Week 85: God

It seems I may not have moved on much since the early sixteenth century
It seems I may not have moved on much since the early sixteenth century


Unlike a previous Beloved Leader, who had Alistair Campbell strapping him into the jacket with the arms that go round the back and declaring ‘We don’t do God’, the Northern Reader is happy to tackle this one head-on. Fear not: this is not suddenly going to transmogrify into one of those rather earnest and evangelical blogs with which the aether is awash – sorry if you write one, and I’m sure it’s lovely, and I hope you find it jolly comforting, but never forget that I’m British, which means (praise the Lord) genetically incapable of discussing or even mentioning matters of faith without practically passing out with the terrible toe-curling embarrassment of it all. As it happens, I went to a convent school in infancy, which has left me with a somewhat generalised sense of God as a pleasant chap with a beard who models his appearance, and especially the beard, and his air of slightly anguished worry about us all and what will become of us on Dr Rowan Williams. It also left me with a conviction that the key to religious education is colouring. A non-Catholic, I was barred from the exciting-sounding Catechism classes (have you noticed how religions really enjoy banning, excluding and keeping all the buns for themselves?), and accordingly spent many a happy hour peacefully colouring pictures of the saints while our teacher read aloud to us. What she was reading – and I have checked on the internet to be sure that yes, this book really did exist and no, it is not some subtly satiric invention of mine – was Wopsy the Guardian

Just in case you thought I was making it up

Just in case you thought I was making it up

Angel by Gerard Scriven. Wopsy – what a great name – was a trainee GA, I think, being inducted into his life’s work (I have no information on the longevity of angels and am not about to get into a discussion about it now, however much you beg), which was – and times have changed so much that I hesitate to tell you this – Saving Little Pagan Babies in Africa.

No, I think our bookshelf this week will be better off with Salley Vickers. Miss Garnet’s Angel was her first novel. She writes with immense subtlety and precision, on top of which the book is set in Venice, so I can’t think why you wouldn’t be rushing to find it if by some mischance you have not already come across it. And then there is her thoughtful and humorous Mr Golightly’s Holiday. I do not wish to give too much away to those of you who have reading this as a pleasure still to come, so let it suffice to say that its subject, and hero, fits with our theme this week. I loved it and I hope you do too.

Giovannino Guareschi makes it into the NorthernReader Hall of Fame for having been imprisoned in the cause of free speech. He also wrote the Little World of Don Camillo books (Mondo Piccolo: Don Camillo), which began to appear shortly after the Second World War and reflect the polarised world of post-war Italy, with the Catholic church wading in against the Communists. When the Communist Party was more or less wiped off the face of Italian politics in the 1948 elections, Guareschi turned his satirical pen on the newly-triumphant Christian Democrats instead (they were the party with leaders such as Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti, who attracted international attention in ways that did not flatter their poor long-suffering country. The 2008 film, Il Divo, will tell you all you need to know about Andreotti, and is a must-watch). The Don Camillo books are simple to the point of being simplistic, but they have a cheerful rugged charm and a strangely credible voice of Christ coming from the crucifix in Don Camillo’s church. They also now have an historic interest as a reminder of the turmoil of post-war Europe and the dangerous possibilities of further fragmentation and violence. Worth reading now, then, if only to remind ourselves how fragile a peaceful Europe is and how suicidally half-witted we would be to flounce off.

tumblr_m9pphiFC0i1rnvzfwo1_r1_1280The God of Christianity doesn’t turn up all that often in fiction, presumably because he has more pressing matters in hand. Quentin Crisp, the author of The Naked Civil Servant, was an advocate for a little bit of humility in prayer, pointing out that God probably has more urgent things to deal with than whatever it is that you so desperately want tonight (lottery win? Your maths teacher to be taken ill before you have to hand your homework in?). But the gods of ancient Greece simply adored the limelight and were happy to be stars of stage and screen. High on the list of the joys of reading The Iliad and The Odyssey is the depiction of the Olympian gods and goddesses as a bunch of brawling, psychotic, sulking, sex-obsessed, petty and petulant spoilt brats for whom immortality means never having to grow up. You can see why the people who invented them went on to invent democracy: at worst, rule by the people for the people couldn’t be worse than the hereditary principle when applied to congenital drunks who never die. Adam Nicolson recommends the translation of the Iliad and Odyssey by Robert Fagles, and that’s good enough for me. Happily, Fagles’ is the current Penguin translation, and therefore affordable and readily available (from a good local independent bookshop, please: Cogito, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live in this part of the forest).

