Quick Review: “John Macnab” by John Buchan.

Back to the Buchan for me. I enjoy the Hannay novels greatly (dodgy Tory politics and off-colour remarks about jewish and black people aside). At his heart, Buchan is a master of plot and pacing. There is absoloutely no beating around the bush with this writer: He knows where he’s going and he never loses the reader on the way.

As with Hannay’s best stories, then, so with John Macnab. Unlike the Hannay books, the tone here is lighter by dint of a more light hearted plot. Set at the time of its writing in the 1920s, the book concerns three men (an emminent barrister,  a Cabinet Minister and a City bigshot) all of whom are in their early 40s. They are rather jaded and suffering from enuui, a sense of everything being too easy in life and of nothing providing them with much of a challenge any more.

I suppose I too would be more than a little bored and on the lookout for some diversion, if I were able to do my job with my eyes closed and had no money worries whatsoever. Strictly speaking, these aren’t the most engaginng characters in the world. We have a barrister who doesn’t really care about his clients’ cases; a Cabinet Minister who feels like he’s on autopilot (at one point Buchan descrbies him giving an off-the-cuff speech which is all waffle, consisting of platitudes stiched together from previous speeches given elsewhere); and a City high flier who I can imagine being more interested in watching raindrops fall down a window pane than counting his dough). How the heart bleeds.

Nonetheless, Buchan’s storytelling skill manages to invest this upper class ragbag with enough inherent interest to keep the story going. What these three need is an escape. Together they cook up a plan based on a tale they hear, about a man who a few years previously felt rather the same way. His way out was to poach fish and deer from properties that bordered his Highland property.

Duly inspired, these three pillocks of the establishment decide they will spend the late Summer at a Scottish property belonging to a younger acquaintance. Collectively adopting the pseudonym of John Macnab, they write to the owners of three neighbouring estatyes, informing two of them that a stag will be taken on a set date, and telling the remaining one that a salmon will be taken. By giving advance notice of the date, ‘Macnab’ is giving the owners’ fair warning, thus turning the whole criminal enterprise a sporting air.

What follows is a (of course) superbly written and flowing tale that never ceases to engage. And of course this being a Buchan adventure tale, the success of the enterprise is always in doubt, the ‘will they, won’t they?’ nature of the task forming the core of the narrative.

Along the way there are a couple of comments about jews and a few asides onTory politics, but these are altogether less dodgy than the like in the Hannay books. There’s also the whole concept of huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, things that some find distasteful but which here, of course, are discussed as if they’re as natural as making a killing in the City without one’s heart being in it, conducting court cases with one’s eyes closed, or feeling bored by one’s Cabinet level job. But then this is world Buchan knew and inhabited. Take it or leave it, we can’t change it.

All in all, then this is a classic Buchan. Read it with a sense of irony from our 21st century perspective, or just take it for what it is. Either way, if you try it you’ll more than likely enjoy it.

Quick Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron.

Thubron’s short 2011 book is an account of a trek from Nepal, through mountain passes heading north east and into Tibet. His ultimate destination is Mount Kailas, a mountain which is (according to the blurb of this book) “holy to one fifth of humanity”. The goal for pilgrims there (mainly Hindu and Bhuddist) is to circle the mountain.

I don’t think Thubron is either a Hindu or a Bhuddist, so why is he on this journey? “I am doing on account of the dead”, he writes early on. Following the death of his mother, he finds himself the last one living of his immediate family, and feels the need to go on a journey, which seems part of his way of trying to overcome (or at least come to an accommodation with) the sense of grief. Why Mount Kailas? “In the end,” he continues later in the same passage, “you come to rest at a mountain that is holy to others. The reason for this is beyond articulation. A journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at best a spartan comfort.”

The book is all the better for being realtively short, I think. I found it to be at its best when he is describing the journey itself and touching on his recollections of his family. There are no very lengthy passages of autobiography in this book, however, and I think that this is something of a shame, since it is at these points that Thubron’s writing is at its most poignant and resonant. For instance, one memorable passage sees him describing going through his mother’s possessions after her death, particularly old letters. There is also a very brief passage alluding to his sister’s early death at the age of 21 which is very affecting and raw.

I would have liked more of these personal reflections threaded all the way through the book. However, I got the feeling that they petered out somewhat from about halfway in, as he neared Mount Kailas. I think that this makes the book is slightly uneven,since the personal angle gradually gives way to the more familiar travel writing template of quoting choice bits of conversation from people met along the way, as well as descriptions of the journey, picking a particular thing seen or told about, and then going into wider contextual detail that may touch on religion, folklore, politics, history and the like.

This is all very well, and have no doubt that Thubron is a master of this style of travel writing. However, it is (dare I say) a tad dry and journalistic compared to the more personal (and hence engaging) aspects of the book where he writes about his personal history and the complex inter-relationship this has with this particular flight into the unknown. Normally his precise descriptions and lightly-worn erudition would be more than enough on their own (see his book In Siberia for instance for a masterclass of this style of travel writing). It is just that in the case of To a Mountain in Tibet he gets onto a different level of insight altogether for my money, ironically by writing about personal matters closer to home, and juxtaposing these with the foreign physical and spiritual climes in which he finds himself.

