Loving My Libraries

Image 1As we all know, the great Early Modern scholar, Erasmus, once said:

When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.

Well, finding myself with a little money left at the end of the last financial year, I decided that rather than wasting it on food and clothes I would treat myself to a twelve month subscription to The Bookseller, because let’s face it the next best thing to reading books themselves is reading about them and the world in which they are created and marketed.

My first issue arrived on Thursday and has proved to be pretty much a one off, focusing as it does on the various shortlists for the Bookseller Industry Awards.  I love shortlists of any sort so I had a wonderful time reading about all the different aspects of the book world and those who had excelled in them.  The nominations that caught my attention most immediately, however, were those for the library of the year, because of the six listed four of them were local to me.

Library-of-Birmingham-Open-Air-Amphitheatre-December-2010I live just on the city side of the Birmingham border and anyone who remembers the publicity last September that surrounded The Library of Birmingham when it opened won’t be surprised to see that it is on the list.  However, if I walk five minutes down the road in a westerly direction, I cross into the Dudley authority and in fact I do most of my borrowing from the nearest Dudley library in Halesowen because unlike Birmingham they let me keep the books for four weeks and are much more generous in the number they allow me to have on reserve.  Well, Dudley libraries are on the list too, as are those of Sandwell, the next authority over, who are especially praised for turning their libraries into community hubs in an area where educational achievements are low and poverty very high.

Another five minute walk, this time in a southerly direction, and I’m into Worcestershire and the fourth local library named is The Hive in the City of Worcester itself.  This is also a relatively new library and one which is shared with the University of Worcester, a coming together which, when it opened in 2012, was unique in Europe. If I’m honest, I’m not certain how well this works and I’d quite like to talk with the University librarians and see how they feel about it.  I do, however, love the Children’s Library there, which has a myriad spaces where children can gather in small groups to read and talk together and best of all a series of beehive cell shapes along one wall where individual readers can secret themselves away and read undisturbed to their hearts’ content.

But how lucky am I, at a time when library services are being cut all over the country, to have four such wonderful examples within very very easy reach?  I feel I want to stand on the highest point I can find and shout out loud to the world that the West Midlands may not be the most romantic spot in the land, the Black Country might be the butt of many a cruel joke, but listen to me – we care about libraries and we’re doing something to show the world how essential they are to the human spirit.  When you can say the same, then come back and poke fun at us but until then, keep your jokes to yourselves.

1676727One thing that the shortlist did make me think about was how easy it would be for me to take libraries for granted just because I can’t remember a time when they weren’t a part of my daily existence.  I don’t know how young I was when I was first taken to the local branch library, but I certainly wasn’t at school.  What I do remember are the very first books that Mom and I brought home, both from Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series.  There would have been about two dozen of these available when I first started making those weekly trips to this sanctuary where books came free, and together Mom and I read our way through them all.  As we very often got through the last two days of any week on brown bread and fish paste sandwiches, there certainly wasn’t any money to spare for buying books, even if I could have persuaded my mother that Erasmus had a finer sense of priorities than her own. But what did that matter?  We didn’t need to spend money on books, we could have them for free.  Even now, when I walk into any library, the Squirrel, the Hare and Little Grey Rabbit, not to mention Sam Pig, are always somewhere in my mind irrevocably bound up with all the other pleasures of the last sixty or more years.

So what, I wonder, are your first memories of your library visiting days?  Are you still haunted by those earliest borrowed books?  The more, I think, that we remember what the library service meant to us when we were children the less likely we are to allow those services to go under now.  All children should have the right to sit in beehive shaped cubbyholes and lose themselves in the world of Alison Uttley.

The Panopticon ~ Jenni Fagan

9780099558644The odd book group out last week, was reading Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, shortlisted for last year’s Desmond Elliot Prize for first time novelists.  In some respects it wasn’t as far from The Orphan Master’s Son as a quick flick through the two novels might suggest, because although this is set in Britain and deals with the type of situation that has become all too familiar through repeated press coverage, both main characters are determined that they will tell their own story about their life rather than conforming to the one the state is trying to impose on them.

A panopticon is a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which prisoners can be observed at all times and it is to such an institution that fifteen year old Anais Hendricks is confined after she is accused of attacking a policewoman who now lies in a coma.  Anais has no recollection of the attack but there is no denying the fact that there is blood all over her school uniform.  There is also no denying the fact that Anais has past form.  In a book that deals with child abuse, rape, drugs and prostitution there is a tremendous amount of humour, not the least when Anais recounts some of her past misdemeanours.

