canongate shove an advanced readers’ proof into my hands. Months later it was still lying around unread, some book with a tiger in a boat on the cover. Eventually I read it and… wow!

This was the year the dinner moved to the British Museum, presumably for space reasons. While having the champagne reception among the Egyptian sculptures was fabulous, once dinner started it was hard to hear anything with the appalling acoustics (the tables were laid out in the central court, around the old reading room). ‘And… (crackle) the (mumble crackle) is… (inaudible).’ When Martel switched to French in his acceptance speech, it wasn’t much more incomprehensible than his English over all the static. But how we cheered plucky little Canongate.

2003 – Vernon God Little

Back at the BM, announcements still inaudible. This year the organisers decided, unwisely, to focus on the judging process rather than the books, screening a short film showing A C Grayling reading on holiday, Francine Stock unpacking boxes of books, D J Taylor looking thoughtful… yes, yes, judging is NOT INTERESTING, please move on. I also remember a quote from the mountaineer judge Rebecca Stephens along the lines of ‘I’m looking for a novel that makes me feel emotion’. It’s not a great criterion, is it? I mean, Hitler made people feel emotion. As the announcements began, all the hacks left their tables and thundered to the front, cupping their palms round their ears. That crazy scamp DBC Pierre won.

2004 – The Line of Beauty

The concourse at Victoria Station presumably not being available, the ceremony moved, for one year only, to the vast and atmosphere-free Royal Horticultural Halls. Toibin, Mitchell and Hollinghurst were the favourites, my fellow Indy on Sunday writer (and judge) Rowan Pelling wore an eye-popping low-cut frock, and glamorous Sarah Hall (shortlisted for The Electric Michelangelo) created a stir with her tattoo-baring outfit. I was gutted about Mitchell (still am), but LOB was a worthy winner. It’s a great year when there are three masterpieces on the shortlist.

2005 – The Sea

Possibly my finest Man Booker hour, and the only time I have been placed next to a winner. Not that anyone on the Picador table thought John Banville was in with much of a chance, what with Zadie Smith, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith and Sebastian Barry to contend with. This was probably the best shortlist in all my Booker years (unimpeachably high-brow literary judges, that’s why). The mood on the table was gloomy, relieved by the occasional comment such as: ‘It’s a great achievement to get this far, John. Just think of it like that.’

I wasn’t even at his side when the announcement was made: I was up on the balcony doing a piece to camera for Kirsty Wark. We all leaned dramatically over to hear the result, only to see the table I had just been sitting at erupt with joy. Damn! Banville was swept into superstardom – you couldn’t get near him at his Groucho club aftershow party – and I didn’t see him again for a whole year, when his publishers had a reunion lunch. He was kind enough to say that everyone who’d been on the table that night was part of the magic. John, you are a gent and my favourite ever Man Booker winner!

2006 – I can’t even bring myself to say

The announcement was made and moments later Edward St Aubyn and his entire contingent (including the actress Maria Aitken) rose and icily swept out of the room. Spotting Alan Hollinghurst, I did a Munch’s The Scream face and he said, ‘I know. SHIT HAPPENS.’ My deputy texted me the single word ‘Noooooo!’

Usually the losers’ parties are tumbleweed affairs, but that night it seemed like everyone stopped by to commiserate with Teddy. Eventually the room became so starry it was like a winner’s party after all. There was even an odd moment when one of the judges turned up to apologise to the stony-faced St Aubyn. A surreal evening.

2010 – The Finkler Question

Bit of a jump, but I have no strong memories of the years White Tiger or The Gathering won, beyond meeting the extraordinary Indra Sinha, author of Animal’s People and talking to Adiga’s publisher beforehand, who confessed, ‘We’re trying to calm him down. He really thinks he’s going to win.’ And I unfortunately missed the Wolf Hall dinner.

The winner announcements are always dramatic, and you can instantly tell from the atmosphere when they’ve got it ‘right’. You could really feel the love for Howard Jacobson. (As opposed to the 2006 announcement when it felt like all the energy had suddenly drained out of the room.) I even managed to grab hold of Howard’s trophy and pose for a photo. I wonder what this year’s Man Booker moment will be?

Happy National Poetry Day!

Last night I went to the Forward Prize party at Somerset House in London, to see John Burnside win Best Collection for Black Cat Bone (Cape) and Rachael Boast the Best First Collection for Sidereal (Picador). No one could quite agree how to pronounce that one: Cider-real? Sigh-DEAR-re-ul? Sidder-real? So I asked Boast. Then promptly forgot what she’d told me. However you say it, it’s an excellent collection. I had a brief conversation with the waifish poet in her stylish hat, trying to explain what appealed to me about her work. ‘Yes, a lot of people like the poems about lying around on hillsides, drinking,’ she observed.

One of the judges, Lady Antonia Fraser, was hunting round the room for Andrew Wyeth, author of a poem (it’s in the Forward Book of Poetry 2012) entitled ‘Pinter’s Pause’. I’m not sure she ever found him, but she did track down Leeds poet John Whale, whose collection Waterloo Teeth (Carcanet), shortlisted for best debut, had a poem about Marie Antoinette. I loved this book, clever and cultured and steeped in the era of the Romantics, with pieces about Mary Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine, and the grisly title poem: ‘we fell upon the rain-soaked bodies of the dead /… From the rosy cheeks of English plough-boys / we pulled two hundred sets of perfect teeth.’

Then it was off for a grand dinner under the painted eyes of Horatio Nelson, to celebrate two decades of the Forward Prizes. The supremely generous and dedicated founder William Sieghart recollected that an early ‘best collection’ winner was Thom Gunn with The Man With Night Sweats, a rapid poetic response to Aids that bore out Sieghart’s contention that poetry tackles issues more quickly than other art forms. My seat was marked ‘Don Paterson OBE’ (he’d had to go), which tickled me. Andrew Motion, chair of the judges, whose speech was read in absentia, remarked on the poetry scene’s internecine warfare this year. Judith Palmer and Fiona Sampson of the imploding Poetry Society seemed to be grimly avoiding one another. Let’s hope it’s all calming down now.

I recently reviewed five new anthologies for the Independent on Sunday, including the Forward Prize volumes (including Poems of the Decade), two from Salt Publishing, The Salt Book of Younger Poets and The Best British Poetry 2011, and Michael Hulse and Simon Rae’s massive undertaking, The 20th Century in Poetry, 800 pages and over 400 poems.

One major theme of the Hulse/Rae volume is war. It was experienced at first hand by the poets of WWI but as the century marches on, there’s a significant cultural shift with great implications for poetry. ‘John Forbes,’ they say, ‘observes the Gulf War of 1991 from the perspective most of us now share, that of the television viewer.’ Forbes’s ‘Love Poem’ is a rather subtle and clever piece; however, this phrase sent me into flashback mode. At the Independent on Sunday, I regularly used to get poems from readers, usually with an urgent note to say that as they were topical, could I ensure they got into the very next issue? One writer took compliance so for granted that he added testily: ‘I expect to be paid your normal rate.’ With a sinking heart, I would read the poems. They were usually from ‘the perspective most of us now share’.

A paraphrase might go something like this:


I am in my kitchen, kneading dough, thinking how good it will taste when baked, and how much my family enjoy eating my home-made bread. I cover it and leave it to rise and start watching the one o’clock news.

Oh no! I see scenes of carnage in a market somewhere in the middle east! Terrorists have blown up lots of women who were queueing for … bread. That’s ironic, isn’t it? I feel quite sad about my bread now. Why should I bother baking it (writing poems) in a world where that happens? What’s the point of it all? I really feel very depressed.

And then I think – I WILL bake bread (write poems) after all. I will bake it in defiance of the terrorists. I will bake it for all the women who can’t bake bread (or write poems), all over the world. I will do it in solidarity with them. Slice by slice, the world will become a slightly better place. My family really are going to enjoy this lovely home-baked bread…

My little paraphrase sounds mocking – actually some of these poems were rather good. They were just eerily unoriginal, and their authors were sublimely unaware of it. Perhaps it’s because poetry’s antennae operate so sensitively that they can pick up virtually the same vibration in several different places at once. I wonder whether these strange little news-item poems are still being written? After all, it’s what the Poet Laureate’s for…

And the Ship Sailed On

I’ve just taken a bit of a break, a self-imposed writing retreat on the coast of Maine. Crashing waves, mist rolling in from the sea, foghorns calling mournfully, and the twice daily highlight of the dawn arrival of the cruise ship and its twilight departure. Watching that ghostly shape, lights bravely twinkling, get swallowed up by the deepening gloom was the perfect end to the day. The solitude turned out to be refreshing rather than sanity-challenging, and it was the perfect place to ponder, write and READ. So here’s what I tackled out there.

Generally I don’t read many American books so I decided to take destination-appropriate reading material. First up was Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld, to which I was attracted by the jacket quote ‘The OC meets Donna Tartt’s The Secret History‘. Well. This was another example of ‘never believe the blurb’. I adore The Secret History, but it is not exactly a realistic novel. As I delved into Sittenfeld’s tale of an ill-at-ease teenage girl trying to cope in an expensive New England co-ed boarding school, I wondered – when are they all going to start killing each other? And it’s so not that sort of book, as shy heroine Lee might say.

I found myself puzzled by Sittenfeld’s rigorous realism, her patient chronicling of Lee’s academic struggles and silly school rituals, such as the prolonged game of Assassin everyone revels in. In each lengthy, immaculately constructed chapter, she details a particular element of Lee’s misfit years at Ault College, whether it’s the fake popularity she briefly attains through an ability to cut hair, the embarrassment she feels when her parents arrive from Indiana for parents weekend, or the mystery of the sneak thief who is rifling through possessions in her dorm house. Each chapter has a focal point – the hair-cutting, for example – but weaves in myriad other issues, observations and ramifications. It feels casual, but is expertly constructed.

In particular, Sittenfeld expresses time very well, how it’s experienced not as a line but in overlapping layers. Occasionally there is an interpolation from adult Lee, sadder and wiser, so it is also an evocation of lost time. The last chapter, ‘Kissing and Kissing’, is masterful, an account of the culmination of Lee’s mad passion for the out-of-her-league Cross Sugarman,and her (sort of) downfall – which is maybe just the first sign of growing up. Lee gets herself into an awful scenario with Cross – anyone who’s ever been a teenage girl will wince, but Cross himself is a fully-rounded and believable, if unscrutable boy. Once I learned not to expect scenes of Bacchic ecstasy I found this an immensely impressive and moving book.

Next was a collection of stories, Love Stories in This Town by Amanda Eyre Ward, which actually contained a story set in Maine. The stand out story for me was ‘The Way the Sky Changed’ about the aftermath of 9/11 (and I read it round about the tenth anniversary). Beginning with the image of a rib on a mantelpiece, it dealt with a man and a woman who had lost partners in the atrocity, her husband in the north tower, his wife on flight 11. Their attempts to date are wonderfully pragmatic – she lends him her husband’s pyjamas, and is delighted to discover his wife’s designer shoe collection fits her too. Little bits and pieces of humanity are being sifted from the rubble and gradually returned to families, hence the rib. At they end they both have to face ‘what remains’.

