Book Review: The 10 Worst of Everything

The 10 Worst of Everything: The Big Book of Bad, by Sam Jordison, is a compendium of lists that should spark plenty of conversation as readers randomly dip in. As such it is an ideal stocking filler or book to leave lying on your coffee table. With its unashamedly subjective judgements and authorial prejudices it offers amusement alongside verifiable nuggets to wonder over or squirm at, and wider opinions to debate. Some lists are taken from recorded data, many online so gathered post internet, while others are simply an ordering of the author’s choices on eclectic themes.

Divided into ten sections it opens with Bad Nature which may put you off leaving the safety of your home let alone travelling to far flung outposts of our apparently not so hospitable world. Offered for readers’ delectation are details on: deadly parasites, insects, scorpions, spiders, snakes. Killer plants and fungi are included. The deaths described are painful and not always swift.

The second section looks at various languages and how baffling and difficult they can be to learn. There are lists of: brutal Shakespearean insults, harsh reviews of respected writers, regrettable literary rejections.

Next up is a section on Unpopular Culture, which sparked much discussion in this house. The Ten Daftest Prog Rock Song Titles are, according to my aficionado husband, pretty much generic. We pondered if the author was, perhaps, a tad young for appreciation of progressive rock. Top spot, I was told, should have gone to Pink Floyd’s ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving With a Pict’.

The Ten Worst Films were taken from the website, Metacritic, and for us proved too obscure. We were surprised that the Ten Biggest Box Office Bombs didn’t include Waterworld, and this set off a search to see if it was true that part of the hugely expensive set used in this epic sank during filming and had to be rebuilt. Part of the fun of books like this is the tangential debates sparked.

Much like the Booker Prize it seems, the Ten Worst Winners of the Best Picture Oscar gave little credit for effortless entertainment, or even cinematography. We laughed at the list of Ten Worst Christmas Songs and felt our age at music lists populated by albums and tracks we hadn’t heard of. Our musical tastes appear to be looping the vinyl of passed decades.

Having enjoyed this section, the next, The State of Our Nations, once again made travelling appear unwise. Noise, pollution, transport issues and bedbugs all feature alongside the cost of a pint.

The Fun and Games section offers sporting facts, The Ten Worst Things To Do In A Public Swimming Pool, and notable failures at Olympics and world record attempts. Further foolish things that man will choose to do to himself are presented in the next section on Health and Wellbeing.

The focus then moves back to the good old days which were, of course, anything but. Given current circumstances it felt almost comforting to be reminded of the terrible leaders endured over centuries. Accepted facts that have since been disproved are listed along with bizarre treatments and medical procedures once commonly administered.

The section on Modern Life is a reminder that we still do dumb things, including buying stupid kitchen gadgets.

On a personal note again, I had to smile at the list: The Worst Car To Buy During Your Mid-Life Crisis. I have never owned a BMW but do enjoy travelling in our Audi TT.

The penultimate section on The Future amused with its lists of predictions that time has proved wrong. The End suggests ways the earth may end – I do hope it is only foolish man who extinguishes himself and that more deserving lifeforms survive.

The author has no qualms about questioning the intelligence of those who don’t agree with him on certain pet topics. Mostly though this is a fun reflection of his tastes, such as his apparent dislike of vegetables.

A book of lists that I enjoyed reading and will now be leaving out for visitors to peruse. It offered a welcome distraction from the bad things our media endlessly expounds on, and a reminder that we have somehow survived similar and worse.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Michael O’Mara Books. 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Smackdown!

From the festival programme:

Carrie Dunn and Toby Litt discuss the sport where genuine athleticism and scripted spectacle collide in such spectacular fashion – as well as addressing important gender issues, writing about sport and wrestling’s long and unexpected literary history.

Given my lack of interest is wrestling, of any kind, this was not an event I would have chosen to attend had I not recently read Wrestliana. My reaction to the book left me eager to meet the author and hear what he had to say on gender issues and expectations of modern masculinity. While Carrie addressed sexism in WWE, Toby did not elaborate on his views. He was lovely, and personally thanked my daughter and I for attending the event, but the direction the talk took did not offer an opportunity to discover more on how he felt about the issues of masculinity written into his book.

