In a year that’s included Budapest’s European First Novel Festival, Fowey Festival in the heart of Daphne du Maurier country, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it was my last event of 2013 that turned out to be my favourite of all. The other Sunday I took part in Book Slam at The Tabernacle in Notting Hill, along with William Boyd, musician Ana Silvera, and poet and playwright Inua Ellams. Yes, I did say William Boyd. He of the latest Bond novel, Solo. He of Any Human Heart, which is only one of my favourite books of all time. Fine company, indeed.
Book Slam was founded around ten years ago by award-winning writer Patrick Neate. The Guardian’s Robert McCrum says ‘Book Slam describes itself as “London’s leading literary shindig” and it is’. Meanwhile Simon Armitage reckons it’s ‘music hall meets night club meets book club’. There are a ton of live literature events out there these days, a very different landscape to when Book Slam started out, and many have their own distinctive qualities. All to the good, I say. There’s still something brilliantly pure about the simple act of being read to - it’s how most of us first experienced stories, after all. Among the Book Slam crowd something of a campfire spirit prevails, rapt faces listening in the dark, creating an experience that’s both solitary and intimately shared. Then a musician comes on, then a poet, a comedian. It’s this combination that makes Book Slam unique. The floor rips up with laughter. The appreciation is raucous. These nights have always attracted a band of stellar supporters, the likes of Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, David Nicholls, Hari Kunzru. Earlier this year Caitlin Moran and Hadley Freeman shared a stage, and later this month you can catch Chuck Palahniuk. Then there are the newer faces, which Team Book Slam are always keen to champion too. That’s how I found myself at The Tabernacle with William Boyd last week. Trying not to be too sycophantic I told William how happy and slightly amazed I was to be sharing a billing with him, and he twinkled (he did!) and said ‘that’s Book Slam’.
So last week then, 007 and me. The tables are laid out cabaret-style, and the drinks are flowing. I’ve done a few events by now and I’m starting to grow sort of used to a formula. Only the set-up here is a little bit different. No panel, no Q&A, no other author sitting reassuringly alongside… just you, a microphone and a spotlight – quite an exposing combination, which probably adds to the allure for the audience. The last time I was faced with a similar sort of thing, at an Amnesty event in Edinburgh, I couldn’t read for crying, but that’s another story (one you can read here, if you really want to). Anyway, I took a breath and pictured the audience naked, and let me tell you, the Notting Hill crowd that night were a fine-looking bunch. I read two passages from A Heart Bent Out of Shape and told the story that led to the writing of one of them, involving a disastrous haircut, an elderly man, and une tarte magnifique. All in all, I had a ball, and the best part was that when I was through, I got to sit back and enjoy the rest of the show – Ana Silvera’s haunting rhythms and amazing musicality, William Boyd radiating inimitable venerability as he told us about his special recipe for salad dressing, and Inua Ellam’s impeccable hosting, rounding off the night with three of his poems to massive applause.
This very month, five years ago, I took a course with the Arvon Foundation, and was lucky enough to have Book Slam’s founding father Patrick as one of my tutors. As Inua said, ‘feels like you’ve come full circle’, and it did. I’m a sentimental thing at the best of times, but this knowledge definitely added to my pleasure in taking part. So… thank you, Patrick, and to Book Slam cohort Elliott Jack, too. It was a real treat.
If all this has tickled your fancy, it happens roughly monthly, at places like The Tabernacle, The Clapham Grand, and The Flyover, and even sometimes here in Brizzle, with Nikesh Shukla at the helm. There’s a brilliant podcast, a YouTube channel, and two volumes of short story collections, published in the last two years. They’re also branching into ventures of the culinary variety, with School Dinners, which sounds immeasurably more nourishing (mind and body) than any school dinner I’ve ever had. Book Slam’s original philosophy was to ‘promote the diversity of contemporary literature, support writers, and break down the boundaries between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ culture’. I think ‘make it fun’ was probably in there somewhere too. Are they still living up to it? In the spirit of Bond, I’ll defer to Carly Simon…. “Nobody Does It Better…”