Strong links in the chain to ‘Sausage Hall’, to be published Nov. 17th 2014
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!
This best-laid plan of Mister Gove… awry!
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.
Bank on books and invest in public libraries – do it, David!
I know that some of the readers of this blog have been following my contribution to the ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaign. I thought, therefore, that you might also be interested in an article that appeared in The Times last Thursday, which says:
“Economists have calculated the monetary value of sporting and cultural activities and found that going to the library frequently was – in satisfaction terms – worth the same as a pay rise of £1,359.”
Playing team sports came close behind – but still it was behind – at a value of £1,127.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to expect anyone to swallow this without a little pinch of salt. How do you put a monetary value on any activity? It could be taken to extreme limits: for example, I could estimate that the monetary value of my husband is £5,000 per annum, but only if he does the hoovering. If he doesn’t do the hoovering, it drops to -£5; and either figure would have to be offset by the amount that he ratchets up on my credit card buying stuff for his greenhouse. I jest, of course, though some of the assumptions made by the research team at the London School of Economics strike me as equally far-fetched. The article continues: “The authors … speculated that … the sort of person who went to a gym was probably already tired of life and unhappy with their lot.” I have no idea how they arrived at this conclusion. Most of the people I know who attend gyms are irritatingly bouncy, dripping their endorphins and their self-righteous early morning starts all over everyone else. I’m quite grateful for this observation, nevertheless, as it obviously lets me off ever setting foot in a gym again for the rest of my life.
But let me get back to the point. If libraries are worth so much to the well-being of the individual, you’d think that, by now, the government – and especially David Cameron, with his slightly suspect ‘well-being index’ – would have latched on to this and decided that it was a bad idea to keep on closing libraries and cutting their services. Just think how they could keep inflation down if every time someone asked for a pay-rise, they could be told that £1,359 of it would be paid in library benefits! By the by, the Prime Minister has responded to the splendid petition and letter given to him by ‘Save Lincolnshire Libraries’ campaigner Julie Harrison by passing them on to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, as being rather too hot to handle himself. He should realise just how much libraries mean to, especially rural, communities in the county of my birth and elsewhere and take a lead on this at least.
I know that the government is struggling to see the value of libraries in today’s society and that it can’t get away from the idea that they are ‘old hat’. In reply, I’d like to tell them to dust off their history books a little. Recently, I have been reading David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain. If you haven’t come across David Kynaston’s three books, which at present cover the years 1945 – 1959 (there are more in the pipeline), you should rush out and buy them immediately, because they are the most brilliant evocation of post-war society you are ever likely to come across. Austerity Britain chronicles the years 1945 – 1951 and, by chance also on Thursday, I reached the section on public libraries. Kynaston quotes some Mass Observation opinions on why public libraries were so little used in 1947 and why people preferred magazines:
–None of them subjects is interesting to me. All I like is gangster stories, though there’s precious much chance of reading here. Three rooms we got and three kids knocking around. No convenience, no water. I’m glad to get out of the house, I can tell you.
– Cos I ain’t got no interest in them [books] – they all apparently lead up to the same thing.
– I’m not very good at reading, I never was. I’ve never liked it some’ow.
– Too long. I have started books and I have to read through the first pages two or three times. I like to get stuck straight into a story – there’s too much preliminary, if you see what I mean.
You might have expected public libraries to be more appreciated at this time of austerity, when wages were low and almost everything was rationed. Apparently they weren’t. But ten years later, when the nation was back on the road to prosperity, public libraries were enjoying the start of their heyday. This lasted for at least three decades. When I started work as a young library supplier at the end of the 1970s, public libraries were still highly regarded and librarians enjoyed considerable prestige. They were also extremely well-supported by both local and national government.
Is there a moral here? I’d say that if the experience of the past can teach us anything, it is that people are more interested in culture, including cultural services, when their lives are financially stable. It makes sense, if you think about it, for people who are happy and settled in their jobs and home life to ‘make time’ to go to the library. It is also understandable if people who are unemployed and desperately looking for work don’t feel able to find space for using the free public library service. That is my take on it, anyway, and I think that the government should note the facts. If Mr Gove is as worried as he says he is about standards of literacy among the young, he should encourage his colleagues at the Culture Department to stick up for public libraries. There can be no cheaper or more effective way of encouraging high standards of literacy than to get children interested in books at an early age and to make as many books as they can read available to them, regardless of their social background.
