Despite all my good intentions (and I’m very grateful to Lisette Brodey, Laura Zera, Val Poore, Sylvia Peadon and Tamara Ferguson for the supportive empathy they have shown me over my failure to keep up to date with social media generally!), the summer mostly slipped away without my posting on this blog. However, I met some great people at literary events over June, July, August and September and want to share those occasions with you before they become distant memories.
On 16th and 17th June, I attended the Winchester Literary Festival for the fourth time, partly to conduct one-to-ones with twelve new authors, partly to give an updated version of the talk I first delivered last year (‘Whodunnit: how it’s done’), which, as last time, attracted a large and enthusiastic audience. Winchester has now become one of the most important dates on my calendar: it’s a brilliant festival, thoughtfully and imaginatively created by Judith Heneghan, who lectures in creative writing at the university, and efficiently organised by Sara Gangai. The guest talk that takes place first thing on the Saturday morning is always a treat. This year’s speaker was Lemn Sissay, the performance poet.
Lemn’s talk was full of wit and unusual insights: for example, he said that every single day we are part of a privileged generation because we have the Internet. “We are at the most exciting time for words that there has ever been. So how can it be that the point of view that the Internet promotes rubbish is always held above that that says the Internet promotes beauty and genius?” And: “Every day I wake up and think of ways that I can promote writing other than the book. But the book is the greatest gift you can give any child or adult.” My own books were kindly stocked and sold, as always, by staff from P. & G. Wells at the festival book stall; they also gave me a signing session, when I met several new and a few old friends.
July 6th was the next big date for me, as the legendary bookseller Richard Reynolds had invited me and eleven other authors to participate in his summer evening of crime at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge.
I was particularly pleased to meet Barbara Nadel, whose books I have read with real enjoyment. We were each asked to describe ourselves and read, in not more than two minutes, a short extract from our latest novels (Richard’s assistant had a bell and said that she was “not afraid of using it”!). This actually worked very well: it’s surprising how much you can get across in two minutes if you think about it beforehand and try hard.
Afterwards, there was a drinks reception at which all of our books were on sale. The audience numbered more than one hundred (Cambridge is a real Mecca for crime enthusiasts!) and we all sold lots of copies.
Wednesday 12th July followed hard on the heels of the Heffers event. I had the good fortune to be invited to a Houses of Parliament reception (held by the Booksellers Association, Publishers Association and the charity, World Book Day) for authors and booksellers, with MPs and peers.
There I met several booksellers who have supported me by stocking my books, including Sam Buckley, from Bookmark in Spalding, who over the years has generously given me a launch event for each of them. The event was hosted by Dame Margaret Hodge, who emphasised the civilising influence of both books and booksellers on our society (a sentiment about which I need no persuading!).
Last but not least, on 15th July I was invited to give ‘A Morning with Christina James’ at Spalding town library. This was a round-table event, at which I read a couple of excerpts from In the Family and Rooted in Dishonour and then talked to the audience about how I came to write the novels, my own Lincolnshire roots and, most important of all, their views on fiction. I was delighted to be able at last to meet Sharman Morriss, the librarian, having been told at one of the Bookmark evenings that she tirelessly promotes my novels to her customers. Sharman then put me in touch with Alison Wade, her colleague at Boston town library,
which has been holding a month-long crime-writing festival during September. Alison very kindly asked me to open this on the afternoon of September 1st, when I talked to the audience about my own books and what they like to read. I was really pleased to have been able to meet readers and new writers on this occasion.
Fair of Face, the sixth novel in the DI Yates series, will be published on 15th October.
I’ve diligently been updating my Twitter header and posting the new novel’s cover here and on Facebook! Bookmark in Spalding is providing a signing session on the afternoon of 16th October and an evening launch event on 19th October and I know both will be memorable moments for meeting friends old and new. If you would like me to come and talk at your local bookshop or library, or to your reading group, just let me know.
Oh, and hello again to all my readers here!
[An apology to Spalding Library – I’ve temporarily mislaid my SanDisk – a picture will follow!]
I made the cardigan in the photograph for a small friend of mine and I have to admit I am quite proud of it. The small friend is a she who likes owls (the multi-shaded wool is called ‘Owl’ by its suppliers) and I found the owl buttons online. I was even more delighted when they arrived and I discovered that they’d come from an online retailer based at Gedney, a small village close to my native Spalding.
