The great unread

March 11, 2009

Every so often, there is a feature in which well-known writers confess which books they have never read (there was a TV panel game of a very BBC2-bookish kind in the 1980s which did this too). Craig Raine could be found admitting he’d not read Don Quixote last week (I don’t mean he hadn’t read it last week, I mean, ever). As he said, there’s no shame in that. The concept of the canon (Leavis’s big mistake) is now so ridiculous, and the pile of Allegedly Great Books so high, that there is no chance of ploughing one’s way through anything but an infinitesimal number of them. I have reached that almost serendipitous stage at which I know that I will almost certainly never read Finegan’s Wake, Daniel Deronda or anything whatsoever by Proust.

Yet it was definitely implied to me when I was fifteen that this – reading everything – ought to be the main aim of a literature student, particularly in the fiction department (at the time, non-fiction was regarded as a sort of bolt-on, and poetry was a lucky dip). Since ‘everything’ to my teachers excluded anything written before 1939, anything written by Americans, Australians and Africans (etc., but Russians were treated as honorary ‘English’), and also anything written by women unless your name was Bronte, Austen or Eliot, the idea of the well-read individual was just a bit limited in scope.

I probably read most voraciously when I was about eleven (bored at boarding-school), and also shortly after I left university (bored of avoiding reading nothing because I was conscientiously being rebellious) and then again when I started to review fiction. I was forever being sent second novels, and I can’t read a second one without reading the first: the same is true today. I also read a lot when students I taught were obliged to write an ‘extended essay’ of their own choice on a theme of their own choice, involving three books. A group of eighteen would come up with at least forty books between them (allowing for some duplicates), and, assuming that you’d recommended some in the first place, this still meant reading about twenty books per group. This was a brilliant experience. It goes without saying that its random nature (what was so good about it) got it, to all intents and purposes, banned. (Overlooked in all this was the fact that it was making teachers read – not a fact that could always be taken for granted.)

If I’ve been reading seriously (i.e. with intent) since I was about eight, then I am not very far off my fiftieth anniversary of reading. If I have read on average 300 books a year, probably not very wide of the mark, that still means I’ve read only 15,000 books. A visit to any reasonable library (and its underground stack) is enough to put the frighteners on me, in that case. All ignorance is relative, and anyone who ticks me off for not having conquered Barnaby Rudge or Clarissa (dipped into the latter, mind) ought to have their heads examining, in particular to see what bits of fiction are in there.

I can’t imagine either a) how I have read 15,000 books, or b) how I haven’t read more, given that I have read at least a hundred Perry Mason novels, and about the same number by Enid Blyton. In fact there are quite a few writers whose almost every word I’ve read: Raymond Chandler, Lawrence (not T.E, but D.H. – I only got to the first pillar of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom), Michael Dibdin, Kate Atkinson, Hilary Mantel. And of course, Emily Bronte, whose Wuthering Heights I must have read about twenty times.

It is a great novel, but it was certainly the case at university that there were hundreds of experts on the Brontes, largely because they’d written fewer than ten novels and a mess of poems between them. The same was true of the complete work of Harper Lee. Say what you like about the woman: she knew when to stop.



December 28, 2008

I guess we all do it, although I worry that I may be the only one, of course, and that any half-decent psychiatrist would have me into a secure unit the moment he or she found out.

Copycatting. What I mean is the way we adopt phrases and habits from others and bring them into our daily lives – snaffling a bit from someone else until our behaviour is only 90%, if that, original. Of course, there are the national catchphrases in any case, or even words. One of the odder ones is ‘Naff Off’, which probably existed in some pocket of the country in the sixties, but which had a two-stage journey into the British psyche (or am I the only one still saying ‘Naff Off,’ doctor?) It was popularised by Porridge, the Clement/ La Frenais vehicle for Ronnie Barker’s prodigious acting talents (he was also a great writer, but I never warmed to his fondness for sound-effect parodies like Futtock’s End). The writers correctly spotted that, if a sit-com was set in a prison, it would be a bit strange if there was no swearing, and adopted Naff Off as their substitute. Barker’s character, Fletcher, deployed it to great effect, and, not long into the show’s run, it gained a great deal more publicity when – of all people – Princess Anne was reported to have used it, quite possibly of reporters. At this point, coincidentally, everyone joined in.

Catchphrases outlive their sources, like most sayings (who was it who got up one morning and observed ‘Ne’er cast a clout till May be out’, I wonder? He or she must have been pleased with the coinage). So there are still people around, in their thirties, who say ‘I thangew’ for ‘Thanks’, and cannot possibly remember Arthur Askey, and even some who say ‘Don’t mind if I do’, the Colonel Chinstrap riposte from the wartime radio show ITMA (It’s That Man Again, and no, I haven’t been lying about my age).

But this also happens on a micro basis. For instance, two phrases I know I use are ‘Ariba!’ (roughly, ‘Great’!), and ‘Fuck-me-Reg’ (‘Blow me down’). ‘Ariba!’ opens a track on a very obscure Grace Slick album from the 1970s, called ‘Manhole’. ‘Fuck-me-Reg’ is the lament of (I think) the drummer in The Troggs in a famously recorded session which demonstrated, if proof were needed, that they had a hard job putting together their usual battery of simple-chord-and-drumbeat songs. Reg was (is, honestly) the singer. They were (are, the two survivors) from Andover. The drummer was unable to get the beat straight, and used this particular expletive. And a colleague of mine, and his wife, adopted it. And I ended up adopting it, too.

