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

 

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Week 103: The Film of the Book

untitled (6)It is a truth universally acknowledged that nowadays ‘I’ve read that’ can mean ‘I’ve seen the film’. There is no moral ground to be fought over here; frankly, in a world dealing with Isil, Donald Trump and climate change, no-one really gives a hoot whether you have read Middlemarch or watched the BBC adaptation. Sometimes your belief that because you once saw a film with the same name as a book you have not read you know what happens is misplaced. Mr Darcy, GCSE, A level and undergraduate English Literature students please note, does not go swimming in his undies at any point in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Neither Winnie-the-Pooh nor Babe are Americans in the books by AA Milne and Dick King-Smith (The Sheep Pig and utterly delightful). Come to that, the dull Inspector Morse has an equally dull and older sergeant in Colin Dexter’s novels. So the shape-shifting vertiginous journey from page to screen is an unpredictable process with very few rules. Add to that the fact that every film adaptation will infuriate at least as many I’ve-read-the-book viewers as it woos I’ve-never-read-the-book-and-I’m-not-planning-to, and you can see that all judgments are entirely subjective and you might find yourself shouting at the screen if you read on.

Let’s start with an easy one. Pride and Prejudice has been filmed twice (however tempting, I am ignoring Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, about to be unleashed upon a grateful, or bored, world). The 1940 version starred Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson and the principal hand in the script seems to have been Aldous Huxley’s. The plot bears some resemblance to the novel but is kinder, simpler and more romantic: three adjectives that illustrate the gulf between script and Austen, whose genius lies in her clear-sighted ability to be ruthlessly nasty about her characters. Olivier does his moody cleft-chin stuff to denote the romantic hero, an approach he had perfected the year before as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. I suppose we could be charitable and consider his performance in Pride and Prejudice as valuable war-work. Heaven knows people in Britain needed escapist, romantic films to go and see during the war, and this hugely popular film undoubtedly did its bit on both sides of the Atlantic to keep an idea of a heritage worth fighting for in the forefront of the public mind.

untitled (5)Sixty-five years later, the gods of the film industry decreed that the time was ripe for a new version, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The first odd thing about this perfectly passable adaptation is how uninteresting it is compared to the same producers’ earlier film of Helen Fielding’s clever modernisation of Pride and Prejudice: yes, of course, the really jolly Bridget Jones’s Diary (but don’t bother with Bridget Jones 2, 3 and so on ad infinitum: notice that Miss Austen did not do sequels).   And the other oddity is, ‘why did they bother?’, when the BBC version, made in 1995 and starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, still held its unassailable iconic status, wet shirts notwithstanding.

imagesGAFL9CJJThe BBC’s great advantage, of course, was being able to tell its two-hundred-or-so page story across six 55-minute episodes rather than the edited-highlights approach dictated by a film’s two hours or so. The great exemplar of How to Film a Novel was made by Granada Television in 1981. In eleven languid but compelling episodes, Charles Sturridge (and Michael Lindsay-Hogg) creased the spine of their paperback edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited at Page 1and filmed exactly what the text said. That they also, serendipitously, found the perfect cast, the perfect locations and even the perfect music is all part of the magic. Someone made a film of the same name in 2008. Oh well.

The elbow-room that television allows is why the BBC Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is absorbing while the film is baffling. Should you be in the mood for an extended masterclass in acting, I can heartily recommend a weekend indoors watching Alex Guinness glacially and monumentally bring George Smiley to life in Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People. You could, of course, make it a personal Le Carré festival by reading the books. John Le Carré, or David Cornwell as his parents thought of him, has written twenty-three novels so far, not one of them a dud. Better make it quite a long weekend.

There are books which, while perfectly good in themselves, are not a patch on their apotheosis in film. Graham Greene wrote the novella The Third Man as a warm-up exercise for the screenplay: publishing it must have felt like a redundancy. John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps is a fast-moving adventure story with endless twists and daring escapes: Hitchcock’s film plays fast and loose with the novel and is much more fun. Several other films of the book have been made, including one or two infinitely more faithful to the original. Never mind: what you want is Robert Donat and Carole Lombard. Then there are the terrible books that made terrible movies: The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey come unbidden to mind. Even mountitled (4)re guilty of Crimes Against Celluloid are the terrible movies that feed upon the desolate corpses of perfectly decent books; or, in the case of The Cat in the Hat, -much-loved and important books. Please, Mike Myers, never do that again.

