Ex Libris
Evie Wyld in Review Bookshop, Peckham

Evie Wyld in Review Bookshop, Peckham

March 26, 2020

For several years, Evie Wyld combined writing fiction with running an independent bookshop - Review, in Peckham, South London.

“It seems like the perfect marriage, doesn’t it?” Evie says of the dual role of writer-bookseller, “but sadly you don’t absorb the books through your skin.”

Although something about her routine must have worked because the two novels that Evie wrote between serving customers and managing the store - After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and All the Birds, Singing - led to widespread acclaim and, in 2013, she was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.

The Observer calls her ‘one of our most gifted novelists’.

Evie has now stepped back from the day-to-day of running Review but maintains a close involvement with the shop. She has also written a third novel, The Bass Rock. It is an epic, bracing novel, full of anger and heart - one that Max Porter has called a ‘triumph… haunting, masterful.’

In this episode - released to coincide with the day of its publication - Evie and Ben explore the The Bass Rock: they traverse its gothic landscape, touchstone themes and overlapping timeframes; they also browse Evie's bookshop; and, along the way, discuss everything in between - from the Me Too movement to tickling.

 

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A full transcript of this episode featuring Evie Wyld follows below:

 

Ben Holden:

Evie, thank you so much for hosting us here in your lovely home.

Evie Wyld:

Pleasure.

Ben Holden:

Can we talk initially though about Review, about the bookshop, where we'll head over to in a bit? I'm just curious how your involvement with the shop came about and the history of the place, etc.

Evie Wyld:

Well, Ros Simpson opened the shop about 12 years ago now when there really wasn't all that much in Peckham, and she just opened this nice little shop and I happened to live down the road from it, and I sort of wandered in a bit sort of fecklessly one day and was like, “Have you got any work?” [laughs] and she, she hired me - on the spot. And then I worked behind the till for about 10 years. I wrote my first book there when it was a lot quieter; we didn't quite have the footfall that we have today. And I worked there up until I got pregnant, and then we got my friend Katia Wengraf to manage it, who is a brilliant bookseller, and is much better than I ever was actually.

Ben Holden:

How so?

Evie Wyld:

I was much more of a silent, sort of glowering presence I think in the shop. I was much more Black Books and she's very good at remembering everyone's name and suggesting…

Ben Holden:

“If you like this, you'll like that”

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, and more than books really; she kind of orchestrates great friendships and relationships in Peckham, so she just sorts you out, whatever your problem is basically, she’s one of those people. And she was, at the time that we hired her, a milliner. She was making her own really beautiful hats. So the idea was, this would be a job that would enable her to carry on with that, but she loves bookselling so much that now she is a full on career bookseller.

Ben Holden:

So how did you juggle the writing and the shop over the years?

Evie Wyld:

Well, I mean, initially, with the first book, it was…we have a nice tall counter, and I just propped my laptop up and wrote a book, and ate sandwiches when no one can see [laughs]. And then with the second book, it was quite a lot more work, because with the second book, Ros had moved away to Ireland so I had more responsibility. I was managing it. And so then it was just a case of writing early in the morning, late at night, I guess. And then yeah, the third one, I was out. So then I discovered that writing with a baby is much harder than writing with a job. [Laughter]

Ben Holden:

And were you inspired in those early times, writing in the shop, by all the sort of plethora of books around you and voices?

Evie Wyld:

I'd love to say I was…

Ben Holden:

Or was it a hindrance?

Evie Wyld:

No, I don’t think it was either. I think it's one of those things that it seems like a perfect sort of marriage doesn't it?

Ben Holden:

There is a certain romance, kind of booky romance to this.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, there is. Sadly you don't absorb the books through your skin [laughs]. So I think I looked at it much more like, it probably changed the way that I sold books rather than changed the way I wrote. A bit like if you're a butcher who rears the pig and butchers the pig you're going to sell it with more love perhaps than you would otherwise [laughs].

Ben Holden:

So your new book – we’ll go to the bookshop later and have a have a proper browse - your new book, The Bass Rock, can you tell us a little bit about the novel and maybe you might read the opening for us?

Evie Wyld:

Sure. The Bass Rock is a volcanic plug just off the coast of Scotland, off the coast of North Berwick. It's this big, dark, sort of malevolent presence and it has borne witness to centuries, millennia of, of murder of women by men. And you've got Sarah in the 1700s, who is escaping through the forest from men who say that she's bewitched them and they want to burn her. And then in the 1950s, you've got Ruth, who is sort of a housewife living in this big house in North Berwick and trying to come to terms with the fact that her new widower husband is out of control, perhaps violent and very damaged. And then you've got, more or less present day, Viv, who is cleaning up after Ruth's death in North Berwick and beginning to realise there are things in the house that are very uncomfortable.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, good précis.

Evie Wyld:

So, a load of stuff [laughs].

Ben Holden:

And would you mind reading the opening and we can then talk a little bit more?

Evie Wyld:

No, not at all. Sure.

Ben Holden:

Thank you.

 

~ Evie Wyld reads extract from The Bass Rock ~

 

I was six and just the two of us, my mother and I, took [B-] for a walk along the beach where she and dad grew up. The shore a mix of black rock and pale, cold sand. It was always cold, even in summer we wore wool jumpers and our noses ran and became scorched with wiping on our sleeves. But this was November and the wind made the dog walk close to us, her ears flat, her eyes squinted. I could see the top layer of sand skittering away so that it looked like a giant bed sheet billowing. We were looking for cowrie shells among the debris of the tideline. I had two digging into my palm, white like the throat of a herring girl. My mother had a keener eye and held six. I felt the pull of victory slackening. Resting in a rock pool was a black suitcase, bulging at the sides. The zip had split and where the teeth no longer held together, I saw two fingers tipped with red nails, and one grey knuckle where a third finger should have been. The stump of the finger, like the miniature plaster ham I had for my doll's house. The colour had been sucked from the knuckle by sea water, leaving just a cool grey and the white of the bone. It was the bone, I suppose, that made it so much like the tiny ham. I moved my arm to swat something away from my face and as I did, flies rose from the suitcase in a cloud thick and heavy. Behind me, my mother, “Another one”, she called, “I found another one”. And then the smell, like a dead cat in the chimney in summer; a smell so tall and so broad that you can't see over or around it. My mother walked up behind me “What’s…?” I kept looking at the fingers and trying to understand. My mother pulling me by the arm, “Come away, come away”, she said, and spitting over and over onto the sand, “Don't look, come away”. But the more I looked, the more I saw and peeking through the gaps between the white fingers was an eye that seemed to look back at me, that seemed to know something about me, and to ask a question and give an answer. In the memory, which is a child's memory and unreliable, that eye blinks.

~ Reading ends ~

 

Ben Holden:

Woomph, and so it begins. It’s so great. So it's quite a swirling, epic novel that then unfolds from there; as you say, it’s a sort of triptych, three timelines and female protagonists, but their stories sort of ricochet and reverberate, and then the Bass Rock is sort of watching over, haunting everything. What inspired you to visit there and those three stories…I was trying to think of other novels that have adopted that sort of structure, The Hours sprang to mind. How did you settle on that structure and as a means to explore those themes that you wanted to get into?

Evie Wyld:

I always find structure a funny one, like, I don't settle on it until quite close to the end of writing the book. So with this book, I started writing it when my son was a newborn and so I would literally sit down at my desk while he slept, usually holding his hand [laughs] - so typing with one hand - and I didn't have the luxury of time to think about chronology or what I wanted the story to be or anything like that. I just had to sit down every day and write, you know, for an hour at a time, twice a day, whatever occurred to me, and so I think that's why we have the three different timelines. There are these three different things that just kept on coming up to me, and also, I think that I seem to remember there were quite a few more times, which have maybe been partly sort of translated into the eight murders that run throughout the book that kind of start in prehistoric times, and then go forward to sort of more or less present day. The structure, even though it seems like a very structured book, and even though the last book I wrote seems incredibly kind of, like I've thought about it a lot, it's more to do with, you know, the book will show you what its structure ought to be. You don't kind of think of a frame and then impose it on the fiction.

Ben Holden:

Yes, because the structure of the last novel was quite unusual and unexpected as a reader because you use…one, you were flipping between the two timeframes, but one of them was traveling backwards as well.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, it was quite mathsy in that way.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, it was ingenious, is another word.

Evie Wyld:

Oh thanks. Or a fluke [laughs].

Yeah, I really think it's, it's to do with getting to a certain amount of words and a story and then playing with how it creates the most impact. It's quite a nice point when you're like, “And now I'm gonna think about structure”.

Ben Holden:

And then it coalesces.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, and it inevitably means you have to lose a load of work, and you have to change the story and all that sort of thing. But I think so far, touch wood, it's always sort of made the novel, you know, it's made the story.

Ben Holden:

And the Bass Rock as well must have anchored some of this in terms of your character's movements and the stories that you were sort of swirling through there. I'm intrigued, again, still about the location because I confess, Mr Ignorant, I didn't know much about it, and looking into it I realised that David Attenborough, no less, has described it as one of the 12 wonders of the natural world, so it makes for quite a…

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, it’s a really stinky rock. [Laughter]

Ben Holden:

But it's quite a bracing foundation for your story and also, have to say, the title was intriguing to me because your previous titles are quite, sort of, quite lyrical, you know; ‘All the Birds’ comma ‘Singing’,  ‘After the Fire’, comma, ‘a Still Small Voice’ are beautiful. And then this one's: The Bass Rock

Evie Wyld:

Comma, [laughter] full stop.

Ben Holden:

But it's just very emphatic, you know?

Evie Wyld:

Yeah. So the character of Ruth in the 1950s is based on my grandmother. We had a great aunt that lived in North Berwick and it meant that my father grew up with holidays there. There are lots of photographs of him and my grandmother together with the Bass Rock in the background. And my grandmother, you know, I borrowed her timeline; so she married a widower with two small boys quite soon after his wife had died of tuberculosis while he was at war. So he came back from war, no wife, traumatized boys, and then quite quickly married my grandmother and I'd always seen that as, he needed to marry someone so that the boys had a mother, which is quite an ungenerous kind of way of looking at it. But I knew my grandmother as a very, very intelligent woman who'd done nothing with her brain and was bored as hell. And she chain smoked, and she was a gin alcoholic, and she was, by my father's recollection, a terrible mother. And she went on to have three more kids and they all had interesting relationships with her, very different, but my father in particular found her very difficult. And so as his daughter, I sort of absorbed that and was like, it's one of those relations that you slightly roll your eyes at, and then inheriting these photo albums after her death and seeing her as a young woman - kind of really sort of vital and sexy and interesting - and you go, “Of course, there is so much more to her”.

So the story, that thread, started off with me thinking about an alternative version of her, I think, and the setting of the Bass Rock felt important because it was kind of that linchpin where my father was, she was, I was as a child as well. And I think the landscape there has always really interested me because it's, it sort of always feels off-season somehow. It's like a, it's like a 1950s holiday destination, and it's carpeted and [-] golf course; and, and then there's, there are these great rocks out in the sea and there are oily gannets washing up and tar on the beach, and the wind blows sand in your face and, and they had an outdoor swimming pool, which as someone who is half Australian seems very weird to have that in Scotland, you know, even in the summer you're like, “I mean, he's going for that”. [Laughs] But people didn't, you know, it was like…it's all that kind of postcard seaside thing.

And these strange landmarks: you've got the Bass Rock and Craigleith and Fidra; and then on the land, there's the Law, which is this really steep hill with a whalebone right at the top, like a little beacon. And it just seems like a strange, witchy place. And then there are the witch trials that happen there. There's an old church, St Andrew's Old Kirk, which is by the Seabird Centre and it's this little building where these witches were accused of all sorts of things and then they were killed and then, you know, it feels like all of the things I'm interested in, kind of pulled together in one place.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, well it works beautifully in the novel. Did you head up there while you were writing it? Because it is very, very, very vivid. And you know, just listening to you describe, in quite matter of fact terms, the place but then when it's transposed into your novel, it's very, very rich.

Evie Wyld:

Thanks. Well, I went there a lot when I was a kid so I kind of wrote a lot of that stuff from memory…

Ben Holden:

From memory, a bit like the opening of the novel as well, in terms of that filter or refraction.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, exactly. And sort of the nostalgia is quite useful, and it always felt to me when I was a child like it was the 1950s there. But then, before I had my son, I knew that I was, that was kind of the area that I was going to be writing in, and I sort of went on a mad eight months-pregnant scramble over the rocks there and took loads of photographs and recorded the sound of the wind on the beach and picked up little smelly bits of tar [laughs]. Yeah, and I stayed in the golfing hotel, which is this really like imposing gothic hotel which is just for golfers and their wives, it's got a spa in, so the men go and play golf and the women go and have manicures and stuff. And I got a really cheap deal, and was there very, very pregnant and felt like I was being looked at like I’ve very bad luck…

Ben Holden:

Yeah, they must have wondered [laughs].

Evie Wyld:

Sort of deliberately having a drink in the evening so everyone could see [laughs].

Ben Holden:

Yeah, you mentioned the word Gothic, you know, some of your other novels as well have Gothic elements, but this really does feel very much in keeping with some Gothic tradition, you know, it's very modern in being a contemporary novel, but of course there's…Du Maurier sprang to mind a little bit for me, but M. R. James clearly, and there have been beaches in your other books, but here that beach…and Henry James as well, a little bit. How much were you interested in exploring some of those sorts of tropes or traditions, not consciously, but that sort of tradition?

Evie Wyld:

I shouldn't say this because I lecture at university, but I got a D in English at A-level and that's the last time I studied it. So these are all things that obviously I pick up on because, like subconsciously, because I love horror. I'm not any good at categorizing books. It’s just that, I don't know, maybe it's a thriller, maybe it’s…I just write the stuff that interests me and it turns out that psych, gothicy stuff; there's very little deliberate about what I do, it just…

Ben Holden:

Yeah, but the Gothic lends itself to that in the sense of the subconscious and the sort of ricochets between the timeframes that you've got and the identity but also, of course, the threat and the looming violence and male violence in all its different forms, and the visitations of the past and the present and future and between those generations. It's all very Gothic and you know, that is Gothic in its best sense should be coming from that subconscious anyway.

Evie Wyld:

I don't know. I mean, I've always read a lot. I remember a, like a driving holiday when I was a little kid, like really quite small, maybe six, and my mum had an audio cassette of Jamaica Inn, and I think we were driving in France, so we're driving for hours and we just listened to it over and over again. And something about that, and I haven't read it since, but something about Jamaica Inn stays with me like an atmosphere I think.

Ben Holden:

I mentioned that the different tropes, but the mirrors as well; there's a lot of different moments where reflections aren’t recognisable but again, it's those…the three character’s stories are spilling over into each other's timeframes or narratives, until they're kind of, do feel like one story.

Evie Wyld

I was probably about three quarters of the way through writing it and then Me too happened and there was something about that moment where I was just like “Witch hunting, and it's all the same thing. It has changed shape, but it's all the same.”

Ben Holden:

Again, there's the instinctive threat of violence etc. and the patterns are all still the same, in essence, yeah, I mean that does come through. There was a fantastic section in particular, quite late in the novel, that I was struck by, in this sense. If you don't mind if it's not too presumptuous, I'll just read it back to you.

Like I say it is quite late in the novel.

 

 

 

~ Ben Holden reads extract from The Bass Rock ~

 

There is no other point in our lives when either of us would follow these instructions, but I see Catherine close her eyes without hesitating and it feels good to follow orders. When my eyes are closed, Maggie starts humming and then chanting. I am surprised that I'm not embarrassed. “Diana, goddess of the moon, light the light; Pan, horned god of the world Earth, light the light.” She squeezes our hands and we join in and we just say these sentences over and over; and there's the feeling that you get when you're crying and shouting in the car on the motorway, but also later a feeling of elation, and all there is is the rosy black of my closed eyes and the sounds reverberating in my teeth, and it feels good. I am just my hands joined to my sisters and my eyeballs safe in their sockets, my tongue, and my spine all the way down to my base. I don't know how long we chant for, but it is like I'm a bat or a whale and I can see that there are people in the kitchen with us. There are children and women, all holding hands like us and I wonder is this the ghost everyone sees? Is it in fact 100,000 different ghosts? It's only possible to focus on one at a time. They spill out of the door way and I see through the wall that they fill the house top to bottom. They're locked in wardrobes, they're under the floorboards, they crowd out of the back door and into the garden. They're on the golf course and on the beach, and their heads bob out of the sea, and when we walk, we're walking right through them. The birds on the Bass Rock, they fill it. They are replaced by more; their numbers do not diminish with time. They nest on the bones of the dead.

~ Reading ends ~

 

It's so good. It's such good stuff.

Evie Wyld:

A chuckle a minute isn’t it? [Laughs]

Ben Holden:

I love it. No but, actually you say that, but your book, I have to say, is really, really funny, and almost made me laugh out loud, and I say that as someone who never laughs out loud at a book and I want to ask you whether you do?

Evie Wyld:

What, at my own books?

Ben Holden:

No, not at your own books [laughs]. Yeah, sitting there making yourself cry with laughter, no.

Evie Wyld:

What did I read recently that made me laugh a lot?

Ben Holden:

I like, by the way, them carrying the ashes in the bag for life, that was great, for instance. And the supermarket queue kind of ‘rom-com gone wrong’ sort of interaction was hilarious as well. It's a very, very funny novel in fairness.

Evie Wyld:

Thank you, that's really kind. I think, I don't know how you get away from humour. You know, if you're dealing with dark stuff, I just think it's such a natural thing for us to laugh in moments of horror, you know, even if it's nervousness, but life is so ridiculous, most of the time. I think because Viv, the woman in the more or less contemporary strand, is a very thinly veiled version of me, I think I was able to put in quite a lot of pratfalls and, you know, just like, just moments that you privately sort of smack yourself on the forehead for – it was quite therapeutic in that way.

Ben Holden:

They're very funny. They worked really, really well. And yeah, they bring it sort of down to earth; again, they feel very real and again, contemporary as well as, you know, the different timeframes going right back to the kind of witchery and onward. And you mentioned Me too and of course there's a strong streak of anger running through the novel as well as there was in All the Birds, Singing in terms of the looming threat of male violence, and here, there's all sorts of forms of abuse from gaslighting all the way through to rape. Again, how conscious is this? Because there is, you know, Me too, as well - there's a strong message here.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, there is. And it's not that I set out to write a book about that stuff, and neither did I set out with the other two books to write about, you know, toxic masculinity, or…I feel like this is the book that those two books were sort of running up at in a funny way, like I was kind of thinking about all of those things, in a way, all three of them are about exactly the same thing. I don't think you, as a writer, write one book about something and then you're done with it. I think it kind of snowballs in a way. And this book, you know, as I said, I had a young baby when I was writing most of it, and that makes you very angry - I mean, you have twins, you understand the anger there. But, just trying to carry on with your life once you've had a baby as a woman - it's quite amazing how many people want to get involved and tell you you're doing it incorrectly. So, I would go and breastfeed my son to sleep, which you're not supposed to apparently, but he's fine [laughs], on a bench outside the National Theatre, and then I’d go in once he was asleep and write for an hour while he slept, and the amount of times I had people sitting down next to me saying things along the line of “You'd both be much more comfortable at home”, you know, “what are you doing?”, “He's cold”, “Why are you doing this in public…” and there's that level of rage. Then there's the level of rage of the kind of various abuses that I think in my last book, I was looking at being like a young woman and the confusion of the message that you are supposed to be, you're supposed to appear sexy, you're supposed to want sex, but you're not supposed to enjoy sex, like that kind of weird juxtaposition of like, you know, it kind of pulls young women apart, I think, and I think it has a lot to do with that anger; binge drinking, self-harm, all of that stuff, and the way that they approach sex, the weird aggression that we have towards men when we're quite young, because we're being told all of these different things that pull in different directions. Something that happened while I was publicising All the Birds, Singing is I had my drink spiked at a party and thankfully nothing happened, I just felt very unwell for several weeks, and talking to a lot of my good friends about that, and you know, being like, “Ooh, that's lucky”, you know, “Don't know who did it”

Ben Holden:

That’s scary.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah. The amount of them who had had their drink spiked and it hadn't ended as well as it did for me. It just really amazed me. And the more that we talk about it, you know, that's why that extract you just read is an important one for me because it's showing the hope of the book, which is Viv might survive because she's talking about stuff and noticing the deaths. And there's so much power in women speaking about it and that's why Me too was such a ground-breaking, incredible thing is that it got us talking about it. And I saw last night on Sex Education, the Netflix series, that they have this scene where one of the young women gets wanked on on a bus. And nearly every woman who's made it to adulthood has had that, maybe not to completion, but you know, you've had a raw penis wiped on you, at least on the tube. And you just don't mention it. Because you're just like, that is part of being a woman, you know, and the thing that you should do is you can move down the tube, you can make sure that you're always, all your flesh is covered, you can, you know, there are things you can do, but you know, everyone's had it and you just absorb that and carry it with you and then that, I don’t know, there were just layers and layers of little things like that, that affect you massively, but at the time, you're like, “This is just a little thing. I'm not physically injured”. And it's really embarrassing to tell people that “Somebody wiped his willy on me on my way to school” [laughs]. And you just don't talk about it and you cover it up, and then there are just these little rocks in you that never really get shown the light.

There are these podcasts, there's My Favourite Murder, I don’t know if you've heard of that one. That started about three years ago, and it's just two women talking about murder that they're interested in, serial killers and that sort of thing. And they're very, very funny. What was totally unexpected about it is there are women all over the world who are really fascinated by murder, and nobody knew. You know, we're all like secretly googling ‘Murderpedia’ and you know, ‘Are there any active serial killers in Peckham?’ and things like that.

What happened was this community grew up around My Favourite Murder and around All Killer, No Filler, the British version, and it's given a huge amount of power to women to pay attention to their own instinct. And it sounds like such a simple thing and why weren't we doing it before, but their catchphrase “fuck politeness” is one of those things that you realise as a woman you are…it's ingrained in you that whatever happens, you have to be polite. If a man starts talking to you on the tube while you're reading a book, and they're like, “What's your book about?” And you say, “I'm really sorry, I'm reading my book, can you leave me alone?” you get this tirade of fury, this like, “Huh, you know, I'm just trying to be friendly, and I don't fancy you and I'm not trying to do anything”. And it becomes aggressive very, very quickly, and really uncomfortable.

And so I think we've all kind of, to an extent, we just look up and we smile, and we're like, “Oh, it's a book about blah, blah, blah”, and we end up in conversation with someone we don't want to talk to, and why are they talking to us anyway? What's their plan? You know, it's all these, kind of, these little moments in your everyday life as a woman that you have to make way and be polite, and actually it really affects your day and it really exhausts you. And the amount of women, including me, who would get home after a day's work, and come in and not take their coat or their shoes off or turn the lights on or make any dinner or anything, and just sit on the sofa and just feel like “Jesus Christ”, and you know, stare at a wall. I think it's a big load; it's a big depressing load. And the more we talk about it, the more you can see it happening. And I feel like other women looking out for other women and connecting with other women, all that stuff is so important, and I've seen a huge change in it of women looking on public transport to see if that woman’s okay with the attention she's getting from that person. There was a YouTube clip recently of a woman telling some drunk men to shut up because they were singing a song about how best to fuck a woman on the tube and she just stood up and just shouted at them. And then the rest of the passengers are all like, shout at them too, and it's this wonderful moment of like, you know, “We see you, and we hear you, and if you're going to say that you can fuck off” - it feels incredibly powerful.

Ben Holden:

Yes. And do you feel positive then that things are changing a little bit? As you say, there is a sort of sense that there's a spell or a circle that is perpetuating itself in your novel, but that there are little openings of, as you're describing, change.

Evie Wyld:

There's going to be, stretching into the future, murders and murders and murders. You know, of course, it's not good, that's not going to change. But there is that hope of survival, I think, and that feeling of sisterhood I suppose, which sounds like a really weird word.

Ben Holden:

I think I should say also, for the blokes out there listening that, you know, the men in the novel, although there's a sort of core…again, it's that sort of instinctive thing that you're tapping into a lot of the time in terms of the violence and the threat of violence, they're also damaged, and there is abuse that is visited upon them along the way. And you can see why these fractured male egos, or whatever, are being forced upon the women and how this circle of violence, again, is perpetuating itself.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, I mean, I think that it's one of the big misunderstandings of when people talk about toxic masculinity; they're not saying women are abused by men, they're saying it's terrible for everyone. That's the point and it's the male suicide rate - you only have to look at that.

Ben Holden:

Of course. And you mentioned the war as well, which features in terms of the backdrop to one strand.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, I think the trickle-down effect of war is quite astounding. And, you know, I am of a generation where my grandfather fought in the war, my uncle fought in Vietnam, and, you know, it's really at arm's length, but you can see it in the children and the grandchildren. It's still there.

Ben Holden:

It percolates through. Speaking of children, there was one, again, in terms of how the novel is stitched together, there are lots of motifs that, as we've talked about, sort of came about, organically, but tickling was one of them and I was really struck by it. Do you know the essay on tickling by Adam Phillips?

Evie Wyld:

No

Ben Holden:

I brought you a copy because it's amazing, and I was just struck by tickling. Again, I know you were writing this while you're pregnant and your kids were young, but tickling, it's such a great expression of the threat of physical abuse and that sort of strange netherworld between pleasure and pain and as the child is laughing, and it often involves them being pinned down. But he's amazing, I mean, Adam Phillips is an amazing psychoanalyst writer. But let me just read, if I may, a paragraph because you'll like it.

Evie Wyld:

Please do.

~ Ben Holden reads extract from Adam Phillips’s essay ~

 

Ben Holden:

Helpless with pleasure, and usually inviting this helplessness, the child in the ordinary, affectionate, perverse scenario of being tickled, is wholly exploitable. Particular adults know where the child is ticklish. It is, of course only too easy to find out. But it is always idiosyncratic, a piece of personal history, and rarely what Freud called one of the ‘predestined erotogenic zones’. Through tickling, the child will be initiated in a distinctive way into the helplessness and disarray of a certain primitive kind of pleasure, dependent on the adult to hold and not to exploit the experience and this means to stop at that blurred point. So acutely felt in tickling, at which pleasure becomes pain, and the child experiences an intensely anguished confusion, because the tickling narrative, unlike the sexual narrative, has no climax. It has to stop or the real humiliation begins. The child, as the mother says, will get hysterical.

~ Reading ends ~

 

Ben Holden:

It's really good stuff.

Evie Wyld

It’s really good.  

Ben Holden:

But you tapped into that, it comes up more than once in the novel. And again, there's a great scene between one couple who are fighting after they've had sex and he tickles her and she gets mad about it. She hates…“I fucking hate tickling”. And he's baffled by this because they've just had sex and then she's having a go at him for tickling her. But again, it's that sort of, a bit like the opening of your novel, it's that childish thing, it's sort of in there, instinctive, and then we as conscious human beings have to know when to stop or when it's not funny, or can you see that someone's actually not laughing, they're actually struggling to breathe.

 

Evie Wyld:

Yeah. Well, with my son, we have a safe word. He screams “sandwich” whenever he wants it stop. And we're really, really strict about like keeping to that. But yeah, I think tickling, the after sex tickling you're talking about, there are so many things that a man can do to a woman and then afterwards just go like, “I was only joking, what are you getting upset about?” and that's really what that is. For me that is tickling, it encompasses, “What are you going to report?” And do you know, because the reaction is laughter, even though it is, like you say, hysterical laughter, you don't have a leg stand on it. I don't see many steps between that and somebody being like, “Oh, she loved it. You know, she says she didn't want to have sex with me now. But at the time she was well into it.”

Ben Holden:

It is a sort of very earliest expression of those sorts of, that sort of routine, yeah, that can in an adult, darker spectrum lead to rape.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, absolutely.

Ben Holden:

There is, by the way, a little rejoinder on tickling, in Adam Phillips, as I say, because he has an eight year old in a session who talks about tickling, and she says “When we play monsters and mummy catches me, she never kills me, she only tickles me.”

Evie Wyld:

[Shudders]

Well, I think when you're a kid you can't imagine what somebody would do when they catch you. That is the thing that people do when those kind of chasing…you can't imagine what the next step is. So it is, it's like when you have a dream when you're a little kid, and you're like “The monster’s chasing me, and it's gonna tickle me”, why does that fill me with such dread?

Ben Holden:

Yes, and you mentioned that this is partly inspired by your family. I was curious what they…and it's dedicated to the Wylds. And by the way, your first novel After the Fire, a Still Small Voice was dedicated to the Strangers. Can this be that your families are called the Wylds and the Strangers?

Evie Wyld:

They are.

Ben Holden:

That’s so cool.

Evie Wyld:

That's why they got married [laughs].

Ben Holden:

Perfect, perfect, yeah. How have your family reacted to this one so far?

Evie Wyld:

They haven’t read it yet [laughs]. They all understand, I hope, that this is a reimagining of something. They understand by now about what fiction writing means and though there are always going to be things that you draw on from real life, I don't think I'm exposing anyone in any way that they wouldn't kind of feel comfortable with.

Ben Holden:

Do you feel like your grandmother, who I assume is no longer with us, would feel a sense of validation or in some way gratified or grateful that you've given her some sort of voice that perhaps she wasn't afforded?

Evie Wyld:

That’s a really interesting question. I'd love to say yes, I think she would probably not read the book and just go, “Darling, isn't it marvellous?”, and that would be it. I think she had kind of checked out a long time ago. Maybe the person she was in the old photographs would feel a link. But really, the Ruth in the book, you know, I allow her to do a lot more things than my grandmother ever allowed herself to do. And I don't think Ruth is ever bored; she's anxious and confused and angry, but she's never bored like my grandmother was.

Ben Holden:

Well maybe we should think about heading over to Review shortly? Normally, there are three of us because I meet with an author and a librarian or bookseller, but here we are in your home and it's just you because you're wearing both hats, you wear both hats. But normally, I ask in the venue in situ, how our guests decide to catalogue their books or organise their shelves, but I feel really sort of nosy and wary of being prying as we're in your place, looking around at the books. But it’s coals to Newcastle, you work in the shop, or worked, and then, how would you then fashion your shelves here? Or how are the books here? Is it sort of like “Oh whatever, they're just going to go where they're going to go?” because they're so regimented there?

 

Evie Wyld:

Well yeah, in our last flat we alphabetised them, and you know, in fiction, nonfiction, and we spent several weeks doing that.

Ben Holden:

And your husband, your partner…your husband's in publishing?

Evie Wyld:

He is yeah, so now we just have piles and piles of books round the place, and then if I need a book to teach with at Kent, I generally end up buying it again [laughs], which is a bit aggravating. I sort of don't know who I was when I had the time to sort them out, which feels really sad. But there is no order sadly, there's just lots.

Ben Holden:

Yes, yes. It would be lovely to have a browse of Review with you and perhaps you'd let me buy you a book? Although again, it feels like coals to Newcastle, at least I can support the shop or you, if you don't want to choose one there, you can recommend one for me or whatever you like, but I do like to celebrate these places and as well as the serendipity of the shelves there and the browsing process, so that'd be fun. Thank you so much.

Evie Wyld:

Pleasure.

 

~ Evie Wyld is invited to select a book of her choice from Review bookshop ~

 

Ben Holden:

This is so great, love it. Do you have customers come in and buying your book, asking for your book? Have you ever had anyone ask for your book and not realise that it’s you?

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, quite a lot, which is the much more comfortable way round [laughs].

Ben Holden:

Yeah. Do say, “Do you want me to sign it?”

Evie Wyld:

No

Ben Holden:

You just let them buy it?

Evie Wyld:

Yeah. I mean, I have in the past, if we've been in a conversation, you know, if we’re kind of getting on well, and occasionally they'll be like, “Why would I want you to sign it?” [laughs].

Ben Holden:

Do they get a bit spooked?

Evie Wyld:

Yeah.

Ben Holden:

I can understand that.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, it’s like why do you want just a perfect stranger to sign this book you’ve bought? It’s very odd [laughs].

Ben Holden:

But then you must get a fair number of local…being a local sort of author figure in the community as well?

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, ‘a figure in the community’ – that’s how I like to think of myself [laughs].

Ben Holden:

It's a beautiful shop though and it smells of new books.

Evie Wyld:

Thank you. Yeah, well you'd hope so [laughs].

Ben Holden:

It's lovely.

Evie Wyld:

I’ll just close the door to the toilet [laughs].

Ben Holden:

It's tough to know where would you begin if you were going to choose a book for pleasure. Does that feel funny to be coming in here to choose a book for pleasure, because it’s a worky place?

Evie Wyld:

It does. Yeah, I think most of the books that I read at the minute are to do with helping other people learn to write.

Ben Holden:

Right, because you're teaching…

Evie Wyld:

Because I’m teaching creative writing at Kent. It sort of changes how you think about books. You're kind of like, “Oh, is there a section in there that I can photocopy and it will show them how to do a good image or significant detail?” or, or something like that.

Ben Holden:

Are there texts that you return to?

Evie Wyld:

Yeah, I'm a big fan of, and it's a very old one, but the Artist’s Way. I just think is really useful in terms of kind of relaxing people into a sort of creative process and it's all really embarrassing talking about it, as it makes it sound…

Ben Holden:

Why?

Evie Wyld:

I think, because writers often want to keep it quite mystical and actually, the reality of writing a novel is it's a lot of hard work and a lot of time and graft.

Ben Holden:

Application.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah. I always feel like it's better to try and err on the side of being a bit kind of brutal about it, rather than, you know, have a nice drink and smoke a pipe and, you know, wait for the muse, you know. [Laughter] But I think the Artist’s Way is really good, because it has practical stuff about if you're sat looking at a blank page, you know, do this, and I find that it's useful. But I think Max Porter is really good for people writing now, to just show that you can really do whatever you want with the page. I think that's really inspiring. It seems to surprise students quite a lot which is nice.

Ben Holden:

Yeah. Have you read The Diary of a Bookseller?

Evie Wyld:

No, I haven't.

Ben Holden:

Talk about again, coals to Newcastle…

Evie Wyld:

This is very good, actually, Easier Ways to say I Love You by Lucy Fry. And it's a memoir. I think it's literally just come out and it's about her learning to live within a polyamorous marriage with her wife and her son. Yeah, it's quite a startling book I think.

Ben Holden:

You absolutely loved it, according to the cover.

Evie Wyld:

I absolutely loved it - such a great quote [laughter]. I do hate writing quotes for people.

Ben Holden:

An important voice and beautifully written. It’s a fantastic cover as well.

Evie Wyld:

Yeah.

Ben Holden:

Easier Ways to say I Love You - it’s a nice title as well. Well thank you. That's, I think, as good a recommendation as I could want for.

Evie Wyld:

Good.

Ben Holden:

Thank you.

Tessa Hadley in Redland Library, Bristol

Tessa Hadley in Redland Library, Bristol

March 17, 2020

“It’s strange and haunting to be back here after a very, very long time,” says Tessa Hadley of heading inside seminal childhood destination, Redland Library. " I can still remember the feeling of entering the new book, the first page like a threshold, that excitement and thrill… And  at some point thinking ‘I want to make my own stories...’”

Those stories that Tessa has gone on to write - thus far, three collections of short stories and six acclaimed novels - continue to garner widespread acclaim. She engenders similar wonder today in her own readers.

Her peers are unanimous in their praise. She is ‘one of the best fiction writers writing today,’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie declares. In the words of Hilary Mantel, Tessa ‘recruits admirers with each book: she is one of those writers a reader trusts.’ And few writers give Zadie Smith ‘such consistent pleasure’.

Tessa’s writing came to prominence partly via the pages of The New Yorker magazine, to which she continues to contribute short stories. Her most recent novel is Late in the Day and her awards include the Windham-Campbell Prize.

She lives in London but chose to meet with Ex Libris in Bristol. Tessa first went to Redland Library with her school, as an infant. Before long, she was going there by herself - devouring the entire children’s section of books before, around the age of 12, foraying further into the library, travelling alphabetically around the adult shelves (Elizabeth Bowen’s writing, first encountered on those forays, remains a key inspiration).

Redland is a striking building, established in the 1880s. Like so many libraries in the UK, it has faced challenges during recent years of austerity. Yet the place has not buckled and remains a vital destination. A proper palace for the people.

Joining Tessa to put all of that into vital context is Councillor Asher Craig, who also grew up visiting the library as a kid and now is responsible for the library services in Bristol. Asher explains Redland’s situation today and lays bare those challenges of recent years. The two share fond, nostalgic memories of growing up in Bristol. They pore over sepia photos from the archives of the old place in its pomp, compare notes on Anne of Green Gables, and delight - all these years later - in exploring the shelves anew.

 

...

 

A full transcript of this episode, featuring Tessa Hadley, follows:

Few writers give me such consistent pleasure as Tessa Hadley.  These are Zadie Smith’s words, but I second them wholeheartedly: “I'm a big fan, as are many other readers. Indeed, Hilary Mantel has observed that Tessa recruits admirers with each book. She is one of those writers a reader trusts”. Damn right.  And Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls her “one of the best fiction writers writing today”.

Tessa Hadley is the author of three collections of short stories - that's how I first discovered her work via those stories in the pages of the New Yorker magazine, to which she frequently contributes. She has also written six acclaimed novels, most recently, ‘Late in the Day’.

Tessa lives in London and is professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University. She has chosen though to meet today in Bristol, at Redland Library, which she would frequent as a child. It's a handsome old place, built in the 1880s. It's faced a few challenges during recent years of austerity that have led to campaigns by Friends groups for its preservation. But Redland has not buckled and stands proud. Indeed, today, it's in scaffolding, they're doing some more works to keep it strong as ever. Like so many libraries up and down the land, it's a vital destination, a proper palace for the people - it has been for well over a century.

Joining us with Tessa to put all of that into some context is local Councillor, Asher Craig, who also grew up visiting the library. Without further ado, let's head on in and get talking with them both.

 

Interview

Ben Holden:

Tessa, Asher, thank you very, very much for joining us and meeting here in Redland Library. Tessa, I know it's a special place for you and you immediately chose it as the venue for today. Can you tell us what it signifies and perhaps also a bit of background, describe the place - it's a very striking library. Perhaps you could evoke it a little bit for our listeners.

Tessa Hadley:

Built in the late 19th century of sort of big, chunky red stone, and with handsome great, grand windows letting in lots of light on the books inside; it's quite a tiny library, although books are small so you can pack an awful lot of books into a small library. Exactly as I remember it from my childhood - you come in through the front door, and both Asher and I, it was that metal door handle on the door that brought memories of long ago rushing back. You come in through the door and the children's section, I think it's still as it was, is laid out to right and left. And then ahead of you, up the stairs is the adult section. It's strange and haunting to be back here after a very, very long time.

Ben Holden:

And we've found the team here have pulled some really beautiful photos, which I'll post online for anyone who's listening and wants to check them out, but they're very evocative, very handsomely framed. Someone knew what they were doing, but they evoke, again, a bygone era of this library.

Tessa Hadley:

They're a little bit before my time even, but it's wonderful in these photographs to look at all the men and women sitting, reading with their hats on, in the women's cases, though I think the men have taken them off. And what spills out from these black and white pictures to me is the quiet of the library, which as a child is so important as you come in, because you recognise this space set apart from the noise and bustle of the street outside and school. I used to come here every week with my school. We came in a crocodile two-by-two holding hands, and we were brought here every Friday afternoon it seems to be in my memory. We all took out books, not just the bookish ones; every child took out at least one book and brought it back the following week. And the sense that you entered this hushed, quiet space, I could see that could be scary if books weren't your thing, and it wasn't your space, but I have to say I was such a bookish, shy child, so to me, it felt kind of like coming home coming into this respectful, absorbed quiet; that was really a place I wanted to be.

Ben Holden:

Some sort of inner sanctum...

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, a place that took reading so seriously, put it at the centre of things. There was no commercial thing going on, there was no money being exchanged, just thought and absorption in words inside books.

Ben Holden:

Yes, and of course they still offer that sanctuary today, and it's still very quiet space or somewhere that people can come into the warm and focus on whatever it may be. But it's obviously changed. In those photos it looks quite stately and like a destination. The librarians at the front look like they're running some sort of department store counter [laughter]; the patrons look like they've sort of put their Sunday best on, it's almost sort of going to church.

Asher Craig:

The area really hasn't changed, I mean, Redland itself. I was saying earlier that I've never revealed to everybody, even in my time as a councillor, that both Redland and Cheltenham Road Library were my local libraries, because I was brought up in Redland, and I was thinking about when you were talking about what things that were evoked, so I had that kind of déjà-vu moment when I was walking through the doors. Because when you're little, the stairs even though there are few stairs, they seem quite big. And I always remember being afraid to go into the adult section, because we were so little, you're not allowed to go into the adult section.

But I was a very early reader, I was reading maybe from about four or five. I just loved reading. And so I enjoyed our visits to the library. We'd all sit down quietly in the corner, we’d choose a book, the book would be read to us, and then we could, “right now you can go off and choose a book that you want to take out”. Just the enjoyment of just, you know, the librarian opening the book, putting that little stamp in there with the date in there to tell you when… you know, it was just all part of that. So, yeah, I mean, everybody's journey is very different. But yeah, fond memories…

Tessa Hadley:

Do you know, I used to do it at home - I used to stick little sheets inside the few books I actually owned and from somewhere had a date stamp and used to make little cardboard ticket holders. [Laughter] That is a bit sad as a childhood play! [Laughs]

Ben Holden:

It's very sweet. And did you, Tessa, come here at a similarly early age? You said you were coming here with school, but was it part of the family routine?

 

 

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, it was. I can't really remember when I was coming with school except this once a week thing, and then when it began to be with my family or whether it both coexisted, I'm really not sure. But certainly I've been here with family as well, yes.

Ben Holden:

And was it this place that really fostered your love of reading and writing as well? Was this where those seeds were sown for you wanting to become a writer?

Tessa Hadley:

Absolutely, because we weren't really a bookish family at home; we had books and my parents read but they weren't the sort of parents that said, “Oh, you have to do this. You have to read this person and this person”. So I was free inside this building to pick and choose and I really just devoured the children's books and used to take home this pile of five, I think we were allowed, and I can still remember the feeling - unspoiled by adult criticism because, of course, it's not so straightforward now - of just entering the new book; the first page like a threshold and you cross it, and then you're inside. That excitement and thrill, which, to me is, again, perhaps slightly sadly sort of not surpassed by anything, and mixed up with that love of reading somewhere at some point, quite innocently without any grandeur, thinking “I want to also make my own stories”.

Asher Craig:

So you know what’s really interesting as you’re speaking Tess, I was trying to think about, “well, what books did we even have in my home?” And do you know something; we really didn't have any books. The only books that we had at my house was this beautiful Bible. It was huge, bound, beautiful pictures…oh, I just loved reading it, or just looking at the pictures. I remember one, there's a specific picture in the Bible of one of Jesus's disciples and somebody who had been stabbed in the heart and you can see him being held by Jesus. Yeah, I remember all of that and the other book was the dictionary, equally as big, huge. Those are the two kind of big staples…

Tessa Hadley:

Wonderful, they were like the authority books in your house.

Asher Craig:

They were! And you know something, I've been thinking, “I wonder what happened to it” because obviously you know, my parents have passed away - I might go and Google and see if I can find something that looks like it; but it was beautiful like leather-bound, brown Bible and gold embellished, you know, and the leaves were gold embellished on the side.

 

Tessa Hadley:

And I actually think that's a better beginning in books than you go into a child's house now, often they have a thousand books, piled up, most of them unread. You had one precious book with wonderful language inside it and great pictures what's more.

Asher Craig:

Exactly, exactly.

Tessa Hadley:

In the beginning of ‘Mill on the Floss’ Maggie Tulliver is reading a religious book - they only have two or three books in the house - and she is obsessed with certain pictures of devils and saints being martyred, exactly like you being drawn to that picture of violence. And these feed the imagination.

Asher Craig:

Well, that was it, because I think that's what made the words come to life. When you were looking at the pictures, and then I will be trying to find the story that related to the picture, because maybe the story was a couple of pages away, because obviously they've put the leaves in, but you know, I was really fascinated because I looked at the picture and then I wanted to know “what is the story behind the picture?” So yeah, my first kind of real excursion into reading and books was the Bible.

Ben Holden:

Yeah. And then you could supplement it, obviously with this place with all sorts and Tessa, you found one or two books here that made a big impact on you, and one or two also that perhaps the librarians were a little…unimpressed by?

Tessa Hadley:

Oh, yes, that was a funny thing happened. When I was, I think about 11 or 12 and I'd been using the library for a long time, I borrowed a book called Young Mother, and I kind of didn't really, it was just one of my five for that week, but when I got home I was slightly startled in my innocence to discover it was a very pious and solemn story about a girl who got pregnant and then had the child. Even the cover, I can actually remember, sort of pastel and a girl with a tragic face, you know. Anyway, when I brought it back in, I was already embarrassed as I stood in the queue to hand the book back to the librarian. I remember being slightly, shuffling forward and feeling a bit hot under the collar. She took this book away from me and then she sort of turned to the other librarian and murmured something to her and then they both took it into the backroom; I just felt as if I'd been found out in my salacious imagination. And then she brought it back and she was sniffing it and she said, “Definitely smells of paraffin”. [Laughter] And it turned out it was because my dad had had the paraffin tank from the oil heater that we had at home in the back of the car with the book. But I just, I still to this day think it wasn't just that; it was her reacting to me reading that.

Ben Holden:

The fumes of transgression.

Tessa Hadley:

The fumes of transgression, exactly.

Ben Holden:

So which books really made an impact? I think you've talked about Swallows and Amazons, but from this library, are there some that stand out?

Tessa Hadley:

I can almost seem to see them and I did love the books that there was a whole series of, because that was like, once you liked it and you'd got into it, there were loads of them. So, Swallows and Amazons, which were truly huge for me; Anne of Green Gables, did you read that?

Asher Craig:

Oh I read…I loved Anne of Green Gables.

Tessa Hadley:

We probably had the same book in our house!

Asher Craig:

We could have had the same book! Love that story.

Tessa Hadley:

I loved it so much and cried about it of course and you know, not just the first book but, it never occurred to me that they probably got less good as they went on, as they scrape the bottom of the barrel, but I just took them all in. I also remember books from the non-fiction side. There was a great series called The Young Victoria, and The Young Wolfe, The Young…you know, all great figures from British history as we understood it then. I mean, probably I should think wince-making now in their inappropriateness, but filling out the shapes of time and history and giving on a first sense of different eras, and of the past; that's one of the things we get from our reading more than anything, I think, is a sense of the past.

 

Asher Craig:

I think that's one of the things that I love about reading, just getting lost in it and just the imagination and it takes you to the places…

Ben Holden:

That's the special thing about libraries is that they're a place where you can be alone, together; they’re full of contradictions, nice contradictions in that sense and you can get lost in your own world, but they’re a safe space.

Tessa Hadley:

As in this wonderful photograph; all these people are not sitting talking, they are all alone, together. And yet, they are a community of readers together, sharing but private.

Ben Holden:

And here we are, however many years later, with you two who grew up coming here and we're in the library…

Tessa Hadley:

…holding the same volume of Anne of Green Gables, which I love!

Asher Craig:

[Laughs] Yes.

Ben Holden:

We’ll go and have a look in a minute to see if it’s still there.

Asher Craig:

Oh, yeah, let's see if we can find it. And that was the other thing, I also liked - you know you have the little drawers where they had the details of the books and where you could find them, and I used to love opening the drawers and just flicking through the little cards, yeah, the card index system, and kind of flicking through that and knowing where to go and find the book that you were looking for.

Tessa Hadley:

Because all of that is about authority and power in a good way, isn't it?

Asher Craig:

The early computer days. [Laughs]

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, yeah, but I think those cards were more enchanting somehow than flicking through a computer screen, although that works perfectly well.

Asher Craig:

Yeah, that’s what I was saying; I loved it because it was you know, you know you have to go to A to D or wherever and then just kind of flicking through it. Yeah, loved all of that. [Laughs]

Ben Holden:

We talked about the past, and Tessa, you're a bit of a laureate if you ask me in terms of our relationship with the past; you've looked at it closely in so many of your novels and short stories, but Late in the Day, your newest novel, is very much in that zone. It tells a story of four friends - two married couples - and their intertwined relationships as a quartet, as well as their children. But you flip between the past and the present. For anyone who has not yet had the joy of reading it, do you want to just give us a little snapshot, and perhaps, if you don't mind, read something from it?

