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Andrew O'Hagan, Philippa Perry, Yaa Gyasi and Damian Barr: Photo by Daisy Honeybunn Photography

Happy Salonniversary!

Essay | 13 minute read
Damian Barr's Literary Salon has debuted new work by Helen Fielding, Maggie O’Farrell, Jojo Moyes and David Nicholls, hosted stars such as Armistead Maupin and David Gilmour, put on the UK debut of Yaa Gyasi, and moved from a tiny snug in a private members' club to the grand Ballroom at the Savoy. As it prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary this month, Damian describes what makes this irreverent literary society so special, and introduces some of the most memorable events

This is what I love most about hosting my Literary Salon and why ten years have flown by: there is a moment when the room has settled and the writer starts to read aloud. From the stage I watch everyone begin to listen. Except for the writer, the Salon is silent and everyone is looking in the same direction. They may all be imagining different things – and some may not like what they hear – but they are sharing a moment. And for a moment they become a part of the story.

I staged the first Salon in the Snug at Shoreditch House in September 2008. My guests were Jenny Colgan (on her new novel) and Katy Guest (on her love of Tess of the D’Urbervilles). They set the tone for a decade: smart, witty and open. I invited a few friends and fancied a night free of all the chin-stroking, ponderous non-questions and snobbery which then characterised and still blight literary events. I wanted drinking and talking and no books for sale – it’s a conversation not a transaction. That night we couldn’t fit everyone in. People perched on chairs and sat cross-legged on the floor. It’s been like that ever since. Now our home is the iconoclastic and storied Savoy – and that ballroom bustles.

We’ve grown and changed but our character remains. An event has become a wildly engaged and hugely supportive community of readers and writers: the Salonistas. Some haven’t missed a single Salon and we still welcome new friends. Writers return time after time to sit in the audience and take to the stage. There are agents and publishers and journalists and deals are done and articles written but it’s not about who you are or who you know. It’s just about being there.

In June 2018 Graham Norton, Patrick Gale and Sarah Perry all premiered their new novels. These first outings are precious because the Salonistas help bring the book to life with gasps, laughs and tears. Some are works in progress – Helen Fielding read from printer-fresh pages, as did Andrew O’Hagan. Maggie O’Farrell, Jojo Moyes and Patrick Gale all premiered their last three novels with us. At only our third Salon, David Nicholls revealed One Day, and I wish we had been recording then. In February 2019 Kirsty Wark will interview me about my debut novel at the Savoy.

The Snug no longer exists. After a few months of people spilling out into the hall and being turned away we moved downstairs to the Biscuit Tin (now a gym). It neighboured a bowling alley and sometimes people would cheer a strike just as a reading was reaching a critical moment. In 2010 we upgraded to microphones and in 2011 we started recording for those who couldn’t get in. Now we’ve been listened to over 300,000 times all around the world, including countries where books are often banned. We are even in-flight entertainment on British Airways!

As Salonnière this past decade (I keep the feminine spelling to honour the French pioneers Madames Geoffrin and Pompadour), I’ve had over 200 conversations on stages all around the world: with British Council support we’ve toured from Istanbul to San Francisco, from Auckland to Moscow. A mini-tour with the luminous Polly Samson took us from Sao Paolo to New York and featured a cameo from David Gilmour talking stories and songwriting. I have laughed and cried and sat in awe. But I’m only allowed to choose five for this feature. You can listen to them all and I hope you do.

Oddly, to me, the most-downloaded track is the only one (so far) where the roles were reversed. It’s a very nervous me being interviewed by a very kind and capable Rowan Pelling at Shoreditch House as I gave the first ever reading of my memoir Maggie & Me. That night, and that book, changed my life. You can hear me trembling. It would be disingenuous not to include it. Each of my other picks happens to be from other past homes: meeting my hero Armistead Maupin in the gothic splendour of the Ladies Smoking Room at the St Pancras Hotel and trying not to cry at the brilliance of Diana Athill on the spectacular roof at the Mondrian. We now host specials at the Theatre Royal Brighton and our most recent featured the majestic Mary Beard and the brilliant Natalie Haynes – two powerful women on women and power. Yaa Gyasi made her UK debut at the Savoy with her powerful novel of slavery and survival and you can hear the tension crackle.

It takes a big team to make the Salon happen and I am grateful to each of them, to all our writers and most of all to the Salonistas. Happy reading!

