A hot air balloon is quickly losing height over Dudley (yes, Dudley) and about to crash into an industrial estate. With four world class writers aboard facing impending doom, a decision must be made about which of these four writers to save: George Orwell (argued for by John O’Farrell), Agatha Christie (argued for by Kate Mosse), D.H. Lawrence (argued for by Howard Jacobson), and James Meek (argued for by Louisa Young). Chaired by author Deborah Moggach (These Foolish Things), passion, humour and intellect ensured a theatrical and intellectually engaging debate despite scare tactics which sought to create the opposition of ‘good literature’ vs. ‘good reads’.
John O’Farrell began with the argument for George Orwell focusing on Orwell’s radical and political thinking. Going even as far to say that ‘without Orwell, there would be no Big Brother,’ O’Farrell indicated that 1984 and Animal Farm brought complex and complicated concepts into popular culture in an accessible way, and Orwell’s ability to write about ideas that continue to stay relevant is why he remains popular. O’Farrell argued, ‘Orwell once said “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” so let’s just tell Agatha Christie, James Meek, and D.H. Lawrence to jump out of the balloon and no vote will even have to take place.’
Kate Mosse continued the debate, vying for Agatha Christie to stay in the balloon by arguing that without her ‘all crimes novels just would not be’. Christie was the blueprint for bestselling crime, writing over eighty novels between the 1920’s and 1970’s. ‘Plus,’ added Mosse, ‘she was born on my mother’s birthday and died on my sister’s birthday.’ ‘Well then she just has to stay in the balloon!’ Howard Jacobson exclaimed before turning to his defence of D.H. Lawrence.
Howard Jacobson opened his argument for D.H. Lawrence with an anecdote about a book club that offered a D.H. Lawrence medallion for promptness. ‘What this idea of promptness had to do with D.H. Lawrence, I’ve no idea,’ Jacobson offered, ‘but surely this represents the zeal of English PEN.’ He continued to explain how Lawrence was the most persecuted writer of the 20th century, but that he should not remain in the balloon for past wrongs but because he is still being persecuted today. Jacobson admitted that Lawrence may not have had the most agreeable views but that he couldn’t be thrown from the balloon for what he believed but rather, that he should be kept in because of his contributions to literature. ‘I don’t ask you,’ ended Jacobson, ‘I demand you keep Lawrence in the balloon.’
Louisa Young completed the first round of debate with her argument for contemporary writer James Meek. She asked the members of the audience if anyone had read a book by Meek and one lone woman raised her hand, prompting Howard Jacobson to ask, ‘Who is this James Meek?’ and John O’Farrell to add ‘We had a little bet before this debate started to see if we could get a made up author to win.’ Unfazed by the banter, Young continued with a convincing argument for Meek engaging each audience member in the idea that he/she must read Meek because it would be a book you might recommend to a friend when they ask for a new title. One would not recommend a book by Lawrence, Christie, or Orwell, she argued, because they are so well known and have ‘been in the balloon for such a very very long time!’ Young concluded with the idea that the future of literature is more important or at least as important as the past, and that had to be kept in consideration when voting to keep Meek in the balloon’s basket.
Audience participation and opinion was incredibly strong, and arguments for each of the four balloon-dwellers bounced about the room. Most of those who spoke seemed to indicate their favour for one author over another based purely on personal experience rather than their overall contribution within the literary canon. Few members suppressed their true opinions. ‘I read Agatha Christie because I feel like I still have a shot as a writer; she is just crap,’ one man said. Two more agreed outright and many people nodded their approval. Jacobson added that Christie was a ‘good read’, less complicated and quick to breeze through in an evening. Lawrence, on the other hand, ‘is infuriating. You want to throw the book against the wall, to scream, to kill him…’ ‘Well, audience, you have the chance now!” John O’Farrell interjected trying to get the last word in for George Orwell.
In the end, the first of the four writers to perish was Agatha Christie, and the three men remained. James Meek was thrown out second, leaving Lawrence and Orwell standing mid-balloon in a bit of fisticuffs. Jacobson and O’Farrell took on the roles well, and looked genuinely nervous standing in front of the room as the count of the votes took place ending with Orwell grabbing a win ahead by 13 votes.
‘Well isn’t this just a bad night for art,” Howard Jacobson rolled his eyes and slumped in his chair as D.H. Lawrence took his plunge from the basket.
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/hotairaballoondebate/