Chaired by Sam Jordison, the event included readings, discussion and an audience Q&A. I could have asked but didn’t feel comfortable veering into what I feared may be contentious territory.

Carrie is a sports journalist. She holds a masters degree in English Literature for which she read a lot of fan literature, such as Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. These books present sport as a means to do manly bonding. Yet plenty of girls also enjoy sport. Carrie has been playing football since she was seven years old. She did her PhD on women’s experiences in sport and now writes about them, particularly football and wrestling. She pointed out that women are also now attending more events as fans.

Toby talked of the expectation that, as a man, he should participate in sport and have an interest in it. When he attended a state school he enjoyed football. It was fun simply kicking a ball around. When he transferred to private school he was required to play rugby where he was put in the middle of the scrum. He disliked this and the other sports on offer, only being able to raise any enthusiasm for middle distance running. By the age of thirteen or fourteen he had turned against sport.

Instead he got into books, reading works by Keats and the Brontës. There is no sport in these. It was only later that he came to realise that he could choose to do a sport he enjoyed. He took up fencing, sword fighting! He has never regarded himself as sporty.

Sam asked about the liminal territory wrestling inhabits as a sport.

Carrie’s book, Spandex, was written just as the sport was growing in Britain. She was granted access as they wanted publicity. It looks behind the scenes of British Professional Wrestling, at the wrestlers, referees and fans. In the last five years the sport has developed. It is more collaborative. Injuries are minimised due to teamwork. There is a bond of trust between wrestlers.

Toby told us that, unlike professional wrestling, Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling is not scripted. It is competitive. Promoters haven’t decided on winners beforehand. It is local with wrestling having been enjoyed by participating families for generations. It is part of the fun of the fair. As a knockout competition each round becomes more intense. The weaker fighters have been weeded out. It is a community event, fun for all ages. Even teenagers will turn up to watch fights between local family members…

As part of Toby’s research for Wrestliana he went to a WWE bout (American wrestling in Britain). He observed that the audience were more nuanced than on the televised American shows, not always booing the baddie or cheering the goodie. He found it a bit boring, lacking intimacy.

Carrie agreed that interaction with the audience has not yet been sorted in professional wrestling. The goodies and baddies are decided on beforehand and the audience are required to buy into this. It is a performance, as in theatre. Wrestlers play their part, the character assigned to them in a promotion. It’s not about who wins or loses but rather who gets the attention.

Carrie talked about sexism in the sport, how one promoter boasted that he would never pay a woman more than £20, because she is a girl. Women may be chosen for how they look in costume. Participants in WWE must do as they are told.

The discussion turned to football. Before mass media coverage it was a knockaround sport played between rival villages. There was no pitch. It was a brawl, the aim being to capture the leather ball. As a sport with many participants, individuals didn’t have the fame that successful wrestlers enjoyed. Wrestling was bounded; charisma mattered.

In a lot of sports the players put themselves into the story being created. They convince themselves that they can do what it takes, visualising successful moves. Self belief is necessary.

The talk ended and the audience were encouraged to buy the authors’ books. Engaging as it was I would have preferred more in-depth discussion on those gender issues. I remain disinterested in wrestling.

 

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Keeping it real?

From the festival programme:

The world is full of fascinating and important stories but setting real personalities on the page also presents challenges and responsibilities.

This event featured readings, discussion and Q&A with writers Alex Pheby, Shiromi Pinto and Matthew De Abaitua. It was chaired by Sam Jordison.

There are many ways of approaching the stories of people who existed. When choosing to write about them an author must decide how to present their interpretation. If interest is piqued, readers are likely to check for themselves what are regarded as known facts. In straying from these, or creating a story from what goes unsaid but may be suggested between the lines, an author is asking that the reader accept their version of events for what it is – a story. The blurring of fact and fiction happens everywhere a tale is told to an audience.

In 2019 Influx Press will publish Plastic Emotions by Shiromi Pinto. This book tells the story of Sri Lanka’s first female architect, Minnette de Silva, and her relationship with fellow architect Le Corbusier. It is a tale of lost love, ego and affairs, charting the erosion of post-independence ideals as seen by two architects at different points in their careers.