“…Also, there is the second time that you have stolen a minibus from outside Rowntree High School, but this time you,’ the woman scrolls her pen down the report in front of her, ‘drove it into a wall?’
‘I drove it intae the wall both times.’
‘Something was different the second time, Miss Hendricks?’
She raises her eyebrows, stops, like she is asking a pub-quiz question. The other three panel members look to see what I’m gonnae say.
‘The second time it was on fire,’ I respond after a minute.
‘Correct.’
Brilliant. A correct answer. What do I win?

Anais is a teenager to break your heart.  She is bright, she is funny, she has spunk, but she has been seriously damaged by the very society that should have been protecting her.  With no idea of her background other than the notion that her mother gave birth to her in an asylum and there was a flying cat around at the time, Anais has been pushed from pillar to post all her life.  Even when she feels that she has found stability with the less than conformist Teresa her world is shattered yet again when, at just eleven years of age, she finds her substitute mom murdered.

Anais is also an unreliable narrator.  The amount of drugs that she pumps into her system on a daily basis means that there are times when it is difficult to be certain whether or not what she is telling us is actually what happens, either to her or to those around her.  This is compounded by the fact that she has a magnificent imagination, one that has allowed her to survive some of her darkest days by creating alternative lives that she is determined one day to live.  In discussion it was clear that this had created a level of ambiguity at the end of the novel.  Some of us thought she had really accomplished what she set out to do, others that it was a drug induced hallucination and I was left stuck in the middle asking who, if I was supposed to believe in the ending, was the intended audience.  I suddenly felt as if I was reading a book intended for teenagers.

Nevertheless there are certain events that clearly do happen, events that occur when Anais and the other children in the Panopticon are let down by the system and by society at large, events that will shake your faith in humanity.  I defy anyone to read about Tash and Isla without real anger over their fate and Anais herself is cruelly abused by the very people on whom she thought she could rely.  But, that isn’t to say that this is a book without hope.  One of the brightest elements of the novel is the way in which these teenagers band together to support each other and become almost like a family – even if, at times they have a funny way of showing it.

The Panopticon isn’t the easiest of reads but in the end it is one that suggests there may be hope for the main character, even as it is roundly denouncing the societal structures that have allowed her to fall into the patterns of behaviour that threaten to destroy her.  Jenni Fagan is a name to watch out for and I won’t take as long to get round to reading her second novel.

The Orphan Master’s Son ~ Adam Johnson

the-orphan-masters-son-300x458Sometimes, the best laid schemes do not so much gang agley as get completely blown out of the water. The theory is that I have at least a week between each of my three monthly reading groups – first Monday, second Wednesday, third Wednesday.  This month, however, that nice neat arrangement let me down.  As happens every so often, the first Monday and the second Wednesday were in the same week, while the third Wednesday group, who are mostly teachers, wanted to move the meeting forward seven days because the regular date fell in the Easter holidays when some of them would be away.  As a consequence I was left with three groups meeting within three days of each other and a colossal logistical headache.

Fortunately, this was partly alleviated when the person taking the Wednesday morning group had to step down and I immediately volunteered to take over as long as I could do the same book as I was reading with the Monday group.  Given that we at home were also having a domestic crisis, for once two rather than three books to read seemed like a minor gift from the gods.  My only concern was that the book I had chosen for the first group wasn’t one that I would have selected for the second. The Monday group reads award winners and with the 2014 Pulitzer due any day I had picked last year’s winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.  The Wednesday group are not as practiced readers as their Monday counterparts and I was worried that the structure of the story would challenge some of them too far beyond their comfort zone.  Remind me never to pre-judge my reading groups in future.

Johnson’s novel is set in North Korea and starts out to tell the story of Pak Jun Do, the orphan master’s son of the title.  Although being brought up as an orphan, with all the terrible implications that has in the DRNK, Jun Do is convinced that he is actually the son of the master of the orphanage, if only because of the fact that his ‘father’ treats him so much worse than any of the other boys.  As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that what Jun Do is doing here is breaking a fundamental tenet of North Korean philosophy, he is having the audacity to write his own story.  In the DRNK you do not decide for yourself who are are going to be, you follow the dictates of the state.  As Dr Song says

Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.

Which is why, half way through, the book suddenly seems to switch to telling us about the high ranking official, Commander Ga.  For reasons that become apparent as Ga’s history is revealed, the state has now decided that that is who the individual we had previously come to know as Jun Do really is and woe betide anyone who might suggest otherwise.

