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 92: Meh

WP_20150522_009… or Baa if you are a traditionalist. Yes, it’s the time of year when the hills are alive to the sound of bleating. On a trip to the torrid southern slopes of Cheshire last week, we encountered sheep who have already been shorn. Here in the more arctic regions of England, no self-respecting sheep or human has been foolish enough to cast any clouts just yet, and everyone is grimly hanging on in full wool and waiting for the promised summer time. Impressively coiffed or newly-shaved, the chief difference between lambs and their Mammas seems to be that one is enchanting and the other is stoically dull; in life, at least. How about in books?

The ovine clan has provided few heroes and heroines. Yes, yes, Shaun the sheep; but (a) he’s an animated bit of Plasticine rather than a fictional hero and (b) he is a man (or ram) who cannot even spell his own name. I bow to no-one in my admiration for Nick Park and all his works, but Shaun? Really? Could we not be trusted to cope with Sean? There are the exceptionally dim sheep in Dick King-Smith’s utterly delightful The Sheep-Pig, the unnerving little stalker who followed Mary to school according to the nursery rhyme, and the object of doggy attention in Joan Lingard’s Morag and the Lamb. Most popular in the long-suffering NorthernReader stronghold when KatePonders was a very small person was Silly Sheep, which is by Eric Hill and Alan Ahlberg and amused its intended readership an awful lot more than it did the designated reader – especially after repeated re-readings.

5.4Lewis Carroll clearly knew a thing or two about sheep when he created the really rather sinister knitting ewe in Through the Looking-Glass. You will recall that the White Queen metamorphoses into an elderly sheep in the middle of a conversation with Alice. Not only that, but the setting shifts and wobbles every bit as precariously, briefly taking on the shape of a shop before re-assembling itself as a rowing boat on the water and then becoming a shop again. Not much of a surprise that so many academic careers have been happily spent within the confines of the Alice books. I’m sure there are reams of scholarly papers, and even quite possibly whole hefty tomes, devoted to this episode alone. All I’m going to say here is that I stand in awe, as ever, at Carroll’s – well, what is it? Inventive genius or sublime revelation? – in choosing, of all the animals in the world, a sheep for this unsettling transmogrification. It’s the eyes, I think, that give sheep that ineluctable sense of the alien. In its dreamlike and hallucinatory quality, the ‘Wool and Water’ chapter of Through the Looking Glass’ feels almost Blakean. Disappointing, then, that William Blake’s own foray into the world of allegorical sheep, ‘The Lamb’, is so comparatively pedestrian. It seems to prefigure the cotton-wool world of the nineteenth-century nursery and to surrender wild imagination in favour of a docile conformity to Christian evangelism. Read, instead ‘The Tyger’, its counterpart from the Songs of Experience.

Bonnie Nadzam doesn’t, on the surface of her debut novel, Lamb, seem over-burdened with the freight of religious significance of her protagonist’s name. But, as you read on in this tale of an American dystopia, and armed with the NorthernReader First Law of Literary Criticism – which is, as you know, that There’s Always an Essay in Names – it just might strike you that there is a sacrificial element to David Lamb’s grim journey.

But revenons à nos moutons. And in Britain, as hommage to the Norman conquests, sheep hang out in fields and mutton beguiles on tables. Ridiculously out of fashion (but now – hurray! – being championed by the Prince of Wales), mutton and hogget is what we should be demanding when supermarkets try to fob us off with spindly New Zealand lamb. Make your way sharpish to your nearest proper butcher and ask, politely but persistently, for good local sheep-meat. Flushed with success, you might find Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book to be your kitchen companion of choice. Our copy was carefully selected from the shelf some years ago by the resident Labrador and … customised; but it is still readable and much-used. I expect there are umpteen recipe books devoted entirely to lamb, but in truth few of us who cook use more than the trusted handful of, in our opinions at least, Indispensable Cookery Books (Fearnley-Whittingstall, Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden, in our case).

And now a sleety hail is pelting down. Hang on to your fleeces, girls, and hope for flaming June.WP_20150522_008

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