Tessa Hadley:

Sure. Yes, it is these two couples and my first idea when I conceived the novel, before I started writing, was that I would run it chronologically and begin with these four in their twenties, then have them in their thirties, then in their forties. Then I thought, “A novel just can't be a line, it has to also be a circle - I have to have a big thing that sort of pulls all this together”. And I knew one of my four had to die, in that slightly merciless way that writers do with their characters. And once I knew that he had to die - I've made the nicest one of the four die I think, the sweetest man, sorry - I knew that I had to put his death right at the beginning of the book, that it would feel really malevolent to write the whole story and make you involved with the characters and then suddenly kill one of them, that doesn't work for me. So I had to begin at the beginning when these characters are in their fifties, one of the four drops dead, and then I had to do this thing that is a little bit tricky structurally, but I think I got away with it, where we're partly running the story in their fifties, in the present, with the fallout from the death and what it does to the three left behind, and how they re-make their relationships around his absence. And then I also dip back into their youth, into their thirties and into their forties, so it's a little bit complex in time structure.

Ben Holden:

The non-linear structure’s brilliant, it works really, really well. And the title of the novel is again redolent of the past. There's a sort of autumnal quality to it.

 

Tessa Hadley:

Well, I think I've always been interested in that. It's funny, even when I was a child, and it was probably because of reading, I would look at an old person on the bus and I would think “they were young once”. And I've always had that layered perception. I talked to my grandparents intently, almost interrogating them about their childhood and their youth. So I've always been fascinated in the different layers of people's lives and how they unfold and have youth inside age. So I can't resist writing about it, it seems to make the present so much thicker.

Ben Holden:

That’s quite unusual, quite perspicacious, or perceptive of you as a young person to think of someone as having a youth. Hats off.

Tessa Hadley:

That’s funny, isn't it? I don't know why, I mean, I'd almost say it was a bit obsessive, and odd. [Laughter] But that's how I was made somehow. So shall I read a little bit?

Ben Holden:

That would be amazing, thank you.

Tessa Hadley:

It's not particularly relevant to anything we've been discussing, but it's in the present part of the book, and this is Christine, and her husband Alex is still alive. Alex is not here, he's gone up to Glasgow, he's on his way home. Actually, something momentous is going to happen on his way home. Not an accident, but something that will change the dynamic between these remaining three and sort of break the pattern that exists. But really, this is just a passage about ‘waiting’.

 

~ Tessa Hadley reads extract from Late in the Day ~

 

Her perception was a skin stretched taught, prickling with response to each change in the light outside as it ran through the drama of its sunset performance at the end of the street in a mass of gilded pink cloud. When eventually the copper beech was only a silhouette cut out against the blue of the last light, Christine pulled down the blinds, put on all the lamps, turned her awareness inwards. From half past 10 she began to think she heard Alex's car draw up outside. Each time she braced herself. The more a homecoming was anticipated, the more disconcerting the actuality was prone to be - she knew that. The arriving one walked into a shape prepared for him, not actually his own.

Just because she was relieved to be free of Lydia and looking forward to seeing Alex, the reality of him would be an affront; he wouldn't fit into her preparations or even notice them, would arrive burdened with purposes of his own breaking into the tension of her waiting. Men didn't care anyway about clean sheets or scented soap, both of which she's put out for him. It would be better really if she watched telly and forgot she was waiting. But in the summer night, the spell of her expectation was too strong. She lost herself inside short passages of her novel then couldn't proceed because they affected her too much. She dropped the book and looked about her restlessly, filled up her glass again.

It was only once midnight had come and gone that panic lifted up in Christine's chest like a great bird between one moment of it not occurring to her to worry, and the next when she was certain something must have happened. He'd said he might be home by 10 o'clock, hadn't he? No doubt the traffic was bad, and he wouldn't have called to let her know because Alex never used his phone while he was driving, and also he despised that whole infantile obsession with calling, needing to be in touch at every moment. Yet her imagination, working outside her control began to conjure disasters that were more awful for being indefinite. The poised perfection of her scene was spoiled, a mockery, and yet she couldn't possibly go to bed - sleeplessness there would be worse. And anyway, he would surely arrive any minute and there wouldn't have been anything to be afraid of after all. When he did arrive she would never forgive him, she thought, for putting her through this.

In interludes of respite, she forced her awareness down into her novel then awoke from its dream in palpitations of dread. She hadn't eaten anything since cake at lunchtime - she'd waited to have something with Alex - so the white wine she'd been drinking had given her a headache. There was nothing to think about except the worst. For a long time she wouldn't let herself call his phone then she tried it and found it was switched off. Her helpless fear was a paralysis hollowing her out, and yet was probably absurd. She kept hearing a car whose drones seem familiar which then drone past; or a car would park in the street outside, a car door slam, her heart would lift in paroxysms of relief. But Alex didn't come.

This madness of anxiety was her own to bear. And at any moment Alex would turn up, it would have all been for nothing. But by two o'clock she couldn't help herself. She rang Lydia. She told herself Lydia often stayed awake late reading, and indeed she picked up the phone almost at once spoke into it wearily. Christine knew there was a handset on the bedside table at Garrets Lane. She poured out her distress, so glad to talk to someone.

“Lyd, I'm so really, really sorry to call at this time of night. I know it's completely selfish of me but I'm so stuck, I don't know what to do, I don't know who else to call, I don't want to bother the children. It's Alex, he's not back yet, I don't know where he is. He said he'd be back by 10 and he isn't here and his phone's turned off. I've got myself worked up into a state imagining every kind of disaster. Do you think he’s had an accident?”

Lydia's voice was hesitant, but not as if she'd been woken from sleep.

“Oh, Chris”, she said. “Don't worry. He's all right.”

“I know it's stupid, he'll be fine, but I am worrying.”

“Don't worry, though, really. Alex is here.”

She could hardly take in what she heard at first. “What do you mean he's there? What's he doing there? Why hasn't he rung me?”

“I don't know what to say. I don't know how to tell you.”

It was as if dark forms crowded suddenly into the room around Christine; recognition was so violent. One stark and ghastly white face showed in the mirror. She didn't know her own self for a moment. Lydia ploughed on as if bemused by wonders.

“Everything's so strange Chris. I'm so sorry.”

~ Reading ends ~

 

Ben Holden:

Thank you. It's an absolutely stunning passage. It’s very dramatic as well, you read that so beautifully. But, I was blown away by the sort of James-ion shifting lights and the sort of stretching of time in that interior world, but then you explode it late in the day, like the title, for this person in terms of their lives; late in the day, these lives are changing.

Tessa Hadley:

At a point when you hadn’t thought they were going to. When you think you’re settled and you’ve got what you've got, and that's how it is.

Ben Holden:

Yes, but the timing of the passage as well; there's a lovely moment later on when the younger character says, “up until now, my life's been so straightforward, almost too straightforward. I wish you'd known me in the past.” And of course we do know them in the past because you flip back to those lovely ironies, but here you have a passage where the present is punching through, in such an emphatic way.

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, because one never wants to just celebrate the past as if it's a kind of lavender scented, better time. It was only the present then, it was violent and it punched through then and then all those things, they build bricks of ourselves and bricks of our story and it amounts finally to, if we live a full life, it amounts finally to building a place, a whole story, if we get given the whole story, which not everybody does of course.

 

Asher Craig:

Well you've left me completely fascinated so I am definitely purchasing your book.

Ben Holden:

Oh you must.

Asher Craig:

Oh no, I don't need to purchase I just need to take it out of the library. [Laughs]

Tessa Hadley:

You can take it from the library, yes. And in fact I’ve just, to be completely sordid, I've just had my lovely PLR payment, which is Public Lending Right payment.

Ben Holden:

Yes, very important for authors.

Tessa Hadley:

Very important for authors - a great victory for authors and very valuable.

Asher Craig:

Is that a new…?

Tessa Hadley:

It's quite a long time now but, I'm afraid I’m not going to know which decade it was achieved in, but every author is paid an allotted amount according to how many times their book is borrowed.

Asher Craig:

So, interesting because my daughter worked for PRS the Performing Rights Society, so it’s exactly the same kind of, same thing. Well, that's brilliant. Well done.

Tessa Hadley:

It’s wonderful, I know.

Ben Holden:

I got mine as well. It's amazing reading actually, seeing…it's really lovely to see each title, how many people take them out.

 

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, it is. And of course it invests in the most literal writers in libraries and of course, writers want their books to be in libraries anyway, more for better reasons. But it does, it gives a solid material connection between us and the books we write and these places.

Asher Craig:

Does that also relate to kind of online reading and all of your books online?

Ben Holden:

Yes, it does take into account digital borrowing.

Asher Craig:

Oh, excellent.

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, it does. They worked out a complicated system for that. And then there's also ALCS which is the Author's Licensing and Copyright Society and wherever your books are used for copywriting, teaching, or anything like that, you also get a payment.

Asher Craig:

Excellent.

Ben Holden:

There is one, as we’re on library books as well and borrowings, there is one library reference in Late in the Day that I spotted, with my eagle eyed library lenses on it.

Tessa Hadley:

I don’t know that I can remember it!

Ben Holden:

I couldn’t help but notice it but one of your, I think it's Christine or Lydia, I forget, sorry, which character but one of your characters says, they compare people to library books and so “people aren't available, are they, to be taken out, and given back like a library book, date stamped”. Which is great. And completely right of course! But again, it's that sort of conditionality of life or the provisionality of how time passes and our relationships, how they evolve, which you so beautifully explore in the book.

 

 

Tessa Hadley:

Well I love both Asher and I being so taken as little girls by the bureaucracy of the library: the stamp, the card index, the tickets.  And obviously, I suppose the irony is that what you're doing inside a library is crazy and free and you can travel anywhere in your head and you can go there, but there is this other side of it, this controlling side, you know. So I suppose that's what my character is saying there, that the crazy and free with people is great, and the trying to control it and thinking you own people and you've got their card in the index, or their card is in your ticket – that’s not on.

Asher Craig:

Yeah, do you know, just as you're talking, it's just these little snapshots that are coming through. Because do you remember they used to, it was those little things that you slotted into the… oh it was just, it was a great system!

Tessa Hadley:

It was a good system, it was very appealing! They took the little thing out of the library book, and put it in your ticket and put it in their box and I think on this photograph, here is where those boxes were, they were all held inside that place.

Asher Craig:

Yes! So the times when we used to sneak, you know, hopefully they weren't seeing and I used to open up the drawers, because I was just really fascinated not just about the books, but yes, even administratively, the bureaucracy and how it was managed and how it worked.

Tessa Hadley:

A councillor in the making, obviously!

Asher Craig:

Do you know something, I was sitting there thinking to myself, you know, where does it kind of come from because, but yeah, I suppose I had no idea that my visits to the library, would end up with me overseeing the management of the very said library!

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, I know. But you were looking straightaway at the system, you see, weren’t you?

Asher Craig:

I did, I did - it’s terrible! [Laughs]

 

Tessa Hadley:

No, no! But we need a system in order to have libraries, in order to get inside books and escape, and be free.

Ben Holden:

And it's lovely listening to you both now, looking back, reminiscing; it's almost like you're looking at your childhood selves, out in the library space there - a bit like your novels, Tessa, you know the interplay between past, present, future and how they collide, ricochet.

Asher Craig:

Yeah. Because the other thing that I used to do when I used to come to the library, we used to go to ABC Whiteladies Road cinema. Yeah, and we used to sing - oh my god it was great! [Laughter] So, every Saturday, you know, me and my brothers and sisters and all the children in and around the community Redland. ABC Whiteladies Road, the cinema, and they used to have a kind of like the children's - I think it was in between like 10 and 12…

Tessa Hadley:

Pretty chaotic and rowdy…

Asher Craig:

 ...very chaotic, very rowdy…watch cartoons, watching films. It was just, again, another great escape and then after, you know, we'd maybe run up here and come into the library and have a read and have a look at the books.

Tessa Hadley:

This is how community is made.

Asher Craig:

Yeah.

Ben Holden:

One other element of the novel Tessa is the again, in terms of the generations, but also the non-linear approach, is the interplay between those generations. In one moment, one of the older characters says “they're more puritanical than us, this generation of children”. Again, listening to you talk about you guys and your youth - now, of course, this is a novel, it's not your memoir, so I get that it's not necessarily your opinion - but I was quite struck by that. And obviously, there are three generations at play, I should say also, because their elderly parents as well are in the mix and they're fantastic characters there. But, were you consciously wanting to sort of traverse the intergenerational dynamics and explore that a bit?

Tessa Hadley:

Yeah, and again, honestly, I think that goes back to Anne of Green Gables. Not so much Swallows and Amazons which is one of those children's books fixed in a child time where the adults are peripheral, they give permission, don't they.  At the beginning of Swallows and Amazons, I don’t know if you remember the telegram, but it said: “If not duffers”, the mother telegrams to the dad who's away in the Navy, “can the children go out on the boat?” He replies: “If not duffers won't drown, if duffers best drowned.” Speaks from another era [laughs]. Anyway, enough of that. That's children's world. But Anne of Green Gables wasn't. The reason one loved it was that it was a taste of the adult world in which children grew up, fell in love, got married and had children. And from early, I had a hunger for that. Again, this is like me looking at the old people in thinking they were young once, a hunger for that generational thing. So that when I came to write my own books, I've always written about families, and I think my very, very first book Accidents in the Home, actually had a family tree at the beginning of it. As a reader I love books with the family tree in them.

Asher Craig:

Do you? So, again, the last three, four years I have been looking at my own ancestry, okay, because my children keep saying to me, “Listen Mum, you have actually done so much in your life, you need to write this down. People need to understand the history; what's happened in Bristol, what's happened in our life.” You know, my parents died at an early age, so my children didn't grow up with their maternal grandparents. But I have all this information in here and I want to pass it on, and actually a couple of days ago, I was talking to my middle daughter, Khadija, and she says, “Mum, do you know something, I mean, we've got snippets, but I don't think we've really sat down and you’ve really told us everything there is about Granddad and Grandma, and who we are and our history.” And in doing my ancestry, I mean, you do get obsessed, once you start you somehow can't stop. And for me, it was a revelation because it has revealed that on my father's side, where I thought was a very small family, has actually turned out to be a flippin’ village [laughs] you know going back, and I also, my great-great-great-grandfather is a white Irishman [laughs], called David Craig.

Tessa Hadley:

So that’s where Craig comes from.

Asher Craig:

Yeah, that's where Craig, that's kind of where Craig comes from. But then going back, it's just been fascinating.

Ben Holden:

The most important sort of cornerstones or repositories for accessing those kinds of stories and preserving those stories are where we are today and these libraries and the archival service they offer local communities and preserving those stories so that we can all do it but also, they're not forgotten.

Asher Craig:

Yeah, exactly. And libraries are fundamentally really, really important. And yes, in the last couple of years have been quite testing for us here in the city, but I'm glad we've kind of come through it and we're looking positively at how we can make libraries a real kind of hub, particularly in those areas of the city where the footfall or the use of libraries has actually gone down for the use of books, you know, kind of repository for books. Because somewhere like here, Redland, local councillors and obviously Friends of Library groups - very vocal group...

Ben Holden:

They, by the way, planted a beautiful herb garden, I noticed on the way in as well - hats off to them too.

Asher Craig:

Oh, I'll have a look at that. Two years ago, there was the whole thing about the £30 million hole that we had. I'm going to go politics now because I, I think it's important that people understand the journey.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, do talk us through it because I mean, it's heartening that Bristol hasn't closed a library.

Asher Craig:

And we're not going to, because I think there's this kind of view, “Oh, it's gonna happen and you've only saved them up until a certain point”. I got elected in 2016 and I understand that back in 2015 the libraries had gone through a big consultation. I think they closed the library, what was the old library in Eastville, and that became a kind of community run library, and they were just tinkering around the edges. But when our administration arrived, you know, we thought everything was rosy in the garden, and then, you know, Marvin calls a meeting and says, “Hey, there's a huge financial hole in the budget.” Promises that were made around savings had just been kicked into the long grass by the previous administration and we were faced with this 30 million hole, and we had to find some way of saving it, and I think we did the sums and if we just wanted to make one cut, it would have meant getting rid of 1000 members of staff - that is the equivalent to how big a hole it was.

And so obviously, we had to look right across the whole organization. We put the shutters down; staff couldn't spend any money because we really needed to get to the bottom of what was happening and what we were going to do to steady the ship. It took nearly two years. The first two years of our administration was spent trying to kind of manage the huge deficit that we had. And I have to say we've come out the other end and we always said that what we've got to do is try and protect the most vulnerable and the most disadvantaged, but we do acknowledge that whatever we do, it's going to be painful for everybody in the city, but what we want to do is lessen the pain for those who are going to be impacted the worst. So yes, we made some really difficult decisions. One of them, we were looking at the libraries - and I had responsibility for libraries - I was looking at the numbers, the footfall, you know, we have all of this information. And we were really looking at how we could kind of restructure the libraries; I talked to other counterparts in different cities. So listening to them, I was trying to come up with a model that would work, so maybe having a series of like super libraries, and then you know, that kind of hub and spoke model but, you know, less is more kind of thing. I had no idea that it would unleash the beast [laughs]. And, you know, I talk about Bristol as being global, local, and vocal [laughs], vocal being the key word there, and obviously it just kind of unleashed this barrage.

Ben Holden:

The idea that you might close some of these libraries?

Asher Craig:

Yeah, of course. And I do get it, particularly from those who had a voice because it was interesting that those who have a voice, who have the social capital to be able to kind of make the noise, come to the council, etc. But when you go to St Paul’s, when you go to Hartcliffe, where there was hardly any footfall, you can see it for yourselves. So it was trying to look at a kind of different model, but then at the same time thinking, “Well, if we do take out libraries from those particular communities, then it will be gone forever”.

So the one thing I will say is we do listen, you know. I'm somebody who listens. I'm poacher turned gamekeeper, so I come from the community, I get it. I'm Bristolian so I understand how much people care about libraries. It just got to a stage where we've got to find a solution but we also have to try and bring our libraries up to date because in some areas, the library, or the building known as the library, is the only escape for all communities; there's no community centres, there are no sports centres, there’s nothing.

And Marvin put the funding back in and he said, “Okay, let's halt it but we also have to look fundamentally at a new strategy for the library service.” So we're looking at still sustaining the 27 libraries as they are, and the libraries being at the heart of that, and each library will be different. So there will be a whole set of services that will continue to be delivered. We had a series of conversations last year with the community and as a result of that, again, thank you to the Mayor, he found another £110,000 pounds. So each Friends of Library group, we've allocated £1,000 to those groups, do with it what you will; then we have £3,000 that they can kind of bid into to develop programmes, ideas, projects, etc.

Do you think that we want to make cuts? We want to invest, you know, but the budgets have been squeezed - we've lost 70% of the overall income of grants that used to come to the local authority over 10 years. So we've got less money, but the demand is ridiculously more.

Ben Holden:

To commend you, it’s great for Bristol that you haven't cut or closed any of those libraries. The trick, of course, is to ensure that you can maximize them.

Asher Craig:

Most definitely.

Ben Holden:

As you're saying, for the communities and, you know, it's so short sighted. We've travelled up and down the land going to different libraries and meeting librarians and authors and the word that often comes up is “short sighted” in terms of the closures because it's myopic, in terms of the holistic benefits, but also the returns for communities and for councils and jurisdictions or authorities for what is often seen as low hanging fruit and it’s absolutely nuts to regard it in that way. So I'm very pleased that you haven't closed them now you can invest in them.

Asher Craig:

No, we haven’t closed them and not only will we invest in what we have, but obviously, there are, there's a lot of new kind of developments happening. So there is also opportunities, you know, that some Friends of groups and councillors have come to me and said, “Ooh, Asher, do you know something, we want a new library, you could actually potentially close this one, but build a brand new one”, which is, you know, again, to try and increase the footfall.

So having the library in an area where, you know, people go to the supermarket or go to the GP surgery; “Ooh, I can nip into the library”. If you're just sitting standalone in the middle of nowhere, then obviously the footfall is going to remain where it is. So in some regards, some may be replaced because we don't own every single library; some of them we do lease; the majority we do own, but there is scope for us to also purposely design in new library spaces in some of the new developments that are happening over in Hartcliffe for example, Hengrove, Lockleaze will get a brand new library so the one that they have there, that will move into kind of the new development. So, yeah.

Ben Holden:

It’s important that, you know, this was built in 1880 and of course, these buildings need to be fit for purpose for 2020 usage in terms of access, etc. At the same time, you know, this is such a striking building, as Tessa was describing at the top of the conversation, and such a beacon, you know, listening to both what it meant to you growing up, here we are, again, you've come back, and there's a real power to it, this building.

Tessa Hadley:

And knowing when you do come in as a child or a young person that you are coming to a place that's been used by your community for a hundred, getting on for a hundred and fifty years, has enormous significance. Space is not just a utility; space is history and meaning and if you come to this place where others have used it before you and maybe your grandmother says, “Oh, I used to go there” or your mother says “I used that”…

Ben Holden:

Yes, and I have to say in your novel, you know, the buildings and in your other novels, you know, like The Past, the house in The Past, that's such a big hub for that story; but in Late in the Day, you know the studio but also just listening to you describing that room as Christine waits, you know, your usage of the architecture physically and how it informs psychologically on your characters is always such a joy in your writing.

Tessa Hadley:

Space is a metaphor; you don't have to work at that, it just is. The spaces that we inhabit are full of our story and what we're doing with them and what we feel about them.

Asher Craig:

It’s history. You know, this building is history, it's full of history, it evokes a lot of really good memories for me, and everyone, and Tess, and everyone else who uses it, so I get it [Laughs]. I definitely get it.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, we know, we can hear that coming through loud and clear. Well, as this is a podcast about libraries and bookshops, I always like to ask my guests, without wishing to pry, how you choose to organise, and obviously you quite enjoyed the cataloguing when you were kids, but how do you - and Tessa you even were cataloguing, literally a mini librarian at home, playing librarian.

Tessa Hadley:

Literally, mini librarian - letting my brother borrow books, but making sure he looked after them well.

Ben Holden:

And books have obviously become your life's work, so this begs the question how you choose to organise your reading life.

Tessa Hadley:

I mean, one of the weird things that happens when you're a writer is that people send you an incredible amount of books for free and almost to the point of, “What am I going to do with all these?!” and having to get rid of them. Luckily, we have, I live in London now, and at Kilburn station, there's a library exchange where you can just take books down, and I'm doing it all the time, taking the books that I don't want to keep down, somebody else has them. I love that, that's a lovely model of free exchange. But on the books I do love and want to keep and have, in many cases lived with now for forty and fifty years, I think I do it by nationality, by cultural coherence, so I've got a sort of Russian shelf, and an African shelf and a couple of Irish shelves. That's odd, isn't it?

Ben Holden:

Interesting, it’s like a cartography.

Tessa Hadley:

It is, and it's not, you know, consistent and I obviously haven't got a British shelf because that's all the rest, so in other places it will be “These writers” and it's kind of “These writers that I think that way about; these writers I'm very close to their work, they’re in a special place”.

And then, actually, we have this cottage in Somerset, and it's “Oh, those writers that I quite like but I don't care about”, they go down to Somerset - actually I probably shouldn't say that out loud because then I’ll have friends coming to stay in Somerset thinking “There's my book on the shelf of the books she doesn't care for so much”. It's not a system I've really worked out. It's been arrived at in an impromptu way over the years.

Ben Holden:

Do you read, because we're talking about the tactileness, do you read e-books?

Tessa Hadley:

I don't, I mean I have on occasion but really, I don't like them. I'm perfectly happy with them existing, they’re another way of reading and young kids are so electronic, but actually, the truth is about the market is that it's simply plateaued and nobody now thinks that physical books are going to be replaced by e-books, not in Britain, it’s not going to happen.

Ben Holden:

Yeah, having been mooted as the second coming or the new vanguard.

 

 

Tessa Hadley:

Exactly, absolutely, that didn't happen, because the book is a perfect technology: portable, physically attractive, incredibly good to read. Whereas an electronic book, you don't, for instance, know how far away…you do know how far through the book you are by a horrible little line, but it's not the same as feeling the pages in your hands, sticking something in there, turning a corner down. I’ve no doubt that there's some horrible electronic thing called ‘turn the corner down’, but that’s not as good [laughs]. So everything about a physical book works to a reading experience with perfection, so much better than scrolls, this invention of the codex, that is the kind of book we read, is a genius in itself. And it's here to stay and I love them. I’m fine with e-books, but myself I very rarely read them, don't like them.

Ben Holden:

Agreed. Well, you're preaching to the choir. Asher?

Asher Craig:

Okay, so for a child who was obsessed [laughs] with the systems of library books, that is just not how it works in my house. So I've got quite a large house and in my back room, I actually, when I bought the house, there was already a ready-made beautiful bookcase already built in, you know, glass windows, open.

Tessa Hadley:

Oh, lovely.

Asher Craig:

So when I arrived, I stuck all of my books in there, but out of sight out of mind, because my children keep saying to me, “Mum, you need to do something with these books. You're never going to read them again, or you need to donate them or you need to…” and they're right, I do need to, because in my living room, those are the books that I actually read. So I have another bookshelf, but I actually do it in order of size of the book [laughs].

Tessa Hadley:

Perfectly valid way!

Asher Craig:

I just like the largest book first, and yeah, I just make it go down to the smallest, tiny, little inspirational pamphlets and then somebody gives me a book and then I shove it in I think “Oh, right this is the size of the book” and that is how…

 

Ben Holden:

Well, if you do, you know, read them in one sitting as you're saying then that makes total sense. Thank you for letting me pry in that way. And if it's alright, we might go and browse as we're doing this trip down memory lane if you don't mind, and you could choose a book, Tessa, from the shelves of Redmond Library and see if Anne of Green Gables is still there.

Tessa Hadley:

I've got a feeling she'll have been banished but I'm hoping to be proved wrong.

Ben Holden:

Let's go and see if she is – maybe not the exact same copy, but you never know.

Asher Craig:

Well, you never know.

Ben Holden:

And then yeah, we can see, I don't know if you'll still be on the system, but I'm sure they'll loan you a book.

Tessa Hadley:

But I’m trying to remember who - I just got it – who wrote it, I was thinking, because we need to…its L M Montgomery. I think I'm right, that just flooded back into my mind. I wouldn't have known I knew it, but I think that's right.

Ben Holden:

Sounds right. Well, let's go see. Thank you.

Asher Craig:

Thank you very much.

Tessa Hadley:

Thank you, Ben.

 

 

 

 

~ Tessa Hadley is invited to browse the shelves of Redland Library and select a book of her choice ~

 

Asher Craig:

The librarian did say that somebody had taken out Anne of Green Gables recently so they have one copy then.

Tessa Hadley:

Right, good. Good.

Ben Holden:

Well, that's good to know. Is there anything else Tessa that you wanted to browse? The famous line from this one was on my mind re-reading your work; “The past is a foreign country.”

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, great line, isn't it? Even though much quoted, but it remains so resonant.

Ben Holden:

The Go-Between.

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, wonderful. I'd love to re-read that sometime soon. I do still love a library. Without a library, you can't go around the shelves, having a look at what things are like.

That's a very underrated, that’s an absolutely super book.

Ben Holden:

Oh really? Early One Morning by Virginia Bailey. Now you're browsing for me which wasn't really the idea. I'll take that recommendation, thank you. Well, I'm sorry they don’t have Anne of Green Gables.

Tessa Hadley:

I know. I feel a bit…it would have just been lovely to find it.

Ben Holden:

But they could order it in principle, so it would still be possible

 

Tessa Hadley:

Yes, yes. And they had an Anne of Green Gables party, which I think is almost better than finding the book itself. [Laughter]

 

[END]

 

Thanks for listening to Ex libris. If you've made it this far, chances are you've enjoyed some of this episode, featuring superb Tessa Hadley. So please, rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your brain food. That way you'll help us champion libraries. You can win signed copies of not one, but three of Tessa's novels, including the brilliant Late in the Day, via social media. Find me on Twitter and Instagram: @thatbenholden. To see those handsome photos of Redland Library yesteryear that we were admiring and discover loads more about this show, please visit our website: exlibrispodcast.com. Ex libris is produced by Chris Sharp and myself. Its music is composed and performed by Adam Pleath.

Ex libris is brought to you in association with the Lightbulb Trust which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

Until the next time, see you at the library!

Gyles Brandreth in Barnes Bookshop

Gyles Brandreth in Barnes Bookshop

March 10, 2020

Gyles Brandreth has been entertaining Brits for decades - charming multiple generations on shows such as Just A Minute, The One Show, Celebrity Gogglebox and Countdown

His many books include a series of novels featuring his fellow wit Oscar Wilde and a recent best-selling celebration of good punctuation, spelling and grammar, Have you Eaten Grandma? 

His latest offering is the anthology Dancing by the Light of the Moon, which celebrates the magic of learning poetry by heart.

‘Words have been my life,’ Gyles says during this episode’s conversation. He also describes bookshops as ‘safe havens in an uncivilised world’ and talks of his time in government, during the 1990s, when his remit at the Department of Culture included crafting policy for libraries.

Gyles lives in West London and selected Barnes Bookshop, run by Venetia Vyvyan, as his home-from-home venue for Ex Libris.

It is a beautiful local bookshop of more than 30 years’ standing. When making that choice, Gyles described Venetia as ‘a model of everything a brilliant independent bookseller should be.’

 

 

...

 

A full transcript of this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Gyles Brandreth, runs below:

 

Gyles Brandreth has been entertaining Brits for decades and his broadcasting brilliance continues to charm multiple generations, be it on ‘Just a Minute’, ‘The One Show’, ‘Celebrity Gogglebox’ or his regular appearances on the likes of ‘QI’ and ‘Have I Got News for you’.  Gyles is also an actor and Chancellor of the University of Chester.  He served in government as Lord Commissioner of the Treasury.  It is primarily his writer hat, though, that I want him to don today.  Charles’s many books include a series of novels about his fellow wit, Oscar Wilde, and a recent best-selling celebration of good punctuation, spelling and grammar, ‘Have you eaten grandma’?  His latest offering is the anthology ‘Dancing by the Light of the Moon’, which celebrates the magic of learning poetry by heart.  Gyles lives in West London and has selected Barnes bookshop run by Venetia Vyvyan as his home from home for today.  When making the choice, Gyles described Venetia to me as:  “a model of everything a brilliant independent bookseller should be”. 

So here's a really bad, unwitty, little poem for you: 

lest there be repetition, or repetition

or dread deviation, oh, and by the way, we happen to be recording this on Valentine's Day,

let alone hesitation,

let's commence this very minute... the conversation."

 

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Gyles, Venetia, thank you so much for seeing us here in beautiful Barnes bookshop today.   Gyles, question number one, obviously, is why Barnes bookshop, it was the first place you wanted to come to today?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Because I love a bookshop, anyway.  A bookshop for me is one of the safe havens in an uncivilised world.  If one is feeling low, you've got to walk down the high street or side street, or whatever, and find a bookshop.  And suddenly, as you go through the door, you'll feel less low.  As you begin to browse the shelves, your spirits lift.  As you come down into the basement of this bookshop, you think, “Oh, the world's a good place.  After all, everything's all right”.  And that's been part and parcel of my life, all my life. 

As a child, I was brought up in London, and Barnes is in south-west London, and it's south of the river.  And, of course, until I was an adult, I'd never been south of the river, didn't think one dared go south of the river; and I was brought up really in the West End; my parents lived in a block of flats, Victorian mansion flats, in Baker Street.  Near us there was a bookshop called ‘Bumpus’, older listeners will remember Bumpus, but almost all your listeners really, whatever vintage, will remember ‘Foyles’.  ‘Foyles’ bookshop still exists on the Charing Cross road, they now have other branches, but when I was a boy, going back a long way now, in the 1950s, as a child, I discovered Foyles bookshop.  It was heaven on earth, because it was chaotic, it was completely chaotic.  Did you go to Foyles in the old days?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

I did, but I was more of a John Sandoe person, I'm afraid.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

That's good.  We have got middlebrow, I represent middlebrow, and we have highbrow.  Let me tell you what the middlebrow child did, the middlebrow child went to Foyles.  Now, Foyles bookshop was run then by a lady called Miss Foyle, Christina Foyle, who lived to a great age, and she ran this chaotic bookshop, I say chaotic, it truly was.  Books were never properly unpacked, never properly put on the shelf; there were boxes everywhere, books, trailing everywhere, and to get a book was quite a complicated process - you chose your book, you then took your book to one counter where you got a receipt for the book, you took that receipt to a till, you paid at the till, your money was then sent in a tube around the shop, you got another receipt back, you took that receipt back to the person to get your book, but by then the person will have often put your book back on the shelf or sold it to somebody else; it was complete chaos!  And sadly, it was discovered, one of the reasons it was chaos, was that ultimately Miss Foyle did not have her..., ultimately she was being taken advantage of, in fact, I think some of the staff eventually had their hands in the till and it all became a little bit, anyway...

Fortunately, her nephew, Christpher Foyle, came on board and put the whole thing pointing in the right direction.  But I loved going there, and what was wonderful about it was, on many floors, you could spend a whole day in the bookshop, and I realised my parents didn't really like me very much, because I was sent out every day after breakfast, I was sent out, on Sundays it was alright, because I could go to church, and I would go to several churches, I would sing in two choirs, I was the server at St Stephen’s, Gloucester road, - when we come to dropping literary names, that was when I met T.S. Eliot, but we'll come on to that -, because she's got better names to drop than me, because of her John Sandoe years; but, eventually, I discovered Foyles on a weekday, and I could go in there literally at ten in the morning, and be there at five - so many departments, so much to discover, coffee shops nearby.  There's nothing more fun than going into a bookshop.  And you meet lovely people, the other customers by definition, and the staff.  Tell us about your childhood in bookshops.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Well, I was brought up in Chelsea, my parents built their own house just off Cheyne Walk, and so, I had John Sandoe near Sloane Square.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

What kind of bookshop was it?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

That was shambolic in the days of John Sandoe himself.  Now it's much cleaner, but I remember going in there, and I preferred it to WH Smith, which was in Sloane Square, and in those days, WH Smith were proper book shops.  And I suppose, we also had a place in the country, and in Wantage, there was also a wonderful bookshop, and it was there first that I really found a bookseller who understood me, and he would always put things on one side and say, “I have this, it's just come in”, and my father would raise his eyes to the heavens, because it meant another book being brought into the house.

 

Ben Holden:

And your fate was sealed.  You've since become a great bookseller yourself, was that where it all started?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

It was, but actually I couldn't read by the age of nine, because I had dyslexia, and nobody knew and it wasn't really very well known in those days.  And so I memorised things at school, and that's how I got away with not being able to read until I was nine. 

 

Gyles Brandreth:

I’m surprised you weren't sent to my mother.  My mother was a pioneer teacher of people with dyslexia.  She worked with a man called MacDonald Critchley in the 1950s, and through the sixties and seventies, she was one of the leading people in London helping children with dyslexia.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Was she at the Helen Arkell Centre?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

She was indeed!

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

I went to the Helen Arkell Centre.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Well, I'm surprised you weren't put under her charge.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

I might have been.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

You would have remembered, people did remember my mother.  My parents did, of course, like me, but when I was sent away to boarding school, I started a school bookshop.  And the mistake I made, bless my heart, was, because I could order all the books, you see, to sell in the school bookshop, so I ordered the books I wanted, I couldn't understand why none of them were selling, because I was just ordering the books I liked.  And I quickly learned that you actually have got to choose books that the customers want.  How did you learn about book selling?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Well, I learned from the greatest bookseller I've known, which was John Saumarez Smith at Heywood Hill books (in Mayfair), and he was very generous with his knowledge.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

How do you stock a bookshop?  How do you choose what to have?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Well, he would say you start with the things that you enjoy, because those are the things you can recommend, but then you learn from other people, you learn from the customers, you learn from the authors that come in.  And I learned a tremendous amount from him.

 

Ben Holden:

So which books in your youth, or childhood in Foyles, which are the key ones?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Well, formative books, I do remember 1960 when I was at my prep school, ordering the copy of ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’.  ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was originally published in the 1920s by D. H. Lawrence, and it was a banned book, it couldn't be published in this country, and it was prosecuted.  Penguin decided that they were going to publish ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ in 1960, and a prosecution was taken out, because it was deemed to be obscene.  There was a great, famous court case, and it was found not guilty.  So Penguin published it.  I was about 11 at the time, but I read about this, I was an enthusiastic book collector, I loved books, books have been my life.  I'm much happier with books than with people, to be honest, I'm coping with you; and Venetia, I'm happy with her, because she basically smells of books in a good way! 

So I wrote off, because I thought I can't, don't dare go into the shop, because they’re not going to sell it to a 11 year old, I wrote off to Penguin, and I got a copy sent to my prep school, and unfortunately, it was in a brown envelope, but it had a Penguin label on it.  So, clearly, the teachers saw and they guessed, but well done them.  The teacher read it first, and then let me have my own copy, and said, “You may read it”.  So that's the book I remember buying.

But I love physically having books; I've got tens of thousands of books at home.  My wife says, “You must get rid of them all”, or most of them, because she's told me that I keep everything.  I've got 1000 jumpers, 1000 teddy-bears, tens of thousands of books.  She says, “When you die, before I call the undertaker, I'll be calling the people who supply the skips and it's all going!”  Because I've acquired books, most of which I've never read.  I don't think you need to read a book, but owning a book is part of it.

Interestingly, my preference for schoolboy books was Frank Richards, do you know who I mean by Frank Richards?  Now, Frank Richards was the most prolific English author of the 20th century and nobody's heard of him.  Frank Richards - in excess of 80 million words.  His real name was Charles Hamilton; he lived, he died; I saw him once at a distance in about 1960 just before he died, in Broadstairs.  I couldn't believe it, my hero.  He created one of the great characters of the 20th century, in about 1904; he inspired Harry Potter, his books, in fact, are very like the world of Harry Potter.  Frank Richards created ‘Billie Bunter’, ‘Greyfriars school’, ‘Fat Owl of the Remove’, ‘Mr Quelch’  - all those boys, those schoolboy yarns; he also created a series about a girl who was tubby called Bessie Bunter.  He wrote two comics - ‘Magnet and Gem’, they call them comics, they weren't strip cartoon comics, they were like stories for boys and girls; and he wrote those in the first decade of the 20th century, in the teens, in the twenties and thirties.  He had a bit of a gambling addiction, lost all his money, made a lot of money on the tables in the south of France, and then wrote novels about Billie Bunter.  And I'm one of the presidents of the Billie Bunter Society. 

But I'm also involved, I think, in the Enid Blyton Society, the Rupert Bear society, I’m into all that, I've never really left my childhood, and I think that probably is why I like being in a bookshop.  This used to be the children's….we’re downstairs at your bookshop.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

We are, well, we do have a whole wall of children's books, but it was because the perambulators got bigger and bigger, and parents didn't want to leave their babies upstairs.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Where’s the new shop going to be, still in Barnes?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Oh yes, it's going to be just down the road near the Wetland Centre.

 

Ben Holden:

So the shop’s been here for thirty plus years?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Yes, it has.

 

Ben Holden:

You're the latest custodian.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

I am the latest custodian.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Just to finish on childhood reading, I discovered when I was quite young at prep school, Agatha Christie, and I adored Agatha Christie.  The more sophisticated teachers said, “You should try Ngaio Marsh, because you're a bright boy”, and they felt Agatha Christie was a bit…

 

Ben Holden:

Ngaio Marsh?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

I think she's a New Zealand writer.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Yes, she is.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

And she wrote murder mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein.  I loved Agatha Christie, it’s rather like people are snobbish about Enid Blyton as well.  But some of Enid Blyton, particularly ‘The Faraway Tree’, - you remember that one?-, are magical stories, and I was lucky enough to become friendly with Enid Blyton's daughters, who had a very different view about Enid Blyton.  One adored her mother, thought she was the best thing who ever lived; the other had reservations about her mother, felt she’d rather blighted her childhood and wasn't necessarily a good influence on either her or the world.  So there are two views about Enid Blyton, but I'm on the side of Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie.  I'm on the side of people who popularise things, I think it's good to get children into reading, and I think it's good to read everything and anything.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Oh absolutely, and I would almost go so far as to say that you have to beware of school reading lists, because, very often, they're not updated.  And it's meant to be entertainment, reading; it's not meant to improve a childish mind, it's meant to be fun.  And with so many, you know, competitive things in this world, you know, screens and such like, it has to be fun above all.

 

Ben Holden:

Are you happy not to finish the book when you've started one, speaking of it being fun?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

I’m a reluctant non-finisher of books.  I'd rather get to the end and then say, “That was rubbish!”.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

I think it may be a generational thing.  I think once you’ve made a commitment, you keep going with it.  But I'm an unfortunately very slow reader.  It's two minutes in a page, whether it's Tolstoy or Tom and Jerry, for me, I’m just very, very slow. 

I'm currently reading amazingly, ‘The Diaries of Harold Macmillan’, who was the prime minister in the late fifties and early 1960s, in fact, at the time that Lady Chatterley was published - maybe I just can't escape my childhood!  And I'm reading this book, I've got it for research purposes in a second-hand copy, because I was writing about Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and I heard there was some quite interesting stuff about cabinet discussions about what Prince Philip, what his title should be in the 1950s when the Queen became queen, what were they going to call him?  Were they going to call him Prince Consort, Prince of the Commonwealth...Anyway, I got this book, and Harold Macmillan was a voracious reader from the Macmillan publishing family; he would, even when he was Prime Minister, be reading 50 books a year, but he is now Minister for Housing and he's reading about 150 books a year, two or three books a week, and we're talking about big books.  Comfort reading for him was Anthony Trollope, he would go back to the Barsetshire Chronicles.  Every time there was a crisis, Winston Churchill playing up, he turns to Dr. Thorne, but he's also reading people like Macaulay, great Victorian history books, extraordinary, and it's clear for him, affairs of state weighing him down, he goes into his study or library, gets out one of these books, and it solves the problem.

 

Ben Holden:

Do you find it reassuring for a leader to be a great reader?  In the Obama vein?  Obama is a great reader and a great writer.  Nicola Sturgeon is a great reader.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

And David Cameron too - he reads a lot.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

And the present Prime Minister has read quite a lot, in his time.

 

Ben Holden:

There’s something reassuring about that.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Well, I think that it shows that they’ve got what people used to call a ‘hinterland’ which is good.  I was lucky enough, when I was an MP, to know Denis Healey who was the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Defence Secretary, blessed with a marvellous wife and a great constitution, but he had a great hinterland, he was a photographer, he read voraciously.  I mean, books furnish your mind as well, you want to feel that people have lived a little bit.

So I'm glad you're a slow reader too.  What do you read now?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

I just finished in proof, so it's coming out in April, the new Anne Tyler.  I enjoyed it very much.  Nobody writes about middle America, the invisible people, better than she does.  And I have to say that whatever time I get to bed, I always read, whether it's two o'clock in the morning, I will always read for maybe 10 minutes, half an hour.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

I can't go to sleep without reading, even if it's for 30 seconds, even if, as it were, my wife has already gone to sleep, the lights are out, I have to almost with a torch.  But I remember as a child loving going around with one of those torches that has three colours - red, green, as well as the yellow.  And I remember, this will amuse you, I do remember reading ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’, at my prep school, red blankets, I remember, white sheets, green duvet, and going down there with this torch, and I made it green to make it more spooky. 

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Conan-Doyle is wonderful.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Isn’t he?  Conan-Doyle changed my life.  I discovered the autobiography of Arthur Conan-Doyle in the library of the House of Commons, and I read that book and it changed my life.  But before we get to that, one of the things I keep on my bedside, are diaries, I write a diary, I’ve published two volumes of diaries, and there's talk of a third.  But anyway, I read other people's diaries, and the reason is they're perfect bedside reading, because often the entry is quite short.  I love Virginia Woolf’s diaries.  I love political diaries, I love Chipps Channon, I love Harold Nicolson, I quite like Alan Clark.

 

Ben Holden:

Current diarists?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Oh, the world since 1959 has been a closed book to me.  Who are the current diarists?  To be honest, if I can't be in my childhood, I want to be in the 1890s.  But I love coming into a bookshop like this, because it's timeless and it's like going into a time free zone.  You can be here, as modern as tomorrow, Venetia has got all the latest bestsellers; she's got books that are merely collections of emojis, hardly any words in them at all, she does all that, she needs to make her money, fair enough, but it's as modern as tomorrow, with a lot of time for yesterday.  And that's what I love about a bookshop, you can get it all.

 

Ben Holden:

Your new anthology is in the window upstairs and on the counter.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Thank you for putting it in the window!  But in fairness, Venetia really does support local authors.  Does it make a difference having a book in the window?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Yes, I would say so.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

But you need to change them, because often my wife and I go for a walk of an evening, we say we'll walk as far as the bookshop and back, and we come to look in the window.

 

Ben Holden:

You were changing the window when we arrived…

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Yes, we were putting fake grass in it.  Harper Collins have given us fake grass and fake spring flowers, because it's the anniversary of Judith Kerr’s birth, or rather ‘The Tiger who came to Tea’.  So we have a Judith Kerr window and a little bit of Roger McGough who's a local author.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Come to Barnes Church Street.  When’s the moving happening?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

In a month's time. On your birthday.

 

Ben Holden:

Also your wife's birthday as I discovered.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

The 14th of March, also the birthday of Albert Einstein and Michael Caine, not a lot of people know that.  And speaking of poets, who is the best selling English poet today, without a doubt, a lady poet, with a new anthology out last Christmas?

 

Ben Holden:

I know, I know the answer to this. Pam Ayres.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Pam Ayres.  [14th March] is also her birthday.  Tom Stoppard’s new play just opened; great writer; gave me a poem, I told him my wife was born on the 14th of March; he said, “I'll give you a poem for your wifeIt's actually Albert Einstein's birthday too. I've written a poem called the 14th of March”.  This is the poem which I will repeat with permission, no royalties required, given to me by Tom Stoppard, I can recite it to you:

 

14th of March

Einstein born

quite unprepared

for e to equal

MC squared.

 

Ben Holden:

And it's Pi Day.  Did your wife know that?  Every day has to be a celebration of some sort. So it's because of the American ordering of month-day-year, but 0314 means that our birthday is also Pi Day.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Well, I'm pleased to hear that.  Isn't it also the Mad Hatter's birthday?  The day of the tea party?

 

Ben Holden:

I looked up, because your new anthology is also about memory, I looked up the record for the number of digits remembered of Pi, because obviously it goes on and on and on.  Can you guess how many roughly?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Tell us.

 

Ben Holden:

70,000.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Wow, and was there somebody who could remember them all? 

This book that I've done is called ‘Dancing by the Light of the Moon’, which is a reference, of course, to the lovely poem by Edward Lear, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.  And it came about, it's a spin off really of a radio programme I did about memory, because I was banging on about how poetry is good for you, and a friend of mine is a radio producer, he said, “Yeah, we know it's good for you Gyles, you know, you banging on about how you were at school with Robert Graves’s son and all the rest of it, and you shook hands with T.S. Eliot when you were nine, and we know all that. But is it good for everybody”?  And I said, “Yes, I believe it is”.  “So will you prove it”?  So I went out on a mission to prove it. 

And we went to see some neuroscientists at Cambridge University and learned from them that if you speak poetry to newborn babies, unborn babies in the womb, and in the last three months before they're born, speak poetry to them, rhythmical poetry - it will improve their facility with the language, including children with dyslexia; it will make them speak more easily and more quickly, sooner; later it will help them with their reading and their writing - lots of research on this.  It's the rhythm in the poetry.  Judi Dench took part in this programme, and she told me that the first thing she learned as a little girl was Shakespeare.  And I said, “Oh, come on, we know you're Judi Dench, but come on”.  And the neuroscientist said to me, “No, it's quite possible because, of course, the iambic pentameter is the rhythm of your heart - it’s not called learning by heart for nothing”.  She may not have understood it when she was a little baby, but you could easily learn it. 

And at the other end of the spectrum, I also learned that with older people, you can actually help delay the onset of dementia by learning poetry by heart, keeping the synapses supple, the brain is a muscle, if you don't use it, you lose it.  So all else being equal, you could help keep dementia at bay by working that muscle that is your learning poetry. 

And so I started a scheme called ‘Poetry together’, and if you're listening to this and interested, please go to poetrytogether.com, and if you know of a school or any old folks who might like to take part, basically we get children from schools and old people from old folks homes to learn the same poem, and then during National Poetry Day, that time of year in October, the schools and the old folk get together and have tea, cake and perform their poem together.

So I put together an anthology of poems that you could learn by heart - fun ones, silly ones, old ones, the classics, all the favourites.  What’s the poem you remember first learning when you were little?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Oh ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield, which is wonderful.  And again, it's the rhythm:

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and sky.

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.

 

It's just wonderful, really beautiful.