However, this remains a very worthwhile book and one I would highly recommend.

 

 

 

 

Short review: JL Carr “A Month in the Country”

Here’s the blurb from the back of the Penguin edition that I’ve just read. It sums up the novel well, but I will add couple of points of my own following the quotation:

J.L. Carr’s A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, first published in 1980 is a gem of a novel which explores the power of art to heal and restore. Tom Birkin, a damaged survivor of the First World War, is spending the summer uncovering a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of [the ficitious Yorkshire village of] Oxgodby. Joined by another veteran employed to look for a grave outside the churchyard he uncovers old secrets that bear on his experiences of conflict.

It’s not a long book. In fact it’s one of those which in a way are pretty much novella length (such as Henry James’s Daisy Miller or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) but which get classed as novels because of the depth and scope of themes and overall ambition.

Birkin is a specialist, called in as part of the bequest of a recently deceased local woman, one Miss Hebron, charged with uncovering and restoring a wall painting in the local church. His counterpart- Moon- is an archaeologist given the job as part of the same bequest to look for “the grave of Miss Hebron’s forebear, one Piers Hebron” who died in 1373.

Art, and its capactiy to heal and restore through our own contemplation and enjoyment of it, is certainly a key theme of the novel, as the blurb writer alludes to. The steady rhythm of work certainly has a calming effect on the shellshocked Birkin. At one point he states that “this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content”.

However, it’s also about memory, and our own perceptions of certain events in our lives when we look back. It’s also about people. As the narrator, who is Tom Birkin in later life looking back, says, “God, when I think back all those years! And it’s gone. It’s gone. All the excitement and pride of that first job, Oxgodby, Kathy Ellerbeck, Alice Keach, Moon, that season of calm weather- gone as though they’d never been”.

In fact, the passage I quoted first about having a foot in both present and past see Birkin say a little later on that uncovering “a great work of art wasn’t all of it [i.e. helping to clam him and make him generally  more positive]. There was this weather, this landscape, thick woods, roadsides deep in grass and wild flowers.”

And of course it’s a about the people listed above too, especially the Ellerbeck family who take a shine to Birkin, regularly having him over the Sunday lunch and getting him to help out at the Sunday school they run. And it’s also about Alice Keach, wife of the uptight vicar whose church it is that Birkin is working in. Birkin unquestionably gains much from his carefully practising his craft, which in turn uncovers the work of a great unknown artist in the church, but he also gains a lot from being immersed in a local community which accepts him. His relationship with the Vicar’s wife is altogether more problematic, but it seems even then that he comes away from this brief entangelement stronger in a way.

There’s not much in the way of out-and-out humour in the book, but I found the overall tone of it rather jaunty and matter-of-fact, straight to the point in an engaging way. In a sense this would jar with what we’d understand Birkin’s initial state of mind and general mood to have been, for not only was he shellshocked and plagued by a nervous twitch in his face as a result of his wartime experiences; it also transpires that his unfaithful wife has just run away with another man. However, it’s the old Hemingway-esque trick of making the tone and language jar with what’s being described, in order to make the reader fill in the emotional gap and make the full realisation for themselves.

Birkin’s tone as a narrator looking back is eaxctly what’s required, however, as it emphasises the distance in time and temerament from himself then as a young man in the very early 20s, to himself as an older man looking back at that healing month in the country. That month was the pivot in his life.

(The book was made into a 1987 film, which I’ve never seen, and just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, you probably can’t judge an entire film by its trailer. However, on balance I won’t bother to seek out the film. While the book’s core story is strong enough to bear a film adaptation, there is far more depth to this novel than you can really replicate on screen: inevitably too much is lost, and not enough is gained. The tone set by the trailer feels over-serious to me, wheras the book’s various moods are far more lifelike in their ebb and flow, the highs and lows and in-betweens.)

Verdict: A straightforward but very deep book that is satisfying on every level, with pitch-perfect yet uncontrived symbolism. It’s also  a very quick read to boot. Perfect!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Review: “A Small Place in Italy” (1994) by Eric Newby

Author Eric Newby (1919- 2006) is one of the more notable twentieth english travel writers. I have long been aware of his name, but up to now I hadn’t read any of his books. When I saw a copy of A Small Place in Italy  in a charity shop I bought it to see what I made of Newby.

The first point to make is that this isn’t a travel book as such, or at least it’s not an account of a journey. Instead it’s a memoir of the Italian holiday home that Newby and his wife Wanda owned between the 1960’s and the early 1990’s.

So the book is an account of life in this farmhouse that they owned, situated in the hills in the region on the Tuscan/ Ligurian border.

‘Colourful’ Italian characters and descriptions of rural life abound. Standout passages include a description of how the Newbys sought out and bought the house in the first place; an account of how they knocked the house into shape; and Newby’s account of his walk among the Appenines.

To be honest, I found that some of the longer descriptions of rural life (such as the grape harvest) were interesting enough but went on a bit too long. Indeed, the book starts of as a roughly chronological account of how they bought and did the place up in the 60s. After the first few chapters, though, that it gets more general, and the book becomes a series of vignettes and character sketches, intended no doubt to give a general flavour of what life there was like.

