I’ve been a fan of John le Carré’s for a very long time, especially of the Smiley novels. I know that Smiley had to be put out to grass when the Cold War finished, but – I imagine like le Carré himself – I mourned his eclipse and secretly I’ve always hoped that Smiley will enjoy some kind of reinvention one day. In the meantime, his creator has had to tackle the problem of how to write about espionage and amoral acts of skulduggery without the wonderfully ambiguous backdrop of East-West relations to sustain him. (This leads me to hope, in passing, that perhaps in some future book he may take as his topic Putin’s Russia and its significance for present-day relations between the East and the West.)
Meantime, I’ve been a faithful reader of the post-Smiley le Carré novels, but I have to confess that, although every one of them is skilfully put together and tells a cracking tale of intrigue, mystery, vice and complicated modern moral issues, I haven’t enjoyed any of them as much as the chronicles of the lugubrious George Smiley and his flawed but semi-likeable nemesis, Karla. It was therefore not exactly with misgiving, but with a resigned knowledge of knowing more or less what to expect, that I began to read A Delicate Truth.
Oh me of little faith! This novel is a masterpiece. It begins in Gibraltar, with a man who is only half in the know masquerading as someone called ‘Paul’. He has been persuaded to carry out an assignment that seems to consist of very little except several days of near-terminal boredom spent in a seedy hotel, followed by one burst of swift, strenuous activity, handsome remuneration and repatriation. Paul is mostly in the dark about the true nature of the assignment, yet he accomplishes it (rather gracelessly), picks up his financial reward and goes home to his comfortable middle-class, Middle England existence. He is a little uneasy that something about the assignment didn’t exactly go as planned, but he soon persuades himself to forget about it.
Fast forward three years. Paul’s identity and his home circumstances are gradually revealed. Another man who was involved in the assignment turns up at his house and his club and then mysteriously ‘commits suicide’. Paul is challenged with some uncomfortable assertions about what it was that went wrong in Gibraltar and has to swallow his cowardice and inclination to turn a blind eye to find out if they are true.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot, as that would spoil it for those who have not yet read the book – which I recommend them to do at the earliest opportunity. I’ll therefore conclude by saying that A Delicate Truth shows le Carré in top form again. He’s created a subtle and complex group of characters who together grapple with that most fundamental of issues, the nature of good and evil. As I’ve said, it’s a masterpiece.
Nevertheless, I’d still love to believe that one day I might enjoy a further dose of old Smiley!
Yesterday I was privileged to attend the Writing on the Wall (WoW) literary festival in Liverpool. It was held in Liverpool’s wonderful new (it opened to the public just over a year ago) central library, which has been expertly refurbished so that it combines the best of the old, classically-built library exterior with a stunning, light-filled new building, the atrium of which is awe-inspiring in its use of space and light.
Yesterday’s event was superlatively well organised by Abi Inglis, a recent graduate of Liverpool John Moores University, who runs her own online magazine (Heroine) for women and has been helping with or running literary events in the city for several years. Madeline Heneghan was the overall festival director and Mike Morris the operations director.
I was doubly grateful to Abi, because, as well as inviting me to talk at the festival about how to get published, she also gave me a short slot to read the opening chapter of my next DI Yates novel, Sausage Hall, which will be published on 17th November. This was Sausage Hall’s first public outing, and marks the start of a series of events that Salt and I are planning both in the lead-up to the publication date and immediately afterwards.
Even better, Abi devoted a large part of yesterday afternoon to Salt and Salt authors. Mike Morris, himself a published playwright, interviewed Jon Gale, a young Liverpudlian author whom he obviously admires greatly and whose novella Albion was recently published by Salt as part of the Modern Dreams series.
Mike then chaired a panel session of four Modern Dreams authors: Jon Gale, Denny Brown, Michelle Flatley and Jones Jones. This was one of the best panel sessions I’ve ever seen conducted at a literary festival. Mike elicited comments from each of the authors with great skill, giving them each an equal opportunity to talk, and they were all courteous, articulate and extremely interested in each other’s work. It was a proud day for Salt!
Knowing that I was going to meet them, I read each of these authors’ novellas before the event, and was hugely impressed by them (Denny Brown’s is called Devil on your Back,
Michelle Flatley’s Precious Metal,
and Jones Jones’ Marg).
They all had an interesting story to tell about their journeys towards being published by Salt: Denny Brown, a mother of five, was the victim of an abusive marriage; Michelle Flatley is an artist who teaches refugees; Jones Jones is a journalist who has recently felt the compelling need to write fiction; Jon Gale has struggled for several years to find a publisher since leaving university. I recommend all their novellas: they’re ideal for commutes or train journeys, or simply for rainy evenings at home – I’m certain you’ll find that the time spent reading them will be more entertaining than watching TV. All are available as e-books from a variety of channel providers, including Amazon, which has just launched a promotion for the whole Modern Dreams series.
I was sponsored to talk about ‘How to get Published’ by PrintonDemandWorldWide, whose new venture, The Great British Bookshop, provides authors with an alternative to Amazon if they want to self-publish but need help with sales channels.
