Spitting Against the Wind ~ The Sequel

thelampSo, after all my angst, I thought I’d better post and tell you about what happened at the library group on Monday.

As most of you predicted everyone was very pleasant and there didn’t appear to be anyone whose views were always right even if everyone else in the group thought differently.  (I’ve come across this before in library groups, where to a large extent the members are self-selecting.  Bit by bit the group disintegrated as people drifted away no longer able to take the animosity.) So, from that point of view, it was a success.  However, there was another difficulty.  Clearly, the group hasn’t been going very long and no one, including the leader, has much experience in talking about books.  When you add to this the fact that the book chosen didn’t exactly lend itself to much beyond ‘I liked it’ or ‘I didn’t’, it wasn’t surprising that conversation ran out after about fifteen minutes.  I know the ‘popular’ image of book groups is ten minutes talking about the book followed by a couple of hours putting the world to rights, but that isn’t what I’m used to from my other meetings and I don’t think, in the long term, it is going to satisfy other people, especially as being in a library there isn’t even so much as a cup of tea on offer.

So, I have a cunning plan.

To fill out the hour, the librarian asked us to talk about something else that we’d recently enjoyed.  I wasn’t prepared for that on Monday, but next time I am going armed.  I’m going to take a book that in someway or another contrasts with the one we’ve been asked to read.  I have a list of elements within a book that might make it interesting to talk about.  For example, we might talk about the narrative voice, the chosen tense, the use of flashback, the importance of setting.  Whatever seems of particular interest in the chosen book, I’m going to make that the focus of my comments and then, when I’m asked to suggest another book, pull out one that allows me to take that discussion further through contrast.

I know, once a teacher, always a teacher, and it might not work, but if I can introduce new ideas that will help the group develop handles to feel their way through to being able to express why they like or dislike a text then I hope that might be something they would enjoy.  After all, if they don’t like it they can always send me packing.

Typically, one of my other groups where we talk about the book for a couple of hours at a time has had to be cancelled this evening.  We all live locally and we’re very high up here.  Consequently, it has been extremely cold and the weekend snow has turned to ice, making the roads and pavements treacherous in the daylight and suicidal after dark.  I think in eleven years this is only the second time the weather has defeated us but there are times when even the delights of book talk have to give way to self-preservation. Drat it!

Spit Against the Wind ~ Anna Smith

511Q1EBRZ6L._SL500_AA300_I’ve recently been invited to join a reading group at one of my local libraries and my first meeting will be on Monday.  While I welcome the opportunity to meet a new group of fellow readers, I do have some concerns about groups based around a library system, the most pressing being the choice of books.  Like many libraries, this one has a collection of sets of books kept specifically for reading groups and so rather than the members having any say as to what is read they simply have to take the book that is offered.  The results can be very mixed. As a consequence, this past month I’ve found myself reading a book that I certainly wouldn’t have selected by preference and one whose qualities are at best ‘iffy’.

Of course, it’s often the case in my other groups that I’m reading a book that sits outside my reading comfort zone, but I can normally rely on its having being chosen because of its quality rather than its plentitude.  Also, the other groups are so well established and founded on respect for each other as readers that any concerns can be voiced without fear of them being taken the wrong way.  Coming to this group of readers completely fresh, knowing only the librarian who invited me, I have to say that I am approaching tomorrow with some trepidation.  If everyone else has loved the book, then I am going to have to shape my criticism very carefully.

The book in question is the first novel by Anna Smith, Spit Against the Wind, and to be fair, it has much to recommend it.  Set on the west coast of Scotland, not far from Glasgow, in the late 1960s, it tells the story of four ten and eleven year old children from the point of view and through the voice of, the only girl in the group, Kathleen Slaven.  One of the things that I think Smith does get right is that voice.  I believed in Kath and I found the dialogue convincing, whether it was that of the children or of the adults they observe.  I also thought she captured the tremendously harsh conditions that pertained in Scotland at that period.  What work was to be had was hard, with long hours and poor pay and many families lived in a poverty it is difficult to equate with the idea of ‘the swinging sixties’ that held sway further south.  As a result many of the adults resorted to drink as a way of hiding from their misery and the resulting violence is also not hard to believe.  Two of the four children, Jamie and Tony, live in constant fear of what the men in their household will do when they return every evening and even Kath knows that her father is as likely to drink his pay as bring it home to her mother.  Reading this it isn’t hard to see why, a decade and a half later, when Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to impose the Poll Tax it was in the west of Scotland they met their strongest opposition.  These people had nothing with which to pay the charge and certainly weren’t seeing anything in the way of benefit from it.

The other aspect that I think Smith gets completely correct is the antagonism in the west of Scotland between the Catholics and the Protestant.  We tend to think of this issue as an Irish one and if we associate it with Scotland at all it is likely only to be in relation to Glasgow and the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers football supporters.  But, as the composer James McMillan pointed out quite recently, this is a much wider problem and certainly, on that west coast, where many families originated from Ireland, religious hostility is as much a fact of life as it is in Belfast.

So, if I liked that much about this novel what’s my problem?  Ah, well, that comes with the plot, which I have to say would do one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five  books proud.  Not that I don’t think some of the events wouldn’t have happened; the daughter being sent to Ireland to have her illegitimate baby, the abusive priest, the humiliation of the hated teacher, the beloved elder brother emigrating to Australia, these are all perfectly acceptable, but when you then throw in the terrible pit accident, the suicide of the despised loner, the near death experiences of three of the four children, not to mention the Nazi Concentration Camp guard disguised as a Polish immigrant, all in a period of about nine months and two hundred and fifty pages – well, even my credulity begins to be stretched.  I don’t think there’s a plot cliché she hasn’t run with.  And yes, the children do run away to camp, although with less than Famous Five success.

So, what am I going to say tomorrow?  Well, I think I am going to try and keep very quiet, at least to begin with, until I’ve tested the temperature of the other members of the group’s taste and opinions.  But if I’m asked directly then I’m just going to have to find a way of suggesting that it would be fascinating to see how Smith developed, given that certain aspects of her writing showed such interesting promise and hope that I can indicating that there are other facets of the work that are not so promising without causing too much offence.