We begin this month’s Six Degrees of Separation chain (#6Degrees) with Fever Pitch, a 1992 debut book by the British author Nick Hornby in which he told the story of his relationship with football, and in particular with one club – Arsenal. The book was a huge success not surprisingly, football being almost a religion for a large part of the British population, and went on to become a successful film.
I’ve never read it. While I’ve watched a few matches in the past and can appreciate the excitement, I have little interest in the niceties of the sport. I despair enough when I hear the amateur pundits in the pub talk about a recent match so the idea of reading a book structured chronologically around specific matches fills me with horror. Definitely not a book that will be on my wishlist.
Moving swiftly on however, the first book in my chain maintains the connection to sport.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a short story by Alan Sillitoe that was published as part of a collection of the same name that came out in 1959. Its protagonist is a teenager who comes from a poor family in a working class area of Nottingham in England. His prospects are bleak. Sentenced to time in a young offenders institute he takes up long-distance running – his prowess brings him to the attention of the institution’s ambitious governor. This is a novel about rebellious youth and a refusal to conform. It’s gritty realism is compelling.
Sillitoe was one of the so-called “angry young men” – a group of mostly working and middle class playwrights and novelists prominent in the 1950s that were united by their disillusionment with traditional British society. Sillitoe disliked the label as did most of the other writers to whom it was applied, such as John Osborne, particularly when their work became more divergent in style and theme.
The angry young men also included John Braine whose novel Room at the Top provides me with my second link. Braine was a Yorkshireman by birth who left school at the age of 16 to work in variously as a shop assistant, factory hand and librarian before turning his hand to writing. Like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Room at the Top provides a realistic portrayal of life in a working class community. It’s central character is Joe Lampton, an ambitious young man of humble origins who is determined to make something of himself and leave behind former acquaintances who he despises for their lack of life and character. But his complex relationship with two women shows he is a man of dubious morality. By the end of the novel, he is forced to consider the question of his responsibility for a tragic event. This is a novel which deals brilliantly with questions of morality and social mobility.
My third link comes from another writer whose work is characterised by a social ‘edginess’. Stan Barstow wrote A Kind of Loving (1960) as the first part of a trilogy featuring Vic Brown, a young man from Yorkshire who is slowly inching his way up from his working class roots through a white-collar job. Vic finds himself trapped when his girlfriend becomes pregnant and they are forced, by the social rules of the time, into marrying. A housing shortage in northern England means they have to live with Ingrid’s domineering mother which further cramps Vic’s style. This is a novel very much of its time which deals with ambition, consequences and compromises.
Social realism of course was not the exclusive purview of male writers. Almost a century before the angry young men made their mark, Elizabeth Gaskell turned her attention to the brutality of life in the industrialised towns of northern England. My fourth link in the chain is one of her best known novels, North and South. Set in Manchester (Gaskell novel calls it Milton) the novel looks at the troubled relationship between workers and and mill owners as seen through the eyes of one woman, the clergyman’s daughter Margaret Hale. Forced to move north from her childhood home in the leafy south of England, Margaret’s senses and sensibilities are shocked by the poverty and suffering she witnesses. It’s fair to say that Charles Dickens, Gaskell’s contemporary, covered some of the same issues but I preferred the more nuanced approach adopted by Gaskell – while she detailed the social misery experienced in the slum dwellings of the workers, she balanced this by showing that not all mill owners were oblivious to the suffering of their workers. If all you know of Gaskell is her Cranford novels, you may be as surprised by North and South as I was when I read it about five years ago (see my review here).
Let stick with books set in the industrial heartland of the UK as we move onto number 5 in the chain. The Stars Look Down is a 1935 novel by A. J. Cronin which takes place in a coal mining community in Northumberland. It traces various injustices experienced by its inhabitants over a period from just before World War 1 until the 1930s. Cronin conveys his theme through three principal figures who represent different points of view: one is a miner’s son who follows a political career to try and improve the life of people around him , the second is a miner who goes into business but is accused of being a war profiteer, and the third is the son of an unscrupulous colliery owner. Cronin’s story includes a number of pivotal moments which force these people, and the community to question its values. Like Gaskell he doesn’t come down unequivocally on one side or another – broadly you can see his sympathies lie with the workers but he also shows a recognition that some of the mine owners can be decent human beings.
I can’t get to the end of this chain and ignore fiction written about social conditions in my own part of the world – Wales. So for my final choice I’m selecting a novel that was one of the most highly talked about among my parent’s generation. How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn about the Morgan family whose male members all earn their living in the dangerous world of coal mining. It’s a story told by one of of the sons, Huw, whose academic ability sets him apart from his brothers and gives him a chance to build a future away from the mines. This is a family saga so we get the usual quota of thwarted love affairs, sibling rivalry etc but its the background of the harsh working conditions experienced by this family (and their neighbours) and their total dependancy on the mines, that provide the main interest. Cronin claimed he based the book on his personal experience though this was hotly disputed. Nevertheless the world he depicts is one my parents recognised and felt was authentic, from crippling strikes that caused hunger and set father against son, to questions about whether mine owners compromised safety in the interests of cost cutting and, inevitably to a disaster underground. The title of the book is a recognition that while coal mining brought jobs it also turned the green hillsides into black mountains, a situation that lasted well into my adult years.
