Philip Hensher: An ambitious author and a banned book

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The Independent Online

A week or so ago, the world awoke to news of a new literary martyr. The Observer journalist Geraldine Bedell has written a novel about one of the Emirates, shortly to be released. Where better to launch such a book than at the first Dubai Literary Festival? Plans were made; an invitation to Miss Bedell was dispatched. But then the Dubai Literary Festival had second thoughts.

She was disinvited, according to Miss Bedell, because her book contained a gay character (homosexuality is illegal in Dubai). Deprived of her chance to bring enlightenment to Dubai, she wrote about her experiences of being “banned”– as she claimed. Margaret Atwood, a great supporter of civil liberties and freedom of speech, withdrew from the festival in support.

There seemed something peculiar about the whole story. In part it was Miss Bedell’s claim that, to her knowledge, hers was the first novel in English set in the Emirates – when it isn’t even the first such novel with gay characters. Michael Carson wrote an enchanting and very well-known gay farce set in an Emirate 25 years ago, Coming Up Roses, and I’m sure this isn’t the first novel since then. But mostly it was the idea that literary festivals are in the business of banning books, or judging their moral qualities. I could see that a novel with satirical intent towards the Emirates might not be seen as the most suitable object for the Dubai Festival’s promotion, but could they conceivably ban it?

Some of this scepticism was confirmed when Margaret Atwood performed a spectacular U-turn.

She regretted having cancelled, since she had learnt from the festival’s director, Isobel Abulhoul, that Miss Bedell’s book was never going to be launched at the festival. Bedell had never responded to an initial invitation. Penguin had asked for a slot for a little-known writer; Abulhoul had read the manuscript, and turned it down. Perhaps foolishly, she had given some reasons why she didn’t think it suitable. Atwood, very damagingly, revealed that all this had taken place as long ago as last September. Bedell had not written her article claiming she had been “banned” until last week, just before the beginning of the festival, and shortly before the publication of her novel. For whatever reason.

It must be said that not every culture in the world has the same freedom of publication that we do. A friend of mine, invited to Singapore by the British Council, found that his gay-themed novel could not be sold there; moreover, that the copy he was bringing into the country to read from had to be officially sanctioned by the government. It never occurred to him that the press might take an interest.

It happens all the time; I don’t like it any more than Bedell does, though I hope my objections are less nakedly self-interested. If Miss Bedell’s ambition was to go to Dubai and sell, perhaps, 12 copies to a small audience that had never heard of her, she has sadly failed.

If her ambition was to get her own newspaper to write about her as some sort of free-speech martyr, then she has succeeded admirably.

Gail is far too smart for such trivial pursuits

“Gail Trimble” is not the most obvious name for a pin-up, but I’m enchanted and dazzled by the captain of Corpus Christi, Oxford, currently sweeping all before her on University Challenge. The final is tonight, and going on her previous form their rivals Manchester University might as well get their coats right now. First to the buzzer, full of the most disparate knowledge, Miss Trimble is a perfect delight to watch.

Like every bright Oxford classicist one ever knew, she clearly enjoys her own powers, and why not? I am told that some “bloggers” are complaining that she seems too clever by half, and are even a little bit shocked by someone being able to answer questions articulately and swiftly. Television has, for too long, been satisfied with ingenious but unconvincing imitations of intelligence – Stephen Fry has, accurately, been described as “the stupid person’s idea of a clever person”. Now you have the real spectacle of a first-class brain, and what kind of idiot could do anything but look at it with amazement and admiration? This is only a quiz show, and Miss Trimble will do something more worthwhile with her life than appear on television. I wonder what she will be, the next time we hear of her.

The mark of a man? It’s in his pic’n’mix...

A few years ago, I established, with a friend, a regular afternoon cinema date. Only two stipulations. First, the movie had to have cost more than $40m to make. Secondly, the cinema had to sell pic’n’mix.

The possibilities of the pic’n’mix have been severely diminished with the loss of Woolworth’s. One pic’n’mix aficionado has just paid £14,510 for the very last bag of Woolies’ pic’n’mix. I almost understand why. The joy of it is not just the spectacle of plenty, but the general sense of whim and abandon.

At the cinema, not once did we coincide in a choice. He was very much a chocolate and toffee and honeycomb crunch sort of person; I like jellies and sours and fake fruit flavours – even those shaped like spiders. I feel sure that some sort of character analysis must be possible on the basis of pic’n’mix choices. It seems much more rational than palmistry or tarot.

Philip Hensher’s novel, The Northern Clemency, was shortlisted this week for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize