Week 112: The Beeb

bbcI 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.

'Here is the news, and this is Alvar Lidell reading it'

‘Here is the news, and this is Alvar Lidell reading it’

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.

wolf hallBut 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.

beeb

 

Week 111: The Festive Reader (and its prey)

hexhamThis 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 donnematter, 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 chaucercourt 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 realewisding-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.books

Week 89: He Do the Police in Different Voices

painting1

It’s been a trying week, watching and – even worse – listening to grown men and women squirm and cavort in the increasingly desperate hope that they might inspire us to like them, or perhaps pity them, enough to vote for them. What with one chap deciding that suit jackets are some sort of symbol of oppressive tyranny, making shirt sleeves a uniform regardless of the weather (I don’t know about you, but I’m not casting any clouts just yet), and another bloke inflicting an excruciatingly awkward Dick Van Dyke sound-alike audition on us when he grovelled round a multi-millionaire middle-aged and somewhat bafflingly self-appointed representative of Youth, it’s all been a bit demeaning. I’m afraid the answer to the question, ‘just how stupid do they think the electorate are?’ is pretty clear. So I thought we might turn away from the hurly-burly of the hustings and give some thought to the uses of disguise.

This week’s title comes, as you well know, from Charles Dickens via TS Eliot. Dickens coined it in Our Mutual Friend to describe Betty Higden’s son (rather splendidly known as Sloppy, as if he were a prototype for Wodehouse) and his talent for reading out the lurid bits in the newpapers; and Eliot borrowed it as the working title for what he later decided to call The Waste Land instead. Eliot’s poem is a fabulous patchwork of different voices, colliding, overlapping, coming in from nowhere. If you haven’t read it, or at least not for a while, rush off and do so now, preferably aloud, and, now that you are not in school and it is not a menacing set text, find all the humour and zest lurking within it. Eliot was not necessarily everyone’s idea of the perfect dinner-party guest – not often given to having the table in stitches – but as well as the undeniably austere philosophy and the rigorously scholarly breadth of his cultural references, he was not unaware of the divine comedy of human existence. Try The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock if you don’t believe me.

I have NO IDEA who this could be

I have NO IDEA who this could be

Some disguises in fiction are, we are told, amazingly effective. Sherlock Holmes, for example, can baffle everyone around him – and especially, of course, Dr Watson, Baldrick to Holmes’s Blackadder – with his ability to metamorphose into – gosh! – a working class person. Poor old Mrs. Hudson, ironing the plumber’s outfit after Holmes comes back from a tiring day righting wrongs (or, of course, stalking people. It all depends on your perspective). At a slightly more sophisticated level, the basic premise behind GK Chesterton’s detective, Father Brown, is that we automatically presume that a bumbling Catholic priest must be too simple and unworldly to unravel the cynical heart of the villainous mysteries he stumbles across. His biretta works as a constant disguise, on the same lines as Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant understanding of where the best place might be to hide The Purloined Letter. Graham Greene develops the idea in The Power and the Glory, and the Whisky Priest is just one of Greene’s flawed heroes whose greatness and courage is disguised, not least from themselves. Greene and Eliot knew and liked each other, incidentally, and were profound admirers of each other’s work. I remain unconvinced that that dinner party I am constructing in my mind would go with more of a swing if they were both invited, nonetheless.

Setting aside all the metaphorical ways in which characters in fiction (and indeed in what we laughingly call real life) disguise their true nature – and Jane Austen is the Mistress of Metaphorical Disguise – a change of costume and some greasepaint can shove the plot forward a treat. Would Mr Rochester ever have got round to declaring his feelings for Jane if he hadn’t happened to have a complete Gypsy Woman outfit knocking around? And doesn’t it say a lot for Jane that, on discovering that the man of her dreams is an occasional cross-dresser, she takes it awfully well? What with that, the endless lying and smirking secrecy and – oh yes! – not just common-or-garden adultery or even attempted bigamy, but actually keeping the present Mrs Rochester in the attic, perhaps Jane is setting her standards just a little bit low. Apart from anything else, I suspect that Rochester’s disguise is on a par with Violet-Elizabeth Bott’s Beatle wig in Richmal Crompton’s unmissable Just William stories (or, indeed, when a temporary and very muddy incarnation as a squaw in William’s tribe renders her unrecognisable to her own father).