Shiromi talked about her protagonist, de Silva, who came from a politically active family. They were wealthy, progressive, left leaning liberals and the girl grew up amongst a certain class of people including Gandhi and Nehru. On moving to London she mixed with the likes of the Gielguds and Picasso. de Silva met Le Corbusier after she returned to Sri Lanka, the first Asian woman to have become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. She was a pioneer of modernism in Sri Lanka yet when men adopted this style a decade later her contributions were eclipsed. Despite being successful and ahead of the curve she is remembered more for her relationship with a successful man rather than for her own significant achievements in her field.

Shiromi read to us from the prologue of Plastic Emotions, pointing out that the book is still undergoing editorial rewrites.

In the mid 1990s, 22 year old Matthew De Abaitua was hired by the newly divorced and in-demand enfant terrible of the British literary scene, Will Self, as his ‘amanuensis’, translated as slave at hand. Matthew lived with the writer in a remote cottage in Suffolk and helped with research and anything else needed. This was regarded as an exciting opportunity by the eager young man, fresh out of Malcolm Bradbury’s Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He had worked as a security guard on the Liverpool docks to help fund his education and came to the role with a degree of naivity.

Will was ambitious. He realised that the media performance of himself affected how readers would accept his work. The book that Matthew has written about this time, Self & I, captures the 90s, the triangulations people make, and the compromises to progress their work.

The reading brought to life what sounds like a fascinating book.

Galley Beggar Press have recently published Alex Pheby’s second novel, Lucia, to critical acclaim. Lucia was the only daughter of James Joyce and her family subsequently tried to erase her from the public record. In doing so they have created a fascination with Lucia’s story. Lengthy biographies have been written as well as plays and histories. Alex wished to write into the spaces, to explore who gets to say what about who. In his story he explores the silencing of a silenced woman. He does not always go down the route current commentators on Joyce demand.

As if to prove his point on the sometimes controversial nature of his work, Alex read from the animal torture scene.

Sam asked the panel if they felt any anxiety about their depictions, if they felt any duty towards their subjects.

Matthew talked of the ethics of writing about a living person. He chose never to attribute anything to what may be going on inside Will’s head. When the manuscript of his book was complete he sent it to Will and it was returned within 48 hours! Had he said no to publication then Matthew wouldn’t have proceeded. Matthew told us that he was periphery to Will’s life, although Will had been key to him.

Shiromi granted herself a lot of freedom in interpreting de Silva’s life but tried not to do this with her architecture. This required much fact checking. She felt the struggle between writing as she imagined events to have played out and fitting this alongside known facts. In the end she wrote as she wanted.

Sam asked Alex where Lucia was in Lucia.

Alex didn’t know. If she exists in retrievable form then she exists in this book. Any evidence in literary form is questionable, including his. He took risks and was not always respectful. He mentions problems that others won’t acknowledge, as they pretend the rumours cannot be true.

Sam asked about lost moments and memory, of their time and our time.

Matthew pointed out that his story, although set not that long ago, was before the internet, Harry Potter, the abolition of the net book agreement. At author events back then a reading could last 45 minutes and the audience were expected to sit in respectful silence before each buying hardbacks and having them signed. Will wanted to disrupt the social order. With the advent of social media authors are expected to be nice, to ask readers to buy their books.

Shiromi talked about colonial idealism and the erosion of this, how the ideals of the new nation of Sri Lanka deteriorated.

The audience were invited to ask questions. The authors were asked if they felt less responsibility when writing fiction.

Alex commented that certain people are unwilling to understand that it is foolish for a critic to complain about the truth of an account. He suggested that readers are no longer equipped to deal critically with fiction (I disagree but that is for another conversation).

The authors were asked if these fictions are required to have a relationship with fact, otherwise why use real names.

Shiromi told us that she is more comfortable writing a novel rather than a memoir. She wanted to write about a great story, perhaps to prompt others to look deeper. She also finds writing fiction more fun.