Almost godlike in his creativity, Douglas Adams came up with well over a hundred minor characters who make fleeting appearances in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels. Among them is the philosopher, Oolon Colluphid, author of Where God Went Wrong, Some More of God’s Greatest Mistakes, Who Is This God Person Anyway? And Well That About Wraps It Up for God. Quite. But I still have some sense of my nice bearded chap, sitting there well-meaningly worrying about us all, and – and this is the important bit – giving us the chance to do the best we can. And, unlike a distressing number of believers of all faiths over the years, God himself/herself/itself is, in more of Douglas Adams’ well-chosen words, Mostly Harmless.

Happy Easter, dearest readers, and, as the Irish comedian Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you. JS55020378


Week 84: Tick Tock

article-1261326-08E97E88000005DC-775_233x321It’s one of life’s little achievements, realising beforehand that the clocks are going forward an hour during the night. In the far-distant land that was Me Going to Real Work in a Real Office, the only notes left on desks with the time pencilled oh-so-casually-on were the ones left at half past six in the morning by serial insomniacs, or party-goers for whom the dawn and the end of the carousing had merged, making it too late to go home and start out again and offering the chance to look utterly dedicated to the job (if a bit bleary and, later in the day, prone to calamitous misjudgements and a tendency to fall asleep during meetings). Now, in just the same way, Sunday morning when the clocks have sprung forward suddenly seems like the perfect moment to be unusually gregarious. Church sees its highest turn-out for weeks; cars are being ostentatiously groomed on front drives; husbands are volunteering for the not-strictly-necessary trip to the supermarket. And after all that unwonted early-hours activity, what could be nicer than to curl up in corner with a good book?

Not, for me, Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (one L: she’s American). It’s a book that generated quite a lot of steam when it was published in 2003, but I have to confess that I thought it by turns tawdry and dull, which, you have to agree, is not much of a recommendation. Frankly I’d much rather have Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Mediaeval England (two Ls: he’s not), which is a vividly written exploration of what, when I was little, was called ‘Everyday Life in …’ (and a most enjoyable series of school textbooks they were, too, with lots of opportunities for colouring the illustrations, no doubt to the irritation of the teachers but at least we were quiet). Mortimer has now added The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, presumably skipping earlier Tudors on the premise that Hilary Mantel has covered the ground efficiently, sufficiently and memorably.

Time travel, and the quantum physics thereof, form the core of what at first sight might seem like an unlikely pairing of books: Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. One is a more rollicking read than the other, but both are the product of scintillating minds. I have no idea whether they ever met, but I hope that they did; or will do, or are doing so right now somewhere else. Professor Hawking is quite simply one of arts-graphics-2004_1148573alife’s Good Things – and yes of course go and see The Theory of Everything, and find Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant performance in the 2004 BBC film, Hawking, as well. And keep your eyes open for the newly-emerging genre of Quantum Fiction. It would be fair to say that the great Quantum Fiction novel has yet to be written – so why not you? Take Post-Modernism as your springboard and venture forth fearlessly. Or, at the very least, experimentally.

