Can I have my lovely, tolerant country back tomorrow please? Could we aspire to being the jewel in Europe’s crown?
Can I have my lovely, tolerant country back tomorrow please? Could we aspire to being the jewel in Europe’s crown?
We are living through a freeze-frame here, as Thursday 23rd June creeps towards us. Some of us remember being asked, way back in 1975, whether we wanted to be part of Europe. Yes, we said – especially we the young, voting for the first time in our lives. We are the post-war generation: blessed with the astonishing gift our parents and grandparents gave us of being the first Britons in history to feel confident that we would not be at war with our fellow Europeans in our lifetimes. We have children born as European citizens, part of a forward-looking, joyfully international community that looks back at a world shaped by mediaeval boundaries as a primitive past that we have matured out of. Fragile, endangered and vulnerable though it is, we are the generations that are comfortable with our multiple identities. We belong; to our families, our friendship groups, our communities, and also to the long histories written into our DNA that we choose to respond to – as Scots who have never been north of Watford, fifth-generation Latvians, descendants of Africans, Norsemen: we all know who we think we are. And we have the right to feel part of the European family, too, not waifs pressing our noses to the glass from our off-shore island. We can drop by, move in, invite others to pull up a chair: Europe is our home and we live here.
So you will appreciate that I was already living under a cloud of apprehension as this hateful, ridiculous referendum slouches ever nearer, and the rhetoric and the propaganda became ever more unhinged. I think this must be a little like living through the summer of 1939, and it is horrible. And then Jo Cox was murdered.
At times like this, when the world seems to teeter on its axis and faith in the essential wisdom and goodness of humans feels quite hard to hold onto, I need books to give me backbone and to give me solace. This might be a very good moment to curl up into a little ball with The Wind in the Willows (the NorthernReader Ultimate Comfort Book) and stay there until it has all blown over. Not long enough? How about all twelve Arthur Ransome novels? Or Winnie The Pooh with its extremely pertinent reminder that ‘everyone’s alright really’ (unfortunately I am not nearly as nice a person as Pooh and, even as I try reciting his helpful observation, my Inner Unpleasant Person – never very far beneath the skin – is thinking about one or two of the least savoury of the present campaigns and muttering ‘well not him, obviously’).
Perhaps I need the long view. Norman Davies’ Europe: a History has much to commend it. No-one could accuse Professor Davies of short-changing the reader – one thousand pages taking us from the Ice Age to the end of the twentieth century – a breadth that might encourage a sense of ‘this too will pass’. Oxford and Cambridge University Presses both have their multi-volumed Histories, of course, and offer plenty of opportunity to specialise as well, with histories of Early Modern, Enlightenment and Modern Europe jostling for consideration. But there is more to life than non-fiction, and there is useful perspective to be gained by a re-read of Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead, or Seamus Heaney’s marvellous Beowulf , both salutary reminders that we come from a long line of marauding chaps who like fighting. We tend to buy into the whole hero thing a teensy bit uncritically, it seems to me. How much nicer the world might be if we lost no opportunity, when reading these tales out loud, to point out that heroes (and the gods of hero cultures) are a bunch of intellectually-challenged thugs who have neither the brains nor the courage to give debate, compromise and consensus a whirl. Mothers, tell your children.
So much of European history has been a sorry narrative of fighting to the death over little indistinguishable bits of muddy ground. The role of the Captain in Hamlet is barely a dozen short lines, and no actor yet besieged his agent to get him the part, but in his brief moment on the stage he captures all the hopeless futility of war between neighbours:
Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds
Hamlet was written four hundred years ago. Shakespeare’s audience recognised the tragic idiocy of war as age-old then, and we still respond to the play today because we still live in that same world, in thrall to mediaeval notions of boundaries.
Once the Referendum votes have been cast and counted, one way or the other, the Pause button will be double-clicked. Whatever the result, we must not let hatred and fear have any resting place. We will play on.
