Letters to My Daughter’s Killer by Cath Staincliffe

letters to my daughterCath Staincliffe’s Letters to My Daughter’s Killer asks the question all of us hope we never have to answer: how do you react if your child was murdered?

Anger? Bewilderment? Nausea? Inertia? Hatred? Despair?

Grandmother Ruth Sutton experiences all those emotions when her daughter Lizzie is killed at home in a brutal attack. Though police catch the perpetrator, his arrest and trial bring no relief to Ruth. If anything her feelings of grief and hatred grow heavier over the years,  overwhelming her so much that she can barely function. It takes all her energy to look after her small grand daughter and to keep afloat financially through a part time job at the local library. She wants revenge. She wants answers: “Why did you kill her?” “How did she die?” Above all she wants the killer to admit his guilt.

She begins writing to him in prison, hoping the letters to the man she hates more than anyone else in the world, will help find some resolution from the pain that threatens to envelope her.

I hate you.Those three words can barely contain the depth, the soaring height of this hatred. Nearly four years and what has taken me by surprise is that these feelings, of rage and the desire for vengeance, have not diminished but have grown. … Taking what is left of my life and leaching the goodness, the joy, the optimism from it.

With each passing month the monster grows stronger. I lie awake at night imagining all the many and lurid ways I could hurt you… Your violence has bred this violence in me, a cuckoo child that would devour me, from the inside out.

Through her letters we discover the events of that night four years ago when Ruth’s daughter was discovered bludgeoned to death; the effect on her son-in-law Jack who discovered the body and her granddaughter Florence; the police investigation and finally the arrest.

Up to this point, Staincliffe showed a masterful command of her epistolary device, cleverly using it to reflect not only Ruth’s  emotions but  also to convey critical elements of the timeline.  For about 75% of the novel I was hooked.

But once we got to the court case,  the device of the letters fell apart.  Instead of using them to drip feed us with the backstory, Staincliffe gets Ruth to describe at length the testimony of each witness, the examinations and cross examinations and then the final address to the jury by  prosecution and defence lawyers. It slowed what had been, until then, a very fast paced novel. No problem for me there. But the major problem was one of plausibility.  Why did Ruth need to include all these details when the very person who was the intended reader had sat through all of those events and heard them himself? The only reason of course was that she was writing this info for me the book reader not Jack the letter reader.  Ruth’s voice, the most compelling element of the novel, consequently got drowned out by the detail.

Fortunately Staincliffe recovers control in the final section of the novel and returns to the immediacy of Ruth’s story.   Earlier this woman  had accused the killer of robbing her of her identity:

Not only have you taken Lizzie’s life and shattered ours, not only have you turned Lizzie from an ordinary person into a victim, but you have twisted my identity as well. Warped it for evermore.  For most people I will be Ruth, the woman whose daughter was killed. The mother of a murder victim.

The Ruth we see at the end is somewhat different to the woman we meet at the beginning of the novel. The raw emotion that jumped off the page has been moderated but the pain is still there.  Did she manage to find forgiveness? You’ll just have to read the book if you want to discover if she became reconciled to the situation to any extent.

If you can suspend your disbelief over the structural flaws of the court room section, then you’ll find this an engrossing read and one that will get you thinking about your own attitudes to punishment. As the blurb puts it: “Can we really forgive those who do us the gravest wrong? Could you?”

Endnotes

Letters to My Daughter’s Killer by Cath Staincliffe was published in 2014 by C & R Crime. In addition to writing novels, Cath Staincliffe is a radio playwright and the creator of a hit series on British TV called Blue Murder.

 

 

Confused and confusing: In the Approaches by Nicola Barker

The week of lost good intentions

sundaysalonI had planned to achieve so much this week. Finish the book I landed with in the last Classics Club Spin (Mansfield Park); read The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson from my TBR shelf; catch up on the blogs I follow but hadn’t been able to view while on holiday and write a whole lot of reviews so I could make inroads into my backlog.

Time I thought was on my side – I had a transatlantic flight which would give me some dedicated reading time and a few hours  to write some posts. Then at the end of the working day I could delve into some other blogs.

Hmm. Well that all went swimmingly didn’t it? Nope.

