What happens when you go to the Cheltenham Booker?

At the alternative Booker Prize five novels, from a year that predates the beginning of the Man Booker in 1968, are considered by five speakers from the Cheltenham Literature Festival programme.

Claire and I have attended this  three years in a row. It has become not a question of ‘would you like to?’ or ‘shall we?’ rather, ‘are you okay for the Booker?’

Despite a few hiccups when we thought we might have to miss this year, everything got worked out at the last minute. So I didn’t discover which titles had been set until we were on our way, and Claire read the blurb out:

“Our all-star line-up of novelist Madeleine Thien, journalist Alex ClarkThe Times Literary Editor Robbie Millen, Mostly Lit’s Raifa Rafiq and author Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott debate the merits of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, The Bell by Iris Murdoch and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had the Man Booker Prize existed 60 years ago.”

Claire paused, then added, ‘I’ve heard of some of them, but not read any.  I rely on this event, and you, to provide me with interesting new reading experiences.’

‘No pressure then,’ I said. ‘Well, Things Fall Apart has been on my shelf for a couple of years,’ I said, ‘but somehow I keep putting off starting it.’

‘I’ve seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ said Claire.  ‘Does that count?’

‘I loved that film,’ I said. ‘But it was very different from the book.’

‘So, what do you think of the list?’

‘It should make an interesting debate.’

With which statement I ascended to the role of prophetess. You may all stand and raise you hats in recognition of my perspicacity. Thank you.

Okay, okay, so maybe there’s a teeny particle of exaggeration at play here.  It was clearly a strong list.

Claire and I discussed the other years we’ve watched, when one, or even two, weak titles were included.  In fact, we once watched the champion of a novel vote his own book out at the first stage. I couldn’t see anything so obvious in this 1958 list.

‘Maybe the Achebe?’ said Claire.

‘The thing is,’ I said, ‘it’s been recommended by so many interesting readers and writers that there’s got to be a lot going for it.’

This year’s panel had as much difficulty as I did in reducing the selection even by one.  Interesting doesn’t begin to touch what happened next. Once each panellist had pitched the novel they were championing, the discussion opened up, and soon shifted to the nature of judging in general.

The question was, how one title could be selected when the choices are so dissimilar in style and content.  The conversation developed – oh boy, this was right up my street. Panellists identified historical context and social commentary; examined characterisation; explained plot; considered philosophical depth and insight.

On the one hand, pity ‘the chair’, James Walton, who struggled to keep the conversation focused on compare and contrast, and to prompt the panel to stop agreeing, and backing each other up.  Then cheer for a panel that took up their task with such good natured energy, that they turned this from an interesting event into one that I would happily have seen extended for another hour… at least.

The outcome? Claire’s going to borrow my copy of The Bell, and I’ve moved Things Fall Apart to the front of my TBR shelf. Oh, yes, it was the Achebe that won.

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2017

September 2017, a phone call from Claire.

‘The ticket line opens in five days, Cath, are you up for the Cheltenham Booker this year?  It’s 1937.  I’ve got the reading list.’

‘Great, any you know?’

‘I read Mice & Men years ago, for school, and I’ve seen the film of the Hobbit – does that count?’

‘Pretty much, I think.’

‘The rest I’ve never heard of.  I’ll text you the list.’

Text from Claire:

Which 1937 title deserves to win our very own Booker? Our all-star line-up of Damian Barr, Adam Kay, Jackie Kay, Adam Thorpe and Alex Wheatle discuss A.J. Cronin’s The Citadel, Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. They fight it out to determine which would have triumphed, had The Man Booker Prize existed eighty years ago. Chaired by James Walton, with an introduction by John Coldstream.

Saturday 14th October at the Lit.Fest with Claire: 1.30pm.

‘Good seats, Claire.’

‘Thanks, have you read any of the other books?’

‘Only extracts off the internet, and plot summaries. You?’

‘No.  I’m waiting to hear the outcome, then I might buy the winner.  I love this event, it’s introduced me to so many good writers.  I bought another Elizabeth Taylor the other day.’

 

chelt booker 2017

2.45pm, overheard in the crush on the way out.

‘Steinbeck should have won.’

‘Don’t you think the panel caved-in quickly at the end?’

‘I’m just going to the bookshop for the Zora Neale Hurston, first. I’ll meet you at the Hive in about ten minutes.’

‘I still can’t believe they knocked out Hemmingway in the first round.’

‘Well, does it matter if the characters are all male?’

‘I agree with Adam Thorpe, I don’t like plots to be too tidy.’

‘Not too dark though, surely.’

‘…so I’m going to read it again….’

‘What if it is a children’s book?  Animal Farm nearly won last year.’

‘Are the female characters only in the film, then?’

‘Personally I won’t read fantasy. Fiction should be realistic, not about fairies and dwarves…’

‘Amazing to think it’s really about The Somme.’

‘Actually, this is my ninth Booker.’

‘…and it reminded me of Doc Martin…of course so did Doctor Finlay, now I think about it.’

‘But is it a book only of it’s time?’

‘The thing is, this is an authentic black woman’s voice at a time when there is no black voice.’

‘That first line is just beautiful.’

‘…and I’ve always liked Maya Angelou, so it’ll be interesting to see how she compares.’

‘I can’t think how I’ve never heard of her before.’

chelt lit fest

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.