Rowan Pelling interviews Damian Barr about his memoir Maggie & Me

Damian Barr and Rowan Pelling by Honeybunn Photography

RP: When did you decide to introduce Margaret Thatcher as a structural device? And I have to say, I think you make her quite enticing and glamorous.

DB: Well because she was just always there. I remember when we got a television, and whenever she would come on, it was quite exciting because people would swear, first of all, which was great. And that didn’t happen too much until my parents got divorced and then it was like, ‘Fucking Maggie!’ and this and that and she was responsible for absolutely everything, I mean practically the weather, she was that hated. The only woman who was hated more – who was also blonde – was Myra Hindley, she was absolutely up there. And through my childhood she was there. My dad was a steel worker, and she tried very hard and succeeded in the end in closing the steel works, where my dad worked. But that was complicated too, because I loved the fact that my dad did this, as I saw it, very important job. Because where I lived we had two sunsets. So the sun would go down, and then a few hours later, the sun would go down again, and that second sunset was my dad emptying the steel furnaces, and that molten steel lighting up the sky, and you could see this for about thirty or forty miles away, and it was bright enough to read in your bed. So that was our second sunset. And I remember when that stopped… It was like the world had been turned completely upside down. But… it was dangerous, and people romanticise heavy industry, like, ‘Oh those wonderful miners’. They fucking died in coal pits underground! And it was also quite grim in the steel works. And I’m not saying it’s that great in a call centre, but, you know.

Armistead Maupin talks about the writing of The Days of Anna Madrigal: Tales of the City 9

Armistead Maupin by Honeybunn Photography

DB: I’m a firm believer that the right book at the right time in the right hands can change, or even save, a life. And I know that everybody here been changed or maybe even saved by books…

Armistead Maupin: I loved having a different time to wander around in, because I’ve always written in real time, so it was liberating in a way, I really liked it. And I got to be sixteen. I didn’t have a transgender experience at sixteen but I got to feel that outsiderdom and I got to use that. And then there was the great fun of… unlike my rugged friend Patrick Gale I did not travel into the wilds of Canada to do my research and live in a cabin with bears chasing me. I googled a lot. And when it came to getting details for the brothel, I googled ‘1930s whorehouse menu’, and up it popped! Everything you could get in a whorehouse in the 1930s, in order of price.

DB: And when you say menu, do you mean menu for food?

AM: Menu for the services of the whorehouse. And I learned on there that the cheapest thing you could get was something called a dry bob. Which does sound like the cheapest thing.

DB: Nobody in this room has ever had one so you’ll have to tell us what it is.

AM: It’s the, well god, now I have to tell you don’t I?

DB: I’m thinking armpits.

AM: Well thank you for going there, Damian. It’s penetration without ejaculation… And by the way, I’ve told this story so much on the tour that about three stops back, someone told me that when they googled ‘1930s whorehouse menu’, my name came up.

Diana Athill reminisces about how a writer’s life has changed

Diana Athill by Honeybunn Photography

Diana Athill: When I’m writing a book or reviews or anything, I always do a first draft by hand. Because the head and the hand connect…

DB: In the book you talk about the procession of typewriters to word processors to computers. It’s sort of like you’re trying to score crack cocaine: you go to parts of London looking for typewriter ribbon, and you’re convinced that someone might have the right kind of typewriter ribbon that you require, and it becomes increasingly arcane and difficult and eventually you give up, but it’s a bit of a fight.

DA: I remember saying, it’s as difficult now as it would be to get your carriage horse shod. First of all it was quite difficult, then it became more difficult, then Barry and I used to drive for miles to get the typewriter mended, and we’d find some ancient, ancient man who had a house stacked with broken typewriters, which he mended, slowly, slowly… And then when the ribbons ran out there was a time when Barry found someone in Holloway. A small, Indian shop. I think he got old ribbons and dipped them in ink or something. He was terribly nice, he used to bring them round, but they didn’t last very long. So finally, Edward [Field] nagged me for a long time and kept on telling me the beauties of horrible computers. And finally when he was in England he took me in hand and he said he’d found the most extraordinary place off Queensway. It looked like a kazbah. You went through an arch, and it was dark passages behind, with little boutiques and shops, and right at the end was an even darker, rather bigger place, full of extremely cheerful, friendly young men, selling unbelievably grotty computers. I think probably most of them had fallen off the backs of lorries. But we bought a very cheap one. It worked perfectly well and he taught me how to use it. But actually, I’m sure they were sometimes off the back of a lorry, because Barbara lost her computer, to someone who I’m sure supplied that shop.

