You are on page 1of 128



No. 30 SUMMER 2008

This edition of The Reader magazine is offered

free for download. You are welcome to share it
but please respect the rights of the contributors
and do not republish any of the content without
asking and being granted permission. Please
consider making a donation to help fund the out-
reach work of The Reader Organisation at http://

You can buy a copy of the current print edition of

the magazine, or subscribe here: http://thereader.

Published by The University of Liverpool School of English.

Supported by:
EDITOR    Philip Davis

DEPUTY EDITOR    Sarah Coley

CO-EDITORS    Angela Macmillan
   Brian Nellist
   Christopher Routledge
   John Scrivener
   Jen Tomkins

NEW YORK EDITOR    Enid Stubin


ADDRESS    The Reader

   19 Abercromby Square
   Liverpool L69 7ZG



ISBN  978-0-9551168-9-6

Printed and bound in the European Union by Bell and Bain Ltd, Glasgow

Jane Davis, Director, The Reader Organisation

The Reader Organisation is a group of people for whom literature is a key way to
understand and relate to the world. Through four strands of activity, we want to
bring about a reading revolution, and put books at the heart of life:

GET INTO READING is our fflagship social outreach programme, building commu-
nity through shared reading. Groups meet weekly and books are read aloud.
THE READER MAGAZINE addresses those for whom literature is already a much-
loved activity, urging them to read more deeply, widely, or more demandingly.
READER EVENTS bring readers – old hands and absolute beginners – together in
new ways, from a Food for Thought working lunch to the Christmas Party that is
The Penny Readings.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT helps us to improve what we do, or to prove its
value. We hope to create new ways of writing about reading and its effect on readers.
In this issue I write about a new Reader adventure, Wirral Community Shakespeare
(see page 97).


The Reader has operated within the School of English at the University of Liver-
pool since 1997. But in March 2008 the organisation constituted a legal entity in
its own right: we have spun out! We now have legal independence, but the Univer-
sity remains our biggest supporter and continues to provide our Liverpool off ices,
f inancial support, and lots of creative connections.
The English Subject Centre, for example, has funded a project between the
School of English and The Reader, training undergraduates to develop reading
groups in community settings as part of Get Into Reading.
The Reader Organisation’s Research Director, Dr Josie Billington, who also
teaches in the School of English, is running ‘Remedies for Life: a literature course
for Medics’ in Liverpool’s School of Medicine. We want to develop many more crea-
tive projects which will connect literature to the rest of the University.

‘People are dying – it is no metaphor – for lack of something real to carry
home when day is done.’ Saul Bellow, Herzog

We used this quotation in 1997 in the very f irst issue of The Reader. We believe that
we have something real to offer the UK and we are seeking investment and support
at a national level for our vision of a new large-scale social function for literature.
The Reader Organisation is committed to making sure that this precious untapped
resource (old stuff, classics, poetry, the great unread) gets out of the university and
into the hands of people for whom it might be humanly valuable.
This is a reading revolution!

Morgan Meis
and friend


7 Philip Davis 39 Philip Pullman
‘Def iant of Outcomes!’ The Storyteller’s Responsibility
9 Editor’s Picks 63 Morgan Meis
Rivers, Boats, Bridges and the Sea
POETRY 69 Tessa Hadley
18 Face to Face Crying at Novels
20 Les Murray’s Ten Favourite
Australian Poets, Part I INTERVIEW
37 Stephen Sandy 29 Adam Phillips
59 Phill Jupitus Possibilities
76 Matt Simpson
10 Ian McMillan
THE POET ON HER WORK Letters to a Younger Self
47 Myra Schneider 77 Blake Morrison
Books to Make Us Better
51 Melvyn Bragg BOOK WORLD
Remember Me 13 Josie Dixon
125 Frank Wedekind, What is Happening to
trans. John Lynch Our Bookshops?
The Inoculation 103 Donna Coonan
Thirty Years of Virago Modern


Adam Phillips
Myra Schneider Pullman


91 Enid Stubin 87 Good Books: short reviews
Our Spy in NY Ryan Cunliffe on
94 The London Eye Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
In Which I Am Thankful for Mary Knight on Lionel Shriver,
being Disturbed We Need to Talk About Kevin
97 Jane Davis 110 Brian Nellist
The Winter’s Tale On Vernon Scannell
in Birkenhead 117 Sarah Coley on Oliver Sacks,
101 Brian Nellist Musicophilia
Ask the Reader
88 Readers Connect By Cassandra
Anne Brontë’s The Tenant 121 Buck’s Quiz
of Wildfell Hall 122 Quiz and Puzzle Answers
90 Letters page 123 Contributors
108 Brian Nellist The Old Poem
Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘Like
Truthless Dreams’
115 Marion Leibl on Russell Hoban,
A Bargain for Frances

photograph by
Tom Ashley

‘Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart

Could have recover’d greenness? …

And now in age I bud again,

After so many deaths I live and write.’

‘defiant of outcomes!’

Philip Davis

I t was the re-opening of the beautiful Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liver-

pool and The Reader was asked to provide a panel for the occasion.
Members of the audience would be invited to submit a problem and
the panel was supposed to suggest a book that would help with it.
If on the day of the event you had offered me the choice between
going ahead with it or sticking pins in my own eyes, I might well have
chosen the pins. It is not that I believe in art for art’s sake alone. I hate
the idea that literature must not sully its beauty or diminish its autono-
my with the thought of human usefulness. But equally I don’t suppose
that books offer direct solutions or utilitarian cures. Literature is not a
set of practical self-help books – ‘How to Overcome Depression’ is the
sort of user-friendly book that makes me depressed in the first place.
But I was wrong: it turned out to be a surprisingly serious and rather
moving event. I’ll give you just one example, because it was the one I
mucked up. A quiet man in his late sixties said that a few years ago
he retired after a lifetime spent being a mechanical engineer. Now he
found that not one of the firms he had worked hard to maintain existed
any more. Unlike someone who wrote books, he said, he had outlasted
his work and had nothing to show for it all.
Of course, stupidly, it was only afterwards that I remembered what I
should have said. I should have directed him, specifically, to the account
of Daniel Doyce, the great neglected inventor in chapter 16 of Dickens’s
Little Dorrit. Nobody will listen to Doyce; it is hopeless trying to get civil
servants to pay attention to an invention that actually would benefit the
whole nation. Wouldn’t it be better to give up, says his friend Arthur
Clennam. ‘A man can’t do it,’ says Doyce:
You hold your life on the condition that to the last you shall
struggle hard for it. Every man holds a discovery on the same


Says Clennam: ‘You are not finally discouraged even now?’

‘I have no right to be if I am,’ returned the other, ‘The thing is
as true as ever it was.’
I wish I had remembered this in time. There is in it something rightly
defiant of outcomes.
What the retired engineer said was sad but admirable. It made me
feel oddly proud that what he spoke of was not just his problem: nothing
we do may outlive us. Here is another quotation I only thought of later.
I found it years ago in Norman Mailer’s account of a notebook of his in
which he wrote down the good things he had read. One of the literary
passages which that wild man of American literature had noted down
was this – unlikely though it may seem – from the work of the Edward-
ian English gentleman, John Galsworthy, author of The Forsyte Saga:
He still knew that he could help her no longer, nor could
anyone else, for she had come now into that domain where
her problems were everyone’s problems, and there were no
answers and no doctors.
This is the territory literature inhabits: that holding-ground for human
thought which exists in between a writing that is merely arty at one
extreme and a writing that is merely message-bearing at the other.
This issue of The Reader takes its sub-title ‘I live and write’ from
George Herbert’s great poem ‘The Flower’, on a seemingly miracu-
lous recovery from depression. ‘Who would have thought my shrivel’d
heart/ Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone . . .’ It is dated 1633
and we read it at the Bluecoat. But one of the things that stopped me
turning the car back on my way there was hearing a popular broadcast-
er on a local radio station airing his views concerning literature (not all
things are perfect in Liverpool). He said, ‘The Classics! They’re for the
students and the posh.’ This issue is about the relation between living
and writing, living and reading, for those who may be neither students
nor posh, the freshness of old things coming back to new life as they did
for Herbert: ‘I once more smell the dew and rain, / And relish versing.’
This is why, as well as publishing new writing, we have created
a series defiantly called ‘The Old Poem’ and re-designed our Readers
Connect section to feature a jury of different readers offering a verdict
on a World’s Classic. It is also why we in The Reader are thinking of start-
ing a national campaign petitioning TV’s Richard and Judy to include
old books as well as new in their promotion of reading. We launch our
Shipping Lines literary festival here in Liverpool 7–9 November of this
year: the lines are poetry’s connecting the world as the great Liverpool
ships and their engineers once did. Let’s invade Richard and Judy’s
London studio.

editor’s Picks

In this living and writing issue, two novelists – Tessa Hadley and
Philip Pullman – discuss what writing and reading the novel means
to them. Read excerpts from Melvyn Bragg’s new novel and have the
privilege of seeing some of his earlier drafts, showing something of how
a novelist does it. As requested by many, there is a longer version of the
article Blake Morrison published in The Guardian on the work of The
Reader Organisation in its outreach programme. Our new section ‘Book
World’ concentrates on the world of publishing and booksselling.

Our old friend the poet Les Murray introduces the first in a two-issue
presentation of his favourite Australian poets of all time: five in this
issue, five in September. Our new young friend Morgan Meis writes
from America on the bridges of the world. Matt Simpson is one of the
many distinguished poets here in Liverpool. From Vermont Stephen
Sandy has sent us a poem to launch our Shipping Lines literary festival:
our editor first met Stephen when interviewing him on his memories of
Bernard Malamud.

Two other pieces arise from the more geographically limited wanderings
of the editor. The interview with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips is a
continuation of the conversation between Adam and Phil at the Radio 3
Live Thinking Festival held in Liverpool last year. At about the same time,
comedian Phill Jupitus came to The Reader office to record material for
a Radio 4 programme he was doing on little magazines. We got these
poems out of him before he got out of the door: look for the reference to
his colleague Russell Brand.

Shipping Lines Literary Festival

(Liverpool 7–9 November 2008)
For more information or to register for regular updates please email:
or write to Renée Hemmings at The Reader Office
(University of Liverpool, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG).

The Reader genuinely welcomes submissions of poetry, fiction, essays,
readings and thought. We publish professional writers and absolute be-
ginners. Send your manuscript with SAE please to:
The Reader Office, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG, UK.

reading lives

letters to a younger self

Ian McMillan

Ian McMillan hosts the hit weekly show The Verb on BBC R3. He invites you
into his crowded house.

F or a while, a couple of years ago, our house was bulging like

a fat bloke’s waistcoat; me and my wife, my oldest daugh-
ter, my middle daughter with her little lad, and my son
all crowded into the house. We got the loft converted and
moved beds around and put a cot here and a chair there
and then of course, as ever, there was the problem of what to do with
the books. Never mind the kids and the grandchild: where are the books
going to live?
The bookshelves were full and double-stacked. The cupboards in
the loft were full of books. There were books in the conservatory and
leaning towers of paperbacks and hardbacks beside our bed. And still
the books arrived, jiffy bags tumbling through the letterbox like little
parcels of promise and delight and serendipity because, as readers of
The Reader, we all know that the next book we rip from the jiffy bag or
the next book we grab from the library shelf or the next book we liber-
ate (for money, of course) from the bookshop pile might be The One,
the best we’ve ever read, the desert island companion that will see us
through to the end of our days. Of course, presenting a weekly language
and literature show like The Verb on Radio 3 every week means that the
books just keep arriving and I keep reading them, marking my place
with train tickets or more eccentric objects like plastic spoons or leaves,
and then stacking them up in any available space.
Then, starting about a year ago, the number of people in the house

reading lives

began to shrink; my eldest daughter went to live with her boyfriend in

Barnsley; my middle daughter took herself and her little lad Thomas to
live in Grimethorpe, and my son went to Lancaster University to study
(what else!) English and Creative Writing. My eldest daughter reads
what people with sneers in the voices (the same people who sneer when
a shopkeeper puts an apostrophe in Tomatoes: Ooh, look: I’m cleverer
than him and I’m a guardian of that breakable vase we call language!)
call Chick Lit, so all the Chick Lit flitted when she did; little Thomas
loves books of all kinds, and a number of his stacks followed him to
Grimethorpe: piles of lovely old Topsy and Tim books including my fa-
vourite (and Thomas’s), Topsy and Tim’s Foggy Day, when the twins brave
it through the fog to Miss Maypole’s School and the two of them and
their mate Tony Welch are the only ones who get through the gloom and
the impossibly glamorous Miss Maypole rewards them by letting them
sit and watch films and eat chestnuts roasted on the fire. Bliss!
My son took some of his poetry books: the ones he was studying, like
Tony Harrison and the poet known (in our house anyway) as Famous
Seamus, and some of the ones he reads anyway, like the oddly addictive
D. S. Marriott and Brian Turner, the American soldier poet who writes
very movingly about his time in Iraq. The house suddenly felt lighter;
all those books flown away. It felt like my head feels when I’ve been to
Mad Geoff’s for a haircut.
So now I’ve got a room that I call The Book Room, even though my
wife calls it The Spare Room, and I go into it every day to unpack the
jiffy bags and take books out to read, and sometimes a tottering pile
tumbles over and I see books at the bottom that I’ve not read yet or that
I’ve read before but not read for a while so I want to read them again.
So here’s my current reading, sitting in the book room in the af-
ternoon sun, some of it for The Verb, some of it because of those ripples
The Verb reading starts off; it’ll be out of date by the time you read this,
unless you want to use this piece to begin a philosophical debate about
the meaning of that phrase ‘out of date’; top of the pile is the new book
by the mighty Australian poet John Kinsella, Shades of the Sublime and
Beautiful, which is a set of variations inspired by Edmund Burke’s A Phil-
osophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. To
précis in an almost nursery-school way, Burke believed that the beauti-
ful was just that, whereas the sublime was more dangerous and (to use
a phrase that Burke would have shook his head at because he didn’t un-
derstand it) ‘left field’. Kinsella is a truly remarkable poet, writing work
that, almost uniquely, is admired by readers from both pub rooms of
English poetry: the snug of traditional, well made verse, and the shouty
tap room of the high modernists. Kinsella’s ecological anger drives his
work, and yet from subjects as unpromising as factory farming, as in

reading lives

this short extract from his poem ‘Sounds of the Wheatbelt’:

The grasshopper roar is almost the locust roar
though not quite a swarming, just holding off
an issue of damp and dry, though intensity
of insect traffic as three-dimensionally tense
as eardrum of the paddock strains and a barking dog
is hoarse against the rustling electric scrum...

This is dense and allusive work, worth spending a long time with. It
sent me back to Doppler Effect, the huge book of mainly experimental
work that Kinsella published with Salt a few years ago, and also to his
fat Bloodaxe volume of Selected Poems from 1980–1994. Life could almost
be too short to try to take in a vastly prolific poet like Kinsella, but it
could also be too short not to.
As always, though, with my Verb reading, it takes me back to the
book room and to the tottering piles. There’s someone that Kinsella
reminds me of, and I can’t quite decide who. I stare at spines for a while
and to be frank that’s not helping. I need to get the books down and
read them, if I’ve got time. Ken Smith? Maybe. Roy Fisher? Perhaps.
Then at the back of a low shelf I come across a couple of old volumes
of Penguin Modern Poets; Number 9, featuring Denise Levertov, Kenneth
Rexroth and William Carlos Williams, and Number 24 with Kenward
Elmslie, Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler. Number 9 was 25p, and
Number 24 was 45p, and I can remember buying them both at Grass
Roots Books in Manchester in the early 1970s.
So now I put Kinsella aside and I plunge into these old friends, os-
tensibly looking for echoes of what I’ve just been reading but really just
up for a good time. I sit and grin at Rexroth’s delightful versions of old
Japanese poems:
When I went out
in the Spring meadows
to gather violets,
I enjoyed myself
so much that I stayed all night

and then I rush from the room to share one of Kenward Elmslie’s ex-
quisite prose poems with the only person in the house available for
listening, my grandson Thomas. ‘Gordon makes abusive telephone calls.
Uncle Charles pulls over to the side by an inn. He gets out of the car and
dies. Gordon comes to the funeral and walks in the garden but does
not set foot in the house. Ken takes up the crusade!’ Thomas isn’t im-
pressed. He prefers Topsy and Tim.
Hey, I’m writing like Kenward Elmslie!

book world

what is happening
to our bookshops?

Josie Dixon

I t all started with the collapse of the Net Book Agreement. In ret-
rospect it was an extraordinary arrangement – established on 1st
January 1900, the NBA worked effectively as an industry-wide
cartel, to fix the minimum price of books across the retail spec-
trum, with controlled exceptions for bookclubs and remaindering.
Whether you bought the latest Booker Prize winner in W H Smith or
your local independent bookshop, the price was the same. By the mid-
1990s, this situation – unique in consumer retailing – was becoming
untenable, as the power of the major bookselling chains increased (and
arguably that of publishers diminished). As Smiths, Dillons – remem-
ber them? – Waterstone’s and others squeezed ever larger discounts
from publishers in return for their high-volume sales, the pressure was
growing to compete for commercial advantage by sharing these dis-
counts with the customer.
Eventually, the NBA, like the Berlin Wall a few years before it, fell
remarkably quickly – once the first stones were dislodged, the edifice
turned out to be a pretty fragile one. In September 1995, a year after
the Office of Fair Trading announced a review of the NBA, several
major trade publishers, including Harper Collins and Random House,
withdrew from the agreement, and the Publishers’ Association (who
had previously policed any breaches from rogue booksellers) decided
that it could no longer defend it in court. To all intents and purposes
it collapsed there and then, and it was something of a formality when
in March 1997 the Restrictive Practices Court judged the NBA to be

book world

no longer in the public interest and it was declared illegal. A century

of consensual price control evaporated as we burst into a brave new
world of discounting and innovative pricing strategies, with bookselling
rapidly becoming as competitive as any other retail sector.
The most widespread predictions for the industry were from doom-
merchants forecasting the demise of independent local booksellers at
the hands of the all-conquering chains. Inevitably some have gone,
though arguably this has had as much to do with the rise of internet
bookselling as with the power of high street retailers. ‘Look at America!’
said the pessimists. ‘Yes, look at America!’ said the optimists. The land
of free trade, unsurprisingly, had both extremes on offer. On the one
hand you could point to cities in the deep south whose 15 bookshops
– 12 Christian and 3 ‘adult’ – run the gamut from A to B, or the campus
bookstores where you have to fight your way through the T-shirts, base-
ball caps and slogan-bearing coffee mugs to find any books at all. On
the other, there is clearly much to recommend the country that can
boast City Lights Books in San Francisco, or the Chicago Seminary Co-
op Bookstore, not to mention second-hand emporia like the Strand in
New York, with its astonishing 18 miles of books. In the event, the most
obvious influences of American retailing have proved to be the arrival of
superstores like Borders, and the advent of in-store coffee shops (which
some would argue is less of a cause for lament). Overall, although the
number of stockholding bookshops in the UK has decreased slightly,
the amount of retail space devoted to books has risen spectacularly, and
consumer spending on books has risen year on year since 1996.
In so far as there have been more legitimate concerns about a
decline in UK bookselling, most of these revolve around the diminish-
ing range of titles which it is now commercially viable to stock, in an
era which has become dominated by discounting bestsellers and pres-
sure on ‘stockturn’ per square foot of retail space. For academic and
specialist book sales there has been real cause for concern as booksellers
increasingly moved away from the kind of speculative stocking which
encouraged freedom to browse and serendipitous purchases, relying
instead on just-in-time fulfilment of customer orders which never touch
the open shelves. This has affected not just the high street chains, but
campus stores and even flagship academic bookshops. While Black-
well’s in Oxford remains as fine a bookshop as you are likely to find
anywhere, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the glory days
when the Norrington Room in Broad Street seemed to be an unofficial
warehouse for their international library supply business, stocking an
apparently limitless range of specialist titles on every subject imagina-
ble. This simply isn’t feasible in today’s bricks-and-mortar bookshops
(something had to give, to make way for the coffee shop), but, as I

book world

wrote in my last piece for The Reader, internet bookselling has made a
rapid and triumphant leap to fill this gap. The rise of Amazon has been
the most obvious success story, but the internet has been equally im-
portant for specialist bookselling businesses of every sort, from small
niche markets to the trade in second-hand, out-of-print and antiquarian
books through wonderful sites such as Abebooks.
One of the toughest factors for bookshops in having to compete
with the likes of Amazon is the fact that their internet rivals have vastly
lower overheads, with no retail premises or shopfloor staff, and a rela-
tionship with wholesale suppliers which means that they don’t actually
have to stock the books (even on the sale-or-return basis which is now
more or less universal in the rest of the retail booktrade), thus eliminat-
ing the biggest risk factor and financial burden in one fell swoop. In this
context, competing with Amazon’s levels of discounting is a formida-
ble challenge, and has largely taken the form of offering incentives for
multiple purchases to raise the volume of sales: Waterstone’s 3 for 2s,
W H Smith’s ‘Buy one get one half price’ etc. Beyond these, bestsellers
are inevitably the main focus of discounting battles between retail-
ers, with competitors now including supermarkets, garages and even
vending machines. The price wars over the latest Harry Potter moved
discounting into loss-leader territory. Asda’s controversial, headline-
grabbing price of £5 (set against a recommended retail price of £17.99)
had booksellers working harder than ever to keep their customers, with
early ordering incentives, midnight opening and other in-store events
to celebrate publication.
Children’s bookselling is in fact a good case to illustrate the ways
in which our bookshops are getting it so wrong, and yet sometimes tri-
umphantly right. As a parent of two small children who are fanatical
consumers of books, I am amazed by the number of booksellers who
hide their children’s section upstairs in shops without a lift, thus making
it impossible to negotiate with a pushchair. The best children’s sections
are those which are made most accessible in every sense, with real
freedom to browse – some Borders stores include a play area and feel
more like a children’s library: the books are there to be tried out in situ,
even if the odd one does get a bit too battered for sale. But for all the vital
joys of browsing, internet bookselling has a great role to play for chil-
dren’s books too. I am a devotee of the Red House (originally a book club,
now a mail order and online business, with no compulsory purchase and
free delivery), perhaps because it began life as an offshoot of the Red
House bookshop in the nearest town to where I grew up in the Oxford-
shire countryside. This was where I made my first purchases with pocket
money or book tokens, and once debated with myself long and hard as to
whether I dared spend a school prize on the fabulously grotesque Fungus

book world

the Bogeyman Pop-up Book, solely for the pleasure of having it solemnly
presented by the visiting dignitary at the annual Speech Day prize-giving
ceremony (alas, I did not). Consumer loyalty of this kind may have its
basis in oddly sentimental impulses, but if booksellers continue to earn
our custom, they can keep it for generations.
The mission to inspire this kind of fidelity by identifying with a sense
of community spirit is central to ‘Love Your Local Bookshop’ – a nation-
al marketing campaign for independent booksellers launched in the
autumn of 2007, funded by key wholesalers and the Booksellers’ Asso-
ciation’s Small Business Forum, with support from a number of major
publishers. The enterprise is clearly conceived in retaliation against the
growing power of chains and superstores, and declares as a central item
in its mission statement the aim to ‘engage booksellers and their custom-
ers in a positive, celebratory campaign about independence’. Keith Smith,
owner of Warwick Books, characterises the campaign as ‘a national lit-
erary festival brought to a local level’, with book awards based on sales
through the independent sector and voted for by their customers.
The first week in July of this year will see the launch of ‘Independ-
ent Booksellers’ Week’, with a PR campaign that will be both national
and regional; the aim is to establish it more permanently on the calen-
dar alongside events like World Book Day. The regional element is key to
the thinking behind this enterprise: it’s not only about the independent
status of small bookselling businesses, but also about resisting publish-
ers’ London-centric assumptions – a national marketing strategy has
to mean more than adverts on the Tube. Since the type of point-of-sale
promotional materials we are used to seeing rolled out in the chains and
superstores are all too often beyond the budgets of small independents,
a central element of the campaign is to provide these free for participat-
ing booksellers to give their marketing more oomph. Watch this space
in your local bookshop to see the results in 2008.
In a competitive market, the issue of retaining customer loyalty is
by no means restricted to independent booksellers, and cropped up
repeatedly when I asked Euan Hirst, stock development manager for
Blackwell’s in Oxford, for his views on current trends in bookselling.
While the seismic changes wrought by the demise of the NBA and the
rise of internet bookselling have challenged the traditional set-up of the
trade, he points to ways in which they have also helped to ‘profession-
alise’ its operations – a word he associates with the exemplary German
concept of bookselling as a ‘proper trade’. Yet the biggest challenge
remains how to keep profit and cash generation at the right level to
invest in retaining the best staff, increased stock levels, new technolo-
gies, and the highest levels of shopfitting and presentation. This means
convincing customers that value is not simply equated with the biggest

book world

bargains, building instead a more service-based loyalty. This is his pitch

for what distinguishes our best bookshops from the ‘bland, process-
driven’ style of the superstores; he contrasts their drive for efficiency,
increasing discounts and cutting costs to the bone, with the more el-
evated commitments of bookshops with ‘soul’. It’s a fragile concept in
a consumer-driven culture, and yet it’s hard not to respond to his sense
of what constitutes ‘passion’ in bookselling, citing the ‘inspirational’
example of Waterstone’s, Deansgate in Manchester in the mid-‘90s for
its imaginative stockholding and promotion.
Euan’s answer to what the booktrade can learn from internet book-
selling is to point to the value of backlist, and what has become known
in the trade as ‘the long tail’ – extending the sales of the most durable
titles far beyond the three-month flash-in-the-pan shelf-life associated
with much general, consumer bookselling. Here he points not just to
the academic end of the trade, but to the new breed of quality inde-
pendent that specialises in translated fiction.
Will some forms of bookselling – e-books for instance – remain the
natural province of the online trade? In those sectors where books
are vehicles for information, learning and scholarship, rather than for
culture or leisure, Euan believes that e-books will change the face of the
trade, and that traditional booksellers will have to find or create a role
for themselves in this new environment. It’s a theme which is evidently
preoccupying others in the industry, as a glance at the seminar pro-
gramme for this year’s London Book Fair makes clear. While sessions
like ‘Electronic Trading: Saving Time, Money and the Planet’ suggest
the aim may be linked to larger environmental issues concerning sus-
tainability, the more urgently entitled ‘Why Bookshops must go Digital’
implies that it is booksellers’ own survival that may be at stake.
Euan’s predictions for change in the coming decade are otherwise
based on the increasing need for booksellers to focus on which market
sector they can most effectively reach. Here he foresees a split in the
trade between small but responsive bookshops that are integrated
fully into the community they serve (a clear role for the independents,
whether their constituency is defined geographically or in terms of
subject-specific niche markets), and very large stockholding bookshops
like Blackwell with a national and international customer base. These
alternative models are clearly applicable to both bricks-and-mortar and
online bookselling, so perhaps the two are in some respects destined to
converge after all. It has become impossible to imagine a world without
either, but in a volatile consumer environment the question of retaining
our loyalty remains key to any bookseller’s survival, on the High Street,
or on the net. So, if Harry Potter makes a comeback after all, where will
you buy your copy?

