Tell Me A Story

Yesterday I picked up a book which has been long listed for at least two of this year’s major awards.  For once I had a whole afternoon free and I was looking forward to really getting into this new novel.  Two hours later, having crawled my way through the first fifty or so pages, I put it onto the pile to go back to the library wondering just what had gone wrong.  I could see that it was a very well written work.  Here was a writer who loved language and knew how to use it.  The author also had a keen eye for detail and created believable and precise characters and locations. However, what there didn’t seem to be was any attempt at telling a story.  Breaking off to seek out reviews, what I discovered was a series of comments about the way in which the lives and characteristics of the central figures were portrayed and the extent to which the writer had used them to comment on a certain strata of society.  Nobody tried to tell me about the plot – probably because there isn’t one.

Let me say straight away that I am not condemning the book on this account.  I’m sure that for some readers it will be a delight.  What I am more interested in is what it says about me as a reader. I want a story.  I want a plot with the ubiquitous beginning, middle and end, even if those elements don’t come in the right order.  Oh, I’m interested in character as well, but I need them to do something other than just walk through their daily lives.  I want to be able to describe at least one of them as a protagonist, which was a word I almost used in the previous paragraph before deciding that something as proactive as that could never be associated with any of the characters I had been reading about.  Maybe this makes me an unsophisticated reader, but do you know what, at this point in my life I don’t care.  Story is what has always been important to me.  I think it is important to most of us.  As Barbara Hardy so famously once said narrative is a primary act of mind, we all automatically tell stories about what we’ve been up to, even if what we are describing is the most mundane day of our lives.   Not for nothing did I spend my working life researching and teaching the way in which, from our earliest days, we learn how to shape and communicate the stories that define who we are.

Perhaps I should make a bigger effort to engage with novels that don’t work with plot, but when there are so many books out there that I want to read which do have a story to tell to be honest I’m not sure I really want to try.  Maybe I’m just in a grumpy mood this morning.

Recovering Nicely

This is just to say thank you to everyone who sent good wishes for my speedy recovery from what can only be described as the dreaded lurgy. The Bears have tended me solicitously for well over a week now and they finally seem to be winning the battle against whatever bug it was that laid me low.  Normal service will be resumed in a couple of days.

Reading Miscellany

70757~Cafe-Mocha-PostersWhen I first conceived of the Summer School the Book Group to which many of those who attend also belong didn’t have an August meeting.  In fact, this was one of the reasons that the Summer School was established.  However, for the past two or three years this hasn’t been the case and so when the week chosen is early in the month, as it is this year, it can cause quite a build up of what I think of as ‘necessary’ reading.  As a result these past few days I have been alternating between Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, (prep for leading the discussion on The Bookshop), Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (for the Book Group), Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop and, as an easy to pick up and put down read for the evenings, The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell.

Bythell’s book proved to be one of a small number of works that I have encountered over my reading life where the narrative voice is so emphatic I find myself embracing its characteristics in my own speaking and writing.  The first time that this happened (and perhaps the strongest) was with Jane Eyre.  For days I didn’t dare set pen to paper for fear it would appear as if I was attempting a pastiche or, even worse, that I was setting myself up as the next Charlotte Brontë.  Of course, where Bythell is concerned this just meant that I became grumpier and grumpier as the week went on.  I suppose if the majority of your custom comes from passing trade you can afford occasionally to be rude to those who are particularly annoying. If they are unlikely ever again to cross your threshold perhaps it doesn’t matter. However, as someone who was brought up in a small corner shop where every customer was a cherished regular, I cringed at some of his comments.  He complains about how little money he takes, but at times I wasn’t surprised.  Not that this stopped me enjoying the book.  Like most avid readers, I am a sucker for books about books.  Inevitably there is the comfortable feeling that you are in the company of someone of like mind and there is always the possibility that you will come away with a list of titles to add to the one that you already tout around with you wherever you go in the hope that you will stumble across a precious new volume.