Matthew mentioned that this type of writing has been described as a thinly veiled portrait which he finds anachronistic. He prefers to name names, to offer a frisson between real and fiction. He used his own experiences to provide narrative but avoids imposing his thoughts on others.

The authors were asked if they agonised over the points of view used.

Alex talked of the many shifts of voice and grammar in addressing the reader. He asked himself: what do they want to find out and why; what does this mean about the reader. All writing is fictive. What differs is the edges, the bleeding in and leeching out of realities.

Shiromi explained that point of view shifts throughout her tale. She did what she felt was necessary to tell the story of an intriguing character.

Matthew wrote in the present tense as he chose to exclude hindsight. He experienced this period as a younger version of himself, one who didn’t understand much of what was going on at the time. He wished to avoid a reinterpretation.

And with that the event was out of time. The authors moved towards the shop to sign any books purchased. My daughter and I were provided with much to discuss, especially around how certain authors can appear to regard their readers!

 

Click on the covers to find out more about the books, and do please consider buying them.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – The long life of short fiction

From the festival programme:

Are short stories enjoying a renaissance? Did they ever go away? What can they do that novels can’t? And how does it feel to write one that works?

The long life of short fiction brought together three critically acclaimed short story writers, all of whose collections I recommend you read.

Little Island Press publish David Hayden’s Darker With The Lights On which I described in my review as “challenging, vital and eloquent; as unsettling as it is intriguing”.

Influx Books publish Clare Fisher’s How The Light Gets In which I described as “personal, prolific and visceral. Relatable, readable and recommended.”

Influx Press also publish Eley Williams Republic of Consciousness Prize winning collection Attrib. which I described as offering “much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression.”

The event was chaired by Sam Jordison, the first of four he ran that I attended. I wondered if he thought I was stalking him.

Eley and Clare each opened by reading from their collections. David treated us to a new, as yet unpublished work. They then got down to the business of discussing the short story which, as was pointed out, the media regularly declares is either disappearing or enjoying a renaissance.

Eley suggested that there is an expectation that short stories are a sideline to novel writing. Yet readers seek out short stories in journals, or read serialised novels, perhaps due to available attention spans. Usually publishers ask for a novel so kudos to Kit and Gary at Influx, currently in the audience, for publishing these.

Clare agreed saying agents have asked for a novel. She started writing what became her collection for a live art festival. She enjoyed the experience so kept writing them. As short stories weren’t what the big publishers were after she approached a small press.

Sam asked Clare if, as a successful novel writer, this required a different process. Clare described writing a novel as like having a long term illness. Short stories are fun to write.

Sam: Do you have any idea where the story will go?

Clare: Yes. I like to plan but also to rebel against that.

David explained that he creates a story world and allows the language to grow within that. He starts with an idea, perhaps a memory or people he knows. He will then rewrite the story. He is nosy, listening for things that become seeds he can grow, craft and develop. Sometimes he throws them away as they are awful.

Eley compared short stories to poetry. They can pivot on a word. There is a sense of ricochet, resonance, a call and response within the text that can be playful. It’s okay to use unfamiliar words so long as they are looked after, rearranged and played with to effect.

Sam asked about the different expectations of what a reader can take.

Clare suggested that those who don’t read so much may not pick up a short story collection. She too mentioned her work as akin to prose poetry and the importance of an image or a word.

David talked of a novel offering immersion, although not all deliver this. A short story requires a rhythm in the composition. It is more noticeable if the author gets this wrong making it overreaching, overfussy, overworked. When they do work though a short story can be amazing, vivid, alive. The reader is left with a huge amount to cope with emotionally. It can be haunting and discomfiting. Not all readers want this.

The audience were invited to ask questions. It was mentioned that Tessa Hadley has said she approaches a novel as a series of short stories. Another writer stated that writing a good short story is harder than writing a novel. What do our three writers think of this?

David said that Tessa is wonderful as a short story writer and as a novelist. His answer was to do whatever gets the words down.

Clare told us that she did sort of the same thing with her novel which made it easier to write. Both forms are hard in different ways. It is easier to finish a short story but not necessarily to ensure it is good enough.