Face to Face

Phill Jupitus Stephen Sandy

What do you see from What do you see?

where you are? I see East Moun-
I’m in a business tain where snow still
lounge at Heathrow clings, above Baptist
looking at logos of church steeple with
wireless internet serv- its electric cross and
ices. picket guard of plastic
owls around it failing
What book or poem to threaten the flock
would you like to of pigeons roosting
have written? there.
Alice’s Adventures In
Wonderland. I never re- Ideal reader?
alised that Carroll was Brave, smart, and in
Phill Jupitus a logician – it seems love.
delightful that a logi-
cian would come up Current reading?
with such imagery.. Tibetan Marches by
Andre Migot; Peter
Your own best work? Levi, The Light Garden
I surprised myself of the Angel King: Jour-
when I wrote the play neys to Afghanistan.
Waiting For Alice. I felt Featured on page 37
like a grown up.
In three words
describe your ideal
Open. Chatty. Hungry.
Current reading?
I just finished Born
Standing Up, Steve
Martin’s account of
how he became a
stand up. Very

Featured on page 59

Myra Schneider Matt Simpson Billy Marshall
What do you see? What do you see? What do you see?
Papers, folders, note- A computer screen Morning on Hen and
books, dictionaries, and piles of books and Chicken Bay and
books and dust and papers. Wareemba Beach,
remind myself that looking west towards
within the chaos are Like to have written?
a broken line of clouds
organised areas! Shakespeare’s Sonnets, hovering over the Blue
Blake’s Songs of In- Mountains.
Your own best work? nocence and Experience,
Always the last poem Keats’s Odes. Like to have written?
which I feel has been Huckleberry Finn
some kind of success- Your own best work?
ful breakthrough. I am deeply suspicious Your own best work?
of being pleased with My collection of
Current reading? anything I write. poems, Singing the
I have just finished Snake. And my play
Ian McEwen’s On Ideal reader?
about Ezra Pound,
Chesil Beach. His Ideally? Anyone. Sixteen Words for Water.
writing is accom- Current reading?
plished and the story Ideal reader?
Julius Caesar. An empathetic adver-
poignant and yet I felt,
as I always do with his Featured on page 76 sary
work, that a dimen- Current reading?
sion is missing. I have Plan of Attack by Bob
just started On Skirrid Woodward; Finite
Hill, Owen Sheers’ and Infinite Games by
second collection. He’s James Carse.
a talented poet with
an authentic voice. Featured on page 25

Featured on page 47
Billy Marshall
Myra Schneider


Favourite Australian Poets

part I

Les Murray

A great many Australian poems are favourites of

mine, but The Reader asked for ten, so here is a se-
lection from the riches. Eight of them were first
published in the twentieth century, while those
of Robert Gray and Ashlley Morgan-Shae are very
recent. Similarly, eight of the poets are or were Australian-born, while
two have been domiciled in Australia. One of these is New Zealander
Jennifer Compton, long resident in New South Wales. The other, Billy
Marshall Stoneking, has returned to the USA and reclaimed his Ameri-
can citizenship, but his poem is a unique case. As a young immigrant
teacher from West Virginia in the Sixties and early Seventies of the
last century Billy Marshall as he was then known worked in schools in
remote inland Australia. There he became friends with initiated Aborig-
inal elders who passed along elements of their belief and custom to him
– their sacred lore, as we might say, though they would call it their Law,
and mean no pun by that. In the manner of another white poet, Roland
Robinson, a generation earlier, Billy Marshall took what had been told
to him in a mixture of indigenous language and contact-English and
transported it into a more dignified form, in line with Western literary
practice. In the traditional Aboriginal world, all poetry is sung; what
Marshall worked from was ‘Outside’ accounts, so called, intended for
an uninitiated man, in this case a friendly foreigner. His versions came
out in the early 1980s in a fine book titled Singing the Snake, published


by the venerable firm of Angus and Robertson, but much that under-
lay that book didn’t belong to the Western calendar at all. Interestingly,
in the same period and in the desert region, the renaissance of Abo-
riginal non-figurative painting which has since gone round the world
was just getting started. Much of that painting, of course, is done as it
were in code, to protect sacred content. We on the outer delight in the
intricacy, the sumptuous colours, the haunting gesture and design, yet
nothing is really given away. Our critique is baffled and kept at an es-
sential remove. Taking that hint, and from much gloomy experience, I
have become gun-shy of ever seeing poetry on the same pages as critical
commentary. Or even in the same magazines. For this reason, I offer no
more apparatus with this mini-anthology. Not even potted biographies:
those can be got from Google, if wanted. Now enjoy the reading, and
feel free to cough.

Mary Gilmore

Bones in a Pot

Little Billy Button

Said he wanted mutton;
Miss Betty Bligh
Said she wanted pie;
But young Johnny Jones
Said he wanted Bones –
Bones in a pot,
   All hot!


Lesbia Harford

Poems XIV

I’m like all lovers, wanting love to be

A very mighty thing for you and me.

In certain moods your love should be a fire

That burnt your very life up in desire.

The only kind of love, then, to my mind

Would make you kiss my shadow on the blind.

And walk seven miles each night to see it there,

Myself within serene and unaware.

But you’re as bad. You’d have me watch the clock

And count your coming while I mend your sock.

You’d have my mind devoted day and night

To you, and care for you and your delight.

Poor fools, who each would have the other give

What spirit must withhold if it would live.

You’re not my slave; I wish you not to be,

I love yourself and not your love for me,

The self that goes ten thousand miles away

And loses thought of me for many a day.

And you love me for loving much beside,

But now you want a woman for your bride.

Oh, make no woman of me, you who can,

Or I will make a husband of a man!

By my unwomanly love that sets you free

Love all myself, but least the woman in me.


Judith Wright


The blacksmith’s boy went out with a rifle

and a black dog running behind.
Cobwebs snatched at his feet,
rivers hindered him,
thorn-branches caught at his eyes to make him blind
and the sky turned into an unlucky opal,
but he didn’t mind,
I can break branches, I can swim rivers, I can stare out any spider
   I meet,
said he to his dog and his rifle.

The blacksmith’s boy went over the paddocks

with his old black hat on his head.
Mountains jumped in his way,
rocks rolled down on him,
and the old crow cried, ‘You’ll soon be dead.’
And the rain came down like mattocks.
But he only said
I can climb mountains, I can dodge rocks, I can shoot an old crow
   any day,
and he went on over the paddocks.

When he came to the end of the day the sun began falling.
Up came the night ready to swallow him,
like the barrel of a gun,
like an old black hat,
like a black dog hungry to follow him.

Then the pigeon, the magpie and the dove began wailing
and the grass lay down to pillow him.
His rifle broke, his hat blew away and his dog was gone
and the sun was falling.

But in front of the night the rainbow stood on the mountain,

just as his heart foretold.
He ran like a hare,


he climbed like a fox;

he caught it in his hands, the colours and the cold –
like a bar of ice, like the column of a fountain,
like a ring of gold.
The pigeon, the magpie and the dove flew up to stare,
and the grass stood up again on the mountain.

The blacksmith’s boy hung the rainbow on his shoulder

instead of his broken gun.
Lizards ran out to see,
snakes made way for him,
and the rainbow shone as brightly as the sun.
All the world said, Nobody is braver, nobody is bolder,
nobody else has done
anything to equal it. He went home as bold as could be
with the swinging rainbow on his shoulder.


Billy Marshall Stoneking


The Seasons of Fire

There is Law for Fire,

singing for Fire,
dancing for Fire –
Fire Dreaming.
You have been there, you have seen it.
You know all the names of Fire;
signal fires, hunting fires,
sleeping fires, fires for light,
fires for cooking, for ceremonies,
healing fires of eucalyptus leaves –
Fire is medicine, magic.
   Fire gave Crow a voice,
flying away in pain.
Fire brings old quarrels to an end.
On top of Uluru, do not drink
At the rockhole of Warnampi
unless you take Fire
or the snake will bite your spirit
and drought will follow.
Fire can protect you from the dead ones.

You have been there, you have seen them.

You know all this Fire.
The penis is Fire.
The vagina is Fire.
Fire is inside the bodies of animals.
The woman hands a firestick to the boy
and he becomes a man.
There is a time for every fire.
The fires of January are different
from the fires of June.
In the cold time, a small nudge before sleep
will keep the flame alive all night.
The right ash, the right heat,
the right position of wind, dune and saltbush:
a technology of Fire. The knowledge.


You have been there, you have watched.

You know all the seasons of Fire.
   Hawk stopped Bush Turkey
throwing Fire into the sea.
Fire cannot be stolen now; it lives
Everywhere – inside the spinifex and dry wood.
All this is Law.
‘The smoking days’ – Buyuguyunya – come every year.
The air is full of smoke.
The smoke comes first, then the fire,
and then the smoke.
All this is Law.
Hot is more than two sticks rubbed together; and
no chopping – take only what you can drag:
green wood for shelter;
dead pieces for waru.
The wind from the mouth works kindling.
Fire makes grass seed.
It finds the kangaroo and chases him
to the hunters.
All this is Law.
The burning off and the gathering together are one.

You have been there, you have seen it.

You know all the seasons of Fire.


Robert Gray

Among the Mountains of Guang-xi Province

in Southern China

I had been wading for a long while in the sands of the world
and was buffeted by its fiery winds,
then I found myself carried on a bamboo raft (I am speaking
   literally now),
poled by a boatman down the Li River.

A guest in Beijing at the Central Academy of Arts,

brought to the countryside,
I’d wandered out alone. A sheen on the night and across the
   ranks of water,
and close mountains that joined smoky earth and sky.

When I saw the landscape around Guilin city

and realised it was the same as the painter Shi Tao had
   known it
I felt suddenly exalted,
as though I were riding in the saddle of a cloud.

The mountains’ outlines were crowded one behind another

and seemed a wild loosening of the brush,
a switchback scrubbing, rounded or angular,
until the last fibres of the ink had been used up, again and again.

Those narrow blue mountains make endless configurations.

They are by far the main crop the province bears.
Chuang Tzu said that a twisted tree is not useful
and so it can survive for a thousand years.

A lead star plunged behind the mountains

as if the galaxy were crumbling more quickly than them.
How to convey the strangeness of this region?
I thought of migrating whales that break together, almost
   upright, out of the sea.


That suggests their power, but not their stillness.

Some mountains reminded me of tall-hatted mushrooms,
some of veiled women, among a laden caravan, but all had a
   corroded edging of trees.
We drifted by a few other rafts and their lanterns.

At times I saw rhinoceros horns, or a blackened cathedral;

at times the beauty of an old carnivorous jawbone.
One place was as dramatic as a vertical wind-sock.
There was a broken palace in a fog-bound wilderness.

The next day we travelled to the village of Xin Ping

and found there drabness and squalor, a terrible indifference
   and listlessness.
Worst of all, the poverty in people’s faces,
the smallness of those lives. Everything was the colour of dust
   and of smoke.

How can they not be embittered, and millions with them?

They see the comfort of cities, each night, on the communal
just hours off, and behind a stone door.
Earth could not bear the waste, were they to have a fraction
   of what they know.

We who’d alighted there, for a few days,

could love nature because of its indifference, and found our
   freedom in that.
To do so, one must be secure. The same type of mountains
   were at Xin Ping
but I saw in them the sadness of eternal things.



Adam Phillips in conversation with Philip Davis

By the time a bright spark turns on the voice recorder, Adam Phillips and
Philip Davis are deep in a discussion of American Jewish writers, Bernard
Malamud and Saul Bellow. The main characters of their books are very dif-
ferent individuals. A typical Malamud hero is trapped in tight circumstances
that he fights against, with all the odds against him. Over his head, however,
the reader glimpses the possibility that limits are what give him strength.
On the other hand, a typical Bellow hero explodes in his world with life-
transforming aspiration. Plot and matter give way to his will as well as to
his luck. Adam and Philip first met at a Radio 4 ‘Live Thinking’ event in
Liverpool in November 2007: this is a continuation of the conversation they
began in public back then, following Adam’s now having read Philip’s biog-
raphy of Malamud.

[PD] You said Malamud made you think things that you hadn’t wanted to
[AP] When I read Roth and Bellow, I feel their power and exuber-
ance and their energy, and a kind of indomitable quality. When I read
Malamud, I’m reminded of a certain kind of grimness, of pared-down,
lowered expectation. I have a temperamental aversion to a wailing wall
version of Judaism, which is a combination of grandiosity as in ‘the
chosen people’, and also the grandiosity of victimhood – the sense of
having come from an impoverishment that would cripple the genera-
tions and leave one overwhelmed and undone by sadness and/or terror.
Roth and Bellow are Emersonian. They believe in the possibility, not of
non-assimilation but of non-compliant adaptation. Whereas Malamud
is dauntingly realistic. The sense I get from him, or rather from his char-

Adam Phillips

acters and indeed from his prose, is that there’s a terrible struggle here,
and that being seen to struggle can’t be avoided and is masochistically
enjoyed. I think I’m frightened of that kind of poignancy, and when I
read Malamud there’s a poignancy which is very powerful and that I
think is both the most important thing going and therefore something
I am suspicious of…
I’m slightly depressed by the depression that causes you! I think that sometimes,
in Roth’s desire to break out there’s an act of will going on, and to a degree in
Bellow too, and that that’s OK but it is temporary. It is late adolescent. I know
that readers can get an almost electric surge of energy in reading Ralph Waldo
Emerson’s Essays: thought abruptly made big by a single sentence. ‘On History’,
for example: ‘All public facts are to be individualized, all private facts are to be
The point for me is not exactly that this act of will is late adolescent but
that whatever late adolescence holds is peculiarly difficult to sustain,
but may well be worth sustaining in terms of the imaginative possi-
bilities created. In other words, we really never know what’s possible.
The risk for me of the Malamud ethos is that he has too certain a sense
of the reality principle. Bellow and Roth heroes by contrast think that
the reality principle is to be defied or tested: they think it is a set-up
invented by people who want to thwart them. Malamud is full of inspir-
ingly strong people, and Dubin’s Lives is a very good example of this, but
his people don’t ever believe in bravado, and I want the opportunity to
believe in bravado. It scares me! I feel as if in Malamud there’s poten-
tially a sort of inertia or black hole, or a giving up of possibility. I don’t
want to be melodramatic about this but I’m aware that reading some of
Malamud creates an anti-Emersonian mood.
This is interesting and it reminds me of Marion Milner saying there were books ‘to
keep my heart up’. Tell me a bit about your involvement with her: you said when
we last met that you knew her towards the end of her life. She was a psychoana-
lyst who wrote those books to expand herself – A Life of One’s Own and An
Experiment in Leisure…
She has a belief in the potentiality of the self. Psychoanalysis is part
of a project that does not simply disclose to you the way your past has
delimited you, but is committed, in the tradition of the psychoanalyst
Winnicott, to the sense of unknown and unknowable individual poten-
tial. Analysis is not re-parenting, of course, but it offers an opportunity
for forms of recognition that might offer new roads that couldn’t have
occurred to you. It’s as though, in any given life, parenting is aesthetic,
selective. You have originally a range of developmental potentials which
are inevitably selected out by virtue of your family. One of the things


analysis can do is show the way in which certain options were pre-
empted or made too fearful, and that is why I want to have Emerson
and Freud in the British tradition in psychoanalysis.
I would have said that Malamud had a strong sense of possibilities within what
looked like small, timid openings, but the more you live with him in time, the
more those apparently little openings become important. You begin to forget the
scale. My slight quarrel with what you’re saying is whether you’re asking for
something big early… to keep your mood up.
One of the things I thought your biography of Malamud was brilliant
in talking about was his building of sentences. Malamud works in a
way that is rigorous and scrupulous, and determined and so on, but
actually produces wonderful releases and liberations and astounding
sentences. I want to believe, and do believe, in inspiration – the thought
that we don’t know where the astounding things come from. What
Malamud represents for me, whether or not it’s true about him, is a
kind of doggedness that I fear doesn’t necessarily issue in anything. In
your Malamud it clearly works and he is a great advertisement for the
virtues of letting yourself be bogged down and seeing what comes of it.
(Beckett is much funnier about this necessity not being a virtue.) It’s
not that I want the big themes in there right from the beginning, but I
do want the possibility of them and my money is on unconscious work.
That doesn’t mean sitting around waiting to be inspired, but it does
mean there’s a limit to what you can consciously contrive.
Over-starkly, the difference we have between us is reality principle versus in-
spiration. Though it’s wrong to think of oneself as a character in a novel, as if
there’s an omnipotent novelist who knows the external truth, nonetheless, in
any situation in which I find myself, I do think that there is an external truth,
even if I never get to it or know it. It can be inhibiting but without that sense
of an external reality or truth in which I am placed adventure becomes adven-
There are hard facts of life that are not changed by being re-described
– and one of the things psychoanalysis is valuable for is to show what
can’t be changed by re-description. Having said that, it is amazing what
people can call up in each other and also what people can inhibit in
each other. That is to say, what I’m capable of thinking and feeling in
some people’s presence is really quite different. One of the things this
suggests is that I might for all sorts of defensive reasons want to trans-
late the idea of a reality principle to a too-omniscient knowledge about
myself… It’s as if one is saying to oneself, ‘This is the character I am’.
And indeed, if for example I were to start believing that I wasn’t a shy
person, or that my shyness was a way of protecting myself from my


wish to show off, there would be a catastrophe. I suppose what I’m in-
terested in is not whether or not there’s a reality principle, but how the
idea of a reality principle is exploitable.
Say some more, because the one thing I’m not sure the reality principle could be is
‘exploitable’. It’s very important to me that I’m first of all a creature, not a creator.
Insofar as I ever get to a form of creation, it’s on the second move as an act of self-
reflection. One of the reasons I like Malamud is that he is only, from your point of
view, half-creative: an ordinary man using extraordinary means to remain still
ordinary. The position of oneself within the world is partly what this is about…
What needs to be acknowledged in the middle of this is one’s absolute
dependence on the recipient. For me that’s the model. So that I must
write from within my creaturely locale, but I’m not the absolute or final
authority on what this is that I’ve written. It’ll be sent out and it’ll be re-
ceived and returned back in various forms, and my belief is that I can’t
say, ‘No you’ve got this wrong’. What I can acknowledge is that you will
receive this thing that I’ve written or said, and you will metabolise it
it in your own way, and something will come back. There’s a sense in
which we are inter-dependent rather than soloists.
Doesn’t the author know – and rightly know – if he or she is being misunderstood
or unrecognised?
I would want to promote the idea that it’s impossible to be misun-
derstood. That when one feels misunderstood, what you’ve stumbled
upon is the fact that there are other people in the world. In a way
that is the most interesting thing. The better world would be one in
which I wouldn’t be sitting there feeling outraged and scandalised
at being misunderstood; I would be thinking, ‘That’s really interest-
ing’. I would be interested, in that moment, in seeing what’s coming
through, rather than wanting to blow the system apart by my rage.
There are affinities in this acknowledgement of difference that I think
are better than the outrage if people don’t understand me. I think that
rage is adolescent. We shouldn’t want to be understood, we should
want to be redescribed.
Samuel Johnson said it’s very difficult to be friends with people who hold views
directly opposed to your own…
It’s not that I think ‘How fascinating it is that there are other people’.
What reassures me or makes me feel better is the fact that I don’t have
to respond with violence, as a reflex, to the person with the opposed
view. This is not a liberal point – clearly there’s a point at which the
unacceptable is unacceptable. Morality is based on that. But I do think
the thing we are likely to be affronted by is the thing with which we


have some affinity. And there’s a loss of energy in the repudiation of the
opposing view. Because your enemy, so to speak, has something pro-
foundly in common with you.
The model you don’t like is one of anger and enmity whereas what I think I am
talking about is more to do with the feeling of disappointment when people don’t
understand your work, and then a sort of indifference that then comes upon one…
There may well be another subject matter you can have with that other person,
and that usually means giving up on your thing and looking for their thing.
What of the possibility that sadness and indifference is a transforma-
tion of violent anger? Unconsciously, your first experience is ‘I want to
murder this person’. This is obviously terrible and impossible and you’ll
be in prison, so you can’t do that. This anger turns into indifference,
boredom, sadness. In other words, you’ve had a resignation and faced
the fact that there’s no meeting here. I would want more of the violence
to be available for conversation without it being enacted. I do believe in
conflict as a form of affinity, rather than conflict being the problem.
There are connections, says Wordsworth, finer than those of contrast. Though I
appreciate your argument that the sadness is a version of the anger, I think there
is some terrible truth in a shamed and reluctant sense that everything is poten-
tially disappointing. That’s my biggest fear. And that would exactly be in the area
of what we were talking in reading Malamud.
Let’s imagine that disappointment is a useful refuge, so that once you
feel disappointed you know where you are. This is one version. The other
version is that there’s a life organised to avoid the possibility of disap-
pointment. And then the question would be, what’s the big problem
with disappointment? You could think disappointment is integral to
being human so you had better start learning about it in order to be
able to take risks. I would not want my children not to do things for fear
of disappointment. I’d want them to be attentive to the moments when
they take flight into disappointment as an avoidance of something else.
Because I think disappointment is extremely consoling.
Yes, agreed: I do associate disappointment with those forms of ageing that give up
and I do want to resist it.
There’s also a sense in which hope can be poisonous… I think it would
be better to bring up our children, from early on, with the idea that
there is a question whether life is worth living for any given individual
at any point in their lives. For some people, it is a real question and one
of the things we can do, thank God, is to kill ourselves. That should be
a serious option built into our education. Why are you tolerating pain?
I would prefer to start from the position of asking the question whether


life is worth living, whether certain kinds of pain are worth suffering.
You’re more ‘sixties’ than I am. For me, suicide is a sin against life. There’s a
poem by Wordsworth called ‘Argument for Suicide’ where he talks about: ‘the
magic circles / Drawn round the thing called life. Till we have learned / To prize
it less, we ne’er shall learn to prize / The things worth living for’. Until we begin
to contemplate the thought of suicide we won’t be able to find the things worth
living for. You have to go to some brink. But I don’t think it has to be the brink
of suicide.
There are two checks traditionally. The first is the thought that we ought
to live it through and to bear it, as if one has an inbuilt hero myth. The
other though is one’s parents and one’s children. The reason one can’t
commit suicide is because it’s the ultimate act of hatred and rejection
of one’s parents, and it’s the ultimate act of betrayal of one’s children.
Those seem to be as close to laws that make suicide a sin as possible. But
I think it’s important to have in the picture the possibility that things
can happen that make one’s life literally unbearable. I don’t think we
should start from the assumption that we can bear anything, because
life is harder than that. And I don’t think we should let ourselves be su-
pervised by our children; it is a terrible burden for them.
I agree, though I don’t believe that staying it out is a vision of the heroic as such.
I think it’s a vision of the non-heroic. But let’s talk about specifics, Primo Levi
for example. It’s a sad narrative – to have survived the concentration camps and
finally years after to kill yourself as he did is awful.
I agree. Yet the question is whether he’s let himself down, or us. I can
see why we would want him not to have done it, but I can imagine that
for him not to have done it might have felt like self-betrayal.
Levi was a representative, however unfair that burden was on him: a representa-
tive of survival. And that wasn’t just our vicarious imposition on him. I was
thinking of Doris Lessing’s The Making of the Representative of Planet 8
where one lone figure at the end has to see life through to its final extinction on
the planet without giving in – because he is the representative of the human life-
force and no longer simply a frail and frightened individual; because the genetic
memory of what he stood for may live on as a result somehow. So in Malamud’s
The Fixer, Yakov Bok is only a Jew in so far as he is arrested as a result of anti-
semitism. He doesn’t believe in Judaism. But increasingly he comes to be the
representative of the Jews, because he is being persecuted as one of them. And that
makes him feel less lonely, less a single person. We stand for something and are
not just ourselves.
I believe the Jews think they’re the chosen people because they have
such a profound apprehension of their contingency that they know


that no one is chosen. But we don’t need to be self-important or think

we matter in special ways in order to live and live in a morally good
way. Indeed I think there are certain ways in which we are educated to
think we matter that distract us from being able to think at our best. I’d
like to drop the mattering and start talking about morality. In a certain
mood I would feel almost exactly as you describe about Yakov Bok and
responsibility. In another mood, I’d be thinking this is the most absurd
anthropomorphism. This is a universe in which all these creatures have
evolved of which we are one. We’re nothing special. We have lasted a
long time. We may or may not be able to bear and feel that our lives are
worth perpetuating, and we probably won’t have any choice.
How does your own writing – those essays about every possible topic from being
tickled to the status of need, making everything a possible subject-matter – relate
to this sense of life?
I haven’t got theories, I write sentences. I don’t want you to come out
with what Phillips thinks about x, y and z. I’d like you as reader to
have an experience. I’ve just written these essays and they seem to have
this effect and the effect makes sense to me. I read a lot of philosophy
– not because I understand it but for the odd sentence. I get bored with
books which are trying to give me loads of evidence to prove something.
I identify in a sense more with poets and novelists, but only insofar as
I don’t have theory. I don’t have characters either. All that I’ve got are
sentences, and often I can’t see the join in them, I can’t see how the
sentences link up.
When I read most people I think ‘Who are they? What’s the autobiography?’
That’s my characteristic way of doing it. There’s a difference between the thought
and the thinker but I think some of what the thought is, is how the thinker has
it. But reading you it is a quicker ‘out of the corner of the eye’ sort of read, and it
doesn’t feel so autobiographical
I love the experience of writing more than anything else about it pre-
cisely for that reason. The rest of it is very secondary. It’s thrilling to me,
the process of doing it. But I don’t know what it’s founded on. As an
experience it seems to come out of nothing.


stephen sandy

Sea Chest

In the junk shop stood an old wood chest,

patina of ships and the sea, use and years;
the box heavy, empty, forgotten, set apart.
On the lid stenciled in bulky black a sort of tattoo,
the legend read JOHN SLATE / LIVERPOOL.
I wanted to ask but never found out, was Slate
out of Liverpool or bound for it? Down one end
small letters read E. S. Liverpool. Is that his son
or did that have to be another? Watch by the sea,
I think, stand there till an aura grows clear like
some maritime koan, or a bottle, frosted and cracked
holding a slip of paper, riding the tide.

