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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
For tonight's half-hour Culture Show Special on the Man Booker Prize 2011, Tim Samuels visits the Scottish village of Comrie and asks the locals for their verdict on this year's Booker Prize shortlist.
Shortlisted authors Carol Birch, Stephen Kelman and AD Miller travel to Comrie to answer questions from some of their keenest readers; and Commonwealth authors Esi Edugyan and Patrick deWitt beam into the village for an internet Q&A with assembled villagers.
Once the books have been read and the reviews and scores digested, Comrie will decide which novel is their Booker winner.