The problem with short story collections generally is that there are always a handful of killer pieces – the singles, if you like – and the rest is filler. Admittedly, this collection is of a pretty high standard throughout, and I especially enjoyed the second part, a series of interconnected stories about Lola, whose lover rejects her for Miss Montana, but who later finds love with Emmet, an oil engineer. Lola’s mother and mother-in-law and especially difficult father Fred are well-drawn characters, the latter in particular apt to make this reader suck her teeth in annoyance. The humorous stories, such as the one about the attempt to catch a masturbator in the public library, are very good too. But a few of the others are about such banal life-experiences as difficulties with house-hunting and conception. I picked up a copy of Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales, which had been left in the house, and just one brief story – ‘The Young Man With the Carnation’ – had more to say about life, love, passion and art than Ward’s neat accounts of self-involved couples with an obsessive urge to reproduce. Why should we care?

Another book I found lying around was Humphrey Carpenter’s classic The Brideshead Generation, which I devoured as the sun set and cruise ships twinkled by. The Evelyn Waugh circle, comprising such eccentric characters as Harold Acton, Brian Howard, Cyril Connolly, the Lygons and the Mitfords, is something I’ve long been fascinated by. (D J Taylor’s excellent Bright Young People intersects with this book, although his focus is more on the non-writers, the hedonistic, doomed socialites who partied their way into novels like Vile Bodies.) I suppose this must have been an early example of that now-familiar genre, the group biography. Carpenter tells a wonderful tale, though I suppose it’s inevitable that the earlier chapters grip the most, when everyone is young, beautiful and fresh and living at Eton or Christchurch. Characters have a tendency to fall away, unnoticed, as the story goes on – surely Waugh was affected by the sudden death at a young age of his friend (and possible candidate for Sebastian Flyte) Hugh Lygon? Carpenter moves off too fast to say. But he was the first to start ploughing this particular field, and the book is fascinating, as are his shrewd comments on Waugh’s novels.

Incidentally, I was not far from Egg Rock, which brought to mind the title of the early Sylvia Plath poem, ‘Suicide off Egg Rock’. Is it the same one, I wondered? When I came home, I couldn’t find my Sylvia Plath biographies or poems; they must have been ‘archived’ (ie hidden away somewhere). If anyone knows anything about any Maine connections of SP’s, it would be interesting to hear.

Benjamin Markovits and Byron

I recently interviewed Ben Markovits for the Independent on Sunday about his new novel, Childish Loves, the final instalment in his Byron trilogy. (The others are Imposture and A Quiet Adjustment.) As always, due to space constraints, a lot of fascinating material doesn’t end up in the piece, so I decided to share more of the conversation here.

We met at Blacks Club in Soho, and I had to wait for half an hour for the photographer to do his thing. Ben asked the photographer many questions about his work, especially as a war photographer, and was very charming. When they had finished, we settled in with a couple of beers and began the interview.

I began by asking about the framing device to the novel, where a fictional academic called Peter Sullivan has written the two previous volumes of the trilogy and much of this one. ‘Benjamin Markovits’ is also a character.

I played pro basketball after college because I thought it might fund my writing and I love basketball and I’d written about the experience in various ways. I’d done some journalism on it and I’d written several drafts of memoirs that I wasn’t happy with.

I wanted something about memoir in the tone of my description of the experience, so it seemed natural to use the false memoir form when I came to write the novel [Playing Days]. And so in a way, Childish Loves grows out of all of that.

I found the device quite destabilising when it comes to reading the passages supposedly by Byron.

Is it? I couldn’t tell whether the games I was playing would reinforce the realism of the Byron narrative or undermine it. Because actually most of the sources say that the thing that Peter wrote is pretty close to what happened. But it undermined it for you?

Little bit, yeah! But not in a bad way. Did the voice come easily?

It’s not truly an academic enterprise. I got into Byron when I was 13 or 14 and I loved reading him and have read him ever since and all through the period of writing this trilogy I’ve read and re-read the letters. I can’t say it came easily… there are a couple of decisions I made. One is not to write the famous burnt memoir, because if you did that it’s sort of a crossword puzzle game. Because we know certain things about the memoir, we know some lines, there are sources we can go to to find out what was in it. It was written at a particular period in his life and would reflect that fact, and the closest you could do was to come up with something that was inferior, obviously.

So what I try to do with Byron’s style is use what was wonderful about that style but put it into a form that he never really used himself, which was the Jane Austen-style, plot-progressive, cumulative novel. He doesn’t do that, right? He tells stories and anecdotes, he goes on riffs, he doesn’t add character to dialogue to event in the way that Austen does. His style is so wonderful and one of the things that attracts me about it is that it’s vivid without being metaphorical. He uses the odd metaphor but basically it’s driven by another source of vividness and that was a lot of fun to get into.

He comes across as quite a nice person…

What’s always strange about it is that on top of all the really quite foolish vanity, the sexual brutality and all of that, he could be enormously sensible and shrewd, and that’s a very attractive contrast. Somebody who could see quite clearly into the motives of his friends, while at the same time making a huge stink about the fact that he has to come in third at dinner because they haven’t honoured his rank.