David mentioned that he is still writing a particular short story after eight years. He likes Anne Williams work. She will take many years to write a half page story to get the rhythm right.

Eley told us that she hasn’t yet finished writing a novel.

Clare suggested a novel was just bigger – a marathon rather than a sprint. With any type of writing, every time you think you’ve found an answer it outwits you.

The authors were asked if ordinary life is better represented in short stories.

Eley suggested the form was better for moments, for immersing the reader in a single experience or thought. With a novel that might cause a whiplash effect, which some writers such as Ali Smith can manage well.

David mentioned Italo Calvino who wrote fabulist short stories. Also Donald Barthelme whose ordinary tales would break out into the uncomfortable. All stories concentrate attention on reality, a world of feeling.

Clare talked of moments of conflict. Novels require background, incidentals. Stories are joyful to read if well done.

The authors were asked to choose their Desert Island Short Stories.

Eley mentioned Jonathan Gibbs’ on line personal anthologies to which more than fifty writers have now contributed.

Clare chose Lydia Davies as her collection is huge.

David chose Dubliners as it was Bloomsday, then changed his mind to add a massive book of folk tales from which so many other stories stem.

  

And with that we were out of time. This was an interesting event featuring three authors whose stories I have very much enjoyed. I hope that others from the audience visited the bookshop and discovered their work for themselves.

Book Review: Enemies of the People

Are you happy with the way our current crop of politicians and their influencers are running the world? Do you believe Brexit will make Britain Great, that Trump is good for the USA? If so then this book may not be for you, unless you wish to gain a better understanding. It offers, in bite sized chunks, key facts about those who helped create the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Enemies of the People, by Sam Jordison, is divided into fifty short chapters dedicated to those who have worked tirelessly to further their personal agendas at such potentially devastating cost. These include the usual subjects – Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump – as well as the men and women who inspired their skewed ways of thinking. There are unexpected names – Pepe the Frog, Jesus Christ, Chris Martin, Mel Gibson, Simon Cowell, Your Granny. Although dealing with weighty subjects the content is not entirely sober and serious.

I was familiar with the majority of the names but not all of the information included. This is an important point to make. Although partisan in presentation the information has been verifiably sourced and makes for interesting reading, even for someone who tries to keep up with current affairs.

I learned that there is an inheritance of ideas, cherry picked and repolished but undoubtedly affecting decision making over decades. Country-wide catastrophe means little when personal power is at stake, when there are private fortunes to be made. Who says we learn nothing from history? These people have learned plenty from their predecessors and don’t care that their actions cause untold damage to those they purport to represent.

As well as politicians there are economists, religious leaders, writers, advisers and media figures. The common thread is the impact of their actions on the general population, and how most have got away with such behaviour. Methods of manipulating public thinking are among the most valued of skills. Wider suffering is shown to be of little interest to the perpetrators.

I bought this book for my seventeen year old son who is developing his own political views. The historical perspective, accessible language and concise structure will, I hope, offer him a wider perspective than he is picking up from popular web-sites, YouTube channels and the family influenced conversations of his peers. The book is witty without being bland, angry but on point. It does not attempt to offer answers but encourages readers to pay more attention, and not just to the dead cat on the table or Kim Kardashian West’s shoes.

Intended to provide a snapshot of our times rather than a roll call of evil the author states:

“I can’t pretend to be objective. In fact, I can’t pretend to be anything other than royally cheesed off. I’ve seen the world I love torn to shreds and I wish it hadn’t happened.”

If the enemies listed here can learn from history, so too can readers. This perfectly sized stocking filler offers as good a place as any to begin the conversation.

Enemies of the People is published by Harper Collins.

Gig Review: Not The Booker Live 2017

On Thursday evening I had the pleasure of attending an author event with a difference – Not The Booker Live at the Big Green Bookshop. This annual event brings together the authors shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper’s inimitable prize, and Sam Jordison, who is tasked with reviewing each book and thereby starting the BTL conversation via the Guardian online. Sam is known for his sometimes scathing opinions. Whilst as a reader it is refreshing to encounter such honesty amongst the sometimes bland and repetitive appraisals of books, for the authors who have poured their souls into their creations they can be difficult to deal with. This was demonstrated last month when one of the shortlisted authors, Ann O’Loughlin, withdrew her book after it received a slew of negative comments on the Guardian site. The fans who got her there remained largely silent.