But the book retains its charm. I suppose it’s worth remembering the publishing context from the early 90s. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence was a massive publishing hit, and second home ownership among Britains looking for a place on the Continent was on the rise. Tuscany was also becoming something of a holiday magnet for the British middle class. So no doubt A Small Place in Italy was aimed at that general market.

However, it stands on its own merits as a book that would make a decent read for someone wanting to get away from it all, transported by a writer who is never less than excellent company. The final sale and taking leave of their Italian idyll was clearly a great wrench for the Newbys and so this book reads exactly as what it was: an attempt to remember and portray the good times and the good life,  and a good-natured labour of love.

 

Verdict: Not the place to start if you’re a Newbie ‘noob’. If you want to get a feel for why he’s considered one the best English travel writers start elsewhere. Otherwise, though, this is a charming and pleasant book.

 

A review of Hostage to the Devil by Malachi Martin

The 2015 case of a Spanish priest, who was under investigation by civil authorities for performing a series of exorcism upon a teenaged girl with anorexia, coincided with my finishing off a book by the noted author and conservative Catholic, the late Malachi Martin.

I am neither Catholic, conservative (with either a small or large C) and neither am I possessed (so far as I or others can tell). My only link to this subject is that I recently read some Dennis Wheatley novels and I have seen The Exorcist. Suuitably qualified, I dived straight in to this odd book…

The main starting point for my reading this book was, oddly enough, Youtube. we’ve all been there: you watch a particular video and then lo and behold the site suggests similar viewing material which, on the surface, has little to do with what you’ve just watched. In my case the Youtube suggestion was of a radio interview of Martin conducted in the late 1990’s by the US talk show host Art Bell.

Art Bell is pretty much unknown in the UK. US readers will probably know who he is, viz. the original host of the late night talk show Coast to Coast AM, a program which specialises in interviews with authors and investigators on the occult, conspiracies, UFOs and all other branches of the (for the mainstream) off-limits and the arcane. With the exception of one new show there is nothing really comparable on UK commercial or public service radio, although there are some podcasts that touch on these topics.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I listened to this interview and was interested to say the least. Martin was for many years until his death at the end of the 90’s, an exorcist, an told many a story of his experiences. He was also for a long time a serving Priest, although it seems that he left the Church (in something of a huff it seems) in the mid 60’s, following the various reforms kicked off by the Second Vatican Council earlier that decade. He objected to many of the changes that took place then, which must have made Martin A VERY CONSERVATIVE CATHOLIC INDEED.

A ‘fuddy-duddy old Priest’ is how he described himself at one point in an interview with Bell, and he certainly was an old-school Catholic. This is a man for whom the traditional teachings and beliefs of the Catholic Church carried weight over and above any other moral and religious teaching. It’s a mindset closer to the ‘fire and brimstone’ view of the world and of spirituality, a world away from-say- the modern Church of England with its women Priests, women Bishops, widespread grassroots support of Gay marriage (despite dissenting conservatives in the ranks) and the recent talk about dropping references to the Devil in the Baptismal services.

No. For a mind like Martin’s the Devil is real, evil is a distinct entity, demons exist and possession is a fact.

So far, so intriguing. The book “Hostage to the Devil” is artfully crafted and very well written. I do wonder the extent to whcih you could bracket it (in terms of style and form) with the ‘non-fiction novel’ approach popularised by Truman Capote in a book like In Cold Blood. There are in Martin’s book several novelistic touches. His four case studies as presented in this book read like stories in themselves.

Even if not all of them are all 100% factually true, they are still scary. I think overall, however, this is a book written not to shock or titilate, but to warn. The overall tone is one of warning and admonition. All four of the people who Martin claims were possessed all in some way deviated from the moral path as outlined by the Church.  Only the Church is capable, in martin’s view, or truly saving them. Ostensibly, then, the book is an in-depth look into the work of an Exorcist. Deep down, however, it’s a cautionary tale and an attempt to affirm the superiority of the Catholic Church.

Verdict: This is a very well written book. You may take some bits with a pinch of salt, but that probably won’t stop you from wanting to sleep with the lights on.

 

 

 

Two inside looks at the Old Boys’ network

It’s not what you know but who you know, as the old phrase goes, and it’s an annoying  fact that in modern-day Britain the old boys’ network is as strong as ever. But what are the people like who attempt to form the hearts and minds of these old boys when they are still schoolboys?

Two books which give a little insight into the policies, prodecdures and the very general  ethos of two of Britian’s ‘great public schools’ are The Old Boys’Network by the late John Rae, Headmaster of Westminster School in the 70s and 80s; and the more recently published An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education by the former Head of Eton, Tony Little.

Rae’s book is an slection of diary entries written when he was head of one Britain’s most prestigious schools, Westminster in Central London, hard by Westminster Abbey. Personally speaking, I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of Head Teachers, whether they are worknig in the state or private sectors. They always strike me as being- by and large- a melancholy mixture of salesperson, chief constable and chief exectutive. If you rund a boarding school, then add prison warder to the list. Pedagogy is the last thing they seem to be concerned about.

While a lot of Rae’s book is concerned with promoting and developing his School and maintaining discipline (mainly through cracking down on illegal drug use in Westminster) to his credit he did actually balance leadership duties with some actual classroom teaching. How many secondary school heads could one say of this today? Most of them give one the impression that they are Heads precisely BECAUSE they couldn’t wait to get out the classroom. Rae, by contrast, gives me the impression that he was a very good teacher first and foremost, and it was teaching and learning that concerned him most. Everything stemmed from that.

