Britain's Biggest Book Prize: A Village Decides (Again) The Culture Show

Britain's Biggest Book Prize: A Village Decides (Again)

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Hello and welcome to The Culture Show, coming to you tonight from


the village of Comrie in Perthshire. 400 miles away in London, the


winner of the Man Booker Prize is about to be announced. But here


we're about to make a very special and, some would say, much more


democratic announcement at our own alternative ceremony. The villagers


here have been voraciously reading the novels on the Booker shortlist,


and tonight we'll be finding out It's early September and the


shortlist for the Man Booker Prize has just been announced. In the


village of Comrie, people are gearing up for a Culture Show


reading marathon that's become a bit of an annual event.


I'm interested in the book about accuracy of memory, remembrance - I


can't remember the title offhand. I've got it written down. The Sense


Of An Ending. The villagers have agreed to read and score out of ten


as many of the Booker-shortlisted novels as they can. I've got a sea


story, I imagine, by Carol Birch. And The Sisters Brothers, which I


think is a western of some sort, and I'm looking forward to both of


them. For myself, Half Blood Blues, for


my sister, Jamrach's Menagerie, and for my boyfriend The Sisters


Brothers. I've got something for everybody. So, let me tell you a


bit about the books on this year's shortlist. Well, the official Man


Booker judges have come in for a bit of stick this year, because


there's only one book on there by a household name, and that's Julian


Barnes, and his book The Sense Of An Ending. Looking at the crits of


it, it's obviously going through the years for a man from childhood


to manhood and his experiences in between. It's a novella, so I think


I'll manage that. There are two books by first-time novelists,


who've both done really well to get on the shortlist. Pigeon English by


Stephen Kelman, and Snowdrops by AD Miller. Described as disturbing,


dazzling, electrifying and leaves you stunned and addicted. Well, I'm


all for that. The next one is Jamrach's Menagerie


by Carol Birch. She's a pretty established author. This is her


11th book, but still not that not well known. Victorian London?


don't know any of these authors apart from Julian Barnes. You have


to give me some clues. The last two are by Canadian authors. The


Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. And Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan.


That book is quite interesting, yes, the aftermath of the fall of Paris.


My sort of subject. I'm on parade for those.


What about you, what do you think? And stop scratching, you're on


camera. This is going to be the fourth time I've been to Comrie and


they have never once picked the book that's one, so I'm looking


forward to hearing what they will make of this lot.


It's been two weeks since the villagers started their reading,


and I've come to Comrie to find out what they think. My first stop is


the coffee morning at the Women's Institute Hall, where I've arranged


to meet Ian Pinkerton, who's been reading The Sisters Brothers by


Patrick DeWitt. Hi, Ian. How are you doing?


The Sisters Brothers is a Western, set during America's gold rush, and


tells the story of two brothers, both professional killers, who make


a journey across the Wild West, taking out anyone who gets in their


way. I was quite intrigued by that book as a story. I had an


interesting visual response to it. I regarded it as like a black and


white film. The behaviour of the characters is, shall we say,


outrageous, but this is 1851. I would commend it as a book.


does this compare to previous Booker...? I would say better.


Maybe that's the best one that I have read.


Next I head out of the village to check in with Norma Mitchell. She's


been reading Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, a story narrated by


a Ghanaian boy, a recent immigrant to Britain, who decides to try to


uncover the truth behind the brutal murder of a child on the South


London estate where he lives. Hi Norma. Hi, how are you? I'm good. I


like your wheels. The first book you read... It was Pigeon English.


Stephen Kelman. There you go. you.