Never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.

And that real darkness threatens anyone who breaks away from the official line of the state.

The atrocities that we witness being exercised on many of those who are declared the enemy of the state, including the individual who might be Jun Do, but is currently Commander Ga, are difficult enough to read about without Johnson’s assurance in interviews that he left out ninety precent of the practices current in the DRNK, but throughout Jun Do/Ga continues to defy the world around him and tell his own story. Even in the final moments of the book, when a sympathetic interrogator tries to offer him what he believes to be a relatively humane way out of his dilemma, Jun Do/Ga reaches out and quite literally takes his life into his own hands.

It was the second half of the novel that I thought might throw some members of the groups because it is structured in such a way as to allow the reader to witness the manipulation of the telling of the story by the state.  Thus part of it is narrated by Ga himself, part by the interrogator and part by the propaganda broadcasts that are fed into every home and workplace via the state’s loudspeakers.  The results take a bit of following, not the least because we in the West are likely to find the propaganda version funny, only then to have to reassess our reaction as we realise that whatever they may think, those who are being directly exposed to this fantasy had better not react in the same way.

Given the terrible acts that some of the characters are forced to carry out, it is surprising how many of them Johnson draws sympathetically.  The interrogator is one such.  Through his eyes we begin to realise just what a lonely life the people of North Korea live.  It isn’t safe to trust anyone and neither is it wise to show any affection for any other. Nameless throughout and thus, like Jun Do, stripped of any meaningful identity, he recalls a conversation with his father.

Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.

I think more than anything that took my heart and twisted it in two.

I thought this was a remarkable book, especially in respect of the way that Johnson manipulated the structure in order to mirror its major themes.  I was surprised then, when the Monday group took exception to it.  I wondered afterwards if it was because in other lives so many of them had been A level teachers and were used to books that followed reasonably expected patterns.  The Wednesday group, on the other hand, whose members I had thought might struggle, were for the most part moved deeply by it and wanted to go on talking about it so long that we very nearly got thrown out of the room in which we meet.  It just goes to show how individual we all are when it comes to our reaction to a story and how difficult most of us would find it to operate under a regime such as that which exists in the DRNK.

Acquisition Day

Pears-©-The-Henry-and-Rose-Pearlman-Collection-300x237

First and foremost, thank you all for your kind wishes in connection with our domestic crisis.  I can’t say that it is as yet resolved, but The Bears and I are in what might be described as the eye of the storm, so yesterday I took the opportunity to hop on a train and take myself off to Oxford for the day to see the Cezanne and the Modern exhibition at the Ashmolean.

I came very late to an appreciation of art and even later to an awareness of the greatness of Cezanne.  We don’t have a work by the artist in the Barber and so it was only when a self-portrait came on loan last summer that I had the chance to explore his talent first hand.  The opportunity to see several of his watercolours and four of his oil paintings all at one go was too good to miss so I have been hoping a day would materialise when all the auguries came together and I would be able to make the journey.  Yesterday it did.

I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the paintings, I’m afraid.  The best I can say is that if you’re able to get to Oxford while this show is on then you won’t be disappointed.  Typically, while I loved the Cezanne’s and especially the still life above, it was one of the other paintings in the exhibition that really took my breath L1988-62-16_0away and that was this one by Alfred Sisley.  I’m afraid this reproduction does it no justice whatsoever because the really glory is in the texture of the paint and you can’t make that out at all.

By the way, there is a lovely story attached to the painting of the pears.  Apparently, the artists Pissarro and Degas both wanted to buy it really badly and the only way they could decide who should have it was to draw lots.  Degas won.  I can’t quite see that means of acquisition catching on at Christie’s anytime soon.

Well, my acquisitions didn’t include any of the paintings.  (I think the powers that be at the Museum might have had something to say about that.)  But who can go to Oxford for the day without going into Blackwells?  And who can come out of Blackwells without a bagful of books?  I think I was very restrained in only buying five -although it has to be said I’m not sure that Jolyon Bear agrees with me.

IMG_0185Unlike Waterstones, Blackwells still does a three for the price of two offer and I’m a sucker for anything that looks like a bargain so the top three were part of that offer.

I’m not a great reader of short stories, but everyone has been telling me how superb George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December is and of course it recently won the Folio Prize, so I thought I would try and ignite my appreciation for the form with what seems to be a first-class example.  The blurb promises that this is

George Saunders’s most wryly hilarious and disturbing collection yet [one that] illuminates human experience and explores figures lost in a labyrinth of troubling preoccupations. A family member recollects a backyard pole dressed for all occasions; Jeff faces horrifying ultimatums and the prospect of DarkenfloxxTM in some unusual drug trials; and Al Roosten hides his own internal monologue behind a winning smile that he hopes will make him popular. With dark visions of the future riffing against ghosts of the past and the ever-settling present, this collection sings with astonishing charm and intensity.