When I was a child growing up in Spalding, the public library was on the ground floor of Ayscoughfee Hall. (It subsequently moved to a purpose-built building in Henrietta Street and it was while taking a gap year to work as an assistant at this library that my friend Mandy brought me the book about Jack the Ripper when I was working in the Chinese restaurant with the putatively murderous cook called Moon.) There were only a few shelves of children’s books, and I had exhausted these long before the end of my primary school years. The librarian there, a kindly lady, used her discretion and allowed me to join the adult section of the library, even though the rules stated that this was not possible for children under twelve. There exists a very stereotypical idea of librarians as mousy, unhumorous and devoted to regulations (especially ‘no talking’); I’m certain that this is unfair and that librarians like the one I knew in Spalding quietly go the extra mile all of the time in order to help people read and enjoy books. We should celebrate librarians as well as libraries: along with booksellers, they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of civilised society.
(But before I get too eulogistic, I’d like to add that I’m now planning a future blog-post called Librarians I Have Known. I won’t pre-empt it by offering more than a glimpse here, but, suffice it to say, it will include tales of red shoes, prostitutes, Spirella corsets and Sanderson sofas. I may just have been lucky, but many of the librarians I’ve encountered have been very far removed from the stereotype.)
Sweet and sour: sugar and our nanny state…
It’s a beautiful spring day and I’m luxuriating in the winter’s departure – though still with a wary eye on the sky, as I’m mindful that this time last year there were hedge-high snowdrifts in the lanes near my house. When I arrived in Brighton in March 2013 for the conference at which I annually organise the speaker programme (and for which I am departing again tomorrow), the promenade was deep in snow and Brighton, that gaudy seaside princess accustomed only to balmy springs and mild winters, had stamped her foot and gone on strike: nothing was operating; not trains, buses or cafés, and the lone taxi driver who had ventured out deposited me at my hotel with all the air of a Himalayan Sherpa supporting a winter expedition. But tomorrow, I’m told, the sun will be shining, the temperatures unusually warm for the time of year.
It’s perhaps a little unseasonal of me, therefore, to embark upon a rant. Rants are normally reserved for foggy November days and chill winter evenings, when the humours are out of sorts and venting one’s chagrin upon the world is, if not de rigeur, then at least condoned. However, I haven’t had a rant for ages, so perhaps may be allowed a little leeway now. It is also unusual for me to comment on political issues, but I’m going to do that, too.
If you read the newspapers regularly, you will have noticed that the government’s latest frenzied preoccupation is with sugar. Yes, sugar. Not tobacco or marijuana or alcohol or ‘hard’ drugs or even prescription drugs, all of which we know to be major killers in the UK, but sugar. The government is considering the imposition of an extra tax on foods and drinks that contain high sugar content – whatever that means (the cynic in me whispers that this might – incidentally, of course – turn out to be a nice little earner). Meantime, the World Health Organisation (THE WHO?!) has suggested that sugar should form no more than 5% of our diet.
Now, I am not a scientist: in fact, if you were to line up twenty random people and assess their ignorance-of-science credentials, I reckon I would get the top slot, or certainly the runner-up’s. Because I needed a science subject in order to get into university, I studied Biology – that traditional ‘soft option’ for arts and languages students – and, after much labour, succeeded in obtaining a moderately respectable grade which was, incidentally, the worst of all my examination results, ever. However, I do remember quite a lot of the information from my ‘O’ Level Biology course, having managed to din it into myself by rote, and since then I have taken more than a passing interest in nutrition – particularly when I was a new mother – and food generally, as I like cooking. I can therefore state with some confidence that there are simple and complex carbohydrates and that both are absorbed into the digestive system as sugar. Yes, sugar. The difference is that simple carbohydrates don’t take any breaking down – they can more or less be absorbed in the form in which they are ingested, meaning that the person eating them feels satisfied for less time than if he or she is eating complex carbohydrates – which take longer to break down. Therefore, if you eat lots of simple carbohydrates – such as sweets, biscuits and soft drinks – you are more likely to feel hungry again sooner and therefore to get fat, especially if the next lot of food that you eat also consists of simple carbohydrates. Simple, isn’t it? (If I haven’t got this right, I invite those of you with a firmer grounding than mine in science to correct me.)
