Megg Hewlett, TRO project worker at West London Mental Health Trust, describes the visit earlier this month of Natasha Walter, Women’s Prize judge, to the Orchard unit:
The Orchard hospital at West London Mental Health Trust has a central atrium which functions much as any high street might in towns around the UK. It has a cafe, library, gym, shop and in June it took on the role as venue for a London Literary Festival RISE event when Natasha Walter, author and judge for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction, visited to read extracts and discuss the short listed novels with those present, on the day before the announcement of the prize winner.
Over the previous six weeks some of us had been reading extracts from the six novels and making up our own minds as to the calibre of each of the books. In effect our reading over the six weeks has been a ‘taster’ allowing us a literary hors d’oeuvres of each novel, for the main course, if we decided to indulge, we’d need to take the novel home and consume privately.
Our whistlestop tasting menu of each shortlisted novel began with Zadie Smith’s NW, many of us familiar with the North West London depicted and immediately at home, we’ve met people like Natalie and Shar and recognised the dialogue and situation. Hilary Mantel and Bring up the Bodies was next and we read the chilling account of Anne Boleyn coming to the realisation of what her destiny is to be. The last sentence in our extract had Anne saying “I have only a little neck,”… “It will be the work of a moment.” We were amused by Maria Semple’s Where’d You go, Bernadette, a quirky unconventional format of emails, letters, school and medical reports and other documentation which pieces together the story. Kate Atkinson Life after Life gave us two possible versions of a life; the one where the doctor is delayed and the baby dies and the other in which the doctor arrives on time and she lives. The next week we follow a woman walking up a mountain as she heads towards an assignation to embark on an adulterous relationship in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour. And finally, an extract from A M Holmes’ May We Be Forgiven – who we discover the next day is the winner
As Natasha reads from the novels there is deep concentration evident in the faces of many in the audience. The acoustics in the venue are not unlike those in a high street and require us to be especially attentive to catch all that is read. Effort is needed and it is made. At one point a staff radio loudly disrupts the reading creating even more auditory disturbance to overcome. I later hear that the staff member responsible for this radio was so engrossed in listening to the readings she was completely unaware it was her own radio creating the disturbance.
Natasha fields questions from the floor including the merits or otherwise of strong language in fiction, how to get started as a writer and the benefits or otherwise of writing about your own experience. At the close of the formal proceedings audience members flock around Natasha and engage her in conversation. I hear discussion on topics as diverse as choosing books to read, writing authentic dialogue in fiction, writing street voices, accents, ethnicity, respect and assumptions in literature.
It’s a beautiful hot and sunny day. The skies are the bluest blue, the doors are open to the courtyard and the service user band is about to play. As Natasha is finishing her conversations, people begin to move outside to listen to the band.