Every year at this time we lose an hour. While good news for dogs, who find breakfast being served almost before they realised they were Actually Starving to Actual Death (and before they confront the heart-breaking reality that this ever-earlier room service does not carry on into tomorrow), it can be slightly existentially disconcerting for the thoughtful among us; or, if you prefer, those among us looking for an excuse to stay in bed for an extra hour anyway pretending to think deeply about something. Where did the hour go? What might I have done with it? And – a far more worrying subject for contemplation – how does that lost hour differ from all the other hours I lose doing nothing much? Never mind Ten Days that Shook the World (although do read it: John Reed’s first-hand account of the October Revolution is gripping); can I summon up sixty minutes of achievement. Once a year? Spread thinly over an entire lifetime? Time, perhaps, for some knuckling-down books.

petmarjorieThe trouble, of course, with inspirational testaments is that they can be rather crushing. Compared with Marjory Fleming, for example, I have clearly wasted my time on earth. Little Miss Fleming, should you not have come across her, was a Scottish poet, letter-writer and diarist of considerable wit and a charm based not least upon her dry acerbity. She appears to have had no truck with sentimentality (always such a high recommendation to the NorthernReader sensibility) and, indeed, her works were heavily bowdlerised for many years after her death to present her in a more anodyne light. And, oh yes, she was eight years old when she died. I think you might enjoy Oriel Malet’s Marjory Fleming, a fictionalised biography. Malet wrote it in 1946 (when she herself was only twenty) and it has been re-published by Persephone Books, which is a clear indication that we are going to enjoy it.

Tick, tock: tempus fugit. And, as those of you who wait breathlessly for the next epistle from the Northern Reader will have noticed, it has taken me four days to recover from the loss of that single hour to write to you. Shame on me. Normal service will be resumed at the weekend.WP_20150209_003


Week 74: Books for Procrastinators

iStock_000011145477Large_mini_(1)Those of you whose Sunday morning is made by the safe arrival of the weekly NorthernReader post (well, a girl can dream) will have noticed that it has taken me until Monday to get round to this week’s deathless prose. Sorry about that. I would love to thrill you with tales of earth-shatteringly important things that have come between us for more than twenty four hours, but the simple truth is that I didn’t get round to writing until this afternoon. Yes, Sloth, my favourite Deadly Sin, has wrapped its languorous arms around me. At least I am in distinguished, if tardy, company. I think AA Milne’s sailor, who, as you will recall, had so many things to do that he couldn’t decide which one to do first (sound familiar?) and in the end did nothing at all ‘but basked in the shingle wrapped up in a shawl’ could gain a serious following as a patron saint, if only he could get round to filling in the necessary forms. Or perhaps I can have Cassandra Mortmain’s novelist father as my role model: you remember him in Dodie Smith’s utterly essential I Capture the Castle, forever putting off starting the sequel to his monumental novel, Jacob Wrestling (of course I do have to face the fact that I have not quite knuckled down to writing my first Monumental Novel, but clearly that can only be a matter of time …). Better Mortmain than Baudelaire, anyway, whose reputation as a first-class procrastinator is a bit too closely linked to his equally well-deserved reputation for being a spoilt dilettante and an enemy of democracy. An interesting, if unlikeable, chap, Baudelaire: he seems principally to have stirred himself solely to scandalise, outrage or annoy other people, which, while possibly admirable in terms of flying the flag for free speech, must have been tiresome and was certainly unkind. Je Suis Charlie, yes, but je ne suis pas Charlie Baudelaire for absolute preference.

Or how about Harper Lee as our poster-girl for procrastination? One novel in 1960, and since then, more or less, the rest is silence, as another great procrastinator would have it. That one novel though, was To Kill a Mockingbird, and if you haven’t read it, do so without further delay. It takes you by the heart with its limpid simplicity and will stay with you for ever.