Our dog Bingo shares an official birthday with HM Queen. His, admittedly, is a date arrived at for slightly different reasons: less in need than Her Majesty for a date when the sun might be presumed to shine (ha!) on the public outpourings of congratulation, Bingo has rather more in common with Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, who has an official birthday to make up for the fact that he has mislaid his own in his long travels to a new life. While we, of course, feel honoured to have been adopted by this small and determined cocker spaniel, it is the Queen’s privilege to bestow honours from the sweetie-jar of the British array of knighthoods, dameries, and orders of this and that. This year’s little lot have attracted the opprobrium of the ranting Brexiters, who, glittery-eyed as the madness takes hold, see evidence in the Birthday Honours that everyone’s being horrid to them and you have to be pro-EU to get a medal around here. Well, it’s a point of view, I suppose, but it does rather miss the point that you have to earn honours by achieving something. Unlike, for example, the drear lists of the aeons-before-yesterday third-raters driven by grudges, arrant xenophobia and an inability to comprehend (or indeed to think it worth teaching) the basics of history or economics.
So, having got that off my chest (thank you: there will undoubtedly be more despairing pro-twenty-first-century bleatings from me as we move ever more swiftly to the referendum clifftop), how does the Honours system fare in books?
Once upon a time, it seems, things were much simpler. Some chaps were knights, principally because of their prowess at killing other people in a very sporting manner, and others were lords, principally by dint of being the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of other chaps who had not only been awfully good at killing people but who had impressed some king or other (himself a chap awfully good at killing people but with the added finesse of getting other chaps to do at least some of the killing for him) and been given a slightly casually carved-off chunk of Britain to go and be mini-me in – sorry, make that ‘go and hold in the name of King Whoever’. Presumably on the grounds of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’, many of these lords were brothers or younger sons of kings. The whole thing is the teeniest bit testosterone-fuelled – girls only got to be ladies by marrying, or being the daughters of, knights and lords (which is one in the eye for all those mothers who told their daughters that being a lady is all about good manners and having a hankie on you at all times). And what all this leads to, in bookish terms, is of course Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (read the fabulous translation by Simon Armitage) and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (now I come to think about it, that’s a knight and a lord doing the writing: come on, Ma’am, a knighthood for Mr Armitage please). It does not take a social commentator of genius to spot that the whole world of Arthurian legend is really frightfully County, where, darling, absolutely everyone knows everyone else and is titled, has a huge country estate and enjoys blood sports. Oh, and the girls hang around in inappropriately flimsy frocks and lust after the brawny chaps rather than the infinitely rarer thoughtful ones (Gawain, for example; brave and handsome and with an IQ struggling towards a whole number on the evidence of the text; or indeed Arthur himself, the last man on the planet to spot what is going on between his wife and — Freud-thou-shouldst-be-living-at-this-hour — Lancelot).
All this land-owning brings us to Shakespeare. William himself didn’t have much of it, but what he had he held, grimly moving boundary stones to gain an extra few inches on his fields in Stratford and buying the biggest house in his old home town. But knights, lords and kings were his stock-in-trade, and his English history plays are awash with people called Suffolk, Warwick and York. A moment’s inattention at the theatre and one can feel high and dry in a sea of people addressing each other as Leamington Spa or Chipping Sodbury, bringing about strong feelings of solidarity with Winnie the Pooh, who querulously enquired, ‘Three Cheers for Pooh! For who? Why, what did he do?’. When you add into the heady mix the fact that there were very few Christian names to go around, you can see what a social nightmare living in Mediaeval England must have been, as exemplified in the snappy little dialogue between Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York in Richard III (it’s Act 4 Scene 4 if you’re dying to read on):
Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;
DUCHESS OF YORK
I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him.
Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill’d him.
The Queen is cheating at this point, because the Duke of Clarence (the one who gets drowned in a butt of malmsey) has a perfectly good first name, George, which has the unique selling point of being unbagged by anyone else in the play (although to be honest there are so many bit-parts for Lord This and Lord That, any one of whom might have been known to their friends and relations as ‘good old George’, that I’m afraid I did not go and look them all up for you. Sorry).
But to end on a bright note. The NorthernReader household has long presumed that Penelope Wilton’s Damehood must have been lost in the post. Today, hurray and hurrah, it arrived. To a truly great actress, congratulations.