PODWW gave me some notebooks, pens and guidelines for authors to distribute at the festival, which proved to be extremely popular.
I can’t conclude this post without mentioning what a wonderful public audience the city of Liverpool produced for this event.
It was one of the most diverse audiences I’ve met at a literary festival: families brought their children; there were many teenagers and young adults; quite a few senior citizens and some people with disabilities took advantage of the easy access to the library to join in the festival fun. All listened keenly, welcomed the authors enthusiastically and asked great questions. The main festival arena was packed at all times and the ante-rooms, where authors’ surgeries and DVD presentations about apps took place, were also always full. An inflatable ‘pod’, another of Abi’s brainwaves, which offered a range of activities for children, was also very popular – and frequented by children of all ages!
Well done, the festival team and the city of Liverpool, for an absolutely stunning event.
Footnote: If you’re organising a literary event this autumn and would like me to give a reading from Sausage Hall and explain how I came to write it, please let me know. Salt is also offering a limited number of reading copies and there will be a competition later in the autumn to help to promote it. More details will appear here and on the Salt website.
Last week, I attended the annual meeting of the Publishers Licensing Society [PLS], which this year was held for the first time at Burlington House, Piccadilly – a wonderful venue at which I’ve found myself on several occasions and which I wrote about last year.
Hands down, the keynote speaker at the meeting, William Sieghart, stole the show. The founder of Forward Publishing, he has recently been asked to conduct a review of public libraries in England and map out a plan of what their future might look like.
He began by saying that there are 151 library authorities in England, which is ‘an awful lot’. Anyone wishing to appraise the public library service has to engage with all of them and also the two central government departments involved, the DCMS and Arts Connect. The money for libraries comes from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), but ultimately the organisations that influence them the most are the 151 local authorities around the country. In order to carry out his review, William Sieghart has been obliged to place himself at the centre of a very complex set of problems. His thoughts on the task so far completed are as follows:
1. Any review can only make a set of recommendations that essentially skirt around the dysfunctionality of the public library service, as there seems to be no appetite to change the way it is set up.
2. Fifteen years ago the government invested in ‘The People’s Network’, which involved placing computers in libraries for people visiting them to use. It was very exciting at the time; is less so now. Currently, only 37% of the libraries in England have wi-fi. The dysfunctionality that he referred to applies not only to the governance of libraries, but also to the way in which they buy goods and services. For example, the average commercial organisation would expect to pay £200 – £500 for setting up wi-fi, but, because of the way that they procure things, libraries can spend several thousand pounds on it.
3. “The Pub is the Hub”. This is an initiative that has taken place in local communities where the shop and all other amenities except the pub have disappeared. Its rationale is based on the fact that many pubs have a spare room that can be devoted to community activities. Libraries could and should occupy the same role within their respective communities, and some do, but because of the ‘hollowing-out’ of the system, this concept isn’t as widespread as it might be. Somewhat grimly, William Sieghart said, ‘It’s been a revelation to me over the past few months how Britain doesn’t work.’ He compared the closure of so many libraries with Beeching’s closure of much of the rail network in the 1960s, and said that we shall regret it. Andrew Carnegie founded libraries (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) as centres of self-improvement and, essentially, this function hasn’t changed. All sorts of things go on in libraries that have nothing to do with books and reading. Libraries are a haven for children, students, old people and the unemployed. For example, most jobs now require online applications, but 13% of unemployed people have no access to a computer; the public library is the only place they can go, either for this or for help with digital and literacy skills. ‘Give a library coffee and wi-fi and it will be packed.’ The problem is, said William Sieghart, that ‘joined up’ is not a term that is readily recognised in Whitehall; there is a failure of imagination to identify the many services that libraries could be used for. It is the system of management in so many places that has allowed public libraries to descend in a downward spiral, but in many others an upward spiral has been achieved.
4. We as members of the public have no stake in public libraries. William Sieghart advocates a system similar to that operated by school governing bodies. He said that Suffolk, for various complicated reasons, had to confront public library closures before anywhere else in the country (essentially, it ran out of money). All forty-two libraries in Suffolk are now run as community partnerships. One of the reasons that so many communities are in a panic about the future of their library service is because they ‘haven’t got their head around what Suffolk has done’. William Sieghart said that there should be a professional body ‘out there’ in a country like ours to make sure that this happens. Currently he’s lobbying government and big business to buy wi-fi and a digital network for every library.
5. William Sieghart also believes that there should be a ‘Librarian-first’ training campaign, run along the same lines as the ‘Teach-first’ campaign intended to attract young, energetic recruits to teaching.
The combined thrust of all his recommendations will be that a national support network for libraries should be created that is both inward- and outward-facing. More controversially, he suggested that this might, perhaps, include a ‘single content management system’. (There was little reaction from the publishers present to this, despite the unspoken effect on ‘economies of scale’ to their revenues.)