Films tell stories, and so do novels. They exist and thrive because we, their readers and audience, are forever greedy for more tales to enthral us, delight us, move us, horrify us and make us think. We are homo fabulans, the animal that tries to make sense of the world it finds itself in by imagining scenarios. It matters not a jot whether we read War and Peace or watch the latest adaptation. Either way, we will be letting Tolstoy take us by the hand and draw us into the lives of people we will love, or hate, judge and care about, as we let the story help us ask why we humans behave as we do. As Marshall McLuhan didn’t say, the medium doesn’t matter much. Find what works for you and get the message.

Well, when did we last have such an impeccably non-gratuitous picture?

Well, when did we last have such an impeccably non-gratuitous picture?

Week 88: Books for ANZAC Day

How to emigrate to NZ

How to emigrate to NZ

A great-great-grandfather of mine was a Minister in the Church of Scotland. I sincerely hope that it was the rugged independence and fearless striking-out tendencies of the Scottish persona, and nothing to do with any failings he may have had as a Victorian pater familias, that caused umpteen of his hordes of sons and daughters to scatter to the far corners of the earth. A daughter, her husband and their new-born son set sail for New Zealand in what the internet reveals to be the tiniest, most fragile craft ever built. The ship and its passengers survived; they arrived on South Island and flourished, and if you are a Davidson or a Low and a sheep farmer in New Zealand then we are probably cousins. Another son of the Manse became a doctor and in his middle age volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps for the duration of the Great War. I feel that I know him a bit, not least as the author of a simply wonderful letter in the family treasury in which he declares, ‘I would rather Jeanie embraced no Church at all than that of Rome’ (you do really need to read that with a full Scots accent to appreciate it fully). But I also know him, or can hear his voice at least, because he published his diaries of his experiences at Gallipoli. The Incomparable 29th and the ‘River Clyde’ by Dr George Davidson, MA, MD, Major RAMC, is not in print, but you can find an extract from it here which gives a flavour of the man and of what happened on the Turkish coast in 1915. There has been a lot of publicity this week about the coming together of the six Victoria Cross medals earned ‘before breakfast’ on the first day of the landings. Dr Davidson (or Uncle George as I cannot help but think of him) witnessed the whole thing and wrote about it with his customary clarity and compassion, and his book, I have learned, is thought of as the classic account. After the War, he returned to general practice and went on being the sort of keystone of the community that AJ Cronin immortalised as Dr Finlay in Country Doctor.

394tIt is too easy for us in this hemisphere to think of Australia and New Zealand as more or less the same place, our ignorance overlooking the two thousand or so kilometres that separate them. They are not the same place, they do not have the same history and (hurray) they have produced different literatures.

Australia first. Who shall we single out from such a wealth of novelists and poets? Here are three. Stella Franklin was, at various times in her life, a nurse (she was at the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Serbia during the First World War), a housemaid, a secretary, a journalist and a campaigning feminist. She was also, using the name Miles Franklin (Miles was a family name but she does appear to have been echoing the Brontë sisters and Marian Evans’ doubts that the market would welcome a woman writer), the author of My Brilliant Career. This, her first novel, has rightly become an icon of Australian self-identity. It opens with an address to ‘my dear fellow Australians’. This week of Anzac commemorations, it is easy to get the impression that Australian identity was entirely forged on the blood-drenched shores of Gallipoli, but a clear sense of Australian-ness was being expressed fourteen or fifteen years earlier.

We must have Patrick White on this week’s bookshelf too. Australia’s first Nobel Laureate for Literature (and twice winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award), White was not, it would be fair to say, anyone’s idea of the stereotypical Australian male. Bitchy, petulant and reclusive, his novels, short stories, plays and poems are dense with metaphor and complex structures. Neither Voss nor The Eye of the Storm are light reading, but they reward hard work with important reflections on what it is to be human; flawed, vulnerable and contradictory – perhaps rather like the books themselves and their author.

