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.

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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 108: Hair Days

images We touched last week on the irresistible draw experienced by the bad at heart towards eccentric and baffling hairstyles. ‘By their works shall ye know them’ still holds good, and the best indicator of a person’s moral worth remains his or her actions. So, President Assad of Syria, a surprisingly normal short back-and-sides does not make you a good person. But hair can serve as a sort of early warning system in life (Donald Trump, the little chap making people’s lives unbearable in North Korea, the unnerving brazen helmet that a former Beloved Leader of our own adopted). How about in books?

Richmal Crompton deftly spotted the reassuring nature of the tousled hairdo (only up to a point, Boris Johnson) and contrasts William’s pulled-through-a-hedge-backwards trademark style with that of the unnervingly smooth and glossy Hubert Lane. It is tempting to see Crompton’s inspiration for this nastiest and creepiest of horrid little boys in the slicked-down Adolf Hitler, but in fact Hubert predates the rise of the brylcreemed dictator. It could just be that, should she have had anyone in her sights as a target for parody, the press baron Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, might fit the bill; ‘pioneer of tabloid journalism’ is a damning epitaph, don’t you think? Even more aptly, perhaps, Harmsworth’s brother Harold, later known to us yokels as 1st Viscount Rothermere, another media magnate and an enthusiastic admirer of Nazism, richly deserves the mockery of being thought of as Hubert Lane’s prototype. Chilling, though, to think of William and his gang and the Hubert Laneites growing to adulthood in time for the Second World War (a fate they avoid by remaining forever eleven as the decades pass). I feel the same sad shadow hanging over the Swallows and the Amazons, by the way: while it is quite cheering to think of Nancy as one of those WRNS pushing the model boats about on charts, John and Roger, clear and obvious naval officers both, would have been lucky to come through the war untorpedoed. How comforting of fiction to suspend them all in a nostalgic glow of everlasting holiday (for a sense of what it was like waiting for news of loved ones on active service during the war, Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn takes some beating).

eb046724349a66c2c58b8ddd47576a44Victorian literature, and in particular male Victorian novelists, fetishised long, luxurious female hair to such an extent that it came as quite a surprise to me that not only did many women in the nineteenth century not have hair like Rapunzel but also that short hair was in fashion in the early nineteenth century among radical dissenters and democrats. In the heyday of the Great Victorian Novel, women’s hair is a shortcut (sorry) to character. Dark, flowing locks, untrammelled by pins and an up-do? Think passion, rebellion and (gasp) intelligence. Fair hair, timidly framing the face? A sweet if rather vapid young woman such as Laura Fairlie, heroine of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, where she is contrasted with her black-haired, sallow-skinned half-sister, Marian Halcombe, with her mannish looks and propensity for action. It’s a code that lingers even into the works of Enid Blyton, in which the drippy Anne is blonde and passive while dark-haired Georgina is such a victim of the girls-have-to-simper rule that she breaks out by exploring androgyny (this is just possibly not how I read the Famous Five books when I was small).

Earlier, Jane Austen knew her readers were attuned to the semiotics of hair, and gives us plenty of telling detail. One of the very many things that Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility gets exactly right is the difference between Elinor’s neatly confined hair and the tumbling wind-blown tresses of her sister Marianne. Much of the plot depends upon our understanding that to touch or stroke woman’s hair is an intimate and erotic gesture, so that when Elinor sees Marianne allowing Willoughby to cut off a lock of her hair as a keepsake she takes this as absolute confirmation that the two are engaged to be married. It is this fondling of someone else’s hair that gives such a decadent and disturbing edge to the scene in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations in which Miss Havisham – she whose own hair is macabrely decked with withered flowers – ties jewels in Estella’s hair and on her breast before poor Pip’s helpless gaze. Remember Pip is British: it is a wonder that he didn’t just die of embarrassment on the spot (note to readers who are not British: there is something in the British DNA that makes watching an older woman suggestively stroking a young girl not titillating but utterly, toe-curlingly, mortifying).

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Arabella Fermor. The hair all the fuss was about

Marianne’s lock of hair has literary precedent, of course, and if you have unaccountably not yet got round to reading Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, the moment has arrived. Pope’s mock-heroic poem arose out of an incident which threatened to escalate to Capulet/Montagu proportions: an aristocratic young man took it upon himself to snip off a ringlet from the head of his distant cousin, a celebrated beauty whom he was courting. In life, the story does not have a happy ending: Lord Petrie married someone else (great wealth proving even more attractive than great hair) and died of smallpox two years later, aged only twenty-three. But Pope’s poem sparkles and breezes along, joyfully skipping from one hyperbole to the next. His aphorism, ‘Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul’, continues to have much to recommend it and should be on every young man’s reading list before he a-courting goes.

