Salon London is a monthly event that brings together science, art and psychology with three speakers looking at different aspects of the same subject – “massive ideas in intimate spaces”, as host Helen Bagnall put it. I went along to my first Salon last night, held in the Café at Foyles. The theme was “Summer Essentials” – and, appropriately enough for the location, began with books, as the Independent on Sunday’s literary editor, Katy Guest, recommended books for different situations on your summer holiday. As it turned out, I’ve only read one of them…

In the airport bookshop looking at the bestsellers? This year’s top surprise bestseller has been The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane’s tour of Britain’s ancient paths. [I can sort-of second this recommendation, as I remember enjoying Macfarlane’s reading from the book at last year’s Penguin bloggers’ night. I still haven’t read The Old Ways myself yet, though.]

Waiting for the plane and need something short? Try Ali Smith’s Shire [a mixture of essay and story that sounds to be in a similar vein to Artful], or Dan Rhodes’ Marry Me [that’s the one I’ve read; read my thoughts here – the short version is that I really liked it].

Need to get away from an annoying family? Become lost in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life [definitely a book I am intrigued to read]. Kids not keen on the prospect of studying Shakespeare? Give them Ben Crystal’s Springboard Shakespeare guides. [Apparently Ben Crystal is an actor who’s also son of the linguist David Crystal; if he shares his father’s touch for writing about language, I bet these books will be great.] Interested in all things Tudor and want to learn more? Try Leanda de Lisle’s Tudor: the Family Story.

Then came questions from the audience. What books will Guest be taking on holiday? The newest ones, probably; but certainly Precious Thing by Colette McBeth. Being sent 200 books a week, how does Guest decide which to read? Covers can help, especially with new authors; Guest mentioned Polly Courtney, who left her publisher because she wasn’t happy with the chick-lit style covers they were using for her books, and pointed out that the cover for Courtney’s new novel, Feral Youth, is rather different.

Did Guest think John Williams’ Stoner was worth all the praise that’s been heaped on it? Bret Easton Ellis likes it; so, if you like him, then perhaps. Recommend a good big detective series? Not really something Guest reads much, but she suggested the work of Marian Keyes. What’s going to be the next big historical period in fiction? The eleventh century, tales of Vikings, Guest suggested.


Book recommendations in hand, we then heard from Robin Fegen, one of the directors of the Robin Collective, “purveyors of curious events and experimental food”. Fegen was here to speak on taste and flavour; he talked about how factors like colour and sound can affect how food tastes, and explained that there can be great individual variations in the sense of taste, with so-called “supertasters” being particularly sensitive (as the chemist Arthur L. Fox put it, people live in “different worlds of taste”.

Fegen had a few experiments for his audience to try, in order to see who might be the supertasters. My results were inconclusive: a tastebud-counting exercise suggested that I had a lower number than average, which tends to be characteristic of a nontaster – but I could very much sense the bitter taste of PTC, which would point towards the opposite case. Maybe I should just conclude that I have good taste…


The evening’s final speaker was John-Paul Flintoff, whose topic was “how to have meaningful conversations”. Time was a little tight at this point, so we didn’t have chance to try all the activities Flintoff had planned – a pity, really, because the session was good fun. I especially like the idea that a good conversation should be an adventure – sounds a good guiding principle to me.