Philip Pullman
is appearing at
Shipping Lines
Liverpool Literary Festival
7-9 November 2008

the storyteller’s responsibility

Philip Pullman

W hat is the relationship between art and

society? Can art do anything to make the
world better, or is it quite useless?
This is an old puzzle, and no-one has
solved it yet. At one end of the range of
possible answers lies the Soviet idea that the writer is the engineer of
human souls, that art has a social function and should produce what the
state needs, and at the other end is the declaration of Oscar Wilde, in the
preface to The Picture Of Dorian Gray, that there is no such thing as a moral
or an immoral book; books are well written or badly written, that is all.
However, Wilde wasn’t consistent about this: elsewhere, in The Critic as
Artist, he wrote ‘All art is immoral’; and it’s notable that The Picture Of
Dorian Gray itself is one of the most firmly moral stories ever written.
I hesitate to disagree with Saint Oscar, whatever he said, but I’ve
been telling stories for many years now, and in the course of that expe-
rience I’ve come to see a few things more clearly than I used to. I take
it that art, literature, children’s literature, does not exist in a special
realm apart from society. I take it that storytellers are inextricably part
of the whole world, and that one way of thinking about the relationship
between art and society is to approach it by considering the responsibili-
ties that follow from this.


First, whether or not responsibility begins at home, it feels as if it

does. Our first responsibilities are financial: the need to look after our
families and those who depend on us. What this means is that we should
sell our work for as much as we can decently get for it, and we shouldn’t
be embarrassed to say so. Some tender and sentimental people, espe-
cially young people, are rather shocked when I tell them that I write
books to make money. They like the idea of the artist starving in the
garret so much that they think poverty must be a necessary condition
in which to make art. But worry – constant, unremitting anxiety about
bank statements and mortgages and bills – is not a good state of mind
to write in. It drains your energy, it weakens your concentration. If we
decide to try and make a living by telling stories we have the responsi-
bility – the responsibility to our families, and those we look after – of
doing it as well and as profitably as we can.
Then there is our responsibility to the medium in which we work. You
can tell a story in mime, or in pictures, or in music; but language is the
medium for most of us, and once we become conscious of the way lan-
guage works, we can’t pretend to be innocent about it. We can’t maintain
that it’s something over which we have no influence. If human beings
can affect the climate, we can certainly affect the language, and those of
us who use it professionally are responsible for looking after it. This is
the sort of taking-care-of-the-tools that any good worker tries to instil in

“There’s fast-food language, and there’s

caviar language”
an apprentice: keeping the blades sharp, oiling the bearings, cleaning the
filters. That means, for example, making sure of the meaning of words
by looking them up in a good dictionary. And not only that: words have
a history, a flavour of their origin, as well as a contemporary meaning.
We should acquire as many dictionaries as we have space for, out-of-date
ones as well as new ones, and make a habit of using them.
Taking care of the tools also means developing the faculty of sensing
when we’re not sure about a point of grammar. We don’t have to know
infallibly how to get it right so much as to sense infallibly that we might
have got it wrong, because then we can look it up and get it to work
properly. Sometimes we’re told that this sort of thing doesn’t matter
very much. If only a few readers recognise and object to unattached par-
ticiples, for example, and most readers don’t notice and sort of get the
sense anyway, why bother? I discovered a very good answer to that, and
it goes like this: if people don’t notice when we get it wrong, they won’t
mind if we get it right. And if we do get it right, we’ll please the few who
do know and care about these things, so everyone will be happy.


When it comes to imaginative language, to rich and inventive

imagery, those of us whose readers include children have to beware. But
what we have to beware of is too much caution. We must never say to
ourselves ‘That’s a good image – very clever – too clever for this book,
though – save it up for something important.’ Someone who never did
that, someone who put the best of his imagination into everything he
wrote, was the great Leon Garfield. Here’s a passage from one of my fa-
vourites among his books, The Pleasure Garden:
Mrs Bray was the proprietress of the Mulberry Garden …
Although a widow for seven years, she still wore black, which
lent her bulk a certain mystery; sometimes it was hard to see
where she ended and the night began. Dr Dormann, stand-
ing beside her, looked thinner than ever, really no more than
a mere slice of a man who might have come off Mrs Bray in a
carelessly slammed door.

There’s fast-food language, and there’s caviar language; one of the

things adults need to do for children is to introduce them to the pleas-
ures of the subtle and the complex. A good way to do that, of course, is
to let them see us enjoying it, and then forbid them to touch it, on the
grounds that their minds aren’t ready to cope with it, it’s too strong, it’ll
drive them mad with strange and uncontrollable desires. If that doesn’t
make them want to try it, nothing will.
The aim must always be clarity. It’s tempting to feel that if a passage
of writing is obscure, it must be very deep. But if the water is murky,
the bottom might be only an inch below the surface – you just can’t
tell. It’s much better to write in such a way that the readers can see
all the way down; but that’s not the end of it, because you then have
to provide interesting things down there for them to look at. Telling a
story involves thinking of some interesting events, putting them in the
best order to bring out the connections between them, and telling about
them as clearly as we can; and if we get the last part right, we won’t be
able to disguise any failure with the first – which is actually the most
difficult, and the most important.
Next in my list of responsibilities comes honesty, emotional honesty.
We should never try to draw on emotional credit to which our story is
not entitled. A few years ago, I read a novel – a pretty undistinguished
family story – which, in an attempt to wring tears from the reader, quite
gratuitously introduced a Holocaust theme. The theme had nothing to
do with the story: it was there for one purpose only, which was to force
a particular response and then graft it on to the book. It’s possible –
difficult, but possible – to write an honest story about the Holocaust,
or about slavery, or about any of the other terrible things that human


beings have done to one another, but that was a dishonest one. An emo-
tional response from the reader is a precious thing. Stories should earn
their own tears and not pilfer them from elsewhere.
When it comes to the craft of saying what happened, the responsibil-
ities become technical, and more and more fascinating. The playwright
David Mamet said something very interesting about this. He said that
the basic story-telling question for a film director is ‘Where do I put
the camera?’ I’ve found that to be a very rich metaphor for the first big
problem you have to solve when you start to tell a story: where am I
seeing this from? Whose voice is telling this? To judge from their work,
it seems that the great directors, the great storytellers, know immedi-
ately and without thinking where the best place is to put the camera.
They seem to see it as clearly as we can see that leaves are green. A
good director will choose one of several goodish positions. A bad direc-
tor won’t know, and will move the camera about, fidgeting with the
angles, trying all sorts of tricky shots or fancy ways of telling the story,
and forgetting that the function of the camera is not to draw attention
to itself, but to show something else – the subject – with as much clarity
as it can manage.
But the truth is that great directors only seem to know the best place
at once. The notebooks of great writers and composers are full of hesita-
tions and mistakes and crossings-out; perhaps the real difference is that
they keep on trying till they’ve found the best place to put the camera.
The responsibility of those of us who are neither very good nor very bad
is to imitate the best, to look closely at what they do and try to emulate
it, to take the greatest as our models.
Next, I think that we should keep a check on our self-importance.
We who tell stories should be modest about the job, and not assume
that just because we’ve thought of an interesting story, we’re interesting
ourselves. A storyteller should be invisible, as far as I’m concerned; and
the best way to be sure of that is to make the story itself so interesting
that the teller just disappears. When I was in the business of helping
students to become teachers, I used to urge them to tell stories in the
classroom – not read them from a book, but stand up and tell them, face
to face, with nothing to hide behind. The students were very nervous
until they tried it; they thought that under the pressure of all those
wide-open eyes, they’d melt into a puddle of self-consciousness. But
some of them tried, and they always came back next week and reported
with amazement that it worked, they could do it. What was happening
was that the children were gazing, not at the storyteller, but at the story
she was telling. The teller had become invisible, and the story worked
much more effectively as a result.
Of course, you have to find a good story in the first place, but we can


do that. I’ve said before that the great collections of British folk-tales,
by writers such as Alan Garner, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Neil Philip,
should be treated in two ways: first, they should be bound in gold and
brought out on ceremonial occasions as national treasures; and second,
they should be printed in editions of hundreds of thousands, at the
public expense, and given away free to every young teacher and every
new parent.
And stories make themselves at home anywhere. Nowadays a story-
teller in Ireland can learn Australian stories, an African storyteller can
tell Indonesian stories, a storyteller in Poland can pass on Inuit stories.
Should we storytellers make sure we pass on the experience of our own
culture? Yes, of course. It’s one of our prime duties. But should we only
tell stories that reflect our own background? Should we self-righteously
refrain from telling stories that originated elsewhere, on the grounds
that we don’t have the right to annex the experience of others? Ab-
solutely not. A culture that never encounters any others becomes first
inward-looking, and then stagnant, and then rotten. We are responsible
– there’s that word again – for bringing fresh streams of story into our
own cultures from all over the world.

“Easy cynicism is no more truthful than easy optimism,

though it seems to be so to the young.”

High on any list of the storyteller’s responsibilities must come a

responsibility to the audience. Those of us whose books are read by chil-
dren are not in danger of forgetting it, actually. Some commentators
– not very well-informed ones, but they have loud voices – say that
children’s books shouldn’t deal with matters like sex and drugs, or vio-
lence, or homosexuality, or abortion, or child abuse. Taboos change over
time: only a couple of generations ago, it was rare to find a children’s
book that confronted divorce. Against the keep-them-safe argument,
I’ve heard it said that young readers should be able to find in a chil-
dren’s book anything they might realistically encounter in life. Children
do know about these things; they talk about them, they ask questions
about them, they meet some of them, sometimes, at home; shouldn’t
they be able to read about them in stories?
My feeling is that whatever we depict in our stories, we should
show that actions have consequences. A few years ago, Melvin Bur-
gess’s Carnegie Medal-winning novel Junk created a storm among the
professional fusspots, because it dealt among other things with the life
of young drug addicts. But Burgess was showing exactly the sort of re-
sponsibility I’m talking about. It’s a profoundly moral story, because it


shows that temptation is truly tempting, and that actions have conse-
quences, and that when people make a mess of their lives, they have to
deal with the results.
Some writers of children’s books feel that they shouldn’t take too
bleak a view of the world; that however dark and gloomy the story
they’re telling, they should always leave the reader with a glimpse of
hope. I think that has something to be said for it, but children can deal
with the fact that tragedy is uplifting, too, if it shows the human spirit
at its finest. ‘The true aim of writing,’ said Samuel Johnson, ‘is to enable
the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.’ Children need both
those kinds of help, just as grown-ups do.
What’s true about depicting life in general is true of our responsibil-
ity when it comes to depicting people. There’s a sentence I saw not long
ago from Walter Savage Landor which is the best definition of this sort
of responsibility I’ve ever seen: ‘We must not indulge in unfavourable
views of mankind, since by doing it we make bad men believe that they
are no worse than others, and we teach the good that they are good in

“When I say I am the servant of the story, I say it

with pride.”
vain.’ Easy cynicism is no more truthful than easy optimism, though it
seems to be so to the young. In depicting characters who struggle to do
good or be brave, and succeed, or who are tempted to be weak or greedy,
but refrain, we the storytellers are providing our readers with friends
whose own good behaviour, and whose high valuation of the courtesy
or steadfastness or generosity of others, provides an image of how to
behave well; and thus, we hope, we leave the world at least no worse
than we found it.
Almost the last in my list of responsibilities is this: we have to pay
attention to what our imagination feels comfortable doing. In my own
case, for reasons too deeply buried to be dug up, I have long felt that
realism is a higher mode than fantasy; but when I try to write realisti-
cally, I move in boots of lead. However, as soon as the idea comes to me,
for example, of little people with poison spurs who ride on dragonflies,
the lead boots fall away, and I feel wings at my heels. For many reasons
(which, as I say, are beyond the reach of disinterment) I may regret this
tendency of my imagination, but I can’t deny it. Sometimes our nature
speaks more wisely than our convictions, and we’ll only work well if we
listen to what it says.
But now I come to the last responsibility, which is one that trumps
every other, and before which our duty to the audience, to the lan-
guage, to our family, to society as a whole has to bow gracefully and


retreat; and that is the storyteller’s responsibility to the story itself. I

first became conscious of this when I noticed that I’d developed the
habit of hunching my shoulders to protect my work from prying eyes.
There are various equivalents of the hunched shoulder and the encir-
cling arm: if we’re working on the computer, for example, we tend to
keep a lot of empty space at the foot of the piece, so that if anyone comes
into the room we can immediately press the key that takes us to the
end of the file, and show nothing but a blank screen. There’s something
fragile there, something fugitive, which reveals itself only to us, because
it trusts us to maintain it in this half-resolved, half-unformed condi-
tion without exposing it to the harsh light of someone else’s scrutiny.
A stranger’s gaze would either make it flee altogether or fix it in a state
that might not be what it wanted to become.
It feels as if the story, before it’s even taken the form of words, before
it has any characters or any incidents clearly revealed, when it’s just a
thought, just the most evanescent little wisp of a thing – as if it’s come to
us and knocked at our door, or just been left on our doorstep. Of course
we have to look after it. What else could we do? We have to protect it
while it becomes sure of itself and settles on the form it wants.
Because it knows very firmly what it wants to be, even though it
isn’t very articulate yet. It’ll go easily in this direction and very firmly
resist going in that, but I won’t know why; I just have to shrug and
say ‘OK – you’re the boss.’ And this is the point where responsibility
takes the form of service. Not servitude; not shameful toil mercilessly
exacted; but service, freely and fairly entered into. This service is a vol-
untary and honourable thing: when I say I am the servant of the story,
I say it with pride.
And as the servant, I have to do what a good servant should. I have
to be ready to attend to my work at a regular time each day. I have to
anticipate where the story wants to go, and find out what can make
the progress easier – by doing research, that is to say: by spending time
in libraries, by going to talk to people, by finding things out. I have
to be unobtrusive, and not push myself and my own opinions in front
of the story’s attention. I have to keep myself sober during working
hours; I have to stay in good health. I have to avoid taking on too many
other engagements: no man can serve two masters. I have to keep the
story’s counsel: there are secrets between us, and it would be the gross-
est breach of confidence to give them away.
And I have to be prepared for a certain wilfulness and eccentricity in
my employer. All the classic master-and-servant stories, after all, depict
the master as the crazy one who’s blown here and there by the winds
of impulse or passion, and the servant as the matter-of-fact anchor of
common sense; and I have too much regard for the classic stories to


go against a pattern as successful as that. So, as I say, I have to expect

a degree of craziness in the story. No matter how foolish it seems, the
story knows best.
And finally, as the faithful servant, I have to know when to let the
story out of my hands. I suppose our last and most responsible act as
the servant of the story is to know when we can do no more, and when
it’s time to admit that someone else’s eyes might see it more clearly. To
become so grand that we refuse to let our work be edited is to be a bad
servant, not a good one. I have always been lucky in my editors – or
rather, since I’m talking about responsibility here, my stories have been
fortunate that they’ve had me to choose their editors so carefully.
And now I see that I haven’t even begun to answer the question I
opened with. I know no more now about the relationship between art
and society than I ever did. But I do know that there is a joy in respon-
sibility, in the knowledge that what we’re doing on earth, while we live,
is being done to the best of our ability, and in the light of everything we
know about what is good and true. If we do it well, we might be able to
bring our work to the condition of that mysterious music described by
Caliban, the sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not; and
there’s something to be said for doing that. Maybe that’s all we can say.

come visit!
see our website for the latest news from the
world of the reader. you are also invited to
read and to contribute to the reader blog.


the poet on her work



Once it was crossing the unmade road to sing

to wet mouths that chewed, stare at the sway
of udders soft as babies’ heads, sniff milkiness,
glimpse emerald wings on cracked dung;
was nibbling grain from ripe heads of rye,
picking clovers, the pink and mealy white,
was thistles prickling legs, lying among feather-
head grasses that tickled as they brushed the sky;
was the night the carthorses raced round
driven by an electric storm’s purple slashes,
their madness spilling into my excitement,
drops of light next morning glistening the ground;
was climbing the Downs and letting out the fears
penned in my head, was walking a stubble field
to a blackened mill that stood defiant as it whirled
cloud and sun, roared its energy into my ears.
Now, field is the sweep below the spinney
in the park. Its glorious grasses stand unpawed
by city, smell of hay and are rarely mowed.
Here, carwhirr is muffled, collies plunge
into jungles of pungent stalks, tortoiseshells
flitter over ragwort. Ragged lines of geese
flap darkly across the setting sun’s fleece
and utter warnings that day is paling out.
Here is fade, fall and rot till willows begin
to green and signal the white surprise of spring:
blossom on blackthorn knobbles, scatters on long-
winged anemones. And where dandelions hold up
their gorgeous yellow crowns, stinging nettles
herd and cunning spiders hang their threads,
where beetles scarper, slithery worms bed,
who knows what could sprout, run wild?

the poet on her work

on ‘field’
Myra Schneider

T he image of field is significant to me. It summons up my

childhood and the freedom I felt playing or walking in the
fields opposite our house above the Firth of Clyde. When I
was twelve we moved from Scotland to South London and I
desperately missed the fields, the moors and the sea. I have
lived all my adult life in London but I still miss the open space of fields.
However, there is a saving grace. We have a park behind our house where
I walk every day and the grass on one of its slopes has been allowed to
grow wild. This slope is my ‘field’ with its long grass, summer buttercups,
clover and patches of thistles, and the nettles and hedge parsley that line
the banks of a nearby stream. It keeps ‘field’ alive in my head as a living
changing thing, not a remnant of childhood which I am holding onto.
The first jottings I made for this poem were in my notebook in April
2003. When I looked these up a few days ago I was struck that I had
written a heading: ‘sequence in short tight parts.’ Why had I decided in
advance I was going to write a sequence, I wondered. It must have been
because the word had so many associations for me that I believed this
exploration of them would be a way to convey the quintessence I was
searching for. I had also underlined: fields of now and of the past and
the idea of field but I remember that what was in my head was a potent
feeling, a sense that I had something to discover, rather than an idea. The
headings were followed by detail about the sensation of lying in long
grass, about a field in the village of Ayot St. Lawrence which I’d walked
in some years before and how that reminded me of childhood. I ended
with some memories of childhood fields. Ten days later I made another
note with more descriptions which I thought would help me pinpoint
what fields meant to me.
At the end of July I sat down at the computer with my notes. I
excluded the Ayot St. Lawrence field but nothing else. The intention

the poet on her work

to write a sequence was now firmly fixed in my head – I think I be-

lieved that the build up of material would in itself carry the significance
I wanted to convey. As I transferred the notes and fleshed them out I
organised them for four poems. The first was to be about the sense of
being in a field with grasses and flowers, the second about different
childhood memories of fields, the third about what fields meant to me in
adolescence and the last about the field-like slope in the park. The pro-
gression seemed logical and I was pleased because the middle sections
included some material from previous poems which hadn’t worked. As
I sifted through the notes to shape each poem I picked sharp images of
key moments, wanting to re-create my impressions rather than paint
pictures of fields. Unfortunately for the poem, though I didn’t recognise
it at the time, I had too many impressions of fields in my past.
As I drafted the sequence the first and last poems seemed to fall nat-
urally into rhyming quatrains, the others into tercets. I enjoyed tracing
the path through my memories, allowing each the space it wanted,
before moving into the final poem which particularly excited me as it
found its way to the mysterious and the unnameable. But the feedback
I received was mixed and I began to question the first poem, whether it
was too long an introduction and whether it pre-empted later material:
I want to lie down on uncut grass
nibbling grain from heads of rye,
stroking fescue whose feather tips
tickle me as they brush a harebell sky.

I want to gather flowers in a field:

both clovers – the pink and the mealy white,
stitchwort, ladies’ stockings, poppies
with skirts flyaway as sounds from a flute.

I want field to root in my head:

a space for quiet leafery to green,
for a flowering that’s rampant, wordless,
as if easy riches will always be mine.

I considered opening with the second poem which began: ‘Out and
running across the gravelly road’ but this seemed too bald. In any case
removing the first poem would distort the shape of the sequence. The
more I looked at it, the more certain I became that something was in-
trinsically wrong and that at two and a quarter pages it was too long.
I put the poem into the abandoned poems file together with my typed
notes. The writing process, of course, is a journey into the unknown via
notes, drafts, revisions, and it sinks into or rises out of the slough of
despond so I didn’t feel I had necessarily abandoned ‘Field’ for good.

the poet on her work

I can’t remember what made me look at the poem again in 2006 but
as soon as I read it I saw the first section was a mistake and the whole
needed to be re-focused as a single poem in which the present had as
much weight as the past. By writing a group of four poems I had given
myself permission to include any material I felt like from the past, and
I felt ashamed because I’d long been aware how easy it is to be beguiled
by vivid early memories.
I cringe now when I read the ‘poetic’ poem quoted above and I find
it hard to believe I hadn’t seen then how it muddied the whole poem.
The first thing I did was to cross it out. I then went carefully through
the rest of the original version underlining what struck me as essential.
The whole of the last poem about the slope in the park was not only
the best written but also the most crucial material and I knew at once
that the memory section needed to balance it in length, that the poem
turned on juxtaposing past and present. I don’t know what instinct led
me to the syntax in which I used a repeated ‘was’ to hang together in
one sentence everything I decided on for the first half of the re-envi-
sioned poem. It set a pattern and helped me to shape the poem which
seemed to ask to be fitted into rhyming quatrains. I kept two lines from
the original first poem and cut some of the detail from the second and
third poems. I also omitted two verses at the end of the second poem
about the fields opposite our house being dug up for a housing estate
(material which was a diversion and was needed, in fact, for a different
poem). I hardly altered a word of the fourth poem.
The new poem was written quickly and when I’d finished it I saw I
had retained all the central material of the sequence and yet it was less
than half its original length! The journey had been a difficult one. It was
also a warning not to fix the shape of a poem too quickly but the final
result was very satisfying. I was amazed by the flow in the re-structured
poem, by the way the details now seemed to shine through. The poem
seemed to me at last to carry that potency of field which I wanted to
express: a sense of childhood freedom and my love of wildlife, its beauty
which is untamed, scary, unfathomable, full of possibility. I was amazed
that the ‘real poem’ had been there buried in the original until I had
found a way to pull it out.


‘remember me,
but ah! forget my fate’

Melvyn Bragg

Remember Me, published by Sceptre in April of this year, is Melvyn

Bragg’s fourth novel in an imaginatively transmuted autobiographical
sequence that takes his alter-ego, Joe Richardson, from a working-class
Cumbrian boyhood and adolescence in The Soldier’s Return (1999) and A
Son of War (2001), through the class-shift of a place at Oxford in Crossing
the Lines (2003) and, in this volume, to a life in London, combining the
writing of fiction with work at the BBC. It tells the story of a youthful
marriage that ends devastatingly with the suicide of the wife, Natasha.
She is a painter and writer whom Joe thought rescued from her earlier
insecurity and depression by their relationship. In an interview with
Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times Bragg said that a friend had told him
it was the book he had been working up to for about 35 years. It went
through seven or eight drafts over five years, the final draft approved by
Bragg’s daughter – without whose acceptance (Bragg told Peter Kemp)
he would not have published the book. In the three extracts that follow,
Melvyn Bragg shares with The Reader tiny details from some of the later
drafts, given in footnotes with dates of composition, to show the work-
ings of the novelist’s mind in process.

The first extract, given below in its final version, concerns the ambitious
young Joe who, seeking to establish himself, is making a documentary on the
work of a young woman artist. Jessica, a miner’s daughter from his native Cum-
berland, paints the mountains of the Lake District as if under the influence of
drugs or illness or nightmare. Here, after filming, the newly married Joe and
Natasha have drinks with Jessica and the cameraman, Alex, who hopes to bed the
painter. Jessica begins a boozy discussion on the idea that an artist must always be

Melvyn Bragg

unhappy, Joe violently dissents, and a row erupts as Jessica turns on Joe’s denial,
trying to humiliate him.

Chapter Seven of Book Two (26.10.06): finally published as chapter 20

‘You’re unhappy but you won’t admit it,’ said Jessica, whose slender
body was fortified and steadied, it seemed at this stage, by alcohol. She
swept back the second brandy.
‘Beddy byes?’ said Alex, his hopes of a conquest deflated.
‘You are very, very unhappy,’ said Jessica and she held his eyes in
her gaze as intensely as a hypnotist. ‘And until you admit it you’ll write
nothing any good.’
‘Admit what?’
The bravado in his tone alerted Natasha.
‘Admit it,’ said Jessica sotto voce. ‘We’re twins, Joe. And polar op-
posites. Admit it.’
‘Admit what?’
This time it was more of a plea and Natasha remembered that her
best friend and bridesmaid, Frances,1 now in America, had spoken of
seeing the ‘shadows’ around Joseph and she had dismissed the insight
as merely part of Frances’ psychic indulgence. But undoubtedly,2 now,
the shadows were gathering3 over him.4 He was losing something of
himself. It was unlike anything she had seen in him before.5
‘Confess the suffering. Admit the pain.’6 Jessica beat her hands on
the arm of the chair.
Natasha saw a face of Joseph which was new to her. It had loosened.
There was some7 fear in it and an unmistakable violence.8 Even his voice
had changed, thicker toned, coarser.
‘It’s not fair,’ he said, picking out the monosyllable with great care.
‘I mean – it’s not true.’

