Some English PEN events like to adopt a more playful tone and this, held in the stunning surroundings of Kings Place, was no exception. A hot air balloon is rapidly losing height and, as four great writers face the threat of being hurled overboard, only one can survive. Chaired by English PEN’s director Jonathan Heawood, this event welcomed Deborah Moggach, Al Alvarez, Rowan Pelling and Hardeep Singh Kohli to convince a discerning audience why their favourite author deserved to be saved.
Novelist Deborah Moggach was first to make the case for her chosen author, Arnold Bennett. After being urged by Roy Hattersley to read Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale she discovered to her delight that, despite the “hideous title”, it was “the most wonderful book in the world.” She lamented: “Nobody has read this except Hattersley, Margaret Drabble and the Arnold Bennett Society! He has been shamefully neglected by history for snobbishness. The Bloomsburys demolished him and Virginia Woolf rubbished him because he was a self-made man.” Hardeep couldn’t resist adding: “Who’s afraid of her anyway?” The Old Wives’ Tale is about two sisters born in a draper’s. Sofia elopes to Paris and endures a traumatic marriage while Constance, “the seemingly duller sister”, builds up the draper’s shop with her “touchy” husband. Deborah praised Bennett for his adventurousness and “extraordinarily surreal images” as well as for being a great humanist – “he understood the human mind in even the seemingly dullest, quietest minds.”
Al Alvarez, acclaimed poet, writer and critic, was next to make his plea. As a boy he had a “marvellous” English master who used to give the students poems without telling them the name of the authors, which enabled them to simply react to the poem. One such poem was by John Donne and for Alvarez it was love at first sight. “I fell in love with him. It was like when you see someone and you know that’s it – like Miss Right appearing!” The first Donne poem he had read was Witchcraft by a Picture. “The point was I was 15, Id’ never heard of Donne and obviously couldn’t understand the poem but it was like he was talking directly to me; he was someone you could relate to.” Al lauded the fact that instead of indulging in “poeticism”, Donne’s poetry was “how things really were”. “He was trying to seduce real girls – they had unreliable temperaments, sweaty palms – it was real life. Usually when you fall in love with poets it’s hard to stay friends afterwards but I think he’s for keeps. I think he is the bravest love poet in the English language.” Debbie found herself agreeing with Al and then realised she was defending the enemy – “I should be growling!” she exclaimed.
For Rowan Pelling (the journalist and broadcaster who was editor of The Erotic Review, a magazine which, perhaps surprisingly, we discovered Jonathan once contributed to) it was Ian Fleming who grabbed her attention when she was young. “My parents had a copy of The Spy Who Love Me – it had pornography in it so at 13 it was mesmerising!” Fleming bridged the generational gap in her family: “My father and I tussled about the Bond books; we were both as excited as each other.” She explained how, in 1944, Fleming had said: “I am going to write a spy story to end all spy stories… and he did! His thrilling sentences are so good, every line is beautiful. Nobody is able to imitate him. It’s so hard to make a page turner but he’s elegant, witty and raises the pulse.” She quoted the first and last lines of Casino Royale: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning” and “the bitch is dead” – “It’s bloody difficult to start a book with a bang and end it.”Al commented: “With poetry you have to read out loud in silence and listen to who’s coming off the page and can only do that by reading carefully. With Fleming all you need to do is skim the plot! “But what about Pussy Galore?” Pelling retorted. “It just comes off the page!”
Accusing his rivals of being “august and polite”, Hardeep was determined to win. “I’ll rubbish them! I’ve got a better ace and I will shortly play it,” he said confidently. He deemed Fleming’s Bond “a misogynist, womanising, drinking, smoking assassin” and said Fleming “didn’t deliver on the writing.” For Hardeep, Ian Rankin was the writer to make a case for, and pointed out that he is the only living writer of the four. “Rankin’s crime thrillers were beautifully written to be the best of that bunch – it’s quite an achievement. The only other authors who have kept me awake till four in the morning are O’Neill, Huxley… and obviously Debbie!” He enthused how Rankin’s writing is like a two-way conversation and allows the reader, through Inspector Rebus, to “watch a style and character develop over 20 years and see the finality of his arc.” He went so far as to say that Rankin manages to achieve “a Shakespearean quality” and that, as the journey of Rebus goes on, “the damage to his heart and mind is as compelling as Macbeth’s.” He said Fleming and Rankin are great as “gateway drugs to other books, especially with the worry of boys not reading.” He touched on an “interesting and important issue of gate-keepers of the literary world and the validation of what’s good and what’s meant to be good.” When he was a judge for the Booker Prize one year, Hardeep’s comment that Salman Rushdie’s work over the years had been “patchy” was not well received and he argued that it was easier to make a pitch for the likes of Donne.
After a tense round of voting it was confirmed that Fleming was the first to go, followed by Rankin. In a final face off Deborah and Al had to make their last pitch. Deborah picked a sentence at random: “In vain she pressed her face to the pillow and listened to the irregular, prodigious noise of her eyelashes as they scraped the rough linen.” Debbie was in awe of how Bennett “gets into the woman’s view.” Naturally this provoked more irony from Hardeep: “can we re-vote in light of him being a cross-dresser?”
Al was impressed by the timelessness of Donne: “He died in 1631 but he’s alive for us now. It’s the sense of having a conversation with someone who’s right there talking to you. The voice is absolutely clear as a bell. He really is bloody marvellous.” He conceded that Donne was inclined to show off at times – “there is an awful lot you have to wade through and a lot of Aristotle theory going on” – but added: “he was so damn clever, that’s got to be something.”
The audience asked for a sample of each. Deborah quoted a part about the character of Constance looking at the big marital bed, full of family history, and her feeling of trespassing. “Now it was just a bed – so she had to tell herself – like any other bed. The tiny child that, safely touching its mother, had slept in the vast expanse seemed to her now a pathetic little thing; its image made her feel melancholy. And her mind dwelt on sad events – the death of her father, the flight of darling Sophia, the immense grief, and the exile of her mother […] To see her there on the bed, framed in mahogany and tassels [… ] one would have said that she had never heard of aught but love.” Meanwhile it was hard not to be mesmerised and moved as Al read Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’.
The two were then left to save their respective writers with just one line. Deborah said: “Bennett was a total genius and we’ve forgotten all about him,” while Al said simply:”I think Donne is the greatest love poet in the English language.” It seemed that the majority concurred and it was a victory that evening for John Donne.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/balloondebate2010/