One a day, I think, until I see how I get on with it.

Then there is Graham Joyce’s most recent novel The Year of the Ladybird.  I first came across Joyce through Some Kind of Fairy Tale, which I wrote about here.  I loved the psychological reality of Joyce’s storytelling and I’m hoping that this book will be similar in its effect.

It is the summer of 1976, the hottest since records began, and a plague of ladybirds speckles the countryside. A young man called David leaves behind his student days to begin the adventure of growing up. A first job in a holiday camp beckons. But alongside the freedom of a first job and the excitement in dangers of first love, political and racial tensions are simmering under the cloudless summer skies. And who is the man in the dark suit, with the boy by his side? Outside on the sands, glimpsed through a heat haze?

David discovers there is a terrible price to be paid for his new-found freedom and independence. The price that will come back to haunt him, even in the bright sunlight of summer.

And, making up the trio is the latest offering from Elizabeth Strout, whose Pulitzer winning Olive Kitteridge is one of my favourite books of all time.  The Burgess Boys is about two brothers.

Haunted by a freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, who idolises Jim, has always taken it in his stride.

But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan – the sibling that stayed behind – urgently calls them home. Her teenage son, Zach, has landed in a world of trouble and Susan desperately needs help. And so the Burgess brothers returned to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.

It sounds similar territory to her previous books but when she explores it so well, there is nothing wrong in that.

Then there are two books in a genre that I can never resist – books about books.

The first, An Everywhere by Heather Reyes, subtitled a little book about reading, has an endorsement on the back from novelist and poet, Helen Dunsmore.

I have so much enjoyed ‘An Everywhere’.  It is a brilliant travel guide to the city of books: the city we hold within us, and the one we share with all its other citizens.  I love Heather’s passion for reading and the blend of erudition and intimacy that she brings to the discussion of what reading is and what books can do within a life.  It is such a truthful book, honest about panic and anguish, and fascinating about what happens when the panic ebbs and the reader continues.

It sounds intriguing and I think this is probably the one I will start to read first.

Finally something I picked up on the off chance – a book that might be brilliant or might not - A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé.  Amazon says of it

Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence

which makes it sound rather more prosaic than do the the blurb and the comments from the reviewers.  I know nothing of either book or author.  Has anyone else come across them?

So, all in all an excellent day out made even better but the fact that for once all the trains were on time.  In this life what more can one ask?

The Dead Ground ~ Claire McGowan

w357776At the back end of last year I stumbled on Claire McGowan’s second novel, The Lost.   This was the first book featuring Paula McGuire, a forensic psychologist who returns to her childhood home in the borderlands between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to look after her injured father only to find herself seconded to the PSNI’s Missing Persons Response Unit to help in the search for two teenaged girls.  At the time, I said how much I was enjoying the book and that I hoped McGowan would stick with Paula and develop a series that would continue to look at some of the very particular social problems that still beset the Province in the wake of the Troubles.  Well, sometimes you actually do get what you wish for and here, in the shape of The Dead Ground, is that second novel and what is more a novel that ends in such a way as to pretty much ensure at least a third.

The Dead Ground explores a subject that is likely to cause heated debate in any community but which, in the highly charged religious atmosphere that still exists in Northern Ireland, is one that might explode into violence at any moment, namely the subject of abortion.   This is not, however, a problem that would naturally come to the attention of the MPRU.  It does so here because McGowan couples it with a case of the abduction of a new born baby from the local hospital and thus allows herself to widen her focus to consider the many ways in which the birth of a child can be viewed: from something totally joyous through to the result of an act of terrible violation, with any number of possible scenarios in between.

The search for the individuals behind the abduction and the subsequent attacks on women who have decided to go through with their pregnancies after consulting a doctor prepared to help them obtain an abortion in England is particularly relevant to Paula.  This is no spoiler, because it is apparent from the very first pages that she herself is in the early stages of pregnancy and as a result of the circumstances behind the conception finds herself considering whether or not she should keep the baby. More important immediately is keeping the knowledge of her condition from the people with whom she works, something that proves difficult as there are those involved in the investigation who seem to have second sight.