Thank you. An exceptional first novel, absolutely wonderful. I


think because it's narrated by an 11-year-old boy it works. You're


captivated by him, he's such a sweet, naive boy, but as time goes


on, in this inner city environment, I think he's slowly corrupted, bit


by bit. You have a sense of foreboding that something's going


to happen at the end, and at the end it just comes and hits you


pretty quickly. But first-time novel, absolutely excellent.


turns out Norma's not the only fan of Pigeon English. It was sad, it


was comical, it made me laugh out loud. And it was really thought


provoking. It was really really well written. I liked the warmth of


the family, the Ghanaian family which finds itself in this


situation. And the very fact that through all of the difficulties


through which they have to pass, living in this high-rise flat with


a largely antagonistic grouping round about, the family hangs


together. It was alright. Any book that can make you laugh out loud is


worth every prize there is out there. It is a book for those who


are able to look beyond the words and look into the critical


situation in which a young boy finds himself, in an alien culture.


Fancy meeting you here. Who would have thought...


My old friend George Carson has been reading Half Blood Blues. It's


about a mixed race German musician who's disappeared during the Nazi


occupation of Paris. This is a book I've just finished.


Written in Baltimore slang, and cutting between 1940 and 1992, the


story is told by a fellow musician, who's been harbouring a dark secret


for more than 50 years. At first I didn't think I'd like it, but I


really got quite engrossed in it. And the language I didn't


understand, a patois, but once I recognised what they were talking


about, I appreciated the rhythm. Can I just show you something?


I think it was page eight, just at the beginning. And I was quite


taken with this. And then I thought... "Me I was American. And


so light-skinned folks often took me for white. Son of two Baltimore


quadroons. I came out straight- haired, green-eyed, a right little


spaggot." There's a rhythm about the writing. The grammar's terrible,


but the rhythm is great. I enjoyed it. Good. Your verdict? I thought


it was great. Very interesting, very powerful. But quite bleak.


book was dark, but there was the flow. What it was like in Nazi


Germany for people of colour was interesting, but quite scary.


author of Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan, lives in Canada. Hello?


Hello, it's time in Cymru from The Culture Show. Hi, how are you?


good. She's agreed to chat to some of the


villagers on-line. How were you inspired to write this book? I was


in Germany. I'd been living there for about a year, and just coming


across this very quick, glancing reference to the children of white


German mothers and black colonial soldiers from France's colonies. I


was just completely fascinated by this and started looking more into


the history in general of black people in Europe, and in Germany in


particular. The whole story just sort of came to emerge out of this


detail. I felt the ending with the forgiveness side of it was very


strong, and although it was very bleak, I found that just so moving


and a fantastic end to the book. Somebody asked the other day, why


do you write, and for me it's always to move somebody, or to


write something that if it doesn't move you maybe you will think about


it a little bit after you put it down. That's a really great


compliment for me, so thank you very much, it's nice to hear it.


Thank you very much. Bye. In our previous reading marathons,


the villagers have met writers in London and talked over the internet.


No Booker-shortlisted authors have ever made it to Comrie before. But


today Stephen Kelman, author of Pigeon English, and Carol Birch,


author of Jamrach's Menagerie, have come to the village to meet the


local Book Club. I'm giving them each a quick tour of Comrie first.


Hi, this is Carol. Nice to see you. She's the author of Jamrach's


Menagerie. Which I have read. It's fantastic, a young chap starting


off in the butcher's shop, with the description of what was going on


there. The butcher's down the road, did you read that? Yes. I very much


injoid your book. Enjoyed? I'm not sure enjoy is the word but I


appreciated and I hope you have great success. Thank you.


I can get on with picking my onions now. We've got bridies, Scotch pies,


steak pies and sausage rolls. Like Pigeon English, Carol's book,


Jamrach's Menagerie, has gone down well in the village. A super book.


I really enjoyed it. I liked the book. I thought it was well written,


and I think if you like particularly stories of the sea,


this covered it very well indeed. Jamrach's Menagerie is set in


Victorian London and follows the adventures of a boy sent off to the


East Indies on a whaling boat on a mission to capture a wild animal.


