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 109: Flower Power

InstagramCapture_ddf232f4-1b90-4a6e-8ccb-c61c3c37152eIt always comes as a delightful shock to notice that the evenings are drawing out and spring is in full swing in garden, pond and forest.  In a moment of madness last summer – you know how easy it is to agree to anything if it is far enough in the future – we agreed to be part of a village ‘gardens open’ this year, so April has seen us, in defiance of the weather, which has been a bit Novemberish for my tastes, digging and raking and sticking tentative forks into what we optimistically call the lawn.  Frogs have spawned, snowdrops have been and gone and we are now knee-deep in daffodils and blossom, with tulips ready to upstage the lot.  What we need from this week’s books is flowers.

Let’s start with some poetry.  Every garden-lover should have a copy of Poems for Gardeners by the bed.  An anthology put together by Germaine Greer, it is exactly the right mixture of the well-known and the surprising, wandering pleasingly far and wide to remind us that gardens have always been, quite literally, a paradise.  Greer includes Andrew Marvell, because he is impossible to resist at the best of times and especially when talking about gardens.  Always writing in couplets, Marvell can seem clunky to us now, and I always have a lurking suspicion that the thought behind ‘The Garden’ outstrips the phrasing – casting the body’s vest aside, for example: memorable, certainly, but, at least in the NorthernReader household, impossible to read straight-faced, which rather lowers the tone.   In all his poems about the natural or the cultivated outdoor world, in fact – Upon Appleton House, the ‘Mower’ poems – Marvell sticks rigidly to his prevailing mood of a rather gloomy austerity.  No, I think I want someone cheerier as my garden companion for today.

Not Wendy Cope, then; but only because her entirely marvellous short poem, ‘Flowers’, breaks my heart.

Some men never think of it.
You did. You’d come along
And say you’d nearly brought me flowers
But something had gone wrong.The shop was closed. Or you had doubts –
The sort that minds like ours
Dream up incessantly. You thought
I might not want your flowers.It made me smile and hug you then.
Now I can only smile.
But, look, the flowers you nearly brought
Have lasted all this while

From this it is but a short step to Dorothy Parker’s indispensable ‘One Perfect Rose’.  We have talked about this before (Week 83), but here it is in its full acerbic glory:

A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet –
One perfect rose.

I knew the language of the floweret;
‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.

Why is it no one ever sent me yet
One perfect limousine, do you suppose?
Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get
One perfect rose.

Not yet known to me, but looked forward to, is the collection Reading the Flowers by Linda France, who will be talking about her work next Saturday at the Hexham Book Festival. I have seen her poems described as ‘a work of scholarship and imagine and precise observation’ which make them sound exactly the sort of thing for me.

tulipsOn any bookshelf about flowers, Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever has to take pride of place.  Perfectly balanced between Calvinist restraint and Catholic excess, the novel is saturated with the extraordinary, breath-holding world that produced the sumptuous still-lives of the Dutch Old Masters.  If you haven’t, read it; if you have, read it again: time well spent in either case.   And we can indulge in some mild word-play by adding Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower and the collected works of Rose Tremain to our shelf: none of them very helpful on the natural history or horticultural front, but essential reading on other grounds.  And lest it was buried in the middle of my little list, let me repeat that Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower has to be read; now, at once, immediately: it is that rarest of rare things, an entirely perfect work of art.

Children are probably better served nowadays than they were when I was little and in danger of being fobbed off with the sugary pleasures of Cicely Mary Barker’s The Flower Fairies.  It may of course be that I was an unusually horrid and insensitive child, but I’m afraid her classic illustrations of little girls simpering about with wings and floaty frocks inspired nausea even at a very tender age.  You may of course have loved them, in which case you are very far from being alone judging from the brisk trade in posters, fabric, ceramics and what the NorthernReader household learned from Betty MacDonald to call toe-covers (such a useful phrase, we find, to sum up all those gifty knick-knacks of no possible benefit to mankind).  Getting the poppets to notice flowers, and spot the differences between them, is a good start to engaging them in a lifetime of pleasure in the natural world.  Flowers are colourful, so give children paints and paper and send them outside.  Anyone brought up on the detailed botanical drawings of Beatrix Potter has a headstart; and, among many other reasons for reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, the practical descriptions of gardening constitute good sound advice.  You can always follow up with Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden for a later birthday.

Right.  The sun has come, a little fitfully, out.  On with boots and gloves and out we go.