That young man should also bear in mind the good example set him by Shakespeare. ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,’ Will tells us, and carries on to say,’ If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.’ Oh, you might think, a bit blunt; but that’s the point of glorious Sonnet 130: Shakespeare shuns flattery and shows it up as the empty mockery that it is. Love everything about who your beloved really is, he tells us, and it’s priceless advice. The reference to wires is a technological one, by the way: the fashion of the day was to compare the ideal woman’s hair to finely-spun golden thread or wire. Shakespeare’s is the time when to be blonde is to be, in every sense, fair. Marina Warner’s scholarly study, From the Beast to the Blonde, examines the world of fairy tales and is completely fascinating about our cultural response to hair colour. Long or short, black, brown, red, blonde, green or blue or violet if you really must, grey, silver or white, other people are reading our hair. When you come across descriptions of hair in fiction, just ask yourself why.

You have to admit, a great hairdo

You have to admit, a great hairdo: and we haven’t had an entirely non-gratuitous picture for simply ages

Week 102: The Woolly Liberal Reader

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Having seen, seethed and inwardly digested the shameful decision of Archbishop Justin Welby to placate a bunch of homophobic bigots, I finally realised – what took me so long, I hear you ask – that while God and I get on just fine, thank you, the Church of England and I are through. I have been a bit disconcerted, if flattered, by the number of friends who have described my sorrowful au revoir email to our very nice vicar as ‘brave’. Frankly, me not rocking up on Sundays will be (a) nothing new and (b) unlikely in itself to bring the Established Church to its knees. That isn’t, of course, the point. The NorthernReader household did not trade with apartheid South Africa, and continues to do its little best to avoid ‘Made in China’. Our five ha’pence-worth of withheld consumerism did not and will not get them talking in the caverns of power, but as a minor-league player in the Unpleasantness League has it, every little helps. So, Your Grace, should you happen to have dropped by, let me explain to you that saying sorry beforehand for something that you know to be wrong but intend to do anyway does not constitute contrition. And forgive me for pointing out to you what I hoped you knew already, but you represent Anglican Christians, and it is to all of us, or them, that an apology is due. Does ‘not in my name’ have any resonance for you?

 

So this week’s bookshelf needs to restore some sense that light will always overcome juliannorwich485darkness and that all shall be well. Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love might be a good place to start. As Nicholas Lezard points out in his review of the latest modern English version, whether or not we share the mystic nun’s faith is beside the point: read it for the beauty of its prose, its importance as the first text in English we know to have been written by a woman and for its contemplative philosophy, which offers us all a welcome opportunity to stand apart for a moment to think. And if you want to have Hildegard of Bingen playing in the background while you read, who am I to stop you? ‘All shall be well’, by the way, is what Julian heard Jesus saying to her. It certainly sounds like the sort of thing the chap in the New Testament would come up with, rather than, for example, homophobic rants: but then, he always has sounded like a much nicer person than his Church has turned out to be.

Where next? We could do a lot worse than falling back on the company of some thoroughly good priests to lift the spirits. How about the Reverend Charles Henstock, in Miss Read’s endlessly consoling Thrush Green novels? Better him by far than the fearfully self-righteous St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, although his earnest study of ‘Hindoostanee’ does at least suggest that he sees the targets of his missionary zeal as having a language and culture it might behove him to learn about. Jane Eyre has much to say, and even more to imply, about how we see ourselves as ‘us’ and others as ‘them’ and how things might be better all round if we could please stop doing that. Food for thought, Archbishop, next time you are tempted to talk to gay people as an undifferentiated entity. The acerbic (to put it very mildly indeed) American comedian, Lenny Bruce, went straight to the heart of racism by asking, ‘when you say you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one of Them, which one of Them? Harry Belafonte?’ (for younger readers, think Idris Elba).

I do rather hanker for some sort of well-mannered Utopia in which people’s sexual preferences remain known only to themselves and their consenting partners. Much too much interest in who does what to whom, especially if that happens not to conform with what the majority are doing to whom, has been a degrading part of the British legal system (not that many other countries can lay claim to primeval soggy liberal enlightened tolerance or – my ideal – utter indifference). It took a thoroughly shaming ten years for the centuries-overdue Wolfenden Report to amble into law as the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which decriminalised homosexual acts. To get a sense of what it was like to be one of the thousand or so men imprisoned each year, now might be a good moment to read Peter Wildeblood’s Against the Law, remembering as we do so that his unspeakable experiences in Wormwood Scrubs (Wildeblood was one of the defendants in the notorious Lord Montagu case of 1954) were as nothing compared to some of the punishments enthusiastically supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new best friends. Your Grace, might I recommend a thoughtful study of Winston Churchill’s The Gathering Storm, or David Faber’s Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis? It was Churchill, you will recollect, who pointed out to Chamberlain that ‘you were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war’.newsappeasement-tl

