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.




Week 9: Men’s Books

Oh dear.  This week (like most weeks) the news has been full of chaps behaving like a bunch of three-year olds while the rest of us stand by with our jaws dropped.  Whether the American Republican Party, in a pet because democracy hasn’t given it the answer it wanted, or British police Chief Constables – um, ditto, the wonder is that they haven’t been sent up to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.  They could read a book or two while they were there and find some grown-up male role models.

Although they might have to wade through some depressing stereotypes first.  Bookshops (not brilliant ones such as Cogito Books in Hexham, obviously) are filling up with the Boys’ Own Book of Crash, Thud, and Tying Knots (or something like that) in time for Christmas.  What men want, if you believe the publishers, is facts.  Lots of lists, preferably, and detailed instructions on how to do something they’re never actually going to do (fish, mend something, make a pipe-rack).  Now, I am not disputing the need from time to time for instruction books and clear explanations of how to do something, and I am quietly thrilled that reference books such as Wisden are holding on despite the internet: but the assumption that chaps can’t handle fiction seems a tad depressing.

I don't think this is gratuitous, do you?

I don’t think this is gratuitous, do you?

There is fiction aimed at men, of course.  William Boyd has just done a bang-up job on replicating the dreary, list-laden, unsubtle humourlessness of the original James Bond books.  It sits most easily with the derring-do military anecdotes of Andy McNab, Chris Ryan et al. The most interesting thing I know about Ian Fleming, by the way, is that he may well have been the back-room boy at SIS who came up with the ‘Major Martin’ wheeze: Ewen Montagu’s  The Man Who Never Was discreetly tells the tale.  Spying is a popular topic, too: the best, of course, is John Le Carré’s Smiley and his descendants: if you enjoyed that, try Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six – and, while we’re talking about good spying books, Robert Harris’s Enigma brings a very believable Bletchley to life.

But does the y chromosome have to debar you from Jane Austen? Is Mr Darcy only fit for the company of women?  Well, perhaps he is a bad example, because his creator was female, but an awful lot of fiction has been written by men: not only novels, short stories and plays, but even (whisper it) poetry.  So if chaps are considered too – well, blokeish – to be expected to read stories, how is that they are dab hands at turning the stuff out?  And, it must be said, doing it to quite a high standard – you know, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Auden, that sort of thing.

Rising above the comment of my friend that Wolf Hall is really a girls’ book because it’s full of conversation (well, obviously the casual violence is just there for the male reader, but it clearly didn’t work in my friend’s case), what books am I going to lend out eagerly to men? And which am I going to tuck quietly away onto a special pink shelf with frills on it?

First thoughts are to segregate Bridget Jones and her like (but I’m damned if I’ll protect my male friends from the astute precision of Jane Austen).  It might even be that some of the more introspective evocations of female emotional experience might not grab some male imaginations (to be fair, I can’t stand football, so I am prepared to concede that there might be a chromosomal tendency towards finding different things tolerable).  So, chaps, not for you the water-colour perfections of Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner and Barbara Pym.  If Salley Vicker’s Dancing Backwards is not your cup of tea, try Where Three Roads Meet instead.  If you find Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart elliptical, read The Last September (if you find the heroine of Wuthering Heights tedious, on the other hand, welcome to my world).

But if we are to go along with the idea that only the tough and the hard-boiled will do for the male reader, then who more perfect that Raymond Chandler?  Philip Marlowe’s heart does get broken, but in true hero style, he doesn’t go on about it.  Peter Wimsey’s heart, we are told, was broken during the War by a girl called Barbara.  He morphs during the novels from being a Wooster-ish fop, through being an embarrassingly drooled-over object of desire in his creator’s eye, to emerge as a middle-aged married man with –gosh, how brave! – sensitivities.  No-one could ever call Wimsey hard-boiled.  Inspector Morse is infinitely duller in Colin Dexter’s hands than in John Thaw’s.  Dan Starkey, the rather unlikely hero of Colin Bateman’s books, might be better off if he could only harden his heart a bit.  If you haven’t read any, try the film of Divorcing Jack, and not just because Jason Isaacs is in it: although that doesn’t hurt, does it?  And he was spot-on as Jackson Brodie in the television adaptations of Kate Atkinson’s multi-layered, poignant novels about loss, starting with Case Histories (don’t worry, chaps, there’s detecting, some violence and even the odd chase there too).  Donna Leon’s detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti, on the other hand, is unusual in being kindly, deeply uxurious, happily long-married and a caring father: now there’s a male role model.  Can we have Colin Firth for the film please?