One of these is the faith healer, Magdalena Croft, brought in at the request of the parents of the missing baby to attempt to discover where the child might be.  Croft, on the strength of her claims to have visions from the Virgin Mary, has gathered a large following of people who believe that she can heal them of their fertility problems.  As many of these couples have then gone on to have children she has had no difficulty in amassing large sums of money, although none of it appears to have gone into the building of the church that she has promised to construct. Croft’s part in the narrative allows McGowan to explore the manner in which desperation forces individuals away from the material world and into a search for answers from less tangible forces. Unfortunately, this can often mean that they fall prey to charlatans, the sort of people whose evil leaves me speechless.  The question is whether or not Magdalena Croft falls into that category.

In discussing recent crime fiction I’ve frequently commented on the way in which the lead investigator’s back story has seemed either implausible, has muddled the main narrative or both.  Paula does have a back story but unfortunately there is nothing implausible about it.  Her mother Margaret is one of the Disappeared, those members of the Irish community who vanished from their homes without trace during the Troubles, in most cases to be killed by paramilitaries and buried in an unmarked grave. Whether this was the case with Mrs MacGuire or whether she simply had enough of living with the tension of a husband who was a member of the RUC and walked out, is unclear both to the reader and to Paula and her father, PJ.  Seventeen years after the event, PJ is ready to move on, but Paula, particularly given her condition, still feels the need to search for her mother.  However, this is never permitted to get in the way of the main story.  If it is relevant it is allowed to seep in, but it is in no sense a driver of the narrative.  This is one of the ways in which I think McGowan stands out amongst the many young authors who are trying to make their way in the field of the police procedural.  There is a sense of total integration of the strands that make up the novel. What is there is necessary and I don’t feel that I am being presented with a dramatic back story to make up for deficiencies in the main tale.

I promised myself at the beginning of the year that I wasn’t going to add any more crime authors to the list of those whose works had to be read as soon as they were available.  Claire McGowan has made me break that resolve.  She already writes well, but I think that eventually she is going to write very well indeed and if you enjoy crime fiction I urge you to get into this series right from the beginning.

With thanks to Headline who made this book available for review.

Still Here

DSCF0001Just to say that we are still around but we are having something of a minor domestic crisis here in The Bear Garden and until it is sorted out we are all doing our best to be very quiet and very sensible and trying to restrict our swinging from the lampshades to no more than six times before breakfast.

Once it is resolved we will be back, calm, quiet and collected, as if nothing had ever happened.

Love to you all,

The Bears.

P.S.  If you are having a domestic crisis too, we are very sorry, but please don’t send it our way.  One is enough!

Around the World in 80 Books ~ Chapter One

imagesHard on the heels of a bookish weekend in Stratford came the Library of Birmingham’s Around the World in 80 Books day – a day so full that there is no way that I could possibly begin to tell you about it in just one post.  So, over the next week I’m going to put together a number of different reports and hope that by the end of it you will all feel that you had as good a time there as I did.

The day had been organised in conjunction with Oxygen Books and Malcolm Burgess opened proceedings by talking about the impetus behind the company and the city-pick collections that are their speciality. I don’t know if you remember the time when The Bears suddenly decided that we were emigrating to New York. (It was after a particular fine New York Phil Prom and it was only when I showed them that there were no subscription tickets left for the orchestra’s forthcoming season that I was able to persuade them to unpack their suitcases.)  As a sop to their ardour I asked for suggestions for books set in New York so that we could at least visit in proxy.  Well, had I known about city-picks, I would have had no need to canvas for ideas.

City-picks came about after the company’s founders searched in vain for fiction that would tell them about Athens while they were on holiday there.  So disappointed were they that they decided there must surely be a market for publications that brought together examples of literary writing about individual cities in order to give the traveller some idea of where they were going and how other people had responded to their destination before they arrived.

There are now nine books available, one each on:

New York

St Petersburg

Istanbul

Venice

Amsterdam

Dublin

Berlin

London

Paris

I would have thought this an excellent idea even if Malcolm Burgess hadn’t provided us with lists of some of the material to be found in five of these books.  Here, for example, is a selection of what is contained in city-pick Paris.