I had a friend at university (that sounds a bit sad, I had more than one) who said ‘Hilarious’ a lot (and was mocked for it. But that has slipped into my lexicon of phrases. And there was a sketch (Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd, the great comic actor who died earlier this year) used in a regular TV fixture in the 50s and 60s, ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’, to which every BBC sitcom contributed a ten-minute special, and which is still current in my family, even if the users are now down to me and my brother. The show was called ‘Hugh and I’. The sketch made fun of a deaf character (possibly played by Jack Douglas, who died in the last fortnight, but here I could be wrong) – the grandfather of the house. The sketch (which also involved Wendy Richard) was about playing Christmas word games. Each member of the household said a word, clapped thrice, and the next person said an associated word. Say something disconnected, and you were out. The grandfather (whose deafness seems less funny now that I have to turn the TV up to 21 to hear it) couldn’t grasp the principle. Terry Scott illustrated it by saying that, if one person said ‘Wicker’, the next might say ‘Basket’. At the end of the sketch, the local rector arrived (interestingly, this didn’t seem odd at the time), and the old man said ‘Who’s that?’, Terry Scott replied loudly, ‘VICAR’, at which the old man clapped three times and shouted ‘BASKET’. For the next 40+ years, if anyone ever, anywhere, in any context, used the word ‘Vicar’ in the vicinity of the Greenwell family, the Greenwell present replied ‘Basket’.

That was a long nonsense. I was only going to say that fiction writers can get a lot of good characters going by using family slang and transposing it. Now I’ll close. Have to go up to the village shop. Where I may see the Vicar.


Life Writing

October 23, 2008

Having belly-ached yesterday about how to write about what’s ‘true’, I guess I should say something about my own definitions of life writing, or creative non-fiction, as I would prefer to call it. I don’t really object to the false representation of real people, unless a downright lie is being told. But there is a world of difference about downright lies and creative invention. If I come right down to it, what interests me is an acknowledgement process. Perhaps the most honest writer in the world is Thomas Keneally, since, in writing The Playmaker, and, more particularly, Schindler’s Ark, as novels, he did far more than simply muddy the pool of what is true and what is not. He came right out and said they were novels. It is easier to see what he has altered in The Playmaker: harder with Schindler’s Ark (by contrast is completely easy to see how the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker fictionalised The Playmaker when she wrote the play dependent on it, Our Country’s Good). But it is as if Keneally is saying ‘I have edited and re-arranged the facts, so their truth is the truth of fiction alone.’ Brave: and also a way of showing us that life writing is only interesting if it is a story, first and foremost. I would still call Schindler’s Ark a piece of creative non-fiction, however. Without further advice, I believe that what he describes, took place. I wonder where he crossed the line. Was there a moment when he said ‘No, this is a novel’?


All fiction is based on fact, or it would strike no chords, even if the fact is conjectural. (Note how I allowing science fiction such space, if that’s the word I’m looking for.) This is true even if the fact is a lie: witness the tales of King Arthur, or, God save me, novels like Walter Scott’s The Talisman (about the Crusades), my class reader when I was nine years old. Ditto the collected works of G(eorge) A(lfred) Henty, now better known for his collectable book covers than his historical fictions (at least a hundred, and I think I read them all when I was 10, 11 or 12).


The difference between fiction and life writing, between fiction and creative non-fiction, is in the declared intention of the writer. That declaration of intention is important, and, as I said yesterday, in the context of films, the publicists don’t half get in the way. If someone wishes to write or make a film about their own life, or about the life of someone else, and publishes it as such, then that is life writing. Without that admission or declaration, the work is fiction. You will notice that I haven’t mentioned poetry here. It deserves a place of its own, and the issue is not exactly complex, but is susceptible to more argument. I’ll leave poetry for another day.


Of course, there are writers who let the side down. There are farragoes like The Life And Loves of Frank Harris (by Frank Harris, of course). And there is the strange case of Bruce Chatwin (there is a good online review of his biography here: ). And there are of course the genius writers like Julian Barnes who blend fiction and non-fiction in a way that shows how they relate. The ‘fiction’ tag applied to Julian Barnes’ A History Of The World In 10½ Chapters by its publishers (what else could they do?) is fine, because, in the body of the book, Barnes makes no effort to pretend what is fiction and what is not. And speaking of Barnes, what a tragic loss Pat Kavanagh, his wife, is – I never met her, but if I had to cherish a rejection for plain speaking and honesty, it would be hers.


If you want it to be life writing, call it life writing (or autobiography, or biography, or what-you-will). Otherwise call it fiction. The definition is for the writer. If he or she wants to start an argument, that is equally fine. I would define the opening sections of my Lost Lives as non-fiction, because my aim is to recreate the person. I want the piece to be read, and I want the reader to believe me when I say I think my snapshot is as good as true. All the pieces were researched; they contain no lies; I hope they have nuances – otherwise, why would you bother to read them?