At the risk of sounding hackneyed – because it seems to me that the whole country is talking of nothing else – I have decided to devote today’s post to snow. How could I not? I have now been effectively snowed in (it has been just about possible to walk out but not drive) for forty-eight hours, twenty of those without electricity. And towards the end of March, too! I have been living here for almost twenty years and have seen snow like this only once before, on 25th January 1996. I remember the date because it was Burns Night and also the anniversary of the day on which I got engaged. I was driving home from the library supply company in Scotland at which I was working at the time and narrowly missed having to spend the night in my car on the A66 as the snow came thicker and faster. I remember my sense of relief when I finally made it to Scotch Corner, only to find the A1 gridlocked in both directions. It took me more than four hours to crawl into Leeds, where the traffic had virtually ground to a halt. Eventually I arrived at a roundabout with an adjacent hotel and went in to see if I could get a room for the night. A Burns Night dinner had been taking place there and most of the diners were stranded, so there was a shortage of rooms. However, when I told the receptionist I had driven from Scotland, she was so impressed that she gave me the bridal suite for the night, complete with flowers, fruit and mini bottles of champagne! The irony was that my husband and son were also stranded nearby, but we couldn’t contact each other. In those days, cellphones were rarer; my company had just bought one for me, but none of us had personal mobiles. On the next day, when I finally reached home (having passed my husband’s abandoned car, its roof now neatly bisected by a snow-laden branch), the snow was not as deep then as it is now; and it was the fourth week of January, after all, and not the third week of March! I feel not so much a sense of outrage at this current deluge as one of disbelief: seeing lambs in the snow is one thing, but snow on nesting blackbirds quite another!
Yesterday I also discovered how little can be accomplished without electricity. I couldn’t shower, cook, clean, listen to music, put on the washing machine or do the ironing. Instead I wrote yesterday’s blog-post, made some final adjustments to Almost Love, toasted myself in front of the wood-burning stove, acted as referee between the dog and cat as the occasional skirmish broke out for pole position on the hearthrug and read the first two hundred pages of Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies, my treat to myself when I visited Leeds on Friday (along with a cappuccino and a slice of Belgian chocolate tart). I also meditated on possible plots for my next novel and read last week’s papers for inspiration. The Joss Stone attempted murder case amazes with its improbability. Few writers would dare to invent anything so bizarre!
Most of this was very enjoyable, though I was beginning to feel twitchy by the time that power was restored in the late afternoon. As soon as the lights came back on, I rushed for the shower in case the power bounty proved to be temporary. My husband was more philosophical. He had decided that the opportunity for Saturday ablutions had been and gone and devoted himself instead to clearing away the debris of a day’s accumulated washing-up. (Next time there is a power-cut I must remember that unwashed husband = clean dishes.)
Today it is bitterly cold, although the sun is shining. The snow is being whipped up by the wind and inflicting sharp stings to the face and any other exposed skin. Drifts on the verges are several feet deep, meaning that it is only possible to walk on the roads, which have now mostly been cleared to a single track. Nevertheless, I was determined to go out this morning. I once had a colleague who was sent to work in Canada in the winter months; he said that, for him, cabin fever set in after two or three weeks of snow. I can cope with barely one day! We accompanied the dog on his normal three-mile walk. It took twice as long as usual, but the woods were spectacularly beautiful.
I am including some pictures of my garden, which I took yesterday. The whole of this blog-post is really an excuse to share them!
As I’ve admitted in a previous post to having pedantic tendencies, I won’t apologise for them again today. In fact, snowed in and beleaguered by a power-cut as I am and having, at the time of writing, no hot water, no central heating and no means of obtaining hot drinks or cooking food (though mercifully I am sitting in front of a warm stove with a goodly supply of logs to burn and books to read), I have decided to treat myself to a bit of a Saturday rant.
Every so often, an expression that I particularly dislike seems to pop up with alarming frequency in the media. The one that I am thinking of at the moment is ‘the likes of’. It has been around for a long time and has always made me shudder. I associate it very much with certain annoying adults of my childhood who both used it and also perpetuated other hateful stereotypical sayings, such as ‘Had you thought of that?’ (thus indicating none too subtly that the speaker regarded himself or herself as of superior sense and intelligence) or, most heinous of all to me, ‘Yes, but…’ to any helpful suggestion that I might have ventured to make.
However, I had believed that use of ‘the likes of’ had been steadily waning in popularity for at least three decades. I had not encountered it much at all for ten years or so, until January this year. Now it seems to have resurfaced with a vengeance, like a virus that has lain dormant and suddenly been exploded back into life by some trick of the climate. The first occasion on which I noticed its resurgence was when Bradley Wiggins made his winning appearance at the BBC Sportspersonality of the Year Awards and said that he had never imagined that he would be standing there on stage with ‘the likes of’ the Duchess of Cambridge and the others with her. Among the rash of new incidences that have cropped up since then, a recent review by a well-known literary columnist referred to ‘the likes of Kafka’ and yesterday a newscaster on Radio 4, announcing bad weather warnings, spoke of ‘the likes of Oxford and Wales’.