Hurray, as ever, for Bill Watterson

Hurray, as ever, for Bill Watterson

Week 28: Books for Vladimir Putin

bank-bridge-in-st-petersburgI have never been to Russia.  I cannot read Russian.  I do not even know any Russian people.  I am, therefore, completely unqualified to pronounce upon what seems to be a pretty sorry state of affairs at the top there. But we readers form a gloriously democratic community that knows no boundaries and is not disheartened by what it does not yet know.  Books, we readers believe, can enlighten the darkest minds and lift the most troubled hearts.  Here, then, is my gift to you, Lt Col Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man I do not know: a small library of books you might like to read.

I would love it if you would read John Le Carré’s The Complete Smiley and let me know how they strike you from the other side of Checkpoint Charlie. The television version was terrific, if you haven’t time to read all eight books, what with running several countries and all the other calls on your time: or – even better – you could listen to the completely wonderful BBC radio version starring Simon Russell Beale, even though I suspect he isn’t your sort of chap.  And of course I’d be interested to hear your views on Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six and Alan Bennett’s plays about the Cambridge lot: An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.  We’ve developed a tendency here over the last twenty or thirty years to romanticise Philby and his chums, but, quite apart from the sheer bloody boys’-games pointlessness of it all, they did directly contribute to an awful lot of deaths, didn’t they?  Of course, you would know, from your time in the KGB, exactly how many: although, as my grandfather said to my mother when she expressed horror at the sheer number of people who died in the concentration camps (before your time but the point holds), ‘How many would have been alright?’

Lucky you, President Putin (you are president at the moment, aren’t you? Again?): you can read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and – best of all – Chekhov without the need for translations.  If you have a spare moment, I would love to hear which is your favourite: Uncle Vanya, perhaps.  Do you see Serebryakov selling his late wife’s estate as progress or treachery?

HvorostovskyI only know your home town, St Petersburg, from books and films.  I suspect that novels set in the Siege of Leningrad – even one as good as Gillian Slovo’s The Ice Road – may seem downright impertinent to you, as your family were there and suffered terribly.  Crime and Punishment is set there, of course, and so is the compellingly wonderful Eugene Onegin.  If you haven’t time to re-read Pushkin, listen to Tchaikovsky’s marvellous opera, especially with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and the lovely Nuccia Focile as Tatiana.  You’re not going to let the fact that Tchaikovsky was gay stop you from celebrating his music, are you?

It is just possible that you may have Ukraine much on your mind at present.  Have you read Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin?  It’s set in Kiev and Misha the penguin is a give-away from the zoo there (at least he didn’t get eaten by the President).  Do read it.  From what I have read about you, Mr Putin, you do not tend to empathise with people who are unhappy or being caused distress.  Perhaps you might find empathising with a penguin a good starting-point on your journey towards kindness.

vladimir-putin-riding-bearWould it be asking too much to suggest that you read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Only – just in case you haven’t come across it before – please don’t treat it as a checklist for your prisons.  The idea is that you should read it and weep.  Because I do want you to weep, Mr Putin.  It would be good to have a world leader who was unafraid of compassion and did not think that posing naked to the waist down while dismantling either a Kalashnikov or a bear was manly.  Can I add Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to your list?  Oh, and some Oscar Wilde as well.  He was the chap who said, ‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.’  But to be honest I’d just like to see you curled up in a corner of the Kremlin reading An Ideal Husband.

The latest in our imortant series of non-gratuitous illustrations

The latest in our important series of non-gratuitous illustrations

You do seem to be a bit troubled by homosexuality, don’t you?  Perhaps reading Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain will at least make you realise you have more in common with America than you thought.  Red-neck Mid-West America, anyway.  Oh, go on, watch the film.  You know you want to (and you can get in some more weeping practice at the loss of the luminous screen presence that was Heath Ledger).  But wouldn’t you – and your fantastic country – be happier if you spent more time worrying about world peace?  So here are some suggestions for books that encourage us to know the human heart rather than discount or despise it.

First – and first on any bookshelf of English books about Russia – Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  Set in Moscow in 1913, this deft, dryly humorous, sometimes shocking and always perfect short novel captures a world that is shifting, thawing, changing.  Next, the Russophile Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales: you might enjoy Ransome’s own account of the Russian Revolution in his Autobiography as well.  You will know, Mr Putin, that Ransome married Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s secretary.  When you are at a loose end, come and visit their grave in the tranquil churchyard at Rusland in his beloved Lake District, and celebrate a truly happy Anglo-Russian union.  Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!  Richard Feynman’s family originated in Russia, so you could proudly claim him as one of your own.  He was wise –Nobel-Prize-winningly so – breath-takingly clever and, even more rarely, funny.  He worked with Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.  Feynman had the brilliance to help develop the atomic bomb, the judgment to agree to work on it to forestall Germany getting there first, and the magnificence of soul to re-evaluate his decision and conclude that he had been wrong.