When he's shipwrecked, he and a handful of survivors have to face


their fate alone at sea. The book's been a big hit with Andrew


Finlayson. It says on the back cover it's a bit of Moby Dick, it's


a bit of Treasure Island, it's a bit of The Rime of the Ancient


Mariner, and a bit of a scattering of Dickens. So the Dickens bit, it


evokes London beautifully at the beginning. And then it gives you


the Moby Dick stuff, high seas drama, chasing the whales. That was


fantastic. And then the last third, which you're not prepared for. It


gives you a kicking, it just kicks and kicks, but in the most


incredible way. It's Heart of Darkness, it should have said on


the back cover. So the book went from a good book and as it went


through into the last third it just raised its game quite high, so I


felt it was a very good book. the ones you read, Jamrach's


Menagerie would be your choice? Without a doubt.


This way to the lion ace den. -- lion's den.


Comrie book club, for the first time the authors! Carol and Stephen.


We kick off the meeting with the book club by talking about


Jamrach's Menagerie. What did you think of the book? I really enjoyed


it. I thought it was a really great adventure and it reminded me of


books that I had read as a child, adventure stories. I thought that


the pace was excellent, the descriptions were excellent. It


really took me to London and then to the Far East, so I very much


enjoyed it. You seem to get into the psyche of these men who went to


sea for adventure, and I think actually I was scared for them at


that point. As soon as Jaffy and Tim went off to sea, I was thinking,


no, no, no, go home, it's going to end in tears, it's going to end in


disaster. I just wanted them to stay in the zoo and be happy and


Well, I do too. I feel terrible I put them through all that really.


Because, you know, I'm really with their mums. I'm at home with their


mums. Carol, at book club the other night, we talked extensively about


your book. And we kind of agreed that we found the actual shipwreck


period quite tedious. It went on for a long time. Was that your


intention to make us, as readers, feel when is this going to end?


Well, I didn't want people to be bored. But it was of its very


nature. They're basically just floating along passing time. So


that was quite a problem actually with the book. I'm sorry if it did


bore you, but that wasn't the intention. No, it wasn't boring,


but you wanted it to end. But it was the fact that for them life


became just a constant tedium. But with very very bright moments of


sort of concentrated reality that come through that. Great stuff. OK,


so Pigeon English. Thoughts, feelings, comments? You've seen


what Comrie is like now. We don't have many murders or really an


awful lot of trouble of any kind. Do you think you could have written


this book if you'd had a very different upbringing? If say you'd


grown up in Comrie rather than where you did, on your estate?


Absolutely not. I think I would have loved to have grown up in a


place like this. It's beautiful. But that wouldn't have equipped me


for the kind of book that Pigeon English had to be. I think having


the intimacy with these characters and how they approach their lives


absolutely was a necessity in, I think, giving an accurate portrayal


and getting across some of the things I wanted to talk about in


the book. It's amazing that this is a first novel, really, we think.


How does it feel to have been part of a bidding war? I understand


there were umpteen publishers after your book? I think umpteen is the


official number. If I sit down and reflect on that too much there's a


danger my head will explode. It was just an amazingly fortunate time


and completely unexpected. You just have to thank your lucky stars that


you've been able to write something that people have responded to in


that way. And that's a real gift. And that attention was I think very


humbling for me. Thank you all very much and in particular thank you


Stephen and Carol for coming up and being the first authors to come and


give Comrie a literary stamp of approval. Oh we've enjoyed it,


that's for sure. Well, I feel like I've been given the literary stamp


of approval by you, so yeah. I just feel like I've been stamped on


The Sisters Brothers, the novel by Canadian writer Patrick deWitt


about two wild West hitmen making a murderous trip across America, has


also proved popular with most of the residents of Comrie.


324 pages. Really? Aye, it was a wee bit long. Is that a little bit


longer than you normally like? aye. I really enjoyed it, but they


were two very very wicked men. was not a book that I would have


chosen to read, but I did enjoy it once I got into it. �12.99 on the


back of it. Yes. It's supposed to be hilarious. I did nae find any


hilarity in it. Patrick, this is the BBC calling. Hi, BBC, how are


you doing? I'm good. Er, who would like to start off? I read your book


and I have never ever met such well-bred, well-spoken cowboys,


ever. Can you tell me where this came from? Well, from the start I


knew this wasn't going to be a factually accurate book, you know.