1. 9.01.05 draft: name undecided, known in note as ‘BARMAID’

2. undoubtedly [added 19.02.05]
3. gathering [27.09.06]: ‘clouding’ [8.02.05]
4. ‘She could see that’ [deleted 22.08.06]; ‘She saw that with concern.’ [deleted
5. It was unlike anything she had seen in him before [9.03.06]; He was unlike anything
he had been before [9.01.05]
6. Confess the suffering. Admit the pain [22.08.06]; Admit the suffering. Confess the
pain [8.02.05]
7. some [added 22.08.06]
8. violence [9.03.06]: ‘slyness’ [9.01.05]; ‘even delinquency’ [deleted 19.02.05]


But as he spoke a swayboat of fracturing memories lunged9 through

his mind and he was infested again by the distress of adolescent years
imprisoned in panic,10 distraught11, and his consciousness12 drifted un-
controllably away from his body and took away the life of him.13 He
looked at Natasha, puzzled, holding on, breathing in shallow gasps,
mouth slackening: he looked at Natasha.14
‘I can see…’
‘No!’ Natasha held up her hand to Jessica and pushed it towards
her as if she were physically warding off a curse. ‘No!’ They held each
other’s look.
Suddenly Jessica relaxed. A sweet and gentle smile transformed her
face to innocence. She blew Natasha a kiss. ‘Come to my room,’ she said
to Alex. ‘Bring brandy.’
And with another blown kiss to Natasha and a triumphant look at
the downcast lolling head of Joe, she left them, quickly15 followed by a
greatly confused Alex bearing brandy.
The barman came across with a large glass of water. Natasha nodded
her thanks and indicated he should retreat. She waited for Joseph16 to
look up. She knew something now that she had not previously known
about him. She knew the fear that was all but suffocating him.17 When
he did look up, so helpless, so ashamed, she could have wept. This was
another Joseph, this was a different man, stripped bare.18

9. lunged through his mind [22.08.06]: ‘swung up into his mind’ [9.01.05]
10. imprisoned in panic [22.08.06]: ‘imprisoned in fear, overwhelmed by panic’
11. distraught [8.02.05]: ‘distraught in his mind’ [9.01.05]
12. ‘his soul, whatever it was’ [deleted 22.08.06]
13. and took away the life of him [8.02.05]: ‘and took with him all life and hovered
on the temptation of an abyss which if taken would have paralysed or destroyed
him.’ [9.01.05]
14. ‘pleading’ [deleted 22.08.06]
15. quickly [added 22.08.06]
16. Joseph [22.08.06]: Joe [9.01.05]
17. She knew something now that she had not previously known. She knew the fear that
was all but suffocating him [22.08.06]: ‘She sensed now what she had never known
about him and she knew also the shame which was all but suffocating him.’
[9.01.05]; ‘She knew something now that she had not precisely known about
him and she sensed also the pain that was all but suffocating him.’ [8.02.05]
18. This was another Joseph, this was a different man, stripped bare. [27.09.06]:
‘This was another Joseph, this was a different man, exposed in his homeland’
[19.02.05]; ‘So this was another Joseph, this was a new man, revealed in his
homeland’ [8.02.05]; ‘So this was Joe. This was another Joe, revealed in his
homeland’ [9.01.05]


A Son of War described Joe’s teenage breakdown, the scars of which are re-
vealed again here. But Natasha from their first meeting had always preferred to
call him ‘Joseph’.
The next devastatingly short passage finds Joe deep in trouble with the mar-
riage. It reaches a culmination one evening as he travels home from the BBC by
tube. It seems to mark the return of that earlier breakdown, now in a different

Chapter Six of Book Four (30.08.06): finally published as chapter 36

The first time it hit him with its full force was on Shepherd’s Bush
underground station. He had been to see friends at the BBC to discuss
the possibility of working on a new arts magazine programme. Lunch in
the bar had been noisy, beery, full of gossip with19 old pals, worlds away
from his solitudes.20 He envied what he might have been had he stayed
in the BBC and left the bar cheerful at the prospect that he might in
some way rejoin that communal21 part of his past.
Shepherd’s Bush Central Line station was all but deserted on the
autumn afternoon. He did not have long to wait for the train.
As he heard it come closer through the tunnel it was as if a massive
magnetic force began to pull him towards the edge of the platform,
drawing him towards the track, overwhelming his resistance,22 and
as the noise grew louder the strength of the23 pull grew and he found
himself swaying, helpless,24 about to be taken fatally25 forward by it and
then the train broke out of the tunnel and charged towards him. He
backed away, he had to push himself back, against nothing but air but it
took all his will, all his might26 to back away until he met the wall and
pressed himself against it as the train braked loudly to a stop. The doors
opened. He could not move. The doors closed. He waited until the train
had gone. Keeping close to the wall he found the exit and took the stairs.

19. gossip with [30.8.06]: ‘greetings from’ [24.07.05]

20. ‘away from the solitudes, the [specialist focus] and what Joe thought of as
the luxury of his present life.’ [deleted 2.08.05]
21. communal [added 30.08.06]
22. overwhelming his resistance [added 30.08.06]
23. the [30.08.06]: ‘that’ [24.07.05]
24. helpless [added 2.08.05]
25. fatally [added 30.08.06]
26. but it took all his will, all his might [2.08.05]: ‘as he strove with all his might’


The grey light of day made him blink. He would find a bus. He looked
around at the strange world which was the same as the world before he
had gone underground.27
That was how it began.28

As this final interwoven extract makes clear, Remember Me is written many

years after to Marcelle, the grown-up daughter of the failed marriage. At this point
Joe and Natasha, having moved to a new house to try to make a new start, find
they can no longer really talk to each other. Joe is drinking hard. Natasha is in-
creasingly insecure and depressed.

Chapter Nine of Book Four (28.10.06): finally published as chapter 39

‘We were so blind to each other at that crucial time,’ Joe wrote to their
daughter. ‘How in God’s name had we come to that pass?’
‘We squabble,’ she said, ‘like old people who have nothing to say to each
other but find some comfort in constant complaints.’
‘Sometimes silence is better proof of…’
‘Can’t you complete the sentence?’
Joseph raised his glass and took too big a sip, she thought.
‘When we moved here you said there would be people like us we
would meet and make friends with. Where are they?’ The shot of whisky
had restored the anaesthetic effect.
‘It takes time,’ he said. ‘You don’t just march up and say “be my
‘We could have a party.’
‘I hate parties. I hate people coming into our house.’
‘You used to love them. In Kew you loved them.’
‘It’s as if you licence people to break into your home. Just to roam
around and gawp. To spy everything that you are. It’s voyeurism! No!’
She uttered his name with such despair that he was compelled to
dismount from the alcohol-fuelled ride to stupor.

27. which was the same as the world before he had gone underground [30.8.06]: ‘which
was the same as before’ [24.07.05]
28. That was how it began [30.8.06]: ‘And that was the beginning of it.’ [24.07.05]
Cf ‘Thus the thing began’ in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (book 1
chapter 5).


She looked pale and there was about her a pain he did not want to
acknowledge29 because he had so much of his own and yet he knew he
ought to reach out to her. His name, her chosen version of his name,
was a cry he could not recognise, or would not, afraid perhaps that a full
knowledge of her suffering30 would crush him and so he flinched away,
turned tail like an animal evading danger. There was nothing he could
say and his name hung in the silence.
* * *
‘Your mother called my name and I made no answer,’ he wrote to Mar-
celle. ‘It would not be too much to say that my silence has run down the
years and has come back time and again as an accusation.’

This last extract is two hundred pages on from the first one. But the name
‘Joseph’ calls across them in memory amidst all the other cries and noises in
this novel. Remember Me (the cry of Dido to her deserted lover at her death
in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas) is full of such tiny echoes and quietly explosive
details. These are worked for throughout the drafts by unflinching changes such
as ‘sensed’ to ‘knew’, or ‘know’ to ‘acknowledge’ (footnotes 17, 29) or ‘resistance’
added only to be overwhelmed (footnote 22), and attempted certainties disturb-
ingly removed (footnotes 4, 5, 18, 27). It is a process described by Natasha herself
when she thinks of her own writing:

From chapter 37

What most fascinated her were the little flashes of light – illuminations
of memory or traces of insight, elusive, puzzling, each one a will-o’-
the-wisp; a sheaf of lavender, the black swans in full sail, her father
laughing with Isabel; but most of them so fleeting they did not even
bring an image with them, mere pulses between the stars she could
recognise, messages from the dark, infinitely small particles of energy
which she longed to grasp and felt that once known could complete the
puzzle of herself.

29. acknowledge [27.09.06]: ‘know’ [30.08.06]

30. ‘he could feel like hail in his face’ [deleted 27.09.06]

Phill Jupitus

phill Jupitus

He Loves You

My nerves jangled and heart strangled

As I made my way towards the man who sang
Hey Jude

Holding paper grasping pen

Going over lines again
As I approached the knight who gave us

He stood alone his Hofner bass in hand

Deserted by his makeshift mega band
Of Pirates, Purples and Pink Floyds
The boy from Penny Lane

As I drew near the mop-top smiled

Before him stood the little child
Who sang She Loves You with his mum
Yeah Yeah Yeah

My nerves increased Sir Paul at peace

Calmed me down with a friendly
‘I know you, you’re off the telly…’
And without thinking I replied
‘And I know you mate
You were in the fucking Beatles!’
It feels like Yesterday
No, No, No


Watching The Skatalites With John Hegley

The venue is located in a modern shopping centre

Approximate to a book shop
Which may be why they called it The Academy
Not a hallowed hall of learning
But a shallow gallery of drinking and dancing
As the deejay played Uptown Top Ranking
We were Upstairs not skanking

From the empty balcony

We looked down upon
The frail rock steady legends playing
Guns Of Navarone
Me and Mark and Mark and John

So we took ourselves downstairs

And in the crowd consumed by joy
We let the beat instruct our feet
And danced
As best we could
For four white boys
Which meant we swayed and shuffled
And nodded roughly in time

Hegley somehow felt it more

Throwing shapes
Upon the sticky floor
That we could but aspire to
Arms swirling legs akimbo
Lost in music

When the concert ended

And the gods of ska had bowed and gone
I realised for the last half hour
I’d just been watching John
Afterwards in quiet delight
Ears ringing hearts singing limbs aching
John and I sat in a gay pub
Grinning over brimming pints of cider
Blending in with the regulars
Like two trees in a pod
Not gay
Not built that way
But two men full of love


Einstein’s Pint

The scruffy genius sighs

Rolls his rheumy eyes
And stares into his pint of bitter
He lifts
Takes a sip and licks his lip
Then staring into the middle distance
Silently counts to ten
Then sighs again

Across the table

His friend idly bothers a gin and tonic
Looks into the weary wiry face
And asks
‘What’s the matter Albert?’

Einstein shrugs and shakes his head

Then finally says

‘You know my theory of relativity?’

‘Yes Albert.’
‘E equals M C squared?’
‘I know the one Albert.’
‘Twenty five I was…’
‘I know mate… remarkable…’

Einstein looks down and picks

Three tiny bobbles of wool
Off of his jumper
Drops them on a beer mat
Then looks up
Tears running down
The lined brilliant face
‘They got completely the wrong idea!’

‘Tell me about it!’

Says his drinking companion
Who by a complete coincidence
Was the man who invented love…


Carry On Crow

Driving home after work

Well, not driving but sitting
The driver drove
I idly pondered on my hate
For hollow shallow Russell
Not a rock star but he dresses like one
A half-life of smoke and mirrors
I began to fantasise smiling on his demise
Public failure then shame finally death
All incredibly slow…

We passed a shiny dead crow
On the hard shoulder
Head to one side
Wondering no more
Ebony blue wings folded
Pointlessly fluttering
Hopelessly beautiful
Sightless eyes that saw through me
A petty spiteful fool
My black heart
Unmasked by a crow’s demise

Then I thought
I bet that Russell ran it over…


rivers, boats, bridges and the sea

Morgan Meis

I f you want to talk about boats and bridges you have to talk about
rivers and if you want to talk about rivers you have to talk about
the sea. The sea is a big thing and throughout human history it has
often taken up the role as the ‘unformed’, as the limit of civilization.
The birth of what we currently consider Western civilization hap-
pened mostly around the borders of the Mediterranean, which was both
the sustenance for that civilization as well as a constant threat to it. You
never knew what was going to come of the sea. You never knew what
was going to come of its waters or across its expanses and you never
knew what was going to happen to you if you left the land. An ongoing
theme in ancient literature is that heading out to sea is necessary in
order to achieve something beyond the ordinary, and simultaneously a
fundamental act of hubris that will almost certainly be punished.
In one of Western civilization’s Ur-texts, Hesiod’s Works and Days,
Hesiod denounces his ‘foolish’ brother Perses for his desire to buck the
natural order of things and to seek his fortune in seafaring. Still, Hesiod
can’t help mentioning that he once took to the waters in order to reach
Chalcis where he took a prize in poetic competition. If you want glory,
or riches, or simply one fate rather than another, you’re going to have to
brave the sea. Hesiod knew that well enough, he was just of two minds
about it and he wasn’t above lecturing his little brother.
Everyone knows that rivers and streams do the flowing that they
do in order, eventually, to get to the sea. They are little parts of the sea,
incursions into the kingdom of land that provide both the nourishment
of water and the inherent danger of the formless sea. Rivers rage, they


separate chunks of land and they are the right arm of flood, the primary
surrogate by which the sea takes its revenge on the dry land. When that
happens, men get knocked about even without having dared the sea.
Sometimes it seems as if mankind is simply a pawn in the games being
played between the sea, the land, and the sky. I suppose myth spins
itself out from the possibilities of that basic thought.
Within this grand schema, mankind’s contribution has rarely risen
beyond the pathetic. In the face of the greatness of the sea, we have
offered the boat. Storm tossed in the meanest gale or forlorn on the
placid expanse of a wine-dark infinity, the boat has never exactly in-
spired confidence. From Hesiod to the Titanic it is the symbol of a barely
concealed anxiety. Our deepest anxiety, because it is existential. Will we
make it at all? Civilization has often been compared to a ship and the
fear encapsulated in that thought is that our fate as a people and a civi-
lization is just as uncertain as any boat’s.
The land’s answer to the boat is the bridge. It is the opposite solu-
tion to the boat in that the river below moves, the bridge stays still. But
the basic relationship is similar. The bridge does its modest job to tame

the absolute divisions offered up by the river. It leaps over the expanse
of water in a moment both of daring and of fragility. It is so small in
contrast to what it challenges. But bridges also do something big in
their littleness. They stake a claim against the sea and the river. They eke
out an arrangement between bits of land on mankind’s terms. Bridges


tend to get built when a series of smaller human settlements are being
stitched together into a more sustained and sustainable community.
Enfolded in every bridge is a dream of the city, the metropolis.
Hart Crane was obsessed with bridges, I think, for exactly that
reason. He knew that bridges were the site of our terrestrial triumphs,
modest though they be. His poem, The Bridge, with its homage to the
Brooklyn Bridge, has often been remarked upon for its modernity. Here
is a man writing poetic odes to human triumphs in industry and tech-
nology. Here is a man brave enough to attach his poetic gift to something
beyond the mute sublimity of nature. Crane wrote beautifully of the
bridge and of the urban landscape of cinemas and subways and traffic
lights that struck him as being as worthy of versification as any verdant
hill or shimmering dale.
Performances, assortments, resumes—
Up Times Square to Columbus Circle lights
Channel the congresses, nightly sessions,
Refractions of the thousand theaters, faces—
Mysterious kitchens… You shall search them all.

Crane saw the city in the bridge and vice versa. But it ought to be
noted also that Crane was excited about bridge things because he was
also excited about sea things. The last stanza of the proem to The Bridge
goes backward across the exact territory we’ve just covered. Crane goes
from the bridge to the river to the sea. Always the sea. He writes of the
O sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

For all its city-centrism, Crane’s poetry is thick with sea talk and water
references. His mind had a persistent tendency to slide back to the sea.
In the end, he did too. On April 27th, 1932, on a ship called the Orizaba
sailing from Mexico to New York, Crane made his way to the railing,
slipped off his robe, and went over. That was that. Back to the sea.
Forget the Brooklyn Bridge, forget all the bridges. In the end he wanted
to be subsumed in the fathomless waste of the sea.
And that’s what is so disturbing about bridges. They are our solution
of sorts, our own hard work against the tyranny of the sea. At the same
time, they don’t solve anything. Melville’s got the same damn problem.
The first chapters of Moby-Dick are as wondrous a description of human
things as you’re going to find. There are rapturous words. Words of the


city, of the streets, of the milling mix and the crowd. But in Melville’s
eyes the entire city of New York is water-directed, straining toward the
ocean in spite of itself. Of its denizens he says, ‘Nothing will content
them but the extremest limit of the land; loitering under the shady lee
of yonder warehouses will not suffice. No. They must get just as nigh
the water as they possibly can without falling in.’
Melville throws it all away. He can’t bear it somehow. The city is
too solid, the world is too solid, the bridge is too fixed. He heads for
the whaling harbors and the ships of the open sea. He goes back out
from something toward nothing. He explains, ‘And still deeper the
meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp
the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and
was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and
oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is
the key to it all.’ Narcissus, Melville, Crane: the city achieved and then
denied for the inchoate doom of the ocean’s depths.
Auden thought he had hold of this problem and laid it out in a series
of lectures he gave in 1949 published later as The Enchafèd Flood. He
The sea, in fact, is that state of barbaric vengeance and dis-
order out of which civilization has emerged and into which,
unless saved by the efforts of gods and men, it is always liable
to relapse. It is so little of a friendly symbol that the first thing
which the author of the Book of Revelation notices in his
vision of the new heaven and earth at the end of time is that
‘there was no more sea’.

But we are drawn to that same disorder and barbaric vengeance, Auden
thinks, when we are confronted by the reciprocally stifling order and
lawfulness of civilization. The revenge of the sea works itself out as a
trick by means of the bridge. The bridge tames the river, but in doing so
tames us. Although the sea is the end of life, its limit, the great over-
arching threat to life, it is also its beginning, its primordial source. The
bridge lifts us up from the slime, but then away from what matters.
We go back to the sea as going back to the source. Speaking explicitly
of Melville’s Ishmael, Auden writes, ‘The only outside “necessities” are
the random winds of fashion or the lifeless chains of a meaningless job,
which, so long as he remains an individual, he can and will reject. … So
he must take drastic measures and go down to the waters.…’
So reasons Auden. And he’s not wrong in reasoning so. Still, I wonder
if that opposition is too simple. If Crane and Melville (and others like
them) finally reject the city, they do so in the mood of the lover more
than that of the adversary. More importantly, the fascination with the


bridge and the boat isn’t really an opting either for civilization or its
other. Melville may feel the yearning for the sea, but the real story of
Moby-Dick is the story of the Pequod, that city-in-miniature within which
the crew makes its world. The love of bridges is the love of suspension.
You’re nowhere in particular when you’re on a bridge. You’re above the
rushing water below, held by a tenuous arm-length extension of the city
that has thrown its thin span over the void.
There is a terse and beautiful novel by Thornton Wilder called The
Bridge of San Luis Rey. It purports to tell the story of an odd book written
by Brother Juniper in Peru at the beginning of the eighteenth century.
Brother Juniper has witnessed the collapse of a woven bridge between
Lima and Cuzco that threw five individuals to their deaths. The Brother
decides to investigate the lives of these five individuals in order to tease
out a divine will that, in the manner of Leibniz’s ‘best of all possible
worlds,’ would choose to take these five people at this particular time. His
book becomes, instead, a testament to the impenetrability of any cosmic
plan and the Brother and the book are burned in the town square years
later. The final words of the novel are the following. ‘There is a land of
the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only sur-
vival, the only meaning.’ Picking apart the sentence for a moment we
come up with an intriguing thesis. The land of the living means nothing
in and of itself. The land of the dead means nothing in and of itself. ‘The
only survival,’ ‘the only meaning,’ is in that spot where they touch one
another. That’s the meaning-generating spot and it’s where the artist
instinctively wants to be. It is the nexus point between the world as it
has been given to us and the world as something we are shaping of our
own volition. It’s the shaky place where bridges and boats are. It’s the
place where you have a glimmer of a chance of glimpsing ‘the unfath-
omable phantom of life.’
Some (Narcissus, Crane, Ahab) cannot hold the line very long. They
succumb to the abyss on the other side. But the point is to hold fast on
the bridge or the boat for as long as you can. Or maybe there isn’t any
point. It is just that certain kinds of minds will always be bridge and
boat minds. Some people will get as close to rivers and the sea as they
can. They will seek the edges where two things meet, with the idea that
a kind of truth is there. But there is no escape, no transcendence. The
truth to be found is only a small one, a quickening of the pulse when
we reach the very center of the bridge or that place on the ocean where
there is no land yet to be seen from either shore.

Tessa Hadley

crying at novels

Tessa Hadley

I hesitate to put a name to exactly what kind of writer Inga Clend-

innen is, but perhaps ethnographic historian will do. Her subjects are
very various: she has written about sixteenth-century Mexico, Nazi
Germany, and also Tiger’s Eye, a narrative of her serious illness and
her experiences in Australian hospitals in the 1990s. Across all this
range there is a common enquiry. Examining in the minutest detail the
rituals surrounding Aztec warrior training and blood sacrifice, or a mas-
sacre of Jewish villagers in Poland by an inexperienced German police
battalion, or the ‘chemistry’ inside the makeshift community of a hospi-
tal ward, she asks: ‘What did it mean, that people lived like this? What
did they think they were doing? How did they understand themselves?’
In Clendinnen’s own words, events such as these are ‘morally and in-
tellectually baffling … “unthinkable”’. Nonetheless, her purpose in all
three books is to try and find a vocabulary and kinds of analysis to bring
them inside the boundaries of the imaginable.
Discussing representations of the Holocaust in art, Clendinnen
offers what is for her a fundamental distinction between the uses of
history and fiction:
Each establishes quite different relationships between writer
and subject, and writer and reader. Had I discovered the
nature of Humbert Humbert’s secret joys in real life, I would
have had him locked up. I may have tried to ‘understand’ him,


but only after I had destroyed his happiness. Snug between

the covers of the fiction called Lolita I can revel in his eely es-
capades, his delirious deceptions; weep with him when his
child slave escapes; yearn with him for her recapture. Through
giving me access to the inner thoughts and secret actions of
closed others, fiction has taught me most of what I know, or
think I know, about life.
The fictional world, however, contains a curious absence.
The reason for its exhilarating freedom is that it is a kind of
game, a circumscribed place of play. Once inside I have no re-
sponsibility beyond my responsibility to respond to the text. I
may tremble for its people, I may weep for them – but I want
to relish their anguish, not heal it. I do not want Anna rec-
onciled with Karenin and living to plump and comfortable
grandmotherhood. I want her dead under that train. I want
Emma Bovary to dream her dreams, to act them out, increas-
ingly shabbily, and then to drink prussic acid and die in agony. I
have no human responsibility towards these people. Although
they may be more intimately known than my most intimate
actual others, although they may often seem very much more
‘real’, in the end my compassion is a fiction too, because I
know they are fictions.
Contrast this with what happens when I read a story which
claims to be true. I will know very much less about the protag-
onists. There is no creator to strip away their veils, so they will
be somewhat opaque to me. Nonetheless I engage with them
differently because I stand in a moral relationship with these
people, because they are my fellow-humans, whose blood is
real and whose deaths are final and cannot be cancelled by
turning back a page.
That distinction between the responsibility of history and the irrespon-
sibility of fiction isn’t one Clendinnen means to apply only under the
special circumstances of writing about the Holocaust. She talks of it
again in Tiger’s Eye, where she describes how she began to write stories,
and to record her experiences in hospital and also memories from her
past, to help cope with what she was going through, diagnosed with
acute liver disease, dealing with distressing symptoms and coming close
to death. These fragments eventually went to make up Tiger’s Eye – a
composite of a hospital memoir, an autobiography, and a musing re-
flection on writing and life, including some fictional short stories. She
reports that writing the short stories was wonderfully effective therapy.
This passage comes just after a powerful account of her overhearing a
woman die on a hospital trolley in the middle of the night:


Now for the first time I felt the desire to write fiction.
I wanted to feel I could change this inexorable place, these
lonely, shapeless deaths, even in imagination: fiction as defi-
ance of exigency. I also wanted to memorialise the woman on
the trolley – to make her a story about a more fortunate mortal
who was able to choose his death in a place a world away from
Being able to make a story from nothing instead of concoct-
ing it out of elusive memories made me happy. It also relieved
my fear of being trapped ‘inside’. My labelled body might be
lying on my labelled bed, but my mind could be anywhere,
keeping whatever company I chose.
I also discovered that fiction can make its own claims to
truth; that I believed in fabricated Noah more completely than
I believed in my account of myself as a girl. Fiction began to
offer a balm for the obstinate opacities, the jagged inadequa-
cies of memory.
I wrote more stories. I discovered what surprising company
the people who grow from the tip of your pen can be, and how
pleasurable it is to map the small, curiously complete, arti-
ficial worlds in which they live – worlds where madness and
death, even murder, is a fiction.
We could not want Clendinnen account of her time in hospital to be any
different, including her account of her experiences of writing fiction.
Tiger’s Eye is intriguing, illuminating; it reads like the truth of an expe-
rience, many experiences. It has the open-endedness – the dialogism
– that makes it possible for a reader roused by the power of the writing
to argue with some of what the writing asserts without refusing the
whole work. And I want to argue with this subordinate role she assigns
to fiction (‘balm’) beside history, or ‘reality’.
She is wrong, I am sure, in her account of what fiction is and does.
What fiction does, can do, should do, is much more like the passage that
precedes the story, where the woman dies on the hospital trolley. The
‘story’ itself, about an Australian surfer choosing to die out in the water,
is rather glib and factitious; all the ‘stories’ in the book, the self-con-
scious short fictions, fail. They fail in exactly the ways one might expect
of a fiction writer who thinks that writing has nothing to do with ‘the
obstinate opacities, the jagged inadequacies of memory’; who thinks
fiction is shaped ‘in defiance of exigency’, to change ‘inexorable’ things;
and that its worlds are ‘small’ and ‘curiously complete’.
In Madame Bovary Flaubert also expresses some anxieties about the
irresponsibility of novels which are relevant to this argument. Emma
Bovary’s unfulfillable desires and her delusions are explicitly related


to the romantic novels that she reads, in a Girardian modelling inter-

estingly close to the way advertising works. She wants fine dresses,
excitements, a lover, because the women in the novels she reads have
them, and she wants what they want in a spiralling mimetic rivalry.
Flaubert doesn’t finally show whether the novels create her restless-
ness, or engage with an unappeased need that is ‘really’ already there.
After the consummation of her relationship with Rodolphe in the woods
her satisfactions are complex in their reflexivity. ‘I have a lover, I have a
lover,’ she repeats over and over, looking at herself in the mirror, as if the