Rae it seems to me was also somewhat out of step with the private school ethos of the time. When it comes down to it, private schools are businesses: If they don’t attract enough fee paying parents then they fold. He was an opponent of the ‘Assisted Places Scheme’ a Thatcherite policy that gave financial assistance to parents who wanted their children to goto a fee paying school. This opposition it seems made him unpopular with many of his colleagues in the Headmaster’s conference.

That said, while he was something of a political liberal, he defended to the hilt the right of public schools to exist. In one passage that sticks in my mind, he describes going to a meeting where he defended schools of Westminster’s ilk, by saying that the only sure fire way to cut the public schools down to size was for state schools to get better.

Of course this is easier said than done. One could be the Head of the best performing state school in the country. But would that give one licence to, when presented with a child of middling ability who failed to get into the Oxford College of his choice, then phone round other Colleges until a place was found? Would it also give one licence to, when a boy tells you he quite fancies a career in political journalism, pop round for tea with the editor of The Times with the young man to discuss such a career? Both things Rae did, and both were thanks to the status of Westminster as a school and the old boys’ network.

Was he wrong for doing these things? I say not. But is it wrong that such a state of affairs exitsted then and still existed now? Of course it bloody well is. Several times in the book Rae acknowledges the contradiction between wanting to do his best by the children in his care, while knowing that it is merely reenforcing the old boys’ network.

 

An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education (despite the rather pompous title which is no fault of Little’s, the book being published as part of a series of “Intelligent Person’s” guides) is a decent read. Now while I see Eton as one of the very bastions of cronyism in this country, Little has some commonsense ideas about education. While one could take issue with some of what he says, the passages dealing with the practical changes he’d like to make to the general education system in this country in particular make for very interesting reading. It’s rather sad that some of them- like students applying for university AFTER they have their A Level results- are sensible ideas of the kind that Governments neither deabte not propose.

Indeed, the last two (Coalition and Conservative) adminsitrations have been notably guilty of imposing wholesale changes to curriculum and school administration, and fallen into the trap of overloading teachers and pupils with too much, too soon. Perhaps it is the fact that by and large they remain largely aloof from all this meddling and attempts to reinvent the pedagogical wheel, that ensures the strongest fee-paying schools are able to focus squarely on securing the best advantages for their pupils. Largely untouched, they can concentrate on doing what they are paid to do: grinding out the results and greasing the wheels of the Old Boys’ Network.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Chilers

The Riddle of the Sands is something of a landmark in English fiction. Of its wider significance I will speak later. To start, however, here’s a brief summary of the book.

It concerns a young English Civil Servant, Carruthers, who out of the blue at the beginning of Autumn, one afternoon in the early years of the twentieth century, receives a telegram from an old acquaintance called Davies. Davies requests Carruthers’s company on his boat which is currently on the German coast of the Baltic Sea. Not having anything better to do, and despite his initial misgivings, Carruthers agrees to go and see Davies.

Initially Carruthers feels that his worst fears have come to pass. He hates Davies’s boat, feels like he’s wasting his time, and what’s more Davies seems to be acting rather strange and distant.

Tensions build until they finally come to a head, when Carruthers gets his friend to come clean about what’s on his mind and affecting his behaviour. It is then that Davies tells his tale and the story really starts.

Davies tells of a chance encounter when he was sailing his boat, the Dulcibella, along and around the German North Sea coast. There he met a German called Dollmann. One day when they were out sailing in bad weather, Dollmann said hat he would take Carruthers through a short cut among the coastal islands and islets, in order to take him to the nearest safe haven. Davies soon gets into trouble and loses sight of Dollmann’s boat, however, and he is convinced that Dollmann in fact was trying to get him killed through capsizing or being run aground.

Piecing things together for Carruthers’s benefit, Davies theorises that Dollmann wanted him out of the way because, as an Englishman, it would be dangerous for him to gain so much knowledge about how to safely navigate the German North Sea coast. Furhtermore, Davies’s belief that Dollmann wished him fatal harm at sea fuels the Englishman’s sense that something suspicious may be going on along the North Sea coast. When pressed on this, Davies admits to Carruthers that he fears there may be some kind of build up of forces or long term planning for a possible attack on the English coast. He even suggests (and remember that this book was published some eleven years before World War 1) that an all-out confrontation between the two nations may be a distinct possibility one day.

Gradually Carrathers starts to see things from Davies’s point of view, and the rest of the book becomes the account of how the two attempt to unravel the ‘riddle of the sands’, a title which can be taken on at least three levels: Who is Dollmann and what is he up to? What is the true nature of this unique and difficult-to navigate coastline? And is there any substance to Davies’s fears of a German naval build up in the area?

