GERAINT LEWIS A hit on the wrong target? Dame Stella Rimington
The week in books
No one has (yet) remarked on the paradox of this year’s Man Booker victor. A panel of judges which had promoted “readability” and accessibility picked a book that borrows its title from a somewhat abstruse work of literary theory. In 1967, Frank Kermode’s original The Sense of an Ending reflected on the arc of the story and the arc of existence, tapping into the notion of apocalypse in Western literature from Plato to Beckett. Julian Barnes’s winning book does, I suspect, deploy some of Kermode’s insights into the imperfect closure and completion of narratives and lives. But to name a novel after an arcane exercise in litcrit – just how “elitist” can a writer get?
The “readability” test has plunged Dame Stella Rimington – as the chair who most vigorously thumped the populist drum – into a war of words. It may, in time, help to renovate the prize. But I never knew that an intelligence professional who had spent 28 years in the security service, with four as Director-General of MI5, could be quite so thin-skinned. If Dame Stella’s nuclear riposte to a handful of sarky comment pieces about her shortlist by literary journalists is any guide, Thames House under her stewardship must have trembled on the brink of apocalypse day by day. We can only surmise that her demand for universal “readability” did not apply to signals traffic.
Barnes’s compact, tight and close-grained novel proves the key point better than any polemic. Its elegance and lucidity (readability, if you like) in no way corresponds to a shirking of nuance and complexity. Quite the contrary: from Chekhov and Kafka to Borges and Beckett, the subtlest of modern classics often employ the simplest of means.
By Boyd Tonkin
Sometimes, even a soppy Richard Curtis rom-com can serve a social purpose. Of all the closures of independent stores that have left hundreds of British high streets a book-free wilderness, none has given rise to more celebrity keening than the imminent demise of The Travel Bookshop. The west London specialist outlet was famously rebuilt as the set for Hugh Grant’s nervous romance with Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. Now, its looming departure has become a symbol of the town-by-town, neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood extinction of non-chain or non-supermarket book retailers.
New research from the data-collection giant Experian focuses the mind as sharply as Dr Johnson’s sentence of death by hanging. The total of independent bookstores in Britain has more or less halved since 2005, from over 4,000 to 2,178. According to Experian, 580 towns have no bookshop at all.
In a fine piece of analysis for the trade bible The Bookseller, The Travel Bookshop’s owner Simon Gaul identifies each element in the “perfect storm” that has wrecked his sector. They include the suicidal abandonment in the 1990s of the price-maintaining Net Book Agreement; the shifts in planning law that kowtowed to the demands of supermarkets and other out-of-town warehouse managers at the expense of high streets; and of – course – the boom in online retail.
I would only add the extraordinary self-destructive impasse into which the British book trade has backed itself. This encapsulates a far wider failure of political vision and will. Unlike countries in Continental Europe, the UK will not protect bookshops as a special class of cultural asset whose value justifies intervention in the market for rents, leases and so forth.
If it wished to rebuild mutual trust, social capital and motives for hope and change in the riot-wrecked streets of a nation’s cities, where might a truly idealistic society begin? Perhaps its policy-makers, with money no object, would plan a network of more than 4000 dedicated cultural and community centres, their locations scattered throughout urban areas – not just in downtown hubs and comfortable suburbs. It would protect these centres with a core role defined by statute, but give them enough flexibility to innovate, to connect and to co-operate.
Hopelessly utopian, I know. Except that Britain’s network of public libraries already exists. Or rather, it hangs on by the skin of its under-resourced teeth. Roughly 10 per cent of the total, more than 400, currently stand at risk of closure. Dozens have already shut.
I know and have heard all the possible objections to a view of local libraries that puts them at the heart of community renewal. Potential rioters and looters don’t care about them anyway. To enter a library in the first place identifies a young person as part of the solution, not the problem. Feral teens who trash the shops will not take an interest in the library until the day dawns when it agrees to stock top-brand sportswear and flat-screen TVs.
By Boyd Tonkin
Thoroughbred in the stable: Victoria Barnsley, Harper Collins
How much – if at all – should we care that Rupert Murdoch’s company controls the fourth largest book publisher in Britain, and has done for 21 years? The road that led a high-minded Glasgow Bible printer founded by William Collins in 1819 to integration into Murdoch’s News Corporation was a winding and eventful one. Collins finally joined the family in 1990, when News Corp merged the newly purchased UK firm with American outfit Harper & Row.
HarperCollins later acquired the illustrious independent imprint Fourth Estate, in 2000. Bucking the industry norm, the taken-over party, Fourth Estate’s founder Victoria Barnsley, then took charge of the entire business. A decade later, she still serves – with distinction – in that role.
According to the latest figures, HarperCollins has a market share of books in Britain of around 7.5 per cent – nothing like Murdoch’s hold on the press or subscription TV. Three bigger beasts easily outpace it: French-controlled Hachette UK, the German-owned Random House, and the native Penguin (which also has family ties to newspapers via parent group Pearson’s ownership of the Financial Times). HarperCollins does not disaggregate its results, which makes the UK – as opposed to the US – performance hard to gauge. But, after a period of decline, its prospects do seem to have brightened in recent months.
As Ireland’s institutions crumbled, writers and artists kept their good name – and are now courted by the state.
By Boyd Tonkin
Bucolic pleasures: Bantry Bay, County Cork, Ireland
We’re in a small harbour-side courthouse on the far western edge of the European Union. One national flag, and another that bears the EU’s ring of stars, flank the magistrate’s bench. The public seats are packed. A trio of witnesses – all detectives, after a fashion – rise to tell us in graphic detail about terrible crimes covered up and blamed on (likely) innocents who died to hide the guilty. An untamed countrywoman who worked as a prostitute, and had children by seven wealthy, married men, is savagely killed; a friendless farmer hangs for it. Another framed loner dies on the gallows after the murder of a judge’s daughter. A resented foreign woman, with her hapless servant, goes on trial for witchcraft…
The little courtroom in Bantry, a pretty and peaceful town on one of the deep bays where County Cork slides gently into the Atlantic, would not usually play host to such sensations. Each of these real-life cases has prompted a novel, and their authors – visitors to last week’s West Cork Literary Festival – took the stand to explain them.
13.01.11 | Katie Allen
Writers Neel Mukherjee and M J Hyland are among the judges on the panel for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
The five-strong panel also comprises writer, academic and broadcaster Harriett Gilbert, writer and Professor of Russian at the University of Oxford Catriona Kelly, and Independent literary editor Boyd Tonkin….read more