“What we stubbornly can’t help thinking of as the real”

satisfactions can’t become real until she sees herself, or ‘reads herself’,
having them. What would have happened if Emma Bovary had been
able to read Madame Bovary, her own novel? Would that have broken the
Girardian cycle of deluded imitation? Or would it simply have deepened
the sophistication with which she ‘read herself’, through new layers of
On Anna Karenina’s train journey from Moscow to St Petersburg,
before her fateful encounter with Vronsky in the snowstorm, she is
reading an English novel, cutting the pages with her paperknife as she
goes. The experience of reading the novel agitates her in a specific way
reminiscent of Emma: Anna finds herself wanting to be inside the scenes
of the novel, wanting to be faced with the dilemmas of the heroine, ex-
perimenting with the idea that her life might be another life than the
one it is. It is a dangerous moment for Vronsky to find her out (and
of course she is reading like this in order to be found out, to prepare
herself for the encounter she is expecting, even if she doesn’t know
she is). Again, we feel a complex interaction between Anna’s ‘real’ un-
appeased needs and the ones which her novel makes her imagine she
might have (though the balance between those does not feel the same
as in Madame Bovary). Tolstoy is suggesting in embryo some of the prob-
lems which he will develop in the late eccentric writings rejecting the
illusionism of European ‘high’ art. Like Flaubert he seems concerned
that the characteristic culture of his era, and novel-reading in particu-
lar, has a tendency to produce a false excess of sensibility, of mimetic
dreaming and wanting, which has nowhere to go in the ‘real’ world,
and whose energies have to spin ‘outside’ instead, into an intensified
sexual passion that can’t actually, in either case, sustain the weight of
the want or the sheer extravagance of the dreaming.
Flaubert and Tolstoy seem to share Clendinnen’s suspicions of fiction
and its functions. And there are, certainly, characteristics of the novel
form which give grounds for such suspicions. The novel form grows out


of a European culture which is literate, sophisticated, increasingly prone

to cultivating the sensations of subjectivity, and preoccupied with the
details of the private life. It’s a complex interaction in which the habit of
novel reading promotes, develops, even brings into existence the ways
of being which novels describe. J. Paul Hunter in his book Before Novels,
on the ‘cultural contexts of eighteenth-century English fiction’, discuss-
es the kinds of readers and expectations that the emergent novel form
depended upon, and he notes among the characteristics of the form
its emphasis upon ‘individualism and subjectivity’ as well as ‘empathy
and vicariousness’. ‘The subjectivity of the novel,’ Hunter writes, ‘in-
volves not just a raised status for the individual self but an intensified
consciousness, individual by individual, of what selfhood means’; and
also, ‘novels typically give readers a sense of what it would be like to be
someone else ... readers of novels regularly report that they “identify”
or “empathise” with the heroes and heroines of novels’. Novels give
readers at one and the same time an intensified awareness of being
themselves and, inseparable from that, an awareness that they might be
someone else, of what it might feel like to be someone else.
Is it possible that those experiences, the self-knowing and the other-
knowing, might actually diminish and threaten some pre-existing more
‘authentic’ self, undreamed and unimagined and simply lived? For Flau-
bert, the authentic self-unknowing is the semi-oblivious old woman at
the country fair in Bovary receiving her medal for long service, or the
devoted servant in ‘Un Coeur Simple’. He recoils from their brute una-
wareness even as it fascinates him by resisting his sophisticated ironies.
For Tolstoy, more enamoured, the self-unknowing peasants can teach the
agonised aristocrat, incapacitated by reflexive doubt, how he might live.
Novel-reading alone cannot be held responsible for the diminish-
ment of authentic selves, of course. But the modes of awareness and
imagining that it entails are entangled deeply in the cultural projects
that the novelists are both part of and suspicious of (the bourgeois-
liberal ethos for Flaubert, Western enlightenment for Tolstoy), which
they fear promote inauthenticity even as they make their art possible.
The novel form is so good at illusionism. In its relative shapelessness
and appearance of ‘naturalness’; in its fullness, its sheer extension over
so many pages and so much story; in its contemporaneity; in its room
for so much change and even for forgetfulness of itself; in its space for
such a bulk of substantiating detail; even in its inevitable longueurs and
its redundancies, reading a novel bears a significant mimetic relation-
ship to the experience of living itself. We inhabit these days a culture
so habituated to that fictional illusionism that we have to make very
deliberate artistic efforts to undermine it if we don’t want it. For a
whole complex of reasons, there has never been, despite Joyce, despite


modernism, despite so many learned pronouncements of the death of

narrative, a comparable revolution in novel-writing to the one that ob-
tained in the visual arts against making pictures ‘look like life’. J. M.
Coetzee describes postmodern novelists as ‘children shut in the play-
room, the room of textual play, looking out wistfully through the bars at
the enticing world of the grownups, one that we have been instructed to
think of as the mere phantasmal world of realism but that we stubbornly
can’t help thinking of as the real.‘
The novel thrives on its ‘lifelikeness’ (despite the even superior il-
lusion-making powers of film and television). Every time we open up
a novel to begin, we negotiate over again as we cross its threshold our
consent to its pretences, our willingness to believe. ‘Frances is loitering
by a second-floor window of the High School in Hanratty, on an after-
noon in early December. It is 1943.’ Or: ‘A bird cried out on the roof, and
he woke up. It was the middle of the afternoon, in the heat, in Africa; he
knew at once where he was.’ Or, for that matter: ‘Stately, plump Buck
Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a
mirror and a razor lay crossed’.
Clendinnen’s argument is that as we cross that threshold into fiction,
we leave behind not only our disbelief but also our responsibility. ‘The
reason for its exhilarating freedom is that it is a kind of game, a circum-
scribed place of play. Once inside I have no responsibility beyond my
responsibility to respond to the text… I have no human responsibility
towards these people.’ She is right in as far as we do indeed ‘want’ Anna
Karenina to end up under the train and Emma Bovary to swallow the
arsenic: a different responsibility obtains, obviously, than towards real
suicidal women in real life. This argument about fictional irresponsibil-
ity seems to me connected to the argument about ‘inauthenticity’. Both
are concerned with the dangers of confusion between ‘real’ life and ‘im-
agined’ life. Clendinnen’s implication is that while the fictional play is
delicious, it is for moral children (or adults in their ‘time-off’) who must
at some point grow up and read the ‘real’ things – history, ethnography –
which do engage the reader’s responsibility outside the text. Just so, late
in his life Tolstoy forswore the seductions of illusionism and its danger-
ous play for the more ‘authentic’ narratives of an oral folk culture, whose
forms were traditional and non-realist and whose purposes were una-
shamedly didactic. In those last years, however, alongside the folktales
and the translations of the Gospels, he couldn’t help himself writing Res-
urrection and ‘Hadji Murat’ and all those other late writings, where the old
magic of the great ‘illusion-maker’ can so bind us in its spell of ‘seeming
real’ that we find ourselves half-persuaded while we are reading of the
most disconcerting and improbable things, such as that sexuality is in
itself an evil (‘The Kreuzer Sonata’), or that we would be happier if we


lived like peasants without the freedoms and the material wealth of the
privileged (‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’), or that the very forms of Euro-
pean civilisation which brought forth this possibility of illusionism that
enchants us are also destroying our authentic selves (‘Hadji Murat’).
It is this last point that seems to me best to answer Clendinnen’s
difficulty with the ‘curiously complete, artificial worlds’ of the novel,
the ‘circumscribed place of play’. That novels are artificial is a tautol-
ogy; but they are not complete, and of all art forms they are perhaps the
least circumscribed. Novelists are, as we have seen, able to argue about
the dangers of novel-reading inside novels. Just as the novel imitates
life so effectively, with its air of casual improvisation and the apparent
contingency of its discoveries, so it is especially and generically capable
of whatever openness to doubt is intrinsic to the life it represents. When
writer Alice Munro, for example, builds into her narrative style her habit
of worrying whether as a writer she has the authority to describe what
she wants to describe (‘And they may get it wrong, after all. I may have
got it wrong’), she is making explicit that in-built self-questioning re-
flexivity which is a crucial aspect of the novel’s ‘lifelikeness’.
When novelists sit down to write – to invent, to choose what will
happen and whether their characters will be happy and how they will
die – they do not delude themselves that they are responsible in the
way they would be responsible for ‘real people’ in their care. They may
well, nonetheless, feel themselves answerable to something beyond
the words: and to the very difficulties in fact that Clendinnen wants to
leave out when she starts to ‘make up stories’. Writing in hospital, she
wants to ‘change’ an ‘inexorable place’ and transform ‘lonely, shapeless
deaths’; she wants to use ‘fiction as defiance of exigency’, ‘a balm for
the obstinate opacities, the jagged inadequacies of memory.’ But good
writing, writing that aspires to represent what is real, will not want to
write in spite of those things: it will want to write, as she indeed wants
to write in all the other parts of her book, about them.


matt simpson

Three Chocolate Soldiers

Wondering what hell’s in store for them back in France,

they pose for this, a just-in-case gawky photograph,
in sepia like their battledress,

tell the fuss-pot photographer to write

in his best hand the words Three Chocolate Soldiers
in ornate scrawl across their upper abdomens,
where the image is deliberately faded out.

Here, fixed in time, stand three old pals – each one

a giddy nineteen – who, an hour before, had shuffled,
blinking, grinning, out of a smoke-filled flea-pit,

from a fluttery silent operetta, and joked ‘That’s us!

The Chocolate Soldiers! Chocolate ammo gets the girl!’

They’re melting upwards, consumed by thick white smoke,

confronting us, as if till doomsday cheeking it out.

Note: a silent film of Oscar Straus’s operetta The Chocolate Soldier, based on Shaw’s
Arms and the Man, was made in 1915

reading lives

books to make us better

Blake Morrison

I n a community centre in Birkenhead, a group of readers – nine

women and two men – are looking at Act 1 scene 2 of The Winter’s
Tale, in which Leontes and his wife Hermione urge their guest, Po-
lixenes, not to rush off back to Bohemia. They’re finding some of
Shakespeare’s language difficult to grasp. What’s meant by ‘He’s
beat from his best ward’? Or ‘We’ll thwack him hence with distaffs’?
But thanks to the promptings of the group leader, Jane Davis, head of
the Reader Organisation at the University of Liverpool, complex mean-
ings are slowly unlocked, and discussion ranges widely over the various
issues the passage raises: jealous men, flirtatious women, royal decorum,
and what to do with guests who outstay their welcome.
The rise of book groups is one of the most heartening phenomena
of our time, but this group is an unusual one, including as it does Val
and Chris from a homeless hostel, Martin who suffers from agorapho-
bia and panic attacks and hasn’t worked for 15 years, Brenda who’s
bipolar, Jean who’s recovering from the death of her husband, and Jan
who has Asperger’s. Some of the group are avid readers but for Chris,
for example, it’s his first experience of Shakespeare since school, and
though the scene leaves him wanting to know what will happen next
he’s also baffled. ‘It’s like music you’ve not heard before,’ others reas-
sure him, ‘it’ll get easier.’ They know what they’re talking about, having
read The Tempest last year and then gone to a production at the Royal
Exchange in Manchester. For Carol it was a life-changing moment: ‘We
came out at the interval and stood at the bar discussing the characters,
and I thought: My God, here I am, me, in the bar of a theatre, discuss-
ing Shakespeare – maybe I’m not so thick after all.’

Blake Morrison
by Mark Gerson
reading lives

Under the umbrella of Jane Davis’s Get into Reading scheme, there
are now around 50 groups like this across Merseyside: groups in care
homes, day centres, neurological rehab units, acute psychiatric wards,
cottage hospitals, sheltered accommodation and libraries; groups for
people with learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s, mental health problems;
groups for prisoners, excluded teenagers, looked-after children, recov-
ering drug-addicts, nurses and carers; groups up to a maximum of ten
people, since any more and there’s no real intimacy. The educational
background of the participants varies widely but there’s no dumbing
down in the choice of texts – The Mayor of Casterbridge, Uncle Tom’s Cabin,
Rebecca, Great Expectations, Adam Bede, Sherlock Holmes, Jane Eyre, Of Mice
and Men, Kes, even (phew) Robert Pirsig’s The Art of Motorcycle Mainte-
nance among them. In most groups a complete book will be read aloud,
cover to cover, at weekly sessions, which for a group spending an hour a
week on a Dickens novel can mean six months devoted to a single book.
Nobody is pressured to read aloud, but if and when they do the boost to
their confidence can be striking.
The word ‘confidence’ is one that kept coming up when I talked to
group members: ‘Books make you think about big issues, and prepare
you to face them, and that helps your confidence’ was a typical comment.
But for Jane Davis and her fellow project manager Kate McDonnell,
reading groups aren’t just about helping people feel less isolated or
building their self-esteem. Nor are they merely a pretext, in an area of
high unemployment, for giving people the experience of working to-
gether as a unit. More ambitiously, they’re an experiment in healing, or,
to put it less grandiosely, an attempt to see whether reading can alleviate
pain, stress or mental health problems. For Kate, who has suffered from
severe rheumatoid arthritis for 30 years, the answer is clear: ‘Reading
pushes the pain away into a place where it no longer seems important.
No matter how ill you are, there’s a world inside books which you can
enter and explore, and where you focus on something other than your
own problems. You get to talk about things that people usually skate
over, like ageing or death, and that kind of conversation – with everyone
chipping in, so you feel part of something – can be enormously helpful.’
Others say the same: ‘I’ve stopped seeing the doctor since I came here
and cut down on my medication’; ‘Being in a group with other women
who have what I had, breast cancer, didn’t help me, but talking about
books has made a huge difference’; ‘The group mends holes in the net
you would otherwise fall through’.
Medical staff involved in the scheme (doctors, nurses, occupational
therapists, speech therapists) tell stories of the remarkable successes
they’ve seen: the neurological patient who sat in a group saying nothing
for months, then after a reading of a George Herbert poem launched
into a 10-minute monologue at the end of which he announced ‘I feel

reading lives

great’; the brain-damaged young man whose vocabulary significantly

increased after he joined a book group; the husband caring for his disa-
bled wife whose exposure to poetry has proved not just a respite but a
liberation. To outsiders, the outcomes might seem small, but to the staff
and patients concerned they’re huge breakthroughs.
If it were merely a matter of being in a group, crochet or bridge
might serve equally well. But as Judith Mawer of the Merseycare Health
Trust explained, focusing on a book is the decisive factor: ‘People who
don’t respond to conventional therapy, or don’t have access to it, can
externalise their feelings by engaging with a fictional character. And
dementia patients can be soothed by the rhythms of poetry, which gen-
erate alpha waves in the brain and create a restful state. Healthcare
is about treating the whole person, and there are things you find out
about people through literature which you wouldn’t in any other way.’
‘One sheds one’s sicknesses in books,’ D. H. Lawrence once wrote,
and the people I met on Merseyside agree with him that books – good
books, anyway – are a form of therapy. ‘Prose not Prozac’ is the prescrip-
tion. Literature not lithium. A talking cure in the presence of Keats,
Dickens or Shakespeare rather than a psychiatrist.
Bibliotherapy, as it’s called, is a fast-growing profession. A recent survey
suggests that ‘over half of English library authorities are operating some
form of bibliotherapy intervention, based on the books-on-prescription
model’. That’s to say, an increasing number of people are being referred
by their GPs to the local library, where they’ll find shelves or sections
or ‘reading pharmacies’ set aside for literature deemed relevant to their
condition. Lapidus, an organisation established in 1996 ‘to promote the
use of literary arts in personal development’, has played a key role in
bringing together writers and health professionals; as has the current
chair of the Poetry Society, the poet Fiona Sampson.
Bibliotherapy might be a brave new word but the idea that books can
make us better has been around for a very long time. Matthew Arnold
and Dr Leavis temporarily hi-jacked it when they argued that great lit-
erature – ‘the best that has been thought and said in all the world’ – can
make us morally better, by kindling ‘our own best self’. That idea dis-
appeared with the Holocaust, when immensely civilised and well-read
men, brought up on Schiller and Goethe, proved capable of the most
barbarous acts. But the idea that books can make us emotionally, psycho-
logically and even physically better goes back to the ancient world.
Plato said that the Muses gave us the arts not for ‘mindless pleasure’
but ‘as an aid to bringing our soul-circuit, when it has got out of tune,
into order and harmony with itself’. It’s no coincidence that Apollo is
the god of both poetry and healing; nor that hospitals or health sanctu-

reading lives

aries in ancient Greece were invariably situated next to theatres, most

famously at Epidaurus, where dramatic performances were considered
part of the cure. When Odysseus is wounded by a boar in the Odyssey,
his companions use incantations to stop the bleeding. And the Bible
has the story of David calming Saul: ‘And it came to pass, when the evil
spirit from God was upon Saul, David took a harp, and played with his
hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed
from him’ (1 Samuel, 16, verse 23).
By the Renaissance, the idea that poetry and song could ‘banish
vexations of soul and body’ was well-entrenched – to the point where
George Puttenham argued, in The Art of English Poesie, that the poet must
‘play also the physician and not only by applying a medicine to the or-
dinary sickness of mankind, but by making the very grief itself (in part)
cure of the disease’. What Puttenham meant was that the writer should
use ‘one dolour to expel another’, the sad cadence in a line of poetry
allaying the burden of pain or depression in the reader, ‘one short sor-
rowing a remedy of a long and grievous sorrow’.
The image has a hint of homeopathy about it – like curing like – and
just as homeopathy is regarded with suspicion in conventional med-
icine, so bibliotherapy is bound to strike sceptics as a form of quack
medicine. But considerable research has been carried out over the past
20 years which seeks to demonstrate the healing capacity of the arts in
general and literature in particular. A study in Alabama demonstrated
how depressives treated via bibliotherapy have less chance of relapse
than those given medication. An experiment with human cell cultures
at Ohio University claimed to show that music was capable of retarding
the growth of cancer cells, at least in vitro. At King’s College, London,
Gillie Bolton has explored the use of writing with a range of palliative
care patients and teenager cancer sufferers. Other studies have explored
the links between involvement in the arts and longevity; between ‘ver-
bally revealing it all’ and fighting off infections; between the generally
calming effect of books – relatively few of which are so bad that we
want to hurl them across the room and/or go out and murder the author
– and lower levels of cardiovascular disease. An Arts Council report of
2004 cited 385 references from medical research on the positive effect of
the arts and humanities in healthcare, among them ‘inducing positive
physiological and psychological changes in clinical outcomes, reducing
drug consumption, shortening length of stay in hospital… and develop-
ing health practitioners’ empathy’.
Of course, the scientific evidence is far from conclusive; indeed the
author and Professor of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Man-
chester, Raymond Tallis, dismisses most of it as ‘equivocal findings in
fourth-rank journals’, adding: ‘I have been a medic too long to be easily
persuaded of the wider role of literature in healing. No-one sends out

reading lives

for a poet when they are seriously ill.’ In fact in earlier times, people did,
more or less: ‘Throughout Spain,’ the physician Rodericus a Castro wrote
in 1614, ‘whenever anyone falls seriously ill, it is usual to summon mu-
sicians.’ Still, Tallis is surely right to say that given the choice between
a pain-relieving drug and a terrific poem about bone metastases, few
of us would choose the poem. However, even he concedes that ‘my last
boss before I became a consultant was hugely helped in his last weeks by
reading War and Peace, when he was attached to a diamorphine pump.’
Moreover, Tallis acknowledges that reading might be therapeutic in a
variety of ways, not least in easing depression: ‘the pleasure of escape into
a parallel world; the sense of control one has as a reader; and the ability
to distance one’s self from one’s own circumstances by seeing them from
without, suffered by someone else and gathered up into a nicely worked
out plot – somewhere around here is the notion, also, of the Aristotelian
purgation and Sartre’s idea of “the purifying reflection”.’
Perhaps the most convincing argument for the effectiveness of bib-
liotherapy comes from writers themselves. There’s the case of George
Eliot, for example, who recovered from the grief of losing her husband
George Henry Lewes by reading Dante with a young friend, John Cross,
who subsequently married her. ‘Her sympathetic delight in stimulating
my newly awakened enthusiasm for Dante did something to distract her
mind from sorrowful memories,’ Cross later wrote. ‘The divine poet took
us to a new world. It was a renovation of life.’ John Stuart Mill enjoyed
a similar renovation after the ‘crisis in my mental history’ which he de-
scribes in his Autobiography, a crisis that began in the autumn of 1826

D. H. Lawrence:
“One sheds one’s sicknesses in books.”
when ‘the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down
[and] I seemed to have nothing left to live for.’ A sense of ‘dry heavy de-
jection’ persisted through ‘the melancholy winter’. Then one day ‘a small
ray of light broke in upon my gloom. I was reading, accidentally, Mar-
montel’s Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s
death… A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me,
and I was moved to tears. From this moment my being grew lighter. The
oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me was gone.
I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone.’
What cured Mill was an account of death; what eased Eliot’s
mourning of her husband was a journey through Dante’s Inferno. If
books are to be therapeutic, it seems, it’s because they take us to dark
places rather than bright ones. As Thomas Hardy recognised, ‘If way to
the better there be it exacts a full look at the worst.’ Hence Jane Davis’s
preference for classic texts which address existential concerns, not

reading lives

anodyne pep-ups. Medical staff attached to her scheme have occasion-

ally worried that such and such a poem or passage might ‘make things
worse’. But what does ‘worse’ mean when you’re talking about people
on a psychiatric ward? One elderly patient burst into tears during a
reading Burns’s ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ – but insisted on staying
there, through the tears, and professed herself ‘much better for it’ af-
Hardy’s famous quote comes from a sequence of three poems, ‘In
Tenebris’, which he wrote in 1896–97, when his spirits were brought
low by the excessive optimism of his peers. To Hardy, hell was other
people being cheery – ‘the blot seems straightway in me alone… / one
born out of due time, who has no calling here’. And yet he derives con-
solation from the very pessimism or ‘unhope’ that weighs him down:
Wintertime nighs;
But my bereavement-pain
It cannot bring again:
Twice no one dies.

Each of Hardy’s ‘In Tenebris’ poems has an epigraph from the Psalms.
And far from being a simple glorification of God, the Psalms are often
engulfed by despair: ‘my heart is smitten, and withered like grass’;
‘attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low’. Yet reading the Psalms
or Hardy or Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘terrible sonnets’ can be cathartic.
By attending to the cry of another, we articulate our own cries, frame
them, contain them, and feel better for it. Hector, in Alan Bennett’s The
History Boys, puts it beautifully when he describes how, in the presence
of great literature, it’s as if a hand has reached out and taken our own. ‘I
wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,’ Hopkins writes, in his anguish:
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! What sights you, heart, saw, ways you went!
And more must in yet longer light’s delay…

Though Hopkins plumbs the depths he writes so searingly of his torment

that the poetry becomes a cauterising iron to burn away our own pain
and to ‘leave comfort root-room’ in which to grow.
Hopkins knew that not everyone will have experienced the ‘cliffs
of fall, / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed’ which he describes: ‘Hold
them cheap / May who ne’er hung there’. But even those of a sunny dis-
position will find his sonnets illuminating, an insight into the mind of
a fellow creature, and an expansion of their own empathic powers. This
is surely the other great therapeutic power of literature – it doesn’t just
echo our own experience, recognise, vindicate and validate it, it takes us
places we hadn’t imagined but which, once we’ve seen them, we never
forget. When literature is working – the right words in the right place

reading lives

– it offers an orderliness which readers can shore up against the disor-

der, or lack of control, that afflicts them. Most misery memoirs fail in
this respect – they invite readers to be prurient rather than to identify,
exaggerate where no exaggeration is necessary, and are too clamorous
to grant the reader space to contemplate and withdraw.
At best, books take us out of the world, so we lose track of time and
space. They seem to take us out of ourselves as well, but in reality the
best literature is surreptitiously taking us inside ourselves, deeper than
we expected or might have chosen to go. In The Prelude Wordsworth
speaks of certain ‘spots of time’ – ‘scattered everywhere’ – which have a
special place in each man and woman’s life, and which it’s our task to
recover: not as an act of nostalgia but because they help repair and (the
word John Cross used) renovate us if we find them:
There are in our existence spots of time
That with a distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, when, depressed
By false opinions and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier and more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen...