Week 4: The Booker and other prizes

It’s been going since 1969, changing its name to Man Booker in 2002.  Disappointingly – well, to me anyway – this was not to distinguish it from Woman Booker, Child Booker or perhaps Orang-Utang Booker, but simply because some chaps with a lot of money wanted to associate themselves with books, rather than leave people with the impression that they were simply interested in, you know, money.  Incidentally, have a look at their own explanation of who they are at  http://www.themanbookerprize.com/faqs .  I say this not in order to promote them – they’re going to get name-dropped a lot between now and prize day – but because I don’t understand a single word.  Is it me?  Or is it meaningless guff?  And if so, did someone get paid to make it up?  And when did people start treating words so badly and getting away with it (oh, I think we’ve just stumbled on a subject for another week, don’t you)?

Anyway, the short list for the Man Booker Prize 2013 has been announced.  I heard NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names) being interviewed on the radio and she sounds like a darling: one for the will-read list.  But my money’s on Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary because (a) he has been short-listed twice before and my (admittedly patchy) understanding of statistics means that he’s much more likely to win this time and (b) it is short. We must talk about the length of books one day: enough, here, to say that it is perfectly acceptable to quail at the sight of yet another 1,000-pager.  Had Wittgenstein turned his hand to reviewing novels (and I’m sure he’d have been a lulu), he might well have come up with the dictum, ‘if it can be said, it can be said briefly’. 

The Booker (let’s call it that: so pleasingly almost nominatively deterministic and it’s time we tried to put the phrase ‘liquid investment styles’ shudderingly behind us) has a good track record, on the whole.  In the last five years, the prize has gone to Hilary Mantel, twice – and, oh, if you haven’t yet starting reading Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, cancel all engagements, snuggle up and get cracking without further delay – Julian Barnes, always thoughtful, spare and illuminating, and Howard Jacobson (whose Oxford University sermon a couple of years ago was so good we had to sit on our hands not to applaud or throw flowers). 

There are other prizes, of course.  In fact there are shelves, cupboards, downstairs lavatories full of the things.  Some, like the Costa (once the Whitbread, which seemed, somehow, more stately) and the TS Eliot, matter: others don’t, except to the grateful recipients and their publishers, agents and mothers.  I have a soft spot for the Betty Trask prize for its clear-eyed determination to encourage and support new young writers, and for its dignified championing of the road less travelled – the last best-seller it backed was Zadie Smith in 2001.  The Nobel raises its dignified, remote head and shoulders above the rest by dint of its effortless appreciation of all languages, cultures and genres, a gift not given to us mere mortals.  I was glad when Seamus Heaney won it, and I have no way of knowing whether, were I Chinese and/or able to read Chinese, I would have been glad when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize last year, because I’m not and I can’t and, to be honest, I’d never heard of him until the announcement and I still don’t know what his writing feels like when you read it.

Should writing be a competition? Have we reduced publishing to a reality show with winners and losers? Well, yes, and on the other hand, no.  First, yes.  Getting any copies at all of your book sold now involves – especially if you are female­ – having air-brushed, made-over photos of you touted round the media and plastered on the back of your deathless prose.  When did this happen and why did we let it?  I haven’t the remotest idea what …. Ah.  I see a problem.  I was trying to think of an author whose appearance is unknown to me, so that I could say to you, ‘I haven’t the remotest idea what he or she looks like’: but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t because I have become so conditioned to the who-is-she-or-he culture that I Google writers. I didn’t know what Rosemary Sutcliff, or Roger Lancelyn-Green (another childhood favourite about whom we will talk one day) looked like when I read them, but now I do.  So, yes, we have become readers who demand to know the face, the story and the inside leg measurement of our authors.  One in the eye for  Roland Barthes: the author is not only not dead, he’s on daytime television.

But on the other hand, no.  Because, praise the Lord, we don’t just read the prize-winners, or the best-seller Top Ten, or the Good Reads lists of Ten Best Anything.  Do we?  You don’t, surely.  You’re much too eclectic, and self-confident, and cheerful a reader to stick to the road most travelled.  And unless you’re clever enough, or Chinese enough, to be able to read Mo Yan, there are prize-winners you don’t read, and are making no plans to read.  That’s OK too: this is as good a time as any to face the fact that by the time we die there will still be books in the world that we have not read. 

The best prizes, of course, are the ones you have won.  So here’s mine. Ladybird Sir Walter Raleigh

I was six.  It has a proper bookplate which tells the world how marvellous, clever and well-behaved I was then.  I had to do a proper curtsey when I went up onto the stage to be given it.  I can’t help wondering if life would be a better place if it still, just occasionally, held out the possibility of such glory.  Meanwhile, when I write The Novel, I’ll start practising my curtsey for the Man Booker judges.  Just in case.