 

Ben Holden:

You led me to find a video that I had somewhere in the bowels of my computer of my son, aged, I think three, performing from memory, because he couldn't read obviously, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, and we'd read it enough to him that it had gone in, and I found this video, it's incredibly cute, where he's sort of in pidgen, early words, reciting ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’.  And also, it was around two years later that we, I was very struck, I went to a funeral, a family funeral, sadly, and the sons performed in honour of their mother who passed away ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, because it was what they'd always been read as a child by her.  And then, the same month, same family, my in-laws, we went to, it was actually my sister-in-law was getting married, and she asked that my kids, partly because said video, would perform ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ with us, and they were then aged five, so they were able to do it; so we stood up and we all did it as a family.  But isn't it interesting that the same poem in the same month could hit the same notes in such different circumstances and not a dry eye in the house both occasions, and it was the first one you learned?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

It is, and it's a good one for people to learn again, people, older people think, “Oh, I can’t learn poetry”.  To re-learn a poem from your childhood is a good place to start, because it's actually in there, in the memory muscle somewhere, so you can revive it.  People often think it's impossible to learn a poem after a certain age - it is if you try to learn the whole poem; if you take two lines a day, anybody can do it.  I’ll give you an example.  Now, I'm going to teach Venetia a poem:

There once was a man from Peru…”, - I’ll make it easy, to see if you repeat this after me.

There once was a man from Peru,

[Venetia repeats]

Whose limericks stopped at line two,

[Venetia repeats]

That’s the end of the poem!  The point is, you'll remember that now, because it's short and sweet.  But all you need to do, at the end of the day, you learned it instantly.  You can learn two lines instantly.  Don't try and learn more than two lines.  Tomorrow, learn the next two lines, and gradually within a week, at two lines a day, you can learn a sonnet.

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, and then you'll have it forever.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

I like things in the evening to read that are short and easy, so a poem to read before you go to bed or a diary is quite good.  Sometimes, when I'm in a real hurry, I just read from a book of quotations, because they're very short the entries there, but they're a bit moreish.  It's like eating a box of chocolates with a book of quotations, you read one, then you read another.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

But there is another thing you can learn by heart and that's hymns.  I love hymns.  They're really good.

 

Ben Holden:

And actually, lyrics somehow often get implanted because of the music.  I feel like I have a better facility for lyrics than perhaps poetry.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

In ‘Dancing by the Light of the Moon’, I've got quite a few song lyrics.  Sometimes they do stand up, [-] reads as well as he sounds actually, but you're right, ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, I mean, it's wonderful.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

But I love the imagery.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

What is your favourite hymn?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

‘Hills of the North Rejoice’

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Oh, do I know that?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

It's an advent hymn, and it's got lots of very un-pc things in it, which is why it's not often sung in its original form, but it is marvellous.  I do recommend it.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

It’s like the national anthem, some of the verses are so un-pc that it's only the Duke of Edinburgh who still sings them.

 

Ben Holden:

But Gyles, do you not have a sort of elephantine memory anyway?  I sort of imagine you as someone who's got a great memory for jokes and for these, you know, quotations etc.  Is it something that you find relatively easy compared to other people?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

I mean, it's just using it all the time.  And I do a lot of after dinner speaking, and I host a lot of award ceremonies, so I try, as it were, to listen to what I'm being told, and I mean, I suppose I do a little bit of that American thing of repeating what I’ve just been told.

It can be challenging.  I was told a joke recently that made me smile, so I'll share it with you.  It's about remembering things.  A fellow’s at home with his friends, and his wife’s in the kitchen preparing supper, and they're having supper, and he's talking about the restaurant that they'd been to the previous night.  And the fellow is saying “It’s a fantastic new restaurant, and it's in Barnes, and it's fantastic, and it's quite near where your bookshop is”.  So, “It’s a fantastic new restaurant, the food is completely superb, we had a brilliant starter - prawns - sounds old fashioned, but it was just wonderful.  And then the main course, I'm a vegetarian normally, but I just ran riot on the fish.  And then there was this incredible souffle of the pudding.  Anyway, fantastic, you must go!” 

And his friend said, “Well, we'd love to go, what's it called”?  

What’s it called? Oh, god. Oh, come on, what is it? Oh, I know, em, think of a flower with a long stem and red petals at the top, smells lovely, thorns at the side. A stork with thorns, rose, oh, oh, ah yeah, Rose! What was the restaurant called?”

So the point about my book is it solves your memory problems, and also gives to light...

I've been writing a series of murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde as my detective.  And Venetia has very sweetly stocked all of these and the joy, and I know readers like this, if they find something they like, they want more of it, don’t they?  Which is why, for some authors, it is exhausting, because they’ve got to keep churning out the same, really, people want the same book again and again.  Is that fair to say?  And it disappoints them,you know, they want another Hercule Poirot mystery, and if it's an Agatha Christie without Hercule Poirot, they’re disappointed, they really want the same thing again and again. 

So I've created a series of murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde as my detective, and it was born in a library, because when I was a member of parliament in the 1990s, my favourite room of the House of Commons, I took refuge in the library; the building, fantastic building, House of Commons, lovely interiors designed by Pugin, famous architect, and this library overlooks the River Thames, and the first two rooms are full of political books and biographies; the last room is really a room where the books aren't relevant to politics, a lot of fiction and biography that isn't political.  And I, in my day, they used to have all night sittings, so you’d be there literally all night waiting for votes, and the big leather chairs where people fell asleep, and I shared a table I think with Peter Mandelson, remember Peter Mandelson? still with us.  So he would sit on one side of the table, I'd sit on the other side of the table, writing my diary, making sure he wasn't looking at what I was saying; and we would chat, but he would fall asleep and I would think, “What am I going to read?”, and I climbed up wonderful library steps and discovered the autobiography of Arthur Conan-Doyle, written in about 1926. 

Quite early on, I discovered him describing an evening at the Langham Hotel, which is opposite now to the BBC, still exists.  He'd gone for a dinner with an American publisher who had invited him and Oscar Wilde to have dinner.  And he didn't know Oscar Wilde at that stage, he was a few years older than him in his thirties, Oscar; Arthur Conan-Doyle was in his late twenties, he’d only written one Sherlock Holmes story.  This was the year after the Jack the Ripper murders, and this American publisher who published Lippincott’s monthly magazine was looking for murder mysteries set in London to capitalise on the interest in Jack the Ripper, and wanted to commission these two young up and coming writers, the Scotsman Arthur Conan-Doyle, the Irishman Oscar Wilde, to write murder mysteries for him.   And as a result of that dinner at the Langham Hotel, Arthur Conan-Doyle was persuaded to write the second Sherlock Holmes story, there might never have been any more Sherlock Holmes had it not been for this dinner, and Oscar Wilde was persuaded to write what eventually became ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.

So I discovered this in this book written in 1926.  What I also discovered that amazed me, because think of Arthur Conan-Doyle who was very, you know, butch and stocky with a moustache, you know, rather looked like a white hunter fresh from the jungle, you didn't think that he would necessarily get on well with the dandy that was Oscar Wilde; but he fell for him immediately, admired him, spoke of his delicacy, his gentlemanly qualities, but also what a great conversationalist he was, saying that he was able to, he listened, he gave, as well as took.  And he remembered it as the ‘golden evening’, and it suddenly occurred to me, let's make these my Holmes and Watson, Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan-Doyle.  And that led to a series of seven murder mysteries featuring Oscar Wilde, and so that was the result of being locked in a library overnight.

 

Ben Holden:

So which other libraries, then?  This was obviously a seminal moment, but which other libraries for both of you over the years have been key places?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Well, I was in a boarding school in Sussex at a place called Southover Manor, which is happily no more, and the library was my refuge.  Nobody else went in there.  It was the sort of rather dim girls boarding school that had seen better days.  But the library was a place where I could actually escape the girls, escape any problems I had.  I read all sorts of things in there, Frances Parkinson Keyes, she was wonderful, not in print, but I remember finding this dusty volume and reading it and enjoying it.

 

Ben Holden:

What about you, Gyles, because you mentioned Foyles, but there must have been a library nearby?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Yes, there was.  Well, my parents, as I mentioned, lived in a mansion flat in Baker Street, which is near the Marylebone road, and there was Marylebone Public Library; great, mighty Victorian building, and I spent hours there, hours and hours there; they had and still have a Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan-Doyle collection.  Because out of my bedroom window, I could see the building that was believed to be 221B Baker Street.  So my childhood obsessions were Oscar Wilde and Arthur Conan-Doyle.  So I really have never left my childhood, so I would go there to get into Sherlock Holmes in a big way. 

I was then sent to a boarding school, this place called Bedales in Hampshire, which was founded in the 1890s by a man called John Badley, and he was still alive in the 1960s, born in 1863, died in 1965 aged 102.  And I knew this man, because I would go and play Scrabble with him in his cottage on the grounds on a Wednesday afternoon, you know, a child was sent out to play Scrabble with him.  And we would have tea and scones made by his housekeeper and we would play Scrabble, and he won one every game.  I said he cheated, because he was using these words that were obsolete, and he said, “They were current when I learned them in the 1850s”.  Anyway, he was a delightful old gentleman, and he told me that among his first parents at the school which he founded in the 1890s was Oscar Wilde.  So Oscar Wilde's eldest son went to this school, Bedales.  So I, when I was a teenager, I was a friend of a friend of Oscar Wilde, Venetia, shake my hand.  You're now shaking the hand that shook the hand that wrote ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Well, and Oscar Wilde named one of his sons Vyvyan, and I named our eldest daughter, well, her first name’s Charlotte, but her second name is Constance, after Constance Wilde, in homage.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Constance Wilde was the wife of Oscar Wilde and the mother of Vyvyan and Vyvyan’s son, Merlin Holland, who now lives in France, I'm proud to say is a friend of mine, and has kindly read all my Oscar Wilde novels and given them his blessing.  So at this school, Bedales, founded in the 1890s, was this old gentleman who was young then, and it was very much in those days a Christian socialist school, blessed by people like Bernard Shaw, who, you know, founder of Fabians, lots of vegetarianism going on, open toed sandals, wholesome naked bathing, that kind of thing! 

And when the school moved to its present site, which is near Petersfield in Hampshire, they built a library that is undoubtedly the finest school library anywhere in the world; built by a man called Lumpton.  Lupton built this library, it's wonderful, made of wood, you must google it, anyone listening to this, google the library designed by Lupton at Bedales school; it's on two floors, there’s an arcade around the top floor of all wood and there are alcoves in this library.  And it was, like you, for me it was the safe haven.  It's still there, it's a reason to send your children to this school, and there was a wonderful librarian who herself had been a pupil at the school many years before, called ‘Gonda’; it was a funny school, we’d call the teachers by their first names, it was one of those places, yeah I know, there you go.  And as I say, all the parents seemed to be famous.  I mean, literally, I've got a photograph of three parents talking to one another, and I think it was Robert Graves, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Lawrence Durrell.

 

Ben Holden:

And the poem, ‘Walking Away’ by Cecil Day-Lewis which is one of my favourites, is in your anthology, which is about Sean Day-Lewis, another of his sons, Daniel is also his son.  That's a beautiful, beautiful, poem.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

It’s a poem about losing your child growing up and parting.  Anyway, so the Bedales library was, I'd say, a formative library.  I'm a great campaigner for libraries, and they don't need to be traditional libraries, like the ones we've been talking about, which are very traditional.  Libraries can and should change, and those that do thrive.  I say this advisedly, because there's a sentimental streak; whenever a library is threatened, people emerge from the woodwork and say, “Don't close the library!”.  I then say to them, “When did you last visit the library? How many books have you borrowed from this library?” and the words are still on their lips.  People love having a library, but today, it's like people who say, “Oh, I love a local shop”, well then, use it!  The only way you're going to keep a bookshop alive is actually saying, I’m not going to take the shortcut and go on Amazon,- sometimes, you may need to, sometimes you may want to -, but there is no independent bookshop in this country that won't deliver for you tomorrow the book you order by five o'clock today, and you'll get a human being in there who understands what you are wanting.  And the book shops that are delivering are growing.  There are now more bookshops, independent bookshops in this country this year than there were last year; more last year than there were the year before, I think that is true.  And it's the bookshops that are providing the service that Venetia is providing us that thrive.

The same goes for libraries.  In the 1990s, I worked at the Department of Culture, and I remember sitting down with Danny Finkelstein who now works for The Times.  But anyway, we were at the Department of National Culture, or whatever it is, and we were looking at library policy, and Danny was saying, “Well, maybe we should get libraries to get coffee shops and maybe we should get Costa or Starbucks to come into the libraries.  Let's make them places where we get a computer company to...”, - this is before computers were everywhere -, “...store computers, let’s put creches, let's put fun nursery schools in, let's make it a place where people go as well”.  And I think you mustn't get locked into the library that we knew in our childhood as the library of the future - a library is a place where you can borrow books and where you can read.  That's all it has to be.  It can be done in a multitude of ways.  Do you agree with that?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Absolutely.  We have a local library at the top of our road at home.  I can't go to the local supermarket without my youngest, who's 10, say, “Can’t we go to the library?”, and I have been known to leave her there while I do the shopping, because she absolutely adores it.

 

Ben Holden:

And you're absolutely right, Gyles, also in terms of going in there and just using the service is one way to help ensure they survive, because they do rely on those issue figures for renewal, and to prove their worth to the council rightly or wrongly.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

You and I, because we're sentimental, good-hearted people, think they also should be there as a warm place for people with nowhere else to go to sit in a corner near the radiator flicking through a newspaper, that has a social function too, but for a library to be a library, people must use it for its core purpose.

 

Ben Holden:

They do also provide all manner of amazing services, because we've been up and down the land to different libraries, and it's incredible, the multi-purpose, diverse elements that they bring to the communities as well.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

And you will be familiar with the word serendipity.  And you will know, because you probably listen to ‘Something Rhymes with Purple’, the podcast that I do with Susie Dent, a girl from dictionary corner, she's brilliant.  And she reminded me that serendipity comes from Horace Walpole, one of his novels, and serendip was the old name for Sri Lanka.  And if you research something on Google, yes, you can get the answer.  But if you go to the library, and you go to, let's say I'm researching one of my Oscar Wilde books, and I want to know what was in the theatre in the spring of January 1895, that's not easy to find on Google; but you go to a biography from that year, you go to an old newspaper from that year, and serendipity will take you to other incidental things.  That's what a library can give you.

 

Ben Holden:

And in the era of the dreaded fake news as well to actually go in and ensure that what you're looking at is correct, the information is accurate and authentic, and also the librarian or bookshop manager will help you navigate that as well.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

When I was about eight or nine, I became absolutely fixated with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and I went to my local library, and I told the librarian, I said, “Do you have a biography?”, because it had been on Blue Peter, and she said, “No, but there's something in the stacks.  Come back in a couple of days, and I'll find it for you”.  And she placed in my hands later that week a copy of ‘Flush’ by Virginia Woolf.  And she'd gone down into the stacks and she'd found it for me, and I never forgot that.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘How do I love thee?’

And what's interesting about that, it's one of the ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese’, and I assumed they were translations of Portuguese sonnets, as you would, and that's how they were published.  She published them as that, because they were original sonnets, but it was more acceptable for a woman to be seen as a translator, than as a poet.  Isn't that shocking, but fascinating?  And people always think, “Oh, these are songs from the Portuguese - they were translations”, they weren't, they were inspired by the Portuguese, but they are her own work.

 

Ben Holden:

And how apt you should recite that, because we're recording this on Valentine's Day.  And I have to thank you and Susie and your brilliant podcast, because I may have written in my wife's Valentine's card today, ‘Be my macushla’.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Oh, there you are.

 

Ben Holden:

Because that word is beautiful, and a discovery from your excellent podcast.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Tell us, we haven't asked you, what is your latest anthology?  Because you've done two at least with your father.

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, yes, we edited two poetry anthologies, ‘Poems that make grown men cry’, ‘Poems that make grown women cry’, tapping into emotion, freedom of expression, and that was with amnesty, partly hence the freedom of expression and gender identity, but also just celebrating beautiful poetry, and like your anthology, actually, I love an anthology where there are introductions, or there's a little bit of help and you're led by the hand; you don't talk over them, you do wonderfully in this one, you don't talk over the poems, so everyone can pull their own truths out of these gorgeous universal works of literature.  But if someone brilliant is leading you by the hand towards the poem, and you can't help but read it.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

There’s a book by Lord Wavell who was a general during the Second World War, famous general, he fought in the First World War, and he, well remind us what the anthology was...

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Well, it was said to be all, and I believe it was all the poems he knew off by heart.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

He remembered these poems, and he composed the anthology in his head, was he in a prisoner of war camp or something?  And he kept himself going by remembering these poems, and then, after the war, produced this wonderful anthology that people did love, and people have been generous enough, this is the ultimate compliment, to say that ‘Dancing by the Light of the Moon’ echoes that.

 

Ben Holden:

You're very kind to mention the other anthologies.  My latest anthology, again, touches on similar areas because it's called ‘My first memory’, and it's a collection of the first memories of great figures from history, literature, etc, and watershed moments of how they became who they became.  What about you, Gyles, do you have a first memory?

 

Gyles Brandreth:

My first memory is, I was born in Germany, my parents were part of the, something called the Allied Control Commission after the Second World War, where British forces, Germany was divided into regions, the Russians had a bit, the French had a bit, the Americans and the British, and my father was a lawyer; he was a magistrate in one of the British areas, but I don’t remember being in Germany.  I know I was in Germany, because I had a governess, a nanny who was a man who'd been a circus clown, but there wasn't much work for circus clowns in Germany, I can tell you immediately after the Second World War [laughs], and he applied, my parents advertised for a nanny for their little boy, and this bloke turned up, and my mother interviewed him and thought he seemed decent, and, I think, felt sorry for this fellow who couldn't get any work.  And so my first nanny, I was brought up by a German circus clown, this explains everything! [laughs].  It does explain how I could walk the tightrope as a child, which was useful when I was an MP, and I can still to this day stand on my head.  But I don't, I don't remember any of that. 

I do remember, it must have been the early 1950s when I was three or four when they came back to England, my father was then a barrister, and being by the River Thames, Kings Bench Walk, and he was either moving into or out of the building there; I remember the building.

 

Ben Holden:

You were around three, because the average is 3.2 or three and a quarter.  And people think that's because one, the hippocampus which you write about, and those parts of the brain that function for memory are developed sufficiently for longer autobiographical memories to implant, but also because we start to speak, and we can start fashioning narrative and, obviously, as you said, books have been your life and words have been your life.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

My problem too is how many of my memories are false memories, because I tell stories, and fortunately I keep a diary, so I can check against the diary, but two things have happened recently; one, I went to the French Lycée, and I was a pupil at the French Lycée when President De Gaulle of France came on a state visit, and I described this, - they interviewed me for documentary, you know, they found children who were there at the time -, and I described him coming to the school, in his uniform, this is a great man, the leader of the free French in the Second World War, later, the President of France, a formidable figure, tall with a great stomach and a huge nose, and his uniform, I described all this; and then they showed me the footage, and there he was in a large suit, and I described the uniform vividly, how I'd been overwhelmed by the uniform shaking his hand, so you know…

 

Ben Holden:

You mentioned serendipity, I'd love it if you would browse the shelves and choose something with Venetia. 

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Speaking of my favourite bookshops, do you know Shakespeare and Company?

 

Ben Holden:

We've recorded an episode of this podcast there, with the great poet, Imtiaz Dharker.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

You’ve met them all, you’re slumming with us!

Anyway, I went to Shakespeare and Company with my wife a couple of years ago, and we spend a lot of time in Paris, and we love going to Shakespeare and Company, and my wife knows that I'm never really happy in a bookshop, unless I'm sure they've got one of my books.  So what she does is she quickly scouts around the bookshop and says, “Don’t worry Gyles, they've got all the books, it's fine, you can relax and enjoy your visit”;  otherwise, she sees me hovering near where my books might be, trying to eye the shelves; and she found this book by me, and Shakespeare and Company is a secondhand bookshop.  So I pull down this book from the shelf quite excited, and there it was and I opened it, and I read the words, “Dear John, with love on your birthday, from your old friend Gyles”, and it was dated four days previously! [Laughs].  I had given it to someone we went for dinner with on the Monday, and by Thursday night, it was already for sale at the secondhand bookshop.  I have dropped them!  I bought the book back, I put “With renewed admiration”, and sent it back to him.  I've not heard from him since, and I don't wish to.

But a lot of precious things I've given away because of my wife, did I mention that when we began this podcast two days ago?  I may have mentioned that my wife has got the skips ordered.  So precious things I'm giving away, and I've given away all my teddy-bears to Newby Hall in Yorkshire; it's a beautiful stately home built by Christopher Wren, and so all the teddy-bears they live in the Brandreth Bear House.  So, some of the precious things, like I was lucky enough to know A. A. Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, who was a bookseller, of course, wrote a couple of lovely books himself, and he, for example, my Winnie the Pooh was blessed by Christopher Robin, by Christopher Robin!  My Winnie the Pooh held the paw of Christopher Robin!  And so things like that are too precious to have at home, and I don't want them to end up on the skip, so precious things have all gone to Newby Hall in Yorkshire, so other people can try them.

 

~ Gyles Brandreth is invited to browse the shelves of Barnes Bookshop and select a book of his choice ~

 

Gyles Brandreth:

We’re browsing, and normally when I come in here with Venetia, she knows me, she just shows me my own books.

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

I love that, ‘Sisters of Sinai’ by Janet Soskice; it's about two redoubtable Scots women whose father was equally enlightened, and once they learned a language, he allowed them to travel, -this was in the Victorian age -, allowed them to travel to the country, and they actually ended up in Egypt, and they discovered a palimpsest with one of the Gospels on one side, which they were so excited by that they took back to Britain, on Mount Sinai.  So I do recommend that.

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Ok, anything else?

 

Ben Holden:

Do you know, Venetia, when a local author’s been in, because their books have suddenly moved more prominently?

 

Venetia Vyvyan:

Oh, we only have a couple of authors who do that!  No names!  I think you might enjoy that...Andrea di Robilant.  It’s about…

 

Gyles Brandreth:

Ernest Hemingway and his last muse.  Oh, that’s up my street!  I’m liking the idea of that, so I think maybe ‘Autumn in Venice’ is what I’m going to have.

 

Ben Holden:

What a fun and fantastic duo Gyles and Venetia make, I could barely keep up with Gyles, so I hope you could!  And if you're wondering, ‘macushla’ is an Irish word meaning heartbeat, and my new favourite term of endearment. 

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. That way, not only will you keep up with the podcasts, but you’ll also help us champion libraries and independent bookshops.  To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website:  www.exlibris.com  You can also get updates on twitter and instagram, not to mention, win a signed copy of both Gyle’s superb anthology, ‘Dancing by the Light of the Moon’ and my own recent collection, ‘My First Memory.’  Find me @thatbenholden.

Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

 

 

Candice Carty-Williams in Lewisham Library

Candice Carty-Williams in Lewisham Library

March 3, 2020

Candice Carty-Williams is a trailblazer.

That trail, in many respects, started at Lewisham Library in South London. This big, cornerstone library provided Candice a ‘safe place’ during her childhood. Passing by the library at night, she’d gaze with wonder at the lights illuminating the library's sign. Later, during her teenage years, the place provided her a sanctuary. It became a home-from-home, a seminal venue. Candice describes in moving and compelling terms for Ex Libris how it feels to return to the library now, after some busy intervening years.

Candice makes that return as a bestselling author. Her hit novel Queenie compellingly charts a year in the life of a 25-year-old woman, Queenie Jenkins, as she navigates life, love, race and family. Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo calls the book ‘a deliciously funny, characterful, topical and thrilling novel for our times.’

Like her eponymous heroine, Candice Carty-Williams is someone full of honesty, humour and heart. Her breakout creation has captured the imaginations of countless readers: Queenie was the highest-earning debut hardback novel in the UK last year and was shortlisted, among other prizes, for the Costa First Novel Award. It is now out in paperback (in a range of colours).

Joining Ben and Candice for this episode are Lewisham’s Library Manager, Chris Moore, and Rachel New, Outreach Officer for Lewisham Libraries.

 

...

 

A full transcript of this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Candice Carty-Williams, runs below:

 

Candice Carty-Williams’s novel, Queenie, compellingly charts a year in the life of a 25 year old black woman, Queenie Jenkins, as she navigates life, love, family, friendship, money, bad dates, sex, mental health, social media, work pressures, race, politics, and, well, London.  Queenie is a wonderful creation - funny, clever, unforgettable, and for me, most notably, brim full of heart.  She has captured the imaginations of countless readers.  The book was the highest earning debut hardback novel in the UK last year.  It was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and is now out in paperback.  Candice, like her eponymous heroine, is a trailblazer, no question.  That trail, in many respects, started here at Lewisham library in South London.  Let's go inside and hear more about that with Candice, but also Lewisham Library Operations Officer, Chris Moore, and Rachel New, Outreach Officer for Lewisham libraries.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Candice, thank you so much for joining us in Lewisham library, and Rachel and Chris, thank you both too.  Candice, when we asked you where you wanted to meet, of all the libraries and of all the bookshops in the world, you immediately chose Lewisham library. Can you tell us why?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

I grew up in Streatham initially and then we moved to Ladywell, which is just down the road, when I was around eight, and I got into reading in a big way just because my childhood was quite a lonely one, and so books were sort of my saviour and my solace, and all these worlds to escape into.  And when I was at school, that was the same thing, so I spent a lot of time in the school library.  When I was in secondary school, something happened that, actually, I really wasn't involved in genuinely, but a group of us were excluded, and my stepdad at the time said, “You can leave the house when school begins and come home when school ends, because you can't be here”.  And so I came to Lewisham library every day, which was an amazing thing for me.  And so I have a lot of feels, because it was a really safe place when I didn't feel safe.

 

Ben Holden:

And so you’d come here every day for that period, and you continue to come here after that?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Exactly, but I’d come here before.  I mean, who says to a child, “Go and just find somewhere to be for the whole day”?  And luckily, I wasn't involved in any bad situations, because the library was here.

 

Ben Holden:

So you would be here all day and you'd be reading?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

I'd be reading all day. I was reading, at the time, one book a day, and sometimes I would read two when I was here, just because I read so quickly, I always have, and so it was amazing just to feel safe in this space, because it does, it still feels like a safe place.  And I remember when I was a child, I'd always go past it in the car in the night time, even when I wasn't going to be there in the day, and see the Lewisham Library sign in lights, and think it was the most incredible, glamorous thing that Lewisham had to offer.  And so, of all the places that I thought I could go, because, you know, like a child's mind is kind of like, “What do I do? Where do I go?”, but immediately, I was like, “That place is going to look after me”.

 

Ben Holden:

You know, I like to say that they are society’s safe spaces.  I love the lights, as well.  Carnegie always insisted that there be a light outside each of his libraries, the Carnegie libraries, - “Let there be light and enlightenment as well”.  And I love the lights in that sign.  It kind of like it reminds me of the stage mirrors, there's a kind of glamour to it, as well.  So I can imagine it felt like a bit of a beacon.  And you would read omnivorously?  Can you remember any of the books?  Were there any that sort of struck a chord in that period, or even earlier, or after this library, that were really influential for you?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

It was every Malorie Blackman book that I could find here, any Jacqueline Wilson book, Judy Blume also, and my nan was a real reader of Catherine Cookson books, and I didn't like those, but she also read Virginia Andrews books, and so I would read those.  So I started with ‘Flowers in the Attic’, and then I would find anything that I could to do with Virgina Andrews here.  So my reading sort of jumped up in such a big way when I was younger.  But I think that's the case, isn't it?  You just always end up reading or watching stuff that's too old for you.

 

Ben Holden:

It's kind of a great advertisement for exclusions.  But kudos, you used the time well.  And Chris, maybe you could explain a little bit about the library?  It's a pretty big place.  It's a well stocked, really welcoming place, and the building is '60s?

 

Chris Moore:

Yes 1960s, it actually just celebrated its 50th anniversary.  In fact, I think around about the time Candice was describing, it used to have a light sculpture as well.  So lights used to swirl around the building, and it was actually operated by a sort of wind mechanism, it was moving, so you would see the Lewisham Library in lights, as you've already said, and there were these lights that would actually go in bars down the building.  So I think it really is a beautifully sited building.  And I think, as Candice has described, it’s a sort of beacon.  It welcomes people in and has been doing that for many years, and we're here for education, for culture, crucially, I think, for peace and quiet, as well, when people need that sort of space to be able to sit and study, work, but also for, you know, getting the kids in and having all their activities as well.  So it is a big building, that's why we have so many floors to sort of try and segregate those functions out a little bit.  I think what you described as your sort of journey is music to my ears, because that's what a library is here for.  It's basically to help people develop, discover, grow, move on.  And, you know, you've obviously gained a lot from that experience, so absolutely, what we're here for is what you've described.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

I think there's something about where it's placed on the High Street, as well, that makes it, it's like before you get to the hustle and bustle of like, big Lewisham and the shopping centre, and also when you leave, you're just like, “Okay, there it is”.

 

Ben Holden:

It’s on the corner...from a crossroads, you can see it from, you're sort of coming at it from all different angles.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Yeah, by the roundabout.

 

Ben Holden:

How is it coming back, Candice?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

It’s weird.  So when I was on the way here, I was going through Ladywell, and I was like, “Okay, so nothing has changed in all the years…”  I've lived in many places since I lived in Lewisham.  I would say that I'm a blue borough girl.  I met someone once at a party and I was like, “Can you guess where I grew up”?  And he was like, “You grew up in Lewisham, innit?” [laughs] and I said, “Yes, I did”.  But yeah, it feels really nice to be back.  But I think I'm probably one of the most nostalgic people I've ever met, so I will probably cry on the way home.  So, you know, it's amazing to be back and also to be back as someone who's like, I guess as an author, but it feels like quite a nice thing.

 

Ben Holden:

So you worked in journalism, and then publishing.  Can you talk a little bit about Queenie? You've had this incredible success, and congratulations, and it is a fantastic read, and she's an amazing character.  But can you talk a little bit about what compelled you to write Queenie, and where Queenie sprang from?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Of course, I guess, you know, I read so much when I was growing up, and when I was in my teens, there was a lot of young adult fiction that I saw myself in, so Malorie Blackman was amazing for that, many other authors too, but when I got to my early twenties, I was like, “Ooh, I'm not really seeing myself as much” - and that is a real problem, because you start to feel invisible.  If you're not seen by society, then you're just kind of finding yourself in the pockets that you do see yourself.  And so when I was seeing black women in TV and film, the depictions were all these sexy or sassy or strong women, and I was like, “Oh, I don't really fit into any of those brackets of what a person should be”, and so then you end up being like, “What is my identity”?  And so I was like, “Okay, so maybe we need more fiction like this”, and I was working in publishing at the time, and was always on the hunt for new voices.

 

Ben Holden:

You founded the Guardian and 4th Estate BAME short story prize?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Right, exactly.  And so I was like, “Okay, let's get some more voices in”, because I know that lots of writers having met them and spoken to them just at events, before I did any book stuff, and they didn't really understand the process.  So I'd say, “Have you got an agent?” and they'd be like, “Oh, what's an agent?”  And, you know, an agent is the person who says to an editor who's going to acquire a book, “Oh okay, well, you know, this is to your taste, you should read it, you should buy it, you should publish it”.  And if these writers don't know how to get their stories to agents, then there's a problem.  And so I thought, okay, let's cut the agent out, and let's do a prize so that people could just submit their story straight to us. And even if someone hasn't won the story, then at least we have a pool of writers and we can continue to grow that pool, and we can look at all these amazing stories and potentially publish them. 

 

And so I did that, and things were happening, and it was really great, but I was like, okay, it's not happening fast enough.  And so I was like, “Oh, how about you just write a book?”, which sounds really simple [laughs].  So I went away, and I applied to a writer's retreat that Jojo Moyes was running, and I remember, I think the day before I got an email to say that I was accepted onto it.  And so I went and did that.  And as I was driving, I borrowed my friend's car and I drove all the way to this house, which is, I think three hours away, and I hadn't driven since I passed my test, but I made it, thank goodness!  But I got there and her husband greeted me and said, “You know, this is where we're going to be staying, if you need anything, let me know, JoJo is gonna be back in a bit”.  And I said, “I don't know how to thank you”, because I hadn't been in a place like that before, it was so far from London and it was just peaceful, and there was so much green around.  I've been in South London all my life, apart from the three years when I was at university in Brighton, and so I was like I don't really know what to do, or how to be in this space.  It was so quiet, like I'm used to, like I can hear so much noise now, and we grew up near the hospital, and so there were always sirens. So I said, “I don't know how to thank you” and he was like, “Oh, just write a bestseller”.  And I sat down, and I just wrote, and I ended up writing, I think, 8000 words, but I didn't plan any of it.  My main thing that I was thinking about as I was driving was, “What do you want to say?”  And what I wanted to say was that black women contain multitudes, and that we have different stories and different ways of being, and we're not all strong, and we can't endure everything, and we go through lots of stuff.  And we go through this stuff that everyone else goes through, but people see us differently.  So that will always change how we receive ourselves and how we are received and how we navigate things.  And so that was really it.  That was the jumping off point.

 

Ben Holden:

It was relatively fast in terms of the first draft?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Six months for the first draft.

 

Ben Holden:

Queenie just sort of poured out.  It wasn't planned or plotted like some authors do?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Oh, no no.

 

Ben Holden:

As a reader, that's part of the joy, I think, as well, as it's just the energy and the rhythm and the drive, but also the honesty and the sort of rawness and the dynamism is all there, and that must have been stemming from that process.  And you were writing, presumably, while you were obviously working your day job?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Yeah, so I would leave work on Friday, I would go and get my food shopping, and then I would go and sit in this horrible studio in Streatham that I was living in, and I would not come out until Monday morning, and go back to work.  And so I did that for months, and all my friends were like, “Okay, well, we guess you’re fine”.

 

Ben Holden:

And the foundation was laid on that retreat, so you had this sort of cornerstone, and then you built out from there.  Did you enjoy it?  I mean, it was obviously sort of, as these things can be, almost like a trance.  Or, you know, do you look back and you think that was a very happy or enjoyable process, or was it tough, because it's a very honest, raw story, and it's a fictional book, but it must have been quite personally exhausting or challenging along the way?

 

Candice Carty Williams:

I just loved it.  I really loved it.  I really just sat and it was such escapism, because, you know, I was working a full time job, and you're always tired.  And, you know, life is just doing what it's doing, and those things were quite hard, but to escape into writing is always the way, it's like escaping into reading, I can just shut everything else out.  And so I loved it.  That was when I felt happiest when I was writing.

 

Ben Holden:

And remains the case?

 

Candice Carty-Willaims:

Yeah, most of the time, because when I was writing it, there was no pressure, because I was like, well, I want to write it, and what I've achieved will be to have written a book, I didn't know anything would happen with it, when you're writing your first book you don't.  And then when you're contractually bound to write a second, you know what you have to do.  And so yeah, so it was a really wonderful time for me.  And I always felt very happy.  And so, yeah, it's a different thing now…

 

Ben Holden:

I think that shows in the sort of exuberance of the prose…

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Well, it’s also, I think because I was younger, as I wrote it when I was 26, I'm 30 now.  I was obviously like, just a bit more confident back then as well, because some of the stuff that people tell me that's in the book, I’m like, “Oh my God, I can't believe I wrote that”.  Right now, in the second one I'm writing now, I'm paring everything back, and I'm like, “No, it's okay, you're allowed to”.  But yeah, the first one, I was like, there's an energy to it, because I could just say what I wanted to say and not think about it.  

I was at an event and a girl came up to me and she was really upset.  I was like, “Are you okay?, and she was like, “Well, you know, your book’s really traumatic”.  And I was like, “Yeah?”.  And she was like, “Yeah, but it was really painful”.  And I was like, “Oh God, I'm really sorry”.  Because I think when I was writing it, I just hadn't considered that someone could read it and take that much pain from it.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, I mean, it is a tough read, in a sense, in terms of it's very, very funny and incredibly charming.  But then, I was quite struck by, you know, on page eight, Queenie, and it's a first person narrative, but Queenie confides right up front that she is not a person who ever felt particularly safe.  And I think, for me anyway, that immediately set that and also, of course, the manner of the opening, maybe you should tell listeners or people who haven't read it, where we start, because she's having an examination right up front and it's an intrusive, invasive, full-on sort of opening, in terms of circumstances as well.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

It opens in Lewisham hospital, and she is having an examination.  I mean, it's kind of a spoiler, but she's had a miscarriage and she doesn't realise it.  And I started it with her having an examination of that nature, because I really wanted immediately readers to understand this black woman is vulnerable, because I don't think that happens ever.  I think that black women have always had to be strong, and to carry loads of things, and, as I said, to weather everything, and I think, for me, it was like, “Okay, but I just want people to understand that even physically immediately, this girl is in a position of vulnerability, and we're going to stay there with her for most of it, most of the book”.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, and we do, and you put her through the wringer.  But she's such a strong character in many ways, obviously, vulnerable too, and there's a mental health element, but she moves through these challenges.  She's sort of a catastrophist as well.  And I know you've talked about her having a quarter life crisis, which is great, and is something that isn't often explored, something else as well as Queenie as a black 25 year old protagonists woman, but also the quarter life circumstances, and the social pressures on top of everything else that she's has to put up with.  Roxane Gay, has written that “It's an amazing novel about what it means to be a black girl whose world is falling apart, and needs to find the strength to put it back together”, which is lovely.  It's really, I mean, you've got some incredible quotes, but that one stood out for me as well, and sums up the sort of strength that Queenie brings to the read.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

I think it's also the strength that comes from being vulnerable, rather than this upfront ability to just navigate everything.  And that's what I wanted to show through her character, is that whole thing about being darkest before the dawn, like you just have to get to that place in order to be able to see things and bring yourself out of them.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, and like I say, you wrote it in a sort of burst of creativity.  But was it tough to get the thing finished and out there, and also I’m cognizant that you're working within publishing and you have a certain persona, you'd reached a fairly high level in the profession, Marketing Exec, was it tough to then put it out there? Or what was that process like?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

So I got an agent, but I hadn't met my agent before, but I’d followed her on Twitter, she's amazing, but I did everything through the proper channels, because even though I worked in publishing, I wanted to do it properly.  And so, we did an edit together, which was really great, because I really, I mean, I quite enjoy the editing process.  I don't really, I'm not scared of it.  I think that, things like that, because you just work on it by yourself, - there could be an understanding that it's just done and it's perfect -, but I think these things are still collaborative, and they need to have other eyes and voices, because you're so in it that you can't see what isn't making it the best thing it could be. 

But then she pitched the novel to a load of editors, and there was like a solid week of rejection, where loads of editors were like, “We can't see where it would be placed.  We don't have any books like it, so we don't know how we’d publish it”.  My favourite one was “We don't have any black editors, and it would require one, so it's not for us”.  So there was lots of stuff in there.  And my agent said it was fine, because when it's published and everything's happening, you won't even remember those people.  And I was like, “Oh, I will...and I do!”  And so that was quite hard, but then it was fine, because it did get published, and I work with such an amazing team, my editor’s incredible, and I really like her as a person and an editor. And I wouldn't have worked with anyone who I didn't trust, because I trust her, because she's so funny, and because she really gets the story, and because the book is so, it's not led by humour, but it's such a big part of it, and it needed it.  And I don't think I could have had an editor who couldn't make me laugh.

 

Ben Holden:

And Rachel, you were saying before we sat down and started talking with Candice about your reading experience, and you'd marked all the parts that you found funny, which is, you know, almost every other page there's, there's a gag or, you know, it's hilarious.  But in that sense.

 

Rachel New:

I was just telling Ben about the bit where Queenie spent two hours telling her date what racism means and why black lives matter, and that should not happen on the first date.  And then there's the bit where she says to somebody:  “Don't forget to wash your sheets, and your penis”.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

That is a Spaced quote, so I can't take credit for that, because I loved the TV show Spaced, but I had to get it in there somehow.

 

Ben Holden:

And so then the book comes out, and it's this phenomenon.  Without design, you'd identified in publishing that there was a gap in terms of voices that you could recognise, but Queenie just sort of storms into that gap.  And it's a phenomenon.  How was that?  Obviously very pleasurable, I imagine, and rewarding, but such a big success for your debut, as well.  That brings with it all sorts of unexpected pressures I imagine?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

It was great.  I mean, it's really hard not to, I was very grateful, and I'm still very grateful, but it is really overwhelming.  So I was talking to Bernardine Evaristo about this, I just find it really hard, because I'm quite shy, and so having to do events, - the first event I did was the showcase for my publishers, and I had to go out and talk to an audience of 1,500 people, and I did not sleep the night before.  I didn't eat the day before.  I think I cried myself into oblivion on the way there.  And then I just had to do this thing, and I was like, “What’s happened?”, you know, because you just go from just being solitary and quiet in your house or in a library, and then you’re just in front of all these people.

 

Ben Holden:

You had seen it though, from the other position of the Marketing Exec representing the authors, so at least you knew the world.  But of course, that doesn't necessarily prepare you for actually, the spotlights on you suddenly, and 1500 people look at you, I get it.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

It's not harder, but it's different, because you are supporting loads of authors and being like, this is what you need to do, and then when it's you suddenly, and you still recognise that world, it's so terrifying for that, it’s kind of worse for the eyes to then be on you who's always been in the background, and as a writer in the background.  I mean, I really just love the writing.  And I do the events, because I think they’re important, because I want to talk to people and my favourite part of the event is when it's over, and I can do the Q&A, and talk to all the people that wait and want to have a chat about what they want to do, or what they want to write, or ask me questions about where the character came from, or what she means, or what this thing meant and why haven't you done this properly?  So that's my favourite part of it is talking to the people.  But that whole thing about being on a stage is terrifying. 

 

Ben Holden:

And if your natural disposition also is shy or not extrovert, in that sense, I guess we're all a little bit extrovert and introvert in different measures as well.

 

Candice Carty-Williams

I think there's an element of me just having to be like, “You've just got to act now”.  And so just having to perform on the stage.  And that's fine, and then come off, and then I immediately go to sleep.

 

Ben Holden:

And is it getting easier?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

No.  I mean, it's still, I guess I'm less nervous.  I'm not doing the crying anymore, which is good.  It’s kind of in a different way, because I get stressed about everything else.  It’s just one of those things, but I just love talking to the people about the work.

 

Ben Holden:

And what are the most rewarding responses you’ve had or interactions with readers, because it is a very meaningful book, and you are a bit of a trailblazer?  I don't mean that in a glib or sycophantic way, it's just a fact, you know, but it also is a book that speaks to not just black women, but again, the quarter life crisis element speaks to all sorts of people in that time of life, women, obviously more than men, but what are the most rewarding responses that you've had?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

I have hundreds of messages a month from black women who are like, “I read this and I connected with this and I felt less alone”.  And that was really important to me.  But I also, remember one of the first questions I got was this younger white woman who messaged me to say that she had a mixed race daughter, because her partner was black, and that she just assumed that because her daughter was half white, her daughter would just navigate the world the same way that she did.  But she was like, “Reading your book, I understand that there is a difference and that she will come up against stuff that I wasn't familiar with and didn't understand, but now I know that I have to sort of…” I think she said, “I have to give her the fortitude to be able to deal with things that I have never had to deal with”.  And that was amazing for me.  Because it was like, yeah, like things are, there's not, there's nothing wrong with being like, “Yeah, there's a difference there”.  It's about accommodating that difference, understanding it, that's what it's about.  And I got a message from, my Twitter DMs were open, because when I worked in publishing still, people would ask me for advice about how to get into publishing or how to do certain things...

 

Ben Holden:

So you were still working in publishing when the book came out?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Oh, yeah, for, I think, two months.  I was so tired all the time.  But my Twitter DMs were open, they're not anymore, sorry everyone.  I got this message from this white guy who looked like this kind of like American dude bro, and I saw that he was American, and I thought, “Oh God, he's come to say something horrible”, and he said, “Hey, look, I know this book isn't technically for me, but I read it, and I had to take some time out of work because of my mental health, and reading your book has made me realise that it's okay, and that it’s not just happened to me, because I thought I was the only person this has ever happened to”.  And I was like,”Oh shit”, I didn't realise that people, I guess, when you just do this thing that, as you say, it's all just been a sort of like big burst of like, rush and storytelling and energy and being like, “This is what I want to say”, but I think, probably, I hadn't really stopped to think about how people would actually receive it, how everyone might receive it, and then sort of realising that was really overwhelming in a good way.

 

Ben Holden:

And like any great novel or poem or work of art, you know, you poured your heart and soul into it, but then we as readers, we put our own personal spins on it as soon as we pick it up and open it, and take our own truth from it, even though there are plenty of universal things in there ,as well as very specific socio-political, economic, etc. circumstantial things that Queenie has to deal with.  I was again struck right at the top in terms of your dedication, which is “To all the Queenies out there, you are enough, trust me”, which is defiant and inspiring in equal measure.  And there must be a fair few Queenies who still walked through this door downstairs I imagine, Chris, you must recognise Queenie?

 

Chris Moore:

Absolutely.  And if this can inspire those Queenies out there, then you've done a fantastic job.  Working in a library, you know, you always want to feel that you are helping people somehow to achieve something, something better in their lives maybe, or just the next stage in their development.  But I think there's an awful lot of people who probably don't think they can ever get themselves out of whatever rut or situation they're in.  So I think this story is obviously going to be great help to all of those people.

 

Ben Holden:

Candice, your book sort of says it all, but what would you say to any listeners in Lewisham and further afield, but who are experiencing what Chris is talking about?  And you know, the challenges that Queenie or other kids here might face back in the day when you were excluded and found your way to the library?  What would you say to any of them listening?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

I think I always operated under the illusion, it very much was an illusion, that I wasn't valid and that my life wasn't valid and my story wasn't valid.  And even though our stories are valid in a literal sense, in that, yes, you can write a book about them, they're also valid in your existence.  I think we all have something really special about us and that we are here, and that we're doing what we can is enough.  I mean, mainly, I just want people to understand that they are enough, and that you don't have to be extraordinary or strong or spectacular or like, you know, socially desirable to be the best person that you are.  I think that you just are by virtue of being you.  And I don't think enough people know that.  And that's why I want people to understand.

 

Ben Holden:

And I think also well said in the building that we're in, because if you walk into the library downstairs, the notice boards are awash with opportunities and reminders in different sort of pursuits and opportunities and initiatives that may enable people whatever age they are, old and young, to see that or learn that about themselves.  That's what libraries are partly all about.  How much would you say Queenie herself in terms of the fictional character was born here in this library?  Or am I now sort of over-egging things?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

No, not at all.  I think like, you know, she's always been within me.  She's not me, but there's definitely a part of her that was a part of me.  And so her background is the same, she grew up in Lewisham in that way.  I mean, she grew up more in Lewisham than I did.  So, you know, we're just doing artistic licence, but I think there is no way that she wouldn't have been that lonely child that I was and in the book, you understand that.  But yeah, I think this would be a safe space for her for sure.  She doesn't do enough work, so she wouldn't do her work here, but she would like it here.

 

Ben Holden:

No, she doesn't come here in the novel, but outside the novel she does.  And what about your mates and friends from back home here around these parts, and your family?  How have they responded to your amazing success with the book?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

They’re quite good.  My friends are really amazing, my friends are incredible.  I have a really amazing set of friends who are very proud and very excited, but also they do more work to sort of like gas me up than I do, they’re always like “Look, there’s your poster, there's your thing!” and I’m always like, “Yeah, whatever.  That’s my job like, that's my job, and I don't want to talk about my job like, we're hanging out”, but they do a lot to celebrate me, and I don't really do that. 

And my family, they don't really, I don't think anyone in my family's actually read it, which is fine.  My Nan calls it ‘my little project’, and the other day, because I’m now the Guardian Review of Books Columnist, but my nan called me up and said, “I've just seen that, that's good”.  She says, “When the ancestors look down at us, at least we can show our face”, and I was like, “Yeah, all right”.  So um, my family don't really, they’re just kind of like, “Yeah, do your job”.  But, you know, it's okay.  It's what it is.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah.  And I should say also we're looking at copies of the book, and the paperback is out imminently, or by the time this podcast is released, will be out.  And the cover itself, I don't know who designed it, but hats off and literally hats off, because it's Queenie’s hair, but it's absolutely beautiful, and also the colours.  So I luckily found some early release paperbacks.  Today, there was a table at Waterstones of them where I passed by, and they're beautiful colours as well.   And I suddenly, I've never had this before, I had this moment where I had to pick what colour I was going to go for, which I’ve never had with a book, but they're stunning.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

And my publishers were like, “We're really gonna go for this” in a way that I didn't think, because I worked in publishing and I was like, “They're doing a lot of stuff that I've never seen before”.

 

Ben Holden:

It is quite innovative and it is eye catching, but also really beautiful, actually, the hair is quite fine…

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

It's an illustrator called Gerrel Saunders, who does all these beautiful illustrations of black women's hair, and my American editor found it.

 

Ben Holden:

And of course Queenie’s hair is a feature…

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Such a feature, but also she's on the covers, she's faceless, which was really important to me, because I think it's just that thing where she could be any of us.