This particular little girl owns very few clothes in pink. Her mother, whilst objective enough to include some pink in her daughter’s wardrobe, is determined not to turn her into a ‘princess’ and, in any case, I had other ideas for this project (pink not having been a very popular colour for girls during my own childhood, I should never have considered this colour as a must for any daughter of mine, had I had one); I like owls myself and have noticed that they tend not to shine brightly pink as they silently flit between the trees at dusk. And, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that my chosen header picture there hasn’t a trace of pink in it. When looking for other garments with which to indulge the small friend, my worst expectations were quickly confirmed by what I found, that many are not only pink, but pink in a very sexist way. I’ve discovered (but not been tempted to buy) pink tops printed with patterns of cupcakes and hearts, pale pink coats adorned with dark pink bows and little pink socks with lacy ruffled tops. Most retailers of children’s clothing stock their racks with boy-girl equivalents and I’ve found that the boy equivalents are almost always much more interesting and, generally, much less narrowly stereotyped by colour. For example, at Monsoon, I found some beautiful long-sleeved T-shirts in green and gold, decorated respectively with wild animals on a prairie and a train packed with animal passengers. Some of the motifs were appliquéd or embroidered, making the fabric fascinating for a small girl already interested in all things tactile. I bought them for her: there was nothing overtly masculine about them and they were much more fun than the horizon-narrowing pink-iced buns on a darker pink ground topped with scarlet glacé cherries. Her mum has also bought beautiful boys’ clothes for her which look as good on her as on any boy. Based on my limited recent experience as a shopper for infants, I’m astonished that the racks of sickly pink fairy-frocks sell: I had fondly assumed that at least some of the clear message thinking women (and men!) have been sending for so many years now to the producers and buyers of children’s goods would have got through; I’d have expected to see the ‘pretty-in-pink’ clothes bunched in limp, unconsidered crowds during the sales. But in all the shops where I browsed, the pink princess outfits seemed to be disappearing like hot cakes – or cupcakes!
What I especially don’t understand is the logic behind dressing little girls in clothes like these. In the past, girls wore skirts and boys wore trousers or shorts (I belong to the first generation of girls to have made a big push first to be allowed to wear trousers and later to have them accepted as smart workwear), but there were few other concessions to gender except whether buttons were placed on the left or the right of the garment (a confusing convention that thankfully seems largely to have died out). Girls and boys wore the same styles and colours in coats, jumpers, cardigans, shirts, vests and socks. Only swimwear and footwear were different, and then not always: small girls often wore the same (hideously uncomfortable when wet) knitted swimming trunks as boys and stout lace-up shoes in the winter or bar-sandals in the summer were fairly universal. Granted, colours were often drab (browns, greens and greys didn’t show the dirt, swatches of cloth and hanks of wool were often left over from the making of adult garments) and choosing ‘unisex’ clothes may partly have been inspired by the domestic economics of hand-me-downs. I acknowledge there was also quite a lot to put up with before the advent of man-made materials and truly waterproof clothes. Most children had only one school coat and often had to wear it damp on the day following a downpour. All but the wealthiest grew heartily sick of their clothes before they grew out of them: two school skirts, two jumpers and two or three shirts, plus a dress ‘for best’, was the norm and, although I didn’t think of it then, this must have meant mothers, and sometimes fathers (not all fathers ensconced themselves behind their newspapers when they returned home) were engaged in a constant round of washing and ironing. I’m not trying to hark back to some kind of golden age.
But still, as far as our clothing went, girls and boys were pretty much equal. I certainly never wore anything that suggested that my future would be focused on baking cup-cakes and wearing lipstick (though I happen to enjoy both), nor did my brother’s clothes indicate that he was destined to be a footballer, astronaut or mechanic. I make these points tongue-in-cheek, but underlying them is a very serious principle indeed: that of achieving true equality between the sexes and removing the glass ceiling once and for all. How are the women and men of the future going to be inspired to exercise a completely free choice, electing to become engineers or hairdressers, electricians or fashion designers, bus drivers or nurses – or indeed, bakers or make-up artists – because they’ve thought about it and this is what they want to be, if at the age of a few months they have already been placed in a gender pigeon-hole created by parents in cahoots with clothing manufacturers?