I did finish Mansfield Park but it took me longer than expected. I also started The Devil in the Marshalsea and enjoyed the start so much I decided it was perfect for my flight home. So put it to one side and started reading a bargain Kindle version of Dead Simple, the first in the Inspector Roy Grace series by Peter May instead. On the journey home I read exactly 30 pages of the Marshalsea book before sleep   took over.

As for the reviews. Ha. What reviews? I didn’t write even one during the week. Typing on an iPad is not a great experience, it’s even harder when you’re squashed into an economy seat behind a passenger whose seat reclined the nano second the seat belt light went out after take off and stayed that way for nigh on eight hours and next to a passenger whose elbow kept poking  into my side as he typed on his laptop. During the week I was so bushed after early starts (and jet lag) that I couldn’t summon up a single creative cell in my brain.

Nor did I make much headway in reading all the bloggers whose reviews and bookish updates I enjoy. Consequently my blog reader is full to the brim again.

All of which has made me even more resolved to just stop planning ahead. I’m no good at it and its ridiculous to be for ever castigating myself for failing to do something. So this is farewell reading plans, goodbye to blogging schedules. And welcome to the new unplanned, unscheduled, unfettered new me.

Re-igniting a reading passion: perspectives from two authors

Two men with little in common. Paul Cuddihy lives close to Glasgow, has a degree in social sciences, is a published author and works in the multi media department of the city’s football club.  Hundreds of miles away in London is Andy Miller. He has a degree in literature and works for a publishing company.  The lives of these two men never cross but by coincidence they decide 2013 will be the year they rekindle their love of reading and ” fall in love with literature again”.

The result of the challenges they embark upon is documented in Read All About It: My Year of Falling in Love with Literature by Paul  Cuddihy and The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life.

In the case of Cuddihy, who has three published novels under his belt, the challenge was prompted by a feeling of guilt when he looked at the bookshelves in his home and realised he had read so few of them.

I had grown lazy in my reading habits over a period of time, blaming work, children, tiredness and television among other things for having done litle to tackle my ever- expanding collection of books. As I’d grown older,and certainly in recent years, I’ve found that my own love of reading has been equalled or even surpassed by my love of buying books. It’s a habit, a hobby, an obsession or a sickness depending on your point of view…. With each book that I’ve bought, there has been an increase in the guilt I feel at not reading enough.

read all about itIn his introduction to Read all About It, he explains that his original intention was simply to try and read more books in 2013.  Early in the process he discovered he wasn’t alone in his quest, the novelist David Nicholls had similarly spent twelve months trying to get back into the habit of reading, getting up half an hour earlier each day  when he could be sure no-one would disturb him. Cuddihy carved out a different path,  relinquishing time spent on Twitter and Facebook and the number of hours he watched television.

He didn’t set out with a specific reading list in mind, preferring to go to his shelves and to take down whatever caught his fancy. His choices were completely arbitrary initially, selecting things that he had Been intending to read for a long time, or ones he felt he should read because they had some perceived literary merit.

Over time he adjusted this to spend a month reading trilogies ( the experience confirmed  his admiration for Cormac McCarthy’s Border trilogy but disappointed by Roddy Doyle’s Last Roundup trilogy). He read all the shortlisted Booker Prize titles for 2013, concluding  that Eleanor Catton was a worthy winner though he personally favoured Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary.

By the end of the year he had read 71 books, some of which he considered wonderful  – William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy ( ” …. A massive literary talent who deserves to be recognised on the global stage) and James Kelman’s You Have to be Careful in the Land of The Free).  He hated One Hundred Years of Solitude, comparing  Marquez to a trained chimp who performs the same trick over and over again.  Was the experiment worth it overall? Resoundingly yes decides Cuddihy.

I’ve enjoyed every minute. Having got back into the reading habit I’m not about to let it drop in the year ahead … A book is now my regular companion.