As a tale, Childers’s story is engaging and plausible, while as a piece of descriptive writing it brings to life this fascinating part of the world. Subtitled “A Record of Secret Service”, the book also has claim to being one of the very first of the modern spy stories. Apparently it was a favourite of John Buchan, and a close reading if Chapter One of the The Riddle of the Sands illustrates the clear general resemblance between Carruthers and Buchan’s famous hero Richard Hannay as that character describes himself in Chapter One of the great story The Thirty Nine Steps. Both are rather jaded and cynical young men-about-town going somewhat stale in London, and who reveal better aspects of their respective natures once pressed into vital- if wholly unexpected and unlooked for- work that turns out to be of national importance.

Childers’s book in my view still stands up in purely narrative and literary terms. Yet its significance goes far further. From its first publication, this was a book that changed minds and had significance: one could say even genuine political influence. In its description of the potential German threat to a British coast that was relatively weakly defended (at a time when Britannia still ruled the World’s waves, but to the relative neglect of its own shoreline) Childers’s book turned heads among the powers that be. It partly helped inspire the construction of new naval bases along the east coast as well as  the bolstering of the North Sea Fleet, all of which played an important part in naval engagements during World War One.

Yet arguably even more intriguing than the riddle posed by this evocative novel, is that which stands front and centre in Childers’s own life. Clearly this was a man who loved his country and its Empire so much that he wanted to warn people about what he perceived to be a threat on its own doorstep. And yet he ended his life embroiled in Irish Nationalist politics and executed in that country by the Free State in the early 20s.

Just riddle me that.

 

 

 

Happy World Book Day. Except in the UK…

World Book Day in the UK is arguably just a marketing opportunity and a fancy dress contest. Let’s make it a REAL celebration of the printed word instead.

In the vast majority of countries, today is World Book Day, a shared celebration of the printed word spanning cultures, countries and continents.  As usual though, old stick-in-the-mud UK goes it alone and contrives to do things differently. Consequently, our ‘World’ Book Day currently takes place at the end of March. Except it’s not a wholly innocent celebration of the printed word. And it’s falling short on several fronts. What follows is my own personal take on UK WBD as a parent and as a reader, and my own suggestions for what could really breathe life into the day on our islands.

So it’s intended to promote books (and I assume the general cause of literacy) in the UK. It’s also spawned its own tradition of giving schoolchildren a chance to dress up as their favourite book character. So far, so seemingly wholesome and innocent. But as a someone who likes to read, who values books and book culture, and as a parent myself (veteran of six World Book Days and counting…) I have my doubts that it genuinely fulfils the nobler of the intentions that UNESCO had in mind when WBD was established in the 90’s. Lest anyone accuse me of being a grumpy old git, let me point out that only a total cretin would NOT want the cause of literacy or the joy of reading to be promoted. And who am I to say kids shouldn’t get a chance to spend a day out of their dowdy school uniforms? So be clear: stick in the mud I am not. But cynic I most certainly am. That said I’m a cynic who doesn’t want to be so, because I can see how things could be so much better and brighter about World Book Day in the UK, if only it were a genuine celebration of book culture with nary a thing to be cynical about.

A bit of background…

 The official UNESCO designation is of World Book and Copyright Day, which is actually celebrated worldwide on April 23rd. Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director-General, describes the day thus on UNESCO’s website (certain items put in bold by me, by the way):

On World Book and Copyright Day, UNESCO invites all women and men to rally around books and all those who write and produce books. This is a day to celebrate books as the embodiment of human creativity and the desire to share ideas and knowledge, to inspire understanding and tolerance […] Books are not immune from a world of change, embodied in the advent of digital formats and the transition to open licensing for knowledge-sharing. This means more uncertainty but also new opportunity — including for innovative business models in the world of publishing. Change is raising sharp questions about the definition of the book and the meaning of authorship in the digital era. UNESCO is leading from the front in the new debates about the dematerialization of books and the rights of authors. By championing copyright and open access, UNESCO stands up for creativity, diversity and equal access to knowledge. We work across the board – from the Creative Cities of Literature network to promoting literacy and mobile learning and advancing Open Access to scientific knowledge and educational resources. For instance, in partnership with Nokia and Worldreader, UNESCO is striving to harness mobile technology to support literacy. 

So let’s try and cut through the flannel here and look at things another way: There’s the usual high-minded and ambitious sentiment about wanting to promote literacy; to celebrate books, authors and the transmission of knowledge; and  to preserve and sustain book culture because it’s a source of collective and personal empowerment. I’m not going to argue with that. But as the parts I’ve put in bold clearly imply, the link between World Book Day and the publishing industry has always been there (remember that ‘Copyright’ bit), and we’d be fools not to bear that in mind amid all the noble and lofty sentiment. By the way, Irina, I’d keep a close eye on the “dematerialisation of books” problem. I seems like all those British schoolkids dressed as Harry Potter have been waving their wands a bit too hard…

Meanwhile back in the UK…

As I see it, the problems with World Book Day in its British form are various, and it’s the result of misplaced priorities.  In the UK World Book Day is organised by a charity,but i would be very surprised if that didn’t take a large part of its direction from the publishing industry. As the World [i.e. UK] Book Day wesbsite says: World Book Day Ltd is a registered charity whose financing of World Book Day comes mainly from contributing publishers, the generous sponsorship of National Book Tokens Ltd, some literacy partnerships and other supporters, as well as the participating booksellers who fund the entire cost of Book Token redemption. While some of WBD’s partners are charitable organisations engaged in promoting the general cause of literacy both at home and abroad, let’s get down to bass tacks: On balance of probability, it’d be fair to argue that  publishers and the book trade stump up a lot of the upfront cost for WBD in the hope of a return in the form of boosted sales. How does this fit in with the nobler of UNESCO’s core aims, viz. inviting people to reflect on the very notion of books, and to send them away with a renewed sense of the power of books to educate, inspire, inform, entertain, instruct, enrich, sustain, promote, alter, reinvent, provoke, protect, deceive, destroy…?