Andrew Hussey, Paris: The Secret History (2007)

Muriel Barberry, The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006)

Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon (2000)

Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française (2004)

Janelle McCulloch, La Vie Parisienne (2008)

Faïza Guène, Just Like Tomorrow (2004)

Ernest Hemmingway, A Moveable Feast, (1964)

Edmund White, The Flâneur, (2001)

Simone de Beauvoir, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter (1958)

Simone de Beauvoir, The Prime of Life (1960)

Julian Barnes, Metroland (1980)

Colette, Claudine in Paris (1901)

Claude Izner, Murder on the Eiffel Tower (2007)

Julian Green, Paris (1983)

Jeremy Mercer, Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs (2005)

Cara Black, Murder on the Île Saint-Louis (2007)

Much as I’d like to re-visit Paris, I know that at the moment it isn’t a realistic possibility.  However, working my way through a reading list like this would be a very acceptable second best, and having relevant passages preselected for me and neatly packaged up into one book, the cherry on the top of the Eiffel Tower.

As a friend said to me, she could feel a Summer School coming on and given that we haven’t yet selected our theme for this year’s gathering I’m certainly going to give some thought to suggesting that we pick a destination and then mine the Oxygen Books lists for specific titles.

In the meantime I’m looking out for a copy of the New York city-pick to see if there are any books included that we didn’t read the last time round – just in case The Bears get any more big ideas about packing up house and home and ferrying us all across the Atlantic.

Hilary Mantel and the Respectable Face of Soap Opera

PT-AM705_BK_Cov_DV_20091009120647I spent a large part of last weekend in the company of Hilary Mantel as the RSC staged two events considering the phenomenon of the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell in the public perception as a result of her novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and their subsequent stage adaptations.

On Saturday morning Mantel and the playwright, Mike Poulton, spoke about the challenges inherent in taking two such wordy novels and transferring them to the not quite two hour traffic of our stage, but nevertheless into a tight five hour schedule.  Unusually, as these events are normally chaired by someone from the RSC Events Department, this was headed up by the Associate Director, Greg Doran, whose first prompt was to ask just why we had all become so fascinated by the Tudors in recent years.  Mantel was quite definite about this.  The Tudors, she said, are the respectable face of soap opera and just as we are fascinated by the doings of current royalty and those to whom we afford celebrity status so to we have a fascination with those in similar positions in the past.  We are penny plain, they are twopenny coloured.

I think what interested me most about the discussion that then ensued was the extent to which Mantel had been involved in the staging of her books.  It certainly wasn’t simply a case of handing over her work and letting Poulton do his.  She appeared to have been there at every juncture, helping the cast understand the individuals they had been asked to play, working out which scenes were to be included, which to be omitted and how the decisions thus made could be moulded into an acceptable whole.

I can imagine that in many instances having such a hands-on author must be a playwright’s worst nightmare, but this partnership seems to have worked very well. Perhaps this was in part because Mantel doesn’t seem to be the least bit precious about her books.  “They are not holy writ,” she said.  “In every instance there were several ways in which the scenes I created could have gone onto the page.  Putting them on the stage is simply exploring another set of possibilities.”

And, those possibilities were many and varied.  Mike Poulton spoke about having to find the play in the novel and pointed out that there were many scripts, each with a slightly different focus, that could have come out of the books and his job was to find one that worked on the stage but was also true to the original.  And to history – apparently, version five left out the Reformation!  Even now, when the productions have just two more days to run in Stratford, the work of adapting goes on.  A theatre having unexpectedly become available, the company is moving down to London. (Get your tickets now! The box office took over a million pounds on the first day it opened.) However, the Swan is a thrust stage, whereas the audience at the Aldwych will be separated from the action by a proscenium arch.  This means that much of the play has had to be re-staged and parts of the script tinkered with.  No play ever stays the same throughout its run, but in this instance it seems to be even more of a growing entity than usual.

Inevitably, the question of the third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, came up.  When she was asked about this again in the Sunday morning session, where she led a discussion on the real Thomas Cromwell, Mantel was clear that we couldn’t expect it anytime in the very near future.  2015 was definitely ruled out.  But, that too is intended for the stage as well as the page.  In fact, given that she and Poulton were apparently working on the script for Bring Up The Bodies before the book was even published, it is likely that he will see it before anyone else.

The Sunday session, Cromwell’s Court was much more academic in nature and I’m not going to attempt to document all the discussions that took place.  Mantel gave the keynote speech and addressed the reasons why the reading public knew so little about Cromwell.  He’s not there in romantic fiction because in general such novels are not interested in politics and it was politics that interested Cromwell above everything else.  In terms of documentation he exists only in relation to the policies that he pushed through.  His private life is almost completely absent from the official record and it is the private lives of individuals that have tended to attract writers.  He has, in recent years, found his way into crime fiction, where politics can often be at the root of any motivation.  But even there he hasn’t been central.  “History deals the cards but the trivial makes the cut.”  For Mantel, however, it is the politics that is of real interest.  It is why she brought this man out of his relative fictional obscurity and subjected him to the light of public scrutiny, examining his policies and the manner in which he negotiated his way through the treacherous rapids of the Tudor Court.

