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 5: cold comforts

My cousin David has died.  First of all, I want to tell you what a lovely man he was: brimming with interest in people and things, always kindly and gently good-humoured.  And now, of course, I need to read something.  What will help?

At my father’s funeral (sorry, going to funerals seems to have become my specialist subject over the last few years), I read John Donne’s magnificent, defiant sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’.  Talk about marching out all colours flying: it’s a poem that exactly hits the spot when you are damned if you going to let a little thing like death vanquish someone’s spirit. At my mother’s, I chose Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’.  The occasion felt like the reunion of my parents and that spare, quite ambivalent but ultimately affirmative poem could have been written for them.  Larkin is one of the great examples of the person you wouldn’t like who writes work that you do.  He seems to have been an unkind, verbally brutal misanthrope.   This is no doubt very unfair of me because I never met him and he may have been a poppet to his inner circle – but I don’t get the impression he went in for circles.  Or any shape other than the solitary unit.  And yet he wrote ‘What will remain of us is love’: one of only two contenders for the accolade, line-of-poetry-I-would-consider-having-tatooed-on-me (admittedly, would only consider for two seconds before moving on).  The other, should you be interested, is Auden’s ‘We must love one another or die’.  You must admit, I’m going to make a classy corpse.

There are readings to avoid.  Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ seems  – well, a bit late, really, by the time you reach the funeral.  Better, surely, to address death itself, or those of us left behind, than the now-indifferent body.  And I have a horror of the maudlin, which rules out quite a lot (though I do appreciate that, if maudlin were to be your thing, a funeral is not a bad place to unleash it).  There is a case to be made for Edward Thomas’s ‘Lights Out’: ‘I have come to the borders of sleep,/ The unfathomable deep/ Forest where all must lose/Their way’.  But then, there is always a case to be made for reading Edward Thomas (yes, we’d better talk about him quite soon).

I can see that all my choices seem to be poetry.  Well, it’s the right stuff for the moment, don’t you think?  Stripped down to an essence, saying what needs to be said with a quiet precision.  It gives you permission to use metaphor and allusion to say things that would be too bald if plonked down as prose.  And I can see, too, that I am only talking about the sad and regretted death of generations above one’s own.  I bow to no man in my conviction that reading conquers all, but even I am not sure that anything can offer even a shred of comfort on the death of a child.  If I have to, I would go to Ben Jonson and ‘On My First Son’.  But even that wouldn’t help.All the best families are a bit like this

But what to read later, on my own?  Any death in the family involves a gathering of the tribe, and any gathering of my particular tribe cannot fail to send me back to the models for all families – Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals – and for all family gatherings – the sublime Cold Comfort Farm. Dearest cousins-who-are-readers (and I know some of you are), this is praise indeed and a tribute to how gorgeous you all are.  Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate offer acute observations of a range of relatives.  There’s death and tragedy there too, wrapped into the comedy – a bit like life really and perhaps this is quite a good time to reflect on that.

So now, some solace please.  Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of is a good start: wise and brave as you would expect of him.  Antoine St Exupery’s Le Petit Prince/ The Little Prince will not do because it makes me cry and I’m not going to.  If ‘much-loved book from childhood’ is the category I’m searching for comfort, I might be better off with ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ (chapter 7) from The Wind in the Willows.  Children’s books are a perhaps surprisingly rich source of facing up to death.  We liked Posy Simmond’s Fred, about the funeral wake for a family cat (trust me, a lot warmer and funnier than I’ve made it sound).  And come to think of it, cats seem to be the go-to animal for lessons on dying: the incomparable Judith Kerr tackled the subject with gentle authority in Goodbye Mog.  I still remember Jenni Murray’s tear-stained tones on Woman’s Hour when she said to Mrs Kerr, ‘but Mog dies’, and the sweetly firm response, ‘Well, Jenni, everybody does.’

Otherwise, there might be something to be said for trivialising the subject of death.  Let’s not empathise: instead, let’s have bodies, heaps of them, festoons of them.  The comfort-criminals then: Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham (but not The Tiger in the Smoke, which belongs to quite a different category, that of ‘too scary ever to be read again’).  Or we could be cheered up by Terry Pratchett’s  Death – no, let me rephrase that, by the character of Death who is a glory of the Discworld novels written by Terry Pratchett.  Death speaks, if that is the word we are looking for here, in small capitals and without inverted commas.  And he tells us not to think of it as dying, but as LEAVING EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.  Which is a tiny bit comforting.  See you later, David.