My third Australian for this week is the poet, Les Murray. His work divides critics, many of whom simultaneously celebrate his brilliance and worry about his illiberal views. Do you know, I shilly-shallied for quite a while before recommending his poetry to you, before I recognised what I was doing: censoring views I don’t much like. Make of his opinions what you will, but get to know his work, which is wide-ranging and technically dazzling and has led to him being tipped as a future Nobel Laureate (now that should provoke some lively debates).

And my New Zealanders? From a roll-call particularly rich in women writers, I am choosing Katherine Mansfield and Ngaio Marsh. Mansfield is regularly cited as one of the key figures of Modernism, and her short stories are fabulously experimental in shape and style. She freed the genre from the need to have a conclusion, showing us readers how powerful a story can be that poses questions and leaves us with them. She was another writer who provoked strong reactions, both to her work and to her personality. DH Lawrence – ever the charmer – once wrote to her, ‘You are a loathsome reptile – I hope you will die.’ (no, no, come off the fence, Bert … ).

Altogether an easier person to be with was Ngiao Marsh, who is best remembered in the northern hemisphere as one of the Queens of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction. Her gentleman detective, Roger Alleyn, was a credit to Scotland Yard throughout his long career, appearing in thirty-two novels over almost fifty years, and I would rather spend time in his company any day than with M. Poirot. But in her native country, Dame Ngaio is at least as well remembered as the formidable godmother of New Zealand imagesCK6Q7BTJtheatre. When she was a young woman, there was no professional theatre in the country, and her tireless work with student actors pretty much conjured out of nothing a fully-functioning, vibrant Shakespearean theatre with an audience to match. Several of the highly enjoyable Alleyn stories are set in theatres or among actors – always such a dodgy lot, don’t you think? Try Enter a Murderer, Death at the Dolphin or Vintage Murder, which has the added attraction of being set in New Zealand.

This week, when we try to imagine what it was like at Gallipoli, listen to June Tabor’s haunting delivery of Eric Bogle’s great song, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. And join me, if you will, in contemplating the bravery of men like Dr George Davidson.

9781473314290

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.

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Week 61: How To Be Rich

moneyDespite the high moral tone of last week, in which we agreed that enjoying your job and making some sort of positive contribution to sharing the planet were the important things in life, it cannot be denied that money comes in handy. Not always, of course: Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson, and Utopia either have no need of the stuff or, in Thomas More’s satire, use gold for chamber pots and fetters. But unless you have the time and energy to set up a system based entirely upon barter, or to follow John Seymour’s stern advice on Self-Sufficiency to the back-breaking letter, enough money is a necessity.

Ah, ‘enough’. Dangerously slippery word, that: my ‘enough’ might be riches beyond your wildest dreams, or less than you pop on a horse for the Grand National. Clever old Dickens spotted the chameleon-like quality of the word when he named Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations, a book that revolves around money (as so much Dickens does). She lived, you will remember, at Satis House. Oh, the irony: Miss Havisham’s tragedy is never to be able to say ‘enough’ and have done with her bitterness and brooding. Justice and revenge, Dickens keeps trying to tell us, are like money: you have to accept that, while it would be great to have more, what you have is probably enough and you are better off living with what you have than hankering after what you cannot have.

But how rarely the heroes and heroines of literature settle for what they’ve got – which is nice of them, of course, as without their striving and questing we could kiss goodbye to plot. Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester, the chaps in the Bertram family (Mansfield Park as of course you know), and indeed our old friend R. Crusoe: they, and so many of their fictive chums, rush around the place, often spreading ruin and scattering ban as they go, motivated by the remorseless desire to accumulate dosh. (The ‘spreading ruin’ quotation, should it be on the tip of your tongue but just eluding you for the moment, is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘A Musical Instrument’. You may or may not be entertained to know that in the NorthernReader household, the opening line,Darcy read by others as ‘WHAT is he doing, the great god Pan’ with the emphasis very properly on the first syllable, is habitually rendered as the far more disapproving ‘What IS he doing, the great god Pan’. So much more fun). Contrary to Jane Austen’s hopes, the possession of a good fortune is rarely a guarantee of gorgeous eligibility. Dour old Darcy, Lady de Bourgh’s dreary daughter, self-pitying Willoughby and the ghastly Robert Ferrars make a sobering roll-call of what might be on offer when you marry for money . As my great-grandmother was apparently given to saying, don’t marry for money, marry for love; but only love where there’s money.