Andy Miller similarly felt his year of reading was a rewarding experience even if, like Cuddihy, he didn’t enjoy everything he encountered.

yearof readingHe began writing a blog to reflect his thoughts on each book he read. Eventually that turned into his book. The title A Year of Reading Dangerously: Fifty Great Books Saved My Life gives the impression that Miller was, until his year of reading, a man in crisis who found enlightenment by reading specific titles. This is rather disingenuous  since none of the books he chose could really be considered  ‘dangerous’  — challenging maybe but subversive, mind bending or inciting violence, no.  Nor is Miller’s life exactly in meltdown. True he hated the grind of his daily train commute and true, he was (like so many parents of young children), exhausted. But he quite liked his job and he loved his family. Better to think of him therefore, not as a tortured soul, but a man who gradually realises there is a missing piece in his life: books.

In the three years since becoming a parent he had meant to read lots of books. But somehow only managed one  (The Da Vinci Code). Others he had pretended to read so he could keep his end up in conversations down the pub.

His plan was to read twelve books, forming what he called The List of Betterment. They were titles he had either lied about reading or felt he should read,  (Moby Dick, Middlemarch, The Sea, The Sea for example). He read the lot in three months (finding excuses to visit the post office just so he could stand in the queue reading) getting so enthused by the whole experience that he decided to expand the list to 50 books. The final 50 included plenty of classics but also some lighter reading such as The Essential Silver Surfer Vol. 1 a comic novel by Stan Lee.

I expected to greatly expand my wish list as a result of reading these two books but that never happened. From Cuddihy’s list I added William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw trilogy of crime novels set in Glasgow and Nabokov’s Pale Fire from  A Year of Reading Dangerously.  Either I had already read the books he mentioned or they just didn’t appeal to me (Moby Dick).  But I am very grateful to Andy for helping me reduce my TBR since having read his description and response to The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, 

Neither Miller or Cuddihy provide extensive reviews of the novels  they read. Some readers might feel cheated about that. Others may be unhappy that the book they happen to love is one that Andy or Paul enjoyed. But that isn’t really the point of their books. Their real objective is to tell their personal story of becoming a reader with some diversions into reflections on the experience of connecting with authors in person or via Twitter,  the disappearance of good bookshops; public libraries and why book clubs are dangerous.  Occasionally they give way to a bit of venting — in the case of Cuddihy it’s about the fact that when he went to his branch of Waterstones to buy the titles announced that day as the long listed candidates for the Booker prize to find they not only didnt know of the announcement but they didn’t have the books in stock. Miller has a huff over the book club he attends where the other members didn’t appreciate his choice for the month and takes a pop at non professional book reviewers (people like me presumably):

In the Internet age, where comment is free and everyone is entitled to a wrong opinion, blockheads write zealously, copiously and for nothing. They have a platform unprecedented in human history. The problem faced by ‘old media’, and professional critics in particular, with their years of experience and their skill in fine phrase-making, is that their opinions now carry little more worth than those of the individual with a laptop who has never read any books and who would not recognise a pleasing and insightful cadence if it half-slammed, half-caressed them in the belly with a slippery bagful – well, you know how it goes by now.”

Overall however I enjoyed the way both these writers try to share their new found enthusiasm for writing. Their style is engagingly self deprecating and witty (Miller cleverly shows what Moby Dick has in common with the Da Vinci Code). If you know someone whose reading habits have fallen by the wayside, either of these books could help get them back on track.

 

Is audio the future?

Some readers love them. Others don’t think they count as ‘real reading’. But it seems the British public are falling in love with the idea of listening to words rather than reading them. According to the Publishers Association, sales of audio books in the UK have doubled in the last five years. It’s a remarkable turnaround from 2010 when publishers were fearing the days of the audio recording were numbered. From sales of £4M then, last year saw the figure jump to £10M.

Remember the days of these?

Remember the days of these?

The boom has been attributed to two factors: one is the ease with which users can now get hold of a recording. Gone are the days when you had to find a shop selling cassettes and later CDs, and then carry a dedicated player around with you whose battery life was sure to fail just at the exciting point in the book. .Now, just like music, they are easily downloaded  onto phones and tablets, and carried everywhere from trains to planes, from the park to the beach. Well just about anywhere really.

The second factor the publishers claimed to be responsible for the upswing is that  famous names from stage and screen are now regularly turning their skills to narration.  In recent years we’ve had Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse, Kate Winslet narrating Therese Raquin and Colin Firth relating Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Then, just last month Reese Witherspoon was named as the voice for the audio version of Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman. 