Of the remaining five authors, four attended the live event. Missing was Elizabeth Strout whose book was included as a wildcard entry  in a new idea being trialled this year. As she is based in America and does not appear to have paid much attention to her shortlisting, her absence was not unexpected.

There was a half hour delay in starting as attendees gathered from near and far, giving earlier arrivals a chance to mingle and chat. When proceedings finally got underway we were treated to author summaries of the books followed by short readings.

Winnie M Li, author of Dark Chapterexplained that her book was marketed as crime but was strongly autobiographical. She wished to present the rape at the story’s heart from the point of view of both victim and perpetrator, to explore what could drive a fifteen year old to such violence. Since her own horrific attack, which changed the course of her life, she has become an activist for opening up discussion on the lasting effects of sexual assault. She lost her job due to PTSD.

Sara Gethin, author of Not Thomas, had been wanting to tell her story, of child neglect from the child’s point of view, for many years. As a primary school teacher in areas where child deprivation, including violence on the fringes of their young lives, was common she based her narrator, five year old Tomos, on an amalgam of the children she encountered. Although an established author of children’s books under her real name, Wendy White, this is her first novel for adults.

Rowena MacDonald, author of The Threat Level Remains Severe, set her book, a tale of a love triangle between three House of Commons back office staff members, at her place of work. She took elements from her own experiences – the stalker thread has been dramatised but is based on fact. She does not consider herself to be like her female protagonist. She described the plot as a sort of black comedy, thriller – hard to categorise. She expressed humoured regret that the House of Commons is now much more demanding and professional than is depicted.

Harriet Paige, author of Man With A Seagull On His Head, described her book as the story of an accidental artist, although she told us she knows little about art. It follows the lives of a lowly council worker and the unknown woman who becomes his muse following the titular event. It is not based on any incidents from her life. She prefers not to write people she knows into her stories for fear of causing offence.

There followed a discussion on creativity and how difficult it is to get a book noticed by readers.

Harriet and Rowena have been friends since they met on a creative writing MA at Warwick University. Winnie has also completed an MA, at Goldsmiths. Each were pleased and surprised to reach the shortlist as this has helped sales. Although affected by the very public criticisms, particularly from commentators who have not read the book but simply quote from Sam’s reviews, there has also been pleasure when unknown readers have come to their defence. It has been good to encounter a wider readership than just amongst their friends and cheerleaders.

The prize is also useful in generating a wider discussion of books, especially from the small presses. Sara’s publisher, Honno, has existed for thirty years, publishing around seven books each year written by women with a connection to Wales. This shortlisting has been a positive for them.

The difficulty of getting noticed by a national newspaper was discussed. Those who had been reviewed or interviewed prior to the shortlisting each achieved this by calling in personal connections. Sam mentioned that the Guardian receives around four hundred books a week and struggles even to open every package. There was regret amongst authors and audience that national newspapers and similar traditional publications are still regarded as holding such sway. Sam voiced the opinion that this was because their reviews are better written than on other sites such as blogs (thanks for that Sam).

There was then time for a few questions to the panel.

A gentleman asked how the authors coped with revisiting trauma day after day in order to write about it. All seemed to agree that writing a book is never an easy undertaking. Sara took fourteen years, dipping in and out, to complete Not Thomas. She used music – Kate Bush’s ‘Moments of Pleasure’ – to put her into Tomos’s world when she sat down to further his story. Winnie wrote her two protagonists turn about to lessen the individual impact and help her concentrate on the creative process. She had wanted to be a writer for many years and was advised that her debut needed to have impact. Her next book will be much less personal. All wish to write further books.

The discussion at this event was unusual in allowing random input from both audience and panel in what felt like a book club meeting as much as an author event. The intimate setting and apparently relaxed participants undoubtedly helped.

Time was called at 9pm and I had to rush away from what looked to be ensuing one to one conversations. I had a bus to catch if I was to make it home. I hope many books were bought after I left.

At midnight this evening (Sunday 15th October) public voting will close on the Not The Booker shortlist so do please vote for the winner now! As one of the chosen judges I will be live on line tomorrow morning to help choose the recipient of the coveted mug.

Not Thomas is publisher by Honno Press

Dark Chapter is published by Legend Press

The Threat Level Remains Severe is published by Aardvark Bureau

Man With A Seagull On His Head is published by Bluemoose Books

Gig Review: Not The Booker Live

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Regular readers will be aware that I have been following this year’s Guardian newspaper Not The Booker Prize with interest. Having read each of the six shortlisted books, I summarised my thoughts here. I mused:

“After the initial euphoria of selection I do wonder what the authors and their publishers have made of all that is being said about their work”

On Saturday I had the chance to find out when I travelled to London for my first visit to the Big Green Bookshop who, for the third year running, were hosting Not The Booker Live. This is a panel discussion chaired by the Guardian’s Sam Jordison and featuring as many of the authors on the shortlist as can get there on the night.

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The three who came along – Jemma Wayne (Chains of Sand), Dan Micklethwaite (The Less than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote) and Dan Clements (What Will Remain) were those who are based in England. Dan M had travelled with an entourage from the far north. They contributed to what turned out to be an interesting discussion.

To start proceedings each author talked briefly about their book and gave a short reading.

Jemma considered her characters, although brought up within differing cultures and privilege, to feel a lack of control over their destinies. The cause they were expected to support was, to some of their family and peers, more important than truth. Their rebellion against expectation was the beginning of free thought.

Dan M explained that his initial idea had been to produce a reworking of Don Quixote. He read out the first chapter of his book as he felt this best explained what it was about.

Dan C considered through his story whether the damage caused to people by experience can sometimes not be fixed. His story of war looks at the lasting impacts on soldiers’ lives. He suggested that certain actions that appear foolish – such as blowing a compensation payment on a sports car or trip to Vegas – can also be life affirming. Good things in life may sometimes be denied to those who live too earnestly.

Sam then talked of the unique process this prize offers for readers. Unlike other literary prizes, the discussion of the shortlist is open to anyone who wishes to comment and is available for all to read. He asked how the authors felt about their books being selected.

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Dan M told us it felt like a really public workshopping of his novel.

Jemma appreciated the opportunity to reach new readers but felt it was best for publishers and new authors. She admitted to inviting friends and family to vote for her at the earlier stages. She wondered if certain commentators agreed with Sam’s reviews because they wished to be chosen as a judge. The process offers no filter. She found the comments interesting but bruising. It was only after returning to them after a few weeks that she could see the positives.

Sam asked about the choice of subject matter for each book.

Dan C had not initially wished to write about his experiences in Afghanistan. When he decided to write a war novel he read widely around the subject. He feels that the way war is currently viewed has changed readers expectations of the genre.

Jemma sees opinions about Israel polarising and extremism increasing. She was concerned that people were losing the ability to empathise with those considered other. They give impassioned views on whatever is going on but see issues in black and white. She wished to present some of the grey.

Dan M suggested that his story came together when Don became Donna. He chose to include fairytale imagery, to explain how when reality becomes too difficult fantasy offers an escape. His protagonist is not a distressed damsel locked in a high tower – she has chosen the isolation to keep others out.

Sam asked about each author’s experience of being published.

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This is Jemma’s second published novel, her first was longlisted for the Baileys Prize. Her concern for this one was if it would be as well received.

Dan C considered publication to be an astonishing anticlimax after the intense work required to get that far. He felt a sense of exhaustion, almost bereavement when the book was released into the world. The pleasure he gets from writing is the work he puts into his next novel.

Dan M talked of the pressure he felt after devoting so much time to the book, and the cost of this. He felt relief but also found it hard when he got to the stage where nothing could be changed.

The audience were invited to ask questions which delved into the authors’ writing processes and advice they would give to others.

Dan M wrote the first draft of his novel over an intense eight day period. Although he subsequently worked on the content, the heart of this remains. He was accepted by the first publisher he approached, a few hours after submission. (Is this a true fairytale ending?)

