Fairy Dust


Even the title of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird seems to roll off the tongue more easily than To Set a Watchman but maybe that’s just because it’s so familiar. What with an appealing young protagonist Scout, mystery surrounding the reclusive Boo Radley, a dramatic court scene dénouement and a story which is underpinned by racism and gender issues it’s hardly surprising that TKAM has been a text not only beloved by exam boards over the years but the general public too. According to an article in the BBC news magazine a poll for World Book Day placed it fifth, behind Pride and Prejudice but ahead of The Bible, with a survey of British librarians rating it the book they would most recommend. It has sold over 30m copies.

To Set a Watchman, published last year, is as bumpy and clunky as you’d expect from what would have been a debut novel. Although marketed ( many would say misleadingly ) as a sequel to TKAM, this novel is in effect a first draft of the latter and was initially rejected by Lee’s publishers who advised her to focus on the flashbacks to Scout as a child. It’s a work that’s been immersed in controversy. Lee, despite rarely giving interviews or seeking publicity, had always said she would never write another novel. Then, with Lee in her eighties and in a nursing home and her sister, her main carer, having recently died the manuscript of TSAW was discovered : understandably concerns were raised about the possibility of undue pressure being exerted. The hype before publication was extreme, with more pre-orders logged than for the latest Harry Potter.

Leaving aside this whirlpool of questions and doubts one thing is indisputable. In TKAM, set in the Deep South in the 1930s, Scout’s lawyer father, the noble, decent and handsome Atticus ( always Gregory Peck from the film in my imagination!) defends a young black man accused of raping a white woman despite facing widespread hostility from the small community of Maycomb. However, in the earlier / later book, he is at best a segregationist and at worst a racist. Moreover, this once moral Colossus is now an old man who needs help with basic functions such as eating and dressing: he is diminished in every way. Yet he still loves Scout and while the idealised father-daughter relationship of TKAM is absent, arguably Scout comes to have a more realistic view of the world. Referring to her father and people like him she says,

I guess it’s like an airplane: they’e the drag and we’re the thrust, together we make it fly. Too much of us and we’re nose -heavy, too much of them and we’re tail-heavy – it’s a matter of balance.”

Moreover, in TSAW Scout is shocked to discover that when the chips are down Calpurnia, the black housekeeper who bought her up, views Scout’s family as ‘other’ by virtue of their skin colour, whatever liberal attitudes might in the past have been displayed.

What I find really interesting is where this left me as a reader in relation to character. It was the literary equivalent to discovering that George Clooney is going to vote for Trump. Do I go with my heart and ditch my hero worship of Atticus or, more sensibly, accept that it’s not unusual for people, as they age, to shift from idealism to compromise and sometimes even to espousing the opposite beliefs to those they once held? Although the latter can be unattractive, if it happens in life, then why not in fiction? Or maybe it’s that we prefer our make believe worlds, however ‘realistic’, to have a sprinkling of fairy dust!



By Hook or by Crook

I apologise.
This is a truly cringy title but my plan was to discuss the issue of finding an angle or ‘hook’ for my monthly blogs, then move on to review A Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks so once the phrase arrived in my head there was no dislodging it. Like sniggering at fart jokes and putting silly answers on questionnaires ( only if they’re anonymous of course ) I can’t resist the temptation to go for a quick, often juvenile, pleasure fix. I like to think this makes me a fun person though it’s more likely it makes me a prat. Needless to say, I love puns: when a clock is hungry it goes back four seconds or If you jump off a Paris bridge you are in Seine tickle me. This is why I can never be one of them interlectuals.
To try and claw back some credibility, there is a link, albeit a tenuous one, here. James Rebank, like his father and grandfather, is a shepherd in the Lake District. School bored him and, having spent most of his time there messing around, he left as soon as he could to work on the family farm. His book is a brilliant unsentimental description of sheep farming while at the same time raising questions about our relationship with the land and with animals, about new farming methods and about tourism. But if that sounds a bit worthy and dry (being non-fiction and about nature this book did not feature on my wish list – indeed, I can’t remember how it came into my possession ) believe me it’s not. At its heart A Shepherd’s Life explores the concept of identity: once he has discovered the joy of books and learning Rebank takes A levels at night class and wins a place at Oxford ( this all seems to happen a bit easily and quickly – I suspect it wasn’t so in real life ) Yet even after graduating and getting a ‘proper’ job he continues shepherding, something that’s in his blood ( incidentally, blood gets a lot of mentions. As does shit and castration. Wordsworth’s golden daffodil filled Lake District this ain’t ) In doing this, he confounds expectations both of what a shepherd and what an intellectual should be.
In the same way that I learnt about falconry in H for Hawk, I acquired much information about the history and practice of sheep farming in A Shepherd’s Life. But for me this is incidental. As I’ve said many times before, I read for insight not information. The book is memorable because it combines some beautiful writing with humour, wit and self-deprecation: I’m not surprised it’s been such a big hit.
Please note – there are many puns around sheep to be made and I have resisted.

I Knows What I Like…

One of the great things about getting old ( actually there’s only two, the other being my Bus Pass) is not feeling that you have to concur with received opinion about what is ‘good’ and / or ‘cool’. Apart from anything else, being ‘on trend’ is a very demanding activity as far as I remember: the path between being cool and uncool is a narrow and treacherous one. One slip up and you risk being mired in mainstream thinking. Of course it would be disingenuous to claim I’m indifferent to what other people think of me, because I’m not, but I am confident enough ( as regards books anyway) to say that I don’t give a fish’s right tit which prizes / awards / accolades a book has won: I either like it or don’t.