In respect of looking for new books, while I may not have a nearby independent bookshop, I have discovered that there is a large used bookstore, Sedgeberrow Books, about twenty miles away in Pershore. Does anyone know it?  And if so, can you recommend a decent nearby tearoom?  As far as I’m concerned I can’t do one without the other but the reviews of local establishments are not encouraging, reasonable food but very poor customer service.  Perhaps they have all been reading Bythell?

Sunday Catch-Up

tumblr_m28hunkihb1rqmm3jo1_1280In the months running up to my recent move I had dreams of what it would mean for the time I would have for reading and for study: far less travelling, no more garden to worry about, a much smaller property to take care of, and even my cleaning done for me.  In my fantasy world (note the choice of words, please) I saw myself studying every morning, taking a leisurely stroll before lunch, followed by an afternoon spent reading and writing here before enjoying the evening either listening to music, reading some more, or out with friends at the local arts centre.

Well, dream on is all I can say.

Most of the last two months has been spent waiting in for delivery men to arrive (never at the time they said they would and often not even on the promised day), trying desperately to persuade the powers that be that I am who I say I am and that I now live where I say I do, frantically attempting to sort out the terrible mess the previous owner left the gas and electricity services in (still not resolved despite three hours on the phone the other day) and perhaps most worryingly of all having to insist to my new doctor that I know more about the way my body works after having lived with it all my life than she does after a ten minute conversation on the phone.

However, (and I may live to regret saying this) apart from the electricity, which Ofgem are now sorting out, and finding myself a new dentist, I think everything is pretty much settled and next week has nothing more exciting in the diary than a hair appointment, a pilates class and a visit to the theatre.  Perhaps I might finally be able to get down to some studying and read something a little more demanding than the detective novels I have been relying on to distract myself over the past nine weeks.

In fact, I have to get down to some reading, and quickly too, as Summer School is only a fortnight away.  We have more participants than ever this year and I did at one point think about running it twice.  Like any book group, if it gets too big, discussion becomes impossible.  The group have chosen to read the three books linked by the fact that they are all set in bookshops so I have a fortnight to re-read and prepare Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, Robin Sloan’s  Mr Penumbria’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things.  I have to say that I was surprised by the group’s choice and it wouldn’t have been my own, but democracy rules and after all I was the one who offered it in the first place.

One detective novel that I have been pleased to read over the past couple of days is James Oswald’s new offering No Time To Cry.  I have a feeling that this has only been published as an ebook at the moment with a hard copy coming later in the year.  It isn’t a new Tony McLean story, but features an undercover Met DC, Constance Fairchild, who is falsely accused of selling out the investigation of which she is a part and of killing her boss, DI Pete Copperthwaite.  On the run from the corrupt cops who were in fact responsible for the disaster, she finds herself caught up in a search for a teenager from her home village, escaping from a home life that ought to provide all she could possibly want (billionaire father) but which, as Con soon discovers, is actually far from ideal.

At first I wasn’t certain how I would fair with a new set of characters; I am more than fond of Oswald’s Edinburgh set-up.  But I warmed to Con very quickly and as the novel progressed I realised (far later than I should) that it shared at least one character with the McLean series. (Probably only one, it is perhaps a little far fetched to think that Mrs McCutcheon’s cat made her way down to London just to offer the same rather stand-offish support to Con as she does to Tony McLean, although I wouldn’t mind betting that there was some sort of feline grapevine in operation there).  I don’t know whether this is intended to be a one-off or the start of a new series. Given the way in which it ends I rather think the latter.  If that is the case then I will certainly look forward to any future episodes.

Moving On

sks41aOne of the advantages of moving to a small market town is that suddenly everything is within reach. I no longer have a twenty minute drive to the nearest shops to buy a week’s supply of groceries, accompanied by the constant worry that when I get there they may be no parking. Instead I simply take the ten minute stroll into town each morning and pick up whatever I need for the day.  If it happens to be a Tuesday, Friday or Saturday even better, the fruit and vegetables will come courtesy of the local farmers’ market.

