The bookish equivalent of Desert Island Discs, yesterday’s episode of My Life in Books (BBC2, first shown in 2011) was a delight. Baroness James of Holland Park, known to her readers as P D James offered proof that reading and writing will keep you young (to hear her read Austen was a pleasure), while Richard Bacon was candid as ever when describing the many ways in which he can relate to the character of Dexter in David Nicholl’s One Day. Ann Robinson made much of the fifty-five year age-gap between her guests. They didn’t. Their mutual love of books made it all but disappear.
I wonder how many other authors find themselves staring at another book cover and thinking, You know, that looks awfully familiar…
In today’s issue of Shelf Awareness there was an advertisement for Nicole Baart’s recent release, (Admittedly, the photograph fits her title perfectly.)
The key-note speaker at the Digital Minds Conference was author, Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman grew up at a time when books – at least the books he wanted to read – were relatively scarce and hard to find. He would take bus trips into the wilds of West Croydon, sometimes even as far as Streatham, to source what he wanted. It was this scarcity, at least in part, that made them so attractive. Now we have information overload, it is difficult for authors to stand out.
He reminded us that Douglas Adams described e-books in a Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He also recalled a conversation with Adams about the threat they might pose to printed books, during which Adams said, ‘Remember that sharks were around at the time of the dinosaurs, but nothing has ever come along that is as good at being a shark as a shark is.’
But digital has killed some things. Encyclopedias for one. Encyclopedia salesmen for another.
Gaiman believes it is possible that printed books may be sharks. But only if we accept change is inevitable. Only if we make find new ways to make them desirable.
However, he is open to technology and different ways of doing things. When given an early Kindle to review, the thought it ugly and clunky. It was only when he took a holiday to Hungary with his twelve-year-old daughter, and realised he had brought nothing for her to read, that he saw its potential. Between taking a seat on the plane and take-off, he was able to download half a dozen books and was amazed at how easily she took to the device. However, it was only when he saw how it was possible to alter the font and increase the text size that he saw its real potential: it is what he calls ‘technology driven by ludites.’
I recommend taking ten minutes out of your day to watch the whole speech here, not because you are interested in the digital age but because Neil Gaiman constructs his speech as beautifully as he does his novels.
This week has been a week of more downs than ups, and I find myself perfectly in tune with my current read, Home, by Marilynne Robinson. It has been sitting on my bedside table for some time, waiting for the right moment to arrive – I had dipped into it before and set it aside – which just goes to show that there is a perfect novel for every moment in your life, and that there is a place for haunting, lyrical, reflective writing. In fact, there is a very real need for it.
A quote from the Weekend Australian sums it up perfectly: ‘In an age when books must shout to be heard above the cacophony, the success of Marilynne Robinson – indeed the existence of this writer – is a lovely miracle.’
Like many others I suspect, I have been advised that my writing is ‘too quiet’ for the current market. It’s something I’ve thought long and hard about, because anyone writing with a view to publication has to battle between the demands of that market and the work they want to produce. And even compromise may not be acceptable.
I recently exchanged emails with a successful published writer:
HIM: Never had a plot issue that corpses couldn’t solve. Me, I dismember them and scatter them round (Insert name of City here).
Although flippant, there was truth in the content. And yet I would prefer one review that said, ‘I found this the most involving and moving novel I have read for many years. Emotionally true, painful and challenging’ (taken from Amazon) to a top 10 paperback I didn’t feel I could take pride in.
For now, my solution to finding myself out of step with the current market is self-publishing. I am reassured by the fact that the Sunday Times describes Marilynne Robinson as ‘one of the greatest living novelists.’ Even if I can’t aspire to that accolade, I can still take heart from it.
Jane reflects on the writing of These Fragile Things.
It is not often that I find myself in tune with former Tory shadow MP Ann Widdecombe, but I found myself sympathetic to the views expressed in ‘Are You Having a Laugh?’ her examination of the treatment of Christianity in popular culture (and in comedy, in particular.) Or if not her views, certainly those of journalist, Cole Moreton, who described very aptly the point at which a joke becomes very uncomfortable, at which you are left feeling guilty for having laughed; perhaps even reflecting that, actually, it wasn’t very funny after all. What contributors to the programme disagreed on was when they crossed that line. Surprisingly, it was Steve Punt who advised that he finds the final scene in the Life of Brian ”jaw-droppingly offensive,” whilst Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, feels it is “authentically Christian.”
And yet the film that caused so much controversy upon its 1979 release – so much so that the Catholic Film Monitoring Office declared that watching it was a sin – seems relatively mild today. The majority felt that the Python team’s treatment of Christ was respectful and that it explored ordinary human absurdities and the desperate need of people of the day to have something to believe in.
As Steve Punt pointed out, the irony is that the jokes in the Life of Brian only work for people acquainted with the New Testament. “Blessed are the cheese-makers,” would be completely lost on someone who did not know the original Sermon on the Mount. Children growing up today, for example. Those who will not feel quite so lost with the statement, ”Religion is what we used to think before we discovered mental illness.” (Frankie Boyle).