I didn’t like Han Kang’s The Vegetarian ( translated by Deborah Smith ) which was winner of this year’s Man Booker. Set in South Korea this is the story of Yeong-hye who is an ordinary and dutiful wife. As a result of a dream she refuses to eat meat and, when forced to do so by her father, stabs herself. She then spirals further and further into fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison (ie killing herself through starvation) and becoming a tree. Yes, a tree. I’m sure this book politically and socially must be about far more than the story of one woman with mental health issues and the effect of her illness on the people around her but unfortunately I didn’t attain that level of understanding. Described in a blurb as ‘ fraught, disturbing, and beautiful’ my adjectives of choice would be insignificant and annoying ( I can’t think of a third )

Contrast this with my best June read – William Boyd’s sixteenth novel Sweet Caress, a book which, as the title suggests, wraps the reader in a warm blanket of pleasure. Amory Clay is a photographer and with a life which spans the twentieth century her fictional biography becomes a piece of social history as well as a wonderful story of a complicated, trailblazing woman. The book, in the manner of an actual biography, contains photographs, some of her and her family and others purporting to be taken by her. But this is all a jolly clever wheeze on the part of Boyd ( who apparently has done this sort of thing before ) because the whole thing is a construct, including the title which comes from a quotation from an imaginary novel written by one of Amory’s lovers. Included in the list of acknowledgements at the end of the book are some real female photographers amongst the fictional ones.

So…I’ve nothing against authors showing off their cleverness, as long as at the heart of their work there remains some empathy and humanity. By way of illustration, here’s Amory, towards the end of her life, reflecting how in old age we treat our bodies and houses in the same sort of way:

We make do, favour the right leg, use the left hand, slip a paperback under the armchair where the castor should be. It amazes me what compromises we happily live with. We limp along, patching up, improvising.”


Although I read a fair bit, I’m the worst person to ask for off the cuff recommendations. I might remember the author’s first name or last but rarely both and will have only a vague idea of the title ‘ something to do with the sea or the ocean. Or maybe not. But water’s definitely in it. At least I think it is.’ In this respect, my blogs have proved self-serving, forcing me to revisit books and offer some commentary on them. So when I do involuntarily remember an individual book, a long time after it’s been read, that’s probably because there was something strikingly original about it. I’ll never forget, many years ago now, the physical jolt that the reveal of The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas gave me. The same thing happened on reaching the denouement of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. With the latter, as with the announcement of George’s Clooney’s engagement, I even remember where I was and what I was doing: Portugal. The poolside. Eating a panini. ( Obviously a highly alliterative moment) Similarly, I recollect how Melvin Burgess’s YA novel Junk with its descriptions of teenage runaways falling into heroin addiction and prostitution stopped me in my tracks when it forced me to completely re-think what was appropriate material for this age group. Yet memorable books don’t have to employ shock tactics. I’ve mentioned before Katherine Rundell’s  Rooftoppers – lyrical, poignant and whimsical – then there’s the quiet but powerful mundanity of Stoner by John Williams, the political allegory of Jim Crace’s Harvest and so on…

In my darkest moments ( creatively, you understand ) I worry that basically my own writing is competent rather than inspired and that I’ll never produce anything that even comes near to being memorable. This feeling is inevitably exacerbated whenever I finish a novel like one of those listed above. It’s not just that I think they’re ‘good’. These books have a boldness of vision which makes me feel, rightly or wrongly, that the writers didn’t give a shit about what anyone else thought of their work or what was selling at that time. Of course I won’t know until well into the future whether Kevin MacNeil’s ‘The Brilliant and Forever’ will fall into this category but I reckon it might well do. The novel’s title is the name of a prestigious literary competition held on a Scottish island and a fair amount of the narrative comprises the short stories entered by the competitors: arguably a bit of a cop-out for a novel. In addition, one of the protagonists is Archie, a talking alpaca. And if that’s not enough, near the end there’s a twist of humongous proportions which takes the novel to a different level.

A friend’s funeral recently included amongst numerous other wonderful features, The Grim Reaper on a motorbike, a vicar on roller skates ( not a real one – there was not a trace of religion at the event ) and the floral tribute spelling ‘DAD’ with an E inserted before the A. Maybe a few eyebrows were raised but so were many smiles and it’s an occasion that will never be forgotten by those present. I’m not really sure what the link is between memorable novels and funerals: perhaps it’s simply that my friend shared that ‘not giving a shit’ attitude that I reckon makes for unforgettable people as well as books.

What Not to Read

Don’t pick up Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life if you’re looking for a light read, a bit of escapism while on holiday, a novel that will give you that warm inner glow. On the other hand, if you reckon you can tolerate a protracted and detailed account of child sexual abuse ( described as ‘unrelieved, grotesque and extravagant’ by a Guardian reviewer ) then go for it. Jude St Francis, the main protagonist and a victim par excellence, is irreparably damaged both physically and psychologically and although the novel starts by being about a group of college friends it soon becomes predominantly his story. I should also add that you won’t be able to rationalise some of what happens, that in parts it’s repetitive and overwritten, that at over 700 pages your reading experience is not a brief one and that things don’t end happily.

It’s also by far the best novel I’ve read this year. I can hardly ‘recommend’ it given what I’ve written above ( it reminds me of ‘liking’ a Facebook post when it’s notification of something awful) At times, particularly just before going to sleep, I couldn’t bear any more and had to put it down. I also wouldn’t want to discuss it at a book club ( where inevitably the discussion would turn on whether Jude’s experiences were based on ‘reality’ or not ) But there’s also a lot of love in Yanagihara’s tale ( at times an unfeasibly generous amount ) and in this sense, A Little Life is like a fairy tale with extremes of cruelty and virtue. In some kind of way that I can’t explain the novel manages to celebrate all that’s good in humankind while not flinching from describing the very worst it can inflict. You have been warned…