So are there any shining beacons of plutocracy out there on the pages of fiction?   Not Ebenezer Scrooge, that’s for sure, nor Hard Times’s Josiah Bounderby (contender for the closely-fought title of Best Name in a Dickens Novel). We’re better off, in every sense, with J Washburn Stoker, millionaire father to one of Bertie Wooster’s fleeting fiancées. Or how about Bertie himself? We should perhaps not overlook the fact that shoals of young women make it their business to become engaged to him, despite for the most part judging him to be a work in progress rather than the answer to a maiden’s prayer. Could it be that his enormous bank balance has something to do with his attractiveness? One of the very many joys of reading PG Wodehouse, by the way lies in savouring his seemingly endless euphemisms and synonyms for being rich. But it is noticeable how, with the exception of the occasional dog-biscuit millionaire, money is very rarely a commodity that Wodehouse’s characters knuckle down and actually earn. A bit different from the hard and uncertain road to riches travelled by Defoe’s Moll Flanders. If you should happen not to

It is, you know.  It's Daniel Craig!  And the simply terrific Alex Kingston

It is, you know. It’s Daniel Craig! And the simply terrific Alex Kingston

have read The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, well, what a treat you have in store. This is Defoe’s masterpiece, and it is packed with pungent social criticism. But don’t worry, it’s packed with sex and death as well and is altogether a rollicking good yarn as well as a searing indictment of how hard life can be if you should happen not to be born into a cocoon of wealth and privilege.

Children’s literature tends not to take to the  moral high ground about the love of money and the evil thereof, unless we count A Christmas Carol – and I think we can, because, not least thanks to sterling work by the Muppets, it is a sad childhood that does not know the tale of Dicken’s great miser. Perhaps we should see if the Muppets fancy having a go at Silas Marner. In George Eliot’s terrific parable, Marner the linen weaver learns the hard way that gold is just stuff and that what we actually need to earn, and to spend, is love.

Goodness me, how uplifting. Time to come back to earth with a favourite short poem by Franklin P Adams:

The rich man has his motor-car,
His country and his town estate.
He smokes a fifty-cent cigar
And jeers at Fate.

He frivols through the livelong day,
He knows not Poverty, her pinch.
His lot seems light, his heart seems gay;
He has a cinch.

Yet though my lamp burns low and dim,
Though I must slave for livelihood—
Think you that I would change with him?
You bet I would!writer

Week 44: By Another Name

pen-nameWhat makes an author hide behind a nom de plume? The usual reasons for changing your name in non-literary walks of life are to avoid your creditors or the law, or simply because you feel blighted by the hand your parents dealt you: raw work pulled at the font, as PG Wodehouse accurately observes.

It was a belief widely held – and nurtured by the exclusively male tribe of publishers – that it was not seemly for a woman to take to the page. Or, in mediaeval England, to be heard at all, which is why the resourceful and very attention-seeking Margery Kempe made great play of the fact that she had dictated her autobiography to a male scribe. Oh, and that Jesus had told her to get it all written down, which you have to admit, is a rather splendid pre-emptive strike against potential critics. The Book of Margery Kempe seems to have been finished by 1450, but the first (and so far only) complete manuscript only came to light in 1934. Kempe was a remarkable woman of her own or indeed any time, and I suspect you are going to enjoy her tales of pilgrimage, chats with celebrities from Julian of Norwich to assorted bishops and archbishops, and a tour of the religious sites of Europe and the Holy Land. She is also, to my mind, the precursor of the great feminist icon, Violet Elizabeth Bott, with her ability to scream and scream until she is sick.