Well I’m not sure it gets us very fair. In my experience in the UK, World Book Day is as much about shifting product as it is about feeding minds and animating the collective human spirit. Let’s get specific.   1) In the UK we don’t ‘celebrate’ World Book Day actually ON World Book Day.   No minor point this, so bear with me. World Book Day in the UK should actually be called UK Book Day, because it currently falls at the beginning of March.  Almost everywhere else in the world it’s on April 23rd. The reason? Well Wikipedia (a useful source even when it’s wrong) currently states that  “in the UK, World Book Day is held annually on the first Thursday in March, as 23 April clashes with Easter school holidays; 23 April is also the National Saint’s Day of England, St George’s Day.” There’s also this justification which is taken from the ‘World Book Day’ website: In the UK and Ireland World Book Day is on Thursday 5 March 2015. This date came about after serious thought and lengthy discussion to ensure that we were making the best decision for all participants and our supporters. We take into consideration religious holidays, school terms and potential conflict with other charitable activities. In other countries World Book Day takes place at a different time of year – usually in April. As most people would be able to tell you, this point about April 23d clashing with the Easter holidays is a red herring. Easter is rarely so late in the year. The worst that would happen is that this would ‘clash’ with the beginning of a school term. I can’t remember the last time the Easter Holidays actually ate so far into the end of April. It does happen, but it’s no big deal. As for April 23rd also being St George’s Day, well so what? Some people ‘celebrate’ it but it’s not exactly a major date in most people’s calendar in the UK, despite noisy protestations of a vocal minority or recent half-baked attempts to raise its profile in recent years. Some english schools make an attempt to acknowledge it in some way, but when they tried this at my kids’ school they said come dressed in a way that reflects the St George story or in something that reflects England. One kid came in a dragon ‘onesie’ while a few appeared in England football shirts. What a staggeringly successful affirmation of the patriotic spirit. Of course April 23rd is actually one of the most auspicious days in the UK literary calendar, being the anniversary of the Bard Shakespeare’s  birth and death. Even UNESCO refer to that. What’s the UK publishing industry’s problem? Make no mistake: To cite clashes with the Easter holidays, St George’s day or any other reasons is just spurious. The real reason that we have World Book Day in the UK during the dog-end of Winter rather than in the first flush of Spring, as I recall Private Eye among others have pointed out in the past, is that the main funder and driver of World Book Day in the UK is the British book trade. It suits their commercial purposes to have an influx of book-token-touting kids going into bookshops when the new titles of the quarter are being released. What was that they say again? Oh yes, “in the UK and Ireland World Book Day is on Thursday 5 March 2015. This date came about after serious thought and lengthy discussion to ensure that we were making the best decision for all participants and our supporters”. [Items in bold are mine].  Since the children’s book market is so lucrative in the UK, World Book day effectively spearheads the first major sales push of the year after Christmas. Cynical, moi? Not half as cynical as the average publisher, baby. In fact I’m a softy idealist at heart. I say celebrate World Book Day in the UK actually ON World Book Day, in perfect harmony with our brothers and sisters everywhere else in the world, and also to honour the Bard for good measure. It’s wouldn’t even be half so big an inconvenience as some would have you think.

2) This dressing up malarky.  I refer not to the elaborateness of some costumes. I refer not the cost. It’s the prerogative of each parent as to how much time or cash they part with in order to make their child or children dress up. I refer instead to what the children actually dress up as. Let’s look at the name of the day again. World Book Day. For the hard of thinking or those who don’t own any books, let write that again with a hint. World BOOK Day. Yes, I’m addressing you, parent of the child in my daughter’s class who let their son go dressed in a full Real Madrid kit with ‘Ronaldo’ written on the back. Are you stupid? I don’t care if Ronaldo’s appeared in Panini sticker books. I don’t care if he’s had books written about him. The bloke might even have an autobiography, not that I give a damn. Ronaldo is a footballer. It was World Book Day. Where is the logical connection?  You parents are guilty of extracting several large vats full of urine. For the parents of the four children dressed as Lego Ninjago characters there are no words. Other than to say that I suspect the last new book to enter your home was probably the Yellow Pages. I’m also thinking of you, the parents of children who go dressed as Darth Vader or a Stormtrooper. As my son rightly says, if you’re going to dress as a character out of a film, at least have the common sense to choose someone who has appeared in the book first, and then appeared  in the film of the book. I’ve even got those of you in my sights whose kids go as Spiderman or Batman. “But they’re characters out of comics!” Yes they are. And granted some of those comics can be very good. But face it, you too are extracting the urine. Why? Well it’s because it’s more convenient to let your child go dressed in a play outfit they already have, one with only a tenuous link to a celebration of BOOKS (not comics, and PLEASE DON’T SAY THAT COMICS ARE A KIND OF BOOK BECAUSE THAT’S NEVER BEEN THE TRADITION IN THE UK). It indicates to me that Batman or Spiderman is probably the most intellectually advanced reading material to be found in your home. And there, I;ve said it now. Yes, parents like you are also very thick indeed. I think it’s essentially up to UK schools to show some backbone on this, by actually talking to children about what they might like to go dressed as, and trying their utmost to get children’s head around the fact that it really has to be a character who can be found (or was first found) in a genuine BOOK. “Oh but we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings!” Oh grow up! Would you let a child consistently give the wrong answers to a series of sums and not correct them for fear of hurting his feelings? Of course not. And yet you still let children come dressed as Ronaldo or Lego Man to world book day. You are teachers. You are there to guide and educate. You are there to support the qualities of curiosity, excellence and truth exemplified in the very best books. The least you can do is help a child tell the difference beforehand between an attacking forward for Real Madrid and a character in a book. Better still, some parents might say, don’t encourage the kids to dress up at all, or vigorously send the message that there’s no shame in not dressing up.  After all, there are many (parents and children alike) for whom this dressing up lark is nothing but an annual pain in the backside, a waste both of time and money.

