The Manchester Literature Festival Blog
Review: Afternoon Tea With Olivia Laing
Author Sarah Butler reviews Afternoon Tea with Olivia Laing, held at The Midland Hotel on 9 October…
The best commissioning, in my opinion, is that which not only pairs a great writer with a great place (or community, or concept) but which in doing so also makes a space for that writer to push themselves out of their comfort zone. The best kind of writers for such missions, in my opinion, are those who are prepared to do just that; writers who will approach the place (or community or concept), with the openness and bravery required to give a genuine response. When all this happens, the new work is not just a nice piece of writing from a writer we already know is great about a place we already know is interesting, it is a collaboration between writer and place in which both play an equal and important role.
So when Olivia Laing introduced herself as a non-fiction writer, and her commissioned work as a story that ‘inhabits a boundary between fiction and non-fiction’, I knew we were in for a treat. While we sat at table-clothed tables in the sumptuous panelled surrounds of The Midland Hotel, Laing read ‘The Other Hotel’. It begins with a conversation on a plane between the narrator and a woman called Mabel who, we are soon told, smelt of ‘apples and bonfires, as the dead often do.’ This is a piece of writing as ‘dark and shifty’ as the earth the narrator describes being dug up outside the hotel (and which we, as audience members could see out of the window).
On one level it’s the story of Laing’s discovery of a series of love letters between a married woman, Mabel, and an artist, Gordon; letters now framed and arranged in no order at all in amongst other hotel ephemera re-cast as interior decor as part of The Midland’s restoration. It is also, however, a meditation on the ethics and intricacies of the past, its objects and its stories. In the Q&A after the reading, Laing described the exposure of these raw, intimate letters as a crime, and said she wanted to give Mabel a fictional voice within the story in order to allow her to accuse the narrator. ‘I’m not going to absolve you,’ Mabel insists, and, after the narrator has surmised Mabel’s thoughts after a missed rendezvous in the hotel bar: ‘those aren’t my thoughts, they’re yours.’
Laing described herself as being interested in displaying, not resolving, contradictions, and ‘The Other Hotel’ does just this, forcing us to question our relationship with the past whilst also elegantly weaving in a compelling tale of illicit love and lost opportunity.
Oh, and the scones (when they arrived) were delicious!
Sarah Butler explores the relationship between writing and place through prose, poetry and participatory projects. She has been writer-in-residence on the Central line and at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Her debut novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love,was published by Picador in 2013. Her second novel, Before The Fire, is due out in Spring 2015. www.sarahbutler.org.uk / www.urbanwords.org.uk.