It used to be called The Season, and jolly tiring it was too. Never part of the Coming Out (which meant something quite different then), balls and aristocratic hob-nobbing which formed the invisible web binding together the members of a now-vanished caste, I look back in astonishment to realise how many of the London season events were an occasional part of my childhood. Not a horsey lot, we were not the family that counted the days to Royal Ascot, Badminton and the Epsom Derby (although a later extremely mild interest has led me before now to Cheltenham and Goodwood in the days when it was still about horses). Wimbledon, as I have confessed before, has left memories only of acute and almost terminal boredom. The highlight used to be the Chelsea Flower Show: I had some halcyon years living on a houseboat practically next door, and in the days when Members’ Day meant you and one or two other people pottering blissfully about in frocks/gents’ lounge suiting in the sunlit acres – ah, it was very heaven, those blue remembered hills whereon celebrity had not been invented.
Since those far-off days, the NorthernReader household, its back turned against the metropolis (hurrah), has found its pleasures in a harmless addiction to country and county shows. If you have yet to experience a day spent in comfortable footwear solemnly debating the relative merits of different breeds of perfectly darling sheep, make this your breakthrough year. We have happy memories of years and years of drinking Pimms and watching the pole-climbing (no, really) at the New Forest Show: only our morbid dislike of traffic kept us away from the Royal Welsh. Since becoming adopted citizens of Northumberland, our cravings are splendidly fed by the Northumberland Show, and that was where we were to be found yesterday, knee-deep in cattle, pigs, dogs and tiny children driving tanks around a field.
The country show has seldom, if ever, featured as a key locus in fiction, which is a shame because all human, and indeed sentient, life is there. A splendid setting for comedy, tragedy, love and mayhem, I suggest. PG Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens explores many of Ukridge’s get-rich-quick ideas, but, sadly, exhibiting at the local show is not one of them (incidentally, when did chicken farms fall from favour as an absolutely sure-fire thing for making love or money? Wodehouse’s breezy chaps are always falling back of the idea as a perfect scheme, but Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, and indeed one the plot twists and turns in Dorothy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death, would tend to suggest that there is a melancholy or even a sinister side lurking among our feathered friends). Race meetings have become synonymous with Jilly Cooper territory, in fiction if not in life (haven’t read one and haven’t encountered burly lotharios with Barbara Cartlandish names, so cannot claim any right to judgment here); and of course with Dick Francis’s thrillers, which marry detailed knowledge of the racing world with the most wooden characters since Thunderbirds and are therefore known collectively (there are about a million of them) in the NorthernReader household as The Woodentops Go To The Races.
The London Season in all its debutantish horror lies behind Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, and is even more clearly brought to life in her sister Jessica’s memoir, Hons and Rebels. EF Benson’s Lucia in London charts his heroine’s attempts to break into high society. If you haven’t read the Mapp and Lucia novels, the best recommendation I can give to entice you in is that Benson completely nails the significance of saying ‘no’ with emphasis to mean ‘I never heard anything so marvellous, and it thrills me through and through. Please go on at once, and tell me a great deal more’ (and if that doesn’t make you want to add Benson to your much-cherished ‘Jane Austen and Other Wasps’ shelf, I despair).
Let us shake off the dust of London and retire gratefully back to the country and its social pleasures. Our first glimpse of Tess, red lips and sash, white dress and all, in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, finds our heroine skipping round the Maypole. I have only to recall it – and the several hundred dutiful essays retelling it to me handed in each year by undergraduates – to know that the moment when I can re-read Tess has not yet dawned. More enjoyable might be Peter Tinniswood’s play, The Village Fete; I don’t know it but he was such a good writer that I’m looking forward to making its acquaintance now I’ve stumbled upon it. Miss Read, of course, is as ever a splendid source of fetes, fairs and jamborees, as is Barbara Pym (and why has it only just dawned on me how much those terrific writers have in common?). If all else fails, we can revisit Enid Blyton’s Mary Mouse, who in Mary Mouse and the Garden Party performs the useful function of setting out all the hard work that lies behind such a festive occasion in so much grim detail it put at least one impressionable young reader off anything to do with such jolly community get-togethers for very many years. Ah, how are the mighty fallen: this summer (I use the term loosely, having looked out of the window) I find myself organising a village Midsummer Night’s Party and running the raffle for the Village Fete.