3) Those book tokens.  Hmmm. They haven’t got it right have they? So each child comes home with a token giving them either a free book or a quid (that’s ONE SINGLE, SOLITARY, LONELY, MEASLEY LITTLE QUID) off a book priced £2:99 or more. Now my kids are avid readers with catholic tastes, but they never, and I mean NEVER, go for any of the free books on offer. What I have to put up with instead (and I have genuinely heard this from other children as well) are complaints from my children that the free books don’t look very good, but that they still want to use their token on something else in the shop. Which is interesting, because my children don’t normally pester me to buy them books just like that. Unless, of course, the idea has been planted in their heads… That’s not to say that the free books are all without merit, but on the whole they always seem rather middling to poor fare to my kids. They’re slimmed down volumes, often consisting of little more than excerpted and previously published material. I see them hanging around bookshops near me for months afterwards. And a quid off a news book is neither here nor there really when (and sod it, let’s be completely cynical about this) you can save far more by ordering a book off certain internet sites. I wonder if you’ve experienced the same thing? When it comes down to it, just how many of those book tokens go unredeemed? Of course, we’ve already established that the main drivers behind UK World Book Day are the publishers and book floggers themselves, so little wonder that the day is capped off with the ceremonial handing over to each child of the blessed Token. It strikes me that the kids’ time (and money if it comes to that) would be better served by a trip to the local library or a second hand bring and buy book fair in each school: bring your old books and come away with some new ones.

4) Are schools really joining in the party?  In too many schools, World Book Day is just another day, albeit with the kids dolled up in fancy dress. Not enough schools are really joining the party by putting on an extensive series of book and literacy themed events. Some do (and some schools make sure their annual ‘Book Week’ coincides with Book Week and that there is a consistent set of activities over several days to promote all aspects of reading and- in the most outstanding examples- the children’s own creative writing. But I repeat: in far too many British schools, it’s Just Another Day with the exception of some funny  costumes.

5) UK WBD is aimed overwhelmingly at CHILDREN. The children’s market incidentally remains one of the most lucrative sectors of the UK publishing market in these uncertain and changing times. There are a few initiatives in the UK aimed at older readers (some taking place on or around the official WORLD Book Day on April 23rd. But still if you piece together what seems to be happening on UK WBD in March, it’s a case of shifting product.

So should we do anything about it? 

Here are some random suggestions for ways to put books and book culture at the very heart of UK Book Day, and to give it a truly international feel…

1) Celebrate World Book Day actually ON World Book Day.

Enough British exceptionalism.

2) Find an alternative to the Book Tokens. 

Make it worthwhile to use them. Let me be viciously blunt about this: £1 off the price of a new book is a lousy idea of a discount. Maybe we hold just ditch them. And remember that as a parent, if you don’t like the books on offer, make a point of taking your kids to the library instead. Or perhaps visit a second hand bookshop or a charity shop.

3) Remember everyone that it’s not World New Books Day, it’s World Book Day. 

That’s books in general, which doesn’t just mean living authors with product to shift. Let’s celebrate everybody.

4) Do we really have to have all that dressing up? 

I write as someone who gets away with it pretty lightly: There have been tears and arguments in our house over costumes, but not for a while now. The past couple of years I have just let my kids get on with it themselves and they’ve done very well.

A lot of people would be glad to see the back of this ‘tradition’, however.

The fact remains that there are a great many parents feel under great pressure to help their children go to town on the costumes. A lot of the time this leads to arguments and frustration, and 3am dashes to the all-night supermarket to get that all-important item to finish off a costume for the next morning.

Let’s not forget as well, that there are always children who for whatever reason don’t go dressed up as a character. Spare a thought for them (there, I told you I wasn’t such a cynic after all).

Once, just once, it’d be lovely to hear of a school who encouraged their pupils not to worry so much about dressing up and who found a simpler way of celebrating UK Book Day.

Which brings me to point five…

5) Why not encourage the children to take their favourite book into school instead? 

This might entail just as much thought as choosing which character to dress up as, but ultimately it’d be far less hassle, involve far less effort, fewer tears and less expense.