So far, so good. I have no quarrel with any of that, except to point out that simple carbohydrates are not always ‘bad’ – they can be very useful if, for example, you are out on a hike and need an extra boost. Think Kendal Mint Cake or Dextrosol tablets. And not all simple carbohydrates contain only ‘empty’ calories: some have vitamins, minerals and electrolytes that aid recovery from strenuous activity or illness – Lucozade, for example (though I accept that the same benefits can also be acquired through the consumption of more natural products, such as milk).
What I really want to contest is that the current witch-hunt to track down and vilify sugar seems to me to have confused simple with complex carbohydrates to such an extent that natural foods as well as manufactured ones are now being targeted. And, as I’ve indicated at the beginning of this post, the newspapers, which can often be relied on to counterbalance the government’s more ludicrous excesses with a little cod-wisdom of their own, have on this occasion jumped on to the same bandwagon. Take last Saturday’s edition of The Times, which contained a full-page illustrated feature called ‘The Good Sugar Guide’. At the top of the page, it says that the WHO recommends that we don’t eat more than six teaspoons of sugar per day. If you look down the chart, you will see that one of the biggest sugar ‘culprits’ is the banana. A banana contains, on average, seven teaspoons of sugar.
Exactly what kind of advice is being offered here? Are we being exhorted to give up bananas, that mainstay of just-weaned babies, children’s teas, lunch-boxes and commuters’ breakfasts on the hoof? Bananas, which have in some regions been a foodstuff since the dawn of mankind, and which are known to have a wide range of nutritional and medicinal benefits? (If you’re interested, some of these are listed at http://www.botanical-online.com/platanos1angles.htm.) Or are we supposed to eat six-sevenths of a banana today and save the rest of it for tomorrow, not minding that the remaining seventh is now brown and sludgy and possibly contaminated with bacteria? Or perhaps eat six-sevenths of the banana today and throw the rest away? Nothing else with sugar to be eaten, mind!
The chart proclaims, conversely, that a large glass of red or white wine contains only one quarter of a teaspoon of sugar. Now, I like a glass of wine as much as anybody – I’d say I am definitely in the top quartile of oenophiles. But even I baulk at the prospect of drinking twenty-four glasses of wine to meet my daily sugar requirement.
I’m exaggerating the case to the point of absurdity here, of course – but only so that I can point out that so is the government. I’d like to suggest that there can be no more futile a waste of time, and no more dangerous an exercise, than to confuse and worry people with a chart that lists a heterogeneous collection of foods of widely varying nutritional value with the sole purpose of isolating the sugar content and, on top of that, to fail to distinguish between added sugar and sugar that occurs naturally. We don’t need a nanny state to poke its nose in in this very unhelpful way. And we certainly don’t want to start paying tax on bananas. May I also suggest (if you’ll forgive the pun!) that bananas are low-hanging fruit as far as the government is concerned? Almost everyone eats them: all the major supermarkets rank them in their top five bestsellers. What the government needs to concentrate on instead are the thornier and more serious challenges: tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, ‘hard’ drugs, abuse of prescription drugs, and the rest, and leave us to take care of the sugar, in its various forms.
I feel an urgent need to wolf down a banana. I might have a glass of wine (gosh, alcohol), too. Excuse me.
And then… there’s cake…
Turning the eye upon our selfies…
I was struck by the appearance in Monday’s The Times of the Jan Van Eyck ‘Arnolfini Portrait’, a painting I have always found fascinating for its depiction of a wealthy merchant and his wife. The detail to be explored in this marvellous creation of character and setting has not only human but also symbolic value, suggestive of the real existence, aspirations and lifestyle of this couple in their Bruges home. It cries out: ‘Here we are! We are rich and wonderful people! Look at us!’ The most intriguing aspect for me is the reflection in the convex mirror on the wall behind the couple, depicting two figures, one of whom is commonly assumed to be Van Eyck himself. Velázquez later did much the same thing in ‘Las Meninas’, showing himself as painter of the scene. It’s a clever way of putting your personal stamp on your work. As well as that, Van Eyck painted boldly on the wall (in the style, popular at the time, of a maxim or moral text): ‘Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434’ or ‘Jan Van Eyck was here 1434’. I’ve always found it pleasantly ironic that the painter should have muscled in on the proud self-declaration of the Arnolfini couple, in a kind of portrait-bombing that elbows aside the intended subject.
