I always find the beginning of October rather frustrating because it heralds the start of the Birmingham Readers’ and Writers’ Festival. As those of you who know me will appreciate, the fact that most of the events take place in the evening means that I am unable to attend, so I was more than pleased that this year they decided to include a Readers’ Afternoon that meant I could spend three hours in the company of four authors and a couple of hundred fellow readers discussing not only the author’s works, but the books that had shaped them and us into the readers and writers we have become.
The event took place at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which is our gem of an Art Gallery sited in the University of Birmingham. It has a wonderfully comfortable concert hall which meant that sitting for long periods was not the hardship it can be in some meeting places, although it did mean that the speakers had to be miked because it was designed for music rather than the spoken word. It also meant that we enjoyed The Barber’s famed hospitality and tea and cake was served free at the interval. Notice, please, tea and cake. There is something so refined, so Jane Austin, about that lack of an ‘s’. I am always astounded when it isn’t seed cake that appears.
The authors involved yesterday were Patrick Gale, whose latest novel A Perfectly Good Man is probably the best book I’ve read this year, Gaynor Arnold, who has just published a ‘bio-fiction’ based on the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddle, After Such Kindness, and two writers whose works I didn’t know, Tiffany Murray and Andy Killeen. They each spoke about their writing lives, but what I found most interesting was the discussion they instigated about the way in which our lives as readers affects us, both as writers and more generally as the people we become. Three of the four were Oxbridge English Graduates and they all said that having written prolifically as children they stopped writing completely during their time at University because they were intimidated by the quality of the literature they were being asked to read for their degree. Mind you, one of them had spent all her time involved in the University Dramatic Society and another was desperately trying to make it as a rock star, so I did wonder whether it was a case that they had written as children because they were isolated by their intelligence and having moved into a world where they felt more comfortable with their contemporaries they blossomed socially. I should have asked them, but there was very little time for questions. Isn’t that always the way though, once readers start talking about books you simply can’t get a word in edgeways.
One question that was put to the panel was what forthcoming books were they most looking forward to and Patrick Gale’s recommendations have gone straight onto my library list. He has read the new Salley Vickers, who is notoriously patchy, and said that this one, The Cleaner of Chartres, is in the mode of Miss Garnett’s Angel and The Other Side of You so that might be worth a look, and also mentioned two of my favourite authors, Colm Tóibín, whose The Testament of Mary is due out this month, and Damon Galgut, who is writing a novel about the Indian experience of E M Forster. This will be very different from anything Galgut has written before, so I’m intrigued to see what it will be like.
I could do with an event like this at least once a month. It isn’t only the speakers I enjoy, but also the conversation that takes place amongst the other people attending. It’s like having a gathering of book bloggers all in one place, well-oiled with tea and cake and happy to talk forever if the organisers will let them. Reading Groups are great but you do tend to pull together like minded readers. In a setting such as this I find I am more likely to have books I never even heard of let alone considered drawn to my attention. I’m off to the library tomorrow to see how many on the list I made I can find.