Something optimistic is needed. ‘Only connect’, said Forster. It is what fiction does: gives us the chance to empathise. All great writers have known this. It is easy to be unmoved by statistics; the vast army of unwanted waifs, the hordes of tiny children invisibly cleaning chimneys, the sea of women who were their husband’s or their father’s property. Harder to turn your back and close your mind on the pathetic protagonists of Oliver Twist, The Water Babies and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. So my readerly response to the outrage of the 2016 Anglican Primates’ Conference is to settle down to re-read the works of EM Forster. Starting with Maurice.untitled (3)

Week 98: Books for Birthdays

untitled (15)The lovely KatePonders has had a birthday. A visit from bestest-friend-in-the-whole-world, a morning’s shooting at clays (we know how to live) and an unfeasibly large amount of cake: we may have stumbled on the recipe for the perfect birthday celebrations. With the aching chasm of another 365 days to go before she has another birthday (2016 being, my maths suggests, a leap year), we do at least have plenty of time for a thorough survey of bookish birthdays to see how we might do it even better in future.

Serendipitously, KatePonders shares a birthday with Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party must therefore take first place on this week’s bookshelf. Fabulous, funny, menacing, absurd, enigmatic and contradictory, Pinter’s play is definitely a must-see as well as a must-read. I was quite surprised to find that it is not, as far as I can see, being staged anywhere at the moment. Presumably it is not an A level set text and therefore cannot be guaranteed to bring in enough audience to break even.   It seems to me to be a shame that theatre, especially in the hugely-funded London theatre, has largely become musical adaptations of Disney films, revivals of musicals from the mid-twentieth century or confections that string the collected works of Abba into some sort of narrative (no I haven’t seen it, nor am I making any plans to). The few bones thrown to us non-metropolitan types via the undoubted glories of live streaming should be the beginning of a rich play-going renaissance, not a meagre sop to keep us knowing our place and looking grateful. How easy it would be for the Arts Council, which currently gives an overwhelming majority of its coffers to London-based endeavours, to insist on countrywide screening as a condition of funding. ‘Thursday night is theatre night’: don’t you think that has a pleasing ring to it?

untitled (14)Eeyore, Kipper and Little Grey Rabbit all celebrate their birthdays, or have them celebrated for them, in children’s books, and the eponymous My Naughty Little Sister and her friend Bad Harry have a great time at another child’s birthday party, even if they do suffer the aftermath of greed later that day. As ever, we need to turn to Dickens for some relief from all the sweetness and light. David Copperfield has what he himself calls A Memorable Birthday. Yes, should vague memories of the plot of his Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation be trickling back to you, it’s THAT scene in which Mrs Creakle, the headmaster’s wife, has a crack at the difficult art of breaking bad news gently and, it would be fair to say, proves not to be a natural at it. Oliver Twist’s ninth birthday sees him moved from Mrs Mann’s establishment for ‘juvenile offenders against the Poor Laws’ to Mr Bumble’s workhouse. Good though the film is (even despite the inexplicable failure to cast the original stage ‘Nancy’, Georgia Brown), go and read the book again to send a shiver down your spine at the sheer relentless drabness and nastiness of the Victorian approach to welfare. Only Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes close.

Birthdays in books aimed at adults – and Dickens, of course, was aiming at absolutely anyone of any age who could be persuaded to join his legions of readers – are sadly often a focus of gloom and despondency, almost especially when the celebrant is a child. Poor old Leo in The Go-Between, for example, ends up with a thirteenth birthday that is certainly memorable. Irina’s name-day is the starting-point for Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; a good enough reason to urge you to read this wonderful, witty, dark and heart-breaking play from the greatest of nineteenth-century playwrights (and indeed one of the very greatest of any time). Irina is twenty at the start of the play, but still child enough to be thrilled with the spinning-top she is given. Perhaps Chekhov, a doctor, was ahead of us in acknowledging that, as the most recent research has established, the human brain does not achieve maturity until it is at least as old as KatePonders.

And we must have poetry. For once, Dylan Thomas is just right here: not, for me, his ‘Poem for his Birthday’, which feels too sonorous, too consciously beautiful, as if Thomas had slipped across the line between a unique voice and a parody of himself; but ‘Poem in October’ (another autumn birthday celebrant), with its wonderful images of the heron priested shore and a walk ‘in a shower of all my days’. Which of us has not had an autumn walk like that, misted and fine-spray drizzled, kicking up the golden leaves and letting thoughts and memories cascade? More sobering, perhaps, but indispensable, is Louis Macneice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’, whose litany of imperatives – hear me, console me, forgive me – could usefully be required reading for those contemplating parenthood. Finding a poem for someone’s birthday is, though, fraught with peril, as you steer a precarious path between trite nonsense on one hand and the tendency of good poets to think of birthdays as another milestone on the road to death: true, of course, painfully true, but not quite what you were aiming for to go with your carefully-wrapped present and your balloon. But we could certainly give Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’. ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy’ might seems a tad melancholy for what should be a happy day, but forewarned is forearmed, and we might do a lot worse than determine to keep the clouds of glory trailed about us. Now that would be a great birthday present.