My mind jumped quickly to the concept of self, as presented by ‘Kilroy was here’ and graffiti tags: ‘Notice me – I’m everywhere – I can get into the most unlikely and bizarre places… because I’m wonderful!’ That too seems pretty ironic to me, as I feel that shouting out about myself or my achievements is de trop and immodest; creating a ‘Christina James’ brand and promoting my writing here on the social media, I confess, does make me feel uncomfortable, even though I accept the need for it in the current bookselling market and therefore join in. However, I know how I feel about those who simply churn out plugs for their books without any engagement with others – it’s so much spam. Van Eyck’s skill sold itself and I suppose all writers and artists and craftspeople hope that the quality of their handiwork will do the same and that people will notice; in the meantime, they give it what they consider a helpful push. Shakespeare definitely, with his choice of the word ‘powerful’ in Sonnet 55, knew the value of his own words in outlasting even the hardest stone (‘Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.’) and was clearly right to say so: his sonnet certainly seems to be standing the test of time. So… we turn the words and polish them, with ‘perhaps’ floating in our heads… and promote them.
Which in turn leads me to the ‘selfie’, a bizarre bi-product of the technological society in which we live. We have a ‘smart’ phone (there’s a misnomer) which we can turn upon ourselves with no skill or effort whatsoever and take our own picture. Why? Narcissus fell in love with his reflected image, because Nemesis, having noticed his overweening pride in himself, led him to the pool in which he saw himself and he couldn’t drag himself away from the image in its surface; he therefore died, his hubris preventing him from seeing reality. Messrs Obama and Cameron, perhaps flattered by the photographic attentions of the personable Danish PM, fell into much the same trap, losing their sense of reality in the process. Not only did they use no art in the creation of the resulting silly picture, but also failed to use even the most basic commonsense, and Mrs Obama and the rest of the world clearly eyed them with the sharp vision of objectivity. Oh dear. The ‘selfie’ doesn’t work very well as a self-promotional tool.
I didn’t set out to be moralistic, but this is beginning to feel that way. We care about what we create and care about how others view it; there is ‘self’ in that! I have been privileged to receive positive reviews about Almost Love from writers whose own work I value and enjoy and I’m therefore sharply aware of how important it is to celebrate what I find successful and admirable in what others do; there is joy to be had in reviewing books that stand scrutiny. I’m also very much aware of how selflessly many of the people with whom I interact on the social networks behave; they deserve to feel proud of themselves for making someone else’s day. I’m glad, too, that the social media allow all of us to find our way to what we like; we’d miss out on some gems if their creators were utterly selfless!
Time to move on…
A film starring both Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman is bound to be worth watching. I therefore decided that I wanted to see The Railway Man without having much idea about what it was about, such being the ‘pull’ of actors who have previously captivated me. I knew that it was neither a violent ‘adventure’ movie nor a romcom, and almost any other genre (except perhaps a Kung Fu feature) would have been OK with me. (Pause for deep sighs from film buffs!)
It was a pretty safe bet that I’d enjoy this film, but I was unprepared for how much I’d be moved by it. It tells the story of a man, Eric Lomax, damaged by his experiences as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese while working on the Burma railway and suffering what is these days called post-traumatic stress disorder. His surviving comrades and fellow captives, like him, now live in the same run-down seaside town in the North East and, also like him, are unable to move on. The focus of their lives is the shabby ex-servicemen’s club which they haunt daily.
So far, so good: the plot is well-constructed and the acting superlative, but there are few surprises. The film appears to follow faithfully in the footsteps of the many stories, both real and fictional, of the brutality of the Japanese during World War II and the permanent psychological damage that they inflicted on those who managed to survive captivity under their jurisdiction. As a child, I knew a number of war veterans who had also been prisoners-of-war. Those who had been captured by the Germans were fairly philosophical about what had befallen them; those who had been held by the Japanese were uniformly vitriolic about their captors and, by association, hated the whole Japanese race and all things Japanese. After the Japanese ‘economic miracle’ had burst upon the world in the 1970s, I had a colleague who would go to any lengths to avoid buying Japanese-made technology.
