If you are going to do a job do it properly might seem like a cliche these days, but once it has been said to you at the age of nineteen by Sister Beech (Ward 5AB Gt Ormond St 1973) in her very most sternest tones, and prefaced by a very clipped and starchy 'Nurse Chester come here please..' swiftly followed by a humiliating public dissection and expose of all the life-threatening short cuts that you thought you'd got away with...well trust me, it's no cliche, more a searing lesson branded in your soul for life. And I have always been grateful to Sister Beech for the admonition(s...there were more)
So no short cuts with my preparation and reading for Port Eliot Festival (or for any festival for that matter) hence my book table has been a permutation of this and little else for the last few months.
By this evening these will be back on the shelves, all with lovely signatures and inscriptions from their authors and to be replaced on the table with whatever I have from the Booker longlist to be announced later today. I'm way off the bookerthon pace and have no idea what to expect but, though I haven't read it yet, I am praying for one of these three to be there..
Watch that space and while we wait, we have nineteen Port Eliot books here and another heap off in the wings that, although I didn't read cover to cover, I browsed to get the gist. And I am so glad that I also headed Sister Beech's advice about 'being prepared...' and 'leaving nothing to chance...' and I expect 'the marmite should just say hello to the bread...' would have come in useful too had we needed it. I have spent hours browsing online, reading reviews and articles, finding out about author's lives of which I knew so little and now know much more, and all in order to try and be as informed as possible whilst avoiding any cringeworthy clangers.
I saw a cringeworth clanger happen at a recent literary event and it was as embarrassing for the audience as it was for the author, and as for the chair, well I think they were praying for a ground-swallow-me-up moment.
Intrepid first footer in the dovegreyreader tent was Katie Kitamura, and she and I persuaded her partner Hari Kunzru out of the back row to come and join her for our conversation. The Friday rain hammered down outside, we quickly realised that if the tent was going to leak it happened to be at a point right above our sofa but we put cups of tea in their hands and carried on regardless.
I have no notes obviously so this is all from memory (and I am now suddenly thankful for a career that relied on being able to recall with reasonable accuracy what people may have said to me at any given time...so I hope this will be fair reflection) but our discussions ranged across vast swathes of literary territory from Katie's decision at nineteen to give up a career in ballet to write, and to her novel The Longshot. We talked about the mixed martial arts and the incongruities of such a powerfully testosterone-laden world getting the 'woman writer' treatment...and as I talked to Katie, who is beautiful and delicately elegant, those juxtapositions and surface judgements that we make seemed almost more relevant and then entirely superfluous. Yes, Katie would fit the bill for some sweet little books about ballet school but she has a razor sharp mind and a robust intellect which made our discussions about her current collaborative writing project with Hari a fascinating source of discussion.
Katie and Hari are working on screenplay about the life of Bruce Chatwin and that led us all over the shop with our discussions, from the portrayal of a life that was itself often lived behind a smokescreen of mystery and misinformation to Bruce Chatwin's writing. I threw in comparisons with Sebald in that sense that you think you may be reading fact when actually you might be reading fiction, and how perhaps Bruce Chatwin was one of the early proponents of those blurred boundaries, and we picked that one up and ran with it between us.
Hari then talked about his new novel Gods Without Men, the story of a family travelling through the American desert whose autistic son goes missing. It is in some ways a fulfillment of the father's darkest hope...that somehow they might be relieved of this burden, but when that comes to fruition the consequences and the guilt would seem to be profound. We all wanted to read it yesterday and fortunately with the bookshop right next door, though at that moment coping with a bit of a flood of their own, we could at least read it today.
Before they left we asked them for some book recommends for you all, and here are Hari and Katie's suggestions..
Open City ~ Teju Cole
From the Mouth of the Whale ~ Sjon
The Land of Green Plums ~ Herta Muller
Mistaken Identity ~ Nayantara Sahgal
My sincere thanks to first footers Katie and Hari for a wonderful start to our festival.