I began by saying that I’m proud of the owl cardigan. It’s been a long time since I knitted a garment and, though the pattern was simple, I enjoyed making it and felt a sense of achievement when it was finished – especially as its owner seems to like it. It’s a unisex cardigan, suitable equally for a girl or a boy, and could equally have been made by a man or a woman. One of the people who taught me to knit was my stepfather, a burly fifteen-stone builder with hands as big as soup tureens. Boys – and girls – and parents – take note.
My son called me yesterday evening to gloat because of the outcome for him of a BBC quiz he’d just completed, entitled ‘Where would you be happiest in Britain?’ (The quiz can be found here, if you’re interested. I assume, for readers of this blog who live outside Britain, that it will guide your choice should you wish to emigrate from your country. 😉 I should add that, since the way into it is by selection of a miserable three photographic choices, I rather suspect that it has an equal paucity of possible places to put participants!) It told him that the place in which he’d be happiest is Lewes, in East Sussex (also its choice for my husband – QED my point about the limitations of the quiz), but his reason for calling was to let me know it also forecast the place in which he’d be most miserable. The prediction for him was ….Spalding! Where, apparently, the inhabitants are bereft of several character traits that those of other places have in spades, including friendliness. My son was delighted because he’s always affirmed that I, a native of Spalding, was born among bog-dwellers with webbed feet (and, in point of fact, my paternal aunt did have webbed feet!), whereas he is one of God’s Yorkshiremen.
Not willing to take this lying down, I decided to complete the quiz myself. It told me quite firmly that the place I’d be happiest living in would be Oxford (where there is, allegedly, a very high ratio of ‘cultured, conscientious and’ … ahem… ‘neurotic ’ people, just like me, apparently). And the place in which I’d be least happy? You may have guessed it already: Spalding!
Now, apart from pointing out the obvious – that the BBC must have a real down on my home town; so much so, that I wonder if the quiz might have been compiled by Jeremy Clarkson after he found out that all the restaurants serving food (hot or cold!) there are closed by 10 p.m. – I’d like to take issue with this.
First of all, I know Oxford well and have never considered it to be my idea of residential heaven. It’s pleasant enough and I’ve been to some good concerts there and eaten some excellent food in its (largely overpriced) restaurants. I have a significant number of friends and acquaintances who live or work there, most of whom are cultured and conscientious and some of whom are undoubtedly neurotic.
But, over the years, I’ve also had some pretty duff experiences in Oxford. Here are a couple of examples:
When I was working for a Scottish library supplier, I was once booked into a hotel (called Green Gables, but there, its resemblance to the home of L.M.Montgomery’s heroine ended), a turn-of-the-twentieth-century building that sat right in the middle of a run-down housing estate containing a maze of roads through which feral dogs and glue sniffers roamed at large. The hotel didn’t serve food and I didn’t dare to go out after dark in search of any, so I dined on a cereal bar that I had in my brief case and a glass of tap water. My room looked as if it hadn’t been decorated since 1930 (the décor was bottle green and cream) and the ‘en suite shower’ (cunningly concealed behind a clear plastic curtain) was fitted with a rubber mat which, when lifted, revealed a thriving family of wood lice. Not very Oxford as Oxford conceives of itself!
My second example, however, is quintessentially Oxonian. I was visiting a publisher who persuaded me to attend an evening soirée featuring a ‘traditional African music ensemble’. Intrigued, I changed my train ticket and turned up at the event, hoping to feast on some of the exotic music and dancing I’d seen executed by a visiting troupe from Zimbabwe when I worked in Huddersfield (another awful town, according to the BBC). Imagine my chagrin when the ensemble turned out to consist of a quartet of upper middle class white Oxford ladies of a certain age playing its own arrangement of ‘native’ music on some very European instruments! I couldn’t capture my idea of Oxford better than by telling this tale, which does indeed demonstrate that Oxford is conscientious (if self-consciously so), cultured (in its own inimitable way) and neurotic (possibly).