I came up with their voices and I knew I wanted them to be


intelligent. And I knew I wanted to have a sort of poetic slant. And I


didn't want them to be men of few words, as Western protagonists so


often are. I wanted them to be men of too many words, you know. So


that was just, sort of, the jumping off point for me. Is it realistic?


Absolutely not. But did I have fun doing it? Hi, Patrick. I'm Dave.


Personally, I thought it was a wonderful book. I really liked it,


but I'm a sucker for Westerns. I saw this book as an allegory for


contemporary America and I wondered if that was in your vision at all,


you know, in terms of the amorality, the corruption, the predatory


nature of relationships. And I wondered if you'd thought about


that at all? Or if that was something at the end of the book


you thought maybe, yeah, this is what this is? It's funny because


this question, or variations of this question, have been coming up


often, but only from people outside Surprise surprise. If someone in or


outside of America wanted to draw those conclusions I couldn't


disagree with them, you know. Certainly it's a reflection of my


relationship with America. Patrick, I'm Trish and I don't have


a terribly intellectual question to ask you. It's maybe a cheeky one.


But your book would make a great movie, and I just wondered if you


had that in mind, or has anyone approached you so far? Well,


there's been some discussion about it actually, yeah. And it's serious


enough a discussion that I'm actually not supposed to discuss it,


which is a good sign. I'm assuming we're going for the Coen Brothers


or Tarantino here? Patrick, you've given everyone a lot of pleasure,


so thanks very much. And thank you for your time this evening, our


time here anyway. So guys is there anything else you'd like to say to


Moving on, as they say, to Mr Miller's Snowdrops. Now this is a


good book. The story's really interesting. Well researched, I


thought. And those of us who know a little bit about Russia, Moscow,


and all those sort of things, will identify with it.


Snowdrops tells the story of Nick, an expat British lawyer working in


Putin's Moscow. Lured into a scam by a Russian woman, he finds


himself involved in a dark world of corruption and possibly even murder.


The real reason I chose it was because I don't know anything about


Russia. And I felt just looking at the back that it might give me a


wee bit of an idea about what life might really be like in Russia.


Because it's not a place I've been. And I thought it was really good on


that. It gives you a real impression of what Moscow, post the


Stalinist era, was all about. Corruption everywhere. Did it make


you nostalgic for communism? particularly, no. Is it a Booker


winner? I don't know. I don't know. It's quite different from what


we've come to expect. But it's all been different this year,


The author of Snowdrops, AD Miller, spent three years in Moscow working


as a journalist. AD Miller welcome to Comrie. Thank you very much.


Guys what did you think of Snowdrops? I think we all really


enjoyed it very much, so congratulations. Thank you. Your


book doesn't make Moscow a place that I particularly want to visit.


Well, without becoming an advert for the Moscow tourist board, I


hope it also sort of portrays some of the kind of exhilarating things


about living in Moscow. And my reasons for liking Moscow are not


the same as those of my narrator I should hasten to add, in case my


mother in law is watching. Whilst I'm not presenting this book, and I


wouldn't like people to read it as a complete portrait of modern


Russia, the kinds of things that happen in it, the kinds of


corruption and crime that it describes are very real features of


Russian life. I don't think it's something endemic in the Russian


personality, but they have had a tragic and particular history which


has led them to be where they are. I thought, to begin with, Nick


comes across as sort of a slightly shallow sort of character. But I


found at the end of the book I still had quite a lot of sympathy


for the guy. And I just wondered whether that was how you wanted the


reader to feel at the end of it? mean, what this book is about is


it's a portrait of an individual's moral decline. A kind of classic


21st century man in a way with very few connections, very few


friendships. His only real friend in Moscow is a kind of alcoholic


journalist. But he's not a terrible guy so I guess I want the reader to


judge him but also to understand how he comes to do the things he


The final book on the Man Booker shortlist is The Sense of an Ending


by Julian Barnes, the only author unable to meet Comrie's readers.


