The conquering readers have returned! Having taken the Orange Prize Party by storm (well, sort of), forced our web address upon many unsuspecting folk - including agents, PR people and a biochemist from Imperial College London - and hugged a record number of authors, the denizens of Eve's Alexandria have staggered back to their respective abodes, pleased and satiated, if slightly unstable of stomach.
And it all went incredibly smoothly from start to finish. Esther and I set off from York at precisely 7.44am on Wednesday (picture the headlines: "British train 'on time'. Shock!") and merrily tootled south, arriving in Oxford around lunch time, where we were met by Nic. So far, so calm. Then it was back to Wolfson College for a spot of lunch and a pre-Prize dissection of the short list: we were divided over the merits of Cusk's Arlington Park and Desai's The Inheritance of Loss but agreed that The Observations was great fun, that Anne Tyler's Digging to America was well-observed fluff and that the eventual winner, Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, was the novel with the most gravitas. [NB: Nic, demonstrating her admirable penchant for multi-tasking, wrote most of her post on Desai's novel during this discussion, despite our doing everything humanly possible to distract her.] Then, having donned our party dresses, the three of us skipped back to Oxford train station and leapt aboard a timely train to London Paddington.
(For those who are interested, we all wore black: both Nic and Esther went with sleek trousers and sassy tops, while I went all girly and wore a little black dress from Coast. We all looked rather wonderful, if I do say so myself. Photos to hopefully follow in the near future.)
From Paddington it was a quick, if incredibly busy, rush-hour tube ride to the south bank and Royal Festival Hall (although, I admit, we got a little lost in the environs of the South Bank Centre - so many steps and stairs, so few of them leading anywhere). Having eventually found our way to the entrance, however, we were greeted by flaming torches, a bevy of press photographers and an actual 'orange' carpet. Sadly the photographers didn't show a great deal of interest - clearly out of the loop on our imminent book-world celebrity - but we enjoyed swooping in, clutching our shiny tickets, feeling very self-important.
Inside we were greeted by a bevy of name-checkers - cue last-minute panic that we weren't actually on the guest list and all this was a readerly fantasy - before being ushered through into the rather stately foyer of the Festival Hall ballroom. We were quite early, almost bang-on-time for the Champagne Reception, at 6pm and so swept up the staircase, lit by dozens of flickering tea lights, with just a few other early arrivals. The ballroom proper was spacious and open, punctuated only by the small groups of people gathered around the canapes (displayed on precariously balanced tray-towers - later in the evening I nearly, very nearly, sent a shower of them crashing onto Andrea Levy's feet, saved only by a woman wrestling with the last nub of smoked salmon. Many thanks to her.) and by two raised sitting areas, carpeted in dazzling white. Toward the front was the dais, with the announcement podium - looking a little garish, as the Orange Prize colour scene is want to do - and another press point, already lined with slightly-scruffy cameramen and photographers. Behind that was the outdoor balcony, furnished with orange chaise-longues (which look classier than they sound!) and huge palm plants, and overlooking the irreverant noise and bustle of the city. Later in the evening this was where most of the authors seemed to gather, like bees to the honey-pot of the television crews conducting interviews out there, while the representatives from press and publishing congregated near the indoor bar.
It was this bar we headed for on arrival: in search of a little champagne, no doubt to ease our collective knot of nerves. I was overjoyed to be intercepted on the way by a waiter in a Taittinger apron, bearing flutes of the bubbly stuff on a silver tray - I have always wanted to accept a drink from a silver tray carried by a smiling waiter. I took it and felt an odd moment of disconnection, as though we had been interlopers before, even with our silver tickets and our pretentions of internet criticism, but now, with champagne in hands, we belonged amongst the others. We stood together for a while, seperated from the gradually burgeoning groups (everyone seemed to know one another!), chatting some more about what should and would win the prize in less than an hour's time. Occasionally one of us leaned in and murmured: 'Look, over there, that's so-and-so.' We spotted Jackie Kay first, seated with some of her fellow judges, and wearing a luminous, bejewlled kaftan dress; and then Muriel Grey, showing off her leggy legs in a mini number; and then Andrea Levy, looking magisterial and composed; and then Natasha Walter, the Guardian's feminist critic, also in a startling blue dress.