The most consciously renovating or therapeutic writer I know is

Ted Hughes – surprisingly, perhaps, since in his lifetime he seemed to
friends, and accused himself of being, a man in denial. But he not only
considered individual works of his medicinal – ‘It is a story intended
to cure the mentally sick,’ he said of his children’s book The Iron Man
– but defined poetry as ‘nothing more than a facility for expressing that
complicated process in which we locate, and attempt to heal, affliction
– whether our own or that of others whose feeling we can share. The
inmost spirit of poetry, in other words, is at bottom, in every recorded
case, the voice of pain – and the physical body, so to speak, of poetry,
is the treatment by which the poet tries to reconcile that pain with the
world’. Or again: ‘Almost all art is an attempt by someone badly hit
(but almost everybody is badly hit), who is also unusually ill-equipped
to defend themselves internally against the wound, to improvise some
sort of modus vivendi with their internal haemophilia’.
When Hughes describes poetry as consisting of ‘things we don’t ac-
tually want to say’ but ‘desperately need to share’, he is talking as a
writer, not a reader. But whether we’re expressing the emotion ourselves,
or having it expressed for us by someone else, the articulation of it on

reading lives

the page – the shared experience – is what renovates. Proust acknowl-

edged the inseparability of reading and writing when he described the
book as a ‘sort of optical instrument which the writer offers to the reader
to enable the latter to discover in himself what he would not have found
but for the aid of the book.’ An optical instrument. Or a mirror in which
we see our own reflection. Or a lamp shedding light on something we
hadn’t seen before and perhaps didn’t want to see – this is what litera-
ture can be, the work of an Other in which we locate the Self.
The self can get help from a book, then. But the best kind of help
doesn’t necessarily come by way of self-help books. Nor are the books
which make us feel good usually feelgood books. That’s the problem
with most of the bibliotherapy schemes that have been set up in the UK
so far. It’s commendable that Kirklees, Calderdale, Neath and Ayrshire
– to name just four such initiatives – should have thrown their weight
behind bibliotherapy. But too often the prescribed ‘literature’ in local
libraries consists only of leaflets, or references to useful websites, or
books written by ‘eminent therapists or former service-users’ which are
worthy, practical-minded and dull. There’s no recognition that people
in trouble need more than the right labels. As one of the reading group
in Birkenhead explained: ‘I would never have gone into a library and
asked for a self-help book on depression. I was feeling bad enough as it
was, and that would have made me feel worse. It’s being in a group and
talking that helps.’ And, of course, using imaginative literature – poetry
and fiction, not self-medicating pamphlets.
Jane Davis would like the scheme she’s created on Merseyside to
be adopted throughout the country. With 2008 designated the Year of
Reading and Liverpool the 2008 European Capital of Culture, it’s an op-
portune moment for that to happen. As the founder and former editor
of the quarterly magazine The Reader (which she runs with her husband
Phil, author of a recent biography of Malamud), she has already es-
tablished her credentials. And if she’s evangelical in the cause, that’s
because of the quasi-religious role which books have played in her
own life – notably, Doris Lessing’s novel Shikasta, reading which, as
a feminist and anarchist, pushed her ‘into something like a nervous
breakdown. I felt so disturbed by it that I wrote to Doris, care of her
publisher, blaming her and asking for help. She wrote back telling me
to read more and offering me money to buy books if I needed it. “I am
not your teacher but you need to read,” she said. I was a single mother
living on Social Security but in the end I decided what I needed wasn’t
Doris’s money but a public library. It was like a first experiential lesson
in being a moral person. And, for me, it was a life-saver.’
Books can do many things: entertain, educate, enthral. But often the

reading lives

best of them never make it beyond the syllabus, classroom and lecture-
hall, and have no impact on everyday life. Of course, books don’t always
save lives: writing about the Holocaust didn’t prevent Primo Levi from
ultimately committing suicide; and the reading or misreading of The
Satanic Verses led to the deaths of innocent people. But literature’s power
to heal and console outweighs its power to do damage. And it’s the ben-
eficial effects that Jane Davis is putting into practice.
Before I leave, she takes me to meet some of the elderly long-term
patients in the Hoylake Cottage Hospital. A book group meets here
every Thursday, and a hard core of half a dozen eagerly look forward to
it, including Pat, a woman whose voice is so frail that I have to lean in
to catch what’s she’s saying. Many times the nurses have given her no
chance of making the session but, however ill, she always gets there.
‘Why? Because it’s tedious in here, and it’s the one thing in the week
that’s different. You never know how people will respond or what they’ll
like and the ones who come aren’t necessarily those you’d expect. We
always begin with a poem, and lot of memories come up, especially of
the war – both wars – which the men in particular like to talk about.’
No one in the Hoylake Cottage Hospital is going to get better. No
one is not going to die. But poetry gives Pat and the others a language
in which to remember the past, face the future and feel better about
the present. They don’t want false cheer but nor is the knowledge that
everything and everyone must decay oppressive, if a poet puts it well
enough. And sometimes, as George Herbert’s ‘The Flower’ conveys,
hope and happiness can bud in the most unlikely places:
Who would have thought my shrivelled heart
Could have recovered greenness? It was gone
Quite underground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown,
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown

And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing….

A shorter version of this article was published first in The Guardian (January 5,

good Books


Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Monarch Notes: Reissue edition (1986)
ISBN 978-0671009205
Between February 13th and 15th 1945 over 3,900 tons of high-explo-
sive bombs and incendiary devices were dropped on the baroque city
of Dresden. 35,000 people perished in the ensuing firestorm. Kurt Von-
negut, the recently deceased author, was being held as a prisoner of war
in the deep cellars of an abbatoir known in German as ‘Schlachthof
Fünf’; saved by a slaughterhouse. His experiences became the catalyst
for the novel named after his refuge, Slaughterhouse Five.
The narrative follows Billy Pilgrim, who has become ‘unstuck in
time’; we follow as he skips between his experiences as a prisoner of
war, a suburban optometrist and a human specimen in an alien zoo on
the planet Tralfamadore. The story brilliantly captures the feelings of an
individual caught up in the machinery of tumultuous historical events.

Ryan Cunliffe

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Serpent’s Tail (9 May 2006)
ISBN 978-1852424671
Is it possible, is it conceivable that a child can be a mass murderer? This
epistolatory novel is a book that you won’t put down but it will chill you
to the heart, to the very bone. Kevin’s mother Eva tries to understand
what went wrong with her boy, and how early the damage began. She
tries to be honest, but inevitably she is not objective.

Mary Knight

readers connect


anne brontë,
the tenant of wildfell hall
Published in 1848, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the least well-known of
the Brontë novels, but it is a very great account of a woman trapped in a
marriage she would not leave save for her fear of the moral influence of
her drunkard husband on their son. Even within the marriage she feels
like a single parent, while the father spoils their child, even offering him
sips of alcohol. ‘It is hard that my little darling child should love him
more than me.’ Here is an example of her lonely confession to herself in
her diary, the long almost unshaped sentences reflecting her mess:
“I am too grave to minister to his amuse-
ments and enter into his infantile sports as
a nurse or a mother ought to do, and often
his bursts of gleeful merriment trouble and
alarm me; I see in them his father’s spirit
and temperament, and I tremble for the
consequences; and, too often, damp the in-
nocent mirth I ought to share. That father
on the contrary has no weight of sadness
in his mind – is troubled with no fears, no
scruples concerning his son’s future welfare
… therefore, of course, the child dotes upon
his seemingly joyous, amusing, ever in-
dulgent papa, and will at any time gladly
exchange my company for his. This disturbs
me greatly; not so much for the sake of my son’s affection
(though I do prize that highly, and though I feel it is my right,
and know I have done much to earn it), as for that influence
over him which, for his own advantage, I would strive to pur-
chase and retain, and which for very spite his father delights
to rob me of, and, from motives of mere idle egotism, is pleased
to win to himself, making no use of it but to torment me, and
ruin the child.” (Chapter 37)

readers connect

THE jury
Jo Cannon is a Sheff ield GP and short story writer.

Toxic love. Valiant self-control. A marriage, then a

man, disintegrates. I was gripped by the intricate,
timeless emotions. Helen’s precision of speech was
enviable. Suspense and a feel-good ending make
Tenant a great read.
Lynne Hatwell (dovegreyreader) is a Devon-based
community nurse

This book places Anne Brontë deservedly centre-

stage: alcoholism, gambling and drugs and the
resulting emotional and physical abuse will keep
you turning the pages and reflecting on its uncanny
parallels to life for many even today.
Drummond Moir, once of Edinburgh, works for a
London-based publisher

I wasn’t sure about this – the plot’s quite slow. If you

already love Victorian fiction and want something
off the beaten track, this is definitely worth a try.

Tom Sperlinger directs English courses for Lifelong

Learning at Bristol University

Tenant gives a compelling account of living with

someone in the grip of an addiction. Helen is
charmed by her husband before marriage, but then
feels shame, fear, guilt, and resignation at his behav-
iour. A richly imagined, grimly moving book.
Sarah Turvey runs reading groups in London prisons

Marital breakdown, alcohol addiction, and theologi-

cal questions of salvation and damnation are daring
themes for a nineteenth-century woman novelist. But
overall the novel is awkwardly structured, and the
characters never quite come alive.
***** one of best books I’ve ever read
**** one of the best I’ve read this year
*** highly recommended
** worth reading
* not for me but worth trying
0 - don’t bother
Dear Reader,
I was so inspired by Angela Macmillan’s essay on reading groups [Reader
no. 28] that I decided I should start my own. The last one I attended
was a boozy affair with a lot of discussion about whether the sex in the
novel should / should not have taken place etc. The nail in the coffin was
when someone suggested Victoria Beckham’s autobiography would be a
good read. I didn’t go back.
I have told my friends that we will be taking inspiration from The
Reader and thought it would be useful if we had a list of books which
have been reviewed/recommended in back copies if such a thing exists.
My aim is that they will feel they are having a say in the choice of books
without anyone being able to suggest something I personally couldn’t
waste my time on (but without me looking like a fascist dictator).
Maria Tierney

—Maria, we’ll put a list up on the blog.

Dear Reader,
I was delighted to read Howard Jacobson’s piece ‘Know Thine Enemy’
[Reader no. 29] – it was like biting into a ripe olive, sharp and tangy, lit-
erally witty and wise. I’m sure Mr Jacobson is right in suggesting that
Professor Dawkins with his myopic view of religion is a sure-fire re-
cruiting agent for the very thing he despises in all we lesser mortals,
our curiosity or faith in what we cannot understand and which cannot
be ‘scientifically proved’. But, I wonder whether Mr Jacobson has ever
considered that the Prof. may well be a ‘closet Christian’, for ‘methinks
he doth protest too much’. On the other hand there is no doubt that
in reducing the odds against God, or ‘higher intelligence’, Dawkins is
banking on banking. There is no surer way of making loads of money
than by denigrating received wisdom or shooting at ‘unholy’ cows.
I read Mr Jacobson in a hospital waiting room and laughed out loud,
making others smile, which can’t be bad. In a context of suspended dis-
belief, Richard Dawkins is entertaining in a perverse way but you get
the feeling he’s not the world’s greatest exponent of laughter, which
surely has its own curious and life-giving place in human evolution!
Kind regards,
Maggie Goren

your regulars

Our spy in Ny
how i got good at grief

Enid Stubin

H aving grown up in a posthumous household, I have

some sense of what it’s like to live with loss and
among ghosts. My mother died young, leaving a be-
wildered gentleman of business and three children to
negotiate the abyss of her absence. As the youngest
child, I remember her as the lead character in a series of pleasing if distant
vignettes: a rainy day on Mott Avenue, the business hub of Far Rocka-
way, tucked into a diner booth with her and my father’s cousin Monia
while I contemplated the tactile and olfactory delights of a new pink-
and-white-striped vinyl raincoat; standing on one of the dinette chairs
pulled up to the stove, spoon in hand and hovering over a frying pan,
dribbling pancake batter in a Jackson Pollock carboscape as she hauled
me back from danger by tugging at my apron strings; chatting matily
in the bathroom and asking her where she was going (to the dentist)
and wondering if I could come along (no) and why (no answer). Three
days later she was dead, and it was an abandonment from which no one
quite recovered: not my aunts, who set up shrines alongside their beds, a
studio photograph of my mother and brothers and me; not various land-
sleit, people who were not quite family but who hailed from Chizev, the
town in Poland where my parents were born; not, most poignantly, my
brothers, aged eleven and thirteen, just at the age to feel such a loss most
keenly and to be expected to handle it most stoically.
At four, I knew that something sad had happened, but then, life
was sad in our scrubbed and austere apartment on Beach 73rd Street.

your regulars

More to the point, we’d inherited sorrow in the aftermath of The War:
no extant grandparents, and uncles not quite right in the head were
excused by dint of their tenure in Auschwitz. All of her clothing and
personal items had been cleared out, expunged: even the bottom drawer
that had held a crocheted shawl was emptied, the exotic paisley motif
of a challis blouse vanished, no remnants of her much admired taste
available besides the two sets of dishes and a small bust of Lincoln.
One of the only pretty things that remained was a box of get-well cards,
bursting with color and bearing affectionate message and signatures
in Palmer script, the approved method for teaching penmanship in the
New York City public schools. The greeting-card industry must have
been booming in the late 1950s, because the box yielded over a dozen
versions of the botanical trope, ‘Pansies Are for Thoughts’. I remember
the companionable bustle of the shiva – and the gorgeous haze of the
amber cellophane that shrouded the wicker fruit baskets, studded with
the tiny faux-ivory forks that I hoarded with a miser’s obsessiveness.
But then everyone went away, my brothers took to the playground and
beach for the games they thrived on, and it was a lonely and empty flat.
Perhaps weary of my listlessness, my brothers took upon themselves
the task of teaching me how to read: formally setting up a chair in the
middle of the barren room, they put a copy of Tom Sawyer in my hands
and hovered over me until I began to pick out words, phrases, sentenc-
es. Pleased by their success, they escaped outside to their jock realm,
while I waded through their big-boy books: Guadalcanal Diary and God Is
My Co-Pilot, alongside the Little Golden Books that tenderhearted visi-
tors brought: The Golden Goose and an improbably wacky parable of greed
and responsibility called The Baby Bunny – “‘Wonderful, wonderful!’ the
farmer cried. ‘The baby bunny has eaten all the carrots!’”
None of this is unfamiliar territory to The Reader’s readers – a soli-
tary child consoling herself with books. It might do for a frontispiece;
look what it did for Charlotte Brontë. But the comfort of words ‘after so
many deaths,’ in Herbert’s phrase, endures, maybe because it’s all we’ve
got. If there is nothing to say, there is also everything to say – tactless,
unfeeling, sanctimonious, but also precise, luminous, evocative. I came
of age loving those books that told so well of loss: James Agee’s A Death
in the Family was part of the public-school canon, but a novel I adored
for its re-creation of the Depression Lower East Side, Hurray for Me, was
written by an author, S. J. Wilson, of whom I have lost track. My friend
wrote a most extraordinary book, a biography of his novelist father, a
suicide, because he’d grown up, he says, with a book instead of a father.
To reclaim that father by imagining him into a book of his own is an act
of immeasurable grace and generosity, and Shade of the Raintree is a work
of vast, sympathetic imagination.

your regulars

In a much cruder tone, I got good at knowing what to say in the

face of death. Months before her adored mother would die (I was crazy
about Marion and so refuse to type ‘lose her courageous battle with
cancer’), a friend asked me to write her eulogy. Warming to the task,
I interviewed my accessible subject, scribbled pages of her aperçus and
regrets, her quiet wit and ready rage at what was happening, the loss of
control, the daughters she would be leaving. I put the speech into my
friend’s voice, for her to deliver at the service, as a gift for her mother.
This little skill served me well as cousins and teachers died and I had
something to write about them at a time when no one wished to hear
anything but the right words.
By an indirect train of contacts, a stranger paid me to compose a
eulogy for her mentor, the head of a laboratory at an important hospital.
The heavy hitters, the fundraising machers, would also be speaking at
the memorial, she told me. ‘And you don’t want to sound like Rebecca
of Sunnybrook Farm,’ I finished. The deal was struck, and after a sixty-
minute interview, I had enough of her affectionate and irreverent
memories to compose three pages that apparently went down a treat at
the five-hundred-seat auditorium. Capturing her appreciative and witty
voice was gratifyingly easy and worked out well.
Sometimes I think about the hagiography that sprang up around
my mother: not just her cooking, her cleaning, her all-around excel-
lence but her authority: if you needed to buy a dress or find a remnant
of carpeting to unroll in the foyer or were getting calls from the school
administrators about your rotten kid, you consulted Edith. And here
am I, good at the business of grief, attentive to but inured to loss and
so resistant to despair, competent but not officious, solicitous but not
maudlin, a regular Polonius of funerary talents. This is where the little
black dress meets the road, where showing up isn’t 60 but 90 percent of
the job, where a friend, waiting with her husband and partner in that
limbo between imminence and certainty, announces, ‘Your assignment
is to distract and amuse us.’
It’s the best job in the world.

Your regulars

the london eye

in which i am thankful for being disturbed

C rossing the Embankment bridge to the South Bank

at night is one of the quintessentially ‘London’ ex-
periences. I usually seem to be doing so in a hurry,
running late from work, but it’s always worth stop-
ping in the middle of the bridge to see the waterfront
spread out on either hand. It’s only on the bridges that you can really
see the size of the city, and from the Embankment the lights look par-
ticularly spectacular, with the National Theatre lit in shocking pink, the
blue lights around the trees and the orange lights on the river, and the
majestic dome of St Paul’s in the distance. The view brings Wordsworth’s
‘Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge’ into my mind, although this
is completely incongruous – the wrong bridge and it is a sight less touch-
ing than gaudy; riotous rather than calm and still. But there’s something
mighty about it all the same that somehow imposes a reflective mood.
I’ve stood there with friends and we’ve found ourselves talking about
careers, whether we want to live in London in years to come, the future.
Sometimes this experience can set the tone for the rest of the evening
but never more so than on one particular night recently as I crossed the
bridge to attend a talk at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
This was a discussion between the novelist A.S. Byatt and the neuro-
biologist Steven Rose, chaired by John Carey, on the subject of ‘memory’.
A.S. Byatt has recently edited an anthology on this subject with Harriet
Harvey Wood (Chatto & Windus). It’s an unusual book to be published
by a trade publisher, I think, even one as literary as Chatto. It’s an open-
minded multidisciplinary anthology, with contributions from a wide
variety of writers of poetry and prose, past and present, so I was inter-
ested to discover what sort of debate was going to take place.

your regulars

John Carey opened the proceedings by introducing his two fellow

guests, and he spoke briefly about what had interested him most in the
Memory anthology; he had been ‘disturbed’, he said, by the discovery
made by writers and scientists alike that our memories are constantly
being revised, and consequently don’t reach as far back into our pasts as
we might think. When we recall an event in childhood, we are actually
recalling the last time we remembered it. Our memories, and our sense
of identity therefore, are precarious and unreliable. It’s perhaps good to
start a discussion with some contentious point, but I felt confusedly dis-
heartened, for some reason.
A.S. Byatt spoke about memory in literature. I liked the way she sat
bolt upright in her chair and stared straight in front of her. She seemed
to be listening and speaking with her whole mind and body. And then
Steven Rose spoke, on what he considered the great importance of lit-
erature for scientists like himself, who are attempting to discover the
mysteries of how the brain works – any exploration of how or why
memories are formed and recalled should be accompanied by the other,
more indistinct knowledge, of how it actually feels to remember. By this
time, fifteen minutes into the talk, my unaccustomed brain had had a
thorough work-out, and all sorts of memories of the last time I had been
made to think so hard were rising to the surface. Two particular writers
had been mentioned, St Augustine and Wordsworth, who were very im-
portant to me as I struggled to write my dissertation in my final year of
university, though the feeling of their importance to me remained past
any knowledge of the argument of this dissertation, or exactly how they
fitted in to it.
This is what St Augustine says about memory, and what the scien-
tist Steven Rose found thrillingly, alarmingly exact:
Great is this force of memory, excessive great, O my God; a
large and an infinite roominess: who can plummet the bottom
of it? Yet it is a faculty of mine, and belongs unto my nature;
nor can I myself comprehend all that I am. Therefore is the
mind too strait to contain itself… A wonderful admiration
surprises me, and an astonishment seizes me upon this.
As I read this later, eager to re-understand its significance to me, I real-
ised why my heart sank at John Carey’s opening remarks, fascinating
though they were: he seemed to imply that this turning-round-of-the-
mind-upon-itself was disturbing because it made the memory, and a
sense of self, evaporate into nothingness. These blanks of memory, its
vanishing and re-appearing acts, seemed like tricks played on us, and
not part of us at all. St Augustine is describing that same kind of giddi-
ness, the same wonder at his own lack of knowledge of a faculty which
is part of himself. But for him this is a source of wonder and admiration,

your regulars

as it implies that the mind is larger than itself. Centuries after St Augus-
tine was writing, Wordsworth wrote, again with gratitude, of the strange
places our minds can find themselves:
… I raise
The song of thanks and praise;
But for those obstinate questionings
Of sense and outward things,
Fallings from us, vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a Creature
Moving about in worlds not realised,
High instincts before which our mortal Nature
Did tremble like a guilty Thing surprised.
When the talk finished, bumping back down to the reality of filing
out of the theatre, saying goodbyes with a buzzing brain, I took with
me a valuable feeling of well, surprise, I suppose, at having my daily
mental sphere suddenly widened. To keep my mind buzzing and to
help it recover old lines of enquiry, I went home to the books that had
last surprised me like this. One was the novel Fugitive Pieces by Cana-
dian poet Anne Michaels, and, read most recently, Breath, by Michael
Symmons Roberts. As well as the feeling of ‘moving about in worlds not
realised’ that these books give, they connect that intense inner think-
ing to the outside, physical world. Michael Symmons Roberts’ novel is
full of wonder and gratitude for ‘the gift’ of breath itself, and constantly
evokes the physical manifestations of breathing, the fragile, arboreal
structure of the lung, to make the invisible tangible. In Fugitive Pieces,
the narrator is eventually saved from the ghosts of his past by sheer
physicality, ‘power lines of blood… cables of tendons… forests of bone
in wrists and feet.’ This inward/outward contact happened often in the
Memory talk itself: A.S. Byatt would talk about how it was almost painful
to put a pre-verbal memory from her childhood into words, and Steven
Rose would attempt to explain the scientific side, what might be going
on in her brain. To his credit, he refused to supply a definitive answer,
although he was speaking as an expert in his field, and he would not
allow the talk of synapses and dendrites to eclipse the original feeling.
Walking over the bridge and looking down through the sudden
opening in the city imposed by the thick, black, tar-like river, I think the
books and writers who create these disturbances are so surprising and
valuable because, rather than lifting you up to a cerebral higher level,
their enforced openings into the 9-to-5 jog trot of life in a big city make
you feel more like being returned to earth again.

Do you want more of this good giddiness?

A. S. Byatt will be appearing at the Shipping Lines festival in Liverpool
this November.

your regulars

believe it:
the winter’s tale in birkenhead

Jane Davis

B irkenhead Park, the first urban park and model for New
York’s Central Park, has recently been restored, thanks
to a Heritage Lottery grant and a great deal of concen-
trated effort from its Friends. For a very long time the
place had seemed dead and done for, but someone must
have believed that the process of urban decay could be arrested and
indeed reversed. Years passed: I looked up and it had newly restored
railings and plantings: it had come back to life. In August this year
The Reader Organisation will lead a group of partners in a community
production of The Winter’s Tale in the outdoor performance space in the
upper park. What larks!
The Winter’s Tale is a story of personal restoration, of serious adult
life going wrong and yet ultimately being (more or less) fixed. ‘More
or less’ because damage is done and things cannot be put back togeth-
er as they were (‘Hermione was not so much wrinkled’, says Leontes,
when his apparently dead wife is restored to him after 16 years). And
the beloved ones, Mamillius and Antigonus, who really do die, cannot be
brought back. Yet the survivors live on, re-learn happiness, and they find
that time does sometimes heal. It seems the ideal play for adult readers
because this basic story is one with which we all have to come to terms.
And where else will we find a play that makes so much of middle-
aged women? Paulina, the play’s centre and engine, represents ordinary
real-life women keeping families together, managing their husbands,
partners, sons, bosses, visiting nursing homes, carrying home the shop-
ping, holding down (probably part-time) jobs. Let them get a little older
and they become the women David Constantine writes movingly about
in his poem ‘Shoes in the Charity Shop’:

your regulars

Were those worn shoes of women queuing at the bus-stop

No feet on earth after theirs would have fitted them.

A little younger and they are Dorothea Brooke, the great ordinary
heroine of Middlemarch, a woman who found no vocation. Let them be
embroiled in a career and they become something else again – Lady
Macbeths of the Civil Service, a little bonkers, a bit too controlling. Or
let them not have a career to use up their energy. OK, these women can
be bossy, and fussy, and that’s why younger writers tend not to love
them (see the young Doris Lessing heap scorn upon them in Martha
Quest, or the Brontës make them merely conventional, or fussy or obedi-
ent). George Eliot and Charles Dickens, the most feelingful of novelists,
know that the growing good of the world depends upon them, and offer
us loving warts-and-all portraits in Aunt Trotwood, Mrs Poyser, Mrs
Bagnett and even daft Mrs Tulliver.
But it is in Shakespeare, perhaps surprisingly, that we find the great-
est middle-aged woman, Paulina. With something of a god-like power,
she is a priestess of life: she creates a future, a family, by believing in it
so powerfully that it comes to be.
The Winter’s Tale is the story of a man who wrecks his own life. As
Leontes’ madness takes hold, it affects not only a man but a king and
the courtiers can’t contest the effects of his madness, however devoted
to his interests they are. They can’t fight it from within the court. In
Shakespeare’s other family-based play, King Lear, honest Kent resists the
madness of the king, by giving up his place and identity to remain at
Lear’s side. But in The Winter’s Tale, the role of loving truth-teller is given
to a woman who more than anything reminds us of a mother-in-law.
Paulina has no courtly or political power, only a sort of domestic or per-
sonal energy that cannot be refuted. Although the characters are royal,
everyday personal relationships are at the play’s heart, and what this
brusque and demanding woman believes is what gives the play its magic.
Her position outside the court’s power structure gives her a freedom not
available, for instance, to Leontes’ very sane advisor, Camillo. There is
no safe option for him: the King ‘in rebellion with himself will have /
All that are his so too.’ But for Paulina, coming from a different angle,
the case is different: the King is a human being and a father, and must
be made to feel like one:
[PAULINA] I dare be sworn
These dangerous unsafe lunes i’ the king,
beshrew them!
He must be told on’t, and he shall: the office
Becomes a woman best; I’ll take’t upon me:

your regulars

If I prove honey-mouth’d let my tongue blister

And never to my red-look’d anger be
The trumpet any more. Pray you, Emilia,
Commend my best obedience to the queen:
If she dares trust me with her little babe,
I’ll show’t the king and undertake to be
Her advocate to the loud’st. We do not know
How he may soften at the sight o’ the child:
The silence often of pure innocence
Persuades when speaking fails.

