Monday, 12 October 2015

Back down to earth

Well, I'm back again. Where have you been, I hear absolutely nobody ask? But this is the blogosphere so the existence of a reading public is of no import. What matters is recording things, not reading them…

In actual fact, I've been nowhere. It's just that a combination of freshers' week, the start of teaching, preparing my Cheltenham Literature Festival gig and contracting a particularly debilitating dose of Repetitive Strain Injury means that I've barely had a chance to put sore fingers to keyboard. Even though I'm a cyclist and a fencer, I think it was editing photographs that brought on the inflammation. That and extreme old age and a dissipated, dissolute lifestyle. Some nights I'm out so late I miss The One Show. Crazy times, man, crazy times.

Blessed by a paper-thin pseudonym, I can just about afford to be completely honest about my students, but there's no need for puffery anyway this year: both the returners and the new students are a delight. We had a social event last week which was a huge success: friendly, funny and really enjoyable. Despite my witty colleagues directing students with a burning desire to learn Anglo-Saxon in my direction - a few weeks tuition in 1994 is hardly a qualification. So anyway, institutional 'challenges' notwithstanding, I'm full of optimism about teaching this year. This feeling will last until 5 p.m. on October 19th, which is when the first batch of marking comes in.

The major event was the Cheltenham Festival gig. Back in January I had to go to Swindon for a workshop and pitch day run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, neither of which nouns I had any taste or aptitude for. In the morning we shared our ideas with the other applicants and discussed how to improve them. In the afternoon we sat silently in an anteroom as one by one, we were called to present our big idea to a panel in three minutes. The prize was a slot at the Festival and my pitch was to discuss the history, character and context of the hundreds of politicians' novels, poems and plays which exist. Amazingly, although there are excellent books about politics in novels, nobody's written so much as a journal article about work by politicians. Instead you occasionally get newspaper pieces about why they're all so rubbish. My colleague and I reckon there are some interesting things to say about them, including whether the fact that the vast majority are murder thrillers implies that even politicians have lost faith in the boring, quotidian advance of democracy. Though I must admit that being in the same room as Jeremy Hunt would make me fantasise about murder too.

Somehow I managed to win (it was either my witty and topical jokes about Winston Churchill's novel or their overdeveloped sense of pity) and my writing partner and I were passed over to the Festival people to plan our session. They picked a panel for us (Robbie Millen, Literary Editor of the Times, Michael Dobbs (Tory lord, author of House of Cards) and Anne McElvoy (The Economist and Evening Standard) as the chair.

Come the day and we arrived, as did a charabanc load of friends and family (the cringeworthy highlight of my day was discussing the nipple count in Widdecombe's novels in front of my mother, aunts and young cousin). Our fellow panellists hadn't read any of the politicians' work which gave us at least the upper hand. It was also our first taste of being 'the talent', if only for an hour or two. Sitting in the hospitality tent we observed the way each entrant would pause in the doorway, scan everybody to see if they were worthy of an air-kiss, and pass quickly over those of us deemed insufficiently famous. We sat quite close to Salman Rushdie, which looking back might not have been the safest berth on the ship. Thank heavens the Russians are keeping ISIS and co busy at the moment.

The event went – I think – quite well. Michael Dobbs was as patrician as you'd expect ('you're a very naughty girl' he told my colleague afterwards, which is rather toe-curling), and said many interesting things from the author's point of view. We managed to get some of the serious points in without detracting from the light-hearted tone, and I swallowed the unpleasant partisan jokes I'd lined up. 

In my mind, all Plashing Vole readers dress like this chap

The discussion wasn't quite as heated as this shot implies

The questions from the floor were good and McElvoy was such a good chair - nobody got talked over or ignored. The room was full and I hope they got their £8 worth. Afterwards I went off for tea and chat with my relatives and a few friends, while the coach load from work hit a speakeasy for multiple gins. 

Going back to ordinary lectures today was a struggle. No Salman. No flowers and sound engineers. No applause. Back to reality… And now we have to produce the research. 


Phil said...

a paper-thin pseudonym

You are Dr Wilfred Shoe and I claim my £5.

I suppose your anonymity's crackable, but it's a bit better than paper-thin. The blog has told me where you work - which would give me a short list & perhaps half an hour's work to track down your Sekrit Identity, if I was that bothered - but I certainly can't put a name to you. Nor indeed would I want to.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean "while the coach load from work hit a speakeasy for multiple gins"? I'll have you know it was a luxury hotel bar and the (excellent and exotic) gins were so expensive we only could afford one each! But seriously, very well done the two of you, you came across as knowledgeable, authoritative, calm and humorous. Quite an achievement in the face of a Tory peer who had clearly planned to take over the session!.