However, the rather stereotypical scene-setting of The Railway Man that I have described undergoes a sea-change when Colin Firth, now middle-aged, meets Nicole Kidman on a train and falls in love with her (in a rather charming parody, acknowledged in some of her lines, of Brief Encounter). It is only after they have married that she discovers that he still suffers violent nightmares – they are of almost hallucinogenic intensity – about his time on the railway and, particularly, the occasions on which he was brutally tortured; the waterboarding scene is horrifically realistic. From this point on, the film depicts his quest for the mental peace that he must seek in order to make his marriage whole and complete. The actions that he has to undertake to achieve this are drastic – they involve travelling back to the Burma railway twice – and the outcomes are surprising. Risk of spoiling prevents my revealing more, so I’ll just say that, fundamentally, The Railway Man is not so much about the atrocities committed by the Japanese military as about the nature of suffering and guilt, atonement and forgiveness. It is about the strength of the human spirit and the power of love.
There is one other comment that I’d like to add: it concerns the troubling nature of war crimes. Of course, I understand and appreciate why, in the aftermath of World War II, many prosecutions were brought for crimes against humanity. Although there is a grim irony in the concept that there should be ‘rules’ for warfare – and therefore that only some types of killing are acceptable, while torture is inadmissible under any circumstances (though even this basic tenet has been called into question in recent years) – as time goes on, the crucial difference between acts of violence ‘legitimately’ carried out under the rules of warfare and ‘atrocities’ seems to me to become ever more blurred. I’m not referring to the prosecution of those who took part in the death camps (this is a separate issue), but to the pursuit of men who were then very young, no doubt scared, soldiers, who were both acting under orders and caught up in the tumult of war. Most of these men are now nonagenarians or in their late eighties and their accusers likewise. Not only does it seem to me to be impossible to ascertain now exactly what happened then, but I also cannot comprehend how any useful purpose can be served by prosecuting these men seventy years on.
I’m thinking particularly of the man who has recently been arrested for his alleged part in the massacre that took place at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. German soldiers, recalled to Germany towards the end of the war from their postings further south, shot all the men in this French village and then rounded up almost all of the women and children, herded them into the church and set it on fire. Only a handful escaped. I have twice visited the site of this atrocity: the first time was in the 1980s, when my husband and very young son and I stumbled upon it almost by accident as we took a break from a long drive to the Pyrenees. At that time, the village was still deserted, the shattered houses (all were blown up or burned down) and ruined church left exactly as they had been as a memorial to those who died. The rusting, abandoned 1940s vehicles and the many ancient Singer sewing machines set out on the walls told a particularly poignant story. My second visit was much more recent. By then, the place had been ‘sanitised’ and had turned into a tourist attraction. By this process, the horror and sadness of what had happened there had been softened.
Maybe this was a good thing. I’m not suggesting that we should ‘forget’ the war; I think that those ‘historians’ who try to sweep the Holocaust under the carpet by providing ‘evidence’ that it didn’t exist are mendacious exhibitionists at their best and evil propagandists at their worst. But I do question whether any good can come from the prosecution of a man who, seventy years ago, was eighteen years old and may or may not have been directly responsible for some of the civilian deaths at Oradour. Justice comes in many forms. In order to be whole, mankind has to reconcile itself with what happened in the past and carry on with life, knowing what happened and not forgetting it, but drawing a profounder truth from the reconciliation of the demands of memory and the present. This is the ultimate message of The Railway Man. It is one of the most thought-provoking films I have ever seen.
“I’ve been a wild rover for many a year, and spent all my money on bleep and bleep…”
The crazy topics for which researchers are awarded grants are often a source of great amusement to me. During the past year I’ve read about a project that, after many months of expensive labour, ‘successfully’ created a formula for the ‘ideal’ slice of toast and marmalade (it wouldn’t succeed in our household, where some of us like our toast burnt and others don’t); a study that ‘proved’ that there is a link between depression and being unhappy at work; and, just this week, a piece of research that shows that the pop songs of today contain twice as many references to alcohol as the ones of twenty years ago.