As the years trot ever more swiftly by, I might prefer to find my heroes and heroines among the late starts in life. Let us refuse to be discouraged by the Mozarts who are fully into the swing of things before they lose their milk teeth. Not for us this week, delicious though it undoubtedly is, Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, written when the author was nine years old. We shall not even be crushed by the tendency of reviewers, critics and Granta to regard forty as the threshold of advanced old age – even odder now that most forty-year-olds are still in thrall to their PlayStations and are only reluctantly moving into long trousers and books without pictures. Daniel Defoe, who as you know I claim as a friend of the family (a few generations back, you understand), published Robinson Crusoe when he was – and this is the really, really important thing – older than me. And Mary Wesley, a really fabulously acute and quietly moving novelist, first burst into print when she was seventy (Jumping the Queue: compellingly heart-breaking and at least as good as The Camomile Lawn which should also be on anyone’s reading list). Raymond Chandler had blown out fifty candles on a single cake before he published The Big Sleep; so had Bram Stoker when he came up with Dracula. Marian Evans, or George Eliot as we know her, started as a mere stripling at forty with Adam Bede, waiting until she was in her fifties before writing many people’s candidate for Greatest Novel Ever, Middlemarch. And Giacomo Casanova only began thinking about writing his memoirs – so very much more entertaining than most – when he was well into his sixties.

My goodness, it's been far too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

My goodness, it’s been far too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

So it seems there is hope for all us slaves to slothfulness. And, frankly, how very much more tempting it is to be louche, lazy and laid-back than earnestly buzzing about. No-one could be more admiring than I am of my lots-of-greats grandfather who was, from earliest youth, amanuensis to Isaac Watts, but I do rather hope that he was out of the room when Watts came up with ‘How doth the little busy bee/ Improve each shining hour/And gather honey all the day/ From every opening flower’, which makes one want to rise from one’s couch of lassitude and stamp firmly on the nauseatingly self-righteous bee. Samuel Johnson’s 134th essay for The Rambler is on procrastination. You will have noticed the tell-tale ‘134th’ which somewhat gives the lie to the great man’s claim to have been dogged by sloth and the putting off of things all his life. Oh to suffer from Johnson’s procrastination. You will like the pleasing irony that he wrote that particular essay in tearing haste while the boy waited for it to get it to the press before the deadline. Ah yes, deadlines: in the late and permanently-lamented Douglas Adams’ immortal phrase, ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’ I’ll be back on track next Sunday. Promise.


Week 65: Fly Me To The Moon

Le-Petit-PrinceWoo woo!! Let’s hear it for plucky little Philae – because how can we resist anthropomorphising such a frankly cute little thing with gangly legs. This week’s landing of an extremely mobile science laboratory on a comet hurtling around some unimaginable distance from here is a moment to bask in some reflected glory and think, you know, we humans aren’t entirely a pointless waste of space after all. If only more of us could work harmoniously together over long stretches of time to achieve positive goals with no plan to make loads of money out of it or appear on a (using the term loosely) reality programme. Call me naïve, but I don’t think there is even some dark sinister military purpose lurking in the shadows behind the Rosetta mission. No, the whole thing is inspiring and educational and makes me want to think outside the planet (but first, of course, I must pause for a quick re-read of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s wonderful Le Petit Prince, which this week looks more prophetic than fantastic).

We have long tried to imagine ourselves onto a different rock. Once Galileo Galilei looked through his telescope and, crucially, published what he saw, our place in what Douglas Adams christened the Total Perspective Vortex shifted and we became a much, much smaller dot on the ‘You Are Here’ map. (Incidentally, if for some mysterious reason you have not encountered The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy … but no, you can’t not be familiar with it. Just in case, let me urge you to listen to it rather than read it. And certainly don’t watch it. The pictures are rubbish). I still mourn my failure to see Ian McDiarmid in the RSC production of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo last year.. Mark Ravenhill translated Brecht’s original Leben DesGalilei for this, and, quite apart from all the other reasons for kicking myself for missing it, I would have been fascinated to see and hear the differences between that pre-war text and Brecht’s own post-war version which he wrote in English with and for Charles Laughton. It is this version that we Anglophones know, not least because it is the text published by Methuen.

Galileo’s discoveries put rocket-boosters under the dramatic and poetic visions of his contemporaries. Ben Jonson’s masque, News From the New World Discovered in the Moon, written for the Court of King James in 1620, pictures a lunar landscape of fields and meadows, rivers and mountains, different mostly from our own world because the people there do not speak. Being Jonson, the play is a satire, with lawyers and the newly-emerging crocodiles of the journalistic trade in its sights; and being a masque, it is full of dances, spectacular costumes and over-the-top praise of the royal audience. Think of it as plush pantomime mercifully bereft of nonentities from television.