I have spent the last few weeks, which have felt like geological eras, edging towards selling a flat. No, despite what our current Beloved Leader’s sidekick would have you believe, this does not mean that I am Rachman reincarnated, leafing through my property portfolio in the Bond-like fastnesses of NorthernReader Towers. I had a small lump sum and, in the absence of any pension (too young – hurrah – for a state one and too female to have ever been offered a private one) a flat seemed like a slightly better return on capital than, say, a bank account (if only bonuses, and indeed salaries, were capped to the interest rates these people offer). It also offered the humble pleasures of drastically improving Britain’s housing stock, one flat at a time, and being a model landlord. Just call me Pollyanna (so much less rude than ‘poor deluded fool’). What has actually kneaded the iron deep into my soul, however, has been the managing agents who, as the same unsavoury individuals but wearing a multiplicity of hats, hold the freehold, act as their own surveyors, do their own conveyancing, and (don’t) maintain and run the building. Dante, thou shouldst be living at this hour, because managing agents are a sub-species below even estate agents, bankers and politicians. Enough of the brutalities of real life; how about flats in fiction?
Strangely enough, none of the occupants of literature’s flats and apartments seem cursed with managing agents. The male of the species is often attended by a housekeeper (Sherlock Holmes’s Mrs Hudson) or a valet (Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion with the disreputable Lugg; Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and his man Bunter, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves). Male detectives, it seems, are irresistibly drawn to the flat as an address (yes, I know Bertie isn’t a detective, unless of course you count – as you should – his triumphant work in the Case of Aunt Agatha’s Pearls aka ‘Aunt Agatha Takes the Count’ in Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves). Hercule Poirot is another denizen of an apartment block, relying on George for sustenance and clean socks. I cannot think of a single example of a chap who fends for himself in a flat, or one whose narrative trajectory is marked by such mundanities as popping to the shops or doing the washing up. Several of the males of the flat-dwelling species do, however, display a keen interest in the nicer points of interior design – not Holmes, obviously, but Wimsey favours a terrifically modish primrose-and-black scheme at one point and Poirot prides himself on manifesting le dernier cri of Art Deco (and jolly uncomfortable and foreign it is all made to sound).
Flats occupied by women in fiction cover a wider social range, but all, I think, are meant to give us some sense of the freedom that can be enjoyed by a woman living in a city. While the flats themselves may vary from the steamy bed-sits of John Betjeman and Edna O’Brien territory to the fabulous luxury of Delysia Lafosse’s love-nest in Winifred Watson’s Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, they all offer the promise of a life less ordinary and, in particular, of a life not spent darning a man’s socks. Virginia Woolf quite rightly identifies a woman’s need for A Room of One’s
Own before she can find a sense of self; how very much more the autonomy of a woman with a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom (and, be it noted as an advantage of flat-dwelling for people with better things to do, no garden). I’m not sure that the physical structure of the building is ever specified, but Mary Smiling’s home in Cold Comfort Farm simply must be a flat, albeit a sumptuously huge one (all those brassieres), because to Flora Poste and to us the widowed Mrs Smiling is the embodiment of a certain sort of freedom, which comes entirely – ah, the wise Jane Austenishness of it! – from her possession of a good fortune and her consequent total absence of need for a husband. What a bore sex is, Stella Gibbons implies (your age and your inclinations will tend to colour your response); poor old Flora, economically and hormonally driven to end up dwindling into a wife (and if by chance you haven’t read Congreve’s The Way of the World, now is the moment: if only I’d remembered it in time for last month’s NorthernReader Book Club, when we talked about the books we would like to make the film of).
Apartments lived in by women on their own do bring with them – in fiction, I hasten to add, not in life – the dubious aura of being a Kept Woman. Think of Linda’s beautiful flat in Paris, in which she is installed (why is ‘installed’, with its overtones of plumbing, always the word used for a mistress?) by the great love of her life on Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love (still perfect, and perfectly heart-breaking, at the millionth time of reading).
Modern urban living, whether in London, New York, Paris or Edinburgh, has made flat-dwellers of nearly all of us at one time or another in our lives. The sad truth is that we usually have not the remotest idea who our neighbours might be, as our lives slide past each other like immutable planets. It should not be like this, and Alexander McCall Smith offers us a vision of a better world in which flats – 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh and Corduroy Mansions in Pimlico – form vertical villages, where no man or woman is an island and every neighbour, like it or not, is involved in mankind.
