The Big Read is a campaign in association with Man Booker to encourage first year students of all disciplines to read a Booker nominated novel. The University of Brighton was again one of the select group of institutions taking part in the Man Booker Prize Foundation’s Universities Initiative, aiming to create a shared readerly experience and a focus of debate.
The book for 2015 was The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant and free copies were being given out to first year students via their course leaders, libraries and the Students' Union. The author joined us at the university in the Sallis Benney Theatre on 30 November. This event was open to everyone and was be followed by a seminar for literature and humanities students the following morning on 1 December 2015.
In a red brick mansion block off the Marylebone Road, Vivien, a sensitive, bookish girl grows up sealed off from both past and present by her timid refugee parents. Then one morning a glamorous uncle appears, dressed in a mohair suit, with a diamond watch on his wrist and a girl in a leopard-skin hat on his arm. Why is Uncle Sándor so violently unwelcome in her parents’ home?
This is a novel about survival – both banal and heroic – and a young woman who discovers the complications, even betrayals, that inevitably accompany the fierce desire to live.
Set against the backdrop of a London from the 1950s to the present day, The Clothes on Their Backs is a wise and tender novel about the clothes we choose to wear, the personalities we dress ourselves in, and about how they define us all.
This was our third year of The Big Read, and we were delighted to welcome Linda Grant to the Sallis Benney on 30 November. The now traditional wet and windy weather didn’t put off the crowd of students and staff who gathered at Grand Parade to hear her reading and discussion with Kate Aughterson. She opened with a passage in which Vivian, at university, reinvents herself through new clothes. The interview and Q&A that followed covered a wide range of topics from migration and identity to the fallacy that if you have suffered you ought to be enobled by your experiences and the appropriation of the symbol of the swastika by the National Front.
Linda was frank and easygoing in her responses but at same time insightful and thought provoking. There was no shortage of questions and some had to be reserved for after the event, while Linda patiently signed books for students and staff in the foyer. A round of enthusiastic applause greeted her comment that in a female dominated audience the first question was from a man and that women should be bolder, put up their hands and get their voices heard.
City Books had a stall and sold copies of all Linda’s books, while first-year fashion students had a display of their work in the display cases in the foyer of the Sallis Benney to tie in with the discussion of clothing and fashion in the book and our thanks to Jake Leith, Craig Higgins and Lilia Yip for their work in organising this.
The seminar the following day for first year English Literature and Creative Writing students was equally well attended and once again Linda gave a great deal of thought to her responses to some really quite probing questions. This time the focus was more on process with questions about the inspiration for her characters, how she structures her books and whether she knows what is going to happen in the end when she starts writing them (the answer to which was 'no' and that she probably would lose interest if she did.)
Finally, our thanks to the Booker Prize Foundation for continuing to include the University of Brighton in such an important initiative which is greatly appreciated by staff and students and to Linda for taking the time out of writing her new novel to come and speak to us.
Some reviews of the novel can be read at:
Linda Grant was born in Liverpool on 15 February 1951, the child of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. Her first novel, The Cast Iron Shore (1996), won the David Higham First Novel Award and was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize.
Remind Me Who I am Again (1988) an account of her mother’s decline into dementia, won the MIND/Allen Lane Book of the Year award and the Age Concern Book of the Year award. Her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize for Fiction and was shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Prize and the Encore Prize.
Her novel, Still Here (2002) was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Her non-fiction work, The People On The Street: A Writer’s View of Israel, published in 2006, won the Lettre Ulysses Prize for Literary Reportage. Her Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Clothes On Their Backs(2008) won the South Bank Show award. We Had It So Good was published by Virago in January 2011, and her latest novel Upstairs at the Party was published in July 2014.
Linda Grant lives in North London.
For further details on the Brighton Big Read contact:
Tel: 01273 64 3052