When I think of places which have made me miserable, therefore, I’d have to include Oxford in the list. There are more deserving candidates, however. Among these, I’d cite Rotherham, a town that seems to have had nothing going for it since its magical (definitely, then, before the Industrial Revolution snapped it into its jaws!) ‘merry England’ manifestation, described by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe; Solihull, for several years home of the HQ of Dillons and Waterstones, a place which never seemed to have anything to recommend it except a larger-than-average number of dress shops catering for ‘the fuller figure’; its much bigger and uglier sister, Birmingham (though I admit the canal system there is superb and worth a visit); Bridgnorth, a place so benighted that even the local copper didn’t know where the library was; and, last but not least in the misery-making-for-me stakes, Middlesbrough, which I’ve visited twice and where I had my car broken into on both occasions.
And places where I’ve been happiest? Sometimes in London, spending delightful evenings with friends, though I’d hate to live there; often in Surbiton or Mawdesley, basking in special friends’ wonderful hospitality; at my God’s-own-Yorkshireman son’s various homes over time, both entertained and amused by him and his wife; and – yes – in Spalding; certainly, in Spalding, that sink of human baseness by BBC reckoning. I spent the first seventeen years of my life there, so I’d have experienced a childhood of Dickensian deprivation if I hadn’t been very happy some of that time, and an unusual teenager if I hadn’t also sometimes felt melodramatically sad. Finally, I do actually like the place I live in now – otherwise, why would I have chosen it? – even though the BBC thinks it is only 54% suitable for a person with my character traits.
Which brings me to my final point. Supposing that I do exhibit more than average conscientiousness, cultural awareness and neuroticism, why should I want to ghettoise myself with a massive bunch of people just like me? My immediate neighbours are as unlike me as possible. They include a racehorse trainer, a physiotherapist, a lawyer, a doctor and several businessmen, as well as a number of retired people. Their passions include horseracing, greyhound racing, playing the harp, planting rare snowdrops and keeping bees, in none of which I have more than a passing interest. Some are bluff, hearty, hail-fellow-well-met and extrovert; others are quieter, more reserved, but fascinating once engaged in conversation. Some take three holidays a year; one lives in the South of France for six months out of the twelve; others never have a holiday and hardly leave the village at all. We all appreciate the surrounding countryside. We all like being within a short drive of several major cities and towns. Other than these common points of consensus, mutual variety is the spice of our lives in so far as we share them.
So there you are, BBC. Mood and character createth the individual woman… or man; but not the place. In my book, anyway.
Ethel Lang, the lady who held the record as Britain’s oldest woman, died last Wednesday aged 114. I salute her.
I’m hugely pleased and not a little tickled that Mrs Lang’s home town was Barnsley, which I’ve known very well for at least forty years (my husband’s grandmother, aunt and uncle lived in Pogmoor; his uncle worked for the Coal Board). In fact, she spent her whole life there: Barnsley, the heart of the South Yorkshire mining industry and base of Arthur Scargill, former miner and for twenty years president of the National Union of Mineworkers (the final home of the NUM stands stolidly at the corner of Victoria Road and Huddersfield Road, a rather grim, castle-like building, with a poignant sculpture of a mining family as a memorial in front of it); Barnsley, home of the Barnsley chop (effectively a double lamb chop, of almost joint-sized proportions, served to an individual), one of which once famously over-faced Princess Diana; Barnsley, a town dominated by its massive town hall (George Orwell thought the money spent on it would have been better used to improve the terrible living conditions of the miners) and wonderfully served by a fine covered market with two identical car parks (I’m not alone in having had to seek assistance, having ‘mislaid’ my car: the non-pc male attendant told me with some glee that ‘lasses are always doing it!’); Barnsley, whose living and much-loved bard, Ian McMillan, sings its spirit in verse and paints its picture in tweets; Barnsley, whose huge and thriving college has sent out many of the district’s sons and daughters, including the Arctic Monkeys, to succeed in the world; Barnsley, whose metropolitan borough council struggles heroically to maintain its vast rural hinterland as well as the town itself without raising the council tax: a bastion of The People’s Republic of South Yorkshire, as my husband observes with great affection.
So it was the bracing atmosphere and modest amenities of Barnsley that supported Mrs. Lang well into her twelfth decade, not the leafy lanes and rarefied air of a bijou village in the home counties or the endless facilities available in one of our great metropolises. How remarkable is that! And she wasn’t a member of the upper classes or even one of the ‘middle sort’: she left school at fourteen to become a seamstress in a shirt factory and married a plumber. From a solid working-class background, therefore: clearly not in want, but not a life packed with luxury, either.