The story's narrated by a man in his sixties who receives a letter


from a solicitor that prompts him to confront some uncomfortable


truths about his past. First thing, it's a beautiful-


looking book. It's this lovely cover and then this intriguing,


black inky edge. It's like a, like a religious book or a special


poetry book or a memorium for somebody. He's very sensitive in


the way he writes, Julian Barnes, I think. And he's very, very good at


portraying characters. And that's what this book is really good at.


The characters are great. beginning of the book, it's quite


interesting because it talks about how we all create our own personal


histories. You know, we take a number of salient facts from our


life and then we join the dots and create an image in our heads. And


as we go through life, we just keep doing that image. We loop it in our


heads, this memory, and we press a button and it all spools out. Now


what happens at the end of your life, or this is what this is about,


the end of his life reflecting, what happens when some additional


points come into the reference frame and you have to change the


whole pattern and does it make you really reassess your whole life?


When it came to the end and he started to reassess his whole life,


I expected that the rug would be pulled from under the character. I


thought he'd open his heart. His heart would just burst out onto the


page when he'd found out some hideous things that he'd done. And


he came to that revelation. But he didn't. I just expected much more


from Julian Barnes, I expected something to hurt. I expected the


narrator to be really hurt in some fashion, and he wasn't. It's a very


analytical book towards the end. Quite philosophical, but the use of


words is excellent. This had the feel of a Booker book.


The Sense of an Ending is favourite with the bookies, but not with


everyone in Comrie. I didn't care for it, sorry. What would you give


that out of ten? Two, for effort. Out of ten for Julian Barnes?


and a half? The Sense of an Ending deserves nine out of ten. I give


The Sense of an Ending, seven out of ten.


To work out Comrie's winner, I've asked the villagers to score all


the books they have read. I give Jamrach's Menagerie eight out of


ten. I think it would need to be no more than two. Wow. Yes. I scored


Jamrach's Menagerie, nine out of ten. 7/10. I give Snowdrops, nine


out of ten. 5/10. I'd certainly 7/10. Half Blood Blues. 8/10.


would give this one eight, but it's not everybody's cup of tea, Tim.


Well I think you'd give it five. Half Blood Blues, I've given it


nine out of ten. I think Pigeon English deserves seven out of ten.


I'd probably only give it four out of ten, which is disappointing I


know. Not very charitable, is it? Not very charitable Tim! I would


give it nine out of ten. I would definitely mark it nine out of ten.


The Sisters Brothers deserves a seven and a half. Six? Sisters


The votes have been cast and the scores are in. It's time to reveal


the winning book, ceremoniously piped into the Church Hall by the


Scotland has a fine tradition of wilfully not listening to what


London says. And it's good to see that Comrie keeps up that tradition


when it comes to the Man Booker Prize. If you haven't ever, never


ever picked out the winner, so far, what Comrie has done is tapped into


the book which tends to be one of the most popular, one of the most


loved. So I'm going to do the revelation now. According to the


village of Comrie the winning book is Pigeon English by Stephen


Hello? Hello, it's Tim Samuels from The Culture Show. I'm in a village


hall with the village of Comrie, if you remember them? Of course I do.


What a lovely time we had up there the other week. We had a lovely


time with you. So much so, that the village have voted Pigeon English


their favourite book on this year's Man Booker Prize Shortlist.


I'm very honoured and very chuffed! He's very honoured and very


chuffed! So well done. Thank you very much. Goodbye and good luck


later on. And goodbye from the I mean, he thinks that's great but


So the people of this peaceful village in Perthshire have chosen a


gritty urban tale as their winner. We'll have to see whether the Man


Booker judges agree with Comrie's choice. I think it's wonderful. He


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