Aside from the fact that to me it sounds more than a little derogatory, what exactly is meant to be conveyed by ‘the likes of’? Whom else besides the Duchess herself (pace Hilary Mantel) could possibly be described as ‘the likes of’ the Duchess of Cambridge? Who is the ‘like’ of Kafka, that most uncompromisingly individual of authors? Where are ‘the likes of’ Oxford and Wales, two distinctive geographical places, one a city, the other a country, which are not remotely like each other and neither of which, to my knowledge, resembles anywhere else? Is the expression supposed to liberate some kind of imaginative power in the listener, by inviting him or her to supply his or her own references to fill the implied gap? Thus I might think ‘this is like Kafka and Jeffrey Archer’ or you might think ‘this is like Oxford and Orkney’: all very confusing and not at all helpful.
What I’m attempting, I suppose, is to understand why the phrase exists at all. What does it add to the point that is being communicated? If Bradley Wiggins had said, ‘I never expected to be standing on stage with the Duchess of Cambridge and…’, would anything have been lost by the omission of ‘the likes of’? Would he not actually have come across as more gracious and complimentary? If the newscaster had simply said, ‘There are severe weather warnings for Oxford and Wales’, would our understanding of the message have been impaired by his not having included the rogue phrase?
Sometimes I’m a fan of redundant phrases. They can make what we say more graphic, more picturesque, even more nuanced and sensitive. But ‘the likes of’? Spare me! If the likes of you and me agree to boycott this nasty conjunction of three little words, perhaps we can start a fashion that will spread throughout the English-speaking world until, like smallpox, the expression has been completely eradicated. ‘Yes, but,’ you might say colloquially, ‘one day the likes of Bradley Wiggins is sure to emerge again. Had you thought of that?’
I have been a fan of Donna Leon for a long time. My respect for her redoubles now that I’ve read Beastly Things (which was one of my son’s/daughter-in-law’s Mother’s Day presents to me – no hidden comment intended, I’m sure!). This novel should be thrust in the face of all those smug, sententious critics who think that crime fiction is not ‘serious’. Without giving too much away, it is about the institutionalised abuse of animals and how substandard meat is being dishonestly introduced into the food chain. It was published before the horsemeat controversy was exposed, so it is prescient as well as topical.
Reading Beastly Things can be painful and even, at times, horrific. In addition to animal maltreatment, it explores blackmail and the corrosive effect that lying has on personal relationships. The novel begins with a murder – the result in part of the collision of all these themes – but the death is less central to it than they are (although the victim suffers from Madelung disease, clearly well-researched by the author, which makes him interesting and helps to give credibility to the plot).
Paradoxically, some of the most beautiful and memorable passages describe the carcasses of slaughtered animals. The whole book is a metaphor for the degenerative state of Italian politics. It suggests that these have so tainted public life that people no longer have a moral yardstick by which to govern their private lives. The novel would be extremely depressing were it not for the finely-crafted passages about Commissario Guido Brunetti’s relationship with his wife Paola. These run like a musical refrain through all the Brunetti books. I am not often jealous of other writers, but I really do envy the way in which Leon succeeds in presenting Brunetti’s perfect marriage to the perfect woman – Paola is beautiful, intelligent, rich and a good cook who daily prepares a delicious lunch and dinner for Brunetti and her two (fairly perfect) teenage children, as well as holding down a demanding job as a university lecturer – without being coy or cloying. She achieves this by portraying the marriage against the backdrop of Italy’s continuing ills. The implication is that the Commissario’s personal idyll is daily under threat and could be destroyed at any moment by some unseen force or miasma. And, of course, his professional life is filled with seamy horrors.
There is always a sombre undertone to Leon’s work, but this is one of her darkest novels yet – the more so because it is not in the slightest bit far-fetched. It could easily have been based on fact and, for all I know, it has been. I recommend it wholeheartedly – but if you are planning to read it, you should invest in a bar of chocolate as well, to keep up your serotonin levels!
It seems fitting to write about Cromer on World Poetry Day. If you are new to the blog, please don’t be baffled by this! Regular readers will know that Cromer is the adopted home of Salt Publishing, which is becoming ever more renowned for its fiction. Last year it achieved international fame with The Lighthouse, Alison Moore’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker prize. (Its crime list includes In the Family, my first crime novel, and will shortly also feature Almost Love, the second in the DI Yates series.)