untitled (22)Which brings me to the finest disguiser of them all. Should Martin Jarvis ever feel a bit down in the dumps and wonder what it’s all for, I hope he will take comfort from the hordes and legions of his admirers, whose lives have been made that little bit sparklier by his readings of Just William. And, if you are familiar with those, rush out now and acquaint yourself with Mr Jarvis bringing all PG Wodehouse’s characters to life on CD. Yes, that’s right, all of them. Once heard, never forgotten. Some people suffer from voices in the head (known in the NorthernReader household as Joan of Arc syndrome), and jolly miserable it probably is for them. Others, more fortunate, simply have Martin Jarvis being Aunt Agatha, or Jeeves, or Violet-Elizabeth, giving command performance for their (inner) ear only. Add Alan Bennett as Eeyore and you will never again question the truth that radio is the medium of choice.

And the good news? Readers-who-are-voters-in-the-UK-General-Election, the end – one way or the other – is nigh. My advice for Thursday night would be to go to bed early with a good book.

WP_20141014_002

 

PS You might think us gluttons for punishment, but the next NorthernReader Book Club is going to talk about POLITICS. Eleven o’clock in the morning on Thursday 14th May (see the Book Club page for how to find us). There will be cake. Now, why don’t more politicians use that simple and persuasive phrase?

Week 64: Gunpowder, Treasons and Plots

fireworksFirework displays now being a public event best held on a weekend evening (no school tomorrow) as well as on November 5th itself, it is possible to dodge about in your local area and go to three or four to satisfy your cravings for loud bangs and sparkly lights. In the NorthernReader household it is a widely-held, but incorrect, belief that the nation leaps into this paroxysm of fiery festivity to celebrate our wedding anniversary – yes, Reader, I married him on November 5th, thus extinguishing any possibility of getting away with forgetting the date. The lovely KatePonders has also now discovered for herself that Germany does not mark the occasion, whether of the NorthernReader nuptials or of the foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

It is quite odd, as of course so many things are should we actually stop for a moment to think about them, that we cheerfully celebrate what, whichever way you look at it, was quite a nasty incident. Had Catesby and his chums succeeded, pretty much the entire ruling class in England would have been wiped out – and before you mutter, ‘no loss’ and start toying with radical sympathies, it is probably worth spending a moment or two considering the pain, suffering and death the project would have inflicted. Even the most unpleasant governments are made up of real live human beings, and causing them gratuitous suffering should be no part of our plans. Which noble thought brings us to what did actually happen, which was the harrowing torture and execution of the failed plotters. In amongst the dates we mark in this country, it would perhaps be good to include 13th August 1964. Not familiar with it? It is the date on which the last death sentences in the United Kingdom were carried out.

Gunpowder_Plot_conspiratorsSo a thoroughly grisly bookshelf seems to be in order this week. Let’s start with Antonia Fraser, who has written extensively on the Gunpowder Plot. She is a terrific guide to historical events because she brings to her narratives the instincts of a thriller-writer (which she also is). Admittedly it would take a heart of stone not to find the unfolding details of the 1605 plot utterly absorbing, but I suspect that Fraser could make the Repeal of the Corn Laws into a page-turner. She contributed one of the very best chapters to the compelling Gunpowder Plots, a collection of highly enjoyable essays by experts in their various fields – the history of explosives, early Stuart Britain, the politics of monarchy – published in 2005, the four-hundredth anniversary of the failed coup attempt.

