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Man Bookerites and Brexit

Man Bookerites and Brexit

Ian McEwan, Man Booker winner in 1998 with Amsterdam and a four times shortlistee (plus, for good measure, two for the Man Booker International Prize) is just one of millions bewildered and distraught at the Brexit vote. In a recent essay he tried to come to terms with the magnitude of what has happened: ‘From our agriculture to our science and our universities, from our law to our international relations to our commerce and trade and politics, and who and what we are in the world’, he wrote, ‘everything is changed utterly.’ The near equal numerical split between remainers and leavers has, he says, left each side ‘full of contempt for the other’. After running through what happened and why, he goes on to posit that in fact the whole thing is a bad dream from which we will awake. When we do, what will we find? That Prime Minister May grants the call for a second referendum, ‘the public mood has shifted. On hard-pressed council estates leavers are suffering what we’ve learned to call buyers’ remorse. Second time around, remain sweeps the board. We’re back in. In fact, we never left . . . Take your shoes off. Go back to bed. When you wake, Boris Johnson will be leader of the Labour party. He was, he says, always well to the left of Tony Blair. What can you do?’ McEwan’s novels tend to hinge on a single act that changes the trajectories of his characters’ lives irreversibly (and almost always for the worse). Brexit though is not a dream and certainly not a fiction. It can’t be rewritten, even by McEwan’s deft pen.


Dr Amanda Foreman, current chair of the Man Booker judges, is a longstanding Americaphile. In a recent piece she offers respite from the battering of British and European politics by offering some thoughts on the Great American Road Trip (how good does one of those sound right now?) The idea of the GART, she says, ‘was born in 1856 with the publication of Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of the Open Road’. Or at least that’s where the idea of such a journey came into being, since 160 years ago there were no states between Texas and California, let alone cars, highways or motels.’ Although Whitman saw the GART as a ‘metaphor for democracy  . . . In the new republic, a man could go anywhere’, by 1903 there were only 150 miles of paved road in the entire country. Going anywhere was easier said than done. If that startling figure hadn’t changed, she points out, there would have been no Steinbeck or Kerouac, no Easy Rider and, critically, no Thelma and Louise.


The Southbank Centre has just announced the line-up for the 2016 London Literature Festival. Subtitled ‘Living in Future Times’, the festival will focus on ‘visionary artists and writers’ and how we are already living in a world predicted by science-fiction writers. Among the topics for discussion will be science and science-fiction, Scientology and, breaking loose from the ‘science’ tag – as he did from so many others – David Bowie. The festival will include a substantial Man Booker presence: Margaret Atwood, Man Booker winner in 2000, will launch her new novel, Hag-Seed, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and discuss it with former judge Erica Wagner; the busy Ms Wagner will also join Man Booker shortlistee Neel Mukherjee and Salley Vickers to explore the work and influence of Alan Garner, whose novels include the classic The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. In a festival subsection, Edna O’Brien, a former Man Booker judge, and Deborah Levy, a shortlistee, will be among those discussing ‘The Power of Power’ and examining the forces that govern our lives. The festival runs from 5-16 October and details can be found here.


Mukherjee has another duty to fulfil first and the word ‘weird’ seems curiously appropriate. He is appearing in a series of workshops and discussions at the Iceland Writers Retreat held near Reykjavik. You don’t need to be Icelandic to attend apparently and if you wonder where the apostrophe on ‘Writers’ has gone the answer is that the organisers ‘decided to keep our brand plain and simple and wanted to avoid confusion when others wrote about it. So we’re  . . . going apostrophe free’. Of course, if you are particular about your grammar that might well be enough to put you off attending.