Ex Libris
Imtiaz Dharker in Shakespeare and Company, Paris

Imtiaz Dharker in Shakespeare and Company, Paris

November 19, 2019

Imtiaz Dharker, winner of the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, selected the iconic Parisian bookshop, Shakespeare and Company. In this episode of Ex Libris, released to coincide with the store’s centenary, Imtiaz and Ben are joined by the famed store’s proprietor, Sylvia Whitman.

The trio sit and chat on one of the tumbleweed beds that are made available in the shop’s library to aspiring writers. We are transported in this conversation not just to Kilometre Zero of Paris, on which faultline the shop resides, but also to a hinterland of imagination and wonder, thanks to Imtiaz’s poetry and the rich 100-year-strong history of Sylvia’s home.

Imtiaz has published several collections of luminous, acclaimed poetry. Carol Ann Duffy wrote of her work: ‘Reading her, one feels that were there to be a World Laureate, Imtiaz Dharker would be the only candidate.

 

 

….

 

Please find below a full transcript of Episode 3: Imtiaz Dharker

Shakespeare and Company, Paris

 

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 an author in a library or independent 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: 

This week I’m joined by poet, artist and filmmaker, Imtiaz Dharker.  Awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for poetry in 2014, Imtiaz has published seven collections of luminous verse.  Her poems feature on the British GCSE and A level syllabuses.  In her collections, her verses are always accompanied by exquisite drawings that are also drawn by Imtiaz, and her pictures have been exhibited in solo shows across the world, from India to Hong Kong, to New York.  Imtiaz lives in London, but her chosen Ex Libris venue has brought us to Paris.

 

Imtiaz, this is an incredible place, an institution.  One of the most famous bookshops globally, but nevertheless, I have to ask, of all the bookshops or libraries, in all the cities, in all the world, why Shakespeare and Company?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Well, I heard a rumour of this place as far back as the seventies, when I was still living at home in a fairly strict household in Glasgow.  And, I heard about this bookshop in Paris where writers could stay the whole night living among books and sleeping with poetry, and it seemed to me like an incredibly exciting idea, and I dreamed of running away to this place. 

 

For me, the idea of Paris was a place where anything was possible, where I could be anything that I imagined myself to be.  And, of course, I’d read by then Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Rimbaud, and was nostalgic for their Paris too; but the idea of this bookshop somehow crystallised for me everything that I wanted of life, because I was hungry for the kind of freedom that I imagined would be here, a place where there would be free thought and ideas without borderlines. 

 

Finally, I did run away from home, but not to Paris, but to India, and in many ways, I grew up in India and it was an inspiring place to be, and it was also an experience that shocked me into writing poetry.  In some quiet, secret part of my mind, it still persisted and I held it there like some kind of myth of a bookshop, and I didn’t know whether it actually existed or not.

 

Somewhere along the way, I also saw Wender’s film, ‘Wings of Desire’ - haunting images of angels in black raincoats listening to people’s thoughts in a library; their thoughts and hopes and fears; and in my mind, this became linked to my mythical bookshop.  I never believed that I’d actually find it, and for years it really was impossible, as I was too poor to travel, definitely not to Paris.  I did get to London, and I remember standing outside of the offices of the British Poetry Society looking at its closed doors, thinking “This must be where poetry lives”, but I couldn't get in.  So just imagine the difference when I finally did go to Paris in the late eighties and I was walking by the Seine one evening, and just off the road, there was a shop bursting with books and golden lights spilling across the pavement and all kinds of people around it, buzzing like bees around honey, and I was pulled in along with them.

 

It was only when I walked into the shop, and walked up the stairs and into the library, that I began to realise that this was the place of my dreams, and I then put a name to it - ‘Shakespeare and Company’.  There was something so familiar in the smell of it, the feeling of books surrounding me with their safety and attracting me to their danger, and I sat on one of the benches, and I have to admit that I cried, so coming back to this place still brings that back to me, and that’s why I’m back today.

 

Ben Holden:

To those listeners who haven’t been here, how would you describe the place?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Well, behind me is the Seine and Notre Dame, and the whole of Paris, and the whole of the city, and in front of me is the sign, ‘Shakespeare and Company’.  It’s an old building, 16th century apparently, and on the outside, there’s a look of things that have been added on, because this whole place has grown as if it couldn’t help but opening its arms wider and wider to take in more and more of the people who love books, so I get that feeling when I’m standing outside looking at it.  It’s nestled back on the road, sheltered by trees, with steps dipping down, so it looks like a bit of a proscenium.  There are people on the steps and at the tables on the pavement, some are reading, some just chatting over a coffee.

 

Ben Holden:

 

The founder of this iteration of Shakespeare and Company, George Whitman, called it his “Rag and bone shop of the heart”; He said:  “I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations”.

 

So, without further ado, I think we should open the book and walk into this magic world of imaginations, and somewhere inside, Sylvia Whitman, George’s daughter is hopefully waiting for us.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:  Sylvia, could you please try and distill for our listeners the history of this place?

 

Sylvia Whitman: 

Well, the story starts with Sylvia Beach, who was a very witty, energetic, fearless American who came to Paris and decided to open a bookshop here in 1919, and as Gertrude Stein said, Paris at that time was the 20th century; it was the place to be - all roads led to Paris.  And so Beach’s bookshop quickly became a literary Mecca, a sanctuary for the great writers passing through, or anglophone writers staying in Paris at that time, as well as French writers in the area.  Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, as well as André Gide, Paul Valéry, Aragon - and so, one of the most famous stories about Sylvia Beaches is that she became the publisher of ‘Ulysses’.  At the time, it was declared obscene and banned, and so no-one dared to publish it in its entirety, but she offered to, and became in 1922, “The smallest of small publishers of the biggest of big books”, as she put it.  And she, in 1941, had to close her bookshop during the German occupation under threat of the Nazi officers, but she remained in Paris and was a very influential figure until her death in 1962.