William Sieghart’s was an impassioned and eloquent speech. At the end of it, he made a plea for the creation of a ‘Library-Plus’ library service that will enable libraries to operate from a position of strength, instead of the ‘tragic, tragic position we’re in at the moment.’ He was an unusual choice for the PLS annual meeting keynote, but his speech made all the more impact because of that. Happily for me, he not only articulated many of my own deeply-held beliefs about the importance of the public library service, but outlined an ambitious and energetic plan that, if adopted, should help it not only to survive, but also to thrive.
Head northwest out of Birmingham City Centre towards Wolverhampton along Thomas Telford’s ‘new’ main line, a canal designed to replace James Brindley’s wandering minstrel of a waterway (he was a man who followed contours) with an uncompromisingly direct route to Tipton, and you are, before too long, faced with the choice of old or new. We once came from Wolverhampton on Telford’s route, which may have resolved the needs of the working boat traffic of his day in reducing distance by a third, overcoming dreadful congestion at locks and replacing worn-out towpaths, but the experience did nothing for me as a 21st century tourist boater looking for interest; the straight miles of tedious and unrewarding scrubland were about as delightful as a purposeful motorway drive compared to a romantic dalliance with a B road. I of course admit that each serves its turn, according to need. Chacun à son goût! Telford’s dramatic cutting through the Smethwick Summit, with the magnificent Galton Bridge bestriding it, is an astonishing engineering achievement which one can admire, and we did, that time, but this year we had no difficulty in pursuing our favourite right turn in celebration of Brindley along the ‘old’ main line.
Now you will have deduced that I am an incurably poetic soul, who hankers after historical roses, but, if that is the case, you’ve jumped right… to the wrong conclusion. The thing about this old Brindley canal is that it has become touched with modern magic, in the form of juicy juxtapositions of modes of transport (and other things), and I hope from our photographs that you will see what I mean.
Turning right at Smethwick Junction provided us with some welcome diversion from quite a long horizontal journey (from the King’s Norton Junction south of Birmingham) in the form of the three locks which take the boater up to a stretch of canal that is, for me, just wonderful. I don’t expect everyone to share my taste.
Passing the Grade II listed pumping house between the two main lines at Brasshouse Lane bridge (If you get the chance to go inside, you’ll find, as I did, a Victorian marvel of a machine on different levels, one of the original two which were capable of lifting 200 locks of water a day; it replaced the earlier pumping houses on the ‘Engine Arm’ of the canal.), the old line leads under the Summit Tunnel. Though it all seems very rural just here, the thundering traffic of an A road dual carriageway passes unseen over this concrete underpass! There’s your first juxtaposition!
A heron, cranking itself from the towpath and lifting itself high into the air above us, is proof of the richness of canals, supporting wildlife as they do here, in the most unpromising terrain of urban and industrial Birmingham.
And now we meet the majestic (Yes, I mean it!) M5, a contrast to this beautiful canal (Yes, I certainly mean it!), with a pleasant moment of inconsistency as four kayakers pass by. The skyline, too, has a splendid coherence here.
Up above, the juggernauts carry their loads in a roar, but we can barely hear them as our boat quietly transports us into a dream.
Wild life flourishes and Smethwick adds to the population of Canada geese, we note, as this crèche bobs by.
Straight lines and verticals abound in this motorway underworld, but our waterway winds deliciously, refusing to comply, and we wander willingly with it, from side to side.
I think that Brindley would have delighted in this, a towering sandwich of route ways. I should love to be able to show him and watch his reaction!
These colonnades may be formed from steel and concrete, but there is peace here for those of a contemplative frame of mind; the numbing noise of the carriageway above seems far away.
We’ve come up through Spon Lane locks before and marvelled at the contrast between the new and old main lines; we’re not at all tempted to lock down this flight of three, as we know how much more there is to see along this refurbished section of Brindley’s canal.
Three locks back at Smethwick Junction gave us this much height above Telford’s cut.
I’m rather sorry that it’s impossible to get all four levels of transport into one photograph from the vantage point of a narrowboat just here… and three must do.
For those of us who prefer the language of a bygone age of transport! Train station? Hah!
I wonder what Blakey Hall was like and whether the owner rode on horseback over this bridge. I love the whimsical shape in this, its contemporary context.
A sixty-eight foot narrowboat isn’t the easiest vessel to steer through tight spaces, but get the line right and you’re through.
Sorry, I couldn’t miss the opportunity for this pun. 😉
If you have an artistic eye, there’s plenty here to entertain it.
Hopkins’ “skate’s heel sweep[ing] smooth on a bow bend”? Perhaps, but in slow motion!
Modern canal bridge design, with a slight brickwork salute to the past.
Once again, there’s definitely a line to take to make the turn.
Telford wanted us to hold the tiller straight!
Here’s one we’re saving for the future: up to Titford Pool and back.
Graffiti interest? Well, of course!
And now we say goodbye to the M5, with sadness at the end of a romantic encounter. We’ve dillied and dallied all the way.
Thank you for joining me on this narrowboat ride. Perhaps you will admit to being at least surprised to find what lies beneath the M5, even if you can’t find it in you to love it as much as we do!
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James