Bearing in mind the extremely sensible observation of Sir John Harrington, ‘Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason’, we might limit the treacherous stretches of our bookshelf to a couple of must-reads: Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. If you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s film, incidentally, do so: but read the book as well. And I think we should have Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands while we’re about it. Hugely influential as more or less the founding text of the spy novel genre, the novel – which remains gripping to this day – was widely credited with forcing a change in British military and naval policy in preparing for possible invasion. Childers’ life was almost unfeasibly dramatic and, ultimately, tragic : there are biographies, of which Leonard Piper’s Dangerous Waters: the Life and Death of Erskine Childers is a fine example, and it seems strange that as yet there has been no film.

We have talked before (Week 28) about our regrettable tendency to glamorise spying and treachery. It is sobering to read of some of the Cold War conspiracies – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre, Michael Holzman’s Guy Burgess (although you must promise to see Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, with Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Browne as herself). We should remember, too, that the Armada was not some jolly boating party serendipitously fended off by Francis Drake in between games of bowls. The Spanish were attempting to slip up the English Channel to land in the Low Countries, pick up their army, a byword for terror, and invade England. The plan was more Pol Pot than the costumes let on. If you want to know what people who bruegel_kindermoord_detail_grthad a taste of them thought of the Spanish army, look, long, hard and thoughtfully, as Bruegel’s painting, The Massacre of the Innocents. Notice how it isn’t set in first-century Palestine? See the storm-trooper gear the soldiers are wearing?

My point, dearest reader, is that enforced change is rarely an awfully good thing: and that the merchants of change are so depressingly often better at the enforcing than the changing. Non-fiction – history, biography – tells us this, but fiction makes us know it in our hearts. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory will give us plenty to contemplate. Quick: let us draw comfort from John Donne. Who but Donne could take the age-old fear of treachery and betrayal in love and turn it to sublime triumph?

Here upon earth, we’re Kings, and none but we

Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be.

Who is so safe as we? Where none can do

Treason to us, except one of us two.

Written while that same James who was the target of the Gunpowder Plot still sat upon his throne, Donne’s poem, ‘The Anniversarie’, shelters us from paranoia and a world where we are told to be afraid all the time. Find love, he says, and you can know what it is to trust. It’s worth setting off a few fireworks to celebrate.fireworks-newcastle-5JPG

Week 30: A Great Day for Out

Created with Nokia Smart CamAfter the wettest winter since the world began, London newspapers – which is pretty much all the English papers, then, ‘the north’ being something that starts at Islington for them – are cheering the first signs of spring.  Here in the not-so-wet North East we have almost been made to feel guilty for some months now, as we potter about in the t-shirt and jeans that comprise the average Northumberlander’s specialised winter gear.  But in the last week or so we have rejoined the rest of the country in a tiny frenzy of blooming and budding.  As promised, the NorthernReader Walking Book Club stepped out for the first time this week, and in amongst the book-lined pleasure path we made of  ‘have you read?’ and ‘oh, I loved’, we had time to notice (as we paused to 1170411678catch our breath – walking uphill and talking –one of us with the very smallest reader in a baby sling – you’d have been proud of us and I bet you’re wishing you’d come with us now, aren’t you?) – we had time to notice that lambs were skipping, catkins were doing some tail-shaking and the world was gently turning emerald green.  We tucked into home-made cakes at St Oswald’s tearoom on Hadrian’s Wall before skittering down the fell to get back to the serious business of following up on all those lovely reading recommendations.  Here are mine.