Not surprisingly, there has been quite a lot of news coverage following Mrs Lang’s death. Most of the articles and TV stories have looked back at the main national and international events of her very long life and, of course, the list is rich and varied: she was born when Queen Victoria still had a year left to reign and lived through two world wars, all the moon landings that have taken place so far and, according to The Times, the births of ten billion people during her lifetime.
I’m sure Mrs. Lang will have been interested in these things, but what are likely to have affected her more nearly are the changes that have happened in Barnsley itself during the same period. She will have remembered vividly the General Strike that took place in 1926, the year before her daughter was born, which was called by the Trades Union Congress in support of 800,000 locked-out coal miners, including the ones working the Barnsley coalfield; she’s likely to have remembered the young evacuees sent to Barnsley during the Second World War and may even have helped to look after some of them; she’s bound to have remembered also the miners’ strikes of 1974, the first since 1926, which led to the temporary introduction of a three-day week, and the strikes of 1984, which were triggered by the announcement that some twenty pits, including Cortonwood Colliery, close by, near Rotherham, were to be closed; she’ll have seen the town grow shabby and poor as the prosperity brought by mining declined, gradually at first, but inexorably, and later much more swiftly, throughout the twentieth century. And I hope that she was also well enough – and mobile enough, after her eyesight began to fail – to see this proud town reinvent itself for the twenty-first century.
Mrs Lang’s daughter said that ‘she tried very, very hard with everything that she did’ and that she enjoyed dancing, knitting, baking her own bread and having her nails painted bright colours. Endeavour and enjoyment seem to have been the secrets of her longevity. She obviously had a strong work ethic. I think it’s likely that she wasn’t a driver, but, if she had been, she’d probably have scorned to be one of the ‘lasses’ who couldn’t find her car (though, if she had found herself in my mislaid-car predicament, it would be nice to think that, like other strong Yorkshire women I have known, she would have given as good as she got if a car park attendant had tried to patronise her).
I propose a toast to Mrs Lang. May her spirit live on in her home town. And may many other daughters and sons of Barnsley chalk up a century or more, sustained by a town that continues to try very, very hard.
As you will know from my previous post, the launch of ‘Sausage Hall’ is being sponsored by a Spalding company I grew up with. In fact, I went to Spalding High School with one of the daughters of the family! I certainly remember that their products graced the tables not only of my own household, but those of all of my friends and relatives as well. The Lincolnshire family firm of butchers, George Adams, based in Spalding, has been associated with great sausages, meat and fantastic handmade pork pies for nearly a hundred years. But now, Mary and Lizzi, the great-grand-daughters of the founder of the first shop, are launching a new brand: Adams & Harlow, which will undoubtedly be noted for the same extraordinary pork pies and sausages.
Mary and Lizzi’s pork pie heritage consists not just of George, but of their other great-grandfather too – Dick Harlow, whose family set up a butcher’s shop in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1895! So, whilst Adams & Harlow is a new venture, its two founders have extraordinary expertise and an amazing heritage with great provenance and tradition.
As was the way a hundred years ago, each Adams & Harlow pork pie is individual and made with only the finest ingredients, including 100% British meat. As each hand-raised pie takes two days to make, with sixteen different stages to complete before it even enters the oven, every one is the product of extraordinary skill passed down through the generations! Adams & Harlow pork pies taste every bit as delicious as those made by George and Dick all those years ago.
Based in the original George Adams butcher’s shop in Spalding, Adams and Harlow still make the ever-popular Lincolnshire Sausage recipe, using top-quality British pork and secret seasoning blend.
Adams and Harlow products are available at a number of regional and nationwide independent shops, details of which appear on their website; they can be ordered online from British Fine Foods and Ocado as well as bought directly from the original George Adams butcher’s shop in Spalding.
I’m delighted and honoured to have been sponsored by Mary and Lizzi, who will be providing their wonderful fare at Monday’s November 17th ‘Sausage Hall’ launch at Bookmark, Spalding, and at the London launch at Waterstones, Covent Garden, on Thursday November 20th. A fitting accompaniment to a story based in a Lincolnshire house built by a butcher!