I talked to Fiona MacCarthy, and her book [biography] was sold as ‘the gay Byron’ and the book isn’t that. I don’t think she thought he was. He clearly was bisexual and he formed strong attachments to the women in his life and to the men – mostly boys – in his life. If he was gay he was good at forcing it! Also the love of his life seems to have been his sister. I don’t know who you could point to with whom he had a stronger or deeper attachment, and it was clearly sexual.

He asks which Romantic poet I favour and I say I’m a Shelleyan.

Are you an anti-Byron Shelleyan or a pro-Byron Shelleyan?

Pro. Funnily enough, although they’re always linked together, they were not that friendly…

I think for Byron, Shelley wasn’t one of the real intimates. I think they had an intense relationship but in his letters Byron doesn’t usually want to accord Shelley top-buddy status.

I always assumed that Byron liked to think he didn’t value the friendships of letters as much as he valued other kinds of friendships. The people he talks about most warmly were the Scropes and the Hobhouses, people who weren’t in the first instance men of letters, so somewhere in his mind he always relegated Shelley to a writerly friendship, not one of the core.

What do you think about Byron’s work?

The early stuff isn’t great: ‘Child Harold’. But ‘Don Juan’ is a beautiful poem. ‘Beppo’, actually. I would like Beppo to be taught alongside ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as one of the great romantic poems. I think it deserves it.

I haven’t read it…

‘Beppo’ is the one about the Italian woman whose husband is lost at sea. She takes a lover, and then the husband comes back during Carnival and says you’re my wife. And it ends with them all being friends together. It’s about 10 pages and it’s like a mini ‘Don Juan’.

One of the things that happens to a writer who had the kind of success that Byron had with Childe Harold is that you’re stuck reproducing it. The difference between the public perception of him and his real self started to worry him, not just as a human being, but as a writer. What was he doing wrong if he was misrepresenting himself in the ways that his earlier work was? And his response to this was ‘Beppo’. The claim that he wants to make about himself in his early work, all the Byronic hero stuff, is that the way life works is that something terrible happens to you and you never get over it, and that’s the tragedy of life. And in ‘Beppo’, he realises that something terrible happens to you, and you get over it and that’s the tragedy of life. And once he realises that, he can see his way clear to the masterpieces.

Beppo’s great! He talks about, if you go to Italy in Lent, be sure to bring ketchup. Cos otherwise you’ll get really bored of the food. And if you think that this was being done at the same time Shelley was doing the great but century-less ‘Ode to the West Wind’, it’s so astonishingly contemporary and fresh, ‘Beppo’, that it seems a real achievement.

Childish Loves has some affinity with Alan Hollinghurst’s latest – the changing reception over time of a dead poet.

I have read The Stranger’s Child and I know him a little bit – it was funny because the books do have similar themes.

Why does your Faber editor Lee Brackstone have a walk-on part?!

I liked it! How do you feel about that? It seemed funny to me.

This kind of non-fictional fiction allows lots of quiet jokes like that – which are maybe more amusing to the writer than anyone else. You know Lee, but people who don’t probably think I’m making it up. It’s a funny joke that works for the writer and a small circle of readers but for anybody else it doesn’t seem to be a joke at all.

I like the fact in writing this sort of fiction that the pressure on me is to make things more believable in memoir terms rather than make them more believable in fiction terms. The basic premise I have as a writer is that the way things actually happen is generally more interesting than the way I can imagine their happening.

With Playing Days I try to do it, but without winking at the reader at all. I wanted a certain class of reader to just read it as a straight memoir and just assume it was true.

I mention something in the book about being a reviewer and going through people’s backlists and when you do that it’s depressing to see the same house coming up again and again [in their fiction]. The country house, and the relation with the husband, and the mother who acts a certain way, and all these figures who reappear in book after book. And is that the thing that actually happened? Is that the bedrock of true material from which they have made all the fiction and if so, should I be more interested in the true material than the stuff that they’ve imagined? And part of me thinks, yeah, I should be. If someone can tell me what their life is really like, that should be more interesting to me than if someone can make something up about it.

When you ask about this, though, most novelists protest ‘But they’re fictional characters…’

Writers want to say that, don’t they? I’m perfectly happy to answer, if someone wants to know how much is true. It seems a reasonable thing for a reader to ask. Even though I think most writers want to pretend it’s the worst question in the world.

The me-character spends his whole time trying to work out what’s true from Peter Sullivan, so I’ve done it myself. I went to do a reading from A Quiet Adjustment when we were living in Boston. It was a passage about Byron’s relationship with Augusta and someone said to me afterwards, ‘If I’d known he’d slept with his sister I wouldn’t have come,’ ie, I was interested in Byron but when I found out he was such a naughty man…!

A Quiet Adjustment is an Austenian novel with Byron in it…

I think that’s exactly right and that’s part of what I intended. And actually what happens when my character Annabella Milbanke faces up to a whole different world of sexual reality.

Annabella would actually work quite well as an Austenian character and would be rewarded in an Austen novel, whereas in the real world…

She gets screwed in the ass by Byron! And comes to terms with it.

I wanted to show various sex acts in different contexts, so we could judge what the moral value of it was. So we might be certain that Byron’s sexual profligacy is a bad thing: too many people, too great an age difference. On the other hand, Peter Sullivan’s response which is almost entire repression doesn’t seem like a healthy attitude towards the business either. And so one of the things I wanted to do in the book was frame in different ways sex acts that we weren’t quite comfortable with.

I think the Edleston [a choirboy Byron met at Cambridge] relationship is really affecting, especially if he didn’t sleep with him. If the limit of their intimacy continually approached the sexual relationship but never actually achieved it, why not?

