Friday, September 14, 2012

Shoreditch Literary Salon, 12th September

It has taken me longer to get into a Shoreditch Literary Salon, hosted at Shoreditch House, than it has for some people to get a table at Dabbous. The night is held only semiregularly and spaces are strictly limited, and free. Which means that you have to be quick off the mark to be one of the first 250 to RSVP to the Facebook invite if you want to be reasonably sure of a space (priority is given to Shoreditch House members). But finally the stars aligned and I got the notification that another one was being hosted while I was actually on Facebook and I RSVPd straight away.

Stephen and I arrived at 6:25 and there was already a queue. Despite all the warnings about not turning up if you hadn’t got your name down before the magic number 250, no one was checking names on the door so they couldn’t have had a clue whether or not those who were supposed to be there really were, or if there were interlopers. I had thought we were being extra cautious getting there so early because I knew numbers were limited, and I assumed (wrongly) that there would be enough seats for everyone. By the time we got in to the area, there were none left and we had to stand. And still more people streamed in!

As with other literary nights, the success of them depends quite heavily on the calibre of the guests, in terms of entertainment value. If you have a boring speaker or reader, then the night is going to be slightly marred. This night, unfortunately, did suffer from this with the second speaker Bharat Tandon. He is one of this year’s judges for the Man Booker Prize, the shortlist of which was announced Tuesday. On paper, this must have sounded like an excellent guest to have, and very topical. He’s also a lecturer on post 18th-century British literature and so would be used to speaking publicly you would think. Unfortunately he came across as quite awkward, rather pretentious, but worst of all he wasn’t able to speak off the cuff very easily. His pre-planned talk was fairly painful to stand through as it was, but when it came to the question and answer part, it was nigh-on excruciating as he stuttered, and hesitated through his answers.

The previous guest, Shirley Conran had been an excellent and rather raucous, steamy start to the night. Regarded as one of the pioneers of racy literature, she was clearly used to being on stage and the centre of attention. Approaching 80, she had the wit and sparkle of a much younger woman, so that hearing her say ‘thrust his cock violently into her mouth’ was not as shocking or as grotesque as it would have been if, say, your nan had mentioned it in conversation. She came across as a very interesting lady, forthright and frank. I hadn’t heard of her before the evening and was left wanting to know much more about her and her life and read her most famous book Lace, which seems to be a thinly veiled memoir (even less well cloaked now that she has included an afterword confessing who the characters were in real life).

So, we had started on a good note, but then things had stalled and people were getting restless. Luckily after Bharat it was time for an interval so people could reinvigorate themselves at the bar, or try to get a slice of the free pizza on offer. Besides being free to get in, Shoreditch Literary Salon also provides free cocktails on arrival and free pizza at the interval. But not enough. When we arrived there were still free vodka and tonics lining the bar. However, if you turned up closer to 7 than 6:30, you were out of luck. As for the pizza, there was no way near enough to afford even a slice to everyone who was there. This lead to what felt like almost a free-for-all as people were determined to get their free slice. It’s amazing how free food turns us into base animals. I happened to actually be ordering a drink at the bar when some of the pizzas were presented and managed to get myself and Stephen a slice. If you had been sitting down until the end of Bharat’s piece, you were out of luck. In fact, the pizza was brought out not quite before the Q & A with Bharat was over, and some astute people realised this and also that they wouldn’t get a look-in if they didn’t move soon, so started to shift and move toward the bar. This, I thought, was a little rude and disrupted what was happening on stage. Bharat was already a disjointed speaker, I think people getting up and moving around didn’t help his concentration.

I know people appreciate free stuff, but when there’s not enough to go around, I think sometimes it’s better not to bother offering it at all, as it just leads to crowds and unpleasantness as no one wants to miss out. Leaving the pizza at the bar also had the unfortunate consequence of people waiting for drinks being able to help themselves to as much as they wanted, or to people who had no need of a drink clogging up the bar to get to the food.

Having said that, the scarcity of it meant I was extra pleased I got some, and everyone getting up to get some presented the opportunity to move to a better position for the next half.

I must confess that I didn’t watch as much of the Olympics and Paralympics as the rest of my fellow Brits seem to have, and therefore I didn’t get swept up in the national crush on Clare Balding. Until last night that is.

Clare Balding took to the stage to read some of her forthcoming book My Animals and Other Family and she completely captivated and charmed the audience. She was warm, very spontaneously funny, open, and her chemistry with Damian was excellent. I did wonder if they had met before as they were so at ease and comfortable with each other. The chapter she read from was humorous and entertaining and learning about her background was equally interesting. I know she sounds posh on TV but I had no idea she had such close ties to aristocracy and royalty. And did you know she’s a lesbian?! (Kidding, she’s not really) (No - she is.) She was completely in her element and I could see why the nation had fallen for her over the summer.

What is different about these nights compared to other literary nights I have been to (apart from it being free) is that the guest doesn’t just read their excerpt and get out – Damian does a bit of a ‘chat show’ session with them, and then the audience can ask questions, so you get to know more about the author. Damian is an excellent host, a little bit cheeky, funny and asks questions we’d actually like to know the answers to. He very much deserves credit for making the evening so enjoyable.

Part of me hopes no one reads this as it is hard enough to get on the guestlist in the first place, but it was fun and deserves to be read about. Highly recommend.

Oh – and Jon Tickle from Big Brother was there, which is always nice.

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