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, every woman in many ways.  So I have to ask, this was such a transformative year for you personally, professionally, but also with Bernardine Evaristo winning the Booker, Stormzy starting an imprint, you mentioned Malorie Blackman, Noughts and Crosses has been adapted, much excitement, - my kids, amongst many others, will be looking forward to seeing that, Stormzy’s in it, I understand.  But where do you, you know, it's not that long ago that you launched that short story award initiative as a publisher, pre you becoming an author, where do you see the landscape now, because it feels like last year was a bit of a game-changer in sort of correcting things a bit within publishing and the broader reading sort of consciousness of this country.  Would that be fair, do you think?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

I think so.  And I think that, you know, I've seen and understood that these things go in cycles, and that you get these initiatives and you get these big bursts of activity around diversifying reading, but, you know, that goes away after a year.  But I don't think it's going away, because I think that people are demanding to see change now.  And I think that social media has really helped that, because social media calls out every institution, every paper, every TV channel that does anything wrong.  I think that's amazing, because it's something that hasn't happened before -  people actually being taken to task now.  I think that what we're doing, many of us are laying the foundations for what should be a more representative society in many ways.  And I don't know if that's happened before, because initiatives are really great, but, I think, you know, the work is to be sustained and it is hard work.  I think that everyone is committed, but it's irritating because people that have to do these things like me, like Stormzy, [laughs], it's not our jobs.  We do it because we know it needs to be done.  You know, Stormzy is a musician, I was a marketing person, but you see these things and if I guess if you've got the energy and you've got the drive, you just have to work to put out and I think a lot more people have that, and I think when you see more people doing it, it gives you the energy to do it yourself.  So I think that there's a really long way to go, but I think that if we lay the groundwork, and you know, make it so that it's like fertile land for like, actual representative, I guess redressing, then things could be good. 

  

Ben Holden:

And those 10 publishers who shall remain nameless, who turned down Queenie are probably now saying, “You know, where's our Queenie”? There might be some imitator Queenie’s in the pipeline.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

But you know, I look forward to seeing their stories, and that's what, you know, any young black author who is thinking about writing a book or has been signed after Queenie, they reach out to me and I always meet them for coffee, I don’t drink coffee, but I have tea, and I make them buy me a tea, but we always have a chat about like, what it's going to look like and what this could be, and what they can do, so I think it's really important to do that.  You know, I think it was also about saying to the industry that yeah, this book can sell, get more.

 

Ben Holden:

And so that sort of begs the question, what's next out of curiosity, or is it a top secret project, but Queenie is being adapted for TV right?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Yeah, that was a secret and it just got leaked, so everyone knows.

 

Ben Holden:

That's exciting.  And it does actually also, I should say, anyone who hasn't read it yet will discover that it does sort of read very cinematically, or certainly in terms of a TV show. The way you intercut, the non-linear structure and the sort of flashbacks to her relationship with Tom, does lend itself, I would think, to an adaptation, although it's a big challenge.  Are you writing that?

 

Candice Carty Williams:

I'm writing it for the screen, which is actually really fun, I really like it, I like it in a different form.

 

Ben Holden:

I used to work in film and my day job was screenwriting, so it's a very different sort of rhythm, but like I said, I do think the blueprint is, more than in many other novels, you do have some of it there.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Yeah, so it's being adapted for the screen.  I am writing it, which is a really great thing, because I had lots of meetings about it, and production companies were giving me different writers, because the pool of black female writers is so small, they were saying, you know, what about this person who wrote this play?  And it was like, “Yeah, okay, cool.  Let's think about that”, and then the production company I went with were like, “You have to write it”.  And I was like, “What?”, I hadn't considered that at all.  And they were like, “That's kind of your job, right? Because otherwise we'll just lose your voice.”  So I've been doing that, and it's been a really, you learn a lot about like, stuff, but also it helps I watch every single TV show that has ever come out.  So it's been an enjoyable thing and exciting.   And the thing I'm looking forward to most that kind of gets me through this sort of like, weird screenwriter’s writer's block, which I never had with novel writing, is the idea of like casting and music, and just actually how it’s going to jump out at people?  So that's what keeps me entertained. 

 

Ben Holden:

I have to ask, because the podcast is library and bookshop based, and I hate to sort of drag things down a little bit, but, you know, we've talked about all sorts of positive developments over last year, but equally, there have been over the last 10 years or so since austerity really hit, all kinds of problems for libraries, and it's fantastic that we're here in this amazing landmark library in Lewisham, it's very lively, downstairs and vibrant, fantastic offering for the community; but what do you make of the nationwide sort of scourge that we've had to deal with over the last decade or so, bearing in mind, again, that time of your life when this library provided such sanctuary?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

I think when I started hearing about library closures a few years ago, like a sort of mourning, like it hit very personally, because I knew how much libraries had saved me, I felt really heartbroken for all of the children who wouldn't be able to go to this as a safe place, and who wouldn't be able to experience reading, you know that reading is such a privilege, being able to buy a book is a huge privilege.  Not everyone has that.  I couldn't afford to buy books all the time, that's why I spent all my time in libraries.  You know, I couldn't be the author that I was, without having read so much, and I read so much, because I could read books for free. But I think the problem is that the people who are doing these things are just not in these positions of understanding how impactful it is on so many levels, because they don't have those lives.  They have the schooling where everything is available for them, and then they have jobs where things are available for them.  And so many people don't have that, you know like, when you go and look in libraries and you see, yeah, some people are there just to use the internet, and that's fine, because not everyone, you know, job applications, people are like, “Why don’t you apply for that job”?  And it's like, well, not everyone has the internet, that is the reality of things, and I think that, you know, I think it's not a problem until it's yours.  And I think that there are too many people working in positions of power that don't understand that, and don't have the lens to see that not everything is available and accessible.  And so library closures, I couldn't and can't believe it.  It's very painful.  It's very heartbreaking, because libraries are obviously hubs for learning, but also they are safe places, and also, they give worlds to people who can't just go and buy them.  So it hits me on many different levels.

 

Ben Holden:

Well, it's great that we can be here today and celebrate Lewisham Library which stands proud and the lights are still twinkling on at night, providing a beacon for other budding Queenie’s and authors out there.  And, again, because this is a booky podcast, without meaning to pry or be too nosy, I do like to ask guests, and that's all our guests, how they choose to organise their shelves of books, and whether you're quite a regimented, sort of catalogued person, or whether it’s all sort of colour coded like your beautiful novels, covers...

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

It’s chaos.  Everything about me is sort of like quiet chaos.  I got some bookshelves built the other day, which is a really exciting thing for me.  They are pink, because that’s my favourite colour and my novel is pink, but I've got some shelves in and then I basically just shove all my books in so they just look nice, but there’s no colour coding but it’s just like, you don't want to have like two yellow books next to each other, you want to like space that out, you know?  So it's like a nice catalogue, but like looks good rather than, there's no order, there's no order to anything in my life.

 

Ben Holden:

I turn to the librarian, Chris, presumably there's some order to your books?

 

Chris Moore:

I'm afraid I’m a typical librarian.  Everything is strict A-Z.  I’ve even attempted the Dewey Decimal Classification for my non-fiction.  So that's pretty much the way I do it at home.  It's more categorization than classification.  But the fiction’s got to be A to Z.  And if anything's out of place…

 

Ben Holden:

It would be madness!  Rachel?

 

Rachel New:

I like my guests when they come to visit me to be able to browse the books and generate some interesting discussion, so I try to have some philosophy books and all sorts of different topics, psychology as well as fiction, so that people can just pick up a book and for it to lead to a conversation.  So I think I like to have variety, I have lots of bookshelves in different rooms in my flat, and I like to have a variety on each of the bookshelves, so that people can then see what represents me.  So it's important that my bookshelves represent everything that I like about books.

 

Ben Holden:

And continuing this, if it's all right, Candice, would you mind browsing the shelves?  The fabled, precious shelves of Lewisham Library for another spin, all these years later, and choose a book, and see what you gravitate towards today?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Yeah, I'd love to thank you.

 

Ben Holden:

 

And thank you all for joining us.

 

~ Candice Carty-Williams is invited to browse the shelves of Lewisham Library and select a book of her choice ~

 

 

Ben Holden:

Non-fiction, which is quite nicely categorised.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

So many amazing books here.  I worked on this from the beginning before I left, which is the definitive history of racism, from the very beginning.  And also I love ‘Stuart:  A life backwards’ by Alexander Monster.  I finished that and I cried for about 10 days.

 

Ben Holden:

The great thing about doing these browses is that I get recommendations.

 

Rachel New:

That's one of my favourite books.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Feminists don’t wear pink’ - another great one.  This is such a well stocked library.

 

Ben Holden:

Although you’re a feminist, and pink’s your favourite colour?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Exactly, and it’s ‘and other lies’, sorry, I should have finished the title [of the book].

 

Ben Holden:

So we’re hovering around sociology and politics.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Riot City: Protest and Rebellion in the Capital.’  I think this is my choice. 

 

Ben Holden:

This is not something you’ve come across before?

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

No, never, but I think it's always good to understand, I mean, riot culture is really interesting, right?  And I think when you try to capture anything like riots or protest in art, it's always a bit tricky, because, like riots and protesters, they’re just fuelled by energy, and I don't think it's easy to put that on the page.  But I'd like to know more about them and where they came from, so this is my choice.

 

Ben Holden:

Riot City’ by Clive Bloom.

 

Candice Carty-Williams:

Thanks Clive!

 

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. That way, not only will you keep up with the podcasts, but you’ll also help us champion libraries and independent bookshops.  To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website:  www.exlibris.com  You can also get updates on twitter and instagram, not to mention, win a signed copy there of Candice’s brilliant novel ‘Queenie’.  Find me @thatbenholden.

Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

 

 

Val McDermid in Topping & Co, St Andrews

Val McDermid in Topping & Co, St Andrews

January 14, 2020

Val McDermid was so young when she first visited her local library in Fife that she couldn’t even say the word, calling it the ‘labrador’ (after her family’s pet).

Kirkcaldy Library rapidly became, though, a home-from-home. Soon enough, young Val was working her way methodically around the shelves. She would come up with ingenious, cheeky ways to bypass the librarians and gain access to the forbidden grown-up shelves.

This education laid the foundations for the illustrious writing career that has followed: with over sixteen million copies sold in more than thirty languages, today Val is often called ‘The Queen of Crime’. Bluntly, this career would not have been possible without the public library system (in Val’s own words).

This episode covers those formative years - how the library helped Val not only escape herself but also find a sense of identity - before broadening into an exploration of the library’s continuing legacy for Val, exemplified by her campaigning efforts to save other such ‘palaces for the people’.

We also learn about her writing process: Ben unpacks with Val the similarities therein with the professional workings of her fictitious criminal profiler, Tony Hill. How she must always be several steps ahead of her readers…

Val speaks to Ben not at the library, though, but within a cosy nook of her favourite indie bookshop - Topping & Company in St Andrews. It’s a beautiful shop. Val is old pals with founder Robert Topping. She loves this place so much that she even arranged for her home bookshelves to be handcrafted by the shop’s go-to joiners.

Joining the conversation is Topping’s Senior Bookseller (and poet), Michael Grieve.  Kirkcaldy Library was Michael’s local branch too while growing up. The duo make for warm, kindred spirits amid the shop’s artisan shelves, sliding ladders and seemingly endless signed first editions.

 

...

 

Please find below a full transcript of this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Val McDermid in Topping & Co:

 

This episode of Ex Libris comes to you from bonny St. Andrews.  We're here to meet the queen of crime herself.  Val McDermid’s books have sold 16 million times over in more than 40 languages.  So it's a garlanded career, and one that is owed to the public library system, in Val’s own words.  I can't wait to ask her more about that debt to libraries.  She has elected, however, to meet in a bookshop.  The scene of today's crime is Topping and Company here on Greyfriars Garden.  Joining the conversation today is Michael Grieve, senior bookseller at Toppings.  Let's head inside now into the book-lined warmth. The fires are on and books are the best sort of insulation after all, not just from the cold.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Val, Michael, thank you so much for meeting us and talking here in this lovely nook in Toppings.  Val, why is the shop personally special to you?  I know you have fond attachments to libraries, but it's a beautiful, beautiful store.

 

Val McDermid:

It is a beautiful shop, but my relationship with Toppings goes back a very long time.  I've known Robert Topping since the early 1990s, when he was running Waterstones in Deansgate, their flagship store there.  And when my first books were coming out, Robert was incredibly supportive.  That, for me, sort of forged our friendship and we've stayed in touch ever since.  And then when Robert started opening wonderful, independent bookshops, because that was huge for those of us who love his style of bookselling, and this one is very dear to me, because, you know, I grew up in Fife, and to have a bookshop like this in Fife would have been an absolute dream for me growing up.

The first time I came into the shop, I just fell in love with the shelves, beautiful shelves, all handmade, different levels, and beautiful beading.  I said to my partner, I said, “We need to have a house that will go with these shelves”.  Subsequently, we do now, we have a townhouse in Edinburgh, and we have sorted shelves all over the house.  We have a library basically on the first floor that was made by the same joiners who installed the shelves here. We have ladders that go around corners.  It's lovely, and it's what I've always dreamed of, I suppose, to have that kind of place, to have a room of books in that way.  I walk in there and sit down in my reading chair, and I just think it's all worthwhile.

 

Ben Holden:

And Michael, can you speak a little bit more to the history of the store?

 

Michael Grieve:

Well, as Val was talking about, Robert used to run Manchester Deansgate, and it was by all accounts the best stocked, most richly diverse Waterstones in the country at the time.  And it was when they started slimming down their operation, when they were taken over by HMV.  Robert refused to slim down with them, and was shown the door, and he decided to set up to show them how to do it, and opened the first bookshop, first Topping and Company in Ely in Cambridgeshire, in about 2002.  And it was between Ely and St. Andrews, they opened up a shop in Bath, but St. Andrews came about when Cornelia Topping was going to university in St. Andrews, and Robert walked past this shop with a big ‘For sale’ sign on the front of it, and thought he and Louise Topping had met in St. Andrews, they were planning on coming up here later on in their life, and all the stars aligned, I think.

 

Val McDermid:

And Robert also has a very distinctive style as a bookseller; he believes in the book and so he gets passionate about it.  I remember at Deansgate when he was there, someone had published a book about the architecture of Manchester, and it was a very beautiful book, it was a lovely object and Head Office had said he could order 20.  So Robert ordered 1000.  They sold every one.  They were in stacks around the shop!

 

Ben Holden:

It’s very homely, actually, the way the books are sort of everywhere here, sort of toppling over, but also beautifully, a huge number of signed first editions of all these, I mean, almost everything seems to be signed by the author.

 

Michael Grieve:

All of the four bookshops in the company have their own events programmes.  So when we get somebody like Val in to sign a stack of books, they get shared equally.

 

Ben Holden:

And Val, we are in a shop, and obviously with our podcast, we celebrate both libraries and bookshops, but I know that the library growing up was a very important place for you in Kirkcaldy.

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, I grew up very much in a working class family, and there wasn't money to spare for books.  This was the days before cheap mass market paperbacks were everywhere.  And there just wasn't money to spare.  But my parents were of a generation where they really believed that the way to make sure your kids had a better life was through education and through reading.  And my mum used to take me to the library, in fact, before I could read, she took me to the library before I could say library.  In fact, I used to say we were going to the ‘labrador’, that was the kind of dog we had.  So she’d take me to the library and read me books, and then, of course, when I was six years old, they did an astonishing thing, and this was not the reason why they moved, but they moved to live opposite the central library in Kirkcaldy, which is a very good library. 

In Fife, we have a tradition of philanthropy towards public buildings, you know, Carnegie’s first public library in Dunfermline, and the library in Kirkcaldy was given by the Nairn family, who were the big linoleum magnates.  Kirkcaldy was famous.  It was the world capital of linoleum.  And so I would just go to the library pretty much every night after school and read my way around the shelves.

 

Ben Holden:

My Scotland’, your beautiful book, which gives you a sort of tour of the country via your life and your writing.  There's a very special section right at the outset about the library.  Would you mind reading that for us?

 

~ Val McDermid reads an extract from her book, ‘My Scotland’ ~

 

Much more important from my perspective is the impressive neoclassical sandstone building that sits above the verdant Memorial Gardens and houses the library and art gallery.  It was a byproduct of linoleum, a gift from the Nairn family, the principal of a dozen manufacturers in the town. 

When I was six, my parents moved house to live across the road from the library, and my fate was sealed.  My parents were working class, that cohort of respectable poor, who believed that education was the way to a better life for their children.  We couldn't afford books, but when I was still a toddler, my mother used to trail me half a mile across the council housing estate to the branch library to read me picture books.  By the time we moved to the town centre, I could read by myself and I was already enthralled to stories.  

The library became my home from home, and I read my way around the shelves.  Back then, you could only take out four books at a time, and in presbyterian Scotland, two of them had to be non-fiction.  The line had to be held against the relentless encroachment of frivolity.  But even on the non-fiction shelves, I managed to find stories, ‘Tarka the Otter’, Norse myths and legends, border ballads and tales and plenty of others. 

I love stories.  My life has been bookended and bookmarked by hearing them, reading them and telling them, but from those early days in Kirkcaldy, the stories that have carved out the deepest impression in my memory and my heart have one common feature, ‘The Wind in the Willows’, ‘Treasure Island’, the Chalet School series, ‘I Robot’, what they share is a sense of place.  In my mind's eye, I can see where each of these stories unfolds.

 

~ Interview continues ~

 

Ben Holden:

Brilliant.  Thank you so much.  And so this was your second home, as you call it, and did the building and all the imagined worlds inside it, did that allow you escapism throughout your youth?  Did that continue for the following years there?

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, I mean, that was my window in the world.  It was, I suppose, a door that opened into other possible lives.  Kirckaldy is in Fife, and Fife geographically is quite a distinct and isolated part of Scotland in a funny kind of way that's right in the middle of the central belt.  Until we got the road bridges in the 1960s, it was quite difficult to come to Fife, you had to make a very specific decision to come here.  You didn't get here by accident.  And we had, I think, a very distinct view of ourselves as being different and distinct.  It was politically quite radical. We were the first to send a communist MP to Westminster, for example.  But the flip side of that was it could be quite inward looking.  So almost all of the people who taught me at school, for example, came from Fife.  They'd gone off to university and come back to Fife, and that was the expected pattern of your life.

The school I went to had the view that if you were bright, you went to Edinburgh or St. Andrews, and if you weren’t quite so bright, you went to Stirling or Dundee.  But, either way, you came back to Fife.  And if you were really, really sort of a bold person, you might work in Edinburgh and commute.  There's a very strong sense of belonging.  And I knew instinctively from a very early age that I wanted more than that, I wanted something different that I didn't fit with that confined life.  At the time, I thought it was because I wanted to be a writer, and that somehow set me apart.  It took me a long time to understand that a large part of it also was my sexuality, because there were no visible lesbians in Fife when I was growing up.  I mean, there was no visible lesbians most places, but very particularly here, I mean you’d have been more likely to find a unicorn than an out lesbian wandering about Fife!

And so I didn't have a name to put on who I was, because if you can't see it, you can't be it.  You have to be able to imagine something, you can't imagine it without some sort of template to start that imagination off.  And so, yeah, for me, the library was the first step on a journey of escape because it showed me worlds beyond my window and the library was directly responsible for me going to Oxford, in a perhaps not expected way.

 

Ben Holden:

I know you got in at 16?

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, but I read the Chalet School books when I was growing up.  The Chalet School books were one of my favourite series of books, girls school stories, set first in Austria, then in Switzerland.  I learned a lot of things from the Chalet School books.  They were actually a proper series, in the sense that the books followed on from each other, and things had consequences.  If you read The Famous Five, they all seem to take place in the same summer, and nobody ever has any self consciousness about anything.  Nobody ever says, “We can't go into the dark caves, because the last time we went into the dark cave, something terrible happened”.  Nobody notices, you know, it's like, it doesn't matter what order you read them in, but with the Chalet School books, if you broke your leg in one book, you were still limping three books later.  So there was that sense of progression and therefore of engagement and commitment to the characters. 

And there's also the sense of mystery and puzzle, because it was the library, so you never read them in sequence.  You just took whatever one was on the shelf.  So you'd go book 27, book 43, book six, and gradually, you form the picture.  And you’d have these moments of revelation - “That's why she behaves like that!”.  And so I love that aspect of it. 

But for me, one of the key things or two things really, that were key to my future, one was that one of the characters grows up to become a writer of girls school stories in a way that we’d now see as very meta-fictional, but back then was just what she did.  And then one of the books, she gets a letter from a publisher, and in this letter, there's a cheque.  I thought, “Oh my god, you get paid money for this.  You write books, you get paid.  It's a job.  I could do that!”  And the other thing was that everybody who went onto further education from the Chalet School, either went to the Sorbonne, and I knew my French wasn't good enough for that, or they went to Oxford, or they went to the Kensington School of needlework.  So for me, it was obvious if I was going to spread my wings and extend my horizons, I had to go to Oxford.

 

Ben Holden:

So you hadn't been to Oxford at this point?

 

Val McDermid:

Before I went to Oxford, we'd had one holiday in England.  We'd been to England for a week in Blackpool, which obviously prepared me for Oxford [laughs]. 

 

Ben Holden:

I know that you've also said a library card is a powerful weapon to change lives and where we can learn about other places, other ways of seeing the world, other lives.  There you go:  “We learn how to value what we have, to mourn what we've lost, to dream of what we might become”.  So that's very much in keeping with this.  So what sort of age was that when you were reading those books?

 

Val McDermid:

I think I was about eight or nine when I discovered that if you wanted to be a writer, you got to make money out of writing, that was when I decided that was what I wanted.  I think I'm very lucky.  I think most people take a while to discover their passion, to find out what they want to do with their lives.  I knew from the age of about nine that that was what I was going to do.

 

Ben Holden:

But you must have also, your parents must have given you that security of that can-do spirit of the, as you said, you didn't necessarily have the role models around in terms of your sexuality, but also presumably in terms of the writers as well.  But you got that in your head that that’s what I'm going to do.

 

Val McDermid:

Everybody laughed at me.  I mean, everybody just went, “Don’t be ridiculous.  People like us don't do that”.  But I was determined and I was very lucky.  Also my father was a great Burns man, Robert Burns man, and he really did believe, a man's a man for all that, and you shouldn’t let anyone call you master, you know, but the only thing standing between me and my dreams was me, so I was always encouraged to go for it, have a goal and to be determined.

 

Ben Holden:

And were there any books in that library?  Obviously, you've talked about the series and the impact that had, and you can see the impression of that in terms of your own series, but were there mysteries or in terms of the genre novels, the crime novels, were there things there that sort of sowed any seeds in your head in terms of the types of things you wanted to write?  I know you’ve written all sorts of things, but notably the crime novels.  Were there any seminals, I know you read Buchan and you read Robert Louis Stevenson, and that you were omnivorous, but were there any sort of seminal works?

 

Val McDermid:

Well, I read the Nancy Drew books and the Hardy Boys, you know, I rather envied Nancy Drew’s little red roadster.  But what really turned me on to the genre of fiction was a kind of accident really, my grandparents were not readers, the only book they had in the house apart from the Bible, and that in itself was a mystery, it was Agatha Christie's ‘The Murder at the Vicarage’.  And that was a book I started reading when I was probably about nine or 10.  Because I’d turn up at my grandparents for the weekend or for a week in the school holidays with my library books, and I'd run out of library books and so I’d fall back on Agatha Christie.  Linguistic scientists tell us that you can read Christie if you have a reading age of nine, because her grammatical constructions are so limpid, and her language is so clear, and simple, that it's possible to understand the text pretty readily.  So I read ‘The Murder at the Vicarage’, and I thought this was great.  I loved it.  I just was entranced by it.  And I read it and I re-read it again and again. 

I look at it now, and I think it's probably lucky that my first proper crime novel was Christie at the peak of her powers.   It’s a beautiful construction, you've got this sort of overarching main story, and then you've got lots of subplots that kind of interlock, so that when you have a sort of hiatus in the main story, there's something terribly exciting going on with the subplot.  And every one of those subplots has got, you know, set up, development, pay-off, and it's just, they all interlock.  I mean, if you drew it out, it would be this lovely, sort of geometrical thing.  But I mean, I wasn't thinking of it in those terms when I was reading it back then, I mean, I understand now what the charm of it was.  I got hooked on this.  I have to read more of these.

 

Ben Holden:

And you were re-reading at that point?  At that age, though, that's going to really sort of get emblazoned into you or imprinted somewhere.

 

Val McDermid:

It definitely imprinted that idea of how to use structure - I couldn't have told you that at the time.  And I was determined to read more of these books once I discovered that Agatha Christie had written more than one book.  And the problem was that they were in the adult library and there was no way to get, it's not like now when everything's on open shelves.  It was totally off limits.  So I did a bad thing, I stole my mum's library tickets.  I went to the library and I did my most pitiful face and said to the librarian, “I have to get a book for my mum.  She's not well”, and god bless those librarians!  It worked for five years until I was old enough to get my adult library tickets.

But as I read my way around the excellently stocked crime section of Kirkcaldy library over the course of those years, but because you know, you never get away scot free, your past always catches you out; and a few years ago, I went back to Kirkcaldy library to do a gig, and I took my mum with me, because she’s still living across the road from the library, and to my astonishment, a couple of women who'd been librarians when I was a kid were there.  As I introduced them to my mum, one of them said to my mum, she looked quite shocked, she said, “Mrs McDermid, I thought you must be dead!”.  My mother said, “Dead? Why would I be dead”?  The librarian goes “With you being a bed-ridden invalid all of those years!”

 

Ben Holden:

So the funny thing is, though, of course that you were reading the queen of crime, and now that mantle is often yours.  You've sort of become the queen of crime.

 

Val McDermid:

Yes, I find that quite strange, because particularly as a Republican, a journalist once dubbed me the “gobby shop steward of crime”, and I think that's probably the more accurate description of my mindset.

 

Ben Holden:

I know P.D. James, who was also sort of had that mantle didn't like it much.

 

Val McDermid:

No, I think it's, it's just one of these things.  There's a label that you get attached to you, usually for reasons of marketing, I think more than anything.  It's kind of invidious, really, because there's no such thing really, as a writer that speaks to everybody.

 

Ben Holden:

And there aren't kings of crime, are there?

 

Val McDermid:

Lee Child once referred to himself as my consort. 

 

Ben Holden:

But that said, you know, crime as a genre is often talked about in terms of, and we're in a bit of a golden age of crime, a lot of female authors; you've talked a bit about the female point of view in terms of writing, about the the sort of experience or the threat of violence, rather than a man's point of view.  And of course, there's a lot of controversy around certain shows and depictions of violence against women.  So there is also some gender interesting sort of discussions to be had within the genre, perhaps?

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, but I think what's important is that there's no doubt that women are often, more often than men, the victims of sexual violence.  And you know, I'm not going to stop writing about these things.  I think what's important though, is that you write about these things with a degree of awareness that there is a line you need to not cross, you need to rein in, you need to say enough to be honest about what violence is and what it does, and the impact it has on the way it contaminates the lives it touches without revelling in it, without it becoming a kind of pornography of violence.  But what my books do and what a lot of other women writers now, what our books do, is we have characters, female characters, with agency.  So the victims are not the only women you see in the books.  You see women who take responsibility, you see women who have an important role to play in the unravelling of these crimes and the resolution of these crimes.  So it's not like the olden days, if you like, of sort of like Raymond Chandler, where the only women in the books were the victims, the vamps and the vixens, you know, now we take responsibility, and we are the agents of vengeance, I suppose.

 

Ben Holden:

I know you've sold 16 million copies and in 40 languages, it's astonishing.  And Lee Child has also said that your books have a rare and self sufficient integrity, which is a very succinct and nice way of putting it, and in other words, you've mastered murder as a fine art.  I only mentioned that because in your ‘Mermaid Singing’ novel, you reference De Quincey's treaties on murder.

 

Val McDermid:

Yeah, it's a very satirical essay on murder considered as one of the fine arts.  I took quotes from that as the epigraph for the chapters.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, they're beautiful.  I have one here. I'll read it if you don't mind:

People begin to see that something more goes into the composition of a fine murder, than two blockheads to kill and be killed, a knife, a purse and a dark lane.  Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed to be indispensable to attempts of this nature”.

Which is great stuff, although gentleman is, again, a little limiting, but the components there seem to be in line with what you were describing, what you were learning from Agatha Christie, and also in terms of your own novels.

 

Val McDermid:

I'd like to think so.  I think the contemporary crime novel, at its best, is about almost everything except the act of murder.  I mean, we write about all kinds of things.  And the crime, if you like, is the lure to draw the reader in, while we spin our tales that cover all sorts of aspects of modern life.  Everything from politics to romance, find their way into our books. We write about all kinds of things, but the string that pulls the reader through is the crime and its resolution.  And that gives us, I suppose, gives us free rein to write whatever we want to write. 

I'm very lucky to be writing crime fiction at a time when the genre has become so expansive.  You know, when I started out in British crime fiction, really, you had village mysteries and police procedurals, and that was about it.  You had Ruth Rendell kind of out there on the fringes writing her sort of dark psychological novels, but mostly, what people were writing were these kind of home counties novels about small towns and villages, or about the Metropolitan Police solving everything.  I started writing at a time when, I suppose, independent of each other, a group of writers writing regional crime novels, you know, John Harvey writing in Nottingham, Rachel writing in mid Yorkshire, Ian Rankin writing in Edinburgh, and we were taking murder out of that cosy home counties environment and setting it down in places where it was a part of a different fabric.

 

Ben Holden:

And it seems, yeah, listening to you talk about the old days, they sound quite backward, not just in the scope, but in terms of, it's amazing to think that...

 

Val McDermid:

But they were quite conservative socially as well.  I mean, there was a very strong conservatism running through the genre, I mean there are always outliers, but the the mainstream of crime fiction up to, I suppose, the early 80s was quite conservative.

 

Ben Holden:

And looking at ‘The Mermaid Singing’, I was quite struck in terms of Tony, the profiler, who of course has had huge longevity as a character, in terms of his process, and all your novels are full of beautiful process, which is for a reader incredibly satisfying, and all the research is threaded in there, but it's really rich; but his process, not to get too meta, but sort of began to make me wonder if it was similar in terms of how you are yourself going about conceiving of the characters, their motivations, and sort of being.  You’re always one or two or three steps ahead of us as the reader, but then, in terms of getting inside Tony's head, he was sort of always inside everyone's heads, it struck me in a slightly sort of similar fashion.

 

Val McDermid:

I think there's a lot of truth in that.  I mean, if you can't get inside the heads of your characters, you're never going to be able to write a character who spends his time getting inside the heads of other people.  People sometimes ask me, is it harder to write the murderer, or is it harder to write the villains?  How do you manage to get inside their heads?  I say it's just the same as writing any other character.  You have to figure out why they do the things they do, what motivates them, what's in it for them?  What drives them to do these things?  And it doesn't matter if you're writing about the detective, or you're writing about a minor character, or you're writing about the murderer, you've still got to understand why they do the things they do, and it's got to make sense in terms of their world.  People don't do things for no reason, even the most apparently random choice that a criminal makes will have its roots somewhere in their history or their world view.  So you have to figure all that out.  So yeah, I suppose in that sense, writing a character like Tony Hill is about externalising the process that you go through as a writer.

 

Ben Holden:

And also the conjuring of imagination in terms of his placing himself into the scenes and into the characters, the minds of these people that he's trying to...

 

Val McDermid:

And I'm always looking backwards, when I'm starting out, I kind of know what the crimes are going to be, so I have to reason backwards, I know what the outcome is so I can reason backwards.  And so I can put everything in place to make sense.  Whereas when somebody's doing this for real, somebody who is actually a profiler, they have to reason forwards.  They've got a limited amount of information and they've got to try and figure out from that limited amount of information where the end game is going to be,  whereas I have the advantage of knowing what the end game is from the start.  It’s so funny, I've actually had a couple of occasions, where there’s been sort of serial offences going on, I've had newspapers ring me up and say, will you profile the killer? And I go, “No, of course I won’t!  I can’t just make stuff up!”

 

Ben Holden:

But there's loads of, again ‘Mermaid Singing,’ I’d love to, if you don't mind, I’ll read one other thing:

That's how I do the job.  Gradually, the evidence makes me eliminate some of my initial thoughts.  Eventually, some sort of pattern begins to form.  This time, he was going to be as close to a clue as he's ever been.  For a man who lived his life behind the shield of learned behaviours, penetrating a killer’s face was the only game in town”.

Which is fantastic stuff, but also, again, just made me think of, without overdoing this, your own process.  Did you feel that you were onto something with that novel in particular, because it was a big success, of course, and you were doing some interesting things in terms of the genders of the victims and the UK profiler was a new sort of thing as well.  But did you feel like you were onto something, of course, it turned into, as well as the series of novels, ‘The Wire in in the Blood’ TV series, the novel also won the Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger Award for novel of the year etc.; I know you've won more awards than I probably have time to list, but that one, that was a bit of a game changer for you?

 

Val McDermid:

What I've discovered is most of psychological profiling seems to be a really exciting thing to write about.  And at the time that I wrote ‘The Mermaid Singing’, nobody in the UK was writing about this at all.  I mean, it was the first sort of profiling novel in the UK at that time.  I'd read Thomas Harris, and on the basis of that, I went away and read all the non-fiction I could find about it.  There's a marvellous publication called ‘The FBI Book of Sexual Homicide’ - that was my bedtime reading for quite a while.  And I was just, I was completely fascinated by this.  It seemed to me to be a really exciting and different way of approaching the idea of writing about crime.  And I discovered very quickly that we do things differently in the UK from the way they do it in America, and in America, the FBI trains up their agents in what they call behavioural science, effectively psychology, and then they go out into the field. 

But in the UK, we don't have the number of these kinds of serial offences for it to be practicable to have some sort of specialist unit within the police.  So they summon people who are clinical psychologists, for real, they do this, this is their day job.  They spend their days working with serial offenders or one sort of another.  So I thought this was really interesting, because it creates all sorts of tensions right away, you know, the cops never like being told what to do, what to think.  So I thought, this is fascinating.  I've never seen anything quite like this before.  How exciting is this to work with?  And I thought if I make Tony Hill’s liaison person a woman, that also creates a different dynamic, because you get another set of tensions there, because at the time, it's hard to think about it now, but back in the early, mid 1990s, there were not many women in senior jobs in CID.  So women were not very highly regarded often by their colleagues, so I thought that gave me another whole set of tensions to go on. 

And I thought this is creating all these different possibilities for narrative and possibilities for relationships.  It was very exciting when I started thinking about the book and working on it.  And I suppose I wasn't thinking about it in terms of it being a game changer when I was writing it, I was just thinking I've got this great story to tell.  And that's all it really is, I suppose, when I sit down with a book, I'm not thinking about it in any terms other than I'm really excited about telling the story, because I think if you start looking at how it's going to be received or what readers are going to think about it, and will readers like it if I do it this way rather than that way, that way madness lies and that way bad books lie.

 

Ben Holden:

But the excitement and the enthusiasm which sort of infused the writing process in what became the novel, you felt especially a sort of, “I'm onto something”, or you really enjoyed…

 

Val McDermid:

It’s because it was fresh.  I mean, I had felt in my different ways just as excited about when I started writing Lindsay Gordon books or the Kate Brannigan books, they excited me, the idea of what I could do with those books was exciting to me.  I was lucky that with ‘The Mermaid Singing’ it hit the right nerve at the right time.

 

Ben Holden:

‘The Wire in the Blood’ quote is an Eliot quote from ‘Four Quartets’, but it's quite elusive or at least to me what the meaning is, “The thrilling wire in the blood sings below inveterate scars, appeasing long forgotten wars.”

 

Val McDermid:

Who knows?  It’s poetry.  It means what you want it to mean.  I don't think things have to be that explicit.  Yeah, I think it's quite nice to have a title that the reader picks up and goes, ‘Oh what’s that about”?

 

Ben Holden:

And your newest novel, ‘How the Dead Speak’ is the latest instalment in the Tony Hill series. So they've been through an awful lot, that series, as you described in the library, now you've created several of these series.  Tony's, actually the prison library features, I was pleased to read, there's also…

 

Val McDermid:

I had to find something to do with him.  The nature of the story, I had to find a story for him inside the jail, and didn’t just want it to be the sort of standard fare of, you know, so the people getting a shiv in the shower sort of thing, I wanted to make it a little more nuanced than that.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, and it is a legal requirement for prisons to have libraries.  And yet it's not a legal requirement for schools to have libraries.

 

Val McDermid:

But it's also not funded by the prison services, it’s funded by the local authority, prison libraries.

 

Ben Holden:

What do you look for now that you've done several of these successful series, when you're sitting down, what are the starting points for the characters, as opposed to a standalone, is it a very different sort of process?

 

Val McDermid:

When I start to feel the shape of a story, when I start to have an idea of what I want to write about, and how the story is going to play out, what kind of story it is, it becomes very clear to me very quickly if it fits into one of the series that I write, or if it's going to have to find another set of characters to make the story work.  There’s certain kinds of stories that Tony and Carol can tell, there’s certain kinds of stories that Karen Pirie can tell.  And then there’s stories that don't work for either of them.  And I think, I've always, from the start of my career, written different kinds of books which, for me, has given me the freedom always to be writing a book I’m excited about.  I think it must be awful for people who only write one series character, because they must throw away so many stories that just don't work.  You know, if you've got a private eye as your central character, there's only a certain kind of story you can tell in the first person; if you’ve got a cop as your central character, then you can only tell cop stories, whereas I've always kind of taken the view of I want to have the freedom to tell the story that excites me.  So whenever I sit down to write a book, I'm excited because this story has gripped me by the throat and needs to be told.

In fact, sometimes Tony and Carol started as a standalone.  I didn't intend that to be the start of a series, but as I came towards the end of ‘Mermaid Singing’, I thought these characters are really interesting, both in terms of their professional lives, and their personal relationship, the chemistry between them, I can take this further.  And I thought I might get three or four books out of it.  Well, you know, ‘How the Dead Speak’ is number 11.  The same with Karen Pirie, she started off as a minor character in a standalone, and a few years after that, I had an idea for a novel about a cold case set in Fife.  I thought, well, I've already got this cold case cop in Fife, nobody will remember I've used her before, and then Karen suddenly took on a life of her own - so like, you know, five of them next year, there'll be six.

 

Ben Holden:

And they span 25 odd years as well.  And as you said, in terms of the genre, you've, along the way, kind of chronicled various changes in society.  And in the new book, it's not the De Quincey, Tony gets the epigraphs himself which is cool.  And he says in one of them, “One of the less obvious effects of austerity has been the increase in the numbers of the visibly vulnerable.  For predators, it's been a gift wrapped opportunity to expand their choice of victims”.

 

 

Val McDermid:

There are more people out there that nobody misses.  There are certainly people who will take advantage of that.  As a sort of sidebar to that, back in the 1980s, late 80s, early 90s, a group of chief constables got together in England, about half of England's forces, they met for a weekend in a country house, and brought along their unsolved murders.  And at the end of that weekend, their conclusion was that there were probably at least three previously unsuspected serial killers working in England, preying on sex workers.  And that was that, I mean, I never heard anything came of that, nothing more was written, there's no result, these guys were not put away or found or anything.  But there was a clear belief that methodology and the nature of these crimes indicated that there were individuals perpetrating several of these crimes.  And for one reason or another, they were never tracked down.  So it's not a big leap to say, you know, you have people who are ready, they are predators, and it's quite clear that there are more vulnerable people out there for them.  So the logical conclusion is, you know.

 

Ben Holden:

It's a sobering thought.  And on austerity, we might as well get into, you know, the library closures, which is a touchstone of this podcast.  Sadly, in Scotland, 69 libraries closed between 2011 and 2018, but there were 30 in 2017.  I don't know what the numbers will be for this year, and Fife got hit especially hard, and I know that you were campaigning and doing your bit to try and stop that scourge.

 

Val McDermid:

It’s low hanging fruit isn’t it, the library?  It's hard to prevent happening, even though we have a first minister who champions reading and who reads herself. 

 

Ben Holden:

She's incredible actually, though.  She’s a voracious reader.

 

Val McDermid:

Yes, she is.  In fact, the year I was Booker Prize judge, she used to take the mickey out of me.  She reads on Saturday nights, and she quite often tweets about what she's reading.  And when you're a Booker judge, you're not even allowed to say what you're reading, because that would indicate what had been submitted, and she would tease me on Saturday night saying, “I'm just reading such and such a book, what do you think of it Val McDermid”?  But even with that, it wasn't enough to prevent library closures. 

I think it's incredibly short sighted.  It's not just writers who were made by libraries, it’s doctors, it’s nurses, it’s architects, it’s builders.  It's anyone who wants to open their eyes and have a wider horizon.  And I think closing libraries is burning your seed corn.  I think part of the difficulty is that politicians never go into libraries.  They are the middle classes.  They can buy a book if they want a book.  They don't see what happens in libraries.  Now libraries are not just a hushed place where people sit quietly looking at reference books, now, libraries are a hub for the community in all sorts of ways.  All sorts of clubs and societies meet there, all sorts of groups.  For a lot of people, it’s their only access to the internet, because not everybody has WiFi, not everybody has a computer.  So the library becomes a resource for the community.  It's not just a place to borrow a book.  And the failure to understand that seems to me to be symptomatic of the line, this wall between political classes and the people that they are supposed to be looking after.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, and it's awful, obviously, in a personal sense to think of young Val, you know, your second home, the Kirkcaldy library, which we went past on the train earlier.  I looked out the window, and it was right there as well.

 

Val McDermid:

It's a very good library.  There was a beautiful refurb of it as well, a few years ago, a two million pound refurb, and they put a new cafe in.  And there are new libraries being built, and there are some quite interesting partnerships being made between supermarkets and local authorities, this deal of you can put your supermarket in this new shopping mall in the centre of the city, but you've got to put a library above it.  So things like that are happening which is positive.   But I think that, you know, the overall picture is still pretty grim.  You know, they talk about, “Oh well, you can have volunteer run libraries”, but the volunteers, of course, do a great job, but they're limited.  They're not librarians.  They're not trained librarians.  And there are no funds for restocking these libraries, it’s gloom and doom, I'm sorry, it makes me very cross.

 

Ben Holden:

Well this is the raison d'etre of the podcasts, so please be cross.

 

Val McDermid:

Particularly in the time of austerity, when people are again in a position where they can't afford books.

 

Ben Holden:

And what about independent bookshops, then?  This one seems to be flourishing, but then it's a beautiful, beautiful place, as we said, but how would you paint the landscape there, what's, very different sort of, you know, apples and oranges, but what's your take on why these shops have worked and the landscape generally?

 

Michael Grieve:

I think the question of independent bookshops is quite largely a question of where you are.  Edinburgh, particularly, I think, at the moment, is spoiled for lovely independent bookshops, in a way that places like Glasgow and Fife outside of St. Andrews often isn't.  And as Val was sort of intimating, I think it is a class thing, I think it's often to do with income and availability of books as a thing to be owned, rather than as a thing to be borrowed.  Well, this is the tragic thing about library closures, as well, it’s the communities that need them the most are usually the communities where the libraries are closing down as well, which is  really, really awful.

 

Val McDermid:

It’s not the libraries in the middle class areas that have closed down, because the middle classes are articulate, and they know how to complain, it’s the libraries on a council estate where the local people don't have at their disposal the easy mechanism for complaining, for protesting, for making it stop, because it's not part of the culture that they have grown up with.  I remember back in Newcastle working with Ann Cleeves, we were campaigning to save a library in a pretty rundown council estate and this library had been built in a little shopping mall in the 1980s, and the only other things that were open in the shopping mall was the betting shop and the payday loan place.  I mean, it was quite clear that the library was the hub here.  Where are you going to go to find out about your benefits?  You’re not going to go into the betting shops and say, “Excuse me, can I borrow your computer for a minute?”  It’s devastating to them.  But independent bookshops are surviving….

 

Michael Grieve:

...because they become the community hub often as well.  And so here, there's always a tea and coffee on the go.  And many of the good independent bookshops in Scotland are places where, I know Lighthouse Books in Edinburgh are helping people who are homeless register to vote in the upcoming general election, and they were offering that as a service, and in the absence of those services being provided by libraries, often independent bookshops can become the place where people can come and ask for advice on how to find information, come for a place to relax and have a coffee and read a book, and it's not necessarily as driven on sales, obviously, fundamentally it is, but the atmosphere of being an open and warm space.

 

Val McDermid:

But you also have in indie bookshops, it's incumbent upon you in a way to cultivate your readers, you have to remember what people like, you have to remember what that this, you have to figure out what the next thing is that they might be interested in.  That's a way of helping people to explore and to make new discoveries.

 

Michael Grieve:

When you have people who come in and you see them buy something and you ask them about it next time, you go, “Oh well, you tried this”, so then they recommend a book to you and you read it.  The community of readership, I suppose, is the shared link between the….

 

Ben Holden:

The ongoing conversation down the ages as well that these sorts of institutions allow us to have.  And this is a podcast, as we know, about libraries in bookshops, I always like to ask Val, you've already touched on your library at home.  How, without being too nosy, how fastidious are you with your books?  Are you an alphabetical sort of person?  Are you a regimented kind of reader or?

 

Val McDermid:

The fiction is arranged alphabetically, because, otherwise, how do you find what you need to go back and look at again, whether it's to reread it or to refer to it.

 

Ben Holden:

You’re preaching to the choir, but I know people who don't always abide by that.

 

Val McDermid:

I often go back for a very specific reason to a book, you know, because I'm thinking about, I might be writing an article or something, and I want to think about that particular book.  Or I'm just, I just get sort of, “Oh, I need to re-read so and so”, I need to know where they are.  But I'm slightly less organised in other areas of my reading life, I mean, in my office, there’s a chunk of non-fiction, and it's not arranged according to anything other than it looks like it should sit next to that book.

 

Ben Holden:

And Michael?  I know that, here, all the time you are immersed in it, but at home, does it come with you in terms of how you organise yourself at home?

 

Michael Grieve:

All the books that fit on a shelf are alphabetized, all the books that do not fit on the shelf are stacked in rough total collocations with one another, which often relies on hauling books, if you're looking for something in particular.

 

Val McDermid:

What do you do with your unread books?  How do you organise them, do you organise them?

 

Michael Grieve:

They tend to be sat next to my arm chair until I get down to them.

 

Val McDermid:

I’ve got a random wall of unread books. 

 

Michael Grieve:

They’re a sort of stratigraphic thing, you have to sort of work down to them, and if they end up right in the bottom, you know, you probably should pull them back up again.

 

Ben Holden:

The time will come, they each have their moment, don’t they?  They are biding their time waiting for you.

 

Val McDermid:

And I think even with the number of shelves that I've got, I mean there’s a shortage of space, and every now and again, you think I have moved this particular book through three houses, I'm really not going to read it.  I should really give it to the charity shop, so that it may find the person who will read it and love it, because it has sat there unloved on my shelf for 15 years, and I'm not going to read it now.

 

Michael Grieve:

But isn't that the beauty of having a book is that everything else you buy runs out or you grow out of it, or it goes off, a book is very patient, it will sit and wait until you're ready for it.

 

Val McDermid:

It's true.  And then there are the books that you've picked up five times over the years and given up on, and finally you pick it up for that last time and it speaks to you.

 

Ben Holden:

Speaking of which, it would be lovely if, Val, you wouldn’t mind browsing these gorgeous shelves and choosing a new book with Michael.  You've spoken in the past about the power of browsing, and this last sort of button on the podcast is designed to celebrate the serendipity of these places.  And I know that you've spoken about the algorithms of buying online where you don't get challenged, you don't go thinking out of your reading box, as it were.

 

 

~ Val McDermid is invited to select a book from the shelves of Toppings & Company ~

 

Val McDermid: 

 

I know exactly where it is because it leapt out at me.  Here we go - ‘Sensible footwear.  A Girl’s Guide’. It's a memoir-cum-history of LGBT activism over the last 50 years.

 

Michael Grieve:  Where does the title come from?

 

Val McDermid:  I think that’s because lesbians have sensible shoes!  So I’ll take that one.

 

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. That way, not only will you keep up with the podcasts, but you’ll also help us champion libraries and independent bookshops.  To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website:  www.exlibris.com  You can also get updates on twitter and instagram.  Find me @thatbenholden.

Follow those accounts also for a chance of winning signed copies of Val’s gripping new novel, ‘How the Dead Speak’ in hardback, as well as her fascinating work of non-fiction, ‘Forensics:  The Anatomy of Crime’.

Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

 

 

Bobby Seagull in East Ham Library

Bobby Seagull in East Ham Library

December 24, 2019

As a child, Bobby Seagull would be taken to his local library in East Ham, London, every Saturday afternoon. Without fail. He would get lost in the books there for hours on end, cross-legged on the floor.

These trips would prove life-changing.

In Bobby’s own words during this episode: ‘East Ham Library is the number one reason that I have this career today… it was absolutely pivotal, in terms of making me who I am.’

So much so that today he is officially ‘Libraries Champion’ for CILIP (Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals), following in the footsteps of Stephen Fry and Mary Beard.

Bobby is known otherwise for his immense range of general knowledge, having gained cult fame via University Challenge. This breadth of knowledge itself in good part stems from those hours spent absorbing the local library’s multitude of wonders.

Alongside libraries and quizzing, he is also evangelical about maths and numeracy, which he continues to teach to secondary school kids and also study part-time at doctorate level in Cambridge, specifically the issue of ‘Maths Anxiety’ (the vexation that so many of us feel when presented with arithmetic, however basic).

Bobby’s passion for these varying pursuits of knowledge is infectious. In this episode, he explains how we can use numbers to make sense of the world (from the use of stats during elections to Panini sticker books) - as well as touching on his beloved West Ham United, that precious childhood library routine, and how to win a pub quiz.

Joining Ben and Bobby for this episode is Library Development Officer, Deborah Peck. It was recorded in the quite new East Ham Library building in Newham but includes a short, touching visit to the nearby site of the former East Ham Library, which was such a seminal home-from-home for both guests during their childhoods.

 

 

 

...

 

A transcript for this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Bobby Seagull, follows below:

 

Introduction

Ben Holden:

Bobby Seagull, - great name or what? -, recently co-presented a BBC Radio broadcast about polymaths, people who like to learn about everything.  It could be used to describe him too, this term.  Bobby is a part-time teacher here in East London.  He's studying for a doctorate in Cambridge.  He was the happiest contestant ever on University Challenge, according to social media.  He's also a TV presenter, alongside fellow University Challenge alumni, Eric Monkman, the author of the infectious ‘Life Changing Magic of Numbers’, and that's his real passion - numeracy.  He's an advocate for maths, and now, in keeping with his thirst for knowledge generally, currently a libraries champion.  Busy Man.  Oh, and last but certainly not least, he's a hardcore West Ham United supporter.

Today, though, we are in East Ham library.  We're going to be joined for our discussion by Deborah Peck, library development officer, here in Newham.  So let's go and meet them both now, Bobby and Deborah.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Thank you both for joining us on Ex Libris.  Bobby, this library is very special to you personally, I know, and you immediately chose this venue for our location to meet today.  Could you tell our listeners about it, that relationship, why it's special to you, and perhaps describe it a little bit, give us a bit of background as to why East Ham library?

 

Bobby Seagull:

I am an East Ham person, born and bred.  I was born in Newham General Hospital, but I call it East Ham, and growing up, every Saturday, we’d spend in East Ham library.  We're actually in the new premises which have been open, Deborah, I'm thinking since 2014?  There are 42 computer terminals, which you all know is the answer to the question, what's the meaning of life?  So this library is the new incarnation of the library I visited from my childhood, which is actually just two minutes around the corner. 

I had a sort of ritualistic routine, that, I guess my father played an influential part, so, every Saturday, we would usually have a South Indian lunch, my mum would cook a delicious lunch, and then we’d be sort of shipped off into the world, or to East Ham, and the primary objective was, from my mother's perspective, was to do shopping.  So we’d take a shopping trolley, we'd come to the library for two, three hours, and we’d sit there, in East Ham library, the old one, and again, it's a really beautiful building. 

The old East Ham library was connected to East Ham's landmark clocktower, which was an early 1900s red brick building, really beautiful, and when I have friends visiting me in East Ham, as one does, they’ll often comment, “Wow, your town hall is stunning”, and that was connected to the old library, so that every Saturday, we'd end up there.  I’d sit on the library floor for hours, sprawled on the floor cross legged, I was going to do a rendition of it, but I'm sitting down on the chair, and we'd read anything, you know, books on Aztec civilization or Victorian engineering, or Roald Dahl as was particularly popular then, and as a teacher, there was no learning objective with reading, our dad just said, “Just absorb the library, you've got all these resources, all the world at your fingertips, just sit and read”.  And again, that's what, I think, developed my sense of love for learning about the world, but we’d always have like a cut-off point.  At about 4.30, we’d need to leave, because at 4.45 is when the final football score would come on BBC One, and we needed to make sure we got back in time for that, and usually, West Ham lost.  And that was my Saturday afternoon, and my mum would always complain that we'd come back with a shopping trolley full of books, we’d max out on everyone's card - my mum's card, my dad's card, my card, my siblings cards, but no food!  So my dad would often have to go back to the high street and do some shopping afterwards.

 

Ben Holden:

So you were pretty omnivorous in terms of what you were consuming there in the library, and that went on for a long time?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Pretty much.  When I was 16, I got a scholarship to Eton and so I was away for two years, but when I came back, I think pretty much my whole life, even as an adult, I'm now 35, I'm a 35 year old adult, even now, if I'm in East Ham on a Saturday, my routine is the same, apart from the fact that I'll go to the gym, a gym class at East Ham leisure centre, it's a man called Dave McQueen.  If you want to have a class that is exhausting, yet invigorating,

he's a local legend.  Sergeant pain!  So I’ll get my body invigorated from 11.45 to 1.15, and then normally I come in a bit of a sweaty heap to the library at 1.15 and spend maybe an hour, hour and a half.

 

Ben Holden:

And the scholarship to Eton came about partly through this, or would you attribute any of that in terms of your…, for instance, Jacqueline Wilson, who's joined us on the podcast, said that she learned more from her local library as a kid than she did at school, which is quite a statement.  But how did that scholarship come about?

 

Bobby Seagull:

My dad was a big reader of the Times newspaper, and once, I think this must have been late 1999, in the back section, and again, still to this day, I'm an avid reader, especially the sports section, I’m a big sports fan, towards the sports section of the times, there was a little ad that said, ‘Are you a bright boy from a state school?’  And then it says, ‘Would you like an amazing experience?’  I thought, ‘Sounds good.  I’d like an amazing experience!’.  And then finally, ‘Consider applying to Eton’.  I was like, ‘Ooh, I’ve heard of this school.’  I think Prince William was there at the time.  So I sent off a self-addressed envelope, no one does that these days, and then I sent it off, went to the postbox, got an application form, went for an open day, was absolutely stunned at the site, and then went, I think about February 2000, for interviews, and then found out I got the offer. 

But, I will say again, Newham in the 90s, I would say academically, isn't where it is now.  Nowadays, students from Newham have an opportunity to get to the very best universities, you hear of numerous tales of kids getting into to Russell Group and Oxbridge.  In the 90s, if there was one child that got into Oxbridge, it was like literally front page news of the Newham Recorder, our local paper.  But I would say that my school definitely had a really good environment to learn and our headteacher was a man called Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has ended up being the Head of Ofsted, quite a disciplinarian, quite tough character, but in an East London environment where perhaps kids can be unruly without authority, he really made sure that kids learn, so again, libraries elevated me to another level in terms of, in school, you got a curriculum, again, as a teacher, now I realise that there's a curriculum, you’ve got to get through the syllabus, you’ve got to hit certain points in the scheme of learning, but the library allowed me to expand my mind wherever it wanted.  So serendipity would take me anywhere, rather than just having a curriculum that you’ve got to sort of bash through.

 

Ben Holden:

And you enjoyed the experience when you got to Eton?  It must have been, you know, quite a change of scene, but you enjoyed?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Absolutely loved it.  Actually, the library there was quite stunning architecturally.  I remember the first time I turned up to the library, it looks a bit like a mini version of St. Paul's.  And again, the students there, they probably took it for granted, but I would just sit there sometimes and just admire, look at it and go, “Oh, my God, this is just outstanding architecturally”.

 

Ben Holden:

I have to say, this library, I haven't been here before today, but it's architecturally different to St Paul’s or Eton’s library.  It's a very pleasing building.  It's a modern, lot of concrete, nice lights; I imagine in summer, it's very light.  It's got a lot of space, and seems quite also flexible.  The shelves are on, I can see they’re on wheels.

 

Deborah Peck:

Absolutely, so the library can be used for lots of different events and activities that go on here.  Yeah, it's very modern and won some awards, actually, as well.

 

Ben Holden:

And what did you make of it Bobby when the library moved?  Was that a wrench for you?  Or did you appreciate the change?

 

Bobby Seagull:

It's a good question.  So I think I'd almost compare it to, perhaps not as extreme, but the move from when West Ham moved from the Boleyn ground.  I used to be a season ticket holder to the London stadium.  And initially, when people move from this sort of sentimental, historical...

 

Ben Holden:

But yes, that change is a necessary one, and do you think in terms of this library that was a beneficial thing for the community?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Absolutely, because again, the old library was brilliant and had the historical feel and centre to it, but if you're trying to progress, move forward, welcome new people, new communities expand, you need a purpose built site, and this is what East Ham library is.

 

Ben Holden:

And I can see it's a big library, and it’s very vibrant today, and I can see it's also multi purpose in the sense that, you know, it's a bit of a hub for community services, as well as books.

 

Deborah Peck:

Yeah, so we've got lots of purpose built rooms within the library that people can hire out and use for community activities, as well as a study space up there, a children's area, a reading area, a cafe, so there’s lots going on in here for different parts of the community.

 

Ben Holden:

As the original library is only down the road, it's about a minute away, and it's now a sixth form college, but I think they've kindly said that we can then have a quick look and you can have a trip down memory lane.  That would be fantastic.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Let's do that.

 

~ Interview continues outside old East Ham Library ~

 

Bobby Seagull:

We’ll walk through here, and here there’d have been lots of fiction, the Tamil books, the European language books, but when you come through here, this is the children’s section, and there's actually one bit of the old library still there.  Have a look at this beautiful fireplace - this would have been the sort of portal to the kid’s library over there.  This makes me feel a bit misty eyed.  Without this, I wouldn't be who I am at all.  You can see this archway here, that leads into the kid’s section.  Yes, so behind that office there, we’re about 10 feet away from ground zero.

 

Ben Holden:

It's a really nice space, isn't it?  Beautiful, big old high ceilings.

 

Bobby Seagull:

I think now it’s a sixth form study area and upstairs like a workspace-stroke-exam centre.

 

Ben Holden:

At least it's not been turned into a block of flats.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes, it’s still functioning.

 

Deborah Peck:

This was my childhood library, as well, and although it was in a different position from when Bobby was here, because when I was a child, you had to go up some stairs at the top and we had an actual children's library with a qualified children's librarian, and it was absolutely beautiful.  So my routine would be quite similar to yours as a child, and in the summer holidays, we’d go off to swimming, to the library, and then the rest of the afternoon in the park.  It was a wonderful time, and working here then as an adult, we had a beautiful oak counter at the corner there, so when you came in, there was just this beautiful counter there with the wooden shelves everywhere.  I feel very nostalgic being here as well.

 

Ben Holden:

And it made such an impression on you that you ended up working in libraries in the community?

 

Deborah Peck:

Oh, definitely.  I loved it so much, because it was a place as a child where you could go and you knew you were safe there, your parents knew you were safe there.  There were lots of activities going on all through the summer holidays, as we do now, and it was just a fantastic place to be, so it had a great bearing on what I did as an adult.

 

~ Interview resumes in the new East Ham Library ~

 

Ben Holden:

Wow, well now we get the full picture.  And we're back in the new library here, which is quite a big difference, but that was fantastic.  Bobby, I understand your love of maths, that was something that you had an epiphany about, or you just sort of discovered a passion more in the playground than in the library?  Is this correct?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes, it is.  10 points, that is the correct answer.

 

Ben Holden:

I’ve read your book, so I’m cheating, but yes…

 

Bobby Seagull:

Research is allowed.  Sometimes my students think if someone's read ahead in the chapter that that’s cheating, it’s not, it's good research.  

 

Ben Holden:

Well I’m glad it’s correct and again involves football.  You were talking about, well back to Arsenal, Ian Wright and Matt Le Tissier, which, they're not obvious comparable players...

 

Bobby Seagull:

I remember back in the early to mid 90s, about 93 I think, 1994, lots of boys and some girls collected stickers and the sort of infamous phrases “GOT GOT GOT GOT, NEED!”, and when you need a sticker, your eyes pop out of your head and it would provoke much discussion, but what I found was that people, as well as trading stickers, they would discuss the merits of various players and teams.  And often it would just be the case of who’d shout the loudest and say, ‘Oh player A is better than Player B’.  Why?  “Because, Because, Because, Because”.  But that again, one particular conversation I remember was players that were talked about were Matt Le Tissier and Ian Wright.  I remember one of my friends saying, “Matthew Le Tisser is better than Ian Wright”, and I asked him, “Why do you think that?” and he said “Because he is”, and they wouldn't give any justification. 

So then I remember the sticker books were treasure troves of information and had the names, the ages, the heights, the goals, left foot, right foot appearance, substitutions, lots of data about the players.  And in the early 90s, computer technology was slowly coming into play.  And there's an early version of Excel, really early, rudimentary, and I remember I for weeks after school input, spent like an hour inputting in all the data on every player, so going from Arsenal, Blackburn, Chelsea, I presume Derby would have been back there, all the way through to the clubs right at the end - West Ham, and then that particular conversation, I did a simple comparison between the two players.  And I went back and told my friends, you know, “That conversation we had about Le Tissier and Ian Wright, actually, Le Tissier that season has scored 20% of his goals from the penalty spot, so Ian Wright is actually a more effective player on the field”.  And my friends are like “Actually Bobby, that's a good point you make”.  And I always tell people, this didn't make me popular, it didn't make me like the star of the playground, but what it did show me, and my friends, is that maths can be a way of objectively looking at things, because sometimes life can be messy, complicated, parental issues, lots of things going on, but maths can be that comfort like you always know, you always know.

So the Panini sticker incident demonstrated for me the power of mathematics because, you know, I'm a short guy and still only five foot four, and back then, I’d have probably been quite a lot less than 5’4.  But where people try to assert themselves with their physical dominance, actually maths is a way of objectively looking at things.  And that sparked my real love for mathematics and statistics, because it showed me that it's not just about loud voices, it's about who has information, data that can help their arguments, and since then, I've always loved maths, but football, it was the sort of thing that got me into it.

 

Ben Holden:

I loved in your book when you deconstructed how many packs of Panini stickers you'd have to buy to complete the album, and it was quite eye-watering, especially, I speak as someone who completed the ‘Back to the Future’ Panini sticker book, your book made me almost weep, I wish I'd kept it, but my son who's now 11, he collects match [-], not Panini stickers, interestingly, so times move on, but yeah, I wish, God I wish I kept those sticker books.

 

Bobby Seagull:

In our days, if you wanted to, you could gather your friends, and each of you does 50 stickers to your house, so between the group of you, you could actually game the system as it were, not that I'm encouraging that!  It’s for the joy of opening the packet and wondering what you’re going to get.

 

Ben Holden:

And so now you're studying for a doctorate in maths anxiety.

 

Bobby Seagull:

So my research is looking at two aspects.  One is maths anxiety, and I guess our individual relationship with the subject, but secondly, is also looking at the role that the media play in, I think, perpetuating negative stereotypes about the subject that I think further compounds mass anxiety and misery.  So firstly, as an academic, I’d always have to give a definition of what maths anxiety is, and it's termed as ‘the negative emotional response we encounter when dealing with mathematics’ and it can happen to young children in the classroom with, let's see, a long division problem or algebra. 

What can happen to us adults in the real world, we all have that moment when the restaurant bill comes around, and I was actually, as one does, I was in Paris over the weekend doing a talk to the Chartered Accountants of Paris, and I went and met a friend, actually from East Ham, who I used to go to the circuits class with, and I put a Facebook message saying, ‘I’m in Paris for the weekend’, and then someone from my East Ham circuits class who moved to Paris says, ‘I'm in Paris now.  Bobby let’s have dinner’.  Yeah, there you go.   And then, when the bill came, she said, “Oh, Bobby, I know you're a maths teacher, but I'm going to say I can't do maths.”  And I said, “Okay, because it's dinner, I'm not going to go on a tirade, but do not say that in my presence”. 

And I think in the UK, and in some parts of the West, it's culturally acceptable to say that you can't do maths in a way which no-one would say they can't read, you know, if you went to any pub or restaurant or anywhere, any public forum and ask people who was illiterate, no-one would put their hand up - even if they couldn't read, they would be very embarrassed to admit it.  Whereas with numbers, you ask who's innumerate, quite a few hands go up and would probably quite proudly go up, so I think it's cultural rather than competence.  Can I give you one question?

 

Ben Holden:

Please.

 

Bobby Seagull:

So the question is, this is asked by the charity called the National Numeracy Agency to test national levels of numeracy.  So they said, ‘Imagine you're earning £9.00 an hour, and then your boss gives you a 5% increase on £9 per hour.  What is a new amount’?

 

Ben Holden:

So, I know the answer, partly because it’s in your book, and it did take me a second or two to stop and think.

 

Deborah Beck:

And I've got no idea, and when you threw that out, it just threw me into a panic.

 

Ben Holden:

I’m going to say £9.45.

 

Bobby Seagull:

And what was your method to do that mentally?

 

Ben Holden:

10% = 90p, divide that by two, and then you get 5%.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yep, and in the UK, 50% of adults cannot get this correct, even with the calculator.  And again, if you talk through the method, most people explain £9.00 is 900p, and then 10% of 900p is 90p.  And then half of that is 45p.  Most people would say that's fairly reasonable, that's not an incredibly challenging question.  But yeah, when you mentioned maths to people, and again, the weird thing is, if you ask people to read that question, I'm sure nearly everyone in the UK can read it, but begin the question with the numbers, and people start…

 

Ben Holden:

Getting that sort of knotty feeling, and I totally understand and sympathise, because we all get it, I suppose, apart from, obviously, you Bobby.  A different sort of question then, why do you think it's important for us to reconnect with maths, say that we've been through school, and we're in the big, grown up world, and sort of left it behind, and whether we liked it or not, whether we were proficient or consider ourselves to have been or not?  Why do you think it's important to get this message out there?

 

Bobby Seagull:

I think because people have negative experiences of maths in their classrooms - algebra, trigonometry, they think, ‘I hate maths and numbers all together’.  And again, before I delve into the detail of the maths itself, a comparison is PE at school.  A lot of people found PE at school not the best subject, remember the showers and the weird gymnasiums, and the angry PE teachers, and think, ‘Oh God, I hated PE’, but most adults enjoy hiking, walking, swimming, going to the gym, cycling, and these are physical activities.  And yet, they wouldn't say they hate sport, they hate being active, yet with maths, people do, but the reality is, most of us are using maths all the time. 

Again, my mum always says to me, “Bobby, I don't know how you got maths brain.  I don't have maths brain”.  I go, “Mum, when you cook for us, a family of six, you're working out how long things need to go in the oven for, coordinating the drinks, making sure that the start is at a particular time, which is getting things coordinated in a mathematical way”, or when she's going shopping, and looking at the discounts and checking which one makes more sense, or we're going on holiday and we're trying to make sure we got our Euros at the right time.  That's all mathematical usage.  And yet, people, when they think of maths, they often think back to their sort of school days, and when the teacher put them on the spot and said, “You're wrong, what's five times seven”?  Eight times seven is meant to be the hardest one.

 

Ben Holden:

Oh, here we go, 56.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes!

 

Ben Holden:

I always remember 7 x 7 = 49, and then add 7. 

 

Bobby Seagull:

The reason it’s meant to be the trickiest one is about 20 years ago, the school's minister was a man called Steven Byers.  And normally, as educational schools ministers are want to do, they will say, “I'm introducing a new policy”, and he said, “We're going to have times tables tests for all primary school children”.  And as one does, if you're introducing a policy, you get interviewed in the Today Programme on Radio Four, and he's interviewed by John Humphrys, John Humphrys is like, “Mr. Byers, let's look at your policies, but before that, I’m going to ask you question 8 x 7” , and Steven Byers, without a heartbeat hesitation, said 54. And you can imagine the headlines in all the papers, it was ‘Schools minister introducing times tables can't even get his own times tables right’.  So since that, actually, that's partly why ministers even now in the midst of the election, they don't like talking about numbers, because people then, if you make a numbers mistake, people just fixate on the mathematical error rather than the general policy. 

 

Ben Holden:

Although we're meeting during an election cycle, this will go out after it'll all be decided, or something will be decided by the time this is out there.  But right now, they're still campaigning, they're constantly throwing numbers at us.  And again, it's another example of how numbers are important, so that we can actually understand some of those numbers and how to sort of read into them or not, and how they affect us etc.  So there you go in terms of politicians using numbers, they may not want to be put on the spot, but they're happy to bandy around all manner of numbers. 

 

Bobby Seagull:

So you hear so many things like 50,000 units, 350 million on the side of a bus, 2 billion additional to the economy.  You hear all these numbers, and because a lot of people are not comfortable with the numbers, they will just hear the top line, ‘more nurses’, but they won’t investigate what does that actually mean?  What does the 50,000 actually mean?  Or what does it mean to have 350 million for the NHS on the side of a bus?  So these politicians could pick any number out of the air, and just say that, and that's the headline without the public feeling comfortable in scrutinising it.  So actually, I think, as a country, we need to make sure that people that are allowed to vote should have a comfortableness with numbers, because, otherwise, ultimately, a lot of political manifestos are based on policies and this is how we're going to deliver it financially.   And if we as voters are not financially confident, how are we to make a sensible decision between the various parties?

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, you're talking about the difference between numeracy and maths, and I think it is similar to perhaps a relation between literacy and literature, I would say in terms of your proficiency or your ability to read, and then your appreciation or your love of written words. 

 

Bobby Seagull:

For people who are coming to East Ham library, they'll be reading forms, trying to understand when their next council tax bill is and that's reading, and that's literacy, and the numeracy part might be the checking how much their council tax is and whether they can meet their monthly payments, so they are the practical things.  But beyond that, the maths and then the literature is the higher level.  So we want everyone to have that basic grasp, but once you've got that grasp and you can really appreciate reading and be able to make sensible comparisons between JK Rowling and maybe Dostoevsky, or you can make a comparison between Middle Eastern mathematics and modern mathematics, so like those can only happen if you get that comfortable level with the basic numeracy and literacy.  So without that, that is like the foundation stone of higher appreciation.

 

Ben Holden:

And you make all these arguments brilliantly in your book, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Numbers’ which I commend to anyone listening, whether they consider themselves a maths whiz or not.  And you've got some great quotes in there as well to illustrate your arguments:

 

  • ‘When you've mastered numbers, you will, in fact, no longer be reading numbers any more than you read words when reading books, you will be reading meanings’ -,

 

which I love.  And that sort of speaks to how you probably regard the world I imagine as well, in terms of seeing those patterns and being able to make sense of the world through maths.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Do you remember the Matrix films?  Yeah so you know in the Matrix Neo sees the world in numbers? I don't quite see it like that, but things do light up, numbers are not just objects on a piece of paper to me when I see them, I see relationships that actually explain the way the world works.

 

Ben Holden:

And that quote, by the way, I should add was from W.E.B Dubois, just to give the attribution there.  Moving sideways slightly, you found fame off the back of University Challenge.  So after school, you went onto university, and I remember watching you and your Emmanuel College team, and you were defeated in the semi-finals?  Were you defeated by Mr Monkam’s team?  You were, weren’t you?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Funnily enough, people to this day, they still get, because that was the most viewed match, I think, in the 21st century, people still get confused.  So, I've been on Good Morning Britain where Jeremy Kyle said, “We've got the University Challenge winner”, and I said, “I'm not the winner, I’m the finalist”, and he said, “What are you doing here then?”  And even the BBC who are not my employers, but I do a lot of work with the BBC, they often say, you know, ‘a challenge finalist, a winner’, and now, initially I used to always correct people, but now, less so, because often, with media, you’ve got, let’s say, a two minute slot maximum, maybe 60 seconds, maybe 90 seconds, and if you're spending 30 seconds to explain that I didn't get to the final, then you've lost the, you know, if you're there talking about a new report on dementia, and how it can be reduced by doing puzzles, you don’t want to spend 30 seconds explaining “Sorry, I wasn't the winner. I was actually the semi finalist”, and then they get sidetracked, so, actually, I let people get away with that, and then afterwards, I'll do a tweet saying, “Just to let you know…”

 

Ben Holden:

But it must have been a great experience, and obviously you've become friends with Eric Monkman, and you've done these great road trip documentaries on BBC Two, you’ve got another series coming out I believe.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes, the series one was called ‘Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain’, so imagine like a crossover between QI and Top Gear, so travelling around England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, exploring sites of scientific and quirky interest.  And series two is a bit more focused, series two is ‘Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Adventures’.  This time it's three one hour episodes, you’ve got to make sure you get lots of extra biscuits.  And this time, we're looking at inventions and discoveries in Britain from 1750 to 1900, so things like the chronometer, which essentially became a version of a clock, the telegraph, discovery of the electron, so it's more scientific, but it's still got what I would call it banter, banter.

 

Ben Holden:

Because you taught Eric Monkman the West Ham song in Gladstone's library?

 

Bobby Seagull:

So this is actually funny.  I was talking to my dad this morning, and people often ask, “Is your series scripted?  Do you know what you're going to say?”, so we know roughly where we're going to, the sites, but when we’re there, it’s up to us to lead the scene.  So we are walking around, and I thought it’s cool being in a library and we are going to stay here overnight, and I just saw a book by Verdi, and I was like, “Oh, Eric!”, and I just started saying, “Have you heard of Paolo Di Ca-ni-o...Paolo Di Ca-ni-o?” [Sings].  And he said, “No Bobby, I have not heard of that”.  And I said to him, “There was an aria in Rigoletto called ‘La Donna E Mobile’” and I told him the Paolo Di Canio song is based on that and then just suddenly impromptu I was teaching that to Eric in Gladstone's library.  It was one of those moments.

 

Ben Holden:

Here’s something I’m curious about.  Do you do pub quizzes?

 

Bobby Seagull:

So not as much as I used to.

 

Ben Holden:

Because I'd be pretty intimidated if I looked around with my teammates and you were at the next table.

 

Bobby Seagull:

So the thing is, so normally, University Challenge contestants have got good conventional academic knowledge, so your science, your history, your geography, your classical music, and then you think, well, we can beat them in the popular stuff.  But actually, I'm a demon at the popular stuff, because I love popular culture - Love Island, Bake Off, Strictly, Top Gear, name me any popular show, I probably watch it.  Actually, one of the reasons I watch these shows, one, I enjoy it, but B, it’s a separate conversation, but television’s become much more fractured, people don't consume television media in the same way, you know, we don't accept linear programming.  My students, they are all on YouTube and Instagram, and programmes that have competition elements like Bake Off or University Challenge, or Strictly, they’re the few things that people will actually watch together at the same time to avoid spoilers.  So they are almost like national reference points.

 

Ben Holden:

But do you have any tips for quizzers out there?  We're kind of approaching Christmas, there’s going to be loads of quizzes going on.  Do you have any strategies that you would…?

 

Bobby Seagull:

An important strategy is know what type of quiz you're taking.  Actually, I filmed Celebrity Mastermind very recently.  It's coming out sometime around Christmas, New Year, and interestingly, it was Mr John Humphrys from the Today Programme that is the host, and my topic was England in World Cups.  I wanted to pick something broader otherwise anyone that's not a West Ham fan would be like, “Oh God, why is he talking about West Ham?”, but England in the World Cups…, but in my two minute chat, so normally in the Celebrity Master Mind, you need a specialist topic, and then before your general knowledge, you sit down for two minutes, the black chair is quite intimidating by the way, and they talk to you for two minutes on your, if you're like an actor, your next films, if you’re a politician, your next big move, or if you’re a musician, your next album, but for me, I was very keen and adamant we wouldn't talk about my TV, we would talk about maths and maths anxiety, and that might almost do more work than my PhD in terms of publicly disseminating my views on anxiety. 

So again, for that quiz, the question is I think you need to make sure you're prepared for the type of quiz, actually, genuinely, I don't get to go to many pub quizzes now because of time, but if I am going to pub quiz, I will call ahead to the pub and say, “Can you just tell me the type of rounds you have?”, because imagine a quiz always has a science round, always has a popular music round, then popular music, I would prepare by going on Spotify and checking Spotify, the top 50.  Or if it has a news round, that week before, I'll go on the BBC news site and look at all the top 10 stories, so you need to make sure that you're prepared for that type of quiz, not just general, because even University Challenge, certain things appear all the time.  They always ask about the periodic table.  They always have classical music, we always have western art in the 19th century, so you need to make sure that you're prepared for that specific quiz.  So yeah, otherwise you're just turning up, you wouldn't just turn up to a sports competition. You’d say what type, is it swimming? Is it triathlon? Is it bowls, is it darts? You'd want to know the type, a quiz is the same thing.

 

Ben Holden:

Okay, here's my next question, I'm enjoying getting to quiz you, how much do you attribute your success as a quizzer which has led to all sorts of other amazing opportunities and developments in your life, how much do you put that down to the library and how you spent those hours here hoovering up all that knowledge, all that sort of different kind of general knowledge, as well as expert sort of granular, specific knowledge?

 

Bobby Seagull:

I would say, it's not unreasonable for me to say, East Ham library and my experience there is the number one reason for me having done well on University Challenge, and ultimately, me having the career, so without East Ham library, I wouldn't even be talking to you today right now.  I’d probably, maybe hopefully, listen to your podcast somewhere.  I've always been interested in reading and knowledge, but it's the library that this sort of Saturday weekly ritual that really built the foundations for me wanting to understand again, anything, we talked about Aztecs, Victorians, there wasn't a specific, “I'm only going to learn about science, I’m only going to learn about languages...”, there was that breadth going into the library, you can sit there, and you can just see literally the world's collection of knowledge in front of you.  You can see the general knowledge, the fiction section, the teen fantasy.

 

Ben Holden:

So now you've combined your love of numbers, your talent for communicating, because you’re a teacher and you speak with great passion and sort of infectious enthusiasm….  The libraries, so you are a libraries champion for CILIP, the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals, and you're following in the very distinguished footsteps of Stephen Fry and Mary Beard, not bad.  Can you talk to us a bit about your role there?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yeah, through my library experiences, CILIP said you'd be the sort of ideal person to be an ambassador for libraries, because one, libraries are an important part of your childhood and experiences of making you who you are, but, secondly, now as an educator and teacher, I am working with young people all the time.  Actually, I realised, for them, they need to learn about the world and read, and libraries are important, be it at school or public libraries, at least have an important part of fulfilling that function.

 

Ben Holden:

And what does the role entail?  I know you've written a manifesto.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yes, I've actually got a copy here.  We launched it at the House of Lords in early October, with the Big Issue, because the Big Issue founder, Lord John Bird, he strongly believes again, in the importance of reading and libraries, and how that can really help people really lift themselves up, because ultimately, it is knowledge that helps you navigate the world and books and reading and libraries and library services can help offer that way out.

 

Ben Holden:

And this is collectively sort of endeavour to support libraries, make the case for libraries, with data to backup your arguments and support those, I mean, it's a shame that it should come to this in a sense, but to influence policymakers, as well as public facing arguments, is that right?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yeah, I think there's two faces to it.  One is, again, using my Twitter, social media, my TV appearances to talk about the importance of libraries, because I think, if you've got a public service sector that works, and is important for people, I think if people stop appreciating it, then that's how things get forgotten.  It was almost like, and I’m not going to get political, but the NHS, we take it for granted that you can get an injury, and you can go and get yourself checked out reasonably quickly and get yourself sorted without any fear at the point of service.  And again, with libraries, we mustn't take it for granted, we should appreciate what we have, because not everyone in the world has access to libraries and reading and books.  So part of my work is publicly getting people to realise how important libraries were to them, so, therefore, they should play a part in making sure that others have access to it.

And the second part is using sort of soft persuasion on politicians, so that they feel obliged to put it as part of the manifesto.  And again, I think in this election, for the first time in four elections, all the major English parties have mentioned libraries in their manifesto.  So I think it's like raising awareness with the public, but also with the politicians and decision makers.

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, with differing, we should say, with differing sorts of levels of engagement or interest.  And today we're meeting, coincidentally, on the day that the annual report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, so it's a very serious body in terms of surveys.

 

Bobby Seagull:

I'm an ACA, I'm an Association of Chartered Accountants and CIPFA is another body, so you're qualified accountants.

 

Ben Holden:

So CIPFA have released their annual survey which is always a sobering day for anyone who cares about libraries, we could talk about that in a second, but I'm just curious, playing devil's advocate, what you make of the sort of counter argument that if we put numbers or impose sort of delivery type data or arguments onto libraries making the case for them, do we run the risk of inadvertently sort of pushing them into a quasi-commercial space or commodifying them when in reality, I know that, obviously policymakers don't think like this, and how many of those politicians have usually actually stepped into a public library themselves?  I think, actually, the last Libraries Minister in his constituency, there were libraries under threat and he was the bloody Libraries Minister, anyway, without getting too political, or politicised during this election cycle, do we overly numerate library services at our peril?

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yeah, I think it's a good question, of, against perhaps my education research background, between experience and evidence.  Experience is if you ask me about my life experiences growing up, it was absolutely pivotal, being here in East Ham in terms of making me who I am, and then the evidence part is what the numbers tell us - are people using it more or less?  What are the reasons for it?  So, I think you need to get a happy marriage of the two, because if no one's using a library service, they need to find out why, and then obviously the funding is not going to follow, but then you also need to speak to people about what the libraries mean to them, because libraries, I think, are more than just books, I think they represent something about society.  It's a place, one of the few places now that people can hang out without having to pay as a community, all sorts of, you know, social strata hanging out in one environment, and that means more than just saying, “Our numbers are down 3%”, so therefore, we're going to cut the budget by 3%.  I think people like politicians need to step above that and go, actually, libraries mean much more to society than just a place where books are there.

 

Ben Holden:

Absolutely.

 

Deborah Peck:

And obviously, Bobby you’re very vocal about the experience that you had with libraries, but there are probably countless stories out there of people who are having similar experiences, and that's what you're saying about, you know, judging things from experience rather than from the numbers of, you know, how many books are issued, and I think those stories are really important to our case, really.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Because they're really life changing stories, again, when I became the sort of CILIP UK library champion, and I posted about my story, I had so many people messaging on Twitter, social media saying, “Myself, me and my mum went”, or “Me and my grandmother went”, and so many people were saying about how the library has made them who they are.  So these are stories that, again, if you just look at evidence and numbers, it won't necessarily point that out, so I think you need to combine the two to give you the best way forward.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, totally, and actually, you know, this doomsday report as I sort of think of it, which comes out every year, you know, partly that prompted this podcast when it came out last year and I thought, “Right I'm not having this! I’m fed up of this”, but it was such eye-watering reading, and again, you know, the headline is that Britain has closed almost 800 libraries since 2010, and we should, of course, give a big shout out to all the librarians and the library workers whose jobs have been really decimated as well.  I think we've lost around 10,000, at least, in that period, and we've got this endless wave of volunteers and these people who are not, you know, it’s great that they're getting involved, but they're not trained professionals.  So that's another big, big part of this scourge, this problem.

 

Deborah Peck

Yeah, obviously.  I mean, we've been very lucky in Newham, because we've kept all of our libraries, so we've got 10 libraries, you know, and I can see from the CIPFA figures, you know, we're up 5%, you know, we talked about not just wanting to judge things solely on numbers, but we are making a lot of headway within the community, particularly with schools.  So we’re bringing schools in, so the children and our schools, and our relationship with the schools is really vibrant, but yes, it is very worrying in some respects that so many libraries are being closed, you know, and authorities are forced into positions aren't they?  It's not necessarily what they would want to do, but the funding isn't there, and they are dealing with the situation in the best way they can, but you're right, it's really awful that people can say that the libraries are the easiest thing to cut, that's where the money can go, where it's, as you've just demonstrated in your story, and we've talked about the thousands of other people out there who it's made a real difference to their lives, how vital they are.

But, you know, sometimes the people who are making those decisions, maybe they don't need that core service in the way that other members of society do.

 

Ben Holden:

Exactly.  Well said, it's exactly right.  And it's so myopic, short-sighted to think of them as, actually, the CIPFA Chief Executive has said today in reference to the report, but he has referred to libraries as ‘lower priority services’, which is crazy, it's just crazy.  It just drives me nuts.

 

Deborah Peck:

I think that's why we've worked really hard with the schools in the area.  So, you know, bringing them in regularly, so that children have an understanding of who we are, and that they can come to us at anytime, you know, I'm working with parents to engage the parents to bring the members up.  Often in Newham as well, we're in an area where for a lot of people English is a second language, so if we can work via the children, and engage the children who will bring the parents, that's how we can continue to exist and to thrive, hopefully within the community.

 

Ben Holden:

And you're knitting the community together, and you're getting these kids and their families a whole new lease of life potentially, fantastic.  And one way people can show their love of their local libraries is just by going there and taking a book out as well.  I was looking at the report today and just the issue figures, you know, just go in and get a book out!

 

Deborah Peck:

Definitely, again, you know, there's so much on offer and you can just choose anything.  So you're out there and you're not buying it, so if you don't like it, bring it back, you know, and you could discover who you are as a reader, especially for parents and the importance of reading from a very, very early age and the difference it makes to life outcomes and chances.  And that's another message that we're constantly working with, with our children's centres, and our, you know, younger community as well.  So it's a lot of hard work, but we're really working, that's why we're so grateful to Bobby and his campaign and working with us and loving East Ham.  I love East Ham, it’s my childhood library too.

 

Bobby Seagull:

Yeah, I think I’ll sort of reiterate what Deborah is saying.  So if you speak to a lot of people out there in the public, you know, you go on the London Underground at East Ham, and you say, “Are libraries important? Do you do you value them?”, “Yeah, I do”.  And you ask them “When's the last time you went there”?  They’ll be like, “Ah, yeah I should go more often” and then maybe “I haven't been for a while”, so my sort of plea to them is if you really love libraries, the way you can show it is go to the library, go and visit, and again, a lot of people use online retailers to buy books - you can get them for free, you save money, and you can also, one of the things about being in a physical place like a library is, again, people that use online websites to buy books it’s much more difficult to make choices, because it will give you the recommendations, but in a library, you can just wander around, walk around, you just wander and see things. You always make better decisions for reading virtually.

 

Ben Holden:

Totally, but yes, it takes you out of your comfort zone, it means that you will select something in a serendipitous way, but also not using those algorithms.  I don't know if you've had this, but because I've published a few books, Amazon, for instance, though I never buy books off them, if I go on there, they've suggested my own book!

 

Ben Holden:

I just have one or two last questions which I always like to ask, as a librarian and also as  someone who likes a sort of ordered or your formulae etc. in life, how do you order your own libraries or collections or books at home?

 

Bobby Seagull:

So at home, every person's room has a mini library, my dad, myself, my siblings, and every room has a different character based on their stage in their life.  So the books have always changed, so we have a loft upstairs in the attic, and when things are not in general uses, they sort of move their way upstairs, and eventually, if things are deemed not useful at all in the house, they end up in the charity shop.  So they sort of circulate through, for example, in my dad's room, so he's got a lot of self-help books, books on publishing, books on ‘How to’ studies, - he’s trying to write a book on my family, (four boys from East Ham, all went to Oxbridge);  he’s trying to write a book on how he managed to develop four kids, and he doesn’t talk about it being gifted kids, but just four normal kids and make them all love learning so much that they all end up at Oxbridge.  Again, his book shelf right now is full of how to study and again, that's his purpose.

Now my room, you come inside, you see lots of books; we've got two shelves, one beside my study table, and one which I always think one day could kill me, because the whole entire wall, we've got with books, and I’m always worried that one day I could be buried, but I'd be happy, that would be a great way to go!

 

Deborah Peck:

And me?  Well, I'm showing you a picture here, but obviously people can't see, and that's my living room, I'm very lucky that my partner works for the The Folio Society, if I'm allowed to say that here, but he works for the Folio Society, so I have got the most beautiful collection of books all in my living room, and I've got floor to ceiling shelves that I paid an extortionate amount of money for, because the books are my pride and joy, so I don't care about anything else apart from my books, and they're all fiction, yeah, I am a real fiction major.  I don't really do any non-fiction.  There aren't any maths books there, I’m afraid Bobby!

 

Ben Holden:

Well, thank you both very, very much for joining us and maybe we might now browse the shelves, and Bobby choose something, whether it's an old favourite or something new that's a departure.

 

Bobby Seagull:

I think I'm going to browse the autobiographies, because there's a phrase by an American-Spanish philosopher called George Santayana, which says, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”.  So I always think this, there are hundreds of great people out there that have amazing life experiences, - rather than me trying to recreate and make the same mistakes, reading autobiographies is one thing that I enjoy so I think that, again, we will let serendipity take us away, but I have a feeling that could be a section that could be interesting.

 

Ben Holden:

Fantastic.  Well, let's head there now.  Thank you.

 

~ Bobby Seagull is invited to browse the shelves of East Ham library ~

 

Bobby Seagull:

Okay, so now we're crossing the divide between the chasm, the non-fiction and fiction.  So we just quickly crossed over to the land of the non-fiction.  ‘A Million Years in a Day’.  That sounds interesting - Greg Jenner - this feels like the right pick.  He's involved with the ‘Horrible Histories’.

 

Ben Holden:

‘A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life’

 

Bobby Seagull:

 

Tracing through society from, everything from the morning, when we wake up, why we shave, why we bath, our breakfast, to our lunch, dinner, day by day.  It feels like we have a winner, winner, chicken dinner here!

 

 

[END]

 

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. That way, not only will you keep up with the podcasts, but you’ll also help us champion libraries.  To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website:  www.exlibris.com  You can also get updates on twitter and instagram.  Find me @thatbenholden.

Keep an eye on Insta also to get a chance of winning a signed copy of Bobby’s transformative book, ‘The Life Changing Magic of Numbers’.  Indeed, there’s a whole section in there about entering prize draws, it’s well worth checking out.

 

Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

 

Benjamin Zephaniah in Newham Bookshop

Benjamin Zephaniah in Newham Bookshop

December 17, 2019

Benjamin Zephaniah speaks truth-to-power like nobody else. A Kung Fu stylist, dub musician, Peaky Blinder, renegade activist, vegan force-of-nature, and  much-loved ‘people’s poet’, Benjamin has lived many lifetimes.

He tells Ex Libris in inimitably raw but sonorous manner about how poetry saved his life; of his mother’s Windrush Generation and its Caribbean oral tradition; being dyslexic and finding a path away from prison; slamming the phone down on Nelson Mandela and exchanging notes with Bob Marley; and why there should be a library on every high street.

Zephaniah also speaks touchingly of the great personal debt - both financial and artistic - that he owes his fellow Ex Libris guest, celebrated bookseller Vivian Archer; not to mention her legendary store Newham Bookshop, which Benjamin fondly calls a ‘home-from-home’.

The shop has been a mainstay in the community for 40 years. It is vital to the local area and widely lauded within the UK book trade at-large.

Many other writers have found the place to be of indispensable inspiration. 

Iain Sinclair, for example, called it ‘a beacon’.

This year’s Booker Prize winner Bernadine Evaristo describes it as: ‘a fantastic community bookshop run by the wonderful Vivian Archer whose knowledge and love of books stand unrivalled. It is now an institution where everyone is welcome and all kinds of literature can be found for all kinds of reader. In today’s declining world of independent bookshops, this one should be cherished. Long may it flourish.’

 

...

 

Please find below a full transcript of this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Benjamin Zephaniah:

 

Ben Holden:

It's a sunny day here in East London, I'm on the Barking Road. I've just walked past what used to be the old Boleyn ground; I remember going there as a gooner, standing in the away fans section against West Ham, - we won - past Upton Park. Yes, it’s now flats, there’s sprouting cranes and awnings, of course. Turn right just past the Bobby Moore statue, where he’s holding the Jules Rimet trophy amongst his teammates, and you'll find another East London institution, Newham bookshop.

I'm here to meet with Vivian Archer, proprietor, and also her close friend, Benjamin Zephaniah. He doesn't really need much of an introduction. You might know him as ‘Jeremiah Jesus’, you might know him as a Kung Fu stylist, a dub poet, musician, artist, vegan. He speaks truth to power like you can, or do. Let's go inside Newham Bookshop and get talking.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Thank you both very, very much for joining us on Ex Libris. Benjamin, this place obviously has a special place in your heart. Can you explain why, and why you've chosen today to be here, of all the bookshops and all the libraries in all the world?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Well, because it has a special place in my heart. You see, when I came down from Birmingham, I kind of lived in South London for a while and then I moved to East London. And I got involved in a cooperative, it was a kind of food cooperative, book cooperative, and they published my first book, actually. The shop was called ‘The Whole Thing’, the publisher was called ‘Page One Books’, and it was very hippy and alternative, but we always knew about this place, and it wasn't like competition, you know, you would share information and stuff, and we'd hear about the legendary Vivian Archer. That place closed down, and then, much later on, I moved to a house, which is not far from here, and I was always very keen on kind of keeping myself to myself. So, I came here a couple of times, and, what's the word, incognito? Nobody knew. I’d just buy some books and stuff like that. I think, one day, you recognised me, didn’t you? One day, she said, “I know who you are”. And then from that day, we just had a great relationship. You see, for me, this was like, what a bookshop should be like, you know, I don't know how she does it, but you come in and you’d ask Vivian about a book, or you're going through something in your life, and you tell her what you're going through, and there's always a book that she can recommend for you. She's either just completely read it, or got a friend that's read it and reviewed it, but she knows about it, you know, and it was at a time when all these, I won't mention any names, but bigger shops were springing up, but you’d go there and people, most of the time, didn't know the book, you know, they were just shop assistants, not all, and also, the kind of community events that happened here, or that were generated from here.

I've always been passionate about people that don't like books and don't like book shops, and they came here, that's been my passion for ages, trying to get people to read that don't normally read. I mean, in a sense, I owe this place a lot of money, because I technically had a room upstairs that I do all my interviews in. We just became family and it was the only thing that really saddened me when I was moving out of here, but I just had enough of the pollution, being stopped by the police and all that kind of stuff. I just wanted to go somewhere different. But, for that reason, it's always been like a special place for me. It was special before I knew it, but it got even more special when I got to know the place. I mean, if I come to London, I tend to come in this way, and it's weird, because even at night when the shops close, I'll drive past and look at it and make sure it's all here. And I know it's not just me, I know there are other writers that connect with the place. We know if you've done a book, all my book launches used to be here. And it wasn't like, how can I put it, a corporate book launch, I’d get local kids in. Remember when we had them acting out sections of my book, ‘Gangster Rap’, we had the kids kind of rapping to each other; that was all done here, you see, so a real home from home. In a sense, I owe this place a lot in my development as a writer as well.

 

Ben Holden:

And Vivian, you've won awards. You've won the ‘Independent Bookshop of the Year’ in London. You, yourself, have won the first ever ‘Books in my Bag Readers Award’ for outstanding contribution to book selling, you are a bit of a legend in the book trade. Can you tell us a bit more about the shop’s history, because it's got quite an august history?

 

Vivian Archer:

The shop is 41 years old. It started as a project for parents to help children and adults to read, there were a lot of classes here that used to do that. It's always, always community is first, and we're very sensitive to everybody who lives in the area, to all those coming into the area, to make this a place that they feel welcome. When Benjamin said, people come in and talk about problems they might have, that's still very much the case here. They don’t always buy books, and that doesn't matter, but they feel it's comfortable, it's safe, and it's welcoming, and I think that's quite rare in a lot of shops. But for us, that's always been key. But we've got a long history, but to us community is everything, and that's why I think we have such a good relationship with writers as well. I mean, poets are special to us; there's people like Benjamin, Michael Rosen, John Hegley, and they will come back again and again, because they know and appreciate what we do.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

I remember when I turned down the OBE…

 

Ben Holden:

That was in here?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Well, I turned down the OBE and it was all in the news and everything, and Channel 4 said they'd like to do an interview with me and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the studio. I said, “I'm happy to be on the programme, but I'm not coming to you”. It was the day I should have received it, I think. I said, “I'm going to be here with a group of kids. You come and see where I am. You come to me, see where my heart is”. So, that's what I did. Yasmin was in the studio, John Snow was presenting the programme, who, by the way, is also an OBE refuse-nik. Yasmin at that time had accepted an OBE. So we began the programme, and I said, “This is where I am. This is where my heart is”.

Why are you not here, Benjamin?”, and I was talking to Yasmin, and Yasmin was saying that one of the reasons why she accepted an OBE was because she wanted to inspire young Asian girls to become journalists. And I said, “Look, do you know where I live? Young Asian girls, they're already inspired by you, it's not about the OBE or anything”. And I started to go on a rant, and she went, “Okay, Benjamin, stop, you've convinced me. I'm going to give back my OBEin the middle of the programme.