At first I thought that the last of these was very funny indeed. Good on the researchers who have persuaded whomever awarded their grant that it would be a good use of scarce resources to pay them to sit around endlessly listening to pop music. More power to their (drinking?) elbow. But now I’ve had time to consider, I’ve begun to wonder if there isn’t something more sinister afoot here. Assuming that this study is not entirely mindless and redundant, to what use is it intended to be put? Is the government going to start censoring pop songs? If so, it would very decidedly be the thin end of the wedge. It’s not just about pop music: from the earliest times, alcohol has been a part of almost all cultures, as is reflected in their art and literature. Just imagine what would happen if a Nahum Tate style of censorship were to be applied to books. Offending works would have to be covered in brown paper, and an approximation of their titles offered instead:
• Tizer with Rosie, by Laurie Lee
• Irn Bru Galore, by Compton Mackenzie
• Cakes and Tea, by Somerset Maugham
• Dandelion Juice, by Ray Bradbury
However, having to alter the titles would be a mere bagatelle compared to the changes that would have to be made to the works themselves. Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’, almost his trademark description, would have to become the ‘grape-juice dark sea’; Lady Macbeth would have been stuffed if, instead of being able to observe, as the grooms slipped into a drunken stupor, ‘that which hath made them drunk hath made me bold’, they’d all been swigging elderflower water and sitting up playing cards, as lively as crickets; and ‘wine, women and song’ (which I’ve just looked up, and find, to my amazement, that it is a saying usually attributed to Martin Luther) would not have the same ring to it if it became ‘water, women and song’.
I jest, but I am also being serious. This type of statistical analysis is not only nonsense, but also very dangerous. Cultures cannot be manipulated, and even if this particular statistic is true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that society is becoming more decadent. One interpretation might be that, at present, writers of pop songs are going through a very literal phase, which may mean that there are fewer double entendres to pick up on and correspondingly more overt references to be spotted by the earnest conductors of surveys. The pop songs of my youth were full of allusions to drugs, drinks and sex, but many of these were disguised. I wonder if present-day researchers would have spotted them? Self-evidently, also, my generation survived and turned out to be no more or less decadent than any other. Culture must be allowed to regulate itself.
If the government interferes in this, you may find me in my local singeasy.
Knitted up? Some criminal stereotyping in all this?
I read in yesterday’s paper that Julia Gillard, the outgoing Australian PM, thinks that knitting can save the world, because of its therapeutic qualities, and that a (male) spin doctor thought it was a good idea for her to appear in domestic knitting bliss on the cover of The Australian Women’s Weekly. If, by this means, she intended her knitophile confession to demonstrate her hominess and thus save her career, she failed spectacularly, but I hope that she is consoled by knowing that now she will have much more time to knit and that she may thus reap all of knitting’s health-giving benefits.
As an acknowledged world-saver, knitting is one of the more unlikely contenders. I’d say that, by some distance, the thing most commonly claimed to be a universal restorative and peacemaker is tea. I offer the following literary samples to take with tea:
- Typhoo [after Joseph Conrad]
- Under the Green Tea Tree [after Thomas Hardy]
- Take tea or not take tea, that is the question! [after Shakespeare, Hamlet]
- I will arise and go now, to make a cup of tea [after W.B. Yeats]
- Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of Whittard’s mango tea [after John Milton]
- Earl Grey’s Anatomy [after Henry Gray]
- Darjeeling Buds of May [after H.E. Bates]
- The Gunpowder Tea Plot [after Antonia Fraser et al]
- The time is spent, her object will away, but from her Twinings tea there’s no releasing [after Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis]
- Ode on a Grecian Urn [John Keats]
However, there is the Boston tea party, proving both that truth is stranger than fiction and that, in reality, although tea may sometimes be a peacemaker, it can also start wars!
Perhaps it might be better to put cake on the tea table, too, whilst we all sit knitting for our lives… Men make cakes as well, you know… and knit.
Let me lead you to Leeds…
I spent yesterday evening at Leeds City Varieties, watching the Reduced Shakespeare Company [RSC!] giving its version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged: a wonderful performance, hilarious and exhilarating. The City Varieties provides a fitting venue; it is one of Yorkshire’s great Victorian theatres (Leeds is doubly blessed: it also has the Grand Theatre, now home to Opera North) and is the site of many decades of performances that, like this one, demand participation from the audience.
In case you’re not familiar with it, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged is a comedy which aims to restore the bard to the public conscious by evoking helpless laughter from its audiences. It is very funny and gently satirical. Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, the authors, are from the USA and jokingly assert that they ‘thought Shakespeare was American.’ More seriously, they say that they were disturbed by a recent survey that suggests that today’s children have not heard of Shakespeare and that more than a quarter of adults haven’t read his plays. So they set out to put the record straight. It’s a touring production and it will have visited forty different towns and cities in the UK by the end of this year.
Every play is covered, though some are just mentioned by name – in the case of several of the comedies, by an amalgamation of parts of all their names and plots. The actors, Gary Fannin, Matt Rippy and Matthew Pearson are quick-change artists. Gary Fannin in particular amuses with his pained expressions and Matthew Pearson with his very unlovely and regurgitative renderings (he values excessive vomit!) of Shakespeare’s most famous heroines: his Juliet is a sturdy lass who sulks and has tantrums; his Ophelia looks as if she has been rolling in a midden.