If I don’t feel like going straight home then there are four or five local cafés where I can stop off for refreshments and wile away a spare half hour with a good book. Importantly, given the (for me) too hot weather we are having at the moment, most of them have shady outside nooks where it is possible to catch whatever breeze is available.

The arts centre, where I have access to music, cinema and occasional theatre, including the live streaming from the National Theatre and the RSC, is even closer – less than five minutes from door to door.  I’ve already been to see An American in Paris and An Ideal Husband and have tickets booked for half a dozen more event over the next few months. When the new chamber concert season starts in the Autumn I shall be signing up for that as well.

What I don’t have is a bookshop – independent or otherwise.

There used to be an independent bookshop in the town many years ago.  It was taken over by Waterstones, but that closed when they cut back the number of stores they felt they could sustain in the face of on-line competition.  This left just an excellent Oxfam bookshop.  My experience of these is that they are either rather tatty places or seriously good. This was one of the latter.  However, last December the local rates went up to such an extent that it was forced to close as well, so now we struggle on with just a W H Smith as a source of reading material.

The existence of a local bookshop says something about a place, I think.  Or am I being too nostalgic?  I suspect that in even the best read communities bookshops would struggle to maintain a steady customer flow in the face of so much competition for readers’ attention.  But a good independent bookshop supports so much more than the buying needs of their clientele. I know of several who are the centre of half a dozen  local reading groups and the one here was responsible for starting a regular programme of visiting speakers long before the literary festival scene took off. It was the hub of literary life.  There are a couple of empty properties along the High Street and each time I pass them I think, ‘if only’, but I suspect I am hoping for too much.

Reading Again

sks41aSo, here we are, The Bears and I ensconced in a spacious if, at the moment, over warm flat in the small Worcestershire market town of Bromsgrove.  However, on sunny days like today, we have a beautiful garden to sit in plus the indescribable comfort of knowing that it is someone else’s job to look after it!  I may come from a long line of market gardeners but the green-finger gene most definitely missed me.  The uncertainty associated with any house move combined with my Aspergers has played havoc with my concentration really since the end of January when I first put an offer in for this place and so I took an executive decision not to attempt to read anything new other than those books that I would need for my two book groups; instead I have been spending time with old literary friends, people/characters that I knew I could depend upon when I just needed to get away from all the pressures that were mounting up. Of course, this has meant that all the projects I set up for myself at the beginning of the year have gone completely by the wayside.  In fact, I am going to have to go back to my earlier posts just to remind myself of what they were! But I am back now and hope to be writing at least twice a week and, just as important, visiting all my blogging friends again.  I have missed you.



IMG_0001Just to let you all know that with luck and a fair wind we will be moving on Tuesday. ‘With Luck’?  Oh yes, it is still all in the balance, and if my Aspergers has had me hanging from the light fittings over the last few months as problem after problem has arisen you can imagine how I am feeling with the last forty-eight hours heaving up on the horizon. If the sale does go through, I don’t know how long I will be without broadband (did you know that if BT promise to deliver something on Monday they will then confirm it for Tuesday and actually deliver it on Saturday?) but this is just to reassure you that The Bears and I will be back probably sometime in June. Our love to you all.

A Request, A Gloat and An Observation

IMG_0001Not so much a full post this morning as a number of mini posts which don’t warrant the full deal but which I need to get out there.

First of all, a request. A friend is researching into stories and legends from any period and any culture that deal with foxes metamorphing into humans and vice versa.  I think this was sparked originally by Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Mr Fox as that particular author is another of my friend’s research interests.  Anyway, I said I would ask around for any suggestions that fellow readers might have and I know that she would be very grateful for any examples that you could come up with.