The other thing that’s confusing is the Romantics romanticised male friendship too, even when we wouldn’t call it sexually driven. The line between what Byron had with Hobhouse, with whom he had a very intimate friendship, and with Edleston isn’t totally clear, although H clearly disapproved of his friendship with E. I have a lot of sympathy for Byron and I hope this is the most sympathetic of the three books towards Byron. That was my intention.

We talk a bit more about Byron versus Shelley.

There are times when it’s hard to tell which of them was the bigger shit, Shelley or Byron. I like this quote from Shelley in which he complains that Byron bargains with Italian peasants for their daughters, which clearly seems to us to be a bad thing to do, except that Shelley’s complaint is that ‘they stink so of garlic that no ordinary Englishman can approach them’. Who’s playing the aristocrat now?

Maybe I should have made more of Shelley. He really appears more in Imposture, but it’s hard enough doing Byron without tackling…!

The trouble with writing great people is that one of the things that makes them great is they’re smarter than you. And that was enough of a challenge with Byron, so I kind of leave [Shelley] for dead before he appears in Childish Loves.

They wrote so much – I never write a letter any more. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you haven’t got a TV. They didn’t waste their brains on Twitter.

I remember hearing that the students in Tiananmen Square were reading Byron and Shelley. I was 14 or something. Not just Shelley the revolutionary, but Byron as well. But a lot of interest is in the life.

A Literary Pilgrimage

The Wordsworth Trust is one of my favourite literary museums and when I heard of their latest exhibition, Shelley’s Ghost, I had to make the trip. I read some of Shelley’s poems aloud recently, at Arthur House’s excellent poetry night at Blacks Club in Soho. I had always planned to read from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ and some of the scathing political poems, but given that the previous night had seen some of the worst rioting seen in London for decades, Shelley’s incendiary verse could not have seemed more powerful and contemporary.

Quite by accident, my trip coincided with a poetry reading by Fiona Sampson and Carola Luther in the Wordsworth Hotel in Grasmere. Luther was reading from her newly published Carcanet collection, Arguing with Malarchy (pronounced malarky, rather than malachi, she explained).

‘This feels like a big gig,’ she said charmingly. Growing up in South Africa, she read Beatrix Potter and Arthur Ransome as well as Wordsworth, so had a sense of ‘greenness and daffodils inside, despite living somewhere with aloes and dust and repression’. Her work shows a deep awareness of the animal and physical world. One Wordsworthian poem, ‘The Lamb’, was written in the Lake District.

She warned us that ‘Julia’s Party’ was ‘mournful’, a poem about an old lady who collapses at a gathering, ‘folding up / like a deckchair, kicked /right there against the yellow doors’. A summery poem about bees, ‘sunlit busbies stuffed with sleep’, fitted the beautiful weather outside. Her chicken poems go some way to explaining the hideous (at least to me) cover photograph of a cockerel’s eye in close up (it’s her cockerel). Earlier work was more closely linked to her African self, but frequently she seemed puzzled by her own poems, as if not quite sure of their source.

The energy level kicked up when Fiona Sampson took the stage, a crisp, musical poet with great presence. She apologised for her bad cough, but it just made her voice even more husky and expressive. Sampson edits Poetry Review, the journal of the Poetry Society (ructions continue over its future direction). ‘One of the joys of the day job is the hate mail,’ she said wryly, clearly feeling the strain, and went on to read a poem entitled ‘Death Threat’. Other poems told of a miraculously bleeding yew, Crick and DNA (‘The Code’) and she read a lovely piece for her brother, ‘The Corn Sermon’.

The next morning, I turned up for Sampson’s lecture on Shelley at the Wordsworth Trust. She has just compiled an anthology of his verse for Faber. Interestingly, she got the commission before she was even interested in him. ‘I’m no Romanticist,’ she announced. Her observations were all the more thought-provoking for not coming from an avowed fan. I was particularly struck with her notion that as he was not widely published during his lifetime he was essentially ‘talking to himself’. The poems are ‘not quite clear as a bell’, she said ruefully, but she found herself moving far away from her initial feeling that he was ‘windy and wordy’. Living conscienciously was his goal; ‘he was not the victim of destiny,’ she maintained.

She read from ‘Hymn to Intellectual Beauty’ and ‘Queen Mab’, also the sonnet ‘England in 1819′, and ‘Ode to the West Wind’, giving thrilling emphasis to the music and virtuosity. Strangely, she rather mucked up the lines about free love from ‘Epipsychidion’ (‘I never was a part of that great sect…’) by reading them in a comedy voice. She claimed they were ‘unintentionally funny’ and wondered why we weren’t laughing. Whether or not you believe, as she does, that the sentiments represent outrageous special pleading, the poetry is spellbinding. Form and content are not so easily separated; it seems a strange point for a poet to miss.

The Trust’s permanent Wordsworth exhibition is gloriously retro, telling the story of the older generation of Romantics via gloomy oil portraits and watercolour landscapes, cases full of manuscripts with long explicatory panels and reams of poetry. No buttons to press, few videos, no actors hamming it up as Dorothy or Coleridge. It’s quite refreshing. Mervyn Peake’s drawings for ‘The Ancient Mariner’ are a particular highlight.