And there we must end this chain. We’ve come a long way from the terraces of a London football club, travelling via northern England to Wales, encountering social disruption, class warfare and (mercifully) not much sport……I didn’t think I would be able to link book number six in the chain back to Fever Pitch but just as I was about to press ‘publish’ I had one of those light bulb moments. Fever Pitch is set on the terraces of various football clubs. Much of the action of How Green was My Valley takes places within the terraced houses of the South Wales valleys. How about that for a connection???
This seems to happen to me every Christmas. In the run up to the festivities I contemplate all those hours when, sans work pressures, I’ll be able to indulge in nothing more demanding than picking up a book. I even list in my head the books that will be my companions during this time.
Seven days into the holiday now and my bookish idyll has yet to materialise. I forget just how much preparation the two days of Christmas seem to require so instead of reading I found myself in a seemingly endless cycle of gift shopping, food shopping, gift wrapping and cooking. Followed by a few days when it felt as if I was either preparing a meal, eating it, or clearing away. The closest I got to a moment of silence was an hour on Boxing Day but even that was a bit of a guilty moment since when you’re staying with members of the family it seems rude to shut yourself off from the conversations.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that now the big day is over and the visitors have gone, I can get some more relaxation time. And particularly some time to get acquainted with the new additions to my book collection courtesy of generous relatives.
From Europe comes Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton. This was recommended by a number of bloggers who read my recent review of Wives and Daughters so I shall look forward to this. I’m told its more akin to North and South which I preferred to Wives and Daughters. A review by Stu of Winstondad’s blog led me to request The Search Warrant by the Nobel Literature prize winner Patrick Modiano which traces the author’s attempts to discover the fate of a young girl who vanished from a convent school during the Occupation of France in 1941. Thanks to a review by Guy at SwiftlyTiltingPlanet I became the owner of The Four Corners of Palermo by Giuseppe di Piazza which will take me to Sicily in the 1980s, an island plagued by drugs, death and – of course – the Mafia. My fourth book from the European continent is by the Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir whose novel The Silence of the Sea by which has been described as ‘a corker of a locked room mystery with one of the most dramatic twists in recent crime fiction.
The two remaining gifts are both going to be emotional reads I suspect because of their subject matter. From Australia I am welcoming Richard Flanagan and his 2014 Man Booker prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North which the publishers describe as ‘a savagely beautiful novel’ partly set in a Japanese POW camp on the Burma Death Railway. Death is also prevalent in my last acquisition, Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink. This is a true life account of the five days at a New Orleans hospital during Hurricane Katrina. I remember reading an extract in a Sunday newspaper supplement and being moved to tears by her depiction of the ethical dilemmas encountered by the hospital staff who knew that they could not save all of those patients in their care.
Now my only dilemma is which of these tremendous books to read first. What would you choose?
Day 1 of a new month and it’s time to take a snapshot of what I’m reading, listening to and watching.
I’ve been promising myself that I would get around to reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters this year ( it’s been on my TBR shelf for a few years). I was hoping for something with a similar focus on a social question as the only other novel of hers that I’ve read – North and South – but so far this is more a study of English provincial life just before the 1832 Reform Act.
Almost finished the audio version of Rebecca’s Tale by Sally Beauman in which multiple narrators turn detective to try to discover what happened to the character in Daphne du Maurier’s most famous work. Was the suicide verdict justified or was Rebecca murdered? And what happened to Mrs Danvers? To answer the questions our amateur detectives have to dig into Rebecca’s past. Its more enjoyable as an audio book for me then as a book to read.
I’m back in the USA which means I get another fix of Law and Order. I’ve no idea how many series of this were made but there seems to be an endless supply when you add the spin off Law and Order Special Victims Unit into the mixture.
Like her contemporary Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell wanted to expose the human consequences of the Industrial Revolution. Where Dickens sought “to take the rooftops off” in Dombey and Son to show the disease and suffering caused by the relentless pursuit of the capitalist enterprise, in North and South, Gaskell focused on the response of one individual when confronted by poverty and suffering. The result is a blend of genres – a combination of Bildungsroman with Victorian industrial novel.
Gaskell’s protagonist Margaret Hale is jolted out of her pastoral background when her vicar father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience and moves the family north to the mill town of Milton (a psuedonym for Manchester). Margaret’s physical journey to this new region brings about an awakening about the poverty and suffering experienced by the mill workers. Her preconceived ideas about industry and trade, born from her experience of Southern ways, are gradually relinquished as she deepens her friendship with some of the worker families.
She begins with an acute sense of class divisions and distaste of anyone involved in commerce.
I don’t like shoppy people. I think we are far better off knowing only cottagers and labourers and people without pretence….. I like all people whose occupations have to do with land…
But through her growing friendship with the vocal workers’ leader Nicholas Higgins and his gentle daughter Bessy, her sense of class is destabilised. Instead of the socially superior attitude with which she arrives at Milton, she begins to align herself with the workers, to challenge mill owner John Thornton about their conditions and to transgress the accepted boundaries of her class by speaking the language of the working class. Rebuked by her mother she retorts:
If I live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it..