I’ve been an audio book fan for decades. It started when a change of job meant I had a 45 minute commute to work and desperately wanted something as relief from political and world news. Fortunately during the times when Parliament wasn’t in session, the BBC would offer a book of the week.  Otherwise my options were limited because it was expensive buying the cassette recordings myself and if I tried borrowing them from other people, the tape had a tendency to get snarled up in the machine. The advent of the CD was a great relief especially when public libraries began offering them for loan at a very low price. Even more joy came when I bought my first iPod and learned how to record from the CD so I could listen when pounding the treadmill in the gym.

I’ve learned a few things over the years.

One is that the choice of narrator is critical. I don’t care if they are famous – what matters most is whether by their voice they can hook me into the story and make me believe in the character they are inhabiting. Martin Jarvis is one of the best I’ve come across but I also love Juliet Stevenson’s voice. Some recordings I have abandoned simply because the narrator’s voice has grated on me so much I simply couldn’t bear to continue.

Secondly, It’s hard to define the perfect recipe but some books work better than others in certain circumstances. If I’m driving and listening then I need a book with a good story but one that is not too complicated because I need to also pay attention to the road. If it has too many characters or involves a lot of introspective thinking by the main character, then it will demand more attention that I can safely give.

Crime fiction works well which is a surprise because that’s not a genre I read widely in printed format. I’ve exhausted the library collections of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie and the Crowner John series featuring a coroner in fourteenth century England written by a former Home Office pathologist Bernard Knight. I’m now working my way through Peter James.

Some classics also work well. I enjoyed Dombey and Son and The Old Curiosity Shop in audio version (i alternated reading the book with listening which seemed to work really well) but couldn’t get into Barnaby Rudge and failed, again with a Tale of Two Cities.

I’m going to run out of options soon so if you have some recommendations do let me know. The Daily Telegraph published a list of their top 20 audio books yesterday – I’ve not read any of these. Have you listened to any of them?

Snapshot May 2015

May blossomI like to capture what I’m reading on the first day of each month so I can look back on it in a few years from now and relive the memory. I’m a little late this month but here’s what I was up to on May 1, 2015 in the realm of reading, listening to and watching.

Reading

When I heard that the Costa Award for Debut novel had gone to a book written from the perspective of a teenager with mental health problems, I decided it was too close to the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (which I didn’t care for) to be of interest. But come May 1 guess what I was reading? Yes, Nathan Filer’s Costa Award winning The Shock of the Fall. Not only was I reading it, I was engrossed in it. If it hadn’t been for the fact this was the selection for the month at the book club I wouldn’t have bothered but I would then have missed a wonderful novel. It is extremely well constructed, has a strong narratorial voice and very deftly seems to weave in messages about the appalling way in which people with mental health are treated without making me feel I am being hit over the head.

Listening

I loaded up my iPod thinking I would have many hours of opportunity on holiday to  enjoy some good audio books while finishing my cross stitch project. Not only didn’t I finish the cross stitch but I didn’t even get through one audio book. I’m about a third of the way through Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster. It’s a wonderful portrait of a recently widowed mother of four living in Wexford, Ireland, trying to keep the family together while she grieves for her husband. This is not a book I want to rush through. I don’t usually care for Fiona Shaw but as a narrator she is is doing a beautiful job.

Learning

I have learned in recent weeks that I am not capable of doing a full time job, taking an active part in a local campaign group to save our library and trying to follow some on line classes. Consequently my time with Coursera’s module on Australian literature was short – the lectures I did watch were interesting so I will download and watch at a more leisurely pace in the future. I did manage to finish a short course on genealogy however so all was not lost. But I’m going to reign in my enthusiasm and not start anything new for a while.

Watching

Nothing! Too much to do on holiday to spend it stuck in front of a tv screen.