Michelangelo-creation-of-adam-index

Week 89: He Do the Police in Different Voices

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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.

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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 87: Difficult Books

author-writing-writerThe reason, since you ask, why it has taken me until Thursday to write to you this week is that I had a splendid idea for a topic and spent days – and days … trying to get to grips with it. Born with a stubborn streak, it has taken until this evening for me to realise that it’s just not something I can squeeze a thousand words out of (hadn’t you noticed? Each week is more or less a thousand words: which means, if you have been kind enough to read me from the beginning, that we have shared a novel together, in length if not in meaning). Hitting a writerly brick wall has made me think about the books that, for various reasons, have presented the North Face of the Eiger to me: scalable, yes, but not by me.

I have read and enjoyed most of Ian McEwan, but his 1987 novel, The Child in Time, was too painful. I started to read it when my daughter, the lovely KatePonders, was a baby, and the opening chapter, in which a small daughter called Kate is kidnapped, harrowed me so unutterably that to this day I have never been able to return to it. My visceral abandonment of objectivity is my loss, as the book is thought of by many as McEwan’s masterpiece. Should you not have a daughter called Kate, or indeed should you not be at that vulnerable stage of life which revolves around the fragile wonder that is your child, do please read it and get back to me.

While I’m confessing to personal and illogical taboos, the pictures of the Weasel’s House in Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books have haunted my dreams since I first came across them when I was about four. And I have told you before about the terrors of Struwwelpeter, my really rather odd grandfather’s preferred choice of reading to his small descendants. Kateponders expressed a profound aversion to Axel Scheffler’s illustrations for Jon Blake’s untitled (18)You’re a Hero, Daley B! and could be reduced to sobs by well-meaning would-be readers-aloud inadvertently retrieving it from the very back of the bookshelf where she had hidden it (actually destroying a book being unthinkable to her even when three: the mixed blessing of an academic household). Should you, or the very little people in your life, be made of slightly sterner stuff, the book – and indeed the illustrations – are delightful and capable of being an enormous hit in your household.

Some books and authors are of course difficult for other reasons. I freely admit that tremendous length is not at first sight a recommendation to me (which is of course precisely why my enthusiasm for a handful of Really Long Books is so striking and worth taking me up on: good God, if I of all people urge you to read Nostromo, say, or Bleak House, there must be something in them). It is worth remembering that many of the weightier Victorian novels first appeared in instalments in periodicals. Perhaps returning to that approach and taking them in regular but well-spaced bite-size chunks will open up a vaster range of fiction for those wary of the long haul. And we should not lose sight of the fact that some authors are just plain hard work. That is by no means a bad thing – think how boring life would be if everything came in condescendingly platitudinous soundbites (an eternal pre-election, for example): but you do have to be in the mood for grappling. TS Eliot and Ezra Pound should both keep you intellectually pinned down for a while if you’re looking for that sort of challenge. James Joyce’s Ulysses and (even more so) Finnegan’s Wake, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, even Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban; one of the layers of difficulty lies in the language. Reading them makes us read slowly, taking each word as it comes. This deliberate barrier to glib understanding draws our attention to our everyday habit of impatiently skimming through everything we read. How much do we miss?

And then there are the books that just aren’t for us. Too many of us had teachers – it’s usually teachers, I’m afraid – who got it into our heads that a book, once begun, must be persevered with to the bitter, bitter end. Sadly true if it’s a set text (see, if you feel so inclined, Week 86 for what I think about our exam-ridden education system), but otherwise, arrant nonsense. You cannot know if any particular book is the sort of thing you might like without giving it a whirl (which is why first lines and pages are so important: see Week 20 for details), but only a fool, or, I suppose, someone trapped on a desert island with only one book for company, would carry on reading once it has been clearly established that book and reader have nothing to say to each other. So, dearest reader, if you have been trudging through War and Peace, Moby Dick or Paradise Lost since time began, cast off your dreadful sense of obligation and consign the loathsome volume to Oxfam, where your particular poison will turn out to be someone else’s food for the mind and the soul.

But, should the mood take you, there are times when we really quite fancy something difficult, or at least something different and out of our comfort zone. So here are three that you might possibly not have read: James Kelman’s Not Not While the Giro; Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And if they turn out not to be your cup of tea, fear not. Let them drop from your hand and reach for another. Don’t forget Yeats’s wise words:

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.

That’s telling us. Happy reading.Reynolds_BoyReading (2)