famous for (more than) 15 minutes
West London's 5x15 is a must-go for literary fans - with or without the Powerpoint
The emergence of literary nights has been one of the best things for London-based book lovers over the past couple of years. Whether it's the gaudy gameshow glamour of Literary Deathmatch, the houseparty-style intimacy of The Book Stops Here or the daddy of them all, BookSlam, each offers a chance to get (reasonably) up close and personal with some of your favourite writers and a few you haven't heard of.
Despite trying to attend as many of these as possible, I hadn't visited 5x15 until last night. Its premise is simple; five authors speak for 15 minutes on whatever subject they choose without any notes (but with Powerpoint).
Brilliantly you can watch videos from previous 5x15s on its partner website Intelligence Squared. Speakers range from Will Hutton on the banking crisis to Simply Red's Mick Hucknall on his musical inspirations.
Last night, I was lucky to witness an incredibly diverse line-up featuring Misha Glenny, Lucy Worsley, Simon Baron Cohen, A.S. Byatt and Alexander Masters. It turned out I wasn't the only one to be excited. The Tabernacle in Westbourne Park was heaving and compere Rosie Boycott spent a solid chunk of the evening politely seeking out seats for those left standing.
First up was Glenny, taking as his lead his book Dark Market, about the murky world of cybercrime. He listed some rather shocking statistics - including the fact that around 65% of us have been victim of credit card fraud at some point in our lives. He spoke of how easy it was to have our computers hacked and used for criminal means, adding: "We can all be part of a zombie army without knowing it." However, he had a rather left-leaning message that those who are capable of cybercrime are usually socially alienated youths who need to be dealt with properly - placing them in a prison with financial fraudsters, something that happens frequently, will only lead them to go
onto bigger and more damaging crimes.
Next up was Lucy Worsley, who tackled her subject of the history of the home with the same infectious tomboy zeal she has in her frequent televisual appearances. Worsley was so enthusiastic she bounded on stage before she was even introduced and was so effortless a speaker I was amazed when she said she only had a few minutes left. A particular treat was the revelations of what English Heritage staff get up to with the Crown Jewels when the Tower of London closes.
She made frequent intelligent points about how the home has changed and what it says about wider society: "If we look at the tiniest changes in homes and bodies, they can lead to the largest changes in society." She predicted a collapse in fossil fuels will lead to new homes being built with shutters as people seek new (or rather, old) ways to keep warm.
The abrupt change in tone and subject matter that followed was stark but no less impressive than Worsley's talk. Zero Degrees of Empathy author Simon Baron Cohen (yes, Ali G's cousin) opened his talk on with a shockingly grim photo of Nazi scientists, showing two researchers recording just how long a human being could survive in freezing water. Baron Cohen argues "evil" is a misguided concept to explore and it is actually an absence of empathy that leads people to do horrific things. The Tabernacle was silent and engrossed throughout his talk.
In a sign of just how well regarded A.S. Byatt was by the organisers, consider this. While a bell rang when other speakers reached the 15 minute limit, Byatt was confronted merely with a politely raised hand - which she promptly ignored. Byatt talked of her latest book, Canongate's Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, remembering how mother lending her a book called Asgard and the Gods as a child (which she confessed she never gave back) lead to a love of myths. She said myths are a way we can confront things we cannot understand,
including our own eventual death.
Alexander Masters was an unusual headliner choice given the literary heavyweight presence of Byatt but he was no less an entertaining one. I read his Stuart: A Life Backwards earlier this year and was excited to hear him discuss The Genius in my Basement, Masters' tale of how he discovered he was living above a reclusive maths genius. Masters was witty and self-deprecating, revealing how he never completed his own maths PHD; something which lead him to turn the spines of his maths books towards the wall. He said the years spent with Simon Phillips Norton, a former maths child prodigy who has failed to hold down an academic job since the 1980s, lead him to accept his own failing in maths and appreciate that which made him happy. Coincidentally Masters' biography is subtitled The Biography of a Happy Man.
And with that, the evening ended. 5x15 may lack the boozy and ramshackle charm of some of the younger upstart events but its serious, diverse and thought provoking list of speakers makes it a must attend for London book lovers.