Home again

Rain and grey clouds were not quite the welcome home I was hoping for yesterday. After three weeks of blue sky and warmth, it was a shock to the system to arrive in Southampton in drizzle and winds. Tomorrow will be an even greater shock though when I have to go back to work. Goodbye lazy breakfasts and even lazier days reading in the sunshine; hello household chores, emails and teleconferences.

helicopterStill, we have some wonderful memories of our week in Zambia, walking through the falls, seeing the sun set over the Zambezi river and taking an old steam train across to Zimbabwe. Pride of place however goes to an exhilarating helicopter ride right over Victoria Falls and then swooping over the rim and down into a gorge to follow the twists of the river. Since I was the smallest passenger I got the premium seat right up front next to the pilot. Simply breathtaking!

Library on Queen Mary 2

The library on Queen Mary 2 – more than 9,000 titles available

After that excitement we got a chance to catch our breath with the two weeks it took us to cruise up the coast of Africa back to the UK. We’d never been on a cruise before but everyone told us the Queen Mary 2 is one of the best afloat. I loved the art deco theme throughout all the public rooms and the formal nights where tuxedos and cocktail gowns were required.

 

View from library of Queen Mary 2

View from the library of Queen Mary 2

In between listening to classic recitals and lectures I found plenty of time to just laze on the deck, watch the ocean go by and catch up on some reading. I tried to synchronise the books with some of the countries we visited or sailed past:

  • Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (South Africa)
  • We Need New Names by No Violet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)
  • Field’s Child by Dalene Matthee (South Africa)
  • The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (France)
  • The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola (France)
  • Read all About It by Paul Cudahy (England)
  • The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (England)

I also finished Life of Pi by Yan Martel that I was half way through when we left for our trip and am part way through Mansfield Park (not one of my favourite Austens but I decided to give it another go).

Pretty impressive eh?

The cost of internet access meant I couldn’t post very often – I did manage to do a review of The Old Curiousity Shop and posted a few general pieces:

 

Kafka’s views on reading

Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield

Choosing an author to represent England

Books from Indonesia

I’ll get around to posting my reviews eventually and will also do my best to catch up on all the blog sites I follow.

 

All at sea reading

I’ve always been curious about what other people are reading. Whenever I’m in a public place like a railway station, airport or cafe, I can’t resist trying to peek at the covers in the hands of fellow travellers and customers. 

My recent holiday was the perfect opportunity to indulge in my habit though of course it works only if people are reading physical books and don’t have their noses glued to an e reader. 

Still,  the plethora  of electronic reading devices I’ve witnessed in use over the last three weeks meant I could amuse myself in trying to guess what each person was reading. Take the rather elderly couple to my left on the sun deck. Maybe he’s engrossed in a Mills and Boon or Game of Thrones and his wife has her eyes on something racy. Then again perhaps she is a devotee of science fiction while he has a penchant for war and terrorism. 

More likely however, judging by the books I can actually observe, they will be reading crime fiction, or popular or family sagas. Close by me for example I can see people with Stella Rimmington, James Patterson, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin. One woman has Maeve Binchy on her lap and another has Gone Girl. Further along the deck there seems to be a cluster of the pastel coloured covers that usually indicate chick lit or romance.  In the last few days a smattering of Sandra Howard titles have appeared, the result undoubtedly of the fact she was a guest speaker along with her husband, the former Conservative party leader, Lord Michael Howard. Few people are reading non fiction. One man I saw yesterday seemed engrossed by Boris Johnsons biography of Winston Churchill and I’ve seen a few biographies/autobiographies of leading entertainers and sports personalities. But on the whole non fiction rules the day. 

I try not to pass judgement on their choices. Better that they are reading something rather than nothing but it’s hard not to feel disappointed that so few people seem to be reading the kind of novels I enjoy. Because of there is one thing we avid readers love,next to reading, and buying books, it’s actually talking about them. And I’ve not had much opportunity to do that since crime fiction and family sagas are not my thing at all. I did have two enjoyable conversations, one about The Miniaturist and another about Elizabeth is Missing, both of which I read and enjoyed this year. But I was hoping for more considering there are 2000 passengers on the Queen Mary 2 and many of them are readers judging by how busy the on board library is every time I’m there. It’s well used not just because it has some very comfy chairs looking right out onto the waves but because the range of titles on offer is impressive. Apparently it’s one of, if not the largest library on a cruise ship, and is well stocked with natural history, travel, art and reference works as well as fiction in French, German, Italian and of course English, plus a whole section of classics.  Who’d have thought there would be such a paradise of the high seas? 

