Saturday 7 April 2012

An Evening at The TV Book Club (Channel 4 / More4, 2012)

I've never really been one for clubs. Not clubs in the over-imbibing-and-shuffling-about-to-loud-music sense – those I'm fine with: I've spent a substantial proportion of my life in those, and even made a living writing about them for eight years. No, I mean clubs as in the ones you join – like, say, after-school clubs (I did briefly flirt with a nascent comics club at school, but it was frowned upon by the teachers and never made it past its inaugural meeting), or organisations like the Cubs and the Scouts and the Brownies and the Guides (I was a Cub for a year; my mother made me go; the only badge I succeeded in attaining was the one you get for turning up each week – not by choice, obviously – and on a weekend camping trip I managed to get lost orienteering), or gentlemen's clubs (never been recommended for one, don't ever expect to be). Or, indeed, book clubs.

Book clubs have been big news for a while now, with groups of passionate readers gathering in coffee shops and pubs and living rooms up and down the land in order to discuss the finer points of plot, character and theme in their favourite novels – or, based on the evidence of a friend of mine, to simply get drunk on wine and shout at one another. Given the non-joining tendencies outlined above, you'll be unsurprised to learn that book clubs have largely passed me by – I'm far happier pontificating at extreme length in splendid isolation in the magnificent gated community that is Existential Ennui – but even I haven't failed to notice the leap to television of book clubs, with Oprah, Richard and Judy and, latterly, Channel 4 and More4's The TV Book Club. So when I was contacted out of the blue by the publicity team behind The TV Book Club, asking if I'd like to attend a recording of the show, I was at least (very) dimly aware of what they were on about.

Naturally, being, as I am, a misanthropic shut-in – and having barely watched the show – it was touch-and-go as to whether or not I'd accept the invitation. But I had nothing better to do on the Thursday evening in question (ingrate? Moi?), and I figured it'd give me the chance to take the afternoon off work and plunder the secondhand bookshops of Cecil Court before heading to the recording, so having bought a stack of first editions, I trotted along to Cactus Studios in Kennington at the appointed time.

Cactus Studios, it turns out, is also where ultimate weekend loafer programme Saturday Kitchen is filmed – on the same stage as The TV Book Club, natch – and as befits its name its swish, stark foyer is populated by a tasteful selection of cacti. It was also populated on this occasion by a handful of other books bloggers, all of whom had accepted similar invitations to mine, all of whom were seemingly avid viewers of the show, and at least one of whom had read all ten of the novels under discussion in this latest series – whereas I had read none (although I do have a first edition of S. J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep still waiting to be cracked).

One thing I became acutely aware of over the course of the evening was how bloody weird Existential Ennui is in comparison to most books blogs. I mean, in the circle of blogs with which EE intersects and interacts – Olman's Fifty, Book Glutton, Pretty Sinister Books, Pattinase, The Rap Sheet and so forth – Existential Ennui isn't especially atypical: a little on the verbose side, and probably still idiosyncratic, but at least concerned with similar subjects, i.e. old genre books. But compared to the vast majority of books blogs, which generally concentrate on reviewing new fiction and are courted by publishers and invited to blogging events and parties – blogs which, in other words, perambulate along gaily on the publishing publicity treadmill – Existential Ennui is decidedly odd.

If this was evident from the polite chat in the foyer, it became even more glaringly obvious in the Green Room before the recording, where all of the bloggers stood round in a ring and were invited by the publicity team to describe their blogs. My explanation of EE's modus operandi – "It's mostly about classic spy fiction and crime fiction, some reviews but more book collecting, cover art, that kind of thing" – was met by mystified stares, but thankfully I was spared further fumbling explication when a production assistant arrived to usher us into the studio.

The show we were about to watch was the final one in the series, and would be dealing with the tenth book in the run, Alexander Maksik's You Deserve Nothing, a Camus-indebted, Paris-set novel about an illicit affair, which is about as far from Existential Ennui's abiding concerns as you could get, although it does, perhaps, shed light on how my invitation came about: I suspect someone at The TV Book Club's publicity team googled "existential fiction" in their search for suitable bloggers and ended up at my door. But if my presence was somewhat incongruous, the special guest on the show was equally so: Blur bass-player-turned-organic farmer Alex James, who, while ostensibly there to talk about Maksik's novel, was actually there to plug his new cheese-making memoir.

