Nothing to write home about?

3

Have been watching a series of Alan Bennett plays on DVD (“Alan Bennett at the BBC”).

I’ve always felt kindly disposed towards Bennett. He seems like a nice fellow from his books, and I suppose his experiences, ideas, personality, are something like mine might have been had my family stayed in northern England and I been born there instead of in Australia. Or perhaps not.

Have always thought of his plays as being great works in some sense. The stage and tv equivalent of the 1950s-1960s working class English novels I admired when young. Had only seen a few of them, and settled back to watch the whole sequence with great expectations.

Only to suffer a right disappointment.

Look, don’t get me wrong. His excellent qualities are on full display here. He’s had a lifetime of using ears finely attuned to words and tone of voice; of eyes finely focused on facial expression and body movements; of empathetic neurones able to imagine himself in all kinds of other pairs of shoes. It is as if you are there with him on the top of the bus looking down on the street, or at the seaside on holiday, or in a hotel, remarking on the passing human parade.

But, and I’m afraid it’s a big BUT, seeing them all at once like this reveals them to be very thin gruel indeed. Great plays, like great novels, poems, films, need to do more than just present a slice of finely observed life. They need to show us something, teach us something about the meaning of life that is more than just “41”. There need to be deep and meaningful ideas about the meaning of life that arise from the fine observations, the latter, for an artist, never being an end in themselves.

What do we get from Alan, one play at a time? The First World War killed a lot of people who had been living in a Golden Age; retirement is a challenge after a working life; a spiteful person can wreck your life; an unpleasant person who thinks they are popular often isn’t; a disabled child can put strain on a marriage; Guy Burgess loved Englishness; Franz Kafka got his ideas from his place of employment; Marcel Proust was isolated by his housekeeper; discovering Anthony Blunt was a spy was like working on a painting. And so on, so little. Each of those is the only “insight”, from all those plays, one per play, about either life in general or some historical figure. And the latter unconvincing. Slim pickings eh?

My idea of a good play is not just the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; but one which will tell me a number of things about life, the universe, and everything that I hadn’t thought of before.

But I guess I am mistaken, it seems that is not a good play, that is the best. And Alan Bennett’s plays, sadly, are merely good.

Currency Lad

8

Looking at the books on my bookshelves triggers all kinds of thoughts, memories, remembrance of times past. As I assembled this essay (a form invented by Montaigne, whose biography I recently read) in my head I glanced across for inspiration once again. There sticking out slightly (because of its unusual format) is one of the 150 or so books I published as a Publisher. Reminded me immediately why those years were so difficult and thankless. Authors. Publishing would be easy if it wasn’t for authors.

Anyway, this one stuck in my mind because of one event. I had put a lot of effort into publishing his book. It wasn’t a great book, but I had given it the full treatment to make it as attractive and worthwhile as possible (many, most non-fiction authors say that they are “not worried about sales, money, only interested in getting the message out”, an attitude that doesn’t survive the first set of sales figures). The whole team had worked hard on it, culminating in a fancy book launch at a ritzy venue. At the end of the event, as I sat on a chair, somewhat tired but relieved, the author came up to me and passed me an envelope. Oh, that’s very nice I thought, most authors don’t bother to say thank you, this one has taken the trouble to write me a letter of appreciation. I took the envelope from him, began opening. “Oh, don’t bother opening now” he said, with an air of being more in sorrow than in anger, “it’s just a list of a few typos I discovered for you to fix in the second edition”. I put the letter in my pocket, too weary to bother pointing out that since he had worked closely with editor, had been given edited manuscript to check, then galleys ditto, any “typos” were actually his fault. Never did get a thank you. “Thanks” not a common currency in publishing.

Anyway, the second thing that made me think about books was watching “The Killing” (in Danish “Forbrydelsen” which actually translates as “The Crime”. If you haven’t seen this fantastic murder mystery, beg borrow or steal to get it on DVD and watch). Am now about half way through, and neither the police nor I know who did it yet, how it ends, but in this episode a suspect’s flat was being searched and I thought – I recognise that book on the bookcase. Sure enough it was the Bill Clinton autobiography “My Life” (called something like “Mi Lif” on the spine of this book in a Copenhagen flat) which also sits on my bookcase. Underlined the fact of how international book publishing is these days. And how international, as a consequence, our shared literary experience is. Oh many books on my shelves are of limited Australian interest (eg books by Ellis, Kelly, Tanner, Keating, as well as many older ones), but the majority these days are on bookshelves all over the world (eg Ackroyd, Ali, Phillips, Fowles, Tomalin, Palin, Uglow, Alda, Dawkins, Weir, Singh, Krauss, Sobel, Bennett, Schama, Adie, Klein, Hansen, just to name a few at random as I swivel around from my keyboard and scan the book spines) as well as mine. Shared reading, shared knowledge. A common universal currency.

And the final thing was visiting the “Lifeline” bookstore yesterday. [Lifeline, for those outside Australia, is a valuable free telephone counselling service, for people with problems in life such as feeling suicidal, drugs, relationships, bereavement, loneliness, health and so on. The Canberra branch is almost entirely self-funded by having, twice a year, a huge second-hand book sale of books donated by the public]. I was dropping off several boxes of books, non-fiction this time after an earlier donation of fiction some weeks ago. It is using books as another kind of currency. People donate books they are finished with. Other people buy them. The proceeds help other people.

But anyway, to the point at last. Looking around at my slightly sparser Lifelined shelves today I was struck by the almost equality in numbers between fiction and non-fiction. When I was young most of the books I bought, borrowed, was given, were fiction. Not all, but probably I guess some 90%. But gradually over time the proportions have shifted, until nowadays most of the books I buy are non fiction – biography, history, science, politics, literature, and so on. Does everyone go through this kind of shift? Maybe it is just me. I suppose when you are young humdrum reality is what you are trying to escape from – escape to other times, other places, other lives, other adventures. When you are older you have discovered that fact is much stranger than fiction, and what you want is facts, the truth about the world around you. Your mental currency is fiction when young, fact when older. In my case I have shifted in particular towards biography/autobiography (hence Bill Clinton). I suppose because completed lives (even partially completed ones in some autobiographies) have a pattern to them. When you are living your life it is as if you are a character in your own novel, no way of knowing what happens next, how it will turn out, how it will end. Whether you will turn out to be the hero of your own life or not. In a biography, or a history, the end is known, the pattern observed, the end neatly wraps up the narrative.

But whatever the case, undoubtedly books do furnish a room, do furnish a life. Both fact and fiction books mark the years of your being (your life line in fact), bring back memories, provide ideas, provide the mental furniture of your brain, provide the currency with which you can communicate with others. A life without books, would be a life not fully lived. A life not, as a teacher once said of me, working to capacity.

I have read so much. There remains, I hope, still so much more to read, some currency left to spend. How about you?