I try to steer away from politics. No, let’s be honest; some years working in the House of Commons exacerbated a natural distaste for the egregious, the smarmy and the downright dishonest. Despite a sensibility that would gnaw off its own arm rather than vote Conservative (the legacy of That Woman apart from anything else), I am happy to live amicably and without comment with my head tucked quietly below the parapet. But when the government (I use the term loosely) of the day casts its glazed and lifeless eye around the sea of Things To Do and chooses instead to mount an all-out attack on the BBC – well, bring me my Bow of burning gold is all I can say.
Let me count the ways. First, there is the cultural truth that the BBC isn’t the government’s plaything; it’s ours. I neither know nor care what the statutes, rules, regulations, terms and conditions say: the BBC belongs to the people and is part of us. Next, the whole point of the BBC is that it is not under the thumb of political despotism. Across the world, journalists put themselves in peril in the struggle to report what is happening rather than what Beloved Leaders would like us to believe. The very fact that political parties of all colours regularly whine that it’s not fair, Miss, the BBC hates us, is shining testament to its clear-eyed impartiality. Fourthly, kneecapping the BBC so that your chums in commercial broadcasting can make huge profits without fear of competition is not cricket. Fifthly, obsessing, year in, year out, about something that has a far better reputation than you do smacks of petty-minded, mean-spirited, pathetic inadequacy. If a government is at a loose end and simply longing to take something over and regulate it, try the banks.
So here are some books for this week’s shelf to strengthen our sinews as we gear up to fight for the BBC and show it that we care. Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices reminds us of the war years and the BBC’s vital role as the embodiment of life free from dictatorship (and the BBC dramatised Fitzgerald’s novel earlier this year). Charlotte Higgins’s This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC exactly captures the way the corporation has come to be so much part of our social, emotional and cultural fabric.
Some BBC broadcasters have themselves become instantly recognisable voices and part of the collage of sounds, pictures and memories that go towards making us feel like a people. David Attenborough, of course – and I join the nation in wishing Sir David the happiest of happy birthdays; generations of Dimblebys; James Naughtie, Eddie Mair and John Humphrys (if politicians fear you, Mr Humphrys – and they do – you’re getting it right); Jeremy Paxman (ditto); Kirsty Young, Sue MacGregor and Jenni Murray; we each have our favourites and our special memories and the list could stretch out to the end of time if the government would only keep its greedy little paws off.
Remember, too, the part the BBC has played and still plays in bringing a trusted voice to people who are not free. The cuts to the World Service has been a hushed-up scandal that we should be ashamed of ourselves for not having taken to the streets to protest about. As Mr Putin closes in on what he seems to regard as his lost colonies in Eastern Europe, how the people there might come to rue the decision that was made a decade or so ago to close down the World Service broadcasts in their languages.
But let our bookshelf also celebrate the astonishing contribution to our collective imagination made by BBC dramatisations. Hurray that Hilary Mantel’s fabulous Wolf Hall (and Bring Up the Bodies) won deserved glory at the BAFTAs this year. It can take its place among legends of sublime television alongside Pride and Prejudice, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People (and now we can add The Night Manager to the BBC tick-list of a job well done), Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth brought heart-breakingly to life in Cheryl Campbell’s luminous performance, Middlemarch, Bleak House and Little Dorrit: it turns out that the great Victorian novelists were just waiting for television to be invented.
And then there’s radio. Alan Bennett – Wind in the Willows just edging it from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner – will have to be the one recording I save from the waves for Kirsty’s desert island. So many books, from the iconic to the obscure, have come to life and lodged in the heart thanks to Radio 4’s readings and dramatisations. Try this week’s Radio 4 Book of the Week, which I think might well turn out to be the NorthernReader Book of the Year, Chris Packham’s searing autobiography, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, a blistering, glittering kaleidoscope of shards of memory. And then go straight out and buy the book, because you’ll want to read it again, and again.
So now is the time to assert ourselves as readers and audience. Tell your MP that you will not stand by and watch the annexation of the BBC. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.
