The Other Booker Prize List – Summer Readaround – 11 August 2021

Nigel welcomed nine of us to the penultimate Readaround of the summer. Asking each of the participants to choose an author’s name, he defined the running order by date in which these authors had won the Booker Prize.

First up was Jean (Iris Murdoch), who had brought two poems to read. The first, called At Times Like These, dealt with emotions in the hearts of those involved in the Syrian crisis. Everyone found this poem very moving, especially as Jean had some personal experience of this.

Her second poem Knots cleverly evoked different kinds of knots. Some of us imagined knots in string or knots in a tree. There was a lovely image of how a tree hides its pain behind its bark, only revealing it after death. Suggestions were made that knots could also be symbolic, like knots of pain, and that she might make the Knots poem longer by considering other sound-alike words such as ‘not’ and ‘naught’ to increase the ambiguity when hearing the poem.

Next, Linda B (William Golding) read her memoir article Legendary Lewis’s, about Lewis’s department store in Glasgow. You could spend the whole day there, since it had every department you could need, all interestingly brought to life. Afterwards we discussed the site being taken over by Debenhams, which has in its turn melted into the past. This piece was felt to be nostalgic, both teaching and entertaining at the same time. It inspired one of us to consider researching Wylie & Lochhead, where a relative had worked. I wonder if triggering memories of the past in this way helps us deal with the strange times we are going through just now?

Thomas (Salman Rushdie) gave us a flash fiction called The Dinner Guest. This post-apocalyptic story of hunger confused us. Some thought he was talking about a woman, others the personification of hunger, and others a cat or a squirrel (until we got to the trousers part), but we all agreed the feeling of hunger and anticipated horror came through very clearly.

Damaris (Anita Brookner) read out a true story called Luca – Hunter, about an Italian hunter who changed his ways after Damaris had recoiled from his showing her a dead thrush. The story was told from the hunter’s point of view, and it was interesting to see how he acted differently after the encounter. Nigel suggested missing off the last two paragraphs to make the ending stronger.

Someone said it was unlikely the hunter would have changed so drastically, but Damaris gave us a plausible explanation. Ask her if you want to know more, that’s all I’m saying.

After a short break, Kirsty (Pat Barker) continued her story A Day in the Afterlife, about Charon the Ferryman and his quest. Her tale was seen as tragic and emotional and we commented on the point of view she had written in, which enabled us to see clearly Charon’s emotions.

Then Maggie M (Ian McEwan) read us her poem Watching the Bees, inspired by listening to Radio 2’s request for us to support bees. She wanted to know if it flowed. It certainly did, and we all liked the internal rhymes she had inserted into each stanza. These included ‘humble bumble’, ‘fuzzy buzzy’, ‘mighty flighty’ and my favourite ‘emboldened golden.’ The repeated ‘Did you’ in the first line of each verse was an exhortation to really think about helping bees. We thought the poem would be suitable for both adults and children.

Carrie (Margaret Atwood) read the prologue and first chapter of Spookle Wood, a mid-range children’s book. She has decided to change her protagonist’s sections to the first person, and is currently working her way through the novel. We liked the tension between Emily and her mother as she tries to convince her there really is a dragon boy. The story draws you in, and you want to find out if she’s telling the truth, or if not, why not.

Anne (Hilary Mantel) read a chapter from A Proper Sinner. This time we were with Gordon, an old man who has seen something from his penthouse flat, which overlooks a crime scene. The police arrange to come and see him, but when his doorbell rings, who is really there? And why has Gordon disappeared by the time the police arrive?

We liked the scene setting and character description. For example, when Gordon glanced at the mirror to check his appearance, he ‘didn’t agree with’ the image reflected back at him. Old men dining in the golf club were dubbed the ‘soup shufflers’, because of their inability to remember what they had ordered for lunch and their habit of swapping plates around once the dishes arrived. We were left waiting to find out what happens in the end. Maybe at another read around?

Nigel took the end slot, but declined to give himself an author’s name. He read a section from his story Any Change? The protagonist is Evie, a journalist investigating crimes on an estate, who has gone into a pub to follow up on something. The pub was described slowly and in detail, as Evie herself would have seen it. One couple sat side by side, not talking, their drinks in front of them, with the ‘condensation, like conversation, long since dried.’

We liked the various descriptions, and then had a discussion about whether the decor of pubs could really be that bad nowadays. Vigorous nods from the attendees proved they could. Nigel said the story began as a shorter piece, but now he has decided to lengthen it, he can give more room to setting the scene.

By this time it was 10 p.m. and my hand was sore with taking notes. I’m sure there were more comments and suggestions that I could have recorded. My unintelligible writing (blame my IT career) and the fact I sometimes found myself listening instead of taking notes mean I must have missed something. If so, sorry, it’s not personal.

In two weeks’ time we have the last read around of the summer. I look forward to seeing many of you at that one.

Jennifer West

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