A second visit to the Cheltenham Booker debate

It seems like the Cheltenham Literary festival has some special deal with someone when it comes to weather.  Once again, the event was bathed in such warm sunlight that I wondered if I shouldn’t be calling in to the Lido.

I was there for a fantasy event: if there had been a Booker award in 1945, which book might have won it.  The festival invited a panel of five writers to debate this in public, each author being set to champion one of the titles.  The line up was:

  • AS Byatt for Elizabeth Taylor’s  At Mrs Lippencote’s
  • Rafaella Barker for  Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I sat down and Wept,
  • Akalla for George Orwell’s Animal Farm
  • Rachel Johnson for Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love
  • Alexei Sayle for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited.

chelt-booker-2016I thought that this year the choice was trickier than the one I watched last year, when two of the contenders had seemed rank outsiders.  Or perhaps, because then I’d gone along anticipating The Good Soldier was the only possible winner, I had more of a commitment to the debate.

This year, I had not done all of my homework.  A couple of weeks ago I finally got round to reading Brideshead Revisited, but there were two on the list that I hadn’t read, or tracked down as second hand copies.

I know, I should have gone out and bought them new.  The Taylor, at any rate, would have been a useful addition to the shelf I’m gradually giving over to her writings.  But the last few weeks have been busy, and I kept putting that trip to town off.  So I read the little that was available free of each of them on-line and had my preconceptions confirmed.

Taylor’s opening intrigued, and drew me in…

‘Did the old man die here?  What do you think?’ Julia asked, as her husband began to come up stairs.

‘Old man?  What old man?’

She stood on the shadowy landing with its six white doors.

‘What old man,’ asked Roddy once more, coming up and putting his arm along her shoulders.

‘The husband.  Mr Lippincote.  Oh how I wish we needn’t live in other people’s houses.’

‘What if he did?’

Yes, what indeed?  The dead cannot communicate with the living, or do harm to them.

If there had been more available than the tantalising first ten pages I would have read on.  Note to self: must put this on my Christmas list.

Note 2: no ditto on Elizabeth Smart’s novel.

It’s taken me a long time to reach the point where I know when to give up on a book, and this one will go on that fairly short list.  Even the rather passionate advocacy of Rafaella Barker could not move me to go back and read more of this:

I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.  Apprehension and the summer afternoon keep drying my lips, prepared at ten-minute intervals all through the five hour wait.

On stage, there was some debate about the merits of poetic prose, but the agreement of the whole panel seemed to be that the novel has no narrative line.

I had it in mind that this one should be the first to fall, and it was offered up for the first round of votes, along with Mrs Lippincote’s, but it was Taylor’s novel that went out at the first round, while Elizabeth Smart’s made it through to the last.  Two days later and I’m still not clear how this could have happened.

I hadn’t enjoyed Brideshead Revisited, it seemed lacking in heart.  But, if I had to choose between Smart’s description of a love affair or Waugh’s, I’d opt for the latter, despite its slow start, and off-key ending.  Not so the panel, who dropped him.

As they did,  The Pursuit of Love.  Well, it’s a nice book, a funny book, but I would have been surprised to see it win.  So, the last two books standing were Animal Farm and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. 

Interestingly, these were the books whose advocates had given the most passionate opening arguments, and perhaps that’s why the rest of the panel fell away.  All had offered literary accounts of their chosen novels, but the first three had lacked the engagement with their texts that Akalla had for Animal Farm, or Rafaella Barker for By Grand Central Station…

It was obvious that their books had touched them.  They did not just admire the writing, they loved it.  And for that reason, I’m thinking that though Smart’s novel did not, in the end win, I ought to give it a second chance, and read it through to the end.

After all, I could borrow it from the library, I don’t have to put it on a Christmas list.

5 thoughts on “A second visit to the Cheltenham Booker debate

  1. Sounds like you had an interesting time, Cath, lack of ‘homework’ notwithstanding.
    I have only read two of them; Animal Farm and The Pursuit of Love. I am familiar with the story of Brideshead Revisited from the TV adaptation but didn’t realise By Grand Central Station… was a novel. All in all, I would have been much less qualified to participate.
    Your account of the day is compelling. It must have been inspiring to listen to those literary notables in discussion, especially if you disagreed with much of what they concluded. Were the public invited to contribute?
    I smiled fondly at your self-critical account of the book-buying dilemma. That is so you; in an endearingly good way. I do hope Santa delivers. And/or the library.
    You’ve sparked my interest in Elizabeth Taylor too. I’ve looked at that novel (in a charity shop, funnily enough!) but something stopped my buying it. The association with Hollywood actresses maybe. (You see we all have our spending idiosyncrasies). Next time I see it, I shall definitely hand over my money.


    • It was very interesting, the only event of the festival I made time for this year.

      The public contributions were minimal, and it would have been interesting to have heard more from the floor, but the organisation was not quite so good this year, they were still testing microphones when we should have been taking our seats, so I think they economised by cutting public contributions down to two comments.

      I do hope you’ll give Elizabeth Taylor a try. Her short stories are brilliant, subtle and usually layered with hidden, rather dark, humour. She was a great subversive chronicler of women’s lives.

      She often received fan letters from people who thought she must be the Hollywood actress. One of them asked for a picture of her in a bikini, so her husband suggested that she actually should send one back. However, this Elizabeth Taylor didn’t own a bikini.


  2. Sounds like you had fun and learned at the same time, great combination. I’m not familiar with At Mrs Lippencotes, but the opening had me hooked. I read somewhere that openings shouldn’t consist of dialogue because it fazes the reader but this one shoots that right out of the water. Thank you for giving me a pointer towards my next helping of books.


    • Time slipped by so fast I was shocked to find we were finished.
      I’m so glad I’m not the only one who has been hooked by Taylor’s opening. I wonder who thought up that rule about dialogue and openings. Perhaps they’d just had a bad experience.
      After all, you could say that every 1st person narration starts with dialogue, and a lot of 3rd too, now I think about it. Done well, the voice is what carries me in.


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