I learnt a tremendous amount over the weekend about both Cromwell and Mantel’s relationship to him.  I was left wondering, however, about the nature of the third novel, The Mirror and the Light.  I’d assumed that it would take us through the years between the death of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own execution in 1540 but something Mantel said made me question whether it will be as simple as that or whether we might find ourselves covering old ground but seeing it from a different point of view.  In one sense I rather hope that is the case.  I don’t think I have the stomach to watch a man I have come to admire being brought down by those who despised him simply because of his lowly beginnings.  One of the things that most angered me, although it didn’t surprise me, was the statement made by one of the other speakers on Sunday that Cromwell’s rise would have been seen by many as against God’s natural order and his death therefore as a just act restoring that order. Mantel, thank goodness, has turned any such ideas completely on their head and brought into public prominence a politician I certainly wouldn’t mind having in government today.

 

After the Bombing ~ Clare Morrall

cover40101-mediumI normally associate Clare Morrall’s books with my home town of Birmingham, so it was a surprise on opening her latest novel to discover that it is set in Exeter. Equally, in a year when many writers are concentrating on the 1914-18 conflict and its aftermath, it seemed almost disorientating to find myself reading about the 1942 bombing of that city and the devastating and long term effects that it had on some of those who lived through that terrible night and the weeks and months that followed.

Exeter, along with Canterbury, York, Bath, and Norwich was bombed as part of the Baedeker raids ordered by Hitler in retaliation for the Allied attacks on Lübeck and Rostock. The cities were chosen simply because they had three stars in the Baedeker tourist guide and Hitler wanted to cause as much destruction to historic Britain as he could.  For Exeter this meant one night of sheer horror on the 4th May, followed by weeks of waiting to see if the blitz would be repeated.  In an opening section that captures something of the terror those people must have undergone, Morrall takes us through that night in the company of a group of fifteen year old school girls and their teachers as they flee from the boarding accommodation at Goldwyn’s High School for Girls to their air raid shelter where they have to wait out the hours of darkness not knowing what they will find when the raid is over.  This is particularly difficult for one of the girls, Alma Braithwaite, because her parents are doctors at the Exeter hospital and she knows that at the first sounding of the sirens they will have reported there rather than taking any form of shelter.

In the aftermath of the raid the girls find themselves evacuated to one of the men’s colleges at the local university, their own premises having taken a direct hit.  This is disconcerting for the quite and mild-mannered warden, mathematics tutor, Robert Gunner, who has no experience of the female of the species and little understanding of the way in which the advent of the girls into his life will change how he sees the world around him forever.  The reader, however, does know because the chapters set in 1942 are alternated with others that take us forward twenty-one years to 1963.

In 1963 Alma is safely ensconced back at Goldwyn’s as a Music teacher and returns after the Summer break to discover that Robert’s eleven year old daughter, Pippa, is going to be in her form during the coming year.  Alma really is safely ensconced at Goldwyn’s because she has never got over the trauma she suffered during 1942 and has refused to move on, keeping the family home the same and returning after her teacher training to the school that has been a substitute for the family she lost.  However, Pippa Gunner is not the only troubling factor that Alma has to face as the new school term begins because the much beloved head teacher, Miss Dulcie Cunningham-Smith, who saw the school through the war years and beyond, has unexpectedly died and been replaced by one Miss Wilhelmina Yeats.  Miss Yeats has great plans for Goldwyn’s and they certainly don’t include maintaining the status quo.  Immediately battle lines are drawn as Alma feels her security coming under threat.

All three of the main characters have been deeply affected by the war.  The reader witnesses, through the 1942 sections of the narrative, the traumas inflicted on Alma and Robert and gradually the horror that Miss Yeats endured, returning to Coventry to find her whole family killed in the persistent bombing of the city, is revealed as well.  As a result none of them have been able to make truly deep relationships. Robert has perhaps fared better than either of the women, having married and had what appears to have been a loving relationship with his wife, Grace, before she dies in childbirth, but he is still aware of the problems he has communicating with his children and you sense that he doesn’t fully appreciate how to access their emotional needs.

Miss Yeats may have forged a successful career for herself, but her greatest empathy is for the American President, John Kennedy, and his death sparks a crisis in the school that forces much of the tension that exists between her and Alma, who emotionally is still caught in that summer of 1942, out into the open.