‘Shelley’s Ghost’ is quite a small exhibition, but a wonderful one. For a start, the great portraits of Godwin, Mary Shelley, Shelley and Wollstonecraft from the National Gallery are there, but are hung much lower, so that you can actually look Shelley in the eye. It is not a particularly adept portrait; unlike Byron, whose many likenesses were mostly taken by skilled artists, Shelley sat to an amateurish friend in Rome, Amelia Curran. The mouth is weak, the hand is pudgy, but the eyes are clear and it’s eerie to look into them. Bad painting it may be, but there is a definite family resemblance to the lovely portrait of his sisters Margaret and Hellen, also on display.

The exhibition shows the relics of a literary family, beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s heartbreaking note to Godwin, dated 30 August 1797: ‘I have no doubt of seeing the animal today…’ The ‘animal’ was her unborn baby (non-nonsense enlightenment rationality speaking there). Mary demands a diverting novel to while away the hours before labour begins in earnest. Of course, she was to die a few days after the birth of Mary Shelley.

There is a page from the manuscript of Frankenstein, with heavy corrections from Shelley. It has always been disputed how much he contributed to the novel. The notebooks are particularly fascinating, showing just how hard Mary Shelley had to work to complete the posthumous Complete Poems. Ideas, lines and images fly in all directions, and when inspiration failed, Shelley made charming doodles of trees, flowers and boats. I loved the small notebook, still with its original bookshop sticker, bought in Paris after their elopement, in which they scribbled a shared travel journal.

I was sorry not to see Jane Williams’ guitar, bought by Shelley and presented to her with the manuscript of ‘With a Guitar, To Jane’. But there is plenty here for the enthusiast to ponder: a fragile and very rare banner from Peterloo; a sensitive portrait of Edward Williams, who drowned with Shelley; a water-damaged copy of Sophocles which was probably salvaged from the wreck; and Shelley’s last letter to Mary, the last line of which I’ve always found haunting: ‘I have found the translation of the Symposium.’ ‘Our great poet of rapture’, in Sampson’s phrase, was in full intellectual spate when he was silenced forever.

Funny Games

The story of the ‘Silent Twins’ fascinated me as soon as I came across it, probably through one of the Sunday Times pieces on the topic by journalist Marjorie Wallace. Her luxuriously long and detailed accounts were expanded into her first book on the twins. Their unresolved story continued, and a new updated version of her book, The Silent Twins, has just been published by Vintage (£6.99). The tale has not lost its capacity to shock.

June and Jennifer Gibbons, identical twins, were born into a black family in Wales in the early 1960s. Although clearly highly intelligent, from the age of three they refused to talk to their parents, older siblings, or anyone else. A younger sister came along, Rosie, who was the only person they would condescend to communicate with – for a time. They spoke to each other in what sounded like a made-up language. Rejected by, and rejecting the outside world, by the age of 16 they were living on benefits, spending most of the day cooped up in the bedroom and writing obsessively. They wouldn’t eat with the family, or share their rich fantasy life.

When puberty struck with a vengeance, they began to leave their safe haven more and more frequently, to pursue boys, or rather stalk them. They fell in with a tough crew of brothers who introduced them to sex, drugs and alcohol. Seeing themselves as special, determined to make the world notice them, they embarked on a crime spree of theft and arson. (Before reading this book, I hadn’t realised how serious their crimes were – they weren’t mucking about.) The court case made headliines all over Britain. Still teenagers, and immature at that, they were deemed to be psychopaths and given a 12-year sentence to be served at Broadmoor. With this they lost all dignity and privacy; it’s truly painful to read their diary accounts of, for example, their sexual experiences, frustrations and longings.

The great value and interest of Wallace’s book lies in showing what happens after a court case and sentencing, after the public forgets the story. The twins weren’t prepared for Broadmoor nor it for them. They had been left to their own devices by their parents, and by teachers, who all assumed they would ‘grow out of it’. Psychiatric professionals were no more enlightened. Wallace followed the case and befriended these two weird girls.

Mining their diaries for clues, Wallace looked for explanations. What began as a childish game very quickly got out of hand. June writes about being in the grip of her sister’s dominance, longing to connect with her family, feeling the world passing her by, but all the time unable to raise or eyes or speak until given the ‘secret signal’ by her twin. Obsessively they wrote in their diaries about their mutual dependence, love and hate.

The very few pictures of them showing any emotion show them to have been attractive little girls, but in most pictures they seem sulky, surly, deliberately obstructive. A telling family photograph is reproduced in the book, showing their elder sister’s wedding. It’s a conventional line-up of bride, groom, and bride’s family, but to the right of the group is a strange sight: two identically dressed and posed young girls, chubby-faced, eyes downcast, hands hanging strangely in front of their thighs. For the whole of the celebrations they apparently stood stiffly like this, refusing to acknowledge anyone.

What always fascinated me most about them was their aspiration to be published novelists. June wrote and self-published ‘Pepsi-Cola Addict’, and Jennifer wrote ‘Discomania’, ‘The Pugilist’ and ‘Taxi-Driver’s Son’ (if nothing else, they had a great knack for titles). But how, I wondered, could you possibly cut yourself off from the world and other people, and expect to write novels – that most generous and humanist of art-forms? You could work on mathematical formulae, write music, paint or solve chess problems; but surely not write publishable novels. They had imagination, a certain self-insight and superlative verbal skills. But could that be enough?

The Brontes are most often invoked in the case of the Silent Twins, as a group of lonely sibliings who were similarly absorbed in their private fantasy worlds. But there’s no real analogy. Most biographers have now refuted the notion that Haworth was a dreary backwater and the Bronte children were devoid of intellectual and societal stimulus. And they were anything but silent. Wallace remains convinced that the girls were geniuses.