It is not long before she is plainly telling Leontes that he is mad, a traitor
to himself:
[LEONTES] I’ll ha’ thee burnt.
[PAULINA] I care not:
It is an heretic that makes the fire,
Not she which burns in’t. I’ll not call you tyrant;
But this most cruel usage of your queen,
Not able to produce more accusation
Than your own weak-hinged fancy, something savours
Of tyranny and will ignoble make you,
Yea, scandalous to the world.

Oh, there should be one in every family!

Some people find the ending of The Winter’s Tale a problem. Where
has Hermione been for the 16 years it takes Leontes to return to reason?
That never bothers me. The play offers a sort of X-ray of how life’s pat-
terns work, and while that doesn’t look like kitchen-sink realism it is
deeply true and realistic. We see this X-ray reality in flashes – for example
in the recognisable pride of Paulina’s husband Antigonus, who takes a
steady, amused stance as the husband of a powerful woman: ‘When she
will take the rein I let her run; / But she’ll not stumble.’ But the play’s
truth-telling goes deeper than this straightforward observation. For me,
the most realistic thing about it is the same thing so many people find
odd – the sixteen-year absence, or apparent death, of Hermione.
A person in any deeply untenable situation may absent themselves
psychologically. The wife of a madly violent and dangerous man may
‘go away’ in all sorts of ways – see Roddy Doyle’s novel, The Woman Who
Walked into Doors. Or less obviously, and more ordinarily, our real life may
go underground almost without anyone noticing (think of Matthew
Arnold describing that mechanism in his poem ‘The Buried Life’). It’s
that sort of thing that has happened to Hermione, and Shakespeare
includes a real death in the play so that we have a benchmark against
which to judge Hermione’s apparent death:

your regulars

[Servant] O sir, I shall be hated to report it!

The prince your son, with mere conceit and fear
Of the queen’s speed, is gone.
[LEONTES] How! gone!
[Servant] Is dead.
[LEONTES] Apollo’s angry; and the heavens themselves
Do strike at my injustice.

Those two words ‘is dead’ seem the heaviest words of the play, and they
can’t be undone by any sort of magic. It is those words which finally
cause brave, dignified Hermione, on trial for her life, to swoon and fall,
and that is the last time we – and Leontes – see Hermione for 16 years.
What is required to bring her back? In Paulina’s chapel (or gallery),
as in our Birkenhead Park, it is belief in the possibility of restoration:
[PAULINA] It is required
You do awake your faith. Then all stand still;
On: those that think it is unlawful business
I am about, let them depart.
[LEONTES] Proceed:
No foot shall stir.
[PAULINA] Music, awake her; strike!
‘Tis time; descend; be stone no more; approach;
Strike all that look upon with marvel. Come,
I’ll fill your grave up: stir, nay, come away,
Bequeath to death your numbness, for from him
Dear life redeems you. You perceive she stirs:

At this most magic of theatrical moments we have one of Shakespeare’s

greatest lines: ‘It is required you do awake your faith’, actually a sort of
everyday law. In life faith is always what is required. Not much happens
if we don’t make it awake.

Wirral Community Shakespeare will offer volunteering/participation op-

portunities to everyone: come and read the play with us, or print tickets,
set out deck chairs, sell ice-cream, or sing, play the bear, be part of a
crowd-scene, or audition for a role… or be the audience: Birkenhead Park,
Friday 29th and Saturday 30th August 2008. Bring your picnic.
Wirral Community Shakespeare is supported by Arts and Culture Fund,
Birkenhead Sixth Form College, GIRTY, University of Liverpool, Wirral
Primary Care Trust and CSIP, and Wirral Borough Council.
Contact Estelle Condliff at The Reader Organisation for more details
(email), (tel) 0151 794 2830

YOUr regulars

ask the reader

Brian Nellist

The Reader used to carry the message ‘A magazine about writing

Q worth reading’ and I am glad it no longer insists on that. Despite
its witty ambiguity it carries a value judgement and yet you still
by implication assume that what a reader reads is literature. Reading is
how we understand menus, bus timetables, newspapers, blogs, posters,
cereal packages, etc. To be true to your title surely it is the whole phe-
nomenon of print that should be your remit.

Your own argument is not value-free, I would point out, since

A by relegating the novels of George Eliot to the same reality as
the writing on a packet of corn-flakes you deny them not simply
special status but any existence at all. The commercial product along
with the other writing you mention carries information, however selec-
tive and slanted by the agendas of the writer, but Paradise Lost or Dombey
and Son do not exist to offer the reader data that they didn’t already
possess. If all you are going to do with such works is to analyse the
silent prejudices and assumptions that underline them, you treat them
like a leading article in, say, The Daily Telegraph, not as literature. We need
literature at the least for the health of the English language itself. The
forms of writing you mention are all simple; the detection of prejudice
in a newspaper is not a complex business. But great imaginative writing
is not tossed off to a daily schedule. It demands from the reader atten-
tion to nuance, to the precise implication of each word. It keeps the
language on its toes not as an analytical instrument as in scientific
writing but as a means to register the richness of our mental and emo-
tional experience as nothing else can. There is a difference between the
Latin of the Vindolanda tablets and the use of the language by Virgil and

your regulars

Horace even though the details of social life in those letters from Hadri-
an’s Wall may be more historically revealing than The Aeneid.
You are wanting I know to make literature just a part of Cultural
Studies, that academic study of the last twenty years or so, but that
makes all writing a kind of specialism within a branch of Sociology.
Though literature, especially the novel, may be useful to the sociologist,
I’m less sure of the contrary case. In the medieval university theology
was Queen of the Sciences but ‘humane letters’, as they used to be called,
survived as part of the syllabus in the guise of rhetoric. If we are not
careful, sociology can become a more exclusive mistress than ever divin-
ity was in the fourteenth century. I recommend to you a recent book by
Rónán MacDonald, The Death of the Critic. He argues that there has always
been a division between the critic’s desire to describe what is valuable in
a given work and his or her self-consciousness about the basis of those
judgements. Notoriously, the critic is ill tempered not simply about lit-
erature but about other and earlier critics, as Coleridge is about Johnson,
for example. The judgements produced as though they were final and
absolute are based on the beliefs and preferences of distinct historical
cultures. Cultural Studies overcomes that contradiction by assuming that
now we understand cultural relativism we should attend to that and rec-
ognise that value is simply a matter for the individual, from which they
often also need to be rescued. But in that case the writer about ‘culture’
himself becomes the subject for individual taste and few specialists in
the subject attract readers outside the academy. Read the book.
Maybe over-ambitiously, The Reader tries to reconnect readers in
general, members of book groups, of the review pages in the Sunday
papers, those who continue to use our shrinking public libraries or who
do not automatically rush past the doors of Waterstone’s with lowered
heads, those who want to try the originals behind TV and film adap-
tations, to persuade all these people that some writing carries more
weight than others and more importantly, that all good books, when-
ever written, belong to our present. Without any belief in a rigid canon,
a fixed list of ‘great books’, we want to connect good writing today with
good writing in the past. Even critics who thought their primary duty
was to the best that was written never set their preferences in stone. If
Johnson praises Dryden and Pope he also writes about Christopher Pitt
and Gilbert West; if Matthew Arnold is attached to the idea of a great
tradition, he also writes about Joubert and Maurice du Guérin, neither
exactly classics of French literature. When attention spans are short,
we need good literature of all shapes and sizes not simply because it
demonstrates the subtlety and depth of which the language is capable
but because the sustained concentration it demands is necessary to our
mental health. Sudoku squares are simply no substitute.

book world

thirty years of
virago modern classics

Donna Coonan

R esearch shows that readers have little awareness of

what publisher has issued which title, but when I was
younger I realised that many of the books I loved bore
the apple icon. Going to a Catholic girls’ school, I ap-
preciated the symbol’s naughtiness – that Eve’s taste of
forbidden fruit was being celebrated – and my teachers championed
many of the authors: Angela Carter, Edith Wharton, Maya Angelou,
Willa Cather, Margaret Atwood, Stevie Smith, Grace Nichols, to name
a few. So that little apple on a green spine became a beacon to me: this
was a book that I’d enjoy, one that I could get my teeth into. Perhaps it is
inevitable that Virago has influenced my reading tastes – after all, we’ve
grown up together. The list was founded not long before I was born and
the first Virago Modern Classic, Antonia White’s Frost in May, was pub-
lished a few years later, in 1978.
The Virago Modern Classics list has always challenged what a
‘classic’ is, and therefore has a proud history of publishing a broad spec-
trum of literature, from the very best of twentieth-century fiction to
wonderful volumes of comedy, letter-writing and memoir, to popular
novels that were the record-breaking bestsellers of their day. This year
is our thirtieth anniversary, and to mark the occasion we are produc-
ing a beautiful set of eight hardback books that illustrate the diversity

Excellent Women
by Barbara Pym

‘I’d sooner read a new Barbara Pym

than a new Jane Austen’
Philip Larkin


Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

‘There is no novel I love more’

Zadie Smith

‘There is no book more important to

me than this one. It speaks to me as
no novel, past or present, has ever
Alice Walker


book world

of this much-loved and important part of Virago Press. The authors are
Angela Carter, Zora Neale Hurston, Muriel Spark, Barbara Pym, Eliza-
beth Taylor, Jacqueline Susann, E. M. Delafield and Helene Hanff.
Earlier this year The Times ran an article listing who it considered to
be the fifty greatest post-war British writers. Three of the authors in our
series featured in it: Angela Carter, ‘a literary sorceress to be reckoned
with’; Muriel Spark, ‘mistress of the highest high comedy and a maker
of immaculate prose’; and Barbara Pym, whom Philip Larkin preferred
to Jane Austen. It must have been an oversight that The Times neglected
to mention Elizabeth Taylor, but she is such a firm favourite that there
would have been an uproar if she wasn’t included in our celebrations.
She is a writer of great humanity and humour, but her genius lies in
capturing with both subtlety and absolute precision the feelings that
run below the surface. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
is a rich, beautiful and trailblazing book, one of the most important in
the canon of African American literature, and has been an inspiration
to many writers, including Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou
and Zadie Smith. 84 Charing Cross Road is a touching collection of corre-
spondence charting a twenty-year friendship between two bibliophiles
who never meet, while The Diary of a Provincial Lady is a comical, fiction-
al account of the trials and tribulations of a 1930s’ Devon housewife.
Although Valley of the Dolls may not be what traditionalists would call
a classic, it is an era-defining book that hailed a new genre of mass-
market fiction and is still often referred to as the bestselling novel of all
time. Its continued appeal cannot be denied.
This celebratory series features cover artwork by women textile de-
signers. In the past few years, textiles for both interiors and fashion
have taken on a definite retro aesthetic – informed by the past, yet still
very contemporary – and this captures the spirit of our modern classics.
The books and designs aren’t necessarily from corresponding periods,
but each design has been chosen to capture the tone of the book: Luci-
enne Day’s lively, staccato print echoes Muriel Spark’s never predictable,
darkly humorous writing to perfection; Cath Kidston’s floral pattern
suggests the bright domesticity of the Provincial Lady’s drawing-room;
the birds in Marion Dorn’s print evoke carrier pigeons, which seems
fitting for a book about a long-distance friendship through letters.
A claim sometimes made about women’s writing is that it is too
domestic, too housebound, that it concentrates on the emotions, rela-
tionships, the family; that it lacks imagination and scope. On the Virago
Modern Classics list we can counter this charge by citing, for a start,
the pyrotechnic imagination of Angela Carter and the dark, murderous
stories of Daphne du Maurier. But I take the view that a small canvas is
not necessarily an unambitious one. What is seen under the microscope

book world

can reveal much about the world in which we live. And what skill it
takes to write observantly, feelingly, with wit and perception, about the
everyday. Nobody could accuse the artist Louise Bourgeois of lacking
imagination, but when I recently visited an exhibition of hers, recur-
ring themes were apparent: motherhood, the home, and the ‘Femme
Maison’ (the French term for ‘housewife’) – sculptures and paintings of
a woman’s body and a house combined. Bourgeois brings these ‘domes-
tic’ images into her art over and over again, yet it is not something she
is criticised for. We are shaped by our experiences and so is our work.
Relationships, families, children, love – these are not marginal; on the
contrary, they are life itself.
This undermining of women’s writing is discussed in the accompa-
nying article written for the TLS by Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago
and creator of the Virago Modern Classics list, back in 1980, but it is
a conversation we are still having today. Thirty years after the Virago
Modern Classics list began, we are still discussing male and female
writing, and not just with regard to classic books. What’s more, the
supporters and detractors do not fall along obvious gender lines. Muriel
Gray, who was one of the judges of the Orange Prize for Fiction last
year, berated the state of contemporary women’s writing as being, for
the most part, lacking in ambition and imagination (though she did say
that this didn’t apply to writers on the Orange longlist):
It’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of thinly disguised au-
tobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic
themes such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny
family dramas. These writers appear to have forgotten the
fundamental imperative of fiction writing. It’s called making
stuff up.1

While Jonathan Coe pointed out:

In 2007, it’s Graham Swift who writes a novel focused entirely
on the domestic and familial (Tomorrow), while writers such
as Rose Tremain and Marina Lewycka examine the plight of
low-paid migrant workers in the modern British economy. The
old clichés about what distinguishes male writing from female
writing no longer stand up to scrutiny. 2

A question I am often asked by readers is why we changed the

beloved green jackets. I look back on them fondly, but we have to keep in
mind a modern audience and we’d be doing the list a great disservice if
we didn’t. I’ve showed the old green covers to a number of young adults
and the response has been that they look like books forced upon one
at school rather than those they’d read for pleasure. The green jackets

book world

were once fresh and exciting and were integral to establishing the list’s
identity, but we have to move with the times, and so the decision was
taken to create a distinctive look to complement each individual au-
thor’s style rather than following a generic design. The great majority
of the list is from the twentieth century, so these books are accessible,
enjoyable and relevant to readers today, not dreary, earnest old tomes
– they are modern classics after all, and need to look vibrant. In addition
to producing striking covers, we also commission popular contempo-
rary authors to write introductions to books they want to champion. A
reader might not have heard of Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym but if
Sarah Waters or Alexander McCall Smith has written the introduction
it gives a personal recommendation.
The reason the Virago Modern Classics exist is to bring back into
print wonderful books that have been neglected or overlooked but will
be enjoyable to readers today. As well as revitalising our own titles
by reissuing them, and keeping many books available in our print on
demand scheme, we are continually looking for titles to resurrect. This
year we’ve published one of the great autobiographies of the twenti-
eth century, Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table, and, for the first time
in many years, Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier is in print, which
means we have every one of her novels on the list. Next year there will
be more books by Barbara Pym and Muriel Spark. We will also be pub-
lishing Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons, a wonderfully satirical 1930s’
Cinderella story that has been unavailable for decades, and The Group by
Mary McCarthy, a book that in its frank depiction of female friendship,
sex and women’s lives can be seen as the precursor to The Women’s Room
and even Sex and the City. So we continue to build on the sterling work
that started thirty years ago – the Virago Modern Classics list is very
much alive, growing, and going from strength to strength.

1 The Guardian blog, 21 March 2007

2 The Guardian, 6 October 2007

your recommendations

The Old Poem

Sir Walter Raleigh,
‘Like truthless dreams’

Brian Nellist

Like truthless dreams, so are my joys expired,

  And past return are all my dandled days;
My love misled, and fancy quite retired,
  Of all which past, the sorrow only stays.
My lost delights, now clean from sight of land.
  Have left me all alone in unknown ways;
My mind to woe, my life in fortune’s hand,
  Of all which past, the sorrow only stays.
As in a country strange without companion,
  I only wail the wrong of death’s delays,
Whose sweet spring spent, whose summer well nigh done,
  Of all which past, the sorrow only stays;
   Whom care forewarns, ere age and winter cold,
   To haste me hence, to find my fortune’s fold.

your recommendations

T he poem presents one of those somersault experiences

when something we have trusted absolutely, a relationship,
a position in life, a guaranteed future, suddenly betrays
us, ‘like truthless dreams’. It was all there for Raleigh in
1592 when his marriage to one of the queen’s Maids of
Honour, following (probably) his seduction of her, landed him in the
Tower and brought the complete loss of royal favour. Like many once-
young courtiers (he was probably thirty-eight) his flirtatious relation
with Elizabeth I combined devotion to a goddess, a courtly-love game
and the emotional dependence of a son on a powerful mother. The ap-
parent clumsiness of the syntax here (as in the refrain: ‘Of all which past,
the sorrow only stays’) and the economy of diction (‘My mind to woe’)
bring a sobriety into the extremes of feeling. Twice, by this time, Raleigh
had sent colonists to the New World, to what he flatteringly had called
Virginia, though the Virgin Queen herself refused him permission to ac-
company them and both attempts failed disastrously. In imagination he
becomes here one of those wretched pioneers watching his ship sail away
(‘clean from sight of land’) or worse, becoming a single man marooned
there (‘a country strange without companion’). The images belong to a
life of adventure but intimate, not swashbuckling adventure so much as
the precariousness of a life taking dangerous risks. Behind the boldness
of a soldier lies the desire to be looked after and even nostalgia for the
safety of childhood (‘all my dandled days’). Yet the final couplet of this
English sonnet turns instead to a recognition of limited aims:
   Whom care forewarns, ere age and winter cold,
   To haste me hence, to find my fortune’s fold.
Given the inevitability of the progression of the seasons he will no
longer submit to ‘fortune’s hand’ but move on quickly to make a realis-
tic fortune of his own, not ‘dandled days’ but a peaceable sheepfold.
Raleigh was an amateur poet who wrote seldom and his verse varies
between caustic warnings, as in ‘The Lie’ or ‘The Nymph’s Reply’ (his
answer to Marlowe’s famous lyric) or the sonnet to his son, and exalted
praise, as in his poem to Diana (Elizabeth again) or on Spenser’s Faerie
Queene. His mind revolves around startling metaphor; look at the frag-
mentary ‘Book of the Ocean to Cynthia’ (yes, you’ve guessed it). If you
can find Philip Edward’s little study of Raleigh published as long ago as
1953, snap it up. It will increase your pleasure in and understanding of
some wonderful poems.


rinsing the commonplace

Vernon Scannell, Collected Poems: 1950–93
Robson Books, 1993
ISBN 978-0860517658
Vernon Scannell, Last Post
Shoestring Press, 2007
ISBN 978-1904886679

Brian Nellist

V ernon Scannell’s poems take their subjects from

football, retired boxers, both World Wars, love of
course, apples, fireworks, family events, memory,
growing old, walking the dog in the park, seemingly
all the events and experiences of a single life con-
ducted in public. ‘Occasional poems’ you may say, a slightly dismissive
label relegating them with ‘occasional tables’, furniture without a spe-
cific function. We prefer, don’t we, writing to come volcanically out of
a poet’s interior world and imagination, as with, say, the work of John
Donne? Scannell wrote on a different level, more like Donne’s contem-
porary, Ben Jonson, and, like Jonson, he doesn’t get his due because his
work is so various as to be indefinable. Yet though he is, like Jonson,
not primarily examining his own feelings, an ample and robust per-
sonality engages the reader through the agency of the world he refers
to, the world he loves and hates, enjoys and rages against. He restores
to us the sense that poetry can be a normal mode of discourse in that
any and every thing can become a subject for what is not a rarefied and
arcane practice of exquisite sensibility, but an intelligent and emotion-
ally complex observation of identifiable experience. Indeed this is far
more a ‘poetry of experience’ than that of Browning, to whom the great
Robert Langbaum awarded the title.


As, again, with Jonson such poetry involves not a random and open
verse form but the engagement of a meticulous mode of articulation
with the contingency of life. The diction is alert with metaphor but
also casually colloquial and reader-friendly, and always ring-fenced by
the regularities of metre and rhyme. He wonders in ‘My Pen has Ink
Enough’ why he writes:
This longing to make wicks of words, light lamps
However frail and dim. And hell, why not?
I’ve had six children yet more casually got.
The tone of rueful exasperation is typical; how strange the really serious
things in life, those children, might happen lightly, while he was intent
on making love, whereas the other business, his work, writing poems,
serious yes but not a life-or-death matter, takes all his attention. And
with dubious results; not the certainty of flicking a switch but the old
fiddle of wicks and lamps to spread maybe a little light in someone’s
mind, ‘frail and dim though it be’. The nature of the light depends on
the emphatic monosyllables, the throwaway expletive, the regularity
of the metre (pointed by rhythmic syncopation) and the appropriately
thumping final rhyme. The exactness of the form makes possible what
one can only call, using the old term, wit.
The modesty of the claim he makes is also typical of Scannell, though
the ambition is high. In the introduction to the Collected Poems he quotes
Dr Johnson’s demand for literature that it ‘enables [us] the better to
enjoy life or the better to endure it’. If he also often writes about the
process of writing that is not because he thinks words can only ever
refer to other words in our tricksy modernist way, but partly because it
is his occupation and work matters, and because, mysteriously, of what
he calls in Last Post, ‘The Need’, ‘to make a shape of words, / a singing
picture or a prayer’. Though in old age most other desires have been as
he says ‘pilfered’, this one remains:
So once again I seek a theme
to flesh the spectral shape which might
flower and sing but what I hear
is ‘Try to get the words down right.’
For a writer so often punning, that is also of course ‘downright’.
The obituary I read identified what it called ‘a persistent melancholy’
in his earlier work but the term seems to me too passive and plangent
to do him justice. He writes in a late poem, ‘Second Sight’ (1992) as a
man who needs to wear glasses, ‘Poor eyesight has its compensations’.
He momentarily removes his spectacles while walking the whippet in
the park and enters a magic realm:


A fallen paper bag starts to bark.

In the distance I see trees as men talking.
I resume my spectacles
expecting the commonplace.
It is revealed, rinsed with recent theurgy.
In a moment he becomes like the blind man with sight restored in the
Gospel who saw men walking as trees, hence the ‘recent theurgy’. But
the function of the poetry lies in that last line, a rinsing of the common-
place, of what we normally and sometimes with anger accept as the
real. In his 1965 volume Epithets of War there’s an extraordinary poem on
a paraplegic in a moment of bad temper which the disabled are surely
permitted, ‘View from a Wheelchair’:
I am less unfortunate, maybe,
Than your insolent pity believes:
The muscles in my wheels do not grow tired:
Like a horse I can sleep standing.
And there is something sacred about me,
Something that can haunt and make you tremble.
I am sick of the fear, the pity, the revulsion.
I want them to put me to bed.
Their gratitude for my not being them
Is a nauseous, poisonous toffee.
It is dark and cold. They must put me to bed.
They do not know that I walk in my sleep.
I don’t know about you but I often feel wearied by the value we put
on compassion, turning vulnerability into a virtue instead of admitted
weakness, ‘Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor’
as Blake puts it. Scannell is less the poet of melancholy (or even bitter-
ness, its alternative face) than of that unpopular virtue courage (and
its twin, defiance), physical courage as an ex-boxer and serving (and
absconding) soldier but more importantly moral courage, the honesty
to admit when things are bad. This is a truer use of the imagination, to
understand the feelings of a constant recipient of sympathy, than the
production of fantasies designed to produce an illicit thrill. The notable
word there is ‘sacred’, the anagram of scared, as the disabled inevita-
bly remind us of the thin crust on which we walk. But the real Scannell
strength lies in the grim humour of that last line which reverses the
usual meaning of somnambulism.
Not sadness then but honesty is I think the basis of his achieve-
ment, evident in what I suppose is his best-known poem, if you can use
such a term of so scandalously underrated a poet, ‘The Father’s Face’.
It is this face that he sees as he shaves before the mirror and knows


how like his appearance is to the man who made his youth a hell and
betrayed his marriage by his drunken whoring. Yet the face he sees is
a weakened version of the other one and for once he is glad that it has
allowed him to escape at least that remembered sadism. For all that, he
exists because of that parent, ‘And though I cannot love him, feel a sort
/ Of salty tenderness’:
This morning as I shave, I find I can
Forgive the blows, the meanness and the lust,
The ricochetting arsenal of a man
Who groaned groin-deep in hope’s ironic dust;
But these eyes in the glass regard the living
Features with distaste, quite unforgiving.
His poems usually end, as here, strongly. This final stanza may start with
momentary forgiveness but ends with eyes staring back ‘quite unforgiv-
ing’. They are both his own eyes true to their remembered dislike but
of course also the father’s eyes finding even in the son’s generosity a
weakness. But it is also the father looking at himself and identifying a
self-loathing which may explain if it does not excuse. Being a poet the
son can find the language for ‘hope’s ironic dust’ where, without it, the
father’s emotions imploded. Read a lot of Scannell and you recognise how
poem connects with poem so that instead of apparent miscellany you
become conscious of myriad connections; the father is in miniature that
army and its victims the poet so often recalls, hence the metaphor of the
Publishing poems for nearly sixty years (his first collection appeared
in 1948) inevitably one of his persistent subjects is ageing, as also the
full stop towards which the ‘Long Sentence’ (as he calls it in a poem of
1965) inevitably travels. But there is none of Larkin’s horror which is
replaced usually by a healthy humour as in ‘Spot Check at Fifty’:
Fifty scored and still I’m in.
I raise my cap to dumb applause,
But as I wave I see, appalled,
The new fast bowler’s wicked grin.
But it’s in this new final volume (Last Post) that he writes of old age, an
octogenarian, with an honesty only the aged have a right to, rejecting
the lenitive idioms to which his condition is subjected:
Whatever others say, I’ll never
play those euphemistic games;
I’d sooner use the simple names
and have it all quite plainly said:
I am old. I’ll soon be dead.