It’d also symbolise UNESCO’s values far more. Children take these things seriously. Let’s get them to share there enthusiasm for a book in a truly meaningful way, rather than encouraging them to flaunt it (i.e. by dressing up) in a more shallow manner.

The following points are aimed mainly at Schools…

6) See points 4 and 5 above. Don’t be afraid to buck a trend.

7) April 23rd is also Shakespeare’s birthday. Some sensible teachers and schools know this band do something curriculum based to exploit it for learning opportunities. Most schools don’t, and they are looking a gift horse in the mouth.

8) Have two world book days. Play the game if they insist on still playing it, i.e. dole out the tokens in March so no-one feels left out, and so you don’t get any snide and negative headlines in the local or national press.  But make it clear to the children in your charge that the real fun will be in April. Give them a sense of being part of a worldwide celebration of the book.

9) Use World Book Day to introduce the literatures of other cultures into your lessons. And by other cultures, I don’t just mean the Commonwealth stuff so beloved of GCSE English literature courses. Your kids will learn/ are learning enough about that. Instead, show some intellectual curiosity and ambition yourselves. Look to our European neighbours (April 23rd also happens to be Cervantes’s birthday too of course). There’s a massive wider European cultural tradition that our kids are unaware of.

And lastly one for the BBC and Channel 4…

10) More coverage of books is needed. I’m not aiming this point at commercial UK broadcasters. They are largely a hopeless case. Instead as the national broadcaster and a public service one to boot, I expect far more from the BB and C4.  Aside from the odd factual programme on Radio 4 (most of which reach only to the converted anyway…) and book adaptations on radio, the BBC’s coverage of books in general and literature has largely lost its way.

Time for a rethink. I personally think that a UK version of the notable French series Apostrophes could work extremely well.

And finally…

One-off celebration days are great, but each time you put your mind to opening a book with the intention of enjoying it or getting something from it, you are in your own way celebrating our collective book culture and learning. Make everyday a World Book Day.

Cherry trees for Spring

I can’t give you snow-white cherry blossoms this morning, but I can offer this picture of pinkish blossoms in full bloom outside my house this fine, clear April morning.

Which brings me to AE Housman again, who despite sounding a typically mournful note in this poem from A Shropshire Lad, still (perhaps) manages to keep it upbeat enough for Spring. It’s not Eastertime today either, but I can only assume it was an Easter later in April which Housman imagined…

Still, whatever the more maudlin traits if this poem, one of its strands remain clear: enjoy
the blossoms while you can.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

image

Sympathy for the old Devil: an appreciation of Dennis Wheatley

From the 1930s right through to the 1970s, Dennis Wheatley was one of the best-selling authors in the United Kingdom and in the english speaking world. While his books remain in print (I understand for example that they’ve just been relaunched in e-book ‘editions’) his profile is nowhere near as high as it was in his heyday.

This is a shame, for like other writers who wrote well, were prolific and much loved in their day (John Buchan is another who springs to mind) Wheatley is in danger of not enjoying the audience that his talents deserve.

I can’t claim to have read much of his very large output, but I’ll try to summarise it thus: he wrote mainly thrillers, and these sometimes had an historical setting. He also made use of recurring characters. Unlike some authors who are famous for one main character (e.g. James Bond, Harry Potter and so on) Wheatley had numerous popular protagonists in his stable. Among these are the adventurer Gregory Sallust, Roger Brook, and the magnificent character of the Duke de Richleau.

One of Wheatley’s continuing claims to fame are his occult novels, which are all excellent, page0turning thrillers which combine the usual thrills and spills of the genre with a heavy dose of the macabre, the darker side of the Occult and satanism.

The book which set the tone for this aspect of the author’s output is the truly magnificent The Devil Rides Out.  Featuring a cast of characters headed up by the Duke de Richleau, a French aristocrat exiled in England, is is a true battle of god against evil. It sees the Duke and his close circle of friends literally battling to save the soul of their friend Simon Aron, a man who it turns out has extraordinary psychic powers which are of use to a highly sinister magus (who, it is widely believed, is probably a thinly veiled portrait of Aleister Crowley, a man personally known to Wheatley, and who advised the author on various- shall we say-  technical details). This is kind of rollicking thriller that is so well written that it makes its three hundred odd pages fly by as if there were only thirty.  It’s all magnificently over the top, with a plot as tight as anything you’ll encounter anywhere.

Ultimately whether you think the black magic elements are rubbish, there can’t be any denying of the tightness and excitement of the plot, and ultimately what we are left with is a throughly entertaining read. Another of Wheatley’s occult novels, The Haunting of Toby Jugg, was filmed as The Haunted Airman in the last decade. The Devil Rides out was filmed by Hammer studios in the 1960s. While that film still stands up today (and gets the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up too), it’s such a strong story that it would surely be box office gold in the right hands. So long as the producers did the decent thing and stayed true to Wheatley’s original plot. The term ‘master storyteller’ is perhaps too much the stuff of publishing cliche, but in Wheatley’s case it’s perfectly true.

There’s no question in my mind that he stands with Conan Doyle, the aforementioned Buchan, Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming, to name but a few, in the great tradition of British mystery/ thriller writers.