This week and next sees the Hexham Book Festival strut its stuff on a stage/in a café/gallery/library/cinema/Abbey near the NorthernReader stronghold: o joy, o rapture is a not unreasonable response, especially for James Naughtie devotees (as who could not be?) who have a BBC Radio 4 Book Club session with Tony Harrison and the launch of Mr Naughtie’s own novel to look forward to. Wherever you are, certainly in Britain, it seems increasingly unlikely that you will not find yourself within sauntering distance of a literary festival of one sort or another between now and October. Authors have become the new strolling players, ever on the road smiling bravely and often, answering the same question from Ashby-de-la-Zouche to Stromness and signing their little paws off. Woe betide the plain, the recalcitrant and the reclusive: the modern author can forget the luxury of anonymity. Should you happen to have a warm, engaging personality as well as a flair for writing fiction, your book sales can only be enhanced, but sadly the converse also holds: there are one or two writers whose dour demeanour and brusque absence of good manners has forever tainted my enjoyment of their writing.
Which is extremely unfair of me on two counts: a) because authors, no less than other more ordinary mortals, have the right not to be judged on their appearance and b) because such discrimination can only be applied to writers who post-date photography. Yes, yes, I know that there are writers immortalised in pastels, watercolours and oils, but even setting aside the objection that only the wealthy, the famous in their own lifetimes or the writers with artistic siblings qualified for being captured on canvas, one glance at, say, the Droeshout engraving of William Shakespeare is enough to remind us that a good likeness can be hard to find. But even though it undoubtedly shouldn’t matter, does it matter? Are we drawn to or repelled by John Donne’s uncanny resemblance to Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy fame? Is Philip Larkin’s reputation for unpleasantness bolstered by his frankly lugubrious mugshots? And how would our reading of Chaucer change if we found a portrait which showed him to be a ringer for Shrek?
The idea of the author as celebrity, ever on the road promoting his or her work, is scarcely new. Indeed we have an illustration of Chaucer himself reading his work to the court of Richard II, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to hear him doing all the voices and keeping his audience enthralled. Perhaps the greatest performer of his own work was Charles Dickens. He toured the country, and the United States as well, giving readings of his novels so dramatic that people in the huge audiences fainted. Dickens was clearly a brilliant actor: think what it must have been to be his parlourmaid, walking past the study door and hearing Bill Sikes and Nancy rather startlingly slugging it out, with pauses while their new-minted words were written down. Now it is rare for the author to be the wisest choice of reader, but goodness me the pleasure of the perfect reading. Alan Bennett, for example, clearly put upon earth to give us Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner and The Wind in the Willows (among much else, Bennett has also recorded Alice in Wonderland which is also sublime but somehow never quite made it onto the NorthernReader Truly Indispensable list). The BBC’s Radio 4 is the source of much reading-aloud perfection: I have recently much enjoyed listening to Damien Lewis reading John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth, not least because I am at heart shallow (it should come as no surprise to learn that I am eagerly awaiting the film of Our Kind of Traitor).
But deciding which famous actor should be tasked with reading your favourite book, or indeed your own first novel, for posterity is perilously close to deciding who should play you when they make the biopic (not that there’s any harm in Being Prepared, of course: who does not have their list of eight records, a book and a luxury ready just in case Kirsty phones?) The fact remains that most writers today, including the ones who only became writers as a by-product of their Badger-like aversion to Company, have to pitch up at endless events where a brightly anticipatory audience demands insights into the creative process, answers to questions about how much you fancy your own main character, and a preview of your latest effort read, falteringly and woodenly, by you, aware as you are that you have either not explained who these characters are and what the hell they are doing sitting in an empty ballroom/on an upturned boat/in the Sistine Chapel discussing the death of someone else the audience has never heard of, or that in the depth and complexity of your introductory explanations you have killed off any need for purchasing your book together with, judging from their frozen glazed expressions, much of your audience’s will to live.
But be not afeard, as Shakespeare so comfortingly reminds us; the isle is full of noises, and many of them at this time of year are the sounds of polite audiences applauding before they queue to buy your book. Never mind that when they ask you to dedicate their copy you are pretty sure they asked you to write ‘To Dirty’ and it is only later – much, much later – that it occurs to you it is more probable that the name was Bertie. Yours, dear author, are the sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. And only three or four readers out of ten at every festival will unfailingly assure you that they will get your new book from the library.