We do at least know Mrs Kempe’s name. In the seventeenth century, as religious sensibilities started to consign women to the private domestic sphere, it became increasingly difficult to get heard without either using a pseudonym or anonymity. Katherine Philips, the Welsh poet, translator of Corneille and leader of a literary circle, was undoubtedly as tough as old boots, but bowed to the conventions with a great deal of classical nick-naming for herself and her friends. She was ‘the matchless Orinda’, which, on the face of it, is a bit – well, simpery. She made great play of her virtue and devotion to her husband, and it is noticeable that despite all the coy shunning of publicity, Mrs Philips was very well known indeed as the perfect model of a female author. Not like that brazen Aphra Behn, you see, whose private life remained just that and who wrote to make money. Gosh, how infra dig. And for the stage at that. She also seems to have spied for the British Government to make money, by the way, and generally comes across as a woman who would have sold her grandmother to you at the right price. Behn wrote with wit and energy, and about sex and death. Obviously, she is a must-read. Start with Oroonoko, which is neither about South American rivers (although it is set in Surinam) nor Wombles, but is a high-octane tale of slavery, true love and barbarity: a sort of cross between Othello and Twelve Years a Slave.

The late eighteenth century produced a fine crop of women who were perfectly happy to see their names on the covers of their books, from Ann Radcliffe, whose Mysteries of Udolpho so stirred Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, to Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women stirred the Establishment as with a Magimix. Northanger Abbey itself, like all Jane Austen’s novels, appeared anonymously: the strap-line ‘by a lady’, which first appeared on Pride and Prejudice seems to suggest a genteel need to distance herself from the women who presented themselves as professional writers. After Austen, we enter a morass of Brontës, believing or being advised that readers will only come their way if they publish as the various dubiously-named Bell brothers, and Marian Evans, who led parallel lives as Miss Evans, the lover of George Henry Lewes, and George Eliot, the author of seven of the best novels of the nineteenth century (it’s the dry humour, which perhaps you weren’t expecting, that makes Middlemarch such a winner).

But it’s not just the girls: chaps, too, on signing the contract with a publisher, have taken the opportunity to re-invent themselves. Eric Blair became George Orwell and Hector Hugh Munro became Saki: Eric Mercer (none of them seem happy to be Eric, do they? Do you think that Eric, or Little by Little started the rot?) metamorphosed into the suave Dornford Yates, now hugely unfashionable but for most of the first half of the twentieth century one of the most-read authors around. Oxford seems to bring out the pseudonymous in a writer: Charles Dodgson’s alter ego was Lewis Carroll, CS Lewis published some poetry as Clive Hamilton, and J I M Stewart became Michael Innes when he felt like writing filmanonymouscrime fiction. Michael Innes, incidentally, was the source of Robert Bruce Montgomery’s pen name, Edmund Crispin, for his highly enjoyable Oxford-set detective novels starring Professor Gervase Fen. But no, the Earl of Oxford did not write poems and plays and call himself William Shakespeare. Really he didn’t. Don’t be silly.

Some authors have developed different personas for different genres they wish to dabble in. So the Poet Laureate, Cecil Day Lewis, published crime fiction as Nicholas Blake (and jolly good they are too) and Barbara Vine is the darker, more disturbing hat that Ruth Rendell wears from time to time. Edith Pargeter, a fine historical novelist, took on a new lease of life as Ellis Peters, writing crime fiction and all twenty-something Brother Cadfael mysteries. What I notice, writing this, is how deliberately transparent most also-writing-as has become. Indeed, many front covers now proclaim the dual identities, presumably in the hope of generating maximum sales. I can see this is going to have consequences when Val McDermid starts writing picture books for the very small.

So, when you write the Great Novel of the Twenty-First Century, who will you say you are? Your own name? Terrific if it turns out to be as good as you thought it was, and friends and neighbours stop you in the street to kiss the hand that wrote the book and ask for your autograph: but what if the reviewers hate you, and your name blares out below the headline, ‘Is This the Worst Book Ever Written?’(now there’s a topic for a NorthernReader Walking Book Club session). You might have to move, or change your children’s name by deed poll, or pretend to be the nanny when you collect your children at the school gate. I begin to see the attraction of hiding behind a pseudonym. How about ‘The Northern Reader’?my avatar