salmonWalking above the sparkling North Tyne, which is England’s best salmon river, it was perhaps inevitable that some books about fishing came to mind.  Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, of course: but have you read Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots? I’m not sure that I can recommend it highly enough.  Beautifully written, it is the perfect example of the meditative and philosophical nature of fishing (or indeed walking – anything that gets you out there, perhaps). Jennings’ young life was shaped by two astonishingly brave men, his father (A Military Cross-earning hero of the Second World War) and Robert Nairac, whose posthumous George Cross recognises his almost unimaginable courage as an undercover special forces officer who was discovered, tortured and killed in a lonely field in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.  Jennings manages to think aloud about both these men, and about his own upbringing in a vanishing England, in a way that never seems contrived or awkward. cheviotsIn return, I’m looking forward to reading At the Loch of the Green Corrie by Andrew Greig, which was recommended to me as we walked along the ridge, with views of the Pennines to the south and the Cheviots to the north (you see how this Walking Book Club works?  Why would you want to sit in a frowsty room to talk books when you can have all this?).  Greig was a friend of the great Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, whose dying request to him was that he should make his way to a remote hill loch in the far north-west of Scotland and catch a brown trout in his memory.  I am reliably informed that this is a book about life, not a book about fishing, and I can’t wait.  The most delicious anthology of writing about fishing, by the way – although it predates both Jennings and Greig so I shall now have to hope for a new edition  –  is Jeremy Paxman’s Fish, Fishing and the Meaning of Life.  And while we’re at it, we can re-read Arthur Ransome’s The Picts and the Martyrs for the valuable lessons in guddling trout.

Our adorable baby reader caused us all to bubble with fond memories of the stories either we or our own children had loved when truly tiny.  The Very Hungry Caterpillar is already pooh and pigletgoing down well, we learned, but we added Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo and Oh Dear to the pile, together with CDs of Alan Bennett reading Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows.

And we talked about books of letters.  I have to admit that I got fairly short shrift from KatePonders when I helpfully suggested she should read Les Liaisons Dangereuses in French (a mother has a duty never to give up).  Wait till she clocks all fifteen hundred pages of Clarissa.  CS Lewis’s  Screwtape Letters, recently marvellously read on the radio by Simon Russell Beale, should be on everyone’s list: as should Lionel Shriver’s dark masterpiece, We Need to Talk About Kevin I’m definitely going to read Dear Lupin, the letters Roger Mortimer wrote to his son Charlie; Dear Lumpy, his letters to his daughter Louise (and I don’t care what you say, no father should ever call his daughter Lumpy.  Not ever.  Even silently in his own head), and Dearest Jane, his letters to his elder daughter.

We were (of course) blessed with goodish weather for our inaugural walk.  Well, alright, it was a bit misty and there was a hell of a gale, but it only rained when we were soaking up coffee and cake in the lovely tearooms.  So I’m glad to say that no-one’s thoughts seemed to turn to Sun Shuyun’s The Long March, nor her Ten Thousand Miles without a Cloud.  No-one broke out into a few bars of ‘Climb Every Mountain’– though I’m sure they’d have been lovely if they did.  Next month, we shall walk to the beat of the Hexham Book Festival.

Tobias should have taken a book with him

Tobias should have taken a book with him

PS Congratulations to our dear friends Dawn and Michael, who have just won the Countryside Alliance award for the North East for their lovely Bardon Mill Village Store and Tearoom.  Hurray!bardon mill

Week 28: Books for Vladimir Putin

bank-bridge-in-st-petersburgI have never been to Russia.  I cannot read Russian.  I do not even know any Russian people.  I am, therefore, completely unqualified to pronounce upon what seems to be a pretty sorry state of affairs at the top there. But we readers form a gloriously democratic community that knows no boundaries and is not disheartened by what it does not yet know.  Books, we readers believe, can enlighten the darkest minds and lift the most troubled hearts.  Here, then, is my gift to you, Lt Col Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man I do not know: a small library of books you might like to read.

I would love it if you would read John Le Carré’s The Complete Smiley and let me know how they strike you from the other side of Checkpoint Charlie. The television version was terrific, if you haven’t time to read all eight books, what with running several countries and all the other calls on your time: or – even better – you could listen to the completely wonderful BBC radio version starring Simon Russell Beale, even though I suspect he isn’t your sort of chap.  And of course I’d be interested to hear your views on Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six and Alan Bennett’s plays about the Cambridge lot: An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.  We’ve developed a tendency here over the last twenty or thirty years to romanticise Philby and his chums, but, quite apart from the sheer bloody boys’-games pointlessness of it all, they did directly contribute to an awful lot of deaths, didn’t they?  Of course, you would know, from your time in the KGB, exactly how many: although, as my grandfather said to my mother when she expressed horror at the sheer number of people who died in the concentration camps (before your time but the point holds), ‘How many would have been alright?’