Mary Beard and Natalie Haynes discuss the classics 

Damian Barr and Mary Beard by Honeybunn Photography

Mary Beard: [There is a lot of] resistance to the idea that actually there was a problem [in 4th-century-BC Athens] about what statues were, and were for. Quentin Letts, in the Daily Whatever It Is, said, ‘Mary Beard says Praxiteles was a rapist.’ No, I didn’t! I said, Praxiteles made a revolutionary sculpture that prompted all sorts of ideas about the relationship between ourselves and works of art. And actually, you have to push it to its limits. If you say to people, ‘Look everybody, there’s an interesting theoretic boundary between the statue and the human being…’ they’ll nod sagely and say ‘Yeah, fine.’ If you say, ‘What that means is that people fuck statues…’ then they ought to say, ‘Right, OK, there’s a problem here.’ And we’ve gone on doing it, I have to say…

DB: What, statue-fucking?

MB: And one of the things that I’m hoping for a future television programme…

DB: The Statue Fuckers, with Mary Beard! Live from the British Museum!

MB: It will be on BBC2 and it will be called something like The Erotics of Marble. But actually, it’s about statue-fucking. And it is really, really interesting…

Natalie Haynes: Often there are different version of a myth, and the version of the Trojan Horse that I’ve taken [for my next book] is from Aeneid II. Which is the bit where we get Laocoön, the priest, who says, ‘We definitely shouldn’t take the horse inside.’ And it’s such a famous painting and sculpture source. He famously does the ‘I’m afraid of Greeks even when they’re bearing gifts’ speech, and he lobs his spear at it, and it vibrates in the flank of the horse. And then sea snakes – sea snakes! – appear and drown his children. So the Trojans aren’t as gullible as you think, because everybody always says, ‘Oh those idiot Trojans! They fight an army for ten years and then the army disappears and they leave a big army-sized horse outside. And the Trojans are like, ‘Come on in! What could possibly go wrong? But what actually happens is they get played by a man named Sinon. He’s a human sacrifice, the Greeks were going to kill him, but he says that if they could just take the horse into the city the Greeks would be undone. It’s a proper John le Carré scene. And then Laocoön violates the horse and then his children immediately are killed. And then the Trojans go, ‘Uh oh, we should definitely do the opposite of what Laocoön says.’ So they just get played on all sides. And they’re not as gullible as everyone assumes.

DB: What did you think of [Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles]?

NH: I loved it. It’s very sexy.

DB: It’s so hot! I think if all the classics were that hot I’d have been able to stick with them.

NH: But they are that hot! They’re just not always told that way, this is the thing. And I know a lot of grumpy male critics were like, ‘Well this is an absolute outrage! There’s men kissing men!’ And you go, ‘Err… I think there might have been men kissing men in Ancient Greece, I think you knew that in your heart, didn’t you? You did know that boys kissed boys, that did happen.’ They’ll get over it eventually.

DB: And then read it again, quietly, on their own.

Yaa Gyasi describes the genesis of her novel Homegoing

Yaa Gyasi by Honeybunn Photography

DB: I’ve read the book three times. It’s incredible. I want to begin by talking about where Effia ends up after the village and where her half sister Esi ends up too, which is the Cape Coast Castle, in what is now Ghana, which is a real place. Tell us about it.

Yaa Gyasi: The Cape Coast Castle is a slave fort that sits on the Cape Coast, Ghana. You can still visit it today. I started this novel because I took a tour of the castle myself in 2009, with my friend Stephanie, who’s here tonight, and we walked around the castle and just listened to the tour guide talk to us about how the British soldiers who used to live and work in this castle would sometimes marry the local women, which was something I had never heard before. And then the children of these unions would be sent to England for school and then they came back and started to form Ghana’s middle and upper class. And we walked around that upper level and from there he took us down to see the dungeons, where they kept the slaves before sending them through the Middle Passage. And there’s really nothing like standing in that dungeon. To this day it still smells, it’s still dark and grimy. And I was so struck by the idea that there could be people being kept here for three months at a time, while above there were these free women walking around unaware of the huge enterprise that was going on below them. So I immediately started this novel with these two sisters juxtaposed, the idea of these two women – the one who would be married to a British soldier, and the one who would be sent off to be a slave.

Damian Barr’s debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, will be published in April 2019