I fear Diana Birchall will be looking to have my guts for garters because I think I may have inadvertently hastened Jane Austen's demise, indeed ensured that she was the first to be jettisoned over the side of a hot air balloon and now I'm wishing Jane had stuck with her less risky pursuits.
I'd never been to a Grand Literary Balloon Debate before and it seems likely I may now be banned.
For anyone who doesn't know the form, four people, in this case Andrew Davies, Philip Hensher, Carmen Callil and Mary Beard played advocate to four authors under the capable piloting skills of Alexander Waugh. The imaginary hot air balloon is losing height and authors must be off-loaded, so their advocates must advance a strong case for them retaining their place in the basket, capturing the audience's imagination and thereby their vote. A great deal of hot air is required.
I had been to Andrew Davies's event earlier in the day.
As British television's acknowledged master of the literary adaptation and with a keen and undisguised adoration of Jane Austen, I quite thought Jane would be the last remaining occupant, surely this was a foregone conclusion?
Novelist Philip Hensher was flying the flag for P.G.Wodehouse, Virago founding editor Carmen Callil displayed a penchant for Voltaire and Oxford Classicist Mary Beard sang the virtues of Homer.
No contest for our Jane, that basket was hers as of right.
After initial opening statements it was over to audience cross-examination and not a lot of arms were raised, in fact no arms were raised, so I thought I'd help Andrew Davies's cause along a bit.
'If Jane Austen was so brilliant, why have television dramatisations required so much extra detail ?'
It was a high risk strategy but my theory was to stir Andrew into telling us that Jane was a passionate and sensual woman bound by the proprieties of the age, that everything was of necessity encoded within the books and he was merely the channel for Jane's veiled expressions of healthy lusts and appetites. That's what he'd more or less told us in the afternoon as he showed film clips and explained the thinking behind log-splitting scenes and stroking-hawk's-feathers scenes.
This was surely Andrew Davies's moment, Jane belonged firmly in that basket and would remain.
It all went horribly wrong, clearly Andrew and I do not have the gift of psychic connection, sadly he missed my cue and was caught completely off-guard by the googlie I had inadvertently bowled.The audience remained unconvinced by his argument that he'd just written the scenes Jane had forgotten to write and would be a hell of a lot poorer (in more ways than one) without her.
Attempts at a resuscitation of Jane's campaign and a rallying of Andrew Davies to the cause by members of the audience failed miserably.
It was too late, the damage was done.
Put to the first vote, Jane was over and out, that empire line sprigged muslin billowing in the breeze and I shut up.
P.G. Wodehouse soon plummeted into a rapid descent after Jane, unable to survive allegations of Nazi collaboration levelled at him by Voltaire fanatic Carmen Callil, and the reluctant admission from Philip Hensher, extracted under fierce cross-examination from Carmen (surely terrifying?), that though Plum wrote laughter he was a bit of a dull chap in company.
Sophisticated and witty he might be but Homer's days were numbered once news of an Odyssey of war crimes emerged.It must be acknowledged that Mary Beard put up a spirited defence on behalf of homecomers everywhere and even tried to tempt us with last-resort suggestions that Homer may have been a woman. Alexander Waugh urged us to consider carefully before casting our vote and being complicit in any literary deception and that was Homer hurled out into oblivion.
The utterly exceptional Voltaire that genius of joy and freedom was victorious and Carmen Callil was jubilant. Personally I would have welcomed assurance that Voltaire would have read Virago Modern Classics and embraced the ethos as well as having a shelf full of them in his study, but having scuppered Jane I decided it best to keep quiet...most unlike me but then this is Carmen Callil we are talking about here, let Philip Hensher take the flak.