Aah, changing your mind and your actions: the hallmark of greatness. My final gift to you, Vladimir, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.   спокойной ночи и удачи (good night, and good luck).

We are all together on such a small place, after all

We are all together on such a small place, after all

Week 11: The Weather in the Streets and Other Places

Within the last three days, we have had warm golden sunshine, gales that have redistributed around the village anything not actually nailed down, bitter blasts and wallops of rain.  Hello, autumn.  Whether it’s turning the lights on at midday or forging across the fell at an unfeasible angle, it’s clear that the weather affects more than just what we wear.  One of the delicious things about these islands is that we have Proper Weather.  The British are famous for talking about it: come and live here and so will you, because it surprises, delights, frustrates and awes twelve times a day.  No surprise, then, that books written here are imbued with a sense of the elements.

This week’s title comes from Rosamond Lehmann.  The Weather in the Streets follows on from Invitation to the Waltz (and I do urge you, if you haven’t read Lehmann, to start now).  A perceptive study of an affair, with some claim to make Graham Greene seem cheery and shallow, the title implies that when we say weather, we are not thinking sunshine and little fluffy clouds. Thinking of which, I did have a copy of Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide, but it just confirmed that I don’t have that sort of brain and I left it – well, under a little cloud of its own.  More up my street was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (no, not that one), which hops about from narrative to narrative in a way that echoes If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller and is only not as good because nothing could be (we’ll talk about Favourite Books of All Time one day: and while we’re about it we’re still on a promise to talk about books in translation – unless of course you are equipped to read Italo Calvino in the original, in which case I am, frankly, jealous.  I suppose you read Umberto Eco too: lucky, lucky you).

For sticky, un-English weather, Nostromo will have you sweltering: in fact ‘swelter’ is one of Joseph Conrad’s default settings: Heart of Darkness, anyone?  But then, he’s good at all shapes and sizes of weather: if you haven’t, go and be engulfed in the mist and fog of The Secret Agent.  Best of all, perhaps, on the weather on someone else’s streets, is the incomparably wonderful Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  The cold of the Russian winter follows the heartbeat of the story and gives pathetic fallacy a good name after all.  From the sublime to the – well, the more straightforward –  we might have a peek at Ice Station Zebra: does anyone read Alistair MacLean these days?  Goodness, there’s a lot of plot, mostly uncluttered by any of that tiresome character development or subtlety stuff that so clutters up other writers’ work, but you can’t deny that MacLean could make you feel the cold.

photograph of Hadrian's Wall taken some time between January and December

photograph of Hadrian’s Wall taken some time between January and December

Back home, if we’re putting together a small shelf of books that catch the British weather – and, now I think about it, there would be worse ‘welcome’ presents for someone new to these shores – we will have to include Arthur Ransome: Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post cover the coldest of Lake District winter and the parching that an English summer can deliver.  And then there’s Christopher Robin in his gumboots and Pooh afloat on The Floating Bear while Piglet sends messages in a bottle and hopes for rescue.  For the grown-ups among us, let’s have the pleasures of JL Carr’s A Month in the Country, not least for its dry certainty that if summer comes, winter must be just round the corner: one in the eye for Shelley.

But of course it’s the poets who really get to grips with the weather.  Poetry and weather have much in common, after all, being flickering, allusive and elusive, a sudden flash and then whisking on to the next thing.  Above all, they both have the power to lift our hearts and to wring them.  So let’s have that fanfare for the makers that Louis MacNeice proclaimed.  And – oh, splendid! – here is my first opportunity to fulfil an earlier promise and talk a little about Edward Thomas.

If we were to be silly enough to be making lists of top ten this and top forty that, and presumptuous enough to try for a list of top poets, Edward Thomas would be there.  You know the story, I expect: the journalist author of non-fiction books who insisted on volunteering in 1915 and began, under those intolerable and unknowable pressures, to write some of the sparest, bleakest and most beautiful poetry, not only of the First World War but of anywhere or any time.  And of course you’ve guessed the ending: sniper’s bullet at Arras in April 1917.  Eleanor Farjeon, a friend, wrote the most heart-breaking poem, ‘Easter Monday’, on hearing the news of his death.  Thomas could make you feel the rain that beat upon him, hour by relentless hour, but he was such a poet of the countryside that you can also feel the warm breeze at Adlestrop and smell the beguiling earth being turned in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’. More envy on my part, I’m afraid, because if you happen not to have got round to reading much Edward Thomas yet, and now you potter off to do so, you will be steeping yourself in quiet pleasure.  I, on the other hand, will be out in the rain, carrying buckets of gravel to make a path.  Oh well.  As Louis MacNeice says, ‘Let us make.  And set the weather fair.’

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?