‘Yes, we can.’ Dominic Dromgoole, director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, says Barack Obama’s words inspired the fabulously ambitious plan to take Shakespeare round the world on a tour that has visited 197 countries and gripped and enthralled more than one hundred thousand people. Today, give or take a day or so, William Shakespeare might be celebrating his 452nd birthday, should there happen to be an afterlife and, if so, should it incline towards cakes and ale. Rather less cheerily, today is also the day (again, give or take a day or so) that Shakespeare left us for that party in the sky four hundred years ago.
We have talked before about the little we know about the life, and about the books that people have spun out of it. Today I think I want to tell you a story. This morning we held a party in our village hall here in NorthernReaderLand. People of all ages came together to drink coffee, eat cake and enjoy each other’s company. I had advertised this shindig as Shakespeare’s Birthday Party, and what I have found thrilling, wonderful and infinitely moving is the number of people who have come up to me in the street during the last couple of weeks and said, ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’, or ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’, or ‘rough winds do shake the darling buds of may’. We have Shakespeare wrapped around the beautiful double helix of our DNA. Our tables this morning were festooned with snippets and quotes, and I wish you had been there with us to hear the joy and sense of ownership with which we read them out. ‘This is our voice,’ is what I heard, ‘and these are our words.’ Small wonder, then, that my new very small friend Emily, who helped blow out the candles, started us singing Happy Birthday to William and we all joined in.
So what is it about Shakespeare that grabs us, heart and soul? Well, for a start, there is so much of him. I bow to no-one in my admiration of his chums, but if we turn to John Webster, there are only two towering masterpieces, one other play and a handful of collaborative works. Thomas Middleton was more prolific, but again we really only have a handful of plays that are solely or principally his. Middleton, by the way, is particularly good for deflating the Romantic notion of Shakespeare as some sort of back-lit demi-god, penning his deathless lines alone and in a clean white shirt: among the plays for which we know Middleton to have been a co-writer we can list Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well, and probably Measure for Measure and Macbeth while we’re about it. Shakespeare is nonetheless very unusual indeed among his contemporaries for being credited with so much solo work. This was a time of astonishing demand, when the playhouses needed a new play every few days in the precious weeks when the weather, the plague and the powers-that-be allowed them to open. Get the public mood wrong, come up with a play that no-one wants to see, and ‘chaos is come again’ (Shakespeare’s good on chaos, on the wafer-thin line we teeter on between survival and oblivion, on the tiny gossamer wisps of hope that flicker past us). No wonder most of the acting companies went for the productivity – and the collective responsibility – of an in-house script-writing team.
What it must have been to have Shakespeare in the company! How quickly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – who became the King’s Men when James VI/I pitched up in London – must have realised they had something special among them: a little goldmine who could be relied on to come up with the goods. We can see and hear that band of brothers in every line he writes for them. We know when they have a couple of boy actors, one noticeably tall and one noticeably small: you’ll find them playing Hermia and Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beatrice and Hero in Much Ado About Nothing. We know when a new and different sort of comic actor arrives; once the playwright and musician Robert Armin joins them, Shakespeare’s clowns become philosopher-poets, melancholics who can sing – Touchstone in As You Like It, Feste in Twelfth Night. And, goodness me, we know they had a simply terrific actor who must have fired Shakespeare’s imagination, driving him to produce ever bigger and more complex roles that shape and define the modern English-speaking theatre. Imagine what it was to be Richard Burbage; to be handed the slips of paper, to be the first to give the lines sound, to make the writer hear what worked and what needed tweaking, what needed re-working, what needed scrapping. Imagine being the first Hamlet, the first Othello, the first Richard III, the first King Lear. Branagh, Olivier, Irving, Kean – they all trace their lineage on the stage back to Burbage.
And all this is to forget Shakespeare’s extraordinary other life as a published writer of poetry. It’s an odd and slightly paradoxical position that he occupies: writing elegant love poetry was seen as a gentlemanly or aristocratic accomplishment, but no gentleman would be seen dead publishing his work commercially. Your loss, of course, if a too-nice sense of social distinction lost you the astonishing pleasure of reading Shake-Speares Sonnets. The very form that he adopts, adapts and takes to unimaginable heights we now think of as the Shakespearean sonnet: four lines setting up an idea –
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate
Another four lines exploring that idea and taking us down a particular path within it –
Wishing me like one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Now, here it comes, the twist, the turn, the moment when Shakespeare uses one of his battery of huge ‘little words’: but, and, then, for, yet. It’s ‘yet’ in this one, which is Sonnet 29, by the way. So here come four lines which turn the corner and tell us what the poem is really talking about –
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
Oh hurray! It turns out, dearest reader, that it’s all about you, the person at the heart of this poem and this poet. Drive on now to the final couplet; two rhyming lines that say it all:
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Now that, friends, Romans, countrymen, gentles all; that’s the way to do it.
