Ex Libris* is a game devised by Oxford Games in 1991, which is now presented from time to time in Blackwell's Oxford Bookshop as a panel game something like a cross between "Call My Bluff" and "The Write Stuff". In short, players are given a brief synopsis of a book and asked to write the opening or closing sentence; these are then read out, together with the actual extract, and the players guess which are the author's actual words, with points awarded for correct identification of the original and also for fooling the other players. It is a delightful entertainment - even more fun to watch than to participate in, given the wonderful sets of panelists Blackwell's manages to assemble. These events are recorded and are subsequently podcast on a number of radio networks.
Last night was the seventh in the series, and featured a line-up of diverse and engaging individuals: Robert Llewellyn, who plays the robot Kryton in the Red Dwarf series and whose own amateur* fascination with science and technology informs his "News From..." science fiction trilogy; Jodi Taylor, author of the hilarious history series of which the latest is Lies, Damned Lies and History; Paul Burston, the writer of black comedy who is now turning his hand to dark thrillers such as The Black Path; and Fiammetta Rocco, Culture Editor of The Economist.
While the other panelists scratch their heads or scribble, the host, David Freeman, interviews them one by one. David Freeman is an experienced presenter (World Service, Sky TV's Bookshow) and draws them out beautifully. We heard some wonderfully memorable anecdotes from the authors' personal lives – for instance, how Jodi Taylor's first novel was originally available free of charge because she couldn't work out how to follow Amazon seller procedures! All four interviewees were fascinating to listen to. Robert Llewellyn spoke of his interest in the future: the dangers of climate change, the unpredictable nature of chaotic weather, and some of the amazing current developments in technology which offer solutions to those problems if the planet's population would embrace them. Jodi recounted how her literary career had its origins in her enjoyment of studying History A Level as a mature student, her outrage when such evening classes were cut in all subjects except IT, and her consequent determination to imagine another way in which people could study history – by visiting it in time-travelling pods! Paul Burston described the Welsh gallows humour of his childhood in Bridgend, a longstanding army recruiting ground where the local cemetery is full of soldiers' graves and the local beauty spot has its sinister side. Fiammetta Rocco described the joy of joining The Economist, after years of free-lancing and bringing up a toddler, as discovering her own "sandpit with friends" – it was glorious to hear a woman who so loves her job!
It was priceless to hear Robert Llewellyn read Brian Blessed's autobiographical synopsis in Brian Blessed's bellow; amusing to listen to the range of ostensible openings and closings of works as varied as DH Lawrence, Garth Nix, Daphne du Maurier, Ernest Hemingway, Mills & Boon; and fascinating to speculate which was the original. You get such a buzz when you spot the right answer!
The next Ex Libris is scheduled for Thursday 3 November, and I would heartily recommend it as an excellent way to spend a winter's evening, and thoroughly good value for only £5. You don't need to have achieved a high level of literary education to appreciate these events - I took my 14 year old son, and he enjoyed it immensely, too.
If you can't wait that long, you can buy your own Ex Libris game for £14.50 (it would also make an excellent Christmas gift).
*Amateur, from Latin amare, to love
*Ex Libris – Latin, "from/out of the books"
*Fabulous, from Latin fabula, story, tale, narrative