This collection is moving because all the old concerns are there but
now as valedictions and distant memories of war, of love most of all,
often plenary richness of the objects we take for granted, a bowl of fruit
and a wooden chair in ‘Still Life’, with its endlessly punning title, offer-
ing ‘an unimperilled quietude’ or, another pun, ‘Missing Things’ because
it is he who will be missing and the objects he loved that will survive.
Slowly the poem relinquishes the fiction that they will miss him:
and I, of course, will neither know nor care
since, like the stone of which the house is made,
I’ll feel no more than it does light and air.
‘Well, of course’ you might say, but it is being made to recognise within
the discipline of rhyme and metre the apparently obvious, so that we
really see, as for the first time, what insentience means that makes
Scannell an honourable successor to the Thomas Hardy line of descent.
But there is also in these late poems a non-Hardyan calm, that de-
tachment that old age can yield, and pleasure in even something so
ordinary as fine weather:
The shimmering remnants of a summer’s day;
a drowsy sun still holds the dark at bay,
while out of sight, a blackbird serenades
his nested mate before the daylight fades.
As I do now, he might say, in what is really a reply to Hardy’s ‘Darkling
Thrush’. Different season, different singer, but as the bells ring they
bring to his mind a word he cannot at once locate:
The word now brings him comfort, soft yet strong;
enough to say it quietly, – ‘Evensong.’
The earlier poet’s bird had also sung that service but it brought no con-
solation, though behind the poem also lie the only magical lines written
by the late medieval poet, Stephen Hawes:
For though the day be never so long,
At last, the bells ringeth to evensong.
Patience and acceptance of a momentary calm is maybe the last thing
the very old can offer us.
This volume completes a life in poetry with honour, continued
insight and unclouded clarity of vision. Whenever you are looking for a
poem on a specific subject or object, an occasion, that is, look at Vernon
Scannell’s poetry. You will be almost certain to find what you are looking

your recommendations

visit from an old friend

Russell Hoban, A Bargain for Frances
Mammoth, 1992
ISBN 978-0749712310

Marion Leibl

O ccasionally I meet something that picks me up

from where I am and sets me down again in
a different time and in an altogether differ-
ent place. This happened to me recently when
I saw on a desk in the Reader office a book, A
Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoban. Neither the author nor the title
meant anything to me, but the picture on the cover, the drawing and the
colours were immediately recognisable. I learned to read in another lan-
guage, in another country, and my childhood copy of this book was not
in English but when I saw the pastel colours and a soft pencil picture of
the badger girl, the eponymous Frances, I remembered distinctly tasting
the sweets in my own mouth that Frances got for her birthday in one of
my old picture books.
Not being able to use the pretext of having my own children, I had
to admit that it was for myself, when I asked if I could borrow the book
for the weekend. It is an odd and slightly apprehensive feeling to go
back after so many years into a book that meant a lot to me as a small
child. I am happy to say, though, that Frances survived exposure to the
grown-up me unscathed. On the contrary, I was quite amazed that I
enjoyed the book, from my different vantage point, no less than before.
With admirable psychological intuition about her friend’s weaknesses

your recommendations

and a bit of her own cunning, Frances gets her money and her own
back after being tricked by her friend Thelma. (I won’t tell you how, go
to the library and find the book!) But it is a lesson in friendship, not
in cunning, when Thelma says ‘from now on I will have to be careful
when I play with you’ and Frances suggests that ‘being careful is not as
much fun as being friends’. The book ends with genuine reconciliation
between the two.
I sometimes puzzle over what it means to be grown-up, because
some things seem to me to grow in size and years, but not necessarily
in quality. The ability to assert one’s own place in life while at the same
time being generous in the face of others’ failings and remaining friends
is one of these things that don’t ever seem to become really easy. Maybe
it’s this that made me grateful for unexpectedly spending a bit of time
with such a kind little book, but even without its gentle guidance on
friendship, anything that facilitates my time travel so easily must be
special, as far as I’m concerned.


being moved
Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia
Picador, 2007
ISBN 978-0330418379

Sarah Coley

H ow many daunting undertakings are there left for

Oliver Sacks to accept? His all-but-impossible project
in Musicophilia is to trace the path – or the source
– of music in the human brain. There are moments
of genuine excitement here where you’re looking in
one direction, intrigued, for example, by the planum temporale – the
brain region whose development is connected with the rare and seem-
ingly purposeless sense of absolute pitch (‘Only think, Papa blows his
nose in G’) – and then suddenly without warning you’re down deep in
prehistory, staring at a human ancestor for whom a sense of pitch may
have been linguistically essential – a necessary part of understanding
and of being understood in a world of primitive noises.
This unpredictability of focus is everywhere in Musicophilia and
central to how you read the book. There are many ways that music
presents itself to the attention of the neurologist – as impairment, talent,
help and hindrance, and as downright insult in the case of the elderly
lady with insomnia and musical hallucinations, who has to listen in the
early hours to the ‘The Old Grey Mare ain’t what she used to be’ playing
in her head. But the common thread with most of these manifestations
is that they involve the self at a personal level. In New Scientist recently
(19 April, 2008) Sacks wrote of a crucial moment in his career – discov-
ering A. R. Luria, The Mind of a Mnemonist: ‘I read the first dozen or so


pages thinking it was a novel’, he says, rather than the neuropsycholog-

ical case history that it turned out to be. But the very possibility of that
mistake is what enticed him. Luria wanted to develop, Sacks writes,
‘what he called a “romantic science” – a science which embraced the
fulness of what it means to be a unique individual’. And then he adds
bravely: ‘Alexander Luria’s endeavour has become my own.’
Here is one of the stories that Sacks tells in Musicophilia, one of the
best ones. Clive Wearing, a composer and a conductor, suffered an en-
cephalitic infection in 1985 that stripped him of his autobiographical
memory, cut off all memory laid down after the 1960s, and left him
trapped in a moment of awareness that lasts a few seconds only. He
couldn’t lay down new memories. Sacks notes that Wearing wrote a
diary ‘to hold on to something’:
But his journal entries consisted, essentially, of the state-
ments ‘I am awake’ or ‘I am conscious,’ entered again and
again, every few minutes. He would write: ‘2.10 pm: this time
properly awake.… 2.14 pm: this time finally awake.… 2.35 pm:
this time completely awake,’ along with negations of these
statements: ‘At 9.40 pm I awoke for the first time, despite my
previous claims.’

The sheer rhythmic emphasis of ‘this dreadful journal’ could almost

make you feel you understand the repetitive discontinuity and his spo-
radic terror at it.
Yet two realities survive Wearing’s amnesia – his relationship with
his wife, Deborah, and his ability to play music and to be moved by it:
For many years he failed to recognise Deborah if she chanced
to walk past, and even now, he cannot say what she looks like
unless he is actually looking at her. Her appearance, her voice,
her scent, the way they behave with each other, and the inten-
sity of their emotions and interactions – all this confirms her
identity, and his own.

It is as if, all unguarded, the invisible emotion of love itself were the
perceiving, cognitive sense. The man knows that this is his wife because
he loves her. Sacks speculates that the memory is planted in Wear-
ing’s limbic system, where (as he explains) emotional memories from
infancy are stored that we cannot remember but which ‘may determine
one’s behaviour for a lifetime’. Love as knowing – it is dazzling to find
it here.
As with Deborah, Wearing remembers music only in the presence
of music, though the memory is different in its type. Sacks calls it a
procedural memory. Asked to play one of Bach’s Forty-Eight Preludes and


Fugues he declares (wrongly) that he has never played them before, and
he then plays Prelude 9: ‘His playing is infused with intelligence and
feeling, with a sensitive attunement to the composer’s style and mind’.
With his hands on the keyboard, playing, he knows the piece. He has
other ‘skills’ from ‘procedural memory’ that he can call upon in his daily
life; he can for example shave and calculate and find his way about,
though he could not give directions round the house where he lives. It
troubles Sacks that Wearing’s music could be automatic in just this way
– an ordinary task like shaving:
Clive’s performance self seems to those who know him, just
as vivid and complete as it was before his illness. This mode of
being, this self, is seemingly untouched by his amnesia, even
though his autobiographical self, the self that depends on ex-
plicit, episodic memories, is virtually lost.

There may be automatic skill in the performance but ‘to those who
know him’ there is also Clive Wearing, regathered and given shape by
the music. Is the way that music is stored in some way related to the
way that self is stored, linking backwards, yearning forwards? Sacks
comments: ‘Remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remember-
ing at all. Remembering music, listening to it, is entirely in the present’
– a blessing for a man who only has a present tense. It makes a possi-
ble relationship, stretching the seconds, but crucially for the observer
the fact that the man can be moved for those seconds makes him also
moving: ‘Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is
still a self to be called upon’. When Clive is found by the Bach piece, or
when dementia patients are engaged by music, they may not be able to
hold onto the moment – but there they are ‘vivid and complete’ for that
moment. They take the music’s time.
In the New Scientist article Sacks talks of the need to approach case
histories both from the perspective of ‘analytic, reductive science’ and
‘from that of a “romantic” narrative and an almost novelistic science’.
Bucking conventional expectations, he uses imagination because he is
a scientist, in order accurately to describe the patient’s reality. This is
Sacks the great novelist of real life.

The Reader Crossword
Cassandra No.22
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

9 10



13 14 15


17 18


20 21


23 24

25 26

*1 and 26 across. Struggling around hill, pink 2. This contemptible person is responsible
pair come across our poet (6, 6) for Greek hero’s fatal weakness (4)
5. We hear municipal vision for this US city 3. Swarming bees lack a rental agreement
layout (8) (9)
9. Nothing to do with being independent 4. In this spot one will discover fish (6)
(8) *5. Certainly not Ophelia’s experience (3, 4,
10. Melodious sound of boring group (6) 8)
11. Clerics chase letters from church leaders *6. See 8 down
(12) *7. Utilizing the sun’s energy in so large an
13. She features in a Lancastrian narrow boat area (5)
and the Staffordshire potteries (4) *8 and 6 down. Pentecostal unions? (3, 7, 8)
14. Wisdom of epic town? (8) 12. Travelling quite nude I transmit a sense of
17. Dollars man reports as costing nothing (8) uneasiness (10)
18. Inhabitant of icy region is first in not un- 15. Leading role for minor celestial body?
derestimating kinetics (4) (5,4)
20. Accompanied by five hundred, wild *16. Actor-manager’s arboreal family (3,5)
Theban beast vanquishes all opposition (5, 19. Can be a form of knowledge or material
3, 4) (6)
*23. In Dolgellau bad elocution can lead to a *21. According to Grahame one of these am-
form of poetry (6) phibians was a menace on the road (5)
24. Blind inhabitant of merchant’s city (8) 22. Almost a sense of enchantment invoked
25. Perhaps useless democrat is underem- by these wise men (4)
ployed (4,4)
*26. See 1 across

* Clues with an asterisk have a common


Buck’s quiz

‘my subject is war’

1. ‘Have you news of my boy Jack?’ Which poet asks this question?
2. What is the name of the former hairdresser whom Guy Crouchback
meets on the Scottish Island of Mugg?
3. Which book is set on the island of Anopopei during the assault on the
Philippines during WWII?
4. Stephen Spielberg produced a TV mini series about WWII called Band
of Brothers. Where does the title come from?
5. Which novel tells of Robert Jordan’s mission to blow up a bridge
during the Spanish Civil War?
6. Which books feature Billy Prior and his experiences in the trenches?
7. Who wrote, ‘Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose, / But young men
think it is, and we were young’?
8. Who turns up nude on the parade ground to receive a medal in
9. Which battle was fought because a snake bit a soldier on the foot and
he drew his sword?
10. In which novel is the world divided into the pacifists (the Eloi) and
those who wish to make war (the Morlocks)?
11. Who is ‘the certified idiot’ conscripted to serve in the armies of
Austria–Hungary in WWI?
12. In which 1949 novel does Stella Rodney have a passionate wartime
affair with a man from the War Office who later turns out to be a spy?
13. Which novelist, mostly known for his spy stories, wrote a novel
closely documenting an RAF bombing raid on Germany?
14. ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’. Where does this confronta-
tion take place?
15. ‘And we are here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms
of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ Where is

PRIZE for winning entry! See page 122

the back end

The sender of the first completed
puzzle will receive our selection of
World’s Classics paperbacks, while the
first correct entry to Buck’s Quiz bags
a copy of the Concise Oxford English
Dictionary. Congratulations to Angus
Pickles of Liverpool (crossword) and
to Pam Nixon of Oxford (quiz).

Please send solutions (marked either

Cassandra Crossword, or Buck’s Quiz)
to 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool
L69 7ZG.

Cassandra Crossword no. 21
9. Ostrogoth 10. Black 11. Skylark 12. Vedanta 13. Leech 14. Closest to
16. A proper marriage 19. The golden 21. Quest 22. Lessing 23. Niobium
24. Doris 25. Ostracise

1. Consultant 2. Stay near 3. Potash 4. Book 5. Chevrotain 6. A bad year 7.
Magnet 8. Skua 14. Ceredigion 15. One’s temper 17. Phoniest 18. Aperitif
20. Ensure 21. Quotas 22. Lady 23. Note

buck’s quiz no. 29

1. Robert Browning, ‘Home Thoughts, From the Sea’ 2. India 3. Anne of
Green Gables 4. The Brothers Karamazov 5. France 6. Belgium 7. ‘Where
burning Sappho loved and sung’ 8. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
9. Gulliver 10. Things Fall Apart 11. Half of a Yellow Sun 12. A Man For All
Seasons 13. The Tin Drum 14. Honduras 15. Walt Whitman

contributors 30
Melvyn Bragg is a writer and broadcaster. His most recent books are Twelve
Books That Changed the World (Sceptre 2007) and a new novel Remember Me
(Sceptre 2008).
Donna Coonan is the commissioning editor of Virago Modern Classics, a
rich and diverse list with a pioneering history. Iconic authors include Daphne
du Maurier, Angela Carter, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Muriel Spark.
Ryan Cunliffe is from Hemel Hempstead, dreams of becoming the next
Randall Jarrell and is travelling to the Matterhorn to become a sherpa.
Josie Dixon works as a consultant in the publishing industry, and gives
lectures and workshops on publishing research for around 30 universities
internationally. Formerly Academic Publishing Director at Palgrave Macmil-
lan (after many years at CUP), she studied English at Oxford.
Tessa Hadley is the author of two highly praised novels, Accidents in the Home
and Everything Will Be All Right. She lives in Cardiff and teaches English and
Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Her stories appear regularly in the
New Yorker, Granta and other magazines.
Lynne Hatwell, writer of the highly successful blog dovegreyreader and a
Devon-based community nurse for thirty years, is busy discovering the clas-
sics anew and now can’t read them fast enough.
Phill Jupitus is a writer, broadcaster and performer from Essex who likes the
poetry of Ian Dury, baseball, 1960s’ Jamaican ska and fish finger sandwiches.
Marion Leibl grew up in Munich and now lives in Liverpool. She works at
the University of Liverpool and divides her remaining time between training
as a psychotherapist and producing visual art.
John Lynch translated a Danish novel in 1969 but subsequently had little
time for such work while working as a language teacher and college librar-
ian. Now retired he is seeking publishers for three translated books, one
German, two Danish.
Billy Marshall Stoneking: I have been led into, and transformed by count-
less unexpected and miraculous adventures simply by seeking the answer to
the question, ‘where’s the drama?’, and then finding it.
Ian McMillan was born in 1956 and has been a freelance writer/performer/
broadcaster since 1981. He’s currently presenting The Verb on Radio 3 every
Friday night.
Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and writes a weekly column for The
Smart Set. He is an editor at and is a founding member of
Flux Factory, an arts collective in NYC.
Drummond Moir is from Edinburgh and now works at a non-fiction pub-
lisher in London. His favourite writers are Jonathan Safran Foer and Gerard
Manley Hopkins.
Blake Morrison is a novelist and journalist and probably best known for
his two memoirs, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Things My Mother
Never Told Me. His new novel is South of the River (Vintage 2008).
Les Murray has won many literary awards, including the Grace Leven Prize
(1980 and 1990), the Petrarch Prize (1995), and the prestigious T. S. Eliot
Award (1996). In 1999 he was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry
on the recommendation of Ted Hughes.
Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst and author of eleven previous books, in-
cluding Side Effects and Houdini’s Box. He writes regularly for The New York


Times, the London Review of Books, and The Observer, and is General Editor of
The Penguin Freud Reader.
Philip Pullman was educated in England, Zimbabwe, Australia and Wales
before becoming a teacher. He has published over twenty books and is best
known for his award-winning trilogy His Dark Materials.
Stephen Sandy’s books of poetry include The Thread, New and Selected Poems
(1998), Black Box (1999), Surface Impressions: A Poem in Eight Parts (2002),
Weathers Permitting (2005). He lives in Vermont.
Myra Schneider’s most recent poetry collection is Multiplying the Moon (Enit-
harmon 2004). Circling the Core is due this autumn. She has written and
co-written books about writing and children’s fiction. She is a tutor for The
Poetry School in London.
Matt Simpson lives in Liverpool and has published six books of poetry,
three with Bloodaxe, two with LUP and In Deep (Shoestring Press 2006). A
collection for children What the Wind Said is imminent. He reviews for Stride
and Orbis.
Tom Sperlinger is Director of Lifelong Learning in the English Department
at Bristol University.
Enid Stubin is Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community
College of the City University of New York and Adjunct Professor of Human-
ities at NY University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

The Reader Magazine

Subscription Information
UK (p&p free)
1 year 4 issues £24.00
2 years 8 issues £38.00
3 years 12 issues £57.00
Abroad (p&p free)
1 year 4 issues £36.00
2 years 8 issues £57.00
3 years 12 issues £86.00

Please make cheques payable to the University of Liverpool and post to

The Reader, 19 Abercromby Square, University of Liverpool, L69 7ZG.
Include your name and address and specify the issue with which you would
like your subscription to begin.
Save 20% on 2- and 3-year subscriptions.
The easiest way to take out a subscription abroad is by using Paypal on our

Distribution Information
For trade orders contact Mark Chilver, Magazine Department, Central Books
web: <>
tel:  0845 458 9925  fax 0845 458 9912
Central Books, 99 Wallis Road, London, E9 5LN
For any other queries regarding trade orders or institutional subscriptions,
please contact Jenny Tomkins in The Reader Office
email:   tel: 0151 794 2830


the inoculation

Frank Wedekind
Translated by John Lynch

I ’m not telling this story, my friends, in order to provide you with

some fresh example of female cunning or of male stupidity; no, I
am telling it to you because it embodies some curious psychological
features which will interest you and other people and from which
anyone aware of them might benefit in life. Above all, however,
I want to reject straight away any suggestion that my intention is to
boast about former misdeeds, indiscretions, which today I regret from
the bottom of my heart and for which, now that my hair has turned grey
and my knees shaky, I no longer have the inclination or the capacity.
‘There’s nothing to be afraid of, you lovely, young fellow,’ Fanny
said to me one fine evening, just as her husband had got back home,
‘because in general husbands are only jealous as long as they have no
reason to be. As soon as they do have cause, it’s as though they were
struck with an incurable blindness.’
‘I don’t trust the expression on his face,’ I retorted dejectedly. ‘I
think, he must have noticed something already.’
‘You misunderstand that expression, my lovely lad,’ she said. ‘His
facial expression is only the result of the method I use in order to make
him proof once and for all against jealousy and to protect him from ever
being seized by any troublesome suspicion of you.’
‘What sort of method is that?’ I asked in astonishment.


‘It’s a sort of inoculation. – On the day I decided to make you my

sweetheart, I told him straight to his face that I loved you. Since then I
repeat it to him every day on getting up and on going to bed. You have
every reason, I say, to be jealous of that nice boy. I love him so dearly,
and the fact that I do not fail in my obligations isn’t due to you or to me.
It’s entirely his fault that I remain so steadfastly faithful.’
At that point it became clear to me why her husband, for all his ami-
ability, often eyed me with such a strangely pitying, disdainful smile.
‘And do you really believe that this method will retain its effective-
ness permanently?’ I asked perplexed.
‘It’s infallible,’ she replied with the self-assurance of an astronomer.
All the same I still had great doubts about the inviolability of her
psychological calculations, until one day the following consequence
taught me better in surprising fashion.
At the time I was living in a small, furnished room on the fourth floor
of a tall tenement block in a narrow alley in the city centre and was in the
habit of sleeping well on into the day. One sunny morning at nine o’clock
the door opened and she walked in. What now follows I would never
have disclosed, if it did not offer evidence of one of the most astonish-
ing yet, nevertheless, most understandable delusions possible in human
spiritual experience. She removed every last stitch of her clothing and
joined me. And don’t expect anything more compromising or sugges-
tive than that from my story, dear friends. I must emphasise once more
that it is not my intention to entertain you with unseemly acts. Hardly
had the blanket veiled her bodily charms when footsteps were heard in
front of the door; someone knocked and I had just enough time to pull
the cover quickly over her head when in came her husband, dripping
with sweat and panting from his exertions climbing up the hundred and
twenty steps to my place, but with a beaming, joyfully excited face.
‘I just wanted to ask if you’d like to come on an outing with Röbel,
Schletter and me. We’re going by train to Ebenhausen and from there
by bike to Ammerland. Actually I intended to work at home today; but
my wife went off early to the Brüchmanns to see how their youngest
is getting on, and so I couldn’t rightly settle down on my own at home
in such glorious weather. I met up with Röbel and Schletter in the Lu-
itpold Café, and we decided upon this outing. Our train leaves at ten
By now I had had time to collect my thoughts together.
‘You can see,’ I said smiling, ‘that I’m not alone.’
‘Yes, I realise that,’ he responded with the same smile of mutual un-
derstanding. At the same time his eyes began to gleam and his jaw made
a champing motion. He edged his way forwards until he was standing
immediately in front of the chair on which I was in the habit of laying my


clothes. Right on the top lay a fine cambric lace-chemise with her name
embroidered in red together with two long, black silk, openwork stock-
ings with golden clocking. As there was no other visible sign of a female
presence his eyes fixed lecherously on to these items of wardrobe.
The moment was crucial. One more second and he would surely
remember having seen these garments somewhere before in this life.
At any price I had to divert his attention from this fateful spectacle
and ensure that it no longer slipped away from me. That was only to
be achieved, however, through something unprecedented. This thought
flashed like lightning through my mind; it led me to commit a brutish
act of such enormity that even today, after twenty years, I have not yet
forgiven myself, despite the fact that it saved the situation then.
‘I am not on my own,’ I said. ‘But if you had any inkling of how gor-
geous this creature is, you would envy me.’ Whilst saying this, at the
risk of smothering her, I frantically pressed the arm which had drawn
the cover over her head, against the spot where I supposed her mouth
to be, so as to prevent any sign of life from her side.
His gaze lustfully slid up and down the curving form revealed by
the blanket.
And now comes that outrageous, that unprecedented act. I took
hold of the coverlet at the bottom end and lifted it up to her neck, so
that only her head was still concealed. – ‘Have you ever seen anything
so fantastic in your life?’ I asked him.
His eyes opened wide, but he grew visibly embarassed.
‘Yes, yes – you can say that – you have good taste – well, I – I’ll be off
now – please excuse me – for – having disturbed you.’ – At that he re-
treated to the door, and slowly and deliberately I allowed the veil to fall
back again. Then I quickly sprang to my feet and placed myself near to
the door in such a way that he could not possibly see the stockings lying
on the armchair any longer.
His hand was already on the door latch as I said, ‘Anyway I’ll come
to Ebenhausen with the noon train. Perhaps you’ll wait for me there in
the Gasthof zur Post. Then we can ride to Ammerland together. That’ll
be a splendid outing. Thank you very much indeed for asking me.’
After making a few more friendly, jocular remarks he left the room.
I stood rooted to the spot until I heard his footsteps dying away in the
I won’t trouble to describe the dreadful state of rage and despera-
tion which the unfortunate woman felt after this scene. She seemed to
have gone to pieces and furnished me with such proofs of hatred and
contempt as I had never in my life experienced. Hurriedly donning her
clothes, she threatened to spit in my face. Naturally I made no attempt
to defend myself.


‘Where are you thinking of going to now then?’

‘I don’t know – to drown myself – home – or else to Brüchmanns
– to see how their youngest is getting on. – I don’t know.’
That afternoon at about two o’clock Röbel, Schletter, my friend
and I sat together under the shady chestnut tree alongside the Gasthof
zur Post in Ebenhausen feasting on roast chicken and gorgeous, juicy
lettuce. My friend, whose state of mind I observed with suspicion, reas-
sured me by his quite unusually cheerful mood. Triumphantly rubbing
his hands together and smirking he cast pointed, roguish glances at
me, without however revealing what it was that stirred his inner self
so gleefully. The trip passed off without further incident and towards
ten o’clock in the evening we were back in town again. Arriving at the
station, we arranged to meet in a public-house.
‘You don’t mind,’ my friend said, ‘if I just go home and fetch my wife.
She has been sitting the whole of this fine day with that sick child and
would take it amiss, if we left her to spend the evening alone at home.’
Soon afterwards he brought her along to the pre-arranged beer-
garden. Naturally the conversation centred on the outing just completed,
the participants using all their ingenuity to blow up its uneventfulness
into really worthwhile adventures. The young woman had little to say,
was somewhat abashed and did not deign to look at me. On the other
hand his jovial face bore an expression of conscious triumph even more
marked than that which had puzzled me so much during the afternoon.
Now, however, his superior, gloating looks were aimed not so much at
me as at his spouse sitting there lost in thought. It was just as if he had
enjoyed some inner, deeply satisfying redress.
Not until a month later, when I was alone again with the young wife
for the first time, was this mystery resolved for me. After I had had to
endure her fiercest reproaches, there ensued a tenuous reconciliation,
after whose hard-won realisation she confided in me, how on that par-
ticular evening when she was alone with him at home, her husband,
with folded arms, had lectured her as follows:
‘Today, my girl, I became better acquainted with your dear, sweet
youth. You quite openly avow your love for him every day, and you just
have no idea, how he’s poking fun at you. This morning I found him
in his rooms; he was not on his own, naturally. I fully understand now
why he doesn’t bother about you and scornfully rejects your feelings.
For his mistress is a woman of such ravishing, such stunning physical
beauty, that you with your scant, faded charms can’t possibly compete
with her.’
That, my friends, was the consequence of this inoculation. I have
only described it to you, so that you may be on your guard against this
magical device.


You might also like