Dickens and society in The Old Curiosity Shop

Old Curiosity Shop

According to Hippolyte Taine, one of the leading literature critics of the nineteenth century, ” the novels of Dickens can all be reduced to one phrase, to wit: Be good, and love.” In Taine’s view, Dickens work suffered not only because of this lack of variety but also through theauthor’s  simplistic philosophical outlook and his excessive imagination. Taine’s view prevailed long after it was published in 1856.  Not until F R Leavis published The Great Tradition in 1948 was there an acknowledgement that Dickens skills as a writer put him on a par with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James.

Reding The Old Curiosity Shop it’s easy to see how Taine came to his conclusions about Dickens. This is after all the novel whose central character so entranced its first readers with her infallibly good and angelic nature that they cried on hearing of her ultimate fate.

The character in question is the orphan Nell Trent (known as Little Nell) who lives with her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop in London.  It’s a lonely life for the poor girl who has no friends except for Kit, an honest boy employed at the shop whom she is teaching to read.  Her grandfather loves Nell so dearly he cannot bear the idea that she will die in poverty as did her parents. He begins gambling but becomes heavily in debt to Daniel Quilp, a malicious, grotesquely formed dwarf.  Quilp seizes the shop and evicts the pair.  Nell, in fear of her grandfather’s disturbed mind determines to get him away from Quilp even if it means they become beggars. Their journey takes them across many miles to the industrial heart of England. But their pursuers are not far behind them.

Multiple trials and tests confront the pair on their travels but Nell radiates goodness throughout. She has a maturity well beyond her thirteen years,  protecting her grandfather from his gambling habits and walking many miles every day though her feet are bleeding and her belly is empty. Every person she meets along the way becomes enamoured of this beautiful young child from Mrs. Jarley, proprietor of a travelling waxworks show, who takes in Nell and her grandfather out of kindness to Mr. Marton, a poor schoolmaster.  Dickens shows how Nell’s goodness radiates from her, changing the lives of those around her.  To be sure readers understand the point Dickens ends with a scene in which Nell is held up by Kit as a model of how all children should behave.

The little group would often gather …. And beg him to tell again the story of good Mis Nell..  and when they cried to hear it, he would teach them how she had gone to Heaven, as all good people did; and how, if they were good, like her, they might hope to be there too, one day, and to see and know her as he had done… In my edition of the book the final page even includes a little sketch of a girl born away from earth in the arms of four angels.

Goodness isn’t confined to Nell however. Christopher ‘Kit’ Nubbles, Nell’s devoted friend and servant, is used as an example of the virtues of loyalty and integrity. He watches out for Nell when she is left in the shop alone at night (although she doesn’t know he’s there) and will ‘never come home to his bed until he thinks she’s safe in hers’. He is a devoted son and employee too, and the respect he gathers from many characters rescue him from prison and transportation so that he can eventually become a devoted father and husband. And then we get Richard ‘Dick’ Swiveller, a young man who owes money to just about everyone and goes through life as if it’s a huge joke. But in the end, he learns the error of his ways and is eventually a force for good himself, helping to rescue Kit from prison and rescuing a young servant from a life of drudgery.

Multiple examples in this novel support Taine’s assertion that sentimentality and simple morality characterised much of Dickens’ work. But there is another side to Dickens which Taine failed to acknowledge. Many of Dickens’ novels reflect and highlight his concerns with the condition of England and particularly the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on the lives of ordinary people. In Great Expectations for example we see how commercial trade makes upward social mobility a realistic prospect, this challenging the established class structure based on inherited wealth. In Dombey and Son, commercial interests and love of money take precedence over love for a wife and a daughter and we see some of Dickens harshest comments on the desperate conditions created for the poor who live in cities churning out the products upon which the new merchant class rely.  Those same conditions are reflected too in The Old Curiosity Shop, not to the same extent as in Dombey and Son certainly but they are definitely present.

To take one example, as Nell and her grandfather escape from the city, they encounter some of the poorest districts that lie on the fringes of London.