Her transgression is complete when she intervenes in a violent scene where she intervenes in a violent scene between John Thornton and a mass of striking workers. In using her body to shield him she steps out of the conventional private and domestic sphere for women, turning herself into an object for public scrutiny.
It’s in the stormy relationship with Thornton, a self made man, that the book shows Gaskell’s concept of how individual feeling fused with social concern can become an agent for change. Margaret refuses to accept his explanations of the relationship between owners and workers which dehumanises the latter by the reductive term “hands”. Under Margaret’s influence and the collapse of his business Thornton learns to treat his workers as individuals and to adopt a more paternalistic attitude towards their welfare.
Their exchanges are at times somewhat tedious (Dickens himself was very uneasy with some of the discussions), as are some conversations with Bessy Higgins as she lies dying from consumption and contemplates the afterlife. I found the use of dialect hard to digest also.
But those are minor points of criticism and don’t distract from my feeling that this was an engaging book.
Why I read this: I included it in my Classics Club reading list on the basis that I’d read Cranford but didn’t care for it and felt there had to be something better by Gaskell. I wasn’t wrong….
I’ve been rather slow to get started with the novels on my Classics Club reading list. But I took the plunge last week with Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I’d never read anything by her until a few months ago and my first experience wasn’t a great one but I was persuaded by those who are fans of Gaskell’s writing, that the novel I’d chosen, Cranford, was not one of her best. As I wrote at the time, I was disappointed by the lack of a real plot, feeling it was a series of incidents rather than a cohesive novel. I was assured however that North and South was a more substantive read.
It was the second of her novels in which she highlighted the destructive effects of the industrialisation and urbanisation of Great Britain. Her primary focus in North and South is on the destructive impact of the industrial revolution on the workers who are the engine houses for the wealth enjoyed by mill owners and industrial magnates, yet share in none of that wealth themselves. Instead they endure poverty, bad housing and ill-health.
Gaskell relates the story through the eyes of Margaret Hale, who is uprooted from her comfortable home in leafy Hampshire when her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience. Her upbringing in a rural parish in the South of England and in the fashionable salons of London has left her ill-equipped for her new home – the textile town of Milton in the north of England.
The ‘north’ and ‘south’ in this novel are not simply geographic locations. They symbolise rather a division of attitudes. To the mid Victorian mind, the north stands for the perceived virtues of entreprenneurial skill and self interest where capitalism is to be applauded not denigrated. The south represents the educated and comfortable existence of a class whose wealth comes not from trade but from heritage and the land. Margaret Hale, like many of her Southern acquaintances, views the former as inferior, common and vulgar.
In the North, confronted by the reality of the poverty and suffering of the local mill workers, she develops a passionate sense of social justice in their fight against the mill owners for improved working conditions.
After a fairly slow start, with some very unconvincing pieces of dialogue between Margaret Hale and a local mill owner, the self-made John Thorton, the novel is beginning to gather more interest for me. Not only is the tension cranking up as the conflict between worker and industrialists builds towards a strike,but the personal tension between Hale and Thornton is gathering pace. Sparks are not yet flying in that regard but it has all the hall marks of some dramatic interchanges.
Celebrated the end of the week with some lucky finds which have not only enriched my bookshelves but saved me money.
Browsing in my local Red Cross shop, amongst the usual Grishams and Pattersons, I found a copy of White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Adiga won the 2008 Man Booker prize with her debut novel about India’s class struggle. I’ve had a good experience with Indian-based Booker winners recently so am hoping this one will not disappoint.
Also in the store was North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I read Cranford by her a few weeks ago and wasn’t overly impressed but I’m told North and South is less frothy and more substantial. It was only £1.50 so was almost begging for me to buy it.
Then I happened to pop into the library and they were having a sale – £1 for as much as you could carry. I walked away with another Booker prize winner (The Sea by John Banville) plus Summertime by JM Coetzee. Coetzee is one of only two authors to have won the Booker prize twice. Coetzee won in 1983 with Life and Times of Michael K and then in 1999 with Disgrace (the novel also brought him the Nobel prize for literature four years later). I haven’t read either yet but was intrigued by Summertime which is a fictionalised autobiography about a writer finding his feet in South Africa. I also snaffled an Iris Gower and a Joanna Trollope for my mother so quite a fruitful hour all round.
it’s been a good week on the reading front.
I finished one book from my ‘to be read’ list of Booker prize winners – Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald which I didn’t rate at all. It didn’t have a promising start and never got any better. I’m mid way through Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve which is required reading for my children’s literature list but which I approached with a sense of dread because it’s science fiction and I really don’t do that genre. But I’m actually enjoying it, mostly I suspect because its an adventure story at heart and the science fiction bit isn’t that difficult to follow. And I’ve also started reading Made to Stick – a non-fiction book which looks at why some ideas endure (so why do people still talk about Nostradamu’s prophase 400 years later and why do urban legends persist). Early days yet but it has me thinking…..