Wendy Cope would like the world to know that she is not bouncy. Nor is she lively. And God forbid anyone should ever describe her as ‘bubbly’. She is, however, rather funny.
This, along with being an author and an insightful public speaker, is a trait she shares with Alan Johnson, Michael Rosen, Elif Shafak and Simon Singh – her fellow guests at last night’s 5×15 talk event. The concept is not a new one – Notting Hill’s Tabernacle has been hosting these evenings, in which five great minds each have 15 minutes to tell a story or expand on an idea, for several years now. But yesterday, every single speaker was making a return. “And,” quipped organiser Eleanor O’Keeffe, “we are particular about who we invite back.”
For her fifth 5×15 speech, Turkey’s most-read female author Elif Shafak delivered what was more or less an ode to “the learners”; to those people who can’t stop asking questions. Given that her audience was a hundred or so literary Londoners arrayed around circular tables sipping red wine, it was a guaranteed success. It also clinched the tone of the evening.
Despite being veteran speakers, most of them still hadn’t got the hang of the egg timer. I may be short-sighted, but I’m fairly sure that Simon Singh’s last grains of sands slipped through the glass a good few minutes before he stepped off the stage. Not that anyone minded; we were all too busy marvelling at his revelations of all the maths snuck into The Simpsons. If anyone could persuade school kids that maths is cool, I’d say this physicist with the South-Asian version of Will Smith’s Fresh Prince haircut could do it.
As Michael Rosen would surely agree. The greatest ideas, he contends, come from interpretation and invention. Like, say, naming the Springfield cinema the Googolplex – a funny name to some, 10 to the power of 10100 to others. In school, children are sadly taught to value – read these following words in doom-laden tones – ‘retrieval’ and ‘inference’. I inferred that these were dictatorial things. Or was that just my interpretation? The important thing, Rosen believes, is that children be encouraged to ask questions.
Not that they always receive straight answers. Virgins, Wendy Cope was informed at her Catholic boarding school, “are girls who have never done anything wrong.”
From prep school to the press, Cope’s latest collection of non-fiction writing is largely autobiographical. What is the use of poetry?, she once heard asked on the radio. And was rather disappointed when no-one came up with answers anywhere near as inventive as hers. Reading limerick and a sonnet takes about the length of time it required to boil an egg. And poems are also terribly useful for filling awkward spaces in newspapers and magazines.
For politicians, the awkward space between one parliament and the next – the time in which, as the Australians apparently say, “the wheel’s still going round but the hamster’s dead” – is a wonderful opportunity to write a memoir. As Alan Johnson has done. In fact, he’s already onto his second, detailing his years as a postman, and then union leader, in Slough.
The event is a shameless plug for Christmas present book sales. Shameless, I say, because these authors have nothing to be ashamed of. Their talks were witty, lively and thoughtful, and they only slightly overboiled their eggs. The evening is an exchange of ideas; their books are a continuation of the exploration. We’re all invited on this bear hunt, and so far, it’s a fun one.
by Amy Lewin. You can follow Amy on Twitter at: @amylew27