James was joined by regular guests the actresses Caroline Quentin and Laila Rouass and the comedian Rory McGrath (the photos illustrating this posts are from a previous series if you're wondering where McGrath and Alex James are), and the discussion was lively and entertaining, although the between-takes chat was, for me, more diverting: McGrath and James debating their favourite cheeses; Quentin ruminating on her ideal farm and finding common ground with McGrath in banjo-playing. There were the expected and amusingly sweary "fluffs", including one eruption of "balls, arse" from Quentin, followed by a beseechment to the watching bloggers to "please don't report that" (oops). Quentin also noticed "someone sitting in the audience tweeting", which was actually me scribbling in my notebook, something which, again, marked me out from the crowd (nobody else appeared to be taking notes).

Unlike a lot of television recordings, which often go on for hours, The TV Book Club is a tightly run ship, and it only took around half an hour before we reached the pick-ups, one of which required James to nod silently while Rouass intoned "The Sister Brothers is a good read", Caroline Quentin sympathising with James afterwards that it's "not much fun being on the arse end of a sentence". Shortly after that Quentin was afflicted by the giggles whilst attempting to deliver a line, and had to hand it over to McGrath, who promptly buggered it up himself, accompanied by a hearty "oh fuck".

And then we were done, and after Quentin and Rouass were both presented with bunches of flowers to mark the end of the series (none for McGrath or James, sadly), we all retired back to the Green Room, where wine and beer was made available and some of the more earnest bloggers went into an intense-looking group huddle. I got chatting instead to a nice man named Will, who handles the graphics at Cactus and who, it transpired, is also in a New Order tribute band. Needless to say, I was the last blogger to leave, suitably "refreshed" and clutching my goody bag of signed paperback copies of some of the books covered in the series. I'm still not sure what to do with them, to be honest. Perhaps I'll run a competition and give them away.

But anyway: it was a thoroughly pleasant evening, and though I'm still of the belief that my invitation was the result of a minor misunderstanding, it was lovely to be asked, and I'd like to thank Tommy and all at MEC for extending the invite. And should you wish to watch the show I attended, it'll be on More4 on Sunday night (8 April) at 7.20pm.

Next on Existential Ennui: Jeremy Duns and Paul Dark...


  1. I just watched the show. Out of the ten books covered, you might actually like two or three of them if you ever get around to reading the copies they gave you. The Sisters Brothers is very good. You already have Before I Go to Sleep - that was okay. A decent first novel but not worthy of all the hype (though I am happy for the guy). I thought The Family Fang was excellent. It is Kevin Wilson's first novel and I think you should hang on to it as I feel he's going to turn into something big (though not in the genres you care most about). Based on the little book trailer they did for The Family Fang, I would have no interest in it, either. But it is good even if it is not your normal fare.

  2. I'd heard good things about The Sister Brothers, and one of the other bloggers reckoned that was the best book of the series, but unfortunately, that one wasn't in my bag (I think there were five books in each bag, but I've no idea if they mixed up the selection). A signed paperback of The Family Fang, however, was in my bag, so I'll be keeping hold of that one on your recommendation, BG.

  3. I wish that I could have seen the show... looks fun. I have to say that I haven't ever been one to join clubs either, especially book clubs, but just crossed over to the dark side. I have to say that I have loved it so far. It helps me get out and socialize, plus by joining a book club I am introduced to book genres that I normally wouldn't read... my latest being one of the best, most intriguing books I have read in a long time, The Rx Factor by J. Thomas Shaw. I will mention to my book club members some of the books you discussed on this blog. Thank you!

  4. I almost feel like this whole thing didn't really happen, was actually some kind of weird fever dream you experienced. I half expected that in the last paragraph all the other bloggers were going to rip off their masks and reveal various bird heads mocking at you for your ignorance of contemporary literary fiction.

    Anyhow, good on you.

    I know that the guy who wrote the Sister's Brother is Canadian, so that's always a good thing.

  5. Becky: I must admit, my anti-clubs stance was partly (and probably unsuccessfully) for comedic effect. I'm a reasonably sociable sort really, although my friends would no doubt take issue with me there (not seeing my friends is more to do with bone-idleness on my part though). I might join a book club one day. Mind you, the question there is, would I want to join a book club that would have me as a member...?

    Olman: not a dream, not a hoax, not an imaginary story – it all happened. I think.