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The Diary

May 30, 2014 6:24 pm

The Diary: Nicola Barker

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The British novelist recounts an embarrassing incident at the Charleston literary festival
An illustration by James Ferguson of a chair falling over©James Ferguson

I’m not an intellectual and I’ve never been shy of admitting as much (I do have the occasional good idea, yes, but everything else is simply a fragile combination of subterfuge and luck). That allowed, I still doggedly persist in trying to stop the world from taking me for a gormless idiot (although anyone who knows me well will attest to the fact that I can be very dim, ridiculously unfocused, am partially deaf so often miss the gist of things, and on a bad day can make The Only Way Is Essex’s Joey Essex look like Isaiah Berlin).

Imagine my anxiety, then, when I was invited to appear on Radio 4’s Start the Week to be recorded live – in front of about 300 people – from the literary festival at Charleston, Sussex, among a panel featuring a man who has written an exhaustive overview of The Novel, twice Booker-shortlisted Tim Winton (one of Australia’s greatest exports – in fact, if you discount white wine and Home and Away, he is its greatest export), and the terrifyingly aloof and diffident but extraordinarily handsome Norwegian literary sensation Karl Ove Knausgaard.

To forestall a complete nervous collapse (I hate talking about my work and have a profound fear of public speaking), my only possible approach had to be a lively combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, heartfelt prayer and meticulous preparation.

I started by carefully reading the books of all the other panellists. Then I pored over the detailed notes provided by the show’s charming producer. I tried on a series of outfits, in advance, to satisfy all possible climatic eventualities. I trimmed my hair. I selected a voluminous, leather shoulder bag to contain all vital necessities: umbrella, headache tablets, handkerchief, pen, purse, powder, lip salve. I checked and double-checked the travel arrangements.

I did a little research on Charleston House (Vanessa Bell, Clive Bell, Bloomsbury, etc). I packed a lunch (I am a gluten-free, type 2 diabetic vegetarian, or to use the technical term “a nightmare”) into my voluminous bag. I cooked and ate a good breakfast. I had a slight wobble because the button on my trousers looked like it might be planning to fall off. I left in extra-good time, shoving a favourite antique crucifix (for luck) and a long metal hair clip (for my fringe) into my trouser pocket.

I was set up. I was in control. I was an English Carrie Bradshaw or Sarah Jessica Parker: a professional woman in charge of her own destiny.

On the train I ended up sitting next to the toilet, and a woman kept walking back and forth trying to calm her fractious baby who repeatedly kicked me in the side of the head with his little, soft bootee, but I arrived at Lewes station in perfect time. I met the lovely driver of the car they’d sent and sat in his new Range Rover with its smart, cream leather interior waiting for some of the other guests (who were delayed on the London train).

When they arrived, after cordial introductions, we drove to the festival. It was a nice drive. Charleston House and gardens were looking fabulous. We were greeted by the charming curator (who was later to take us on a private tour of the house), and ushered into the kitchen, which was small but the epitome of good, arty, rustic, Bloomsbury taste. The table was set with a delicious array of handmade cakes and sugared fruits and little savoury delights. There were pots of tea and jugs of freshly-squeezed orange juice.

We stood around the table and I was introduced to the friendly people from Start the Week, the festival organisers, several agents and publicists, and Tim Winton (who is just as dry, funny and laconic in person as his books might lead you to imagine).

We were invited to sit down at the table and I proceeded to do so (between Tim and my fabulously urbane publicist, Patrick), hanging my heavy bag over the back of a slightly fragile bamboo-framed chair, worrying, momentarily, as to how I might avoid offending whoever had catered so beautifully by making my excuses and darting off to a private corner to shovel down some food from my sordid tupperware.

All the while I was talking and sitting, and it took a surprising amount of time before I realised that my heavy bag had caused the chair to tip backwards and that I was consequently sitting on nothing but thin air. I toppled and fell, with a startled yelp, on to the hard tiled floor. Everybody gasped. Tim Winton cackled. Patrick helped me up (insisting that I had fallen with an extraordinary delicacy – yes, that’s why he’s in publicity), then Winton, still beaming, and with all the verbal accuracy and Antipodean frankness for which he is justly admired exclaimed: “That was great! Someone should follow you around with a hooter!”

Parp. Parp.

. . .

I’m often amazed by some of the terrible stuff people put into those supermarket food bank bins. Last week I found a net of rotten lemons, a handful of de-boxed tea wrapped up in an old plastic bag, some out-of-date chocolates and an ancient Christmas pudding. That said, my own attitude to what to put into these bins myself has really transformed over recent months.

Initially, I contributed only top brands (why should people who are down on their luck not get to enjoy Kelloggs and PG Tips and Cadburys?) but lately I’ve been shopping for supermarket “saver” brands in greater bulk.

Forget marketing. And forget my lily-livered liberal notions of “a right to quality”. If it’s a matter of choosing between one box of cornflakes or 12 25p bags of perfectly excellent dried pasta, it really makes no moral or economic sense not to chose the latter.

. . .

The memory works so strangely. I was lucky enough to be given tickets last week to an excellent production of one of my all-time favourite plays: TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, currently being performed in London’s oldest surviving church, St Bartholomew the Great. The whole experience was a delight: the church is exquisite, and the performances were a joy (especially Martin Aukland, who played English saint Thomas Becket with an extraordinarily demented intensity).


What I had completely forgotten is a wonderful address to the audience towards the end of the play, when Becket’s knight-murderers cheerfully (and cogently) defend their violent actions. How could I have forgotten it (how?!) when – in a few witty minutes – it pretty much summarises everything you could possibly hope to think about the rights and wrongs of self-sacrifice, martyrdom, fanaticism, pragmatism, politics, faith and modernity?

Sometimes it feels as if our most important and formative influences are forced to live – out of some curiously inexplicable necessity – half-buried in the subconscious.

Nicola Barker’s new novel ‘In the Approaches’ (4th Estate) is published on Thursday

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