As to how the whole tragic story plays out, I’ll leave it to you to read the book. It’s thoroughly gripping and has been endorsed by Oliver Sacks. You only wish that Supernanny had been around when they were three years old. If their funny games had been nipped in the bud, the outcome might have been very different.

Ears pricked up

It’s been pointed out before that Joe Orton was the Christopher Marlowe of 20th century theatre: prodigiously talented, scathing of contemporary mores, homosexual and murdered at a young age: Orton bludgeoned by his lover, Marlowe stabbed by those he counted friends. I’ve loved Orton’s brief oeuvre for a long time; I even  went on pilgrimage to Noel Road to see the house where he was killed in August 1967. His published diaries are very funny, charting his blithe course through theatrical and celebrity London of the ’60s. They gain a shocking resonance from his killer’s suicide note. If you read the diaries, he scrawled, you will understand. ‘PS. Especially the latter part.’

John Lahr wrote an excellent biography using one of Orton’s spare titles, ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (just move that ‘e’…), which was filmed with Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina. As a student I performed in Cock-Ups, a rather brilliant play about Orton’s life and death in which a succession of his strangest characters turn up at Noel Road to ‘solve’ his murder. In true Orton style, one of the props is a huge dildo, seriously considered to be the murder weapon by an incompetent sleuth.

Most of our budget went on this eye-watering device, which disappeared after opening night, never to be seen again. Nothing as impressive could be sourced at short notice from the local sex shops, but we used the incident to promote the rest of the run, writing ‘Who Stole the Cock out of Cock-Ups?’ in big letters on the blackboards outside the student union. (In those days, we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook – just chalk.)

So it was with keen excitement that I went to see a double-bill of Orton’s shorts, The Ruffian on the Stair and The Erpingham Camp, at Greenwich Playhouse. From its opening exchange between a woman and a man who is ‘meeting a man in the toilets at Kings Cross’ to its final bathos over a dead body (the police will understand, says thuggish Mike; ‘They have wives and goldfish of their own’), Ruffian is a skilful three-hander, exploiting to the full the dynamic whereby each character shows a different facet according to who they’re with. Jack Brackstone-Brown was a superbly lithe Wilson, the boy who confronts a weird London couple, Joyce and Mike. Great face-acting from Rebecca Hands-Wicks, registering every little twinge of Joyce’s anxiety, hope and missing self-esteem. As ever, Orton’s misogyny is marked, but it must be fitted into the wider pattern of his misanthropy. Paul Robison captured Mike’s stolid unpleasantness, but perhaps not quite his interest in the deranged but attractive Wilson. Also, Robison and Hands-Wicks are too young to convey the almost parental tenderness which must sit alongside the sexual tension. (Orton was to go on to refine the formula in Entertaining Mr Sloane.)

With the cleverness of the working-class boy with a Penguin Classic, not of the public-school privilege Orton hated, The Erpingham Camp is mockingly based on The Bacchae. Thus Euripides’ tragic King Pentheus is reduced to the pompous owner of a holiday camp, and Dionysus himself to the loutish camper Kenny (this is wittily signalled by his adoption of a leopard-print wrap during a facetious talent competition).

The holiday camp vacation on which the play is based used to be a more central feature of British life, well before the advent of cheap flights and Britain’s Got Talent. Now it’s merely camp, but the satiric force of Orton’s subversive play is undiminished. It’s easier nowadays to see this as a straightforwardly political play, with food riots and crackdowns by authority, played for laughs.

The seedy Padre (Christopher Prior, marvellous) and the incompetently scheming Chief Redcoat Riley (Danny Wainwright, funny and endearing), together with Erpingham (Barry Clarke), represent the forces of order (is it too much to see Riley’s ukulele as Apollo’s lyre in this diminished classical context?). Meanwhile prim couple Ted and Lou, with capering Kenny (Ross Finbow) and his simpering wife Eileen (‘I’m expecting!’), lead the forces of anarchy. Clarke gave the Hitler-moustached Erpingham a certain pathos; he’s rather like Captain Mainwaring, obnoxious but pitable. Orton was fascinated by female sexual power, probably because he didn’t understand it, and Rachel Waring as seductive Redcoat Jessie embodied his writerly fantasies with a cool poise.

I didn’t think it would be possible to express an entire holiday camp on a stage as small as that of the Playhouse but director Maria Chiorando and her set designer Lucy Rushbrook have done an excellent job. I’m afraid the runs ends today, so I’ve left this a bit late, but it just goes to show that however fashionable and of his moment Orton undoubtedly was, his savage comic brilliance and the crisp snap of his wit still have the power to enthrall.

Farewell, Bookdog

Bookdog’s adventures were formerly catalogued in Scarlett Thomas’s entertaining Bookgirl blog; she also appeared as a character in Scarlett’s novel Our Tragic Universe, so her literary credentials were impeccable. I knew that Bookdog was ill but hoped to see her one last time. It wasn’t to be.

My first impression of her was aural: howls and piteous wails as she attempted to scrabble her way right through a door. A small, black rescue dog, she had abandonment issues and greeted returning owners and new friends with equal hysteria. The performance would continue with several minutes of salmon-like leaping and balletic pirouettes, expressive of joy and reproach. I have no idea what mixture of breeds she was; but her personality was much bigger than her person.