At the same time as Jonson was entertaining the Court, John Donne was fizzing with new metaphors from astronomy and the new science. Not just stars, comets and moons, but compasses, telescopes and sextants gave him his startling material for his urgent, compelling poems. Oh, if you happen not to have read any Donne, I envy you for the moment of first encounter you are about to experience. Switch off your computer and your phone, tell the world you’re out, and curl up with Donne’s poems. Be warned: you are about to lose your heart.

A surprising amount of science fiction seems to deny the possibility of metaphor in favour of a rather plonking alternative reality. Terry Pratchett’s first books were very straightforward science fiction of the kind that, were you to change the Slartibartfast-type names to Gerald or Marjorie, would stand revealed in all its suburban mediocrity. But then – o joy! – he lit upon the glorious wheeze of the Discworld, a planet of enormous improbabilities and resonating familiarities that has enabled him, through about a trillion volumes, to satirise our life here on earth, showing it to be hugely peculiar: often hilariously, and sometimes heart-breakingly so. Pratchett’s great precursor was HG Wells, who is perhaps more remembered now for the legend of Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds to a credulous America than he is actually read. His novel, and Welles’s 1938 dramatisation, signal the very depressing tendency of the twentieth century to drop the wonder and excitement when contemplating the possibility of other cultures out there in favour of all-out paranoia. It does seem a shame and a mystery that the century that saw extraordinary scientific and social advances, including access to rational

Thank you, Bill Watterson

Thank you, Bill Watterson

education for more people than ever before, should have opted so merrily and clung so fiercely to a fear-haunted ‘burn them! Burn them!’ mentality that has kept us out of the inter-galactic Good Places to Stay guide to this day. We the people who can look up into the night sky (especially here in the Dark Sky Park of Northumberland) with an intelligent and informed eye can find more than enough to enthral us without needing to invent little green men (no, I don’t know how they came to be little, or green, or particularly associated with Mars). If I want something to frighten myself with, I can read about the behaviour of jihadists or bankers. No, tonight, as I peek out between the clouds to a far-distant universe, I shall be a watcher of the skies seeing a new comet: not like Keats, using astronomy as a metaphor for the marvelling wonder to be found in books, but really, looking up and out. Little Philae, sweet dreams and goodnight.67P-Rosetta-lander-Philae

Week 23 Books for a Starry Night

I hstars at Sycamore Gapave seen the Milky Way.  Here on the edges of the Kielder Dark Skies, when we step out and look up, we see light, but it is the light of millions – perhaps billions – of other worlds and their suns.  Sometimes the sky is so thick with stars that it is hard to find a patch of darkness between them.  With my knowledge of astronomy previously limited to being able to spot Orion and the Plough, I need more books.

No matter how hard I try, most astronomy guide books do not hit the spot.  Somewhere between Baby’s First Book of Looking Up (sadly, not an actual title, but one I’m now itching to write) and Professor Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, my allergic reactions to charts and numbers bigger than about three kick in and I realise that I’m not absorbing a single word of what I’m reading.  This is my personal tragedy and not the fault of the books, many of which I’m sure are excellent.  And I’m afraid I could never get past Patrick Moore’s magnificent eyebrows, striking style of delivery and awesome ability to play the xylophone to get to grips with what he was actually saying on The Sky at Night.

So my firmest grasp of the finer points of star-gazing has come from Antoine St-Exupéry (don’t lie to me: you knew this was going to happen).  For those of you who have been living on another planet (sorry) or for other unfathomable reasons have not yet read The Little Prince, let me explain.  Briefly.  St-Exupéry’s hero, the eponymous and otherwise nameless princeling, falls to earth from an asteroid, where he meets the book’s narrator, an airman who has just about survived crashing in the desert (which is what happened to St-Exupéry himself: the crash and the almost-dying of dehydration, definitely: the meeting with a small alien, more debatably).  After philosophical musings that are gently profound, the Little Prince prepares to leave, telling the narrator not to watch him leave, not to be upset if he leaves his body behind, and to remember him laughing whenever he looks at the stars.  Oh, go and read it. You’ll feel better for having done so.  And once you’ve done thvol de nutat, you can add St-Exupéry’s Earth, Wind and Stars to your reading list (you could also start wearing Guerlain’s Vol de Nuit, named in honour of another of his books.  And Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez rave about it in their completely indispensable Perfumes: the A-Z Guide).