I met John Snow the other day in the British Museum, and I bumped into him, and he said that he will never forget that, because he said, “People don't usually, even if they capitulate, they don't do it on air, later on they say, you know, ‘you were right’”. But she did it on air, she said, you've convinced me, and that's a very brave thing to do. And the next day she writes this article in, I think it was the Observer, about me convincing her, and I didn't come down heavy on her, I was just telling her that Asian girls respect her anyway. In fact, you could lose some respect by taking it.

 

Ben Holden:

I'm sure your powers of persuasion would have worked in the studio, but I wonder if she would have done it if it hadn't been that you were in your bookshop surrounded by the community and surrounded by kids, etc.?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

I don't know, but the next day, she wrote this really great article about ‘How do you give an OBE back?’, do you go to the gates of Buckingham Palace and fight back? But the reason I did that, because I wanted to show them that, first of all, this place is significant, these people are significant. And for me, it's not about getting awards from the state.

 

Ben Holden:

In your very, very enjoyable, brilliant memoir, which I've loved going over ahead of today, you have a great first sentence which is ‘I hate autobiographies’, which begs the question, why write one and did you enjoy writing it?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

I always say that autobiographies, when I think of autobiographies, I used to think of people that were kind of, you know, it’s their dying words just before they died, that’s the old fashioned way. Or recently, it's almost the opposite, you join a boy band or a girl band, and you write an autobiography and you're still 18, ‘My life, at 18’?!

I just thought my life wasn't that interesting, but I had a really good agent, Rosemary Cantor. Did you know her? She was amazing. I think I may have described her in the book as looking like Lady Penelope. She always had great hair, wore all these nice, pencil skirts and just had these amazing glasses that just kind of from the 60s, really glamorous woman, and then we'd go to dinner all the time. She was my agent for my children's novels or young adult’s novels. So, she didn't have a financial interest in it, but she used to listen to me talking about my life, and she said, “Benjamin, you've got to do your autobiography”. And I kept saying no for those two reasons I've just said, no, no, no. And then she said, “Benjamin, I really want you to do your autobiography”. There was something about the way she said it that day, and I realised what it was now, I'll come to that in a moment, and I said:

Okay, I'll do it on certain conditions, under the condition that you don't go and get me a publishing deal, you don't look for the publisher, no contract, no deadline, no money up front. I want to take my time and do this. This is going to be my book, you know, I mean, they're all my books. I don't want any deadline. I want to write this at my own pace. And it's got to talk a little bit about my mother”.

So partly my mother's biography, because I didn't think there were many stories about Caribbean women coming over in the 50s, and certainly (not) in Britain. And so that was it. So I went away and started writing it. She saw the first draft, loved it, she said ‘forward on’, and then she passed away; she never actually saw the end book, and I realise now, why she was so forceful. You know, she was like, ‘Benjamin, I want to see your autobiography’. And she never told me how ill she was, and there was a few people in the business that knew how ill she was, but they were kind of sworn to silence. And so that really saddened me, I wished I’d have said yes earlier, but it's just the way it is. I didn't realise she was trying to say to me, I want to see your book before I die. But, she saw the first draft.

 

Ben Holden:

And it's ‘The Life and Rhymes’, but I'm surprised you felt like your life wasn’t interesting enough, because it feels like you've led several lifetimes. And I think also, in terms of the autobiography, you have this real infectious honesty in all your work, which negates those sorts of charges that can be levelled against other memoirs that perhaps were putting you off, and that really comes through in the book as well.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Well, I tried to be as honest as possible. I said in the first part of the book that I think some of them are so dishonest. I mean, I know people who have done autobiographies, and I know they're being dishonest. The only thing that I would have liked to put in my autobiography that I didn't put in because of legal reasons, other people, but I put anything in there, the good, the bad, the ugly, because I want to show people that, especially people that come from the same cultural, economic place that I come from, that, first of all, you can spin your life around, you can turn your life around. I remember at a time thinking, well, you know, I just came to terms with the fact that my life is going to be going in and out of prison, it was for a short moment, and I thought, ‘I can do something better than this’.

But I know people who were in that same position and they haven't changed, they do think they're likely going to be just going in and out of prison. You've heard this 100 times before, there's something about men and a front they put up, and the lack of honesty they have, and the lack of I'm going to say emotional intelligence, you know what I mean? But actually, I just want to be really honest. People say to me, ‘Why are you so close to your mother?’ Well, when I was getting in trouble in school, nobody really asked me what was going on at home. So imagine there's a 13 year old me or something, and I'm not paying attention in school, and I'm seen as a naughty boy, and you're the teacher asking me, ‘What's going on Benjamin?’, you're not just calling me naughty, you’re saying what's going on, what's going on at home? And I turned around to you and said:

Well, you know, until three o'clock this morning, I had to listen to my father beating my mother. And then when I got up, you know, my mother was battered black and blue. There was no food for us. Dad just kicked us out the house and said ‘go to school’, and you want me to be nice?”

And there are people living like that now, but nobody ever talked to me about it, I just had to do it and be strong. I mean, the first time I was arrested, I was arrested for attempting to murder my father. I mean, it wasn't serious, it was a pen knife, but in my head, I mean, I was only a child at the time, that was it, because he was going to murder my mother.

So I do know one thing that after the book came out, I've got so many people come to me, and what surprises me is some people who were quite high profile, much higher profile than me and I said, ‘Oh, I've had similar things in my life’, but they don't talk about it. But I think if you have to, or if you want to, know my poetry and know where I come from, and know why I'm so angry and know how I've connected this stuff to politics, you should know the backstory.

 

Ben Holden:

And a lot of it, certainly in terms of the poetry, but all of this going back to your mother, a lot of it comes from her, doesn't it and her roots? And right at the beginning of the book, there’s a lovely sort of scene setter right at the top, I'll read a tiny bit:

‘I look around and count all the other tin baths hanging on the wall of the yard we share with our neighbours, hearing mum speaking to me in rhyme, she does this all the time. It's part of her nature, her singsong way of interpreting the world that makes me feel close to her’.

And you then go on to say: ‘Poetry, storytelling and music were a part of everyday life. We just did it, it was how we communicated with one another.

So there, right there, built in is the oral tradition, isn't it? And that's coming from your mother and her roots in Jamaica?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Yeah, but let me tell you, you probably read it better than I could read it, seriously. I'm very dyslexic. You ask me to read my own book now, and I’d really struggle. I can do poetry in my head, but when it comes to reading...But when I'm writing, I'm hearing the voice in my head. Derek Walcott was once asked, - I think somebody was trying to pitch us against each other -, they said, ‘What do you think about poets like Benjamin Zephaniah who write for performance?’ And his answer was something like, ‘Well, as far as I can understand, most people of Carribean and African origin, write with a voice in their head’. And I would say that's probably true. People like Seamus Heaney as well, you know, they write hearing the word sounding in their head. It's not just an intellectual exercise on the page.

The oral tradition is a wonderful thing, and it’s survived for thousands of years in some places, but we must not over romanticise it. I didn't wake up and say ‘I want to join the oral tradition’, I just couldn’t read and write. And the other thing, my mother was semi-literate. She doesn't really like me when I say this, you know, she could read very basically. But if you ask my mother where she got her wisdom from, where she got kind of teaching about how to grow up as a girl in Jamaica and everything, she'll refer to poems and songs, and stories, and Nancy stories and stories like that, that her grandmother told her or her mother. So, it was a living, breathing thing, it wasn't something that my mum chose to join, it was a really important way of surviving in the Caribbean.

And it's not my area of expertise, but they've done some amazing things with the old tradition in terms of keeping things alive that weren't just from the Caribbean or Jamaica, or any of the other islands; they come from Africa, and Anancy himself, the spider, comes from Africa and there are lots of other traditions and words, and some people say that even the way Jamaican patois, the way we talk, is like the English language with African grammar. So, you say, ‘Where are you?, they say ‘Weh you deh?’ - translated into English that’s: ‘Where you are’, but it makes sense in an African language, I mean, there's lots of African languages, but in most African languages, it would make sense. So you've taken the English language and just put an African, I'm not going to say grammar, you put an African swing on it. And it's lovely. I mean, even, there’s people that can speak about this much better than me like Michael Rosen and people like that, but even the way that black and Asian people use English here, instead of saying, ‘What's happening?’, we say [-]. That was my generation, obviously, ‘wagwan’. So you got that kind of English with the kind of African swing. And then you got young Asians come up, and their mixing with people who are also African, and then they go, ‘What's gwanin?’

And it just makes great poetry, great street talk, and, most of all, it's kind of survival. I remember being around here once actually, just down Green Street, and a guy came up to me and he went, “You got any reefer man?”, and I just laughed at him, he was a copper, and I said, “You’re living in the past, the words have moved on bro.

You know, and it's kind of survival, you’re changing the words all the time, new communities come in and they have different meanings.

 

Ben Holden:

Well you must know that better than anyone Vivian?

 

Vivian Archer:

Well, yes, I mean that's what I love about working here, having a shop here. We can always tell who's moving in by the dictionaries we sell. And it's such a vibrant community and it's such a changing community. And we're very proud that they feel comfortable coming in here asking about their books, sometimes in other languages, some of which some of our workers here speak. It's a very, very great community. And you know what Benjamin says about it is absolutely right. And we love it.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

I think we have to understand, us here in this room, you understand this, but I think we got to tell the people out there, when we talk about multiculturalism in Britain, it's the greatest thing that we do. And you got to stop thinking of it as a black, Asian or even Irish man.

I mean, go back to the early tribes, I don’t know if you ever read my poem, ‘The British’, and I just take all these tribes and put them together to make a meal called a ‘British’, I do it like a recipe - the Jutes, the Silures, the Celts, the Angles, the Saxons, and then you come up to the modern day with Ethiopians and the Jamaicans, and then you just sprinkle equal rights and justice, equally sprinkled for everybody, you know, we've been doing that so well for thousands of years. And the problem, I hesitate to call it a problem, but in this setting, I’m calling it a problem, the problem with multiculturalism is that when it's working well, you don't notice it, you just get on. I don't have a girlfriend from India and go ‘Wow, I'm doing multiculturalism’, I just like the girl and I'm moving in. You know, we just do things, get a band together, and it just happens naturally. So you don't get news reports saying today in East Ham, the Irish community lived really well with the Jewish community, that lived really well with the black community. I mean, nothing happened, everybody just got on. But at the moment, there's a little bit of a problem, multiculturalism is failing, and you get all these people kind of…

 

Vivian Archer:

And I mean, it's never been an issue for us. This is where we live and we all live together. But as Benjamin says, nowadays, it is getting a little, you know, the whole references to, well racism, which sadly, is on the up. Not here so much, this is, you know, it's not bad here, but it's certainly a different world we’re beginning to live in.

 

Ben Holden:

Well I know Benjamin, you were told by lots of people that you'd mellow as time went on, and you said that you're feeling angrier than ever, or you're still as angry at least, and that’s because of all these sorts of ongoing issues that haven't gone away since your youth, and earlier struggles and campaigns, etc?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

A lady from the BBC approached me on the phone and said she wanted to make a programme about people who are disenfranchised and stuff like that, and she had looked into my background, I guess. She came and we just met, actually, then she didn't contact me again. And then I contacted a friend who knew her and she said, “She thought you were too nice”. I think she wanted me to say, “Argh, I’m really angry with all white people”.

I am probably more angry now than I've ever been, right? But I'm really lucky, I have a way of venting my anger through my poetry. And I can go on TV programmes and talk about it. I can talk about it here. But I understand that a lot of people, especially younger people that haven't got that outlet.

Where does my anger come from? I think it comes from years of struggle and the three things that I was really passionate about as a young person were I wanted to see South Africa free, I wanted to see East Timor free, and I wanted to see Palestine free. Two out of three, Palestine doesn't seem to be getting any better. But I felt that the struggle at home, we’d kind of reached a point where we would never see an organisation like the National Front again, I thought we would never see people marching on the street saying ‘white power’ again, there's lots of things about women's issues that I thought we’d dealt with, and then suddenly they came back and hit us with a vengeance. It really amazed me now that I'm going onto a show, and it's not just the BBC, it’s other places, especially the mainstream media, and they say “I want you to come on and talk about your experiences of fighting racism”, and for balance, they have a racist on with me.

 

Vivian Archer: 

It’s worth mentioning the Newham Monitoring Project.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Well, that was an organisation I'm passionate about. They started in Newham, the NMP we call them, Newham Monitoring Project, because of the death of a young Asian here. At the time, there were organisations springing up all over London, all over the country to a certain extent, to organise to fight racism. One of our slogans was, ‘Unite and fight!’. This was the early 80’s.

 

Vivian Archer:

And there was a BNP Councillor in Beckton, wasn’t there?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

I remember when I first came here, they said Canning Town was a no-go area for black people. I remember, I got in a taxi once and said “Take me there” and he said no, and I said “Just take me there, just to have a look” and he went ‘No’. I said, “Look, you know, don't worry about me, I'll look after myself”.   He said, “I'm not worried about you, I'm worried about me!” - and he was a white guy! That’s what it was like.

So, the NMP thing was monitoring racism, but it wasn't just the racism of the racist. A lot of people have to understand how racist the police were, openly racist. There's a very well known bit of footage and photograph of a demonstration, and there's these anti-racists there and the police are in the middle, and this police officer turns around to the police van, and he writes with his finger in the dirt on the van ‘NF’, and that's a police officer on duty. You were allowed to be a member of the National Front and the police in back in those days, I think they made that illegal now. So that was a struggle. And the slogan that came out of the Newham Monitoring Project was ‘We are here to police the police’, because that was one of our biggest fears, the police. If a racist got you on the street, you could fight them, you could deal with them, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, you run off and whatever. When the police got you, they got you in a cell and gave you a kicking.

 

You know, there's a line in one of my poems, ‘Dis Policeman Keeps On Kicking Me To Death’ that says:

 

‘Well, he beat me so badly,

I was on the floor

He said if I don't plead guilty,

he will keep me more

I was feeling sick,

I pleaded racists attack

And another police come to finish me off,

This one was black.

 

It's absolutely true. In West Ham station, they had me in there, they were giving me a kicking, and I said, “You're racist!”, I mean, I was only young at the time. ‘We are not racist, we will show you that we are not racist’ and they just left the room and this black policeman came in and started beating me. You can laugh at it, but that's what it was like. Because I knew then, back then, and to a certain extent even now, one of the things that a lot of black people fear is a black copper, because they like to impress the white guys. That's a generalisation and I've known people who've joined the police force to try to do good, but that was our experience. So the Newham Monitoring Project was really, really important. The police would turn up at a house, because there'd been some problem there, and by the time they’d left, an Asian woman, five foot two, had been arrested for assaulting three police officers, you know, it's really crazy stuff like that.

 

Vivian Archer:

They had 24 hour helplines, you could ring them.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

We gave all young people cards, we had solicitors. That really inspired me when I came to London. When I was in Birmingham, we were just street fighters, you know, we'd fight the police, we would fight the racism that was there, and then we'd have to run. When I came to London, and came to Newham, they were street fighters, but they were street fighters with a degree in law. So yeah, we could organise now.

 

Ben Holden:

You write how you swapped a gang for another gang in your book?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

I mean, in the book, I think I was referring to a gang of poets and writers and musicians, but also people like the Newham Monitoring Project and people that were in the struggle, but kind of knew the law. One of the things that people take advantage of is if you don't know the law. One of the reasons why I'm passionate about education now is because they always tell young people that one thing you'll know about your oppressors, they're all highly educated, so who are you to turn around and say, ‘Well, I'm not going to be educated’, you have to know your stuff. Two of my heroes in this world, one of them is no longer with us, Tony Benn and Noam Chomsky. One of the things that those two people have in common is that they always say, understand your enemy, read your enemy, don't just read stuff that you agree with, read stuff that you don't agree with, know what the law is, know what makes them tick, know what elements of the law they're using against you, so what elements you can use back, and that really makes a difference. I think it was Malcolm X that said, ‘Some racists hate black men, but most racists hate educated black men’.

 

Ben Holden:

And how was it in the context of progress, or not progress, it must have been difficult going back into, if we rewind again to your childhood and your mum's journey over to Britain from Jamaica, you're going back into that with her, for the book sort of coincided, if I'm right, with the spate of horrifying stories about the Windrush generation and how they were being treated by the state. That must have been really tough?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Well, it's really interesting, because, as I said, I wanted my mum's story to be in there, because she was part of the Windrush generation and people didn't know about it and people just didn’t understand unless you had a real interest in it, so I wanted to tell her story. But listen, if you buy the Vice newspaper, it's just going monthly now, but it used to be weekly, almost every week in there, they've got a story of somebody that has fallen foul of the immigration law, somebody that's lived there for ages and they go to France on a shopping trip, and they're not allowed back in.

In 1987, I was flying to Jamaica and I got on the plane as you do, and I was walking down, and there was a woman in the backseat and she recognised me, and she started screaming, “Benjamin Zephaniah, help me! I came to this country when I was four months old, and they’re deporting me back to Jamaica, a place I've never been to.” This is 1987, and all the way on that flight to Jamaica, she was just screaming and crying, and every time I tried to go and sit next to her, they’d just bat me off and made me sit down. But it's been happening for a long time, like I said, the Vice newspaper is following these stories, then the Guardian picked it up, and then David Lammy brought it up in Parliament, which is why people started to know about it, and Theresa May kind of made it official, didn’t she, she gave it a name, she said ‘hostile environment’, so she made it official now. There was an organisation called the ‘Extradition Squad’ that was set up by Margaret Thatcher, and their job was to go around and find illegal immigrants and deport them.

 

~

 

Benjamin Zephaniah reads his poem ‘The Death of Joy Gardner’

 

~

 

Interview continues

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Now I'm born here in Birmingham. I went to hospital once and I was bleeding, and they said “You got Aston Villa in your blood”. I mean, that's how English I am right? I've been coming out, it happened to me three times back in the day, coming out of tube stations, and I like living in a country where you got no, you don't need a passport, and you get stopped by one of these officers, and they say. “Right, prove you’re English, prove you’re British”, and you go, “Eh, look at my blood, it’s got Aston Villa in it!”. How do you prove you’re English in a country where you don't need to carry papers, and all that kind of stuff? So, my point is this has been going on for a long time and there are very special reasons why it's been brought to the forefront.

 

It's not getting better, no. Some people think there's a body set up to help people and stuff like this, but actually, there was one poor guy the other day who was deported to Jamaica, and in a few days, he was murdered. If you go to the poor parts of Jamaica, and they think you come from England, they think you're rich. And the other thing that got this guy murdered was that I think many were sent back, they said he was a criminal and a rapist or something. The guy was clean. But they just heard yeah, he's a criminal and rapist, let's go beat him. It's very sad, it's not getting better.

Something can be in the media and talked about in a particular way, so people think it's happening now and they don't realise it's been happening all the time. Then it drops out of the media and they think it’s stopped happening. You know, it's such a powerful thing, the media. If you read books, I don't use this word lightly, if you are an intellectual of any kind, it’s different because you're trying to think for yourself, but don't live in that bubble, understand that most people believe the shit they get in the media. So if it's not in the media, they think it's okay. Most people think that most rapes happen when a guy jumps out of a bush, grabs a woman, and most rapes happen in a house with people who know people, you know. I mean, there's so many things, you can see the way the media kind of distort the way that people see the world. I don't know if you know my poem, ‘Rong Radio Station”:

 

My ears are battered and burned and

I have just learned that I have been

Listening to the wrong radio station

 

My mind has been brutalised now the pain can’t be disguised

I’ve been listening to the wrong radio station

 

I was beginning to believe that all black men were bad men

And white men would reign again

I was beginning to believe that I was a mindless drugs freak that

Couldn’t control my sanity or my sexuality

I was beginning to believe that I could not believe in nothing except nothing

And all I ever wanted to do was to get you and to do you.

I’ve been listening to the wrong radio station.

 

Thousands of people are listening to the wrong radio station and viewing the wrong TV station, and they can believe anything. I remember when I was here when the Gulf War started. Outside this bookshop, I met a guy, it was the build up to the Gulf War, and he said, “Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda going to get together and invade us”. And I said, “Saddam Hussein hates Al-Qaeda, you know, hates them. He was one of the few people in the Middle East that set up an organisation to crush Al-Qaeda”. The idea that all these people from the Islamic world, because they're all Muslims together aren’t they, they're just going to get together?! And I think it was Tony Blair that said they’ve got 45 minutes, they can come and get us in 45 minutes. You know, people believe it and because, they think, there's educated people that operate the media.

 

Ben Holden:

Going back to your childhood, you knew from eight, there's a great section in the book, you're at the boys brigade, and all the other kids want to be soldiers, policemen, firemen, etc, and you say you want to be a poet. You knew then that you wanted to be poet from that? I’m wondering what you thought that as a kid, what that represented?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

When I was eight years old, I had this idea when I was thinking about jobs that:

‘I'm going to be a poet, and I'm going to travel the world and my approach is going to be, like, funny...’ - and I probably didn't say political, but - ‘it's going to be about the wrong things in the world and the war, and I'm going to write a poem about peace; and at the same time, I'm going to make them funny, and I'm gonna make them sexy, and they're gonna have rhythm and rhyme, and I'm going to make it like music. My poetry is going to be like music, right? Yeah. Yeah’.

But I had this real vision of what I wanted to be when I was eight, seriously. And then the interesting thing is, I followed the crowd for a long time. And then, as you know, I got involved in crime and somebody wanted to shoot me and kill me. And I was armed too, and I'm lying in bed one night and I just think, ‘Remember the eight year old you Benjamin, that's possible, you know, bro’. That’s what I was telling myself, I remember listening to an LP by Marvin Gaye called ‘What's going on’?, and I thought, ‘What's going on with you, Benjamin?’. A teacher told me I'm going to end up dead or doing a life sentence. A lot of people said, there's no way out of it. I saw some of my friends being killed and doing life sentences, and I got up that next morning, and that was it.

 

Ben Holden:

It's amazing that poetry effectively, not to be too simplistic, but poetry pulled you out or pushed you forward.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

It saved my life, it really felt like that.

 

Ben Holden:

Bob Marley wrote to you, didn't he? What did he say?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

He said something like, ‘Keep going, brother, Britain need you’. And there was some people here that were saying you’ve got good poetry, but, to be honest, a lot of them were saying good poems, but, you know, ‘get a job’. A lot of important people were saying that what you were doing is rubbish. I remember when I published my first booklet, and went to Birmingham, and I had my then girlfriend with me, I went back to my dad. I was so proud. And it was, I hesitate to call it a book now, it was like a booklet, but it made a lot of noise at the time, because nobody had ever heard Caribbean voices like that in print, really. They'd heard some of the more literate poets, but not the kind of street poets like me, and people talking about me on the News and the television. And I kind of went back to my dad, who I didn't really get on with, and just gave him a copy of the book, and stood there really proud with my girlfriend, and he didn't even look at it, just threw it on the floor, and said, “Come on, who wants to listen to anything you've got to say?”

Many years later, I made peace with him, and he went and lived in Barbados, and he was driving these little buggies, he used to drive tourists around, and he looked behind him, and there was a couple in there and they were reading one of my books, and he turned around and went, “That's my son”. And apparently, this couple gave my dad a lecture on me, and they were telling my dad things that my dad just didn't know, and it was all about why I was important to them and what I did for literature and all that kind of stuff. Could you imagine my dad? This was not long before he died, he’s thinking ‘I didn't know my son, I didn't know him’. And to be honest, I was going to say I didn't know my dad very well, but I did know him in a sense. I never want to bad mouth him, I didn't go to the funeral and all that stuff, because of me and my mum had a really rough time, he used to beat my mum and all that kind of stuff. So I try not to bad mouth him, but I was going to say, I don't know him, but I do know him in a sense. He's a chauvinist, he puts up a front, he didn't feel that he was married, if he had a woman, he was in control of a woman. And if somebody came to him and said, “I saw your wife down the road”, he’d feel like that’s losing control, she was there and I didn't know she was there, I should know all their movements. He was trying to live up to another kind of man that just is not very positive, very negative. And he had this amazing work ethic. He came here to Britain, worked for the GPO, sweeping floors literally or something like that, then worked his way up right to big manager. When he was buried, he requested he was buried in his post office suit, the GPO suit, in Barbados, where it’s hot. Where he puts his importance is the front, you know. But yeah, I always had a very strong vision of what I want to do. And when it comes to my mum, to this day, I mean, she loves the fact that I'm famous, she just doesn't really know what I do.

 

Ben Holden:

As well as Bob Marley, notably, your poetry struck a chord with Nelson Mandela, and you had mentioned South Africa and apartheid as a big cause for you.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

His second visit here, he requested a meeting with me, because he'd read my poetry while he was in prison and heard some cassette tapes, remember those? And he was having a meeting with Thatcher, but, for some reason, he said, “I want to see you before I see Thatcher”, like he wanted to be debriefed or something! I was really honest with him. I told him there was a time when Thatcher hated you, you know that, don’t you? There was a time when she called you a terrorist. I said, “Mandela, a lot of people being nice to you now, and they're only nice to you now because you're free. All these young people and people behind you. But don't be tricked by the hypocrites”.

I remember a time when me and Tony Benn were locked up for being in apartheid demonstrations. Jeremy Corbyn, I remember him being locked up. And what did the papers say afterwards? ‘Benjamin Zephaniah supporting the terrorist, Nelson Mandela’. And he was aware of that, actually. I mean, the thing he said to me was that when he came out of prison, he really didn't want to be president. He told me this first hand. He never wanted to be President of South Africa, not after he came out of prison. Why? Because he said he was tired and he wanted to..., he used to have a debate about shirts, he used to love coloured shirts, and the reason why he said he loved coloured shirts was because, - I've been to Robben Island and this is absolutely true -, I was going to say it's grey, it's not grey, it’s kind of brown, this brown dust everywhere, and the prison’s made with this rock, and it's everywhere and you don't see colour; so he was really into wearing, he loved colour, and he hadn’t seen colour for a long time, and he hadn't seen children grow up. Remember, there was a period where he was always with his grandchildren and his relatives, and they were all around, because he didn't see children grow up, he missed seeing children. And so there was that period of time, and he always had coloured shirts on and he always had his grandchildren around him, and he wanted to live life, but he knew that South Africa needed a figurehead.   He knew that he had to, it's capitalism, attract investment into the country and all that kind of stuff.

This is a heavy thing to say, but there's one time I had a phone conversation with him, and it was over a poet called [-], he was a poet at Nelson Mandela's inauguration. Good friend of mine, and just before he was going to go on tour, he was locked up for a robbery of a post office - it was a complete frame up. I mean, the amount of money they robbed from that post office is what he pays his musicians every night. And he was in prison, and the judge that sent him to prison swore allegiance to the racist regime, but wouldn't swear allegiance to Mandela’s government. So I was on the phone to Mandela saying, ‘Get [-] out’, he's due for a tour, we're expecting him. And we had an amazing row. And I said to him what kind of judge wouldn't swear allegiance to your free South Africa, and Mandela said to me, “We need all the judges we can get”. I put the phone down on him and slammed the phone. And there was a couple of people in my office that went, “You just put the phone down on Nelson Mandela!” And then we picked the phone up, and we apologised for being so heated. And I spoke to him after that, and he said he knew he’d made some mistakes in government, he wasn't perfect, and there was this kind of concentration and kind of bringing business in, and then when Winnie split with him and Winnie went to the township, that's why it was so popular, she went to the townships, and they saw her as a freedom woman, freedom fighter, woman warrior, you know, she was still dressed in khakis and Mandela was now in a suit, you know, attracting business. So, you know, we had lots of conversations about those kind of things, but overall, he was a very, I always say about Madiba, Mandela that he was a human being, he knows it, he made some mistakes, like any politician would. The one thing that makes him stand out to nearly any politician you can think of is that at a time when you could say that he had the right to come out of prison and go, “Right, I want revenge”, he just came out and he went ‘Look, the past is the past’.

 

Ben Holden:

We're talking about South Africa there, but you write in the book, ‘I always felt I had the ability to move in and out of different worlds’, and I think that's right, you've guest lectured in South Korea, North Korea. Interestingly, you spent a lot of time in China - you've lectured in Shanghai, Beijing, lectured in Tripoli, Mexico, Argentina, Memphis, Ohio, India, West Indies, and Leicester. But I think that seems fair, and your friend, Bob Mole, he wrote something very lovely and seems perceptive about you: ‘He has the gift to understand the problems and culture of every new community he meets. He understands without needing explanations’. I think that's true. Having read your book and seen you perform, and met you once or twice, and you have some sort of facility with these different worlds. Do you have any sense of why that might be, or where that comes from? Do you think that's fair?

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

One of the things I tend not to do, I don't know if I should do it more, is try and analyse myself. I don't know what it is. I think, I'm going to quote Bob Marley, he says: ‘The biggest man you ever did see was once just a baby’. He said a another quote, ‘Once a man twice a child’, in other words, when you're a baby, you need your parent’s help to do everything, to eat, to go to the bathroom, and I think, you become a big, independent person, and then, as you get old, you need more help.

And the other thing I know about people is that most of us are what we are because of an accident of birth. If somebody says to me, are you proud to be black? I say, no, not really, I just happen to be black. My mother is black, my father is black, if I was born white, that would be an extraordinary achievement - that would be amazing! But I was going to be black, that's it. The things I've achieved as a black man, I'm proud of what I've achieved. Am I proud of being British? Not really. If I was just proud of being British, I would have to be proud of colonialism and slavery and all kinds of things. But there are some things that we've done, I'm proud of British multiculturalism. Most of us are who we are because of an accident of birth. So when I'm arguing with you, I'm really trying desperately to understand why you’ve come to the place, the place that you've come from. You know, if somebody's got what we may think of as a backward view of the world, or of women or something like that, I try and understand why they think like that. And if I want to try and change their mind, then I know I've got to come with an argument that goes beyond their nationality.

 

Ben Holden:

I'm going to ask one more specific question in terms of this podcast and libraries, because Benjamin, in your book, you've talked about your dyslexia, and that you were only diagnosed later in life thanks to adult education services at the GLC. And you wrote: ‘My classes cost only £1.00. I was instantly tested for dyslexia, and the woman who ran the test was the first person in my life to properly explain why I've been having trouble with literacy. Her explanation made sense and from gaining an awareness of the condition, I was able to overcome it. Nowadays, the government has indirectly abolished those services, imposing huge budget cuts on councils and closing down the libraries where such courses would take place’. Can I ask what you make of those closures of libraries?

 

Vivian Archer:

To their credit (Newham Council), they've not closed a single library, and we work very, very closely with them. And they go out of their way to go to every school to get kids to take out library cards, and as it stands, not a single library is closed in Newham.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Where I live, every library is closed or is being run by volunteers. I feel passionately about it, you know, not all people can afford books. I remember before I could read and write properly, I’d go into a library, I’d get a book that I thought was interesting, I mean, I could read a bit, and then I would try and read it in the library a lot of the time, and why? Well, it was the late 70s and the 80s, the streets were dangerous, so it was a really safe place.

I remember there was a place called [-] in Glasgow, a really rough part of Glasgow, and they had a library in there and their thing was getting kids off the street and getting them reading. And every year, I’d go there and talk to them. These are kids that would never buy a book, but they thought that this particular library was really cool, they could hang out there. Somebody once said, sorry, I don't know who it was, that ‘libraries are the university of the street’, and I really think they are. And I just think we need to have knowledge on our streets. But knowledge is power, and I think, sometimes, people don't like too much power being spread amongst people. I may be cynical, but there's so much now which is all about making money, and when it comes to some councils cutting money, Newham is really lucky. Just, you know, not too far from me in [Harrogate?], just cuts, cuts, cuts. I get people writing to me all the time, ‘Benjamin, we're going to occupy a library, can you come and join us?’ That's the way I feel. I think there should be a library on every High Street.

I was in a library, and there's a book called ‘The Philosophies and Opinions of Marcus Garvey’, and I used to borrow it all of the time. The one I'm talking about was really bound in the old fashioned way, you know, really beautifully bound and had that kind of old smell to it. And it's all about being proud of being a black man and all that kind of stuff, and, you know, if we don't use our brains, they will keep us in slavery in chains. And, you know, Marcus Garvey is very important for the Rastafarian movement and all that stuff, and I used to borrow the book all of the time, and I went into the library one day, and they said, it wasn't there. I said, “Where is it?”, they said “It’s been taken off the shelves, you can't have it now”. There's going be a new edition coming out soon, and I just loved that book, because I used to borrow it, I mean, when I say the book, I mean that individual book I used to borrow it all of the time. And as I was leaving, I saw it on like a trolley stacked with books that they were going to either destroy or something. So I nicked it. I took it. I took it home, and I had it for ages. Many years later, I told the story on TV and the library contacted me and they said, “It’s alright. Do you want to bring it in?” and they stamped it and it’s officially been released to me, and I’ve got it to this day.

Do you want to hear another library story?

One year, it was when ‘Faith’ came out, this novel of mine, ‘Faith’.

They had announced the figures of libraries of how many books have been borrowed, and I think Jacqueline Wilson got to the top. JK Rowling was somewhere up there. So, I was at, I think it's Peters library service, and I said “I'll never be up there with all those”, you know? They said, Benjamin, there's some figures we keep to ourselves - your book is the most stolen book from libraries.

 

Ben Holden:

It's a nice accolade.   And you said in the book that you now have a library of your own at home; this, as well as a little recording studio, etc. Talk us through your library, what that looks like.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

I don’t have a library, I have a big collection of books. There is one bit of a study which kind of looks a bit like a library, and they're sectioned off in kind of subjects really. So when you walk in the front door to the right, there's novels. I'm not a great reader of novels, although I'm a writer of novels. So all those are when you walk in to the right; to the left, self-help kind of books on one side, and there's this big bookshelf, and then on the other side of that bookshelf, there's travel.

But the one in the middle, the one that really stands out, is just real, old revolutionary stuff. You know, I've got, black Marxism, I've got nearly every book. Remember that series of books that came out, it would have like ‘Marxism for Beginners’, ‘Martial Arts for Beginners’, and then it would have ‘Sex for Beginners’, stuff like that - I think I've got almost every one of them. And lots of theory stuff and stuff about slavery and that kind of stuff.

When you go into the living room now, there's one section, which at the top of it is picture books, because it’s big and there's no other place for them, and then there's some on the coffee table. And on the coffee table at the moment is ‘Cars of Cuba’ and ‘Lincolnshire Villages’, and all my religious books. Now, if I had a chance to go to university and do an education, I would do theology. I am crazy about theology, you wouldn't know that, but I love reading religions and why people are religious, how religions evolved, I’m fascinated with that stuff. There you'll find books like ‘The Unauthorised Version’ by Robin Lane Fox. And there you'll find books about, you know, creation myths, books on Islam, books on Judaism. I’ve got a really old version of the Torah, the Bible, the Quran, then I've got books that analyse the Quran and all that kind of stuff, so all of them are there. And then when you go into where I work, I call that the library, there's a massive section of poetry, and autobiographies and dictionaries. I've got probably every dictionary that David Crystal's done, and then there's a little corner that’s got some sexy stuff.

 

Vivian Archer:

Which you didn’t buy from us!

 

Ben Holden:

So I'd like to ask, Benjamin, if you wouldn't mind scanning these shelves in the shop and choosing a book to go home with, with Vivian. Is that all right, if you have a look together and choose something?

 

~

 

Benjamin Zephaniah is invited to scan the shelves and select a book from Newham Bookshop

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

Have you read ‘The Lion’s Den’?

 

Vivian Archer:

No, I know it, but I haven’t read it.

 

Benjamin Zephaniah:

You know, I think I’m going to go with this one, ‘The Lion’s Den: Zionism and the Left, from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky.’

 

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. That way, not only will you keep up with the podcasts, but you’ll also help us champion libraries. To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website: www.exlibrispodcast.com You can also get updates, as well as get a signed copy of ‘The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah’ from me on twitter and instagram. Find me @thatbenholden.

 

Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

 

 

Rachel Seiffert in The Wiener Holocaust Library

Rachel Seiffert in The Wiener Holocaust Library

December 10, 2019

The library featured in this episode of Ex Libris is truly inspirational and remarkable. It is a shrine, a beacon, a memorial. Sacred ground, no less.

Moreover, the conversation that takes place there - with acclaimed novelist Rachel Seiffert - is visceral and compelling.

The Wiener Holocaust Library - found in an elegant Russell Square townhouse in Central London - holds one of the world's leading and most extensive archives on the Holocaust and Nazi era. Formed in 1933, the Library's unique collection of over one million items includes published and unpublished works, press cuttings, photographs and eyewitness testimony.

It is a place that holds huge resonance for Seiffert: a fertile ground of inspiration and a professional home-from-home. Moreover, the library afforded her a voyage of self-discovery at a key time.

Rachel first entered The Wiener in the hope of discovering the truth as to her German grandfather’s activities during the Second World War, in which he served as part of the Waffen SS. That visit - as a somewhat ‘lost’ 20-something - would change her life. For Rachel found not only acceptance of that existential need to excavate her family’s past but also a pathway toward becoming a writer. The debut novel that emerged from her family research, The Dark Room, would be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Rachel has since been shortlisted multiple times for the Women’s Prize, won the prestigious EM Forster Award, and been selected as one of Granta’s ‘Best Young British Novelists’.

She here charts that journey, as well as her own research and writing processes, with tremendous verve, speaking very movingly of her own family history.

With the help of Howard Falksohn, the Library’s Senior Archivist, Ben and Rachel explore The Wiener's fascinating past and crucial ongoing legacy. The expansive conversation takes in the parallels between our own age and that Nazi era of the 1930s, as well as an exploration of how history doesn’t so much repeat itself as send the present warnings. Biblioclasm - the burning of books and historic destruction of libraries - is discussed too, as well as the positive lessons of restitution and reconciliation that institutions such as The Wiener can provide to us.

Plus Howard Falksohn explains the fascinating, exacting processes of how his team go about sourcing - even sometimes from rubbish skips! - the personal documents that preserve ‘the lives of others’. Howard elucidates how he sets about archiving for posterity the genocidal crimes of yesteryear.

Lest we, or future generations, should ever forget.

 

...

 

A full transcript follows below of this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Rachel Seiffert:

 

Welcome to Ex Libris, the podcast that, with the help of the greatest writers around, champions libraries and bookshops. These are our society’s safe spaces, particularly libraries - they are palaces for the people, free of charge, where everyone is welcome and nobody judged, yet they are in peril. My name is Ben Holden, writer and producer, and, more to the point, fed up with this state of affairs, so in each episode of Ex Libris, I will be meeting a great author in a library or bookshop of their choice, somewhere that has become resonant for them, and I hope that after you have listened to this episode, it will feel special to you too.

 

Introduction

 

Ben Holden:

Here I am in Russell Square, Bloomsbury, among the University College London and SOAS students walking by. I'm about to enter one of the stately old town houses here, for quietly behind the elegant, but unassuming, facade is a very special library.

I say library, but this place is also a shrine, a memorial, a beacon. It's a really sobering and serious institution, yet also a truly inspirational and humbling place to visit. I'm thrilled that Rachel Seiffert, the greatly acclaimed novelist who’s been up for Booker and women's prizes for her fiction multiple times, as well as being one of Granta’s best young British novelists and the recipient of the prestigious E.M Forster award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters is speaking with us today, alongside the library’s head archivist, Howard Falksohn, and they're ready to talk with us inside, so in we go.

 

Interview:

 

Ben Holden:

Rachel, Howard, thank you both so much for joining us today here in the Wiener Holocaust Library. Rachel, this is a very special place. What does it mean to you, personally? I know you have a strong attachment and history here.

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Well, actually, I first came to the Wiener in its old location on Devonshire Road which was a townhouse; there it was a dark, cosy, a bit dilapidated, I say that very fondly, place full of books and full of fascinating people who could guide you through the labyrinth that is the Holocaust. I researched my first novel there while I was very young, I was in my twenties and a bit lost and a bit in need of guidance, and so the Wiener, despite the fact that its collection deals with great darkness, was a very comforting place to go, and full of knowledgeable people.

Here, now it's moved to Russell Square, to another townhouse, so it's still sort of a tall stack of knowledge with books in the basement right up to the offices on the top; it's a brighter, lighter, more designed place, very comfortable to sit in, full of knowledgeable people still, so it's the old place reincarnated, I would say.

 

Ben Holden:

And, Howard, what about you? When did you first start working the Wiener?

 

Howard Falksohn:

I started using the Wiener library as a student back in the 90s. I was doing research for a dissertation here, first came across it then; later, when I graduated in history, I decided to do a postgraduate degree in archive administration, and then, having worked at a few local authority archives, a vacancy came up here in the late 90s, early 2000s, and that's when I first started working here as a professionally trained archivist.

 

Ben Holden:

And can you talk us through your role and what that entails, but perhaps also, for listeners who may not be familiar with the library or its work, a little bit of the history of

the place and how it came to be, and Wiener himself?

 

Howard Falksohn:

Well, we go back to the 1930s. We didn't start out as a library as such, we started out as an information gathering bureau called the ‘Jewish Central Information Office’ in Amsterdam, in 1934. The remit then was to collect material that was documenting anti-semitism, specifically in Germany initially, but later more widely in Europe, and to inform the world what was happening.

And then just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the library managed to move to London, although not all the staff managed to escape. Our founder, Alfred Wiener, his wife and three children also didn't manage to escape, although they survived the war ultimately. But the library continued here in London during the war years, in fact, our main remit was to support the British government and its war effort. The remit kind of changed, and that's where most of our funding came from. If you look at the old library’s visitor books, it tends to be the majority of users were from the British government, from various departments within the government, Ministry of Information and so forth; they would either access content within the library, or we would supply dossiers of information, and they would take them away. And of course, in those days, we would actually let out original documents, which is completely anathema!

Nowadays, of course, as I say, we weren't an official library stroke archive then, and of course, there was more prescient things to get on with during that era. The war came to an end, and then we started to really consolidate our holdings, and start the process and cataloguing in a way that is more consistent with being a library. And we focused on assisting in the Nuremberg war crimes trials, for example, we would help with information, supplying information, for prosecutors there. We also helped with restitution claims for survivors and refugees.

And another major project was gathering testimony for posterity, so we made a concerted effort to reach out to survivors for them to tell us their story. And it was quite a systematic and rigorous manner. So we would interview former refugees and survivors and transcribe those interviews, re-submit them back to the interviewee to make sure it's an authentic account of what they’d said. And then they'd be properly catalogued and indexed and ingested into our holdings. And that was quite an important project, because this was literally within just a few years after the end of the war. And of course, now, many of those testimonies have been digitised and translated and made much more widely accessible.

 

Ben Holden:

How many were there roughly?

 

Howard Falksohn:

About 1300. And they vary in length, some are book length and quite sizable manuscripts, others were shorter. But of course, in addition to that, people were actually offering us original documents as well, contemporary documents from the time. So when we talk about the Wiener Library Testaments Project, it's a bit of a misnomer, because they're not all testaments as such, some of them are actual contemporary documents, diaries or letters, things like that.

But that was just the beginnings of it. I mean, we've been collecting material for 60, 70 years. And if you ask me what I do now, which is one of your first questions, basically, my priority is to accession new material as it comes in, and we probably, I would estimate, I deal with between 50 and 60 new collections every year, coming in, approximately one a week. And of course, a collection could be 50 boxes from an organisation. Sometimes, people think we're only interested in the 1930s, but we're not, we're interested in anything and everything up to that point. So we have actually got material that goes back to the 18th century, not that many collections I have to say, but there are some, and some fascinating collections there. Of course, I just deal with the archival side, we also have a book budget, we're still buying books, pamphlets, we have quite a huge periodical collection as well.

 

Ben Holden:

And those testimonies are still coming in at the same rate? And what do you do when you get one have? Are you there to verify it, as well as, do you read, pour over everything, the ephemera, the documentation, everything?

 

Howard Falksohn:

Well, we get two types of content, we get archival content, original documents, which could be original letters, diaries, that kind of thing, and official documentation, documenting persecution, so in the 1930s, or it needs to be properly preserved in proper acid free folders and acid free paper like this kind of thing. Then, it needs to be described and catalogued according to an international standard, and that will get uploaded onto our website. And then and only then, can readers actually come in and actually access the collection in our reading room, in our invigilated reading room. There’s quite a number of processes that need to be executed before you can make them available to readers, and part of my priorities is to accession new materials.

So when people contact me, I don't like to put them off and say I'm too busy, which I always am, and say, ‘Oh, call me in six months’, because they may either decide to give it to somebody else, or it can end up just being thrown out, because quite often people, second, third generation refugees who probably don't even read the language, maybe think ‘Well, I can't find anyone else, let's chuck it out’. So I always prioritise them and say, ‘When can we meet? When can we arrange to meet?’, and there have been, there’s one celebrated case where we actually found 19 pristine boxes in a skip in the street with amazing sort of original First World War photographs and these letters written home to their parents in immaculate condition which had been dumped by somebody who's making a house clearance. And so we rescued it. But at the time, I remember thinking, on the one hand, what a great result we've managed to rescue this archive. But on the other hand, how many archives out there do we not know about that had been chucked out, because by definition, what you don't see you don't know about. So that's another reason why I like to prioritise new material, because the thing about archival material, it's unique, unlike books, which you can, most cases probably obtain reprints of, or other copies, even sort of fairly rare items; with archives, by definition, they are absolutely unique and irreplaceable in that sense.

 

Ben Holden:

And that sounds like there's a fair amount of detective work involved. Rachel, you've done some of that here in the library yourself. How integral was the library to the construction of your novels? I should say, in particular, ‘The Dark Room’, which was your debut novel, and you've written several acclaimed novels subsequently. But ‘The Dark Room’, in particular, has a, as you described, you were there in the library when it came into being, the process is described in the novel, in the libraries in the novel as well.

 

Rachel Seiffert:

The library is absolutely in the novel, yes. And it's funny actually, the first question you asked is why is it special to me? It gave me permission to be curious, the library did. My background is, I'm not Jewish, I'm German by background, but I'm on the wrong side of history, because my grandparents were Nazis and it is extraordinary to come to a place like this which documents the crimes of my grandparents’ generation, and the lives that they disrupted and blighted, and to feel welcomed, and to feel that my curiosity about the past is also welcomed, and that I can find help here. And that, to me, was extraordinary, as someone in their mid twenties in the 1990s when I first started writing.

Even Louisa, I have one of my characters talk about it, so one of my characters Micha is very curious about his grandfather's past. His grandfather is based, to some extent, on mine. He is curious about his family or his grandfather's role in the war, his grandfather was in the Waffen SS like my grandfather was, but he meets resistance from his family looking into the grandfather's past. But his sister, surprisingly, he thinks that his family is not curious, and then he discovers that his sister was actually for a while, and that his sister came to the Wiener, so I might read:

 

~

 

Rachel Seiffert reads and extract from her book, ‘The Dark Room”

I tried to find out about Opa too” Louisa tells him. The blood rushes in Micha’s ears, he hears its high pitch singing over the hum of the fridge. They are silent for some time.   Louisa takes her hand away from her face. She looks like she will cry. ‘Don't cry’ thinks Micha. Sweat prickles under the skin on Micha’s back.

“When?”

“While I was studying in London. There is a library there set up by a Jewish man, German. He fled in ‘33 I think. Anyway, they hold lots of information about the camps, survivors, about Nazis. They were very helpful, very kind. I used to go there every week. It made me feel better”.

She is crying. Her voice is tight, pushed out of her throat.

“Better?”

“Yes, like it was okay. No, not like it was okay, I don't know. It helped.”

Louisa smiles, wipes her face with her hands.

“And?”

“What?”

“What did you find out about Opa”?

“Oh, nothing”.

“Nothing?”

Micha can't believe her.

“He wasn't on any lists. There were a couple of readers at the library, people with lists of war criminals, Nazi officials. They didn't have him. I called up one of the databases too.”

“In London?”

“No, in this country.”

“Yes, and?”

“Nothing”.

 

~

 

Interview continues

 

Rachel Seiffert:

And I did that.

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, this was your process or a version of what you'd been doing at the Wiener, you’d gone specifically to investigate your own family history?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Yes.

 

Ben Holden:

And in the novel, this section of the novel, because there are three, equally powerful but quite different, it's a sort of triptych; in this section, Micha’s family and relationships begin to unravel as he investigates and becomes more and more obsessed, for want of a better word, of figuring out his grandfather's role in the war, what happened, what he did. Was this something that, again, it's not a memoir, but you know, this is very charged stuff within a family, was it a tricky process for you in that sense?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Well, it was a tricky process, most definitely. But not so much with my family, because my family have always been very honest about it. There's never been a time when I didn't know it, it’s how I always say, it never came as a surprise to me, because I was always told that my grandparents were Nazis. My mother came to the UK in the 60s, she had me and my brother, and so we grew up in Britain, but with very close connections to Germany - we went to Germany twice a year, I knew my grandmother very well, my grandfather died the year that I was born, but I knew my grandmother very well and loved her as well.   But I always had that knowledge about them.