It always comes as a delightful shock to notice that the evenings are drawing out and spring is in full swing in garden, pond and forest. In a moment of madness last summer – you know how easy it is to agree to anything if it is far enough in the future – we agreed to be part of a village ‘gardens open’ this year, so April has seen us, in defiance of the weather, which has been a bit Novemberish for my tastes, digging and raking and sticking tentative forks into what we optimistically call the lawn. Frogs have spawned, snowdrops have been and gone and we are now knee-deep in daffodils and blossom, with tulips ready to upstage the lot. What we need from this week’s books is flowers.
Let’s start with some poetry. Every garden-lover should have a copy of Poems for Gardeners by the bed. An anthology put together by Germaine Greer, it is exactly the right mixture of the well-known and the surprising, wandering pleasingly far and wide to remind us that gardens have always been, quite literally, a paradise. Greer includes Andrew Marvell, because he is impossible to resist at the best of times and especially when talking about gardens. Always writing in couplets, Marvell can seem clunky to us now, and I always have a lurking suspicion that the thought behind ‘The Garden’ outstrips the phrasing – casting the body’s vest aside, for example: memorable, certainly, but, at least in the NorthernReader household, impossible to read straight-faced, which rather lowers the tone. In all his poems about the natural or the cultivated outdoor world, in fact – Upon Appleton House, the ‘Mower’ poems – Marvell sticks rigidly to his prevailing mood of a rather gloomy austerity. No, I think I want someone cheerier as my garden companion for today.
Not Wendy Cope, then; but only because her entirely marvellous short poem, ‘Flowers’, breaks my heart.
Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.The shop was closed. Or you had doubts –
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up incessantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while
From this it is but a short step to Dorothy Parker’s indispensable ‘One Perfect Rose’. We have talked about this before (Week 83), but here it is in its full acerbic glory:
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.
Not yet known to me, but looked forward to, is the collection Reading the Flowers by Linda France, who will be talking about her work next Saturday at the Hexham Book Festival. I have seen her poems described as ‘a work of scholarship and imagine and precise observation’ which make them sound exactly the sort of thing for me.
On any bookshelf about flowers, Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever has to take pride of place. Perfectly balanced between Calvinist restraint and Catholic excess, the novel is saturated with the extraordinary, breath-holding world that produced the sumptuous still-lives of the Dutch Old Masters. If you haven’t, read it; if you have, read it again: time well spent in either case. And we can indulge in some mild word-play by adding Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and the collected works of Rose Tremain to our shelf: none of them very helpful on the natural history or horticultural front, but essential reading on other grounds. And lest it was buried in the middle of my little list, let me repeat that Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower has to be read; now, at once, immediately: it is that rarest of rare things, an entirely perfect work of art.
Children are probably better served nowadays than they were when I was little and in danger of being fobbed off with the sugary pleasures of Cicely Mary Barker’s The Flower Fairies. It may of course be that I was an unusually horrid and insensitive child, but I’m afraid her classic illustrations of little girls simpering about with wings and floaty frocks inspired nausea even at a very tender age. You may of course have loved them, in which case you are very far from being alone judging from the brisk trade in posters, fabric, ceramics and what the NorthernReader household learned from Betty MacDonald to call toe-covers (such a useful phrase, we find, to sum up all those gifty knick-knacks of no possible benefit to mankind). Getting the poppets to notice flowers, and spot the differences between them, is a good start to engaging them in a lifetime of pleasure in the natural world. Flowers are colourful, so give children paints and paper and send them outside. Anyone brought up on the detailed botanical drawings of Beatrix Potter has a headstart; and, among many other reasons for reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the practical descriptions of gardening constitute good sound advice. You can always follow up with Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden for a later birthday.
Right. The sun has come, a little fitfully, out. On with boots and gloves and out we go.