A straggling neighbourhood, where the mean houses parcelled off in rooms and windows patched with rags and paper told of the populous poverty that sheltered there.. Here were poor streets where faded gentility essayed with scanty space and shipwrecked means to make its last feble stand, but tax-gatherer and creditor came there as elsewhere and the poverty that yet faintly struggled was hardly less squalid and manifest ..

Damp rotten houses… Lodgings where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take, children scantily fed and clothed spread over every street and sprawling in the dust…

As they approach the more industrialised part of the country (the area around Birmingham) they witness the destruction of nature caused by industry.

A long suburb of red-brick houses – some with patched of garden, where coal dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves and coarse rank flowers and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace…

The factories and furnaces responsible for this desolation appear to take on a human form, “writhing like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains … as though in torment unendurable and making the ground tremble with their agonies. …in their wildness and untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again… never ceasing in their black vomit.”

Proximity to these engines, Dickens observes,  makes the people themselves yet more wild and lawless, running with firebrands and swords through streets ringing with the sound of hungry children’s cries and the rumble of coffin-bearing carts.

It’s true, as George Orwell complained, that Dickens doesn’t offer any solutions for these ills but they do show a different side to the author from the one Taine presented. An author who was keenly aware of the world around him and sought to reflect that while still pleasing his readers with tales of love and goodness.

Celebrate St George’s Day with English authors

St george's dayA few years ago a colleague asked me to recommend a novel or a writer that would epitomise England. It was a question I found nigh on impossible to answer at the time. The passage of years hasn’t made it any easier.  But in honour of St George’s Day today I thought I would revisit the topic.

I posed the same question in 2013 when I started my  world literature project and started with Reading the Prime Meridian (reading one novel for each of the countries through which the meridian runs). The  responses I received, which you can view here. I deliberately asked people to avoid recommendations for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or George Eliot.  Of course they typify a certain side of England — if you want a view of life in rural and provincial England in the mid nineteenth century then who better than Eliot? Or if you want a picture of how urbanisation was changing the nature of the city, then Dickens is certainly your man.  All good choices and ones I suspect would be top of mind for many readers. But they give us only one facet of England. And one that is now a few centuries past.

What about something more recent? Evelyn Waugh was one suggestion. If we’re talking Brideshead Revisited then yes that would give us a view of the English gentry on the eve of World War 1. The stately home, fox hunting side of England if you like.

Other suggestions came from friends: Grahame Greene (Brighton Rock); Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea); Peter Ackroyd (Hawskmoor, The Lambs of London), Ian McEwan . All good suggestions but I don’t see them as typifying England.

The more I thought about this and the more suggestions that came in, the more I realised that there was one aspect of England that wasn’t getting reflected at all. And that is the multicultural dimension. Visit London on any day and the number of accents you’ll here is astonishing – and I don’t mean accents of tourists or day visitors. I mean people who live and work in the city. Polish, Australian, Indian, Chinese, French, Arabic, Canadian … and those are just ones that I recognise. This isn’t a phenomena confined to London, you’ll get the same impression in Birmingham or Leeds.

Of course I can argue that it was ever the same – that England has long been home for people from outside the island. What we think of as Englishness today has much to do with invaders from the Roman Empire, from France and from the Nordic lands. They gave us straight roads (thank you Romans); influenced our language (more than 60% of the words we use in English today have a French origin) and many of our place names (the Viking name for York was Jorvik, any place name that ends in horpe  or thwaite derives from the Vikings). In the twentieth century Italians brought us ice-cream parlours and real coffee  (well before the likes of Starbucks) and Pakistan settlers introduced us to biryani and masalas.

If we want reading that truly reflects England today shouldn’t we look to writers who reflect that cultural diversity? I’m thinking Zadie Smith,  one of Granta‘s list of 20 best young authors, whose novel NW is set in a typical mixed London suburb and brings us the polyphonic nature of contemporary urban life.  it’s a novel about which the Telegraph critic said:

In a hundred years time, when readers want to understand what the English novel was capable of, and what English life truly felt like, they will look at NW, and warm to it.

So there you have it, one novel that could be said to represent England as the country stands today.