D55B171E-EA02-4A80-914A-45D4D3596A5ESecondly, a gloat.  I’m sorry, but I can’t help it. Just look what I was given as a present last week.  The Oxford Companion to the Book was published in 2010 and I had the pleasure of meeting one of the editors, Henry Woudhuysen, just days before its publication.  It is a collection of essays that explores the history of the book throughout the world and from ancient to modern times. The subjects it covers range through bibliography, palaeography, the history of printing, editorial theory and practice, textual criticism, book collecting, and libraries but it also addresses more modern issues such as e-publishing.  Perhaps most importantly, as far as I’m concerned, it addresses the question of how a society is shaped by its books and how books are shaped by the society out of which they grow.  That inter-connectedness absolutely fascinates me.  When this first came out I was desperate for a copy. I would have salivated over it, if it hadn’t been for the fact that in doing so I would have damaged something that was externally almost as beautiful as it was internally magnificent. But, it was way way beyond my means and I just had to hope that my university library would buy it.  They never did!  Then, just before Christmas, the brother of a friend died after a long illness.  Michael was a collector, especially of books and CDs, and when my friend came back after the funeral she brought this with her and said that the family would like me to have it. That they knew it was something that I would love, would read and would cherish, not only for what it is but also in his memory.  I cannot begin to tell you how moved I was and I will always treasure it not only because of its subject matter but because of the kindness of such loving people.

And, finally, a brief observation.  Have you ever noticed how your reaction to the number of pages left in a book, or if you’re e-reading the percentage you’ve already read, differs according to the book you’re reading?  I have two books on the go at the moment.  One is really hard going and the pages just never seem to diminish, while the other one is giving me immense pleasure and the percentage left is declining far too rapidly.  Shakespeare almost had something to say about this when he observed that time travels in divers paces with divers persons. I simply cannot believe that I am getting through these two volumes at a similar pace.



Treasure in the Archives

virgilio-dias-universitc3a1ria-2011-o-s-t-60-x-60By hook and by crook I managed to find myself in our University Library Special Collections the other day.   I imagine that most well established universities have such collections, places where valuable, sometimes priceless, volumes and  documents are stored.  Ostensibly, the group I was with was there to look at books with illlustrations and we saw some remarkable examples, many of them hand drawn and some of them dating back as far as the fourteenth century.  However, like most such institutions, the university archives  specialise in particular areas of scholarship. We have a very fine collection of Islamic documents and there was much publicity two years ago when it was ascertained that among them was one of the earliest surviving fragments of the Qur’an.  We staged an exhibition around the fragment in early Autumn 2015 and that is now touring in Arab countries to give as many people as possible the chance to see it.  The Islamic collection I knew about, but I was amazed to discover that we hold the archive of Noel Coward.  I have no idea why.  As far as I know there is no direction connection, but I tell you this, those are documents I would certainly like to get my hands on some day.

Probably our most important collections, however, are the archives of nineteenth and twentieth century politicians.  The university’s first chancellor was Joseph Chamberlain. As a self-made businessman, he himself had never attended university and had contempt for the aristocracy but he did want to see his own city with “a great school of universal instruction” so that “the most important work of original research should be continuously carried on under most favourable circumstances”. He served first in local politics and then, at the age of thirty-nine, entered the House of Commons relatively late in life compared to politicians from more privileged backgrounds. He rose to hold high office in several ministries and was followed into politics by his two sons, Austen and Neville. The archives of all three are held in our Special Collections.

Austen led the Conservatives in the Commons in 1921–22 and, as Foreign Secretary, negotiated the Locarno Pact (1925), aimed at preventing war between France and Germany.  For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was one of the few MPs to support Winston Churchill’s appeals for rearmament against the German threat in the 1930s, which of course, brings us to his half-brother, Neville.

If Neville Chamberlain is remembered for one thing it is his return to England in 1938 having met with the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and his declaration that he had negotiated ‘peace in our time’.  This week I saw the handwritten notes that Chamberlain made when he returned to his hotel room after that historic meeting.  It felt as if I was looking at the very fate of the world.