However, Salt built its reputation for literary excellence on its superb poetry list; in my view it is the greatest current British publisher of contemporary poetry. Some Salt poets are poets’ poets, though most are very accessible. I believe that perhaps, of all its achievements, Salt’s greatest has been to develop its ‘Best of’ lists, especially the Best of British Poetry series, and the Salt Book of Younger Poets. Now widely adopted by undergraduate courses in English literature and creative writing, these books bring contemporary poetry alive to a new generation, as well as supply more mature readers with an impeccable selection of great poems. The Best of British Short Stories series achieves a similar effect in a different genre. And, not to spare his blushes, Chris Emery, the founding inspiration behind Salt, now publishes his own poetry under the Salt imprint. If you have not yet read The Departure, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Back to Cromer. I was there for a long weekend because, as I mentioned on Sunday, I was asked to play a small part in the Breckland Book Festival. I stayed at The Barn, one of the cottages owned by The Grove Hotel (itself steeped in history – parts of it are eighteenth-century and its original owners were the founders of Barclays Bank). I called in on Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery after the Breckland event and my husband and I were kindly invited to have dinner with them. They were brimful of ideas as usual and delighted that Chris has been appointed writer-in-residence at Roehampton University, as well as looking forward to celebrating Jen’s birthday today (that it is on World Poetry day is a poetic thing in itself!).
The rest of our time in Cromer was spent exploring the beaches and the streets of the town. Twice we walked along the beach in the dark and, on Monday morning, we took our dog for a very early morning run there. Even in bitterly cold weather, the town itself is enchanting. Developed in the mid-nineteenth century to cater for the emerging middle classes, who could for the first time afford holidays away from home, it seems to have been preserved intact from any attempted depredations by the twentieth century. There are not even many Second World War fortifications in evidence, though a pill-box languishes in the sand of the west beach, its cliff-top site long since eaten by the sea. The pier retains its pristine Victorian originality – it is well-maintained but has not been ‘improved’. Some of the hotels, again ‘unreconstructed’, are quite grand and all serve superb food at reasonable prices, as do the many cafés and restaurants. It is true that some of the shops seem to exist in a time warp. My favourite is the ladies’ underwear shop that does not appear to stock anything designed after 1950; it even displays ‘directoire’ knickers – much favoured by my grandmother – in one of its windows.
Cromer has a literary past, too. Winston Churchill stayed there as a boy and Elizabeth Gaskell was a visitor, as the pavement of the seafront testifies. (Churchill apparently wrote to a friend: ‘I am not enjoying myself very much.’) That Tennyson also came here, even if I had not already decided that I loved it, alone would have served to set my final stamp of approval upon the town: Lincolnshire’s greatest poet, he is also one of my favourites. (I’ve always considered James Joyce’s ‘LawnTennyson’ jibe to be undeserved.) I know that Tennyson would have been fascinated by Salt if he had been able to visit Cromer today. I can picture him perfectly, sitting in Chris’ and Jen’s Victorian front room, sharing his thoughts about poetry – as one fine poet to another – in his wonderfully gruff, unashamedly Lincolnshire voice.
And so, Jen, Chris and Salt, have a very happy Cromer day, listening to the lulling rhythm of the rolling, scouring waves and painting salty pictures in the sky.
Last week I visited Brighton for the first time in perhaps ten years. I was there because The Old Ship Hotel had been chosen as the venue for the annual academic bookselling and publishing conference for which I organise the speaker programme. I discovered that there has been an inn on the site of The Old Ship since Elizabethan times. Originally just called The Ship, it acquired its venerable epithet after another Ship hotel was built nearby – this one a mere stripling dating from the period of the Civil War. Hotels in Brighton can be evocative places. I have also stayed at The Grand, both before and after it was wrecked by the IRA bomb, on both occasions to attend the Booksellers Association Conference (I liked it better before than after) and one year spent several days in a seedy little guest house when the company I was working for forgot to book until the last minute and all the hotels were full.
Brighton itself has not changed much in ten years, although it looked very odd when I arrived, because the streets and seafront were covered in grubby snow. A moderately heavy snowfall on the day before seemed to have caused a local catastrophe in which everything – public transport, the highways, even restaurants and cafés – ground to a halt. I concluded that they’re ‘nesh’ in the South of England; we clear away snow like that in half an hour in Yorkshire! Or perhaps Brightonians – if that’s the right word – are just staggered to see the white stuff at all and it therefore strikes them down with a sort of horrified inertia.
Anyway, by midday, although it was still very cold, the snow had melted and I ventured out from The Old Ship to meet my former English teacher for lunch (more about this on another occasion). Before the conference started, I also managed to take a walk along the promenade and was saddened to see the hideous buckled corpse of the West Pier, still rising up out of the sea like a squashed daddy longlegs. The structure has suffered terminal damage since my last visit.