And then Esther spied, Ann, the Read, Write initiative co-ordinator from our local library in York. Which was something of a jolt. We duly wondered over, only to discover that, in a fit of shocking coincidence, Ann's team of literary co-ordinators had won tickets to the ceremony by chance in a Reading Agency competition. Huh. So there we stood, slurping champagne - Taittinger waiters constantly made the rounds topping up our glasses - and discussing the ways in the Orange Prize reaches out to libraries and involves its readers, while the room filled up around us. Twenty minutes later, I looked up to discover the ballroom packed to the walls with people, of all ages, ethnicities and styles. There was perhaps a bias towards women, but there were men too, and some older children, everyone talking avidly and gobbling down the canapes (which never seemed to be gone, despite the munching; yet more attentive waiting staff methinks).
At 6.45, by unanimous assent, everyone started to shuffle forward towards the podium for the announcement which was soon initiated by Kate Mosse, the award's co-founder. She did her rounds of thanks with what appeared to be real enthusiasm, before yielding the floor to the representative from Orange, whose name I've thoroughly repressed but who was most definitely French. He lilted away for a while - 'how honoured to sponser...'; 'what success year-upon-year'; 'looking forward to many more years of successful partnership' etc - before promising the Prize its own dedicated website. Which is well-past due, I think; the corner of the Orange site currently devoted to the Prize is puny. Then it was time for the Harper's Bazaar Orange short story competition announcement.
This has to be the most unpublicised aspect of the Orange Prize. I hardly knew it existed and the ceremony surrounding it was short, even abrupt. The winner this year was Canadian Joanna Reid, but she (and the announcing judge) were hustled off stage before they had to time to say anything at all. Why the hurry? Because time, and journalists, and about 50% of the Orange Prize audience wait for no woman. I have never seen a group of such impatient adults, grizzling like children to be either on their way or back to their chatter - throughout the ballroom there was a strong sense of urgency, of 'get it over with, we didn't come here for this!' As Jackie Kay, the head judge of the New Writer's panel ascended the stage, I wanted to step up on to the railing behind me and yell: 'Can't you shut up!' over the low drone of voices, nattering about goodness-knows-what.
The New Writer's Award went, with my blessing, to Karen Connelly for The Lizard Cage, which truly is a wonderful novel. I finished it on the train yesterday and Jackie Kay hit the nail on the head when she said that (and I paraphrase from memory) 'although the novel is unrelenting in its portrayal of desperation and cruelty, there is some share of hope on every page'. Karen pounced up onto the stage, beaming, accepted her orange bouquet and her magnum of pink champagne, and was about to be hustled off again within 30 seconds ala Joanna Reid, when she made a dash for the podium and embarked on an impassioned speech.
Now I know that this speech has caused much consternation, not least because its length meant that the webcast of the ceremony cut short just before the main winner was announced. But, having been there, I must convey my respect for Karen Connelly's audacity. Afterall, she has written a vitally important book about Burma's crisis of human rights, an eloquently lyrical representation of life under Burma's military dictatorship, that has sprung from her own experiences as a resident in that country. And, she has won a literary prize for it. Why shouldn't she speak? She was both emotional and inspiring, offering her thanks and respects to the Burmese writers and activists who have died, or who are now dying, in prison in their own country and taking a passionate stance for the place of the book in the modern world. I was so angry at those in the ballroom who turned to each other and began whispering, sighing and literally groaning at the prospect of listening to her for a few minutes. We later learned that Karen had asked the prize committee several times to let her speak if she won, and had also petitioned the judging panel for the same privilege. They had refused her on the grounds of time constraints and that it wasn't 'the thing to do'. I'm glad that she defied them all the same, right there in front of all those people - her courageous determination to say what needed to be said is a credit to her.
Next was the main announcement, drawn out as each nominee was invited up podium-side for a photo op - oh how different to the rush of the earlier prizes - all that is except Anne Tyler, who hadn't flown over from the US and was represented by a friend. There was loud pulsing music as each woman ascended the stage and was given what I think must have been a specially bound copy of their novel. The bessie itself finally went to Chimamanda Adichie for Half of A Yellow Sun in a moment of sheer inevitability. It was clear everyone knew it was coming. The ballroom seemed to exhale a collective sigh of pleasure that the apple-cart hadn't been upturned, that there were no shock to the revelation of the winner. Adichie was gracious and incredibly beautiful in her cream dress and patterned headscarf - such perfect skin! - and commented on the loveliness of the 'bessies' breasts, which was cute. I thought it all much deserved.
