This past week I visited the magnificent Marlborough House on Pall Mall, a 300 year old British heritage gem, part-designed by Christopher Wren, today home of the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Commonwealth Foundation. It was a for a party and panel discussion. There were African prints and Asian salwar kameezes, turbans and hijabs. The panel featured four Commonwealth writers: Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lanka), Leila Aboulela (Sudan), Kei Miller (Nigeria) and Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (Uganda) – all actively Commonwealth writers. The party was to celebrate one of the most exciting new cultural bodies in Britain in recent years, ‘Commonwealth Writers’, and the joint launch of the ‘2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize’ and of my own new literature project ‘10×10’. (See the 2 website links for more details.)
‘10×10’ is a lively online format to hear writers in conversation. 10 writers from all over the world talk to me about their work in delicious, bite-sized audio chunks of 10 minutes. High quality production, available on the new Commonwealth Writers website with links to biogs, books, readings, social media and all the other CW projects round the world. Do check it out! Our ‘10×10’ goal (and CWriters’ goal) is a new ‘writers union’; new ways of experiencing international writing; new ways of linking up globally. Several of the 10 writers – such as the Grande Dame of Jamaican literature Lorna Goodison – I interviewed via Skype. The viral world is our oyster. But I must admit that nothing could beat actually sitting face-to-face on a sofa with Canadian writer Margaret Atwood – my first ‘10×10’ interviewee. (And there’s nothing to beat being re-Tweeted by @MargaretAtwood on Twitter to her nearly 600,000 followers after the ‘10×10’ launch!). Every word that fell from her lips was jewel-like: sharp, brilliant. At the end of our conversation I felt I was in possession of a whole treasure trove of precious jewels – though some were definitely rough diamonds: “There was a kind of totem pole of hierarchy among Commonwealth countries. India was considered the jewel in the crown. Then the others were arranged in order of boringness and Canada was considered absolutely the most boring.”(Margaret Atwood)
The Commonwealth. Now there’s a Great ‘British Union’! 53 member states, covering a third of the world, dating back to 1949 just after the turmoil of World War Two, when many countries ‘were fighting to re-establish their identities in a new world order’….’The Commonwealth nations declared themselves to be “united as free and equal members, freely cooperating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”. (Quotes from the CW website.) ‘Commonwealth Writers …was set up in 2012 to inspire and connect writers and storytellers across the world. We believe that well-told stories can help people make sense of events, engage with others and take action to bring about change.’
I’ve had a busy week: a visit to my home county of Cornwall; the Commonwealth Writers launch; the grand opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum of an exhibition of one of England’s greatest painters, Constable; work on my European Union projects for the Italian Presidency; the 30th anniversary party of Wasafiri, the UK’s leading magazine for international writing (www.wasafiri.org) and, last but not least, the referendum on Scottish Independence. At the end of this long week, with all my identities loudly jangling and jingling in my ears, one tune rang clear: I realized ‘I am a unionist’! I had cast my vote! I believe in unions, networks, associations and collaborations – however ‘challenging’ they may be. I am not only proudly Cornish and English, I am also proud to be part of the British, European and Commonwealth ‘unions’. I grew up in South Africa, Rhodesia, North America and Europe and I want the Scots, Jamaicans and Canadians in my gang. I feel at home hanging out with colleagues at the BBC, the British Council, the European Union and the Commonwealth, collaborating in some of the most exciting arts and literature projects of our time.
Better worlds through culture and ever-closer unions – this may all sound pompous and pretentious but this week in the UK is obviously the week for grand declarations.