Lucky you, President Putin (you are president at the moment, aren’t you? Again?): you can read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and – best of all – Chekhov without the need for translations.  If you have a spare moment, I would love to hear which is your favourite: Uncle Vanya, perhaps.  Do you see Serebryakov selling his late wife’s estate as progress or treachery?

HvorostovskyI only know your home town, St Petersburg, from books and films.  I suspect that novels set in the Siege of Leningrad – even one as good as Gillian Slovo’s The Ice Road – may seem downright impertinent to you, as your family were there and suffered terribly.  Crime and Punishment is set there, of course, and so is the compellingly wonderful Eugene Onegin.  If you haven’t time to re-read Pushkin, listen to Tchaikovsky’s marvellous opera, especially with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and the lovely Nuccia Focile as Tatiana.  You’re not going to let the fact that Tchaikovsky was gay stop you from celebrating his music, are you?

It is just possible that you may have Ukraine much on your mind at present.  Have you read Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin?  It’s set in Kiev and Misha the penguin is a give-away from the zoo there (at least he didn’t get eaten by the President).  Do read it.  From what I have read about you, Mr Putin, you do not tend to empathise with people who are unhappy or being caused distress.  Perhaps you might find empathising with a penguin a good starting-point on your journey towards kindness.

vladimir-putin-riding-bearWould it be asking too much to suggest that you read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Only – just in case you haven’t come across it before – please don’t treat it as a checklist for your prisons.  The idea is that you should read it and weep.  Because I do want you to weep, Mr Putin.  It would be good to have a world leader who was unafraid of compassion and did not think that posing naked to the waist down while dismantling either a Kalashnikov or a bear was manly.  Can I add Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to your list?  Oh, and some Oscar Wilde as well.  He was the chap who said, ‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.’  But to be honest I’d just like to see you curled up in a corner of the Kremlin reading An Ideal Husband.

The latest in our imortant series of non-gratuitous illustrations

The latest in our important series of non-gratuitous illustrations

You do seem to be a bit troubled by homosexuality, don’t you?  Perhaps reading Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain will at least make you realise you have more in common with America than you thought.  Red-neck Mid-West America, anyway.  Oh, go on, watch the film.  You know you want to (and you can get in some more weeping practice at the loss of the luminous screen presence that was Heath Ledger).  But wouldn’t you – and your fantastic country – be happier if you spent more time worrying about world peace?  So here are some suggestions for books that encourage us to know the human heart rather than discount or despise it.

First – and first on any bookshelf of English books about Russia – Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  Set in Moscow in 1913, this deft, dryly humorous, sometimes shocking and always perfect short novel captures a world that is shifting, thawing, changing.  Next, the Russophile Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales: you might enjoy Ransome’s own account of the Russian Revolution in his Autobiography as well.  You will know, Mr Putin, that Ransome married Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s secretary.  When you are at a loose end, come and visit their grave in the tranquil churchyard at Rusland in his beloved Lake District, and celebrate a truly happy Anglo-Russian union.  Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!  Richard Feynman’s family originated in Russia, so you could proudly claim him as one of your own.  He was wise –Nobel-Prize-winningly so – breath-takingly clever and, even more rarely, funny.  He worked with Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.  Feynman had the brilliance to help develop the atomic bomb, the judgment to agree to work on it to forestall Germany getting there first, and the magnificence of soul to re-evaluate his decision and conclude that he had been wrong.

Aah, changing your mind and your actions: the hallmark of greatness. My final gift to you, Vladimir, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.   спокойной ночи и удачи (good night, and good luck).

We are all together on such a small place, after all

We are all together on such a small place, after all