I am extremely grateful to you, the readers of this blog, both those of you whom I’ve met in person and those from countries around the world whom I’ve met ‘virtually’, for the huge welcome that you have given Sausage Hall. Thank you very much indeed.
As many of you know, Sausage Hall will be published next Monday, November 17th. My wonderful publishers, Chris and Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt Publishing,
their equally stellar PR consultant, Tabitha Pelly, Faber (which now represents Salt titles) and my bookselling and librarian friends have combined to make happen a series of celebration events.
The first of these is today, Thursday November 13th, when Nicola Gilroy will be interviewing me live on Radio Lincolnshire at 14.05. I hope that you will be able to listen; if not, I think the interview will be on iPlayer for twenty-four hours after broadcast.
Monday November 17th is a very special day indeed. I’m spending much of it at Spalding High School,
where I was once a student (Facebook doesn’t know this, having inexplicably assigned me to Wycliffe Senior School and Sixth Form College! I don’t intend to disabuse it!). I’m giving a young writers’ workshop and talking about how I came to write Sausage Hall, but first of all I’m being taken on a tour of the school by Adrian Isted, the present Head of English. I’m really looking forward to this, and especially to meeting the students.
Also on November 17th, in the evening, Bookmark, Spalding’s very distinguished bookshop,
is hosting the official launch event. This will begin at 19.00. I’m delighted to be able to announce that it is being sponsored by Adams and Harlow, the pork butchers, who will supply sausage-themed canapés. Wine will also be served. As well as signing copies of Sausage Hall, I’ll be giving some readings and talking about all the DI Yates novels. I’d like to offer my thanks in advance to Christine Hanson and Sam Buckley, who have supported all the novels as they’ve been published. In conjunction with Spalding Guardian, they’ve also arranged a DI Yates competition, the prizes for which will be four sets of the DI Yates titles.
On November 18th, I’m travelling to Walkers Books in Stamford,
where I’ll be signing copies of Sausage Hall and talking about it informally between 11.00 and 13.00. I’d like to thank Tim Walker and Jenny Pugh for all their support. More about this may be found here.
Wednesday November 19th finds me back at wonderful Wakefield One, where Alison Cassels has organised Tea at Sausage Hall, an informal talk-and-signing session, with refreshments, that will start at 14.30. Regular readers will know that Wakefield One has been a particularly magnificent supporter of mine. Books will be supplied by Richard Knowles of Rickaro Books, another staunch supporter.
There is more about Tea at Sausage Hall here. If you live in the Wakefield area or are visiting, it would be great to see you at this event.
On Thursday November 20th the Waterstones bookshop in Covent Garden is giving a London launch event. As Adams and Harlow are sponsoring this, too, there will be sausages as well as wine! This reading and signing session will begin at 19.00 and continue until the shop closes. It has already attracted a large audience, so it should be quite a party! The store’s brilliant manager, Jen Shenton, and I would be delighted to see you there. More information can be found here.
And Friday 21st November? At present, nothing is planned, so this will be a rest day… but I’m open to offers!
I have been following with interest and more than a degree of indignation Michael Gove’s latest attack on teachers. This time it has been directed at their choice of the fiction to be studied by GCSE English Literature students. Mr Gove seems to be determined to outstrip UKIP by including non-British (albeit anglophone) novels as part of the current general political witch-hunt to root out anything or anyone that does not originate in these islands and to take one of his regular side-swipes at the teaching profession in the process.
Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about Of Mice and Men, of course. But I would question whether Mr Gove has a right to thrust his own idiosyncratic dislikes and preferences on to those whose daily occupation it is to teach or to set examination syllabi. It seems to me that he should respect the judgment of the teaching profession, which has a collective understanding not only of the needs and capabilities of students in modern, multi-cultural schools, but also a profound appreciation of what makes those students ‘tick’. It is all too common for people to think that they are experts in teaching, just because they have themselves been to school, though I’ve always been surprised by the arrogance of this assumption. It’s easy to look back on one’s own school-days with (possibly spurious) rose-tinted spectacles, as Mr Gove apparently frequently does, but this hindsight is about as relevant to what is going on now as asserting that a woman’s place is in the home or that shops should not open on Sundays.