After presentations, drinks and speeches, dinner, more speeches and more drinks, I went to bed. I was rudely awakened at about 4 a.m. by the noise of a huge crowd outside. I exaggerate only a little when I say that it sounded like the storming of the Bastille! I began to realise that my de luxe room, with its fine view of the sea, came with mixed privileges. Looking discreetly out of the window, I saw a gang of perhaps forty youths running about on the seafront, many of them braying obscenities. And they didn’t move on – they just stayed there! Brighton has obviously degenerated since the days of Pinkie Brown, who was a better class of yob altogether.
Since it was obvious that I would get no more sleep until the mob dispersed or was moved on, I adopted my usual all-purpose tactic for dealing with adversity and took out a book. It was The Mistress of Alderley by Robert Barnard, not a novelist I’d read before. Under normal circumstances, it wasn’t the sort of novel I’d have especially enjoyed. Although the setting is meant to be contemporary, the characters seem to belong to a time warp. The mistress of Alderley herself, a retired actress called Caroline Fawley, seems to me to be straight out of the set of Brief Encounter. However, under any circumstances I should have enjoyed the detailed descriptions of Leeds which number among the novel’s strengths and, while the fracas outside continued to roar, I found the descriptions of Caroline’s genteel rural life quite soothing. The icing on the cake was that it turned out to be a sham, a pretence laid bare by the murder of Caroline’s slippery millionaire lover.
I had almost completed The Mistress of Alderley by breakfast, by which time the louts had melted away and a rosy dawn was launching itself above the dead pier.
I’m afraid that I have to announce a postponement of my Gower Street event this week to May 2nd 2013. I had been looking forward to meeting some blog and Twitter friends this week, but I hope the delay will not destroy the eventual opportunity. With grateful thanks for your understanding.
When I got my first job in the book industry, the ISBN was waiting in the wings. It was actually doing a little more than that – people in the trade were encouraged to quote the ISBN on orders, and printed order forms usually included them. By the end of the 1970s, almost all books had an ISBN printed on the back cover. Yet, while these rune-like digits were not exactly a sham, they served no useful purpose either. I remember my first boss asking me what I thought of ISBNs. I shrugged. They meant little more to me then than the ‘By appointment to the Queen’ notice on a marmalade jar. ISBNs – the brainchild of a HarperCollins director called Carl Lawrence, one of the grand old men of publishing in my youth – were like the dummy burglar alarms that some people attach to the front of their houses: they indicated, even warned, of something that was not actually in place. That something was a well-organised, automated book industry supply chain.
The trade was quick to catch on, though. By the end of the 1970s, teleordering had been invented and the bigger bookshops and bookselling chains were experimenting with EPOS systems. Some publishers’ reps had handheld devices by which they could transmit orders to head office as they received them (these very early forerunners of the iPad bore about as much resemblance to it as Dom Joly’s giant spoof mobile bears to Apple’s sleek invention today). For the first time, booksellers and librarians were able to identify the correct edition of a book by inspecting the magic barcode on the back. All of these breakthroughs depended on the humble ISBN.
There were some hiccoughs, of course. Rows about how ISBNs should be used erupted right from the start. Eventually it was agreed that not only every edition but also every format of a title should have a unique ISBN. This was a relatively simple concept in an era when most titles appeared first as hardbacks and then as paperbacks if they were successful. Some publishers, however, persisted in allocating ISBNs to non-book material – to posters, for example, or to book packages. I remember arriving at work one day to discover forty dumpbins of a James Herriot title dumped – literally – on the doorstep. I had ordered forty copies, but the publisher had allocated the ISBN to the dumpbin, not the book.
Nevertheless, the ISBN was a wonderful invention. For the first time in its history, the book industry basked in praise for being so innovative. We were told that our use of the ISBN was rivalled only by the ingenious cataloguing mechanism developed at the same time by the car parts industry. This was praise indeed!
Today, ISBNs are ubiquitous. They are used by publishers in most developed countries and routinely quoted by customers when ordering books. (As a purist and something of a pedant, I shudder every time I hear someone say ‘ISBN number’. ISBN, of course, stands for International Standard Book Number, so the added word ‘number’ is redundant. Americans have got round this by creating a word from the acronym – they refer to ‘IZBENS’.)
And, amazingly, considering that all we are talking about is a set of digits, ISBNs still stir up controversy. Now that e-books are available in so many formats, publishers and booksellers are asking whether it is really feasible to allocate a unique ISBN to each. Bibliographic agencies, librarians and some booksellers and publishers say that it should be. Other booksellers and publishers disagree.