Of course, a child’s knowledge is very different to an adult's knowledge, and I have read more and more and more and more as the decades have gone by, and I feel there was a time where I had the same view of my grandparents as my mother. But, as I've got older, that has diverged somewhat. I'll give an example, my grandfather was in the Waffen SS, my grandmother was a social worker for the Nazi Party. My grandfather's brother was boss basically of the ‘Reich’s erste Kammer’, so he was the deputy to Leonardo Conti, Chief Doctor under the Third Reich, very high up. So he would have known about the experiments conducted by Nazi doctors, for example. Leonardo Conti was one of the people who conducted experiments on camp inmates to see how they would respond to very low levels of oxygen, in order that they could see how high pilots could fly without requiring oxygen. And so many people died extraordinarily painful deaths because of this man's curiosity in the service of the war machine, and my great uncle was absolutely part of that, he would have known about all of that. But I was introduced to him, I knew him when he was an old man, and living on an estate outside Hamburg, and he had a donkey. He was a friendly old man, and my mother's relationship with him is that of friendly uncle. His own son says of him that he should have stood trial at Nuremberg, and he didn't, because, for various reasons, he didn't.

I was discussing this with my mother recently, and she said she was fine with the idea that he never stood trial. And I said, “You can't say that. No, Mum, you can't say that”. So we have diverged as time has gone on. But at the time when I was researching ‘The Dark Room’, I knew enough about what my grandfather had done, that had come to me through my family.

 

Ben Holden:

Right, they were fairly open about it?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

They were open about it, so it wasn't like I was opening doors in the family house that were supposed to be kept closed.

 

Ben Holden:

And yet, the actual minutiae or gory details, or whatever the right wording is, of what he actually did, those are still doors that are going to be full of darkness once inside, potentially, and difficult for a family to deal with?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Absolutely. So, for example, the way that my mother deals with it, is she says he was a doctor in the Waffen SS, we’re talking about my grandfather now, he was a doctor in the Waffen SS, and we don't know whether he was involved in any massacres. We just don't know that. He's never come up on a list anywhere, the discussions that my uncle had with him and with the men who were in Russian captivity with him have never revealed anything, but then they wouldn't say anything, would they?

The way my mother deals with it, she says, he was a soldier in that criminal war and a doctor in that criminal war. So he would have patched together men who would have gone on to commit crimes, and therefore he is culpable. That's my mother's way of looking at it. My way of looking at it is, there is no way that he was not involved. He was in the Waffen SS, the Waffen SS is a criminal organisation by definition. I don't know, I don't have any evidence that he committed a war crime, but the likelihood is, or the likelihood of him not having committed a war crime, is vanishingly small. On that level, we have our differences, my mother and I.

 

Ben Holden:

And so, when you were investigating this and researching what became this novel, you came into contact with Howard or were you doing your own detective work, or how does that process work?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

So Howard probably would have joined just after, right?

 

Ben Holden:

But you went to the Wiener?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Yes, absolutely. And then there were people who held lists of Nazi war criminals, for example, they would have their details up on the notice board with a number to tear off like you used to in the days before mobile phones. People also, you know, have their own informal archives, I guess, and the Wiener gave me access to people like that.

 

Ben Holden:

There's a very powerful other stretch in your novel, in the library, when Micha is, it's not, I don't think, the Wiener library, it's a different library that he's using, and it's his process which, if you don’t mind, I’ll read:

‘He writes again, pressing hard with his pen, he underlines it. But even with emphasis, it still feels feeble, all wrong. Micha thinks his notes should say more not less than the books, should reveal something about himself, but beyond discomfort, he has nothing to show, no ready response. Micha thinks, ‘She was Jewish’, but when he writes the words down, they look so cold and indifferent, he quickly turns the page. Michael is frightened by the quiet of the library, the cool distance of his notes’.

There's a reaching there for your protagonist, and a frustration, as well. It's not sufficient this process, it's never going to be enough. Was that again, in line with your own experience was this quite a frustrating situation that you were in? And however hard you try, it wasn't going to be sufficient. Was that a feeling that you were....?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Yeah, I was never going to find certainty, one way or another. And then, over the course of certainty about what my grandfather did or didn't do, for example, and then over the course of the writing and the research, it occurred to me that I do have a certainty. There is never going to be an absolution, he was in the Waffen SS, you're not in the Waffen SS if you're an anti-Nazi, you're just not. So he is culpable, and I have to own that.

 

Ben Holden:

And I think it's borne out moving sideways in your style as a writer in that novel, and it's a sparse style that is carried through your other novels, but from what I can tell, this one in particular, and perhaps this is just your evolution as a writer, whatever, changing times in your own approach, but it's so lean, it's so spare in the diction and syntax, there's a sort of forensic quality to it, and urgency, immediacy, etc. Is that again, borne partly out of, of course, it's the writer’s MO to construct the perfect sentence and be as rigorous as you can to not use words in the wrong way or shape or order, etc, but is it borne out of partly what we're just talking about, in terms of you need to get this right, forensically as well?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Yeah, I mean I do, I made decisions, such as it was going to be written in the present tense. So Helmut, the first character, so it's in three parts, and seen through three different characters’ eyes at different times, so Helmut is in Berlin in the 1930s, and during the war, and Laura is in the weeks immediately after the war, a young girl travelling across destroyed Germany, from Bavaria to Hamburg to get home. For example, her journey is a journey, a physical journey across Germany, but also a journey of realisation of what her parents have done. That had to be in the present tense for the pace of it to be sufficient, but then I kept the present tense even though Micha’s looking into the past, because it was about that internal journey that he's making, and the insistence and the urgency of that internal journey. And yes, it was, it was about trying to nail exactly how he should feel about this grandfather. What did his grandfather do? Nail that for a start, and he was never able to nail it, only to the extent that I'm able to nail what my grandfather did or didn't do, but also what position you should take on that, and how you should feel about it in the end.

 

Ben Holden:

And one offshoot or corollary of the style is that when your characters, thinking particularly of Laura, when it's her birthday, and she's on the ferry, and breathing in the air, and looking into the horizon, there's a release there. It's so tightly wound, because it's so to the bone, their lives are to the bone. Your writing is so lean and mean, I mean that in a good way, to the bone equally. It's visceral, and the story, as much the plotting etc, is so confined and oppressive, but exciting as well as a reader to, you know, you've got such a grip on everything, that when you let it go a little bit, it feels very cathartic. Was there equally catharsis for you? This was your debut novel, intensely personal. As you say, you’d entered the Wiener feeling slightly lost, perhaps. And then it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and hugely acclaimed, what was that experience like? Was that cathartic? Obviously, it must have been some satisfaction, you'd got something right, but how did that feel at the time?

 

Rachael Seiffert:

Honestly, it just felt really confusing and overwhelming, actually, you know, now looking back on it, and I'm extremely grateful that it happened, I was even grateful at the time; it's afforded me the ability to work as a writer, that's not something, not a gift horse to look in the mouth, definitely not. But it was, as you say, it was incredibly personal. You know, I came into the Wiener, and I said to one of the librarians on the desk, ‘My grandfather was a Nazi, and I want to find out about him’, and, you know, with my heart in my throat, and it was so normal to him. You know, there was just no judgement - that was an incredible relief. But being very public, even though I never said this was based on my family; at the time, I was entirely silent about that it was based on my family, but, of course, everybody who reads it is thinking this must be about her family, and I knew that.

There's a big difference between having a small, personal exchange with somebody whose entire professional life is about this subject conveying a sense of, ‘You’re alright, you're accepted’ to having a very public declaration of ‘My grandfather was in the Waffen SS’. So it's actually, it was just very confusing, very overwhelming at the time.

 

Ben Holden:

And then of course, it's called ‘The Dark Room’, and cameras, photography plays a huge role in, a motif, in the three stories. And then the second section of the book, Laura's story, was turned into a very fine film. So you were a film editor, or you've worked as an editor in film? Which again, speaks to your strip-back style, I would say. So there you have, okay, it's not Laura's story, it’s not as personal as the third section which riffs a bit on your own family, but there you have the fictional version of the true stories that we might find in the Wiener Library that you've created, being shot presumably in front of you when you're on set, etc, and seeing them up on the screen ultimately, how was that experience, again, for a film that's about cameras as well, and the cameras are rolling on your fiction?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Actually the second story, Laura's story, is based on my mother. So my mother was in Bavaria...my mother's family from Hamburg; they were, after the fire storm, they were evacuated to Bavaria. And at the end of the war, when the Americans came into Bavaria, my grandfather was already in Russian captivity, and my grandmother was taken into American captivity. My mother is the eldest of four, and she had to make the journey up to Hamburg to reach her grandparents. It's different than in the book, because my family were, they had a maid, so they were not alone when they made the journey, and they made the journey slightly later, when the trains were running again, when the allies had got transport up and running, so it was quicker.

There are elements in there that I took from my research, but there are also many things that happened to my mother on that journey. I remember the first time watching the film, I had my version of this story running in my head alongside this film that was unrolling in front of me on the screen, and there was a certain dissonance. It took me a while to just look at the film on its own merits. And I agree, it's a very, very fine film. For my mother, who was sitting in the same screening, she had her actual experience, my version of her experience, and then this film that was unfolding, so she had, you know, three things to separate out. She likes my book, and she also thinks it's a very fine film.

 

Ben Holden:

And there’s enough this, okay, it could thoroughly do someone's head in, but there's enough distance because of those layers of narrative and refashioning that she could perhaps watch with some objectivity?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Oh, absolutely. Some changes were made in the film, so they don't arrive back in Hamburg, for example - bombed Hamburg would have been far too expensive to recreate. So they end up further north, the family in the film are from further north, from Husum, that's a very marshy area, and so one of the final scenes in the film is crossing the [-], which is, you know, basically a tidal lagoon, and you can only cross it at a low tide, but obviously, it's still very muddy and difficult to navigate. And my aunt said, it was exactly right, because even, you know, as a small child, she arrived back in Hamburg, and all certainties had gone in her life. Her parents had been taken away, the country that she thought was a great country was the pariah of the world. She said it was like the ground shifting under your feet, it was like the mud of the [-] of Husum. So she said it was, for her, the metaphor for her experience, the film was perfect.

 

Ben Holden:

Well, that's a relief, but also, it must be very moving for you. And going back to your style for a moment, it's a little reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, in my mind anyway, and you have this wonderful quote from his novel, ‘The Crossing’ at the front of ‘A Boy in Winter’, your latest novel, which covers different, but similar, terrain; the quote is: ‘He said the wicked know that if the evil they do is sufficient horror, men will not speak against it, that men have only stomach for small evils, and only these will they oppose’. It's brilliant. It's brilliant, but cuts to the quick of quite a lot of what we're talking about, obviously hence why you put it at the top of the novel. Is this something that seams through these novels, obviously for you and what we're discussing in the Wiener Library, do you think?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Oh, absolutely. And it's that where we are now as well, in so many ways. I mean, when I read that, I mean, I've read and re-read Cormac McCarthy, I'm very flattered that you compare me, but while I was writing, ‘A Boy in Winter’, I read ‘The Crossing’ and that quotation just leapt out for me, it was just like this is exactly what I've been trying to say forever and every day. I'm forever trying to write the small man in the massive horror, and how much do we see of it? How much can we act against it? How much are we able to do that? How much do we have the courage to do that? And what are the risks involved in doing that? The reason I wrote ‘A Boy in Winter’ was because I just felt like this is exactly where we are now, this unfolding of, or this dismantling of, what so many of us have thought was a liberal consensus, a post war, nothing like that will ever happen again. We have so much documentation, why would anything like that happen ever again. And yet, we have anti-semitism on the rise, we have populism in all its awful incarnations on the rise. This huge evil made up of so many small evils, how many of us small people are doing enough against it?

 

Ben Holden:

There's a very amazing moment in, going back to ‘The Dark Room’, again in that third section of the novel as Micha looks into his grandfather's past, when he comes across a collaborator in Belarus, and this character explains his actions or tries to rationalise his actions against the Jewish as a collaborator, and his guilt somewhat, at least, by saying that the Nazis fed him a lie that made sense. It's a line that is brilliant in terms of that character, and understanding their psychology, but also really struck a chord with me, as it does feel like that corresponds with a lot of the untruth that these populist governments are feeding electorates. And yet, sometimes voters know they’re lies, yet they make sense, they offer some sort of restitution, or speak to a sense of betrayal they may have, again, we've, you know, it's a well worn parallel with our age and the ‘30s post-crash sorts of forces, but I was very struck by that parallel.

 

Rachel Seiffert:

If you look now at what's happening, I mean, I actually think we should leave the European Union, because that's the democratic thing that was decided. So we should do that. I say that with great regret.

 

Ben Holden:

Yeah, because it's also sense that we don't learn anything from all these mistakes and this past, and history lives in the past, but memory lives in the present. And this place is, I've heard that you point out that you've lived in Germany, right? And the German word for Memorial, there are two meanings.

 

Rachel Seiffert:

So you have ‘Denkmal’, which is the call to thought, a memorial called to thought, and you have ‘Mahnmal’, which is a memorial to warn. And we're not looking at the warnings. History doesn't repeat itself exactly, of course it doesn't. It feels such a parallel to the 1930s, because I know people in Germany also, at the time, I've read enough diaries of people at the time who were looking at what was happening in their democratic structures, and saying ‘How do we stop this’? and people were rationalising that it was okay to be putting the Nazis in charge, because it was better than the Communists. You know, so there were all these strange rationalisations for eroding democracy and it ended in mass murder. And it didn't even have to end in mass murder for it to be appalling. You know, even if the Nazis had never gone beyond the German borders, even if the Nazis had stayed within the borders in 1938, 1939, the crime against the German Jews would have still been a crime. So you erode democracy, at your peril, I say.

 

Ben Holden:

And we say that we're not learning from the mistakes of the past, but as I mentioned, you've lived in Berlin, or you've lived in Germany. My brother lives in Berlin, I've been there a few times, but Germany, it feels to me when I'm there that they do confront their past and they do try and learn as a society. Do you think that's fair?

 

 

Rachel Seiffert:

Yes, I do think that's very fair. However, it's not, horribly, I mean, I used to think this kind of thing would never happen in Germany. Germany is the last country that would fall prey to populism again. That was my very overconfidence for decades. But, you know, the AfD have got 25% of the vote, and they're using exactly the language, exactly the language that the Nazis used. And I know they're also doing it as a provocation, but they're still doing it and still getting votes for doing it. That's the terrifying thing. So they talk about ‘Lebensraum’ for goodness sake, you know, the AfD talk about ‘Lebensraum’. They use that word, and they get votes. So Niklas Frank, you know, Stern journalist and son of Hans Frank, the Gauleiter of Poland (in WWII), he wrote recently, I mean he must be in his eighties now, Niklas Frank, he wrote a really blistering attack on the AfD for their terminology, it’s terrifying. You know, it's not only terrifying that they use these terms, but it's more that they get votes on the back of it.

 

Ben Holden:

It's astonishing that they can, but again, it's a sign of the times that a word like that, which really should be completely off limits is being trotted out.

 

Rachel Seiffert:

I've never allowed a swastika on my book covers anywhere, but in the UK and in the US, book jacket designers have put them on there and I'm pleased to take them off, but in Germany, that's banned. You would never have a book cover with a swastika on it. So, in Germany, there is a heightened sensitivity to the use of that sort of terminology, to the use of the iconography of Nazism, and yet, the language is back.

 

Ben Holden:

And your fiction is often, or seems mostly, a lot of your inquiry in your fiction is about the dispossessed, and the people who are left behind by society, and these people are the ones who often bear the brunt of a lot of what we're talking about, the lies that make sense, etc, I don't think that's an unfair observation, do you?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

No, not at all. I've sort of skated closer and closer and closer to trying to write from the ordinary German’s perspective, I guess. But I've skated closer and closer and closer towards people who were aligned with the regime, whether willingly or unwillingly. All my protagonists in ‘The Dark Room’ were children or young people, and therefore, not conscious of being aligned with the regime, but then ‘A Boy in Winter’, I've got a civil engineer, he's an anti-Nazi, he doesn't like the Nazis at all, but within that system, he's found a way of working that means he doesn't have to fight for the regime, but he is still part of the regime and he is still using slave labour, for example; he's in charge of building a road through the occupied territories, so he's in stationed in the Ukraine. I had to withhold from the reader for as long as possible, the knowledge that he's using slave labour, because I wanted the reader to like him, and then for that to be revealed bit by bit. And in the new book that I'm writing at the moment, it’s a similar character in that, you know, somebody who has gained from the Nazi regime, and then has to, after the fact, come to terms with that themselves, or come to an acknowledgement of their own culpability. But the difficulty is, is getting the reader to like them in the first place. So you have to withhold a certain amount of information about them, and it sometimes feels like you're duping or a manipulation of the reader that goes a bit too far. But the reason I'm doing it is because I want readers to understand how you are also like a frog in boiling water, you yourself how much would you be aware of the temperature going up in that kind of situation? At what stage would you say ‘Oh, no, it's just gone too far now’?

 

Ben Holden:

And at what point do we all become complicit? And you're also entangling us in those issues of morality, that people don't even realise, as you say, your protagonists, often, almost unawares, or, you know, things happen. Events move quickly. I mean, in their immediate personal lives, like all of us, and they're on the spot, and they're making decisions, which could have quite epic ramifications, in terms of the ripple effect on three generations of family etc, as in your case, or being swept up by the forces of the times.

 

Rachel Seiffert:

You know, how many of us, when they we vote for political party, let's say how many of us subscribe to absolutely everything in the manifesto? How many of us have actually read the manifesto for a start? We go on the basis of ‘Oh yeah, my family have always voted for them, or they’re sort of kind of like me, their general principles are like mine’. And there were hundreds of thousands of Germans who, or millions even of Germans, who, you know, didn't serve in the armed forces, didn't serve in the organisation, just thought about themselves as apolitical, as not political beings. And they voted for the Nazis, and then afterwards, had to, it took them decades to realise that the rest of the world now looks at you as being part of the slaughter, that's because you put your cross next to that man's name. And you know, because you carried on living your life, and life got a little bit better for you and, of course, your neighbours were disappeared, but you didn't really look at that, because life got better for you, and that you were part of the slaughter in the world's eyes.

 

Ben Holden:

And this place is a very strong sort of beacon and reminder of those individual stories, as well as the individual stories you process and look after and steward. Howard, as well as the bigger picture, and as Rachel said at the top, this building is a very light, very airy, you’re sort of shining lights on things here and it feels very much like that in the interior. But it feels like this room we're in right now is a very pleasant and light room, but it's kind of a beacon this place in that sense, I would say. It’s a very, very humbling place to visit as a, you know, visitor, I've come in here, but it's also quite empowering in a funny way, in terms of what we're talking about, in terms of taking ownership and responsibility for the past.

 

Howard Falksohn:

Yeah, I mean, I'm just thinking of the comparison with say, the Nazi party in the 1930s and AfD now; it's making me think, and I’m just thinking possibly then it's even harder to sort of get your head round, because they were quite blatantly anti-semitic and ‘Mein Kampf’ was already out there, so we knew what Hitler was about, what he wanted to do. And yet the AfD now, I mean, they tried to argue they're a broad church, don’t they, so that's how they become more popular, I think; because, you know, there have many very right wing parties in Germany since the war, most recently you had the NPD, Republikaner…

And, in fact, in the immediate aftermath of the war, there was a party with some ex-Nazis in it as well, which I think got banned at some point. But I think the AfD, it has this very extreme, as you said, some of the rhetoric they use is very extreme. Not only do we document what happened 70-80 years ago, but we also subscribe to quite a number of current periodicals which are constantly shedding light on what's happening in Germany now. Not just Germany, but other places in Europe. So we do try to keep abreast of current events and let our readers make those comparisons, because we're not really here to make people's minds up for them, you know, we're here as a place where we can make our resources available to researchers and readers.

 

Ben Holden:

And you must be working in concert the whole time with institutions, similar resources in Germany, in particular, but all over the world?

 

Howard Falksohn: 

Yeah we do. I mean, in this country, we're fairly unique, but there are other institutions with similar collecting remits in France, Germany, most recently in Israel. We have a sister library there in Israel with similar collecting remits. Possibly ten years ago, we started to expand our remit to include post-Holocaust genocides as well. And so, the bulk of the material tends to be secondary material, but just recently, we've taken in an original primary source, from an NGO that was working in the Sudan, which has original drawings from children; they were asked to express themselves how they felt about the genocide that was going on in their country, and that's something that I’d be keen to obtain more of from other similar kinds of organisations, not least because they didn't know where to put this stuff - if we didn't take it, it may not survive. So it's very important that those things, and that's an ongoing genocide, I mean, I think just last year, there was more massacres going on. So going back to the point you made about, are we really learning from history? Well, clearly not in certain cases.

 

Ben Holden:

And yet, there's also a logic to the fact that to take on these sorts of forces, a library is, or an archive is, the best possible fight back, if you think obviously of the expression of Nazism or fascism, the truest expression, I think Orwell said, was burning books; and obviously, the Nazis destroyed many, many libraries. I believe a third of books in German libraries were destroyed under the Nazis regime and, of course, probably most infamously, those 25,000 non-German books burned in Bebelplatz. But again, these sort of examples of biblioclasm, they span, not just the Nazis, they go on through to Iraq, etc. today, and also they go back before Nazis, but to take them on, books and archives and memoriam is probably the best weapon surely?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

It’s so important. I mean, it's important to have a place where people can come to feel like their enquiry, like I did, is legitimate and necessary and welcome. But it's also, you know, the collection put together helped at the Nuremberg trials. Having repositories like this is crucial, because, despite the fact that we seem to repeat ourselves, humans, we also do repeat ourselves in that we fight back against it, and some attempts are justice are made also throughout history, and, you know, we have to also remember that; and having places like the Wiener is instrumental in that, you know, in giving people the sense of community, like-mindedness, but also concrete evidence, places where things can be held that can be forces for justice in the longer term.

 

Howard Falksohn:

I think also libraries, in general, are more than the sum of their parts, aren’t they? So people have argued, well, in the digital age, more and more content has been scanned and made available online. I know that the Leo Baeck Institute in New York has digitised all their archival holdings, and so you can literally sit back on your laptop at home and scrutinise all this material, but there's so much more to a library than simply those kind of de-contextualised documents that have been scanned and made available on your laptop. They’re places where people can exchange ideas, and I was saying earlier that I've actually managed to put people together who have similar research interests who would never have been able to, had that chance meeting had they not actually come to this physical place. We have lots of events here, lots of gatherings where, again, people will rub shoulders with each other, and there is that sense that you really get more out of visiting a physical place than you would ever get by scrutinising stuff online. Even if we scanned our entire holdings and had them available online, it would only be a fraction of what we have to offer as a place, and that doesn't go just for the Wiener Library, that goes for libraries in general, I think it's fair to say.

 

Ben Holden:

Totally, and we've found that going up and down the country for this podcast, finding that libraries offer those safe spaces, non-judgmental spaces, whoever you are, as soon as you walk in, prince or pauper, you're treated exactly the same, or you should be, they’re free at the point of entry as well, unlike most other places, and yes, they’re non-judgmental, but there is also that resource or sort of collected memory bank that they offer local communities as well, which is so important. And obviously this is rich on a grand scale here and this is sort of sacred ground, this place. But those local libraries offer similar sorts of opportunities for people. And again, going back to the Orwellian, he in ‘1984’ described, or at least the unapproved books in that novel were consumed by flames in a memory hole, and justice without memory is incomplete, in the words of Elie Wiesel. And this is what this place offers so crucially, isn't it?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

And also, there's, you know, the specialist knowledge here, people who are, you know, immersed in these archives all the time. So the reason I'm back here again at the moment is because I'm looking through the archives of the International Tracing Service, which houses I don't know how many million documents, 17 million displaced people after the war, and all the associated documentation with it, that goes with that. And the physical archive is in Germany, but there's a digital archive available here. You know, I can sit here for the rest of my life, looking through those documents, and it would take me forever to find the connections that I need to make a novel, and so the archivists here are instrumental, the conversations that I have with them, because they're familiar with the different strands of the collection. And also with, you know, one document will lead you to another to another, but they will find you that document that sends you in the right direction. It's the people, as well as the physical or digital contents of a library like the Wiener that are so crucial.

 

Ben Holden:

It's a pleasant place to visit as well and there's a brilliant exhibition space. If anyone listening hasn't been here, I highly recommend you come and check it out, if in the area, because there's some fantastic events like you said, Howard, but there's always a really, really riveting and interesting, and often exquisite, exhibition. There is one right now, photography downstairs.

 

Howard Falksohn:

Yeah, we tend to, every three months or six months, we'll have a new exhibition and then we'll have a series of talks and lectures loosely linked to that exhibition, so it might be more direct, it might be more kind of [-], but generally speaking, that's how we kind of model our talks and lectures. It's worth looking at our website for what's on next; there’s nearly always something on every week, an event, or a talk, or lecture, or film.

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, highly recommended! And I always like to ask guests on, because we're talking so much about libraries and you're a pro, Howard, is your library at home, and Rachel, are your shelves, is your life archived meticulously and regimentally, Howard?

 

Howard Falksohn:

Well, truth be told, my archives, my current records are not too bad, there’s a filing cabinet, but my library, if you can call it that, I know where things are, but nobody else does.

 

Ben Holden:

Rachel?

 

Rachel Seiffert:

I’m relieved, because that's exactly what my life is like, it’s sort of loosely grouped into Australian fiction, because my dad was Australian, and German fiction in German and in English, and then everything else. And it's kind of higgledy piggledy, but I do know where things are, you know, you have a sort of visual memory or the last time I put it down was there, and it's on its side. Oh, yes, there it is again.

 

Ben Holden:

Thank you both. And maybe, if you don't mind, Rachel, we might go down with Howard to the Wilson Reading Room, which is a really, really lovely reading room, I have to say, having been in there, and you might browse the shelves and find a book, and whether that's something that's been seminal to you, your process or a new find, it would be great to discover that with you if you're up for that both of you?

 

Rachel Seiffert: 

I have something in mind already.

 

~

 

Rachel Seiffert is invited to select a book from the Wiener Library

 

Ben Holden:

So, you’ve gone straight towards…

 

Rachel Seiffert:

So this is where I've been sitting for much of the summer, which is looking into the International Tracing Service database. Every so often, I turn around and look to the books too, and found things that were important to my current research. But this morning, looking, I found something written by Beate Meyer about Hamburg; she's based in Hamburg, she's a historian part of Hamburg university, and has been very helpful to me in the past, and my family are from Hamburg, so I’m particularly interested.

Jews in Germany were forced into an association basically, by the Nazis, I think in 1939. My particular interest here is that my mother's best friend, post war, so my mother was a child of the Third Reich, my mother's best friend, post war, was a child of a mixed marriage. She became my godmother. So my middle name, I'm named after her. And so the child of a Waffen SS officer and the child of a Jewish - German, or Jewish - “Aryan”, inverted commas, mixed relationship, became best friends in their teenage years. And I've always been very interested in my godmother’s parents, so her father was categorised as aryan under the Nuremberg race laws and her mother was categorised as Jewish. So she grew up as a ‘Mischling’ as they were called then, but her father refused to divorce, so they lived a very difficult, very precarious existence, but it meant that his wife survived, and it meant all of his children also survived. Of course, had the war gone on for much longer, that might not have been the case, but, you know, the bravery of that kind of decision is extraordinary to me. Beate Meyer, I've done some research into my godmother’s family and similar families in Hamburg during the period, and Beate Meyer has done a lot of writing, but this is a book that I don't know yet, and it's a history of the Reich Association of Jews in Germany, ‘A Fatal Balancing Act’, it's called, so these people were forced into an association, and were forced to administer, for example, the rations accorded to Jews; they were forced also, to a certain extent, to accept deportations, because they decided, for better or for worse, that it was better to go along with the authorities, in case they did something worse to people, so maybe it would be better that they go to Theresienstadt, than they are deported elsewhere beyond the Reich borders or beyond Germany, or that they are continually harassed in their homes, and these decisions now, with hindsight, seem catastrophic. But of course, at the time, people were operating within extremely tight parameters, and without the benefit of what we know now. So I'd be really fascinated to read about the lives of these people and some of the decision making that they had to go through.

My experience of coming here 25 years ago, to write my first book, and then 20 years later, coming back to the subject, to write another book, and realising the amount of scholarship that goes on all of the time and the amount of knowledge that you can draw on, it's really humbling, and the people like Beate Meyer have uncovered the history of the Holocaust in, you know, what I consider to be my hometown of Hamburg in the intervening period, until I now actually can know more than my mother does. Because even though she grew up in Hamburg, I can now access all of this and have discussions with my mother about what happened in her hometown that she didn't know about, because of the scholarship and the dedication of people like Beate Meyer and my association with the Wiener Library.

I'm continually humbled by the amount of writing and thinking and productivity that goes on around this pivotal point in history.

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. That way, not only will you keep up with the podcasts, but you’ll also help us champion libraries. To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website: www.exlibris.com You can also get updates on twitter and instagram. Find me @thatbenholden.

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Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

Melvyn Bragg in Wigton Library

Melvyn Bragg in Wigton Library

December 3, 2019

Melvyn Bragg is what people in Britain sometimes call a ‘national treasure’.

The man is prodigious.

Notably for this bookish show, he has written several award-winning novels and works of non-fiction. In this episode, Melvyn discusses with Ben his bold latest novel, Love Without End.

Melvyn began his broadcasting career at the BBC in 1961. He has edited and presented The South Bank Show for the last forty years and chairs In Our Time on BBC Radio 4. He goes into the origins of both these mainstay programmes in riveting detail during this discussion, explaining how the beloved and enduring South Bank Show nearly got cancelled straight away…

An honorary fellow of the Royal Society and of the British Academy, Melvyn was given a peerage in 1998 and made a Companion of Honour in 2018. 

The drive and motivations that have propelled Melvyn Bragg can in many respects be traced back to his Cumbrian childhood. For this episode, Melvyn chose to meet at his hometown library in Wigton. He is still very much a part of the fabric of this beguiling market town. In fact, he opened this very branch library himself - back in 1975.

A 'local hero' then, you could say, as well as a 'national treasure'.

For the episode, Melvyn and Ben are joined by Kathryn Lynn, Librarian for Allerdale.

 

...

 

A full transcript of this episode of Ex Libris, featuring Melvyn Bragg, follows below.

 

Ben Holden:

I've always found the term national treasure a bit cringey if I'm honest, but today's guest does fit that bill.  His glittering qualifications for such status include honorary fellowships of the Royal Society and of the British Academy, a peerage awarded in 1998, and being made a Companion of Honour in 2018.  Yet, he's also a local hero. Indeed, I'm standing outside his hometown library in Wigton, Cumbria, which was opened in 1975 by, you guessed it,  said national treasure; he is, of course, Melvyn Bragg. 

So Melvyn joined the BBC in 1961, and he never looked back.  He's edited and presented ‘The South Bank Show’ for the last 40 years and chairs ‘In Our Time’ on BBC Radio Four.  He’s also written several award winning novels, films and works of non-fiction. 

Kathryn Lynn, librarian for Allerdale region is waiting inside to talk us through the library, itself something of a treasure trove.  Melvyn still spends much of his time up here in Wigton.  I say he never looked back, and yet, he never really left in some ways.  And he has kindly come into town to join us today. So, without further delay, let's turn the page and start this conversation.  

  

Interview:

Melvyn, Kathryn, thank you very much for joining us today.  Melvyn, we're in your hometown of Wigton, but I have to ask, nevertheless, why here? Why Wigton library?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

Well, why Wigton, is the first part of it, and I was brought here when I was three days old,  brought away from the contamination of the city of Carlisle to the small market town in Wigton which had a population of 5000 people.  It was basically a market town, but there are two factories as well, one, as it were, for the men, one for the women;  women worked in a clothing factory, and the men worked in a factory which made that paper used to go around cigarette packets.  Otherwise, it was a market town, and it still is a market town, and there were great auctions in the place for cattle, for pigs, for horses, twice a year.  And it informed my imagination ever since.  It seemed to be a perfect town for a child.

I was brought up, first of all, at the bottom of a street called Union Street.  I don't remember anything about that.  We went down through an archway into a little yard, and there were four houses - each had one room upstairs and one room downstairs.  You shared a wash house, you shared a lavatory - I don't remember that.  That was when the war had just started.  My father went away to war, and we moved into another house in Council House Yard, down Station Road, which is an old house, but it was much, much bigger, but about three families lived there; my mother had been fostered there and other foster children had stayed there, and then others turned up, and that was an amazing place, and I've just been writing about in the last few days, actually.  It was an amazing place for trying to work out who was who and what was what - all these uncles who are not my uncles, aunts who are not my aunts, cousins who are not my cousins;  relationships that were completely false, and taken for granted, and very benign on the whole.

But in the corner of that yard, to come to the library, was the Wigton library;  the fire brigade were in that yard, and the man who cleaned the town with a brush and shovel, and there was a horsebox in the yard, there was an estate agents in the yard.  And that was the yard where everybody on Station Road, which was quite a long road, all the women could hang their washing on Mondays, so it was like some kind of Ingmar Bergman ghost town then - you tried to get to your house by going through the sheets without dirtying them.  And in the corner was the library;  you went up some steps and the library was run by Mr Carrick, the town clerk, and he was a fervent Wigtonian; he edited books of Cumberland tales, he spoke the dialect very broadly, but very clearly, so you understood what he was saying.  He was a big figure in the town, he was very helpful to me.  So, I would scurry down, it's only about 30 yards down the yard;  he would say, “Read this, read that, read the other”.  So that was my first library, and it was a very fond memory because he was such a nice man. 

And the second library in Wigton, when that library closed, was the Quakers library.  There's 12 denominations of religion in this town of 5000 people.  The Quakers are very strong, and they had a lovely Quaker meeting house, not far from where we're sitting now, and the Quakers took over the library, and so we went to the Quaker House to the library.  They had panelling in front of the shelves, - if you went late on a Friday night, and I lingered as often as I could to see how many books I could carry, - they would put the panelling back, so it would become a room for the Quakers to sit in silence the next morning.

And then there's this library here, which I had the honour to open about 40 years ago, right in the middle of the town;  and, as you've seen, it’s first class, it's well lit, well stocked, multi-purpose.  And that's the sum of the libraries.  I suppose in terms of libraries in general, I was completely dependent on it really, I mean, where else were we going to get books? Sometimes there was a sale and you bought a book or two, but, basically, let's cut to the chase, it was libraries where I got the books that I read.

 

Ben Holden:

I know that you've described yourself as someone who likes being solitary, but not lonely. And perhaps that's partly born out of being an only child, but that strikes me as perhaps linked to your love of a library, in terms of a library being somewhere where someone can be solitary and yet immediately part of a community?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

Yes, there are two communities, that's a good point.  I mean, the community of those of us who went to the library was, first of all, a little community.  As I remember, the Council House Yard library was only open on Friday nights and Saturdays, - Mr. Carrick was a busy man -, so you'd meet more or less the same people.  But the community was a community of writers.  Of course, you didn't think of them as writers then, you thought of them as stories and books, just like I never thought of films as anything to do with anybody but actors, until I went to Oxford and started to see Ingmar Bergman films.  And so that was this other imagined community, which was extremely rich, and I still remember quite a lot of the books that I read at that time, and they'd all come from libraries. 

 

Ben Holden:

Kathryn, today we've walked in, and as Melvyn said already, it's a thriving community heart, this library, you can tell;  there's kids out there in the main part of the library with their parents, and there's a knitting group having a lively conversation over their knitting.  That's just today though, but could you explain a little bit the current context for us of Allerdale and of Wigton library today?

 

Kathryn Lynn:

We're trying to be a really big part of the community.  Libraries have changed, they’ve had to move with the times.  We have reading groups, we have knitting-natter type groups, self-help groups; we have signposting groups - you can come along if you’re a bit shy of going to an organisation for help, we can signpost and get people from that organisation to come to the library in a more relaxed environment, so it's not as intimidating.  Obviously, there’s events for children.  Currently, we’ve got ‘Feed and Read’, which happens in three libraries in Allerdale at the moment, which is encouraging children to come to the library, get a free packed lunch, and read with their friends, their parents, with us, and then ‘Rhyme Time’ sessions which join onto that for younger children. 

We did have a bad reputation or a reputation that preceded us that it's taken a long time to dispel.  I mean, Melvyn went to libraries as a matter of course and so did I, because my parents took me, but a lot of people didn't, or people who went to libraries as children, and they have never been back.

 

Ben Holden:

And is that because of misconceived notions of what a library really is?

 

Kathryn Lynn:

Yes, the ‘stern librarian’ reputation, but it's just the wrong image, because there's nothing stopping you going to the library at any age; it’s there from birth, we join children who are tiny, and we've got board books, we've got events going on to attract children.

The problem is keeping them when they get to teenage years, “Oh, the library’s not for me”, but it is, and it's to keep that interest.  It’s not just about reading, even though that's the biggest part, it's about self improvement, education.  People can just come in and do their homework, that kind of thing, in a lovely environment.

 

Ben Holden:

Melvyn, in terms of painting a picture of Wigton for those who have not had the pleasure of being here or coming here before, you very kindly have offered to read a short piece that you wrote very generously for a new anthology.  I'm doubly grateful to you, a new anthology that I've edited, ‘My first memory’, which is the first memories of great figures.  It would be very special for listeners to hear you conjure those childhood memories in your own words, if that's okay?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

Just before I do that, just to give people an idea of why Wigton can be thought of as something that's deeply attaching, because most people have never heard of it.  It's a small, insignificant town in the North West, but there was a feeling until mid-late teenage, even late teenage, I didn't feel better supplied with opportunities when I went to Oxford for months, maybe for the first year.  I mean, when I say you have 12 churches, they're very different.  The Anglican Church, - I was in the choir from the age of six -, it had massive stuff to offer - we sang great music, there would be choir festivals, Kathleen Ferrier was in one of the local choirs, and there were competitions choirs with three choirs in the town, school choirs, and the Methodists there, you could go to their youth club - they were very good at ping pong.

The Roman Catholics came over, they were one of the first Roman Catholics to come after the Reformation.  There was a big Roman Catholic settlement with the nuns, one of the things they were famous for was the dances, and so we all went to the dances.  And so it went on, there were congregationalists, salvationists, the Salvation Army, Quakers and so on, so that was rich.  In another way, it was very severe and dampening, but it was very rich.

And also there were good schools, there was a very anciently established Grammar School, local primary schools.  I went to a very good primary school with excellent teachers, and the National School which is just along the road from here.  Good local shops, and local butcher shops, I mean, the cows really graze in the fields, then they were taken to the slaughter house, slaughtered, then they were taken to the butcher shops - Toppings butcher shop.  So there's a great deal there, an enormous number of clubs.  I think it's partly to do with after the war, when the men came back from the war and wanted to give something back for whatever reason, and there was a great public service thing, and I'm not idealising this, but the number of clubs was ridiculous. 

We were a strictly working class family, but I was in something called AYPA, the Anglican Young People's Association;  we met in the parish rooms, we went on outings to Keswick, we did debates with Carlisle AYPA.  I was in the Cubs and then in the Scouts, there was a very good Scout troop.  We went around the North of England on camps and that sort of thing.  There were obviously sports clubs all over the place.  There was a good swimming club, we've been endowed with a swimming pool by one of the big time benefactors in the late 19th century, and on and on, it went to Catholics and their own clubs.  So there was masses to do, and there's a beautiful river going through it where we could build dams and fish and all that.  All that said, it had an awful lot going for it.  So that's the background in terms of the place itself.

Well, I find that I was locked into it psychologically, I don't quite know why.  I mean, I think my mother locked herself into it, because she was born illegitimately.  And, in this town, when she was born, that was a curse.  And, on the whole, I'd say 90% of the time, either the mother or the child left the town, and her mother left the town, and she was fostered.  So when we moved into the council house, my grandmother was not my grandmother, because the woman had fostered my mother, though my mother called her mother.  And that was the beginning of all sorts of stories. So, that's a background to it.

 

~

 

Melyn Bragg reads an extract from the anthology ‘My First Memory’.

 

~

 

Interview continues

 

Ben Holden:

And of course, this wasn't the first time that you'd revisited your childhood in a literary sense, because of your Cumbrian trilogy.  I was quite struck by ‘The Soldier’s Return’, your much acclaimed, but very personal, novel about your childhood, that you started that with the library, and your protagonist’s mother, Ellen, Joe's mum, but also the fictional surrogate of your own mother, she's in the library researching Burma, trying to understand where her husband is coming back from. It's also interesting in the context of this conversation, of course, that number one page was the library in terms of your way into the story of your childhood.

 

Again, doing my research, I saw in the second novel in the sequence, ‘Son of War’, that you described the library and Mr Willie Carrick who I know is a big figure, but you wrote:

 

“The library was in the Council Yard just off Station Road up a short flight of stone steps and into a muffled, mantled gloom, Willie Carrick, town clerk, town historian, town librarian opened the place up twice a week for two hours in the evening”.

 

And then you write about Sam, the father, being there:

 

“Sam was there smack on six calculating that he would have a few minutes alone with Willie who greeted him with ill concealed surprise and open pleasure.  “Do you want any help Sam?”

 

And then here’s Willie’s description which is wonderful:

 

“Willie Carrick’s face was broad.  Brown from his all-weather walking, eyes that missed nothing, long, thin lips, white hair neat around the tonsure of baldness, as reliable of faces you could want, Sam thought, and because Willie was friendly, he hurdled his embarrassment, “To be honest, Willie, I do”.

 

It's lovely, and it's also very redolent of the ultimate librarian knowing exactly what you want in walking into a library.  It was interesting for me re-reading and re-visiting those books that you were returning, as with the first memory essay, homeward, and crossing the lines of innocence and experience, and these books are so powerful because they're not sentimentally written, they're unflinchingly written, and in beautiful prose;  but I think the moving qualities come from the visceral struggles of your characters to express themselves emotionally and rediscover a way of living together after the war; and you meeting your father for the first time, and finding a common ground in terms of how they can re-inhabit the spaces that they thought they would be in, and perhaps they partly were in before he went away, and, perhaps, before you were on the scene.  But also, I'm interested that you, not to get too meta, but in the process of writing them, you were yourself trying to find the right sort of grammar and the right sort of voice as a writer and transposing them into a fictional framework, of course, but there seems to be a coming together there in terms of the self exploration if I'm not being too fanciful?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

To take that particular book, ‘The Soldier’s Return’, that started after my father died, and I realised how little I'd really known him, because he'd been away for the first crucial seven years of my life, more or less.  I’d seen little blurs of him when he came back on leave, and I could remember or mis-remember those little blurs, or hold onto things that never happened.  And then, as soon as he came back, he and my mother went into solid work.  He went back to the factory, and then he hated that, so he got a tenancy of the worst pub in town, and I'm not trying to be melodramatic here.  There were about 15 pubs in the town and it was a mess, a complete mess, and he took it on, because he could be his own boss.

He was a big drinker, but he stopped drinking. He never drank after he got the pub, either in the pub or out, and he always had good reasons for it.  I once asked him why, he said, “Well, if I give somebody the wrong change, I don't want them to be able to say it's because I was drunk”.  Secondly, he never broke the law, he closed at ten o'clock, there was never any late drinking.  He said, “If I don't break the law, they can't throw me out”.  So, he was his own man in that sense.  In those days, pubs were open seven days a week, you opened at eleven thirty in the morning until three, you opened again at five thirty to ten every day.

In that little bubble of four rooms, in winter, there were four fires to lay, my mother did all that, cleaning this that and the other.  So they were hard at it.  And before then, she worked at the factory, the women's factory, she made clothes, she was a button maker; and then, when she got married, the gift that the factory gave you was if you were a woman, they fired you, you got chucked out, you got a prodded rug, or a box of fish knives and you got fired.  And so she started cleaning other people's houses.  Before then, she went around delivering parcels in the country on a big heavy bike.  Dad worked at the factory, as I said first, and then he worked in the pub in the evenings and as a part-time bookie.  Looking back now, although they wouldn't have expressly said it, they wanted to get out of that house.  I think that dad just wanted to get out and find somewhere else.  The pub had a flat above it, which seemed to be wonderful.  So being that they worked like that, I was outside a lot of the time - I was either in my bedroom reading or outside roaming the streets looking for friends to play with, you would knock on people's doors...

We were the ‘dog pub’, the hound dogs, which is a big sport run here.  Sometimes, there would be 40 or 50 dogs in the pub, big dogs waiting for the buses to take them to where they had their dog races.  And there was a pub for the pigeon men, and there was the pub for the supporters of Carlisle United, and there was a pub for the darts men.  So we were the dog pub, so it was very busy and central.  You knew everybody, it was quite tough to start.  My dad had to keep barring people, which given that this was at one stage a very rough town, wasn't easy for him to do - they'd come back on Sunday morning and say, “Can you let us back in, Stan, I didn't mean it. I won't do it again”, and he would say, “No, you're barred for six months”.  I was watching some of those encounters and they were very tense. These are tough buggers.  My dad would say, “He’s a nice lad, but he just can't take his drink”.  They were nice lads, but they were tough as teeth.

It was an emotionally complicated childhood and the shadow of illegitimacy, which was hereditary.  Looking back, I mean, my mother was illegitimate, but, somehow, it landed on me as well.  There were these looks as if it had been my mother's fault that she'd been born, and then, the worst thing that she’d had a child which compounded the felony.  So it was quite complex, which, of course, made it interesting, and just doing so much, and then church was a massive factor, church music and the sort of...I was a fundamentalist Christian until I was about 14 or 15 - you could have said there was a miracle that happened in the High Street yesterday afternoon, and I would have said I wasn’t in the bit surprised.

 

Ben Holden:

You wrote very grippingly in ‘The Adventure of English’ of the language’s origins in relation to your own, writing that “Perhaps my interest in English began when I was speaking at least two versions of it in my childhood”.  I enjoyed also when you wrote there, for example, that you would “thee and thou each other, as if we had just got off the Mayflower”.  Are you able still to jump between those dialects?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

We did thee and thou each other, the dialect was very strong, and the accent was very strong.  I'm not making it up.  We had a little bit of Indian, because we're a very big army area.  The North West recruited big armies, and a lot of them were going to India, so they’d come back with [G] and [P] and so on which entered our dialect.  We were also placed next to a cemetery, [close to] a place where gypsies wintered, and so you got Gypsy words.  But the main thing was the sort of North impact and the way of pronunciation and the words.  There's a Cumberland dialect dictionary, I've got several, but one of them's as big as Middlemarch, as big as a massive novel by George Eliot and packed with words.  I’m looking at the glossary here from a man called William Dickinson, who did a lot of work on the dialect, a word called [F] that was used when I was a kid as [-] meaning ‘very’ and [-] meaning ‘busy’.  And there are other words like ‘beck’ meaning ‘stream’,  [C] meaning ‘donkey’.  The farmers would still count in old dialect, and they would often bid like that in the auctions around here.

My grandfather was one of 16 children, after being in the mines and going through the First World War with six of his brothers, he ended up, after a pit accident, as a park keeper in Wigton.  Next door, there was a detached house with a garden owned by the Barnes family, and they were very nice people.  Once, they had a professor to stay, and they heard my grandfather talking and copied it all down, because my grandfather talked pure dialect all the time, and so it was another language.  And it was knocked out of us, and it had an accent as well. It's called [L] on account of a festival day.  The significance [L] to me is that it was as far north as the Normans came, they didn't really penetrate this area at all.  Oddly enough, neither did the Romans, they built a circle of forts around it, they didn't go into the central Lake District, but the Norsemen did - they came over and went up the rivers with flat bottom boats and settled, and Wordsworth writes about them in the early 18th century, having their own language, having their own system.

~

Melvyn Bragg reads a short extract in Cumbrian dialect

~

 

Melvyn Bragg:

And that's the way we talked except rougher, and I didn't want to go rough, because you wouldn't believe it;  it's because I don't want to sound affected, I've lost touch with doing it naturally.  I can still understand every word they say, but I don't like to talk it myself, because it seems almost patronising, so you're in quite a difficult position, I am anyway, it's my fault.  Some farmers still talk two languages - a very simple, straightforward English, and a very broad dialect, still, and the accent as much as the words, and a lot of words, as I said, a book as big as Middelmarch, full of words that most people in this country wouldn't recognise, wouldn’t use.  So, it was a second language;  it didn't have the ethnic force of Welsh or Gaelic, or even Cornish, but it has its own power.