As it happens, something good has come from Mr Gove’s latest outrage, in my own household, at least: until this week, I was not familiar with Of Mice and Men, though we have a copy of it in the house; I have read other novels by Steinbeck, including The Grapes of Wrath and Cannery Row, but somehow Of Mice and Men had passed me by. I mentioned this to my husband, who offered to read it aloud to me in the evenings. He completed it in three sessions.
My husband is an inspired reader-aloud as well as being a very fine teacher. I realise that it’s in no small measure owing to this that he held me spellbound throughout, but I was also entranced because of the quality of the book itself. As readers of this blog may have deduced, I have several English degrees and, even more to the point, am a lifelong avid reader (though I don’t think this has made me blasé in any way – I’m always looking forward to the next book), but I still found this novel exceptional. I know that it will stay with me. It is deceptively simple (not clunky or clumsy, as Mr Gove avers). It belongs to the ancient tradition of the fable. Because I had the privilege of listening to it, the characters appeared to me in more heightened relief than if I had been reading it myself. I saw them as clearly delineated as if they had been woodcuts in an early printed book.
Like all classic fables, Of Mice and Men explores fundamental issues of right and wrong, masculine and feminine (in the widest sense – for example, some of the ‘archetypal’ feminine characteristics are displayed by George, one of the two protagonists) and the nature of the damage that humans inflict on each other – through mental and physical oppression or unthinking prejudice. That Curley’s wife has no name is intentional. Characterised as a ‘tart’ by the bunk-house ‘swamper’ Candy and even by the normally perceptive George, she is in fact as lost and lonely as the drifting ranch-workers, the disabled Candy and the despised ‘nigger’ Crooks, who is not allowed in the bunk-house. The troubled existence of the mentally-retarded Lennie, a man cast loose upon an uncaring world with no-one to protect him except George once his tough but sympathetic Aunt Clara has died, points up the flaws of a society in which people lead such a brutalised, hand-to-mouth existence that there is little room for true humanity. Only a few exceptional individuals, such as George and the hieratic and god-like Slim, are able to show compassion. Yet it is also a funny novel, even if in a bittersweet way. Steinbeck achieves this in part through George’s oft-quoted vision of the ‘little place’ (‘An’ rabbits, George!’) that he and Lennie are going to buy – which turns out to be every casual ranch-worker’s shared dream – and in part through the everyday ironies and minor triumphs and disappointments that make up the lives of these untutored folk. The character of Aunt Clara is a touch of genius: although she never appears ‘on stage’, she acts as a forceful presence throughout, chiding, chivvying and cherishing Lennie to the end.
After my husband had finished reading this novel to me, we had an impassioned conversation about the purpose of teaching literature and what this means in a comprehensive school where the students’ abilities range from very gifted to what can be expected from those who come from deprived homes where reading is not encouraged at all. He said that part of the magic of Of Mice and Men is that the book appeals to students across the whole ability spectrum. The brightest ones can pick up all the nuances and ironies in which the book abounds – almost every word has significance in this, one of the most sparingly written works I’ve ever come across – and even those who struggle with basic literacy can derive a real sense of achievement from empathising with its characters. This is why teachers choose it: not because it represents a ‘soft’ option, but because, at different levels, it holds magic for everyone.
Its magic certainly worked on me. I feel the richer for those three evenings during which my husband read it to me (He ‘does’ American superbly, by the way!). I hope that this will be the start of a new tradition in our household, in which we read to each other on a daily basis. But more than anything, I hope that our teachers of English, embattled and increasingly circumscribed by rules and random strictures as they are, will somehow be able to discover another novel that holds such universal appeal now that Of Mice and Men will be no longer available to them. My message to Mr Gove is to make no mistake: this will not be as easy as it sounds. Today’s students do not want to share in his childhood nostalgia. They have lives of their own to lead and sensibilities that can certainly be touched by literature, but not necessarily through the books which he endorses. He doesn’t understand how young people now can be intellectually stimulated: why would he? But he doesn’t need to: this country has an admirable army of more than 600,000 teachers, all of whom know better than he. Listen to them, Mr Gove. Just listen. And perhaps ask someone to read to you Of Mice and Men aloud.