Almost the whole of the second part of the performance is devoted to Hamlet and the trio surpasses itself when offering (forwards and backwards!) its version of what for me is Shakespeare’s greatest play. These three actors also, incidentally, demonstrate through their delivery of ‘straight’ snippets that they are capable of orating Shakespeare ‘properly’ if they choose. Taken as a whole, The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged is about much more than slapstick. Nevertheless, the choreography and timing of the knockabout scenes has been honed to perfection: the actors are so nimble that their movements are almost balletic.
Despite prancing, dancing, running, fighting, wooing and declaiming on the stage for almost two hours, the cast of three was game for meeting members of the audience afterwards to sign programmes. I happened to descend the stairs of the theatre just as they were setting up their table for this and all three of them signed mine. They must be the first autographs I’ve collected in thirty years, unless you count copies of novels presented to me by their authors when I was a bookseller!
I’m very grateful to my husband’s colleagues for inviting us to the play, and especially to Julia for getting the tickets; it isn’t the first time that she has gathered us in this charming music hall setting, familiar to followers of the BBC’s ‘Good Old Days’ programme which went out for decades, with Leonard Sachs as the compère who alliterated for a living. I’d like her to know that this was the best evening out I’ve had this year. Afterwards, we walked through the streets of Leeds in the dusk and enjoyed a meal together. Leeds has long been my favourite English city and is at its best in the early summer. An enchanting and enchanted evening, indeed.
If you get the chance to see this play, don’t turn it down!
Who is your ‘key’ customer?
I’m not always in agreement with received opinion that what happens in publishing in the USA happens here eighteen months to two years later. However, properly-gathered statistics are always fascinating and it would be foolhardy for a book market watcher such as myself to ignore the results of the latest US consumer survey that’s been carried out by Nielsen BookData. Called the ‘US Entertainment Report’, it publishes information about games, films and music as well as books, but I shall confine myself here to the findings on books. If you’re interested in the other categories, you can find a summary here.
The survey finds that e-book buyers are 21% more likely to be female. The age-groups buying the most e-books are those aged 35-44 and those aged 55-64. (I’m not sure why there’s a dip in the 45 – 54 age group: perhaps they’re so broke paying for their children to go to university that they can’t afford to buy an e-reader!) What’s amazing is that the 18-24 age group buys least e-books, even fewer than the 65+ group. Perhaps the reasons for this are also financial. Or, since the academic e-book market is now well-developed in the USA, it may be that young Americans associate e-books with study and print with relaxation. An amusing thought, but of course based purely on speculation on my part!
What is undoubtedly of significance is that print book buyers are more likely to be female, too: 18% more likely, in fact (highest sales are again to the 55-64 age group, followed by the 65+ group). This is not a surprise, because print book consumer surveys have consistently shown women to be heavier book buyers than men for at least the last thirty years. Received wisdom has always been that women buy more books because they’re buying for the whole family. However, unless e-book sales models change, we may have to revise our opinion about who is actually reading the books, as well as who’s buying them, since at present it is not possible to share an e-book unless you also share your e-reader with someone else (not a very practical arrangement). There is considerable pressure among consumer groups, especially in the USA, to introduce models that allow sharing of the same e-book among a limited group of people, on the principle that print books have always been shared among family members. In the meantime, as writers, we have a golden opportunity to consider what these female-biased statistics mean.
All my life, I’ve disapproved of the so-called ‘woman’s read’; as a bookseller, I’d give publishers short shrift if they tried to promote a book by saying that it appealed to the ‘women’s market’. How piquant it would be to discover that they were barking up the wrong tree and that the real niche market belonged to men! And how well it pinpoints the absurdity of gender-based promotion: clearly women have been reading war stories, thrillers and science fiction all along and I wouldn’t mind betting that, at the same time, more than a few men have been reading romances and bodice rippers. In fact, one of the earliest e-book surveys undertaken, way back in 2001, suggested that there was a big market for romances among long distance truckers!
As a writer, therefore, whom should you regard as your ‘key’ customer? I’d say everyone! In the last analysis, it’s the quality of the writing that counts. But you might like to think a little more about formats: the more flexibility there, the more copies you are likely to sell.