 

Ben Holden:

And your passion for cultural history is renowned and stems, obviously, partly from those roots. But perhaps we could talk a little about your new novel, which is a departure in that it's not a Cumbrian novel.  Well, it's another historical novel, but many of your other historical novels have been Cumbrian.  It's about Heloise and Abelard, and perhaps you could explain the bones of that story for the uninitiated? I can kick you off by saying that it's a tale of literature and philosophy, theology and scandal, and romantic love in the high Middle Ages.  And if you enjoyed those words, that's probably because they're yours from ‘In Our Time’, so it's a cheat for me there, to set that story of Heloise and Abelard, but I greatly enjoyed it, but it's a complex book in terms of the telling.  Can you tell us why you were drawn to this?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

Abelard and Heloise came out of what was a set book for O Levels when I was 15, by a man called Charles Reade, then in the 30s, 40s, 50s, a very, very famous and substantial writer, a well known, and his most famous book was ‘The Cloister and the Hearth’ - that was a set book, and what I remember at the end of it, there's Abelard and Heloise;  he's a great philosopher, scholar, she is a woman who is also a great scholar, and they're together walking in what felt like a rose garden and talking to each other.  Now, I kept remembering that, and then I saw the letters and I read the letters, which were an astounding revelation, because that wasn't idyll, nothing like that, it was a violent love affair between the great, radical philosopher of the 12th century whose books were burned, - he was almost stoned to death for his opinions, but he prevailed and is still rated as a philosopher 100 years on -, and a woman, Heloise, is noted to be the cleverest woman in France, and those two are entwined.  And it was an enormous story.  I thought, well, I'll write that sometime, and I waited and waited.  Now, I just decided, after I finished a book called ‘Remember Me’, which is an autobiographical sequence, and ‘Grace and Mary’, I wanted to move to the Middle Ages; I did a book set in the Peasants’ Revolt, which was an unacknowledged part of English history, the biggest uprising we've ever had, and it was airbrushed out of history, as the Gordon Riots were later airbrushed out of history.  And I thought I'd try Abelard and Heloise, it was very difficult.

 

Ben Holden:

It must have been very difficult in terms of transposing a 21st century novel into the high Middle Ages, and it's very beautifully constructed in a structural sense, but also, the diction of the novel was redolent of courtly love in a very beautiful, evocative way.

 

Melvyn Bragg:

It caught onto something about me, and I wondered why it clicked, because it's so foreign, literally and psychologically, and I think it was because I loved that book.  I remember all sorts of things about that book, but I was intensely passionate about books.  I remember when I finished the A levels, when I discovered ‘Buddenbrooks’ by Thomas Mann, and I just read it through twice, read it, read it again, and I was lying beside the tennis courts, because we finished exams.  Then I read everything I could get hold of by Thomas Mann. 

And so this image of this scholar, and I think, looking back, I thought I rather wanted to be a scholar, that must have been something to do with it.  And I thought that at that time, I wasn't going to be anything like a scholar, because I was supposed to leave school, - and I was 15 -, like all my friends did at that time.  You’re talking about 1954, that's what happened.  Schools, they just cleared out the A Form, because if there were farmers’ sons, they went back to the farms, they stopped coming into school when they were 14, actually, if it was a harvest;  a lot of the lads were sons of shopkeepers and they went to work in the shop, or they got good jobs, because their fathers were at the factory or in local government.  And I just thought I'd go down the factory and probably work in the accounts office, because I was quite good at sums, as they called them in those days. 

I didn't give it a second thought, and then I discovered four years ago, when I was 75, in a film that somebody made about me, I talked to my old school teacher, Mr. James, who’s still alive, he's as sharp as a knife, and he's 97 now, and he said, “You don't know, but I went to talk to your parents three times, to tell them you should stay on at school”, and they'd never told me, and he'd never told me.  And I wonder what the objection was, because my father was very clever.  He was one of eight, the eldest of eight, so he had to leave school, but he passed two scholarships, one for a public school for the parishes of the North of England, North West of England, and a public school in Liverpool, which he couldn't take, because he was the eldest and had to just get out and work.  So it wouldn't be that, it wouldn't be the work.  And I asked Mr James what he had said, and he said, “Son, he thought you wouldn't enjoy it. You’d liked it here and you wouldn't enjoy the people you'd meet and you would be happier here”.  And my mother certainly didn't want me to go.  She wanted me to stay and get married, have a lot of children and she wanted to get on with being a grandmother.  It's a curiosity, but I'm pleased that it's gone down perfectly okay. And it’s going to be published in America, and there seems to be a fair wind behind it there. So we'll see.

 

Ben Holden:

Going back to Wigton and moving perhaps more broadly into Cumbria, you said that it was tricky to write this new novel outside of that zone, as it were.  But you do keep coming back here, and I know that you've talked in the past about your depressions, one specific crisis as a teenager, and another as a 30 year old, and that Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ was a tool of sorts to help you emerge from that fog, but this place has a very, very strong visceral importance for you?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

I don't know about the rest, but it inhabited my mind.  I think when you're at school in Cumberland, and you like English, you've got to make a deal with Wordsworth, you either think he’s great, or just think he’s terrible and ignore him, and you've got to make a pact.  And I like the lyric of it, but I wasn't all that interested until I read ‘The Prelude’ when I was about 14, and especially the sort of cracking up that the boy experienced in various ways, and I just thought, crikey, he knew about that.  And it's recognition which is a part of the power of literature, and then you read much more intensely, and actually, it was when I was about 14, and I had a horrible crack up that lasted for about a year and a half, I didn't know where I was, and I was chucked out from the third A to the 3L, the lower third, full of farmers’ sons who didn’t want to be at school at all, and it was quite tough, not tough in a [Glasgow?] sense, but it was tough enough.  And I was told that I would be sent to another school if I didn’t buck up. I didn't know where I was.  And I’d had this thing, and it was an awful thing, I had outer body experiences, and one of the ways I got through it, I'm sure, was that was when I just decided to, something made me start to read very intensely, and read good stuff and Wordsworth was one way in, and I remember just reading and reading, and gradually calming down and gradually getting a grip.

 

Ben Holden:

I can understand just from an outsider’s point of view, having been in this area the last few days, and almost crashed several times driving through it, because of the stunning natural beauty outside the window every every minute.  But I understand there are 400 mountains, 33 lakes, and having studied Wordsworth and the Romantics a little bit, it suddenly all clicked into place somehow, the nature, the sublime, all these things that you've learned about and you've read about, so I can understand that whether knowingly or not you're writing in a tradition, but also out of this landscape?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

Wordsworth was one of the key persons at that time, some Germans have written about this, in fact, another Cumbrian man called Thomas Brown, wrote about it in a very important poem 20 years before Wordsworth, but the idea that nature of being a force, for calm and for intelligence, instead of being, just a century earlier, Defoe had been on a tour of Britain, he’d come to the Lake District, Daniel Defoe, and described it as horrid place, terrible, don't go up the mountains, rocks will fall on you and crash on you, barbaric, and nature was regarded as an enemy, as a terrible place, and Wordsworth said: 

 

One impulse from a vernal wood,

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

 

Saying, listen, listen to nature.

There are lines like that all over the place - the force and the power if you listen.  And you could if you wanted to politicise it, say this was an intimation, to use another word he liked, of what would become people fascinated by Gaia - the idea of the earth being one thing and we being part of that one thing, and the climate being something that we could destroy, the climate and other life on earth, as well as benefit from, so that must have meant something to me and to thousands and millions of other people.

 

Ben Holden:

But you mostly write still up here in Cumbria, not in London? Is that correct?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

No, I sort of write everywhere.  I mean, I'm in London most of the time.  I've come up here, I wrote a book called ‘Credo’ set up here about a seventh century nun.  And I just came up here to be absolutely…, you come up, I go to the shops, and we can store up for 10 days or 14 days and go up to the house and cottage, and I can write for 12-15 hours a day, because it was already in my head, for better or worse, there it was.

 

Ben Holden:

And I started to think, again, I'm over doing, perhaps over-egging this, but coming here to this library to discuss libraries with you, there's an archivist in you as well, whether, again, not necessarily by design, but over time, the longevity and the power of those two shows (The South Bank Show and In Our Time) has led to this - you've built a formidable library?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

I didn't start off saying I'll do it.  I mean, I got a two year contract, but The South Bank Show, it was such a disaster in the first year that I thought it was a one year contract.  I mean, it started off calamitously.  I discovered the great rule if you're starting anything new, don't write a manifesto.  I wrote a manifesto and the critics loved it, and they tore to shreds.  The manifesto was, because ITV put a lot of money into this programme, and what they wanted was big, classical orchestra, and I wanted pop music and I wanted television drama, as well as stage drama, and I wanted comedians, as well as poets.  We started deliberately with Paul McCartney, and then we had the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and then we had the Royal Shakespeare Company come in.  The first play we did was a television play, and the critics didn't like it. 

When you run an arts programme, you're on the margins, especially on ITV.  There are three things that are important:  You've got to get a big audience, well, we couldn't do that, we were on too late, and we couldn't do that; you've got to get the critics on your side, which we didn't have; and the third thing, you've got to have the executive in the company on your side, and they were losing faith fast.  And so halfway through the first series, I went to Michael Grade, and I said, “It isn’t working is it Michael?”, and I said, “Some of the items are ok, the Paul McCartney was very good and all the new stuff is very good”.  I said, “What I'd like to do is for you to stop the programme for three or four months, and I’ll sort it out and we'll come back, okay?”.  And he said we couldn’t do that, and I had 26 programmes then, and we’d done about eight or nine.  So, I went back to the office, and I talked to the guys, and I said, “I know what I’m going to do.  Myself and one other guy, Tony Cash, we're going to do these programmes ourselves for seven weeks, just the two of us.  And the rest of you are going to make subject films, and I'm going to do films about people I want to do if I ever make a programme;  I'm going to do the first ever English film on Ingmar Bergman, I'm going to do film on Pinter, a film with Hockney, that's what we're going to do.  And you go and do that, and we'll keep the show on the air”.  It was it was a nightmare.  It was so knackered trying to get it!

And the other thing that keeps you on air is you win prizes.  And that year, at the end of the season, we won everything, but because of these one-offs, we won the first ever Prix-Italia award for ITV. And it was the big thing then, it was like the Emmys then, and we won that and then we won another prize.  And then when we hit our stride, so we were okay. 

You're talking about archivist, it's now archived at Leeds University and they're archiving it. We're a big part of it, building it up, because they have a lot of special sections, they have the biggest number of special collections in British universities.  I was Chancellor there for 15 years, nothing to do with me the special collections, but I did suggest that to them, because not only did they get the films, but for every film that we made, it's about a sixth of the material, sometimes a tenth, let's say always a sixth. So for every hour shown, we’ve got another five hours, and we've preserved all that, so they're getting all that as well.  So let’s say, I interviewed [M] three times.  So say, three hours at a time, nine hours, and say you put out a programme of 15 minutes, half an hour, an hour, there's at least seven hours of completely unseen material, therefore, people are interested.

As for ‘In Our Time’, I mean, they gave me a six month contract, because they thought doing intellectuals on a Thursday morning was a dead duck, and it happened to take off just a little bit;  you just need it to take off a little bit, now it's really taken off.

 

Ben Holden:

It feels again that this is maybe something built in from your childhood too?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

If I'd been asked what I wanted to do when I went to university, to make them shut up, I’d have said to be a teacher.  My first job that I applied for at Oxford was to be a WEA lecturer, Workers Education Authority, you might remember that, it taught working people in the evenings.  Brian Walden got that which was a bit of a nuisance, but he's far cleverer and better able than I was, so I got the job at the BBC. 

Both of them (shows) would be part of libraries.  The South Bank Show, eventually, it's going to take a while, - the copyright things are just dreadful -, but we'll get to it.  But the radio thing is already a library.  And, because of the technology, now, ‘In Our Time’, when I took it on, got 400,000, now it gets two and a half million (listeners).  But that's not the real thing, the podcast thing, because we’re doing an extension to it now because of the new technology, we had 10 million podcast (listeners) in the first three months of this year, and they were all around the world. 

You literally do get letters, honestly, from a guy who works nights in a factory in Toronto;  we were doing something on China, on Confucius, and we got very angry letters whilst we were on air from the University of North China, saying we hadn't taken this into consideration.  So there we are.  There's a guy who drives a lorry in Melbourne who's a keen listener.  And it's lovely.  That's the great thing about radio and television, the greatest thing, you only have to press a button, like putting on an electric light, you don’t have to dress up, you don't have to have an education, all you do is click a button and you're there.  And that's been always this basic attraction for, me more than books even.

 

Ben Holden:

It's a very rigorous show, ‘In Our Time’, but also there's no room for snobbery at all, in any of this.

 

Melvyn Bragg:

In the library, when people come in, there's an immense democracy of knowledge, it's just getting it to people, and that's what you do in the library here. It's making it available.

 

Kathryn Lynn:

I think there’s making it available and they’re very nervous, some people, there's an invisible barrier.  And it's like, they call it a reference interview, you’re dragging out of them what they want to know, rather than asking you what they think they want to know, which is a different thing. It’s finding out what they really want to know, because they’re nervous for whatever reason.

 

Ben Holden:

Well, there is also the element that you walk through the door and there's a limitless resource.  It's a bit like ‘In Our Time’, there's such a wealth of information here. I mean, going back to Cumbria, you have a beautiful section all around the local area, which I presume is that still well thumbed and a go-to section?

 

Kathryn Lynn:

Yes, we have local studies collections in most of our branches. They're not archives or local storage collections, and they have been a bit sporadic, but we do keep them, we've got microfilm, microfiche, you know, we've got newspapers in working on microfilm, you can go back and have a look at.  And it is used, we get people searching family history, or I get enquiries from all over the place, but obviously, I need a reference point. You can’t just look at the microfilm - you need a date or some kind of date, but they are well used.  We have a local history month every year, because they've got a great display case, and they've got a local society that come and do a display, or the staff will do it, and it's absolutely fantastic, because they really promote it, dialects, tales, history of Wigton.  Like Melvyn said, there’s factories, we’ve had people bringing stuff in from their shop as a museum piece, they'll bring in, and they'll do a little piece on it.  And it attracts people, and gets them in, and they ask questions.

 

Ben Holden:

And the libraries are still thriving in the region as a whole?

 

Kathryn Lynn:

Yes, like I said earlier, we're trying to get people in all the time, we’re becoming part of the community, if there’s a need, we’ll try and satisfy that need.  The whole culture of getting online, that's big, people have to do their Universal Credit online, maybe they’ve never used a computer before, they’re very resistant, they're scared of it, they think they're going to break it, and it's getting them beyond that barrier.  I do IT taster sessions with people. It's a case of little and often, it's like driving your car, you’re not just going to get in it and do it, you've got to have lessons. And it's getting them across over that barrier of saying, “I need to do this, because I won't get any money if I don't”.  I do internet tasters with people, to get them used to a computer, get them online, that kind of thing.  I do family history with people, family trees, because I've been doing mine for 30 odd years.  It's that little spark that makes a difference and they come back.

 

Ben Holden:

They are societies safe spaces, as I like to say, and again, listening to you immediately any notions of the library as the fusty old book repository is immediately dispelled, and the importance of these places and communities and, sadly, so many of them are closing down, up and down the country.

 

Kathryn Lynn:

I mean, I've been a librarian for 30 years, but when I was a child and I went to some library in Bolton, they had a men's reading room.  For one, it was a reading room, and second, it was just for the men.  I've had lots of experience in different types of libraries, so you bring all that with you.

 

Ben Holden:

Again, there's a trend also for volunteer libraries, and librarians’ jobs are under threat as well, which is crazy.

 

Kathryn Lynn:

We don't currently use volunteers.  We try and keep our libraries open with the staff we have and be flexible. And we also have community groups in when we’re closed, they can use it as a meeting place.  And we promote groups that meet within our library, so that we have reading groups that meet, many, many reading groups, that meet within our libraries;  they use our facilities, that means they're in the library, you know, and if they're in the library, they can see what we do, what we offer, the cultural offer that we have for everybody.

 

Ben Holden:

Melvyn, can I ask, thinking back to that kid in the library in Wigton, and also your prodigious career, which seems to me to be partly built on that kid’s insatiable curiosity, as much as your work ethic, it seems to be this intense curiosity across science, religion and culture, everything.  You're ravenous for knowledge and to spread knowledge.  What do you make of the library closures more generally?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

I think it’s a disgrace.  It’s short sighted.  I don’t want to expand into the present state our political condition, let's leave that to one side, there's only about three words for it and let’s keep away from that.  It’s a disaster, different tributaries have come into the area of knowledge, but the library, and I think it's been explained here very clearly and well, it has the flexibility to be more than just a place where knowledge is stored, it’s a place, as we've heard, where knowledge is shared, where knowledge is developed, where different sources of knowledge can come.  It becomes a place, as well as something that's an ambition, and in these areas of learning, I think that association and companionship is essential.

We go back to Mr Carrick, he was a companion. You go back to school, Arthur Tillotson Blacker, he was a teacher, and then other people in the class read what you'd read, because we all had to read aloud in those days, we read poetry aloud and so and so forth. And here, people are coming to the place…as a social force, it's been very, very fruitful and important.  And as an intellectual force, and the great thing is in a library that the choice is yours to a vaster extent than I think you will ever be able to countenance, and also you can browse.  Where’s browsing when things are coming at you? Where’s flicking through the old pages? Where’s that?  Where’s the feeling of being in an ambience where this is a regular thing to be surrounded by books?  It's a big cultural force.  It's not for nothing that everybody, when you think about ancient civilization, one of the things you think of, Christ, they burned alive in Alexandria.  Just think of what we lost.  Scholars are still tearing their hair out with the books that were lost in the library and Alexandria, because it was that important.

There are all sorts of other ways of passing on knowledge, but that was what mattered.  And I think in matters like that, it’s terribly short sighted.  If you're a fairly well-off community as we are where I live in London, and there's others, you keep it going, we keep it going.  It's voluntary, but that's not the best way, and we give books to it and give money to it, but you can’t do that for libraries in places where people have got very little money to do that.  It's a shocking development, and it's just part of what's going bad about our country, frankly, that's the mildest thing I can say.  It's ridiculous and to keep it going as has been done here is remarkable and to be applauded, and I hope that from hearing it grows again, people will see how important it is.

 

Ben Holden:

I have to ask, I always am curious in this podcast, as we're in the library and we've been talking books, how, Melvyn, do you organise your books, are you very fastidious?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

Up in the cottage here, I’ve got a Cumberland room, but there's nothing alphabetical, so I'm not very good at that.  In London, it's even worse, but occasionally you get a set, you buy a set of old Dickens, not valuable or anything, but just big print, but they’re on the shelf, so you know they’re there, that's easy.  No, I'm not very good at it to tell the truth.

 

Ben Holden:

Would you kindly browse the shelves, Melvyn, perhaps find something to borrow?

 

~

 

Melvyn Bragg is invited to browse the shelves of Wigton library to select a book of his choice

 

Ben Holden:

Is there anything you’re drawn to?

 

Melvyn Bragg:

I'm looking for a book about the dialect.  Do we have any here?  But the local dialect.  We've got ‘Walks’, we’ve got ‘Travels’, do you have specific dialect books?  We don't have anything by Willie Carrick here, do we?  He wrote a very good history of Wigton, that's another thing he did, he was quite a man.  James Rebanks, that’s a good book that isn’t it? It’s very well done.

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. If you'd like the chance of winning a signed hardback copy of Melvyn Bragg’s new novel “Love without End’, then all you have to do is write a thoughtful review of the podcast, mentioning this episode.  To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website:  www.exlibris.com  You can also get updates from me on twitter and instagram.  Find me @thatbenholden.

 Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden, with Grundy LeZimbre.

Ex Libris is brought to you in association with The Lightbulb Trust - which illuminates lives via literacy and learning, providing opportunities to shine.

 

 

 

Bart Van Es in Summertown Library

Bart Van Es in Summertown Library

November 26, 2019

Bart Van Es won the 2019 Costa Prize for Book of the Year for his masterful memoir The Cut Out Girl.

Announcing the judges’ decision, the Costa chair, the BBC presenter Sophie Raworth said: “It’s a very important book. It’s a story that would never have been told if he hadn’t gone in search of it. We all thought it had huge resonance with today, the number of displaced people there are today and the number of stories that go untold.”

Bart was born in the Netherlands and is bilingual in English and Dutch. He is a Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of St Catherine’s College. 

In this moving and inspiring episode, Bart explains his painstaking research process and personal journey of discovery while writing the book. He also discusses with Ben the roles of libraries in our collective memory.

Bart selected his local library in Summertown, Oxford.

He and Ben were joined there by Kate Macleod, Assistant Director of Cultural Services for Oxford County Council. Her remit under that banner includes not only the region’s libraries but also museums, archives, music, even registration and coroners.

 

...

 

Please find below a full transcript of this episode of Ex Libris, with Bart Van Es:

 

Ben Holden:

Today we're in South Parade, a leafy side street in Summertown, Oxford.  Nestled here beside a surgery, down the way from an Art Centre, and off a bit from an inviting little row shops, is a neighbourhood library.  It's bright and shiny, full of light, as well as books, and opens onto a glorious peaceful garden.  I'm here to meet Bart Van Es, a professor of English literature at the university, and also this year's winner of the Costa Award for Book of the Year for the ‘Cut Out Girl’, which I have no hesitation calling a masterpiece, not a word I often use.

Joining the conversation alongside Bart is Kate Macleod.  Kate is Assistant Director of Cultural Services for Oxford County Council. Her remit under that banner includes not only the region's libraries, but also museums, archives, music, even registration and coroners.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Thank you both very, very much for joining us here in Summertown Library.

Why did you choose Summertown? It's a beautiful, local community library, but why this place?

 

 

Bart Van Es:

Well, this is just my local library.  It's about five minutes down the road from me, it's where I took my kids to get that week’s set of children's books.  And then quite recently, I had an event here where I read from my book and talked about it, and the place was absolutely packed.  So, there's a real sense of it as a community hub.  And I wanted to choose a library like this, rather than an academic library, because writing the ‘Cut Out Girl’ was a move away from purely academic libraries.  I worked a lot in academic libraries, but I also worked quite a lot in local libraries like this, mainly across the Netherlands. 

 

Ben Holden:

Kate, Bart mentions his event here.  I understand that the community library and the Friends of Summertown Library raised £85,000 to refurbish the library?  We won't get into the whys and wherefores of funding for libraries and why that should be necessary.  But it's a remarkable feat, it's fantastic, and it shows the love they have for the library, the importance of it in the community.  Can you explain and just give us some background on the place?

 

Kate Macleod:

There's a network of 43 libraries across Oxfordshire as a county.  Going back to 2011, 2012,  so post-austerity, the cuts were really starting to come in for all local governments, and the difficult decisions needed to be taken.  And like many, some of the proposals were to close some of the smaller local libraries.  And what was amazing is the heartfelt response that came from the communities to say no, these are really, really important spaces, and we need to maintain them. 

And so what we have now, several years down the line, is a network of what we call core libraries, so the main part of what is a legislative offer from the Council, but also a number of community supported libraries where we have friends groups, and we have 22 friends groups who support their libraries, either through volunteer hours or fundraising, and those have become much more community spaces where the community are able to have so much more of a say in what takes place in their space. And I think it's great.

 

Ben Holden:

There are hundreds of community libraries now, I think there are over 500 in the UK.  And, of course, it's not ideal, far from it, that there are also 50,000 plus volunteer librarians, and we're losing libraries and we're losing librarians, hence the podcast.  But let's accentuate the positive and say, yes, it's a beautiful library and it's all power to this community for celebrating and keeping it going, fantastic, especially through events like getting Bart into speak.

 

Bart Van Es:

And I think libraries are more than just repositories for books, they are cultural spaces. So, the more I started writing the ‘Cut Out Girl’ and coming to places like this, the more I had a sense that this is really one of the very few spaces in which all members of the community come together.  And also to connect it against the ‘Cut Out Girl’, I think that's one of the messages of the book, about how important connectedness is, and the dangers that occur in society if people no longer feel connected, if they just become these sort of atomised units, which I think there are various pressures in the world today creating, largely centred on the internet.  We need to get out and we need to meet people, unlike ourselves, and libraries are really important space for doing that.

 

Ben Holden:

Could you explain a little bit more the provenance of the book, and for any listeners who haven't yet had the pleasure of reading it?

 

Bart Van Es:

I'd always known that my grandparents had sheltered Jewish children during the Second World War in the Netherlands.  So I am Dutch, my parents are both Dutch, but I grew up away from the Netherlands, mainly abroad.  So it had never been more than a quite cloudy memory.  And, I was also aware that there had been this one girl who had stayed with them after the war, but that there had been a row between her and the family sometime in the 1980s.  I remember my mother crying about that.

So, it wasn't until 2014 that something kind of clicked inside me, and I thought, I've got to investigate this, and my mother still had contact with Lien, though the rest of the Van Es family had severed contact really quite strongly, it turned out, in 1988.  And my mother said, she probably won't want to contact you, she won't want to hear from the Van Es’s, but I sent her an email, and that led to my meeting her in late 2014, and she was quite cautious, but I said I want to record your story in some way.  And I’d planned to come there for half an hour, and I ended up staying for 10 hours!  Once she trusted me, which was actually very quickly, she started telling me her whole life story, which was a story that took us from the moment when she was collected at her doorstep, in the Hague in the Netherlands in 1933, when her parents had to give her away in the hope that she could survive the Holocaust, when they had that deportation order to be sent to Poland; it takes us from that moment, to this wonderful vibrant person that I actually met in 2014, who had modern art on the walls, who had cultural supplements, and who told me, straight off, without families, you don't have stories, which, as soon as I heard that, I think that started setting off a series of chain connections for me, and they became the heart of the book, I suppose.

 

Ben Holden:

Did you know, in that moment, that this was turning into something, - it's very, quite viscerally, personal for you, and has all sorts of impacts on your family relationships outside of Lien -, but were you aware, thinking crumbs, this is a lot bigger?!  I have something here that is far more special and major.

 

Bart Van Es:

Well, I went with almost no plan at all.  As I say in the book, I didn't have any notes, I didn't even have paper or a pen!  When she started telling me about her life, we very quickly developed this pattern where I would just ask her everything, you know, what was your room like when you were a child? What did you wear? What did you eat? And that sparked in her a set of memories that also meant that she started finding physical artefacts that she hadn't looked at for 70 years, things like a poetry album which almost all Dutch girls used to keep, where you asked people to write a little verse on one page, and then put little cut outs facing it.

So, on that first day, I saw an incredible number of very moving things:  the letter that her parents gave her to pass onto my grandparents, which she never read as a child, of course; that cut out book or poem book; and various letters.  So immediately, I was immersed into this world.  And I decided I had to investigate this further.  So I put aside a month in January 2015, where I said, we'll do more interviews.  And by then, it was clear to me that actually, she'd hidden not just with my grandparents, but at nine different addresses across the Netherlands over the course of the war.  So my plan was then I would go and visit those places.  I would find out what I could in archives in libraries. 

And that then turned into this second thing, which is part of the book. It's really my journey of exploration, finding these places, talking to the people who now live in those houses, encountering local libraries, you know, communities and confronting the bigger story of, the actually very frightening level of collaboration that the Netherlands had during the war, which meant that 75% of Dutch Jews died in Auschwitz or Sobibor.

 

Ben Holden:

That was an astonishing discovery for me - my inlaws are Dutch.  And I can appreciate the Dutch straight-talking qualities that you, Lien and members of your family have, which probably filtered into some of those conversations, which were also deeply painful.  I mean, really, we’re getting to the most painful sorts of memories.  And, of course, accepting the sort of slipstream of fact and fiction that memories imply, but that straight-talking quality probably helped a bit along the way, I hope?

 

Bart Van Es:

I think that's a quality that the Dutch pride themselves on is straight-talking, but one of the things I found out over the course of the book is that that is also something of a national myth. The Dutch, me included, have grown up with a story of National Resistance, of everyone being against the Germans, everyone, apart from a tiny minority, being ideologically good during the war.  But, what I ended up finding out was very shocking, is just how little resistance there was in the Netherlands early on, particularly when the Germans were winning, and when there was no threat to the non-Jewish inhabitants of the Netherlands.  You find out these really shocking things like big Dutch construction firms were bidding to build the ‘Atlantic Wall’ to, inverted commas, “defend the Netherlands from British liberation”, and those were not forced labour people - those were people trying to make as big a profit as they could out of the new realities of being part of this larger Reich.

 

Ben Holden:

You have  kindly agreed to read a small passage from the book.  Going back, that's one of these initial moments early in the story in the narrative.  Do you want to frame it? And for the listeners?

 

Bart Van Es:

So the way the book eventually turned out, it's really a book of three different kinds of voice.  So one part of it is a kind of normalised voice from Lien’s perspective, so first of all, as a little girl, and this section that I'll read is from her as a little girl and her experience of being collected at the door.  There's also my voice or somebody travelling and investigating this and meeting Lien.  And then, thirdly, there's a kind of omniscient historical voice that tells us about things like the Dutch collaboration or the response to a Holocaust in 1945 in the Netherlands, which is also rather shocking.

 

Bart Van Es reads an extract from his book, ‘The Cut Out Girl’.

 

~

 

Interview continued:

 

Ben Holden:

I think I can hear in your voice the charge still, after all your success and readings and prizes and writing and thinking and reading about this, there's still a charge in your voice in that letter, and I can totally understand why, because it is so, so powerful.  And that passage there we have, also the immediacy of your prose, because you're writing with such precision, and perhaps that's partly born out of your academic rigour, but also, you're recreating her memories, as they must have been told to you, which is in the present, a revisionist act, so you're capturing them in the moment as memory works.  And yet, then the letter comes and punches us in the gut.  But that's a fixed point.  And that's in the present tense too, and yet, it's sort of the start of this. And there is, of course, a very different letter towards the end of the book, and towards the end of the timeline.  But it's an astonishing feat in terms of straddling those different sorts of rhythms and timelines.

 

Bart Van Es:

To start with your sense of my emotion, I read that letter for the first time on that first day I met Lien on the 21st December 2014.  And as soon as I read that letter and heard about this farewell party that her parents organised for her, which she didn't realise it was a farewell party, I mean, it haunted me completely, and it's never gone away.  I've never been able to read the set of letters that her parents were still able to send her, or that letter, without immediately feeling in the moment again, because it's just so immediate to you as a parent, but you can't imagine that such a letter could have been written in living memory, in quiet, neat, Holland, particularly, this is not Syria or South America. So, you know, I had that total immersion into Lien’s memory, and the fact of seeing those documents.  So, I felt very determined to try and write something that would be true to that emotional experience.

And I suppose I was drawing on the multiple kinds of background that I have.  So partly that of an archival research historian which has been important to my written work, but also that of a kind of scholar of English literature, who's interested in what novels in particular can do, in terms of putting us in a place and giving us somebody's point of view.  So it felt to me legitimate to turn the interview footage I had, which was incredibly detailed on what Lien remembered; so she remembers that Mrs [H] told lots of jokes about place names, for example, that they went [through] on the railway journey, but she didn't actually remember the specific jokes.  So, one way of telling it would be to say Mrs [H] told jokes, and then that's the end of it, but that seems to be sort of less true than if you invent the jokes, but give us a sense of the child's experience.  And we as readers are able to kind of jump between a reality of knowing what will happen that's anchored in that letter, and the total to-the-minute kind of consciousness of a little girl, who is sort of unconscious or half conscious of this being something rather terrible.

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, we can already see in the extract the abnegation or denial of who she is, beginning as they walk - that journey is actually probably not very long, but it's huge in terms of the change in her identity being forced upon her.  And it's heartbreaking that we can hear children's voices as we always do in these libraries in the mix here in Oxford today, but to feel that change in her being jollied along by the jokes, and that you've provided those along the way to jolly her along, even as this tragedy is unfolding, that we can see and she can’t, are there literary references in terms of that immediacy and that splicing of fiction and non-fiction that memory demands in the ways that you've written this?   For instance, this may be off grid, but Knausgaard or those sorts of recent fictions that straddle non-fiction as well, where the lines get very blurry?  Were there any influences along the way in terms of the fictional?

And how would you describe the book, obviously it’s history and memoir, but in a generic sense, how would you describe what you've ended up producing?

 

Bart Van Es:

Knausgaard’s not at all off grid.  I devoured all six books of Knausgaard, and I was reading Knausgaard quite intensely whilst writing the book.  I think that his is a very, very remarkable innovation in literary style, and he calls it a kind of literary method acting, to put yourself into a circumstance that you know happened, but of which you only remember fragmentary details.  Certainly  Book Three of that series, ‘Boyhood Island’, where he's talking about his very young experiences.  And he gives you at the beginning, the experience of a child in a pram done in this brilliantly tactile way, and then he sort of pulls away after it and says, “But I remember nothing of this”, and it's this kind of bold statement, saying, yes, this happened, but no-one could ever narrate it accurately.  So Knausgaard was definitely an influence.

Sebald was an influence, more, I think, in terms of my voice in the book than in terms of how I was doing Lien’s.  And then, structurally, I read Helen MacDonald's ’H is for Hawk’ just before meeting Lien, and her boldness of combining really three apparently incompatible stories, of the story of T.H. White's biography, her emotional crisis, and this kind of history of hawking that made me realise that, actually, readers can put up with quite a lot, they don't need that much hand holding, they don't need an absolute chronology.

 

Ben Holden:

I believe that one also won the Costa, and it’s a tribute to your book and hers that the Costa, of all these prizes, is given to the book that is the most enjoyable, and on the surface, hers and yours is dealing with some seriously heavy stuff; it's a completely engrossing, gripping read.  So that's a huge tribute to you and how you've executed it.  In the extract, you mentioned books, and you've mentioned these sort of artefacts, and of course it ends on the letter.  The book is something of a tapestry, not just in terms of the timelines and the various voices, as in the present, past and future tenses, but in a physical sense as well. And I have to pay tribute also to the fact that there are no maps in it, but there are plenty of photos, letters, etc. Could you speak a little bit about the process?

 

Bart Van Es:

I mean, one early title for it was ‘The Scrapbook’, because, Lien’s poetry album is a kind of scrapbook, and the book itself is a kind of patchwork of memories and physical artefacts and times.  And the title as it is now, ‘The Cut Out Girl’ is also a reference to that poetry album, which has these little cut outs of girls in crinolines, usually, or flower arrangements, facing these poems.  And that became for me a kind of metaphor for Lien's experience of being kind of pasted from one family into another, from one world into another.

I was, particularly during that month in January, very aware of the way that memory is fragmentary and anchored in physical objects.  What really shocked me, actually, over the course of that month in January was how there were these kind of huge gaps in Lien's memory.  I started out with this total immersive way of experiencing her life.  So, that journey to the Van Es’s that she has in ‘42 is very vivid to her, her early life with the Van Es’s, and she quickly became sort of entirely a part of that family - that was really clear to her, but then as she suffered more trauma over the course of the war, - there was a police raid on the house that she very narrowly escaped -, her memory starts to become much more patchy and she says things like, you know, well, I  don't remember what the house looked like.  She didn't remember any of the names of people in a house where she was for nine months in hiding, and you could see that is clearly a product of childhood trauma.  And that gave a kind of skeleton.

But then, in one case, I went to a house where she'd been hiding, and this was totally revolutionary, because the woman there said, “Oh, you're to speak to the neighbour - he was born just after the war”.  And I said, “Well, there's really no connection”.   I was kind of reluctant, but it was only because she was standing in the doorway that I said, “Well, I'll go knock o the door”.

This man, when he came out from his garden looking actually very aggressive and sort of saying, “What are you doing here”?  And I said, “Well, my aunt was in hiding next door”, and he said, “LienchenShe's the reason that I was born”. And, suddenly, this whole other story opened up, and it turned out that Lien had hidden in that house as well, and stayed with his sister, and his sister had these incredibly vibrant memories of her, and Lien didn't remember that house at all.  And it was like, wow, okay, there are just enormous gaps here.

I went and interviewed that old lady in an old people's home.  And she just said, “Oh, you know, we used to laugh upstairs in bed together”.  And she described the journey that they had from Bennekom, which is where they were, to Ede after the allied landings.

 

Ben Holden:

By the way, I meant it as a tribute, there are no maps.  It's a tribute to your ability to paint pictures of these places for us and anchor the book in terms of locations that you don't need them (maps).  And it's very, very vivid.

 

Bart Van Es:

I actually really didn't want maps or family trees, because I thought that would give us a misleading perspective on Lien's life.  So, none of the photographs are labelled either, because, I think, if you have that kind of book, then you inevitably skip ahead, or you refer back to the table of contents, you look at a timeline.  I wanted to do something that would be about the experience of being transplanted and lost.  And that would have been impossible with maps and timelines.  Lien still today has an incredibly poor sense of chronology.  And she says herself, this is one of the sort of legacies she has from having been a hidden child, she can never remember years when things happened.

 

Ben Holden:

Is she grateful to you for allowing her that chronology towards the end of her life, or is this a mixed blessing?

 

Bart Van Es:

It's certainly not a mixed blessing, and she has described it as an enrichment of her life.  She wasn't looking out to record her story at all.  So, it wasn't the sense that, oh, finally, here is someone I can hand this over to.  She was pretty reluctant to talk to me when we first met.  And then when she trusted me, she said, “You know, it's history for me. I can talk about it without emotion”. 

 

And, of course, she doesn't talk about it entirely without emotion.  But what the book actually ends up recording is her recovery, not just from the experiences directly during the war, but from the whole of her traumatic afterlife as a survivor.  So that, eventually, in 2003, Lien was able to travel to Auschwitz and read out the names of her family.  And she says that was an end point for me (her).

She's very happy that the book is there, and it's been important for her family, but I think she hasn't needed it psychologically.  It wasn't like it was a therapy session.  She had done the therapy herself.  So, it was never actually traumatic, interviewing her, even the terrible things that she described.  She was really just concerned with getting them as accurate as she could.  It wasn't as though she was suddenly back in those rooms where she'd been hidden.

 

Ben Holden:

So that's a big burden or responsibility, obviously, for you to get it as accurate as you can. And we've talked about the methods that you use.  Do you have these fixed points, as best you can in terms of memory, as we said, provisionary or recollection is a sort of revisionist act, whether you like it or not.  You've got these fixed points, and they're really documentary fixed points - letters, photos, etc, but can you explain the process vis-a-vis libraries as well?  And drawing upon your obvious pretty significant expertise in research, how that went in Holland and joining these dots?

 

Bart Van Es:

I had a very strong sense of responsibility, both to Lien’s memory and to history.  I mean, if you're dealing with something like the Holocaust, there could be nothing worse than making some error where you say that a certain type of clothing was available, or a certain type of food, and that someone can suddenly say, “Oh, this is all fake news”.  So I wanted to be absolutely certain that everything that I wrote in the book could have happened and that it had happened to somebody.

I started out with those interviews with Lien, but then as I went to those places, I would also go to the resources that were around there to get a wider picture.  So it started in the Hague. So, right at the beginning of the interviews with Lien, I went to the house where she was collected, which was now a physiotherapy gym, and walked around there, but also went to the Hague City Library - it’s a bigger version of Summertown Library, and there's a big section on local history.  So, you could get things like construction histories of the Hague, I could work out when those houses were built; lots of details about street life there, the percentage of Jews on the street, all of those kinds of facts around the history, photographs. And I did that everywhere.  So, when I went to Dordrecht, which is the town she moved to, I spent a lot of time in Dordrecht City Library. 

There was that kind of local history which, you know, fundamentally I'm such a supporter of physical books; I'm kind of frightened by the way in which the current generation, to sort of sound a bit fogeyish, is so ready to trust the internet.   I find that with my own students at Oxford now that they just have an idea that you get facts by putting it into a search box.  And, actually, that's not really the (way); you're always getting something at several removes, and there's no anchor for it, whereas actually even a 1950s old history of the building of Dordrecht or something, it's concrete; you have to flick through it, you have to read sections, you have to think who wrote this, and when?

So, I spent a lot of time in local libraries, also after that month in January 2015.  Then I did more scholarly, archival work.  So, I got access to the prosecution documents against Dutch policemen after the war.  So, I spent a lot of time working in the National Archives.  I worked in the National Centre for Holocaust studies in Amsterdam, I worked a lot in Leiden University Library, and various other kinds of institutional archives - that's a different kind of thing to what a local library is.  So, I was using academic libraries, I was using archives. 

But, a lot of that period detail actually comes from small local libraries, where there will often be a General History Society which produces paper pamphlets as they did, for example, in Bennekom, the town where Lien ended up at the end of the war - you just wouldn't get that kind of thing with online searches.  So yeah, again, I mean, it's just such a sense of how these places matter and I am fighting the good fight as it were to sort of stop students and kids thinking that you are really doing research if you're looking at stuff on the screen.  We actually do have to see that the books exist and who has put those books out there, because otherwise it's potentially just this miasma of other people's versions of the truth.

 

Ben Holden:

The book does obviously have immense currency and urgency as well, at the moment, and, of course, you mentioned the dreaded term ‘fake news’.  But the forces that are at work in the book are bubbling away again, sadly, in our societies, and these libraries, in a book that's about remembering and the importance of remembering, and how we remember, your description of how you went about stitching it together is testimony to the importance of libraries in that conversation.

Kate, do you want to talk a little bit about Oxford and the local resources, and again how these archival faculties are protected and resourced here in these communities?

Kate Macleod:

Absolutely.  We have a number of local study sections within libraries where people can come and learn about the history of their area and their heritage, but also come in and contribute to help others.  And I think that's another really, really important facet of public libraries is that people can come with a question and hopefully find the answer, whether it's in the content of a book, or whether it's in coming together and finding out from others who may be able to point them in the right direction. I think, in terms of where we want to take our library services, our cultural services, locally is for that to be ever growing, and for it to take on both the physical and digital elements so that people can start to share their story so that you will continue to grow that history and that legacy.

Different but similar in some ways, this county is going to grow, so we'll have a third more people living in the county in 10 years time.  So these are people who aren't here yet.  But when they arrive, they'll have their own stories, their own heritage and history, and how do we start to bring this together to feel more like a community?  I think libraries have a really, really important part to play in making those enquiries and asking people questions, particularly in the context, as you say, of this evil spectre that does unfortunately, bubble up throughout history.  And one of the fundamental things that it tends to do is it erases people's stories and that's what makes us human.  And so giving people that voice so that they can share and we, that the history of a place, the heritage, it evolves because it's made up of the people.

 

Ben Holden:

It's terrifying, frankly, to think that there would be a Lien out there, because there are, - this is but one story clearly in an ocean of stories from that period -, but it's terrifying to think that you would not have the resources to access that story, or tell the narrative that you have so meticulously produced.

 

Bart Van Es:

As Kate says, it is also about people.  So when I went to Dordrecht on the first day, the place I went to was a local history museum, which is called ‘Museum 1940-1945’, (the war really started in 1940 in the Netherlands); and that's partly a library, partly a repository of lots of local artefacts, but it's probably most fundamentally a community.  So, there, I ended up browsing the library, and this man who was one of countless volunteers there said, “Oh, what are you looking for”?, and I showed him the photographs and the documents I had.  And then he said, “Oh, Mrs. H, I think I've heard about her. You ought to speak to this local journalist who helps out the museum”. And immediately this set of guys there started helping me, they were a kind of club, they were all volunteers doing this work.  Slightly troublingly, I was also the only visitor to the museum, so I think those places are important.  And there's a kind of danger that people think, “Oh, I can do it all online”.  But really, people need to come into that space, they need to talk to people like that, who are passionately, immersed in history and doing that vital work of archiving and also discussing and connecting.

 

Ben Holden:

And this is, again, what's so scary that last year 130 public libraries closed in the UK. However, we're here to be positive...

 

Bart Van Es:

It is a challenge, because, I think, reading, it's not inevitable that it continues.  I find English students now are far less habituated to reading than they were 10 years ago.  Even English students at Oxford when I was a kid, most of my leisure time was reading.

 

Ben Holden:

Were you at the library as a kid much?  Was there a library or a bookshop that has a special resonance?

 

Bart Van Es:

I lived a very privileged life.  So I lived abroad until my teenage years and we sort of lived this quite strange expat existence, I think doesn't really exist anymore where you sort of move as a camp of people into a different country.  So we lived in Norway with a set of Dutch people, in Dubai with a set of Dutch people, then Indonesia.  So there weren't really libraries in those places.  But then another element of privilege, I went to a pretty posh school in Sussex, and one of the things that posh schools have is libraries, and it was there I really fell in love with serious literature.  An English teacher who said you ought to read Hamlet, I devoured Hamlet, and started reading my way through all of Shakespeare; I started falling in love with Victorian novels, and they were all just there, so I never even thought of this as a threatened resource.  And I certainly use my local library in the holidays as well and spent quite a lot of time there.  I don't think it's inevitable that that passion will exist.  I mean, I see it in my own children that it's very difficult to resist the temptation of the phone, not to have those messages coming up, and the kind of habituation to that ability to be absorbed in something and not doing anything else that I'm very keen to try and preserve.

 

 

Ben Holden:

Do you have a big personal library? How extensive is your own library? And, if I may ask, how do you organise it?

 

Bart Van Es:

I mean, of course, I have a lot of books, academics have a lot of books, and I am obsessively organised about my alphabetised books.  I'm not really a romantic about

books…

 

Ben Holden:

Do you break the spine?

 

Bart Van Es:

I mean, if I have a genuinely beautiful hardback, I will treat it with respect, but I'm pretty happy to use paperbacks most of the time.  I have a lot of colleagues who are just enormous bibliophiles and who get very passionate about seeing the original printed edition of something, and that's actually never been something that's particularly been powerful for me, I'm more interested in the content. So my use of books is, in a way, quite pragmatic.  I want them alphabetised with lots of stickies in so that I can have them.  And I'm even quite willing to use E-readers if I'm travelling, so I'm not so fetishistic about the object of the book, though, I prefer reading from a physical book.

 

Ben Holden:

Your book, in particular, I feel is a very tactile, but I think I would have lost a measure of value or enjoyment, or satisfaction, If I'd read it as an E-book, personally.

 

Bart Van Es:

The books that are important to me I almost invariably have as both E-book and physical book.  All the Knausgaards I have on my phone, because I travel quite a lot, and so I find that thing of just reading on my phone quite easy. But yeah, if I'm at home, I would prefer to have the book, but they’re pretty bulky things to carry around.

People who come into my office, they’re always shocked because there's not a surface with a book on it.  And when I'm having a tutorial, loads of books come off the shelf and I sort of sit there and show people things, but at the end of a set of tutorials, my office will usually be covered in books that are splayed on the floor or have things in them, but then I can put them all daintily back in their slots, because otherwise I won't find them again.

 

Ben Holden:

Bart, if you're happy to, it would be lovely if you were to choose a book from the library, to celebrate Summertown library, but also the serendipitous experience of libraries and the magical alchemy of coming into them.  I know you probably have a stack of reading that you're always doing and referring to, but it could be an old favourite or something you've been meaning to read, or anything you like.  That's sort of the beauty of walking into a place like this. If you'd be up for that?

 

~

 

Ben Holden:

We’re in Fiction.  Is that deliberate?

 

Bart Van Es:

No, I don't really have any sense of what I'm up to at the moment.  But I tend to read classic fiction more than I read contemporary fiction, unless I suddenly feel that something is really major, as I felt with the Knausgaard.  I also absolutely adored the Ferrante books in a different way.  That sort of immersiveness in historical period I find fascinating. 

 

Ben Holden:

Have you read any Rachel Cusk?

 

Bart Van Es:

If there was a section that would be kind of creative non-fiction, I would go there.

 

Ben Holden:

‘Outline’ by Rachel Cusk, this is another in that zone.

 

Bart Van Es:

Yeah, this would definitely be the book that I pull out.  So, as with all books, you immediately read the cover, and it says,  “Like the Higgs boson, which appears only when bombarded by electrons, Rachel Cusk’s nearly nameless narrator flickers into visibility through her encounters with a series of amazingly eloquent and fascinating interlocutors”.

So, yeah, I will definitely be taking this one out.  Beautiful sort of simple things - I like the chapter headings just to have Roman numerals, very little sense of what you're going to get, such a kind of unexplored thing.  And we see Habermas and Penelope, all sorts of exciting things as I flick through, so I'll definitely be taking this to the desk.  Great, thank you, it’s a great recommendation.

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this Ex Libris podcast.

If you've enjoyed this episode, please rate, review and subscribe wherever it is you get your brainfood. If you'd like the chance of winning a signed copy of Bart's majestic book, ‘The Cut Out Girl’, then all you have to do is write a thoughtful review of the podcast, mentioning this episode.  To find out more about the authors and venues, as well as libraries and independent bookshops, please visit our website:  www.exlibris.com  You can also get updates from me on twitter and instagram.  Find me @thatbenholden.

 

Ex Libris is produced by Chris Sharp and Ben Holden.

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