There was a game she devised, quite a complicated and ritualistic game that involved throwing a tennis ball up the stairs, while she waited at the top in the classic yoga ‘downward dog’ position. Bounce, trajectory, placement and speed were strictly regulated, and she would wait with steadfast patience for the dim-witted human player to grasp the rules. It was not possible to outlast her enthusiasm for such simple pleasures. Like all dogs, she had a lot to teach restless, unsatisfied human beings. Living in the moment, she was always happy to see what the day would bring, excited to see you arrive and yet unregretful to see you depart.

In Our Tragic Universe, ‘B’ has an appetite for literature – literally. ‘I opened the door to find B waiting for me, with bits of shredded book-proof everywhere,’ says Meg, the writer-narrator. ‘B loved books, but particularly proofs, with their cheap, shiny paper, even more than she loved the filled bones they sold in the market on Saturday.’ All that is left unshredded is the press release: ‘Apparently, what B had eaten this time was “Futuristic noir for a post-MTV, post-Cyberpunk generation”.’

Later in the novel, Meg flees with all her belongings, which fit into ‘three cardboard boxes and one big suitcase. B had a little box of her own, containing her blanket, three tennis balls in various states of existence, her rubber ball, two half-chewed pieces of rawhide, her bag of dog biscuits and the two tins of food that were left in the cupboard.’ Our last glimpse of her is curled up contentedly before the fire. What’s key is that B is simply herself, not a symbol or device. Also, fictional dogs frequently die, Scarlett noted, and she was determined that wasn’t going to happen to B.

What other great literary hounds are there? Iris Murdoch was good on dogs, I seem to recall. Enid Blyton’s rather bland Timmy is other only other one I can think of, but there must be many more…

I like to think of Bookdog in dog-heaven with a small cargo of tennis balls. In any case, she will live on; we can make her come to tail-wagging life again, just by reading Our Tragic Universe.

The Man Booker Longlist – some thoughts

I was asked recently to come up with my own longlist for the Man Booker prize and then jauntily told I’d be ‘scored’ on my predictions. Of course I wasn’t trying to predict anything – how could I, when I’ve only read a fraction of the reported 154 submissions? I read about 60 novels a year and frankly that’s quite enough. My list was just that – my own favourite 13.

As it happens, though, my score was low. Only Alan Hollinghurst and – a dark horse this – D J Taylor’s Derby Day were on both lists. My first feeling upon looking at the real Man Booker longlist was bafflement. Who on earth were all these people? I hadn’t heard of half of them. In a sense, Man Booker judges can never get it right. Too many established names and they’re playing safe, not enough and they look wilfully out of touch.

Then I started looking at who was left off, and my bafflement increased. Justin Cartwright has bad luck with the Booker and Other People’s Money sadly didn’t buck the trend. But it took several reads of the list to realise that the unthinkable had happened. Yes, they really had overlooked Edward St Aubyn’s At Last, the novel around which a steady buzz has been growing ever since publication a few months ago to rapturous reviews. Andrew Miller’s Pure is another notable omission. There’s no Ali Smith, John Burnside, Philip Hensher, Helen Oyeyemi, Amitav Ghosh…

My first Tweeted responses to the list (I was still in shock) were met with a few how-can-you-criticise-before-you’ve-read-them-all comments. Well, for one thing, the Man Booker longlist is published in order to boost sales and create word of mouth. While it might be nice if there were a three-week comment moritorium while we diligently work our way through all 13 titles, meanwhile, back in the real world… And obviously it’s legitimate to comment on books that we have read, found brilliant, and which we feel have been mysteriously snubbed.

One publisher’s loss is another publisher’s gain, of course, and I tip my hat to Seren, Oneworld and Serpent’s Tail who no doubt richly deserve their placing. It’s hard to talk about omissions without offending people who are on the list, which is not my intention. I look forward to reading the longlisted titles. 

On further inspection the list comes into focus and there are some intriguing inclusions. I hadn’t read Sebastian Barry’s novel (will now) but he is hugely gifted, and I had also overlooked the Julian Barnes, which I’ve been told is superb. I’d already earmarked Pigeon English to read: it’s gone to the top of the pile. Carol Birch is sadly underrated and Jamrach’s Menagerie sounds wonderful. Jane Rogers is also a safe pair of hands (interesting to see she’s now with a small publisher, Sandstone Press). Snowdrops created a buzz on publication. It’s also good to see the strong Canadian presence.

It’s been noted that there are four debuts on the list, and books from several independent publishers, who god knows, need a boost. I’m sure the judges are aware that the Man Booker is not a best first novel prize, or a prize for plucky independents, or a Fairy Godmother, ‘with one tap of the wand I can make you famous’ prize. It is for literary quality, and only literary quality. With that in mind, if all the longlisted books are as good as At Last we are in for a glorious booky summer.

Here’s my own list of thirteen:

The Death of Eli Gold by David Baddiel
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge
Other People’s Money by Justin Cartwright
The Blue Book by A L Kennedy
Gillespie & I by Jane Harris
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Childish Loves by Ben Markovits
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar
Pure by Andrew Miller
There but for the by Ali Smith
At Last by Edward St Aubyn
The Knife Drawer by Padrika Tarrant
Derby Day by D J Taylor

It’s open to the accusation that they are mostly established names, but then they’re established for a reason. Of course it reflects my own reading, making this a neatly circular exercise: these are the sort of books I pick out, and therefore, I like them… The benefit of judging any prize is the way it takes you out of your literary comfort zone – the only way we find new stuff, after all.

Nevertheless, I think this is a pretty good list. And if I were to come up with a shortlist, St Aubyn, Bainbridge (provided the deceased are eligible) and Miller would be on it: three concise and contrasting pieces of artistry that represent the very best of British fiction.

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