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 30: A Great Day for Out

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

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

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

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

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

Tobias should have taken a book with him

Tobias should have taken a book with him

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