Book Fair/Tang

David Tang leads spirited panel at Hong Kong book fair

Rupert Murdoch, Allan Zeman and Stanley Ho find mention in a panel discussion moderated by David Tang during Hong Kong's book fair.
David Tang, speaking at last year's book fair (AFP)

How and what and why do writers write? That was the topic of a panel discussion moderated by David Tang at the Hong Kong Book Fair on Friday. This is the second year that Tang has been asked by the Trade Development Council in Hong Kong to organise an event to promote English books during the fair and this year he invited historian David Starkey, novelist Nicholas Coleridge, food writer Tom Parker Bowles and television and restaurant critic Adrian Gill (better known as AA Gill) to be part of the panel.

“I hope these writers will be funny,” said Tang in his introduction. “I’ve gone out of my way to find people who are not dull.” And Tang’s opening remarks, as well as the familiarity and camaraderie among the panellists, set the tone for a spirited conversation.

The discussion followed the same format Tang adopted last year when actor-screenwriter Stephen Fry, historian Andrew Roberts and author Frederick Forsyth took part. Tang gave each panellist five minutes to introduce themselves and address the topic of the discussion before he opened the packed room to questions, reserving the right to censor any he deemed trivial or irrelevant. 

“I’m slightly concerned about why I’ve been asked here — is there anyone in this room who has heard of me?” started Gill, who Tang turned to first. Gill is a critic for the Sunday Times, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, Esquire and Australian Gourmet Traveller, and has also written a number of books. In the pause that followed Gill’s question, Tang decided to cut him short and moved on to Coleridge.

“I always feel like a bit of a fraud because I’m the only one on this stage who is not a full-time writer,” he said. Coleridge is a managing director of Condé Nast, a British magazine company, and a vice-president of Condé Nast International, overseeing magazines such as Vogue, Glamour, Vanity Fair, GQ and Tatler. He is also the author of 15 books, including both non-fiction works and several novels. Coleridge went on explain that he wrote for pleasure; for money, because he has four very expensive children to educate; and, primarily, because writing is his solitary escape.

Parker Bowles, the son of Camilla and Andrew, who spoke next, had the room enthralled from his opening remarks. “I write because I’m crap at everything else I do,” said Parker Bowles. He writes a food column for the Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine, is a contributing editor for GQ and is the author of three books — which tend to be out-sold by titles such as Knitting with Cats, he went on to say, explaining that his books had never been near a bestseller chart and that he did not write for fame or fortune, but because he likes writing.

“I became a writer by accident,” said Starkey, who is the author of many books on the history of the British monarchy. “Normally the most boring piece of writing is a doctoral dissertation. Except mine.”

He went on to say that the most wonderful thing about being a non-fiction writer is that the truth is much more interesting than fiction. “Who would have thought of a story like Henry VIII?” he asked.

“We’ve got that,” interjected Tang. “It’s Stanley Ho.”

The questions that followed from the audience spanned the gamut, from the trivial to the expected — one questioner sought restaurant recommendations from Gill and Parker Bowles, while others wanted to know each of the panellists’ favourite and least-favourite authors, how they got their first books published and what they did when they had writer’s block. There were also questions about e-readers and how social networking was going to change the written word.

The writers were for the most part witty and irreverent in their answers, with the F-word used many times, as well as a number of sexist and politically incorrect remarks, especially from Starkey and Gill, whose sarcasm rivalled each other.

“I once went to visit Allan Zeman — he did not have a single book in his 30,000-square-feet home,” said Tang at one juncture. Asked by Tang why he claimed not to have read a book in his life, Zeman proudly proclaimed that not reading has got him very far in life.

One of the more serious questions from the audience was about the mess News Corp is currently embroiled in. “You’re closest to the situation,” said Tang to Gill, asking him to answer first. “He’s your boss.”

“As I got on the plane to come to Hong Kong, I thought ‘Thank God I don’t have to think about the phone hacking scandal anymore’,” Gill answered. “The thing about freedom of speech is it is not about protecting the people you believe in, it’s about protecting the people you violently disagree with.”

The panel generally agreed that the whole issue had been blown out of proportion by the media in the UK, with Starkey saying that the British used to be known for their stiff upper lip but now they were known for their hysteria, alluding also to the mass hysteria after Princess Diana passed away. Gill and Parker Bowles also lamented the closure of the News of the World.

Coleridge suggested that the issue would continue to be discussed for at least three more years and then said quite categorically: “Rupert Murdoch will not be running his company by the time this ends, and neither will James.”

¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.
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