With all the official business over the party truly began, and what a whirlwind it was. We battled our way through the crowd to Naomi Alderman, the lovely lady behind our invitations, and duly fell upon her with hugs and exclamations. But we had barely complimented her on her dress (she was looking very sultry in a red number), congratulated on her judging the New Writer's Award and met her agent, before she was whisked away from us by some Very Important Person. This was to become the pattern of the evening. We would just start talking to an author - Naomi, or Jackie Kay, or Ali Smith - and someone would mosey on in with literati privileges and carry them off to be interviewed or to talk business. It was all very bemusing. Nevertheless, we threw ourselves in with gusto and chatted with Naomi's agent about the powerful potential in blogging. She was extremely eager to hear how Eve's Alexandria worked and seemed shocked to discover that the vast majority of litbloggers only write as an unpaid hobby. We explained how close the blogging community was and how passionate and honest; and how people blog about books out of love. It was interesting how even people engaged in buying, selling and shepherding books onto the market are astounded by this.
It was around this time that the food was served: waiting staff carried around huge trays of neat little salads, main courses and deserts, all nestled in china cups designed to be eaten while standing and chatting. It was all incredibly good - there was a parmesan and aspargus risotto to die for, and a particularly yummy feta and lentil salad - although the tiny little ice-cream cones for desert had a synthetic edge, probably so they wouldn't melt in the heat. All those people will tend to warm a place up! We kept wandering outside onto the balcony to cool off on one of the chaise-longue, and then wondering back into the fray. By this point we were all pleasantly giddy with champagne, and with sipping the white wine that followed it, and far less inhibited, inviting ourselves into conversations as and when the opportunity presented itself.
Later in the evening we hooked up with Naomi again, and got ourselves introduced to Jackie Kay, who was incredibly sweet and friendly, planting a celebrity kiss on my cheek and offering hugs all round. (There was an astonishing amount of hugging going on - it seems that in the literary world, meeting someone new always entails pressing your body against them. Not that I'm complaining.) If you've never heard Kay speak I recommend you do so. She has the most wonderful Scottish burr, sexy and irreverant at the same time. We reminisced about YLAF 2006, and she (also a little tipsy) shared a half finished poem with us; we also spoke a little about judging the New Writer's Award. Which led us into another discussion about blogs and, before we knew it, we were advising Jackie's tour organiser, Kate, about establishing an internet presence and getting the word out about events through a dedicated blogfeed. We were so flushed with enthusiasm!
The crowning glory of the evening, however, was being *recognised* by Ali Smith. Yes, indeed, recognised. I don't know whether I mentioned it before, but back in October of last year, during YLAF, we met Ali at a book signing and chatted a little; she gave me her own reading copy of The Accidental whereupon I swooned happily home. When we were re-introduced on Wednesday night, she exclaimed (in another one of those husky Scottish accents) 'I know you girls! I gave one of you a book.' Cue more hugging, grinning and chatting. Before she left for the night, she passed us her email address and ordered us to contact her, declaring to all and sundry (including Zadie Smith) that we were 'great girls, great girls.' Naomi later told Esther that Ali had been incredibly pleased to meet younger women passionate about reading, and had been quite struck by us. Huzzah for Eve's Alexandria!
After 9.45pm the gathering started to break up, much to our consternation. We retreated out to the balcony with Naomi (who had just given an interview to Newsnight) and her boyfriend Guy and bemoaned all the light-weights sneaking off to their beds. Who throws a swanky party that finishes at 10pm? The Orange Prize committee, evidently. By 10.05, tipsy and descending into hilarity, we were ushered towards the door, declaring our undying affection for each other and for the Orange prize, making our farewells. Our last exchange with Naomi involved her offering to send me the draft of her new novel, to which I drunkenly replied 'Yes. I want it!' (clearly, I was attaining new heights of eloquence and poise), to which she replied 'I want you to want it.' Very highbrow indeed. And with that we glided out into the fresh night. In true Alexandria style we hobbled back to Waterloo station engaged in avid discussion about Karen Connelly's speech and hopped the tube to Paddington, pulling in just in time to catch the nearly-last train back to Oxford. A neat end to a wonderfully enjoyable evening.
I find it hard to believe now that we were actually there, that we conversed so confidently with so many different people in the literary world, and that we did it with such aplomb. It was a strange experience really. In the one sense, I felt very much a part of it, and in another, completely alien. Either way, it felt full of new and vigorous possibility. Roll on 2008.