Jemma advised writers to get their ideas down first, ignoring their inner critique.

Dan C commented that he writes slowly and methodically which leads to less editing at the end. He did not recommend such an approach.

The final question to round up the evening came from Simon of Big Green Books who asked if the authors would like to be shortlisted for Not The Booker again.

Jemma suggested that she may prefer to be longlisted as this offers an opportunity for marketing without the public discussion.

Dan M pondered if the prize were best suited to early novels as it was a good way of gaining attention.

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I was grateful for the opportunity to chat briefly to the panel as they signed books purchased. Sam commented that he was pleased I had disagreed with his reviews, prompting me to comment that he critiques like an English teacher and we seemed to have different tastes. Afterwards I realised how daft I must have sounded. Sam is also co-director of Galley Beggar Press, and they have yet to publish any title that I have not absolutely adored.

 

Book Review: Literary London

literary london

Literary London, by Eloise Millar and Sam Jordison, is a book that should be read by all lovers of literature who wish to explore our vibrant and ever changing capital city. It is an entertaining guide to London’s literary history from the fourteenth century to the present day. It includes anecdotes on the literati who have congregated in the many pubs and clubs, made their homes in the garrets and mansions, and got together to forge friendships and rivalries. As well as offering up snippets on the writers’ lives, there are maps showing where they lived and worked that readers may walk in their footsteps, or refresh themselves in the watering holes frequented along the way.

In the late twelfth century Richard of Devizes, a monk passing through the city, wrote:

“You will come to London […] I warn you, whatever of evil or of perversity there is in any, whatever in all parts of the world, you will find in that city alone.”

Not to be put off by such a warning, many came. Indeed, even in the fourteenth century Londoners considered themselves a cut above the rest of the country. An eyewitness account of the Peasents’ Revolt described the rebels who invaded as:

“nasty, dirty countrymen, and certainly not from London.”

The authors have divided their commentary into twenty-one sections that readers may easily dip in and out should they wish to explore particular themes. For example, ‘Crime’ looks at many of the detective novels based in the city, and tells of The London Detection Club, a society for writers that still exists today. The code of ethics members must pledge to abide by is included, aimed at sustaining the quality of each author’s work and ensuring their readers be given “a fair chance at guessing the guilty party”.

Although this book focuses on well known and regarded writers, there is acknowledgement of subjectivity in judging literary merit. In the section ‘Modernists and Vorticists’, a series of abstract poems by Edith Sitwell could be described as “an experimental masterpiece or mere doggerel.” There are accounts of sackings by magazine publishers for “liberality towards experimentalists”. The TLS describes a poem by Prufrock as having “no relation to poetry.”

Sitwell and her contemporaries liked to dress up and wear strange face paints. Writers throughout the ages appear to have been fuelled by debauchery and a predilection for the bizarre. This notority was regarded as even less acceptable for women, many of whom changed their names to achieve publication. The fight continues against “the ingrained idea that women should in their spare time knit, sew and leave the thinking to the men”.

Each section finishes with details of key addresses (including closest tube station) and a list of recommended reading. Of course, many of the places mentioned no longer exist. Pubs in which writers congregated have been replaced by chain restaurants, entire streets have been erased for modern development. Where possible, however, the reader may seek out literary landmarks where the stories told here were lived.

There is a guide to a Dickensian pub crawl, a helpful map comparing Shakespeare’s Bankside to Bankside as it is today, a list of addresses where the Bloomsberries held their famous salons, restaurants where readers may “Eat like a Spy”. Talking of spies, there is also a little anecdote within these pages explaining how James Bond got his code number. It is the plethora of snippets such as this which make the book such a joy to read.

From Paddington Bear and Peter Rabbit through to Chaucer’s pilgrims, the lives of London writers and their creations are chronicled for the reader’s delectation. It does not profess to be a comprehensive compendium but the nuggets shared are enlightening. The writing is consistently and assuredly entertaining.

Read from cover to cover then dip into at will. Having discovered the places that nurtured and inspired these London writers, you may well be inspired to make a few outings of your own.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the authors.