There are some very strong features in this novel.  Morrall is brilliant on girls’  schools in 1963.  I know I was there – two years ahead of Pippa, just going into my third year as the latter section of this book begins.  I was immediately transported back to those days and at times could swear I was able to smell the very corridors and science labs, not to mention the changing rooms and the showers.  She is also good on characterisation.  Here, for example, is the inimitable Miss Cunningham-Smith facing down a Squadron Leader who has been foolish enough to suggest that a breach of rules on the part of four of her girls has simply been a matter of ‘messing about’.

‘Messing about?… They should not conclude that this is an acceptable way to carry on during a war.’ She makes it sound as if a war is a passing inconvenience, a situation that has to be acknowledged but not allowed to take precedence over good manners… ‘Rest assured that action will be taken over my girls’ part in this. They will not escape punishment.’

‘I wouldn’t be too hard on them,’ says the squadron leader.  ‘I’ve been persuaded that it was just high spirits. We must make allowances for youth.’

Miss Cunningham-Smith stares at him so hard that he has to look away.

However, I did feel that the conclusion of the novel was perhaps too open-ended.  I had hopes for Alma but would have liked to have been more certain about the action Miss Yeats was going to take.  She isn’t a character to whom I could warm, but she had found a way to triumph over a level of adversity with which I could sympathise and I would have liked more of an indication as to which way her decision about her future was going to go.

So, all in all, not for me Clare Morrall’s best book but certainly one I am glad to have read and one that I can recommend, especially to anyone who has memories, as I do, of all girls’ schools in the 1960s.

With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for making a copy of this book available for review

Does It Have To Be Either/Or?

ImageEarlier this week I was at an event where the prizes were awarded for an essay competition that had been set for our English with Creative Writing undergrads.  The topic they were asked to write on was: In our digital age, what value do books still have? and before the winners were announced a panel of speakers, drawn from different areas of the literary world, were asked to address this question themselves.

Fortunately, the audience was allowed their say as well because one of the problems I had with the responses from the panel was that there appeared to be a view forming that in the future it had to be either/or, the paper or the digital version and I don’t see that being the case at all. Certainly, at the moment, I happily alternate between the two, depending on whichever is the more convenient at the time.  If I’m out and about then it is likely to be the digital version of a book I have with me mainly because I have a back problem and the lighter my bag is the better.  My little i-Pad mini weighs less than most paperbacks and means I don’t have to carry a separate notebook or diary with me either.  What is more, if I’m going places where I might have to wait, I can have two books with me for the weight of one – a real benefit for those of us who spend time in outpatients on a regular basis.

At home, I am more likely to read with a real book.  To some extent this is because a lot of my reading at home is done for reading groups or teaching purposes and despite the search mechanisms that are now available on most e-readers I still find it easier to locate a passage that is sparked by discussion in a paper copy of a novel than I do on the electronic version.  All three of my reading groups started out really enthusiastic about being able to get the chosen texts on an e-reader but in each case we have veered back to the real book for ease of reference.

Of course this may change as the years go by.  I would hazard that there are very few people left who still choose to read from a handwritten scroll rather than a printed codex, but we are more than six hundred years on from the invention of the printing press.

So, I put my pennyworth in for a dual economy and the freedom to choose whichever format took my fancy at any particular time.  However, as the discussion developed, one area in which it appeared there really was a distinction was in respect of what we actually choose to download to our e-readers.  With the exception of classics available for free, we all agreed (and there were about fifty of us there) that we bought downloads that we wouldn’t really want to keep or to read again.  Anything that we really valued as a story we wished to return to we actually bought in book form.

Now, if you think about it there is a kind of perversity at work here.  If you want to hang onto a book it is much easier to do so in digital form.  To begin with, in my case at least, it means that I don’t have to find space for it on bookshelves that are already full to over-flowing.  In addition, if it’s a book to which I might wish to return I’m more likely to have it to hand anywhere if it’s on a device that accompanies me wherever I go.  But that isn’t what I do and it doesn’t appear to be what other people do either.  I would have asked if this came about because subconsciously we are all aware that we don’t actually own the books that we download, but only have them on lease from whichever company supplied them to us, but from the horrified looks on some of the audience’s faces when this was mentioned it was apparent that they hadn’t realised this was the case.

So, what do you put on your e-reader and why?  Is there a distinction between what you download and what you buy as a hard copy?  And, if you were forced to save just one format, which would it be?