Apparently, it is not fashionable to “do faith.” As Tony Blair said, “You talk about it in our system and, frankly, people so think you’re a nutter.” For this reason, even the contributors to the programme who didn’t find the ‘jokes’ very funny, could see good reason to view the treatment of Christianity in comedy with some positivity. At a time when “God is the great taboo” the fact that faith is used as fodder for jokes helps to keep religion alive, because it is at least being talked about. And while that is the case, there is less of a possibility that it will be seen as what Rowan Williams described as “the preserve of oddities, minorities and foreigners.”
Asked why he doesn’t mock other religions to the same degree that he does Christianity, Steve Punt responded with the very valid argument that he simply wouldn’t be entitled to. He was brought up C of E and attended a church school where there was an assembly with a religious theme every day.
I shall borrow his answer if asked why I wrote These Fragile Things. Having experienced a Catholic upbringing, and now being a lapsed-Catholic, I felt I was entitled to…
But entitlement is not all. I too felt that my own small reaction to the Richard Dawkins school of atheism is required. I can appreciate the fact that it emerged in response to radical creationism, but that is a belief only a small minority subscribe to, certainly in the UK. For my own part, I lean in the direction of Karen Armstrong, a former Catholic nun, who thought that she had “finished with religion” but “found herself in television” and encountered Judaism and Islam for the first time, then began to study the history of religion.
Archaeological discoveries have already disproved some of what I was taught as ‘truth’ - for example, the discovery of numerous human bones with holes through them does away with the idea that Jesus was unique in being nailed to the cross. But the relevance of what hasn’t been found is also significant. Could it be that it was intended that far less of the Bible be taken literally?
Belief, Karen Armstrong explains, is only a very recent religious enthusiasm, emerging in the 17th Century. The Credo did not mean “I believe” but I embrace. For four centuries, we have superimposed modern thinking on ancient manuscripts; stories intended as illustrations are treated as fact. No wonder there is confusion, to say nothing of conflict.
Karen Armstrong celebrated an award-win with a call for the creation of a central charter of compassion. Compassion was also my intention when starting out with Judy Jones and her family on their journey. I hope that I have not overstepped the line - the line that seems so difficult to agree upon - at which I cause any of my readers discomfort. But if I do, I hope it is reaction that proves faith still matters.
Compelling though it was, in my mind, The Century that Wrote Itself, Adam Nicolson’s romp through the 17th Century, was a story told back-to-front.
In search of personal histories that defined the era, Nicholson started with the almost confessional records left behind by John Oglander, a member of the gentry who made his home on the Isle of Wight. Oglander turned household accounting into an art-form by adding incredibly personal details. He wrote about the event he would never recover from, the death his beloved son George, in his own tears. Oh my son, Oh my George, would my life have excused thine. Sometimes seemingly trivial, sometimes begrudging – and in his own blood – the five remaining volumes describe a man battling an unstoppable revolution, and that revolution, the cause of the changes Oglander despised, was literacy. Shop-keepers were learning to read and write, and were then being given powers to govern! But the root of his frustration and his fear, and the extent of the changes that were to come, wasn’t immediately apparent.
Until the start of the 17th Century, few people worried that their personal correspondence would be read by anyone other than the party to whom it was addressed. There was no such thing as an envelope. There was simply no need. But then we saw codes being introduced, letters substituted with symbols or perhaps the introduction of foreign words or phrases – hints that the couriers (the equivalent of today’s postmen) were learning to read.
It was only when we reached the story of Thomas Tryon, a sharp young country shepherd that a picture truly began to emerge. Understanding the value of knowing your ‘letters,’ at the age of thirteen, Tryon traded one of the two sheep he owned in exchange for lessons in reading and writing. By the age of eighteen he had sold his flock and moved to London, where he was apprenticed to a hatter. The fact that he was able to afford to have his portrait painted is a measure of his social mobility.
Working men, whose contribution to culture would have been rubbished, even felt that their own stories were worthy of recording. Leonard Wheatcraft – self-styled ‘Leonard the Bard’ - wrote one of the first autobiographies. His stories are not of acts of bravery and honour but of laddishness and seducing young women. But Wheatcraft wasn’t without talent. In much the same way as DBC Pierre did, when in debt, he wrote his way out of trouble, composing The Beggar’s Delight, a song that is still performed today.
By the end of a programme that had started out on a serious note, having donned a laurel wreath, Nicholson had become positively frisky. But postmen, shepherds and likely lads – previously posing no threat - these were the people Oglander felt his way of life was being threatened by. And so it was. I would have like to see Nicholson return to those fears rather than skip off down the hillside in a style more reminiscent of Morecambe and Wise than historian. After all, the ruffian son of a blacksmith had risen through the ranks in times gone before.
If you had a low-key book-marketing strategy that resulted in a hit rate of one in two, would your brave the occasional insult and try it more often?
A few weeks ago I had some book-marks printed to advertise the release of my new e-books. I began handing them out on trains to people who were reading but, due to combination of very few takers – two , in fact – and the abusive reaction of some people I didn’t repeat the exercise. (To be honest, falling into the category of people who prefer to be left in peace when they have their nose/s buried in a book, I have some sympathy.)
This evening, I was travelling home from London Bridge, when one of the two people who took the book marks (the very lovely Anna from Holland) elbowed her way through a crowded train carriage asking me to autograph a copy of Half-Truths and White Lies and to tell me how much she was enjoying it.
I am not sure who was more thrilled. Nothing ventured nothing gained…