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Weekly round-up: How is a writer like a politician?

Weekly round-up: How is a writer like a politician?

It seems that, in the eyes of the National Portrait Gallery at least, a picture isn't necessarily worth a thousand words. The gallery has just asked a selection of well-known authors to write a brief pen portrait to accompany some of its real portraits. Among those who have taken up the task are the Man Booker winners Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt and Ben Okri. Mantel has, naturally, captured Thomas Cromwell (“He doesn’t care what you think of him. No man more immune to insult. Truth is the daughter of time. Time is what we haven’t got”), Byatt meanwhile describes the poet John Donne (“He was a great man and a passionate writer. Or a passionate man and a great writer. There is no-one like him”), and Ben Okri goes for Shakespeare. The writers' works will go on sale for £500 each at a fund-raising gala on 11th February.


The poet and novelist Adam Foulds (MB shortlisted in 2009 for The Quickening Maze) was not initially interested in writing at all: zoology was his thing. The disciplines though are not as dissimilar as they might at first appear: “Looking very carefully at the natural world was important to me. And I realise now that there is something about the things I like about writing – a kind of intense and illuminated accuracy – that are the same as seeing the world through the lenses of binoculars.”


Like Foulds, Jeet Thayil, whose novel Narcopolis was Man Booker shortlisted in 2012, is also a poet and he gave an impassioned defence of the form in a recent interview. “Poetry is like a very specialized language spoken only by the practitioners of a lost art;” he noted, “poets are priests of a religion who have been washed up on a dead planet. Poets speak only to the converted; they make very few new converts ... Each word has to do a lot work; it is a loaded language.”


In an interview to discuss the adaptation of his novel The Cement Garden into a stage play, Ian McEwan (MB winner in 1998 with Amsterdam) was asked, rather ungallantly, about whether he would ever retire from writing: “Writers are a bit like politicians – they never quit while they're ahead, they have to fail and then quit,” he responded, “But I doubt it. Not unless I go completely nuts … Anyway, I'm in the toddlerhood of old age.”


Unless he suddenly becomes senescent, McEwan is one of several Man Bookerites who will be appearing at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival (22nd – 30th March). Also taking part will be Eleanor Catton, over from New Zealand to discuss The Luminaries with Natalie Haynes, one of the judges who awarded her the prize. Jim Naughtie, chair of the 2009 judges, will also be there, talking about his first foray into fiction, The Madness of July, a political thriller set in the Cold War.