But, the document which really left me gasping was something of a one-off, not being part of any larger collection.  There in our archives is one of only two copies of the marriage agreement between Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain, a document carefully drawn up by Stephen Gardner, Mary’s Lord Chancellor to ensure that should there be no children or should Mary pre-decease Philip then the Spaniard would have no claim of any sort on the English throne.  He and the Queen May have wanted a catholic marriage, but Gardner was savvy enough to know that the English would never tolerate a foreign ruler.  I forgot to ask whether the document is on paper or parchment, but it is definitely written in English so that all would know just what was being agreed to.  As far as I could see all Philip really got out of it was the title King of England, but given that on his father’s abdication he inherited the thrones of Spain and the Spanish Netherlands, the addition of an English base meant that he surrounded the French and I suspect that was a strong motivation behind the match.

The afternoon left me wondering just what else is stored away, not only in our Special Collections but in all those others around the country as well. The Head of the collection reckoned that we have as much, if not more, uncatalogued as catalogued. What hidden gems might be waiting, like that fragment of the Qur’an, still to be discovered? Inevitably I start to ask whether there is a copy of Love’s Labour’s Won out there somewhere, although that is probably asking a lot. But what would you most like to see if you could have the choice of any document ever produced? The possibilities are endless.

The Dominant Narrative Voice

9182e95bd28566e2825b6e30ed2ca727I used to work with an educational advisor who was always looking for ways to help children develop their own voice in their writing.  It’s not an easy concept to get over to primary children, especially those who find it difficult enough to write anything at all in the first place, leave alone characterising it with their own particular style.  Possibly the best way to explain what you mean is to offer them examples of writers whose written voice is so distinctive that they are able to recognise who the author might be even if they haven’t encountered the particular text you’re reading from, but that argues the type of wide acquaintance with authors that an eleven year old is unlikely to have developed.  I have tried it with Dr Suess but I’m not certain how well the experience translates from those who write in regular metric verse to those who write in prose.

Truth be told, I’m not sure how good I would be at recognising the style of a particular novelist.  What I am aware of, however, is a small number of writers whose individual voice is so strong that for hours, sometimes days, after I have finished reading their work I find myself thinking, speaking and even writing in their particular idiosyncratic rhythms.

I first noticed this during one summer holiday when I was in my teens and for the only time in my life read Jane Eyre.  The only time, not because I don’t think this is anything less than a remarkable piece of work, but because the music inherent in Charlotte Bronte’s writing was so pervasive that all my postcards home were written as if Jane herself was penning them.  I got some very pointed comments from the people who received them and, given that much of my life is spent writing in one form or another, have never dared go back to the novel again.

What brought this to mind currently was a re-reading of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, for a book group meeting later this month.  Circumstances meant that I was able to get almost halfway through in my first session, so the narrative voice had ample opportunity to seep into my consciousness.

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight gradually announced, proclaimed throughout heaven – one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa.  But it has all been one day, that first day.  Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.

Whether this is the voice of Robinson, the author, or John Ames, the narrator, it is characterised by that slow development of an idea into something greater than it started out as; a propensity to take nothing at face value but rather to dig further and deeper into every thought through an unhurried revealing of the notional layers  that shroud a fundamental nugget of truth. And, not only do the rhythms of the piece reflect this but so strong are they that for several hours afterwards so also did my speech.  My own voice was subdued by that of the novel.

I don’t know about you, but when this happens I find it disturbing.  I am used to getting lost in the world of a book, or so wrapped up in its plot that I spend time away from the text speculating on how the action might turn out.  That is part of the pleasure of reading.  When, however, I find that I am losing myself not in the book, but to the book I feel very uncomfortable.  Possession by another being isn’t quite what I signed up for when I took the novel down from the shelf.

Something that I have found myself reflecting on while writing this piece has been the fact that both of these novels have first person narrators and I wonder if this is significant.  Would a third person narrator, necessarily at a further remove from the action, have the same potency?  I am just about to start Robinson’s second novel in the Gilead trilogy, Home, which is not told simply in the voice of one person.  It will be illuminating to see if has the same influence.