Most stars in fiction exist in the fevered genre of science fiction which is on the whole not my sort of thing.  How very great an achievement, therefore, that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – which is on several of its many levels a work of science fiction – should be so hugely enjoyable, memorable and informative. If I feel I can bandy terms such as Alpha Centauri and Betelgeuse, it is entirely thanks to the very-much lamented Douglas Adams.

John Donne tells us to ‘Go and catch a falling star’ among his bitter list of things one is more likely to be able to achieve than bump into an honest woman.  Harsh, Jack, harsh: and jolly unfair as he and Anne risked all for love but she paid the higher price (we will definitely talk about Donne one day, because, this little example of misogyny notwithstanding, he is fabulous and I want you to love him).  Poets, on the whole, have a bit of a thing about stars (I am prepared to concede that ‘a bit of a thing’ is not the most scholarly term I have ever used but hey, we’re all friends here).  Shakespeare, obviously: not just his star-cross’d lovers, but his ever-constant star as well.  A favourite – do you know it? – is Walt Whitman’s ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’: he too was left cold by the charts and diagrams, and ‘rising and gliding’ he went off by himself and ‘from time to time/ Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.’  A rebuke to pedants everywhere.  It’s that ‘from time to time’ that’s so perfect.  Sadly, I run into my usual problem with Keats in ‘Bright Star’: I think it’s the final ‘swoon to death’ that makes me irritable and inclined to mutter, ‘Oh, pull yourself together’ – which is very rarely the most helpful approach to the Romantics who, on the whole, like themselves like that.

Enough of looking up.  What about AJ Cronin’s The Stars Look Down?  Set here in the north-east and written in the 1930s, it is a quite gripping and moving tale of the hard life of a mining community: the novel was an influence on the creators of Billy Elliott.  Longfellow felt the indifference of the ‘cold light of stars’, but sadly, his poem, ‘The Light of Stars’ is fatally flawed by being recognisably his, frankly: it’s the dum-di-dum rhythm and the trite rhyming.  I’m sorry if you love him: but think what fun you’re going to have when you shake of the repetitive beat of Hiawatha and read some real poetry instead.

A last one to balance on the pile of bookGalileos by the bed – for where better to contemplate the stars?  we can always leave the curtains open – Bertolt Brecht’s A Life of Galileo. We’ll talk about reading plays, if you like, some time soon, but Brecht is a good one for reading (and we’ve already started to think about the joys and pitfalls of translation – last week, you simply can’t have forgotten already – so we’re all set).  I have few regrets in life, but here are two: not being born at the right time to see Charles Laughton play Galileo – Brecht wrote the play for him – and not having seen Simon Russell Beale’s performance at the National Theatre in 2006.  Now Ian McDiarmid is the RSC’s Galileo.  Let’s hope the production gets added to their splendid new streaming-live-to-cinemas-everywhere service.  Meanwhile, hand me my star book and my telescope, and grant me a cloudless night tonight.

Week 3: Second Thoughts

I was putting a book back on its shelf this morning (perhaps we’d better talk about books and how to sort them one day) when I bumped into a dear old friend: The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford.  Damn.  The perfect book for our teacher friends’ bedside table when they stayed a couple of weeks ago (oh, you can’t possibly have forgotten already: week 1.  Remember?).  The nine-year-old Miss Ashford’s courageous approach to the difficulties of spelling, and her pleasingly abrasive approach to matters of the heart, are just the thing for the welcome guest.  Revision of guest-room staples required.

