A Capital Evening…

Last night I went to see an interview with John Lanchester, author of Gidday From The UK’s Book Nook entry Capital (#6 in 2013).

Lanchester, while sounding as English as they come (to my ear anyway) was born in Germany and spent his early years in Hong Kong before being educated in England. He has bridged the literary leap from journalist to author via what might appear to be a rather convoluted crossing: writing obituaries, reporting on the football, editing books, contributing to The New Yorker and becoming deputy editor of the London Review of books. I think it’s safe to say he comes from the ‘broad church’ school of writing.

John Lanchester
image source: www.faber.co.uk

And he can really write. I loved Capital – what Lanchester calls his Big Fat London Novel – especially the minutae of the residents in and visitors to a reasonably affluent suburban street not so far from where I used to live, so I was really looking forward to this chat with the Guardian Book Club’s John Mullan.

The interview was fascinating and the hour was crammed with glimpses into the mind of this interesting and engaging writer and when I left, two of his quotes especially stood out for me.

The first is London is a city that the world presses on. 

This is a feeling that I’ve tried to capture so many times when asked – as people do when you are Australian – what are you doing here? The best I’ve been able to come up with is that London is in the ‘centre’ of things and that Australia feels incredibly isolated and ‘out of things’ by comparison (mind you, this is not always a bad thing). The rush of being in the centre of the world’s issues is addictive and as these simple words left Lanchester’s lips, I felt the voice in my head say emphatically, ‘yes that’s exactly it.’

The second quote referred to the 2011 Census (which Lanchester mentions several times over the hour – obviously one of his own addictions!). 45% of the London population classes their ethnicity as White British. That means that White British are in the minority in London.

With such a large multi-cultural population, I’ve always felt quite a distinct and unusual dichotomy between the newness and ferocity of the immigrants and the resigned apathy inherent in London’s incumbents. Lanchester talked about the range of non-London characters in the book and how they provide a fresh set of eyes and opinions on what others might either see as ordinary or may not even notice at all.

He particularly talked about his Polish builder (a mere visitor in the fabric of this extraordinarily everyday street) and this character’s amazement at seeing the extreme drunken-ness around the edges of Clapham Common, a way he’s never seen people (particularly girls) behave back in Poland.

This is something I try to do. Not the extreme drunken-ness (oh you naughty Gidday-ers!) I mean to have that fresh-eyed view. Being present to the extraordinarily everyday moments: an historic snippet in an unexpected location or a beautiful burst of sky on my early morning commute or some stunning architecture dappled with London light. And then there are those moments of human-ness – sometimes in an exuberant child or a cache of voluble friends, at other times a glimpse of a soul bathed in poignant solitary-ness.

His responses to the questions from the audience were every bit as interesting and all too soon, the event came to a end and I was left inspired to read more of this fantastic writer’s work.

Yes, I’ve become a fan.

Lanchester’s pragmatic empathy in talking about his vast range of characters and his deep love of this unique and multi-cultural pressure cooker called London have definitely earned him a spot on this immigrant’s reading radar.

Open Day…Opening Minds…

I’m just back from The Guardian newspaper’s inaugural Open Day. I hadn’t really heard much about it until this week but was drawn in by an email inviting me (as a subscriber to all things Guardian Book Club) to an interview with Robert Harris to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his first novel, Fatherland.

I’ve not read Fatherland but I have read Imperium and Pompeii (see number 41. in 2011’s Book Nook exploits). So based on these two and a successful first Guardian Book Club outing late last year, I bought myself a ticket.

The premise of Fatherland is this: What would happen if Hitler had won the war?  It’s an interesting idea. What sort of world might we live in now had just one or two things fallen Hitler’s way?

There is actually a genre for this sort of book – Alternate History – where facts are extruded into the what if scenarios of the author’s imagination and with Harris’ CV including time as political editor at The Observer, I was looking forward to an interesting discussion.

And what a thought provoking hour it turned out to be. Harris admitted that he had not read this novel since it was published in 1992 but spoke of his love for finding out the facts and then exploring the possibilities around them. Not for him the realms of pure fantasy: he actually likened his lack of appreciation to garlic and vampires. But his passion for his genre was evident as he spoke about the extraordinary lifecycle of power and politics, proposing views of his own and discussing the opinions of others. 

His own exploration of political power both as a political journalist/editor and as a writer suggests to him that the horror of the Holocaust is not so far away from you and I: the persuasive nature of power nurtures behaviours which promote survival and he talked about the Nazi Party as simply a bunch of lawyers and administrators who, as the majority of humankind would do, protected their own interests – families, friends, life itself –  and found themselves embroiled in a new, albeit inconceivable, staus quo.

Harris also spoke of books he’s loved and Kingsley Amis and Martin Cruz-Smith rated a mention as writers of particular brilliance. (Although upon racing home, I was disappointed to find no mention of Gorky Park on Amazon’s list of e-books for Audrey – boo! I say).

Much to my relief the discussion was so varied and interesting that interviewer John Mullan did not have the opportunity to quiz Harris about the ending of Fatherland (which a book club interview usually does) so it is with unexpected curiosity that I can look forward to tucking into Fatherland sans spoilers.

Harris’ eloquence and his knowledge of and passion for his subject made the hour go very quickly and I’m glad I ignored the delights of my sunny back patio this afternoon for this opportunity to explore some new ideas. And as I wandered back to Kings Cross station in the sunshine, I found myself smitten all over again with this fabulous city I’ve come to call home.