My Talk — Saturday

26 February 2007

Blake Morrison raises his eyes to the heavens as he looks at the title to my event over breakfast. So you’re speaking about the role of the writer, are you Francis? That shouldn’t take long to sort out,’ he says with a wry smile. Blake is a renowned poet, whose anthology of British Poetry in the early 1980s, really influenced me to be a writer. We talk about two poets in the anthology: Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, and amazingly seem to agree. Heaney’s ‘North’ is a fantastic collection about the tortured bog people, and Muldoon’s later poetry is, well, just a bit obscure for our tastes. A case of the emperor’s new clothes perhaps? Nevertheless we agree that Muldoon’s earlier stuff, Why Brownlee Left and so on, was amazing.

I am the only non-fiction writer on the panel. I explain about my writing to the assembled group of Indians and English literary critics and writers. I talk about how my writing aims to tell the truth about teaching and anti-social behaviour in Britain today. I say rather too proudly that I have written a bestseller and that I am frequently asked by the radio and TV to comment on various educational issues not because I have an important position in the world of education but because I am both a practising writer and a teacher as well. And then, later, I add that people like to read my writer because they know I’ve suffered! It was meant a little ironically, but I am taken seriously.

Afterwards, Toby Litt, takes me to task: ‘You’ve suffered! Oh my lord, what suffering you endured with 3B today, I think that puts you up there with John the Baptist and Jesus!’ Perhaps he puts it a bit more wittily than this, but this is his jokey drift. I laugh but secretly agree that perhaps the words were ill-chosen. Toby also makes the point that it was wrong of me to say that non-fiction writers have the monopoly on truth, and that he, as a fiction writer, probably speaks more truthfully than most. His new novel, Hospital, which sounds brilliant, is a five hundred page epic about a hospital where resurrections happen and where all sorts of miracles occur. ‘I based everything on scriptural truth. There’s nothing in the book that people somewhere in the world don’t believe is true.’

The other fiction writers on the panel were all Indian writers who talked about the fundamental truth of fiction: how, while it may not be factually accurate, nevertheless has a wider truth. The conversation stalls a bit while the audience and the writers begin to speculate on whether language itself can be truthful.

I leave the event feeling quite uplifted. Everyone was very friendly and well informed. Perhaps most importantly for me, they listened to me — even though none of them knew who I was! This is something that I feel throughout the whole festival: the people here are genuinely interested in the issues. There’s no real grandstanding or posing. People are accepted as equals. Having encountered on so many occasions, much more exclusionistic people, I feel a great warmth to everyone who actually listens and takes me seriously.’

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