"I'm sharing a smile with Doris" - Nadine Gordimer at PEN

Yesterday was PEN International Writers' Day in London. Christopher Hitchens kicked off the proceedings, fresh-in from Heathrow, tumbler of whisky to hand for his talk on George Orwell. I'm used to Hitchens throwing fat on the fire so it was strange to hear him ramble on about all the reasons Orwell was wonderful. I threw in Orwell's homophobia as a challenge and he leapt on to more familiar ground, finding nothing to defend there at all - it seems Orwell challenged every other aspect of his prejudices (against Jews, women and the working classes) but found homosexuality repulsive, lambasting W.H.Auden for it in a mean-spirited review.

Hitchens and Alexis Sayle (for anyone overseas not clued in to English celebrity, he's a comic who's turned to short story writing) both spoke of how they loved Evelyn Waugh. For Sayle this was the one writer he could think of liking and he confessed to disliking short stories. He was up for the main short story prize of the day. "Have you read the other shortlisted writers?" I asked. "No," he answered over tea - "I never even thought of doing that." It's a curious facet of many celebrities to show no interest in anyone but themselves. The winner of that prize, Bill Broady, told of running out to read the other books on the shortlist the moment it was announced.

Best feature of the day was spending time in the company of three greats, Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. Doris Lessing was being given PEN's distinguished services award. What a luminous being she is. Nadine Gordimer was perky and sweet and more intellectual, Margaret Atwood self-composed. The quote above, "I'm sharing a smile with Doris", came from Ms Gordimer looking down from her dais, asked if novelists were seers - in truth, of course, they are but it always surprises themselves.

Both James, who was with me, and myself came away curiously heartened by the day. It's refreshing to have literature at the heart of things instead of peripheral, to gain from the company of great women who have refined themselves and their age by all they have achieved.

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