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The Narrow Road to Oxford

The Narrow Road to Oxford

A footnote to Richard Flanagan's 2014 Man Booker win. The author has been sometimes presented as a literary Ocker, a dyed-in-the-wool Aussie. What is less well known is that the author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North has some Oxbridge blood in his veins too. Flanagan is an alumnus of Worcester College, Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar in 1984. The current provost of that college just happens to be Sir Jonathan Bate, one of the Man Booker judges who awarded Flanagan the prize. Bate though was unaware of the link at the time and Flanagan was in no hurry to inform him since his time in Oxford was not a pleasurable one: ‘Let's not talk about that,’ he recently told an interviewer, ‘it was an unhappy time’ – largely because he found the place to have rather a chilly attitude towards colonial students. Bate is so keen to right old wrongs that he intends to invite Flanagan back to the college to show that times have changed.

The novelist Aminatta Forna, a Man Booker International Prize judge in 2013, is frequently labelled an ‘African writer’ despite the fact that she has a Scottish mother (and a Sierra Leonean father). Her heritage has given her an aversion to labels. In a thoughtful and moving recent piece she wrote about the frustrations of being pigeonholed by newspapers: ‘Literature is about nuance and understanding the intricacies of life. Journalism prefers simplicity, even at the price of reductionism.’ She went on with a heartfelt plea: ‘The way of literature is to seek universality. Writers try to reach beyond those things that divide us: culture, class, gender, race. Given the chance, we would resist classification. I have never met a writer who wishes to be described as a female writer, gay writer, black writer, Asian writer or African writer.’ This universality is the very purpose of the Man Booker International Prize. It is even money though that the next time Forna is described in print she will still be an ‘African writer’.

Little did the 2013 Man Booker winner Eleanor Catton know (or one assumes she didn't know) what she was unleashing when she said a few stern words about the artistic and political culture of her native New Zealand. In airing her opinion at the Jaipur Literature Festival that her country is governed by ‘neo-liberal, profit-obsessed’ politicians with no feeling for culture she set in train a wave of criticism. The prime minister's voice was just one of many that waded in against her. There has been some support too though: 130 Kiwi artists have written an open letter in which they ‘loudly proclaim that we utterly reject the apparent intent of our current political leaders to cast our nation into a cultural and environmental abyss’. Team Catton affirmed their support: ‘Like Eleanor, we too will hope for better – and demand it.’

A quick date for the diary: a dramatisation of Arthur and George, a semi-fictional work by Julian Barnes (whom won the Man Booker Prize in 2011) is about to be screened on ITV. The book recounts the real life events of 1903 when George Edalji, a solicitor of Indian descent, was convicted of mutilating livestock in rural Staffordshire. He found an unlikely champion in Arthur Conan Doyle who took up his case and made a stink, exposing both the police corruption and the endemic racism of the time. For fans of Sherlock the three-part series should help soften the wait until the idiosyncratic detective returns. Rather than swoon at Benedict Cumberbatch, however, viewers will have to make do with Martin Clunes.

'Literature is about nuance and understanding the intricacies of life.' Aminatta Forna, Man Booker International Prize judge in 2013