This made me start to think about authors’ second thoughts.  Byron didn’t have much truck with them: he seems to have written Don Juan (delicious: try reading it aloud, at a good pace: and you do know, don’t you, that it’s Juan – two syllables, first letter pronounced as a definite jay?  Of course you do.  It’s just me being anxious, and Byron testing his readers for pretentiousness and having done the Grand Tour) ogreat poet, not-so-great handwritingn a roll, adding extra stanzas on the envelope (actually the manuscript folded up with the address written on it) as he posted instalments to his publisher, John Murray.  Smitten by the creative muse between front door and post box.  You don’t get that with e-publishing. Yeats, on the other hand, agonised – repeatedly – over every word of every poem.  How to begin ‘Sailing to Byzantium’? Now? That? Here? This? Yes, this: ‘This is no country for old men’.  No, wait a minute: that. ‘That is no country for old men’. Only another thirty-one lines to go.

Did Charles Dickens have second thoughts?  He finished Great Expectations in 1861, and took the manuscript with him when he went to stay with his chum Edward Bulwer-Lytton (now there’s a challenge: what books should B-L put out in the guest room for his friend?).  In a move that can only have writers in jaw-drop traction, Dickens gave the last chapter to his host and invited comment.  Brave, confident or – just possibly –loosened up a bit by the excellence of the B-L cellar.  Anyway, comment he got – with both barrels.  Funnily enough, neither man wrote down exactly what was said at what must have been  – don’t you think? – quite a tense chat in the library.  I wonder if the house-party continued to go with a swing after that little session.  The gist of B-L’s feedback seems to have been ‘too gloomy for words’.  The phrase ‘commercial suicide’ may have been invented that afternoon.  The upshot was that Dickens upped pen and wrote a cheerier ending (I’m not going to tell you what, or indeed what the gloomy one was, because you might not have read Great Expectations yet.  But you’re going to, aren’t you?  Because you’ll enjoy it, really you will).  So Cheery Ending (the term is relative) made the cut in the first edition in 1861, but Gloomy Ending was made public in a biography of Dickens in 1870.  Most modern editions settle comfortably on the fence (the right and proper place for an editor) and print both versions.

Then there’s Lear.  Chronicle or tragedy?  Well, what we’ve got is The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and His Three Daughters, printed in 1608.  Oh, but we’ve also got The Tragedy of King Lear in the Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays printed in 1623.  Same play?  Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.  Is the later one better?  Is it Shakespeare’s second thoughts?  Or is it – and I’m really struggling here not to shout ‘yes! This is what it is!’ because I’m pretending that I’m happy for you to make your own mind up – more like a snapshot of the point reached by that interesting, amorphous thing, a play,  in 1623, just as the earlier text is a snapshot of what was working on the stage some fifteen years earlier.  What most editors used to do was to play Pick ‘n Mix.  The play you read in school was someone’s Best Of compilation of the bits they thought we couldn’t be without, no matter which text they came from.  A sort of Desert Island Lear, if you will.  Ah, now you know what all those footnotes you never read were trying to tell you.  Remember all that Q and F stuff in very small print? And then along came Gary Taylor and the Oxford edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Norton if you’re reading this in the USA: and (how exciting) some of you are).  He went for it and printed both texts, arguing that they are essentially different enough to be separate plays.  So, dear reader, it will come as no surprise to you that, if you have suddenly been struck with the need to rush out and get yourself a Complete Works, I am going to say, get the Oxford.  Or the Norton.  Or, better still, don’t.  You’re never going to sit down and read the whole lot from cover to cover.  Are you?  Really? No, of course you’re not.  If you need it to answer crossword clues or prove to your nephew that he is an idiot and you have remembered the quote correctly, use your computer.  If you want to read one of the plays, get a copy of that play.  You’ll get all those lovely footnotes.

PS If you would like to be sure of having the chance to read this blog every week (yup, that’s the plan: a blog a week), click on the button on the right that says ‘follow’ in, to quote Douglas Adams, large friendly letters.  Thank you.  By this one simple action, you will do my self-esteem no end of good.  Chalk it up as your good deed for the day.