 

The next chapter is with my father who came to Paris after the Second World War as a GI; and he had been a bookseller before coming to Paris, before the war, and he discovered this amazing base here; this building that is 17th century and used to be a monastery, and the ground floor was for sale, and he decided this was where he wanted to live and sell books; and so he opened his doors in 1951. 

 

This bookshop has been connected to the writers of the Beat generation.  William Burroughs spent a lot of time in this room researching ‘Naked Lunch’, and Alan Ginsburg spent a lot of time here, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as people like Anaïs Nin, Richard Wright, James Baldwin. 

 

Ben Holden:

 

And you grew up here in the apartment above the shop?  Can you tell us a little bit about how that was?

 

Sylvia Whitman: 

It was mad.  My dad didn’t limit the amount of people he allowed to stay here, so there were some mornings where we would have to step over the bodies to open the bookshop, and there were so many people sleeping that we’d forget to wake everyone up, and customers would come in and there would still be people sleeping in certain sections. 

 

It was a wonderful way to encounter really interesting characters from all over the world, but it was a very unusual upbringing.  One night, I went to go to bed, and there was an old bearded man in my bed, and I complained to my father, and he said, “But he’s a brilliant poet!”.  It was really quite mad, but I appreciate it so much today.  I was quite lucky to spend some time away from the bookshop in my upbringing, and therefore not find it banal or irritating, and actually find it magical and a wonderful way to live.

 

Ben Holden:

Imtiaz, you were born in Pakistan and you moved quite early to Scotland.  Growing up, were you surrounded my books?

 

Imtiaz Dharker

Certainly not in the way Sylvia’s was! There were some books in the house of Urdu poetry, but I couldn’t read them, because I didn’t know the script.  And then there was the Quran which I read five times by rote, not understanding a single word, but I did have to read it aloud, - we were all made to rock in time to the rhythm of it-, and there was music in that that I think had a power beyond just the meaning of the words; it was, in a way, a kind of meditation.

 

But poetry was part of everyday life for my parents.  They’d recite lines from memory and it was thrown into the daily conversation; it was part of daily life.  So, they passed on the poetry to me, but it was more of an oral poetry.  And the film songs were all from poems, and there was Hafez, Ghalib and Faiz. 

 

But, early on, there weren’t books in the house so much; I discovered books in the public library, and I devoured those.  I’d start at one end of the shelf and not stop until I reached the end of the shelf.

 

Ben Holden:

Was there a moment where you realised this is what you wanted to do, or dreamed of writing poetry?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

I don’t think I’d have articulated it like that at that time.  All I was doing was putting a pen or a pencil on paper.  But when I did that, when I wrote the words or made a line of a drawing, I knew that I was completely free, and that that space belonged to me, and that no-one else could tell me what to do with it.

 

I wasn’t allowed to go out very much, and my heart actually ached with the longing to travel, so when I saw a plane take off, it was like a terrible hurt for me.  But, in some ways, I think being constrained and confided to a room with myself made me find other ways to be free, and books were a way to do that - to find a way out to the world, and to invite the world back in.  The poems are a way of coming back to the room for me, with all the world in my hands, and go back to the child that I was and say, “Here, this was what you wanted - take it, and enjoy it”.

 

Ben Holden:

There’s that lovely Nietszche quote that says:  “We only obtain true maturity as an artist once we regain the seriousness of the child at play”.

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Yes, I think children really do see play as work; they treat it as the job that they are doing.  It is an intense, earnest attitude to play.

 

Ben Holden:

Your poetry has very open arms; it has a very kind voice when I read it.  Just as George Whitman’s famous mantra was “Be not inhospitable to strangers, lest they be angels in disguise”, Imtiaz, I understand that your home had a similar philosophy? Can you talk a little bit about that?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

The house I grew up in was a little like this bookshop.  It was always open to people who came from outside.  I think there was always that idea that the guest is an honored person, and that the guest is given the best.  And I found that even in India when I went there; working in the slums, there would be people in the slum, they’d have nothing, they’d be so poor, but the guest would be given everything that they had.  That attitude is one of generosity and openness, and having enough.  The idea is not that we don’t have enough, but if we share, there will be enough.

 

Sylvia Whitman:

 

Another founding ethos of the bookshop here is:  “Give what you can, take what you need.

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

And that’s so much like Ghandi’s quote which is:  “There is enough in this world for man’s need, but not for his greed.”

 

~

 

Imtiaz Dharker reads and extract from ‘Barkat’:

 

If, by chance, you wake, and find on your pillow

jasmine blossoms, cold with dew,

you will know that you are loved. 

 

The bud is the knot where everything

Begins, someone having gone in the dawn

to gather the flowers for you, the petals

of songs your grandmother sings.

Soja chanda soja

Meri raj dulari soja

 

You may have nothing

but a large heart, and just enough

food on the table for a guest,

but the best of conversations

are garlands in your clever hands,

strung through with poetry.

Tuhe nindiya sataye soja

Soja chanda soja

 

This song is an untied knot.

It will not lie idle

on the pillow or hide in the bed,

but will run out on the street

and when the traffic lights turn

red, stand at your car window

with bare feet, saying

Take this. Take it. I made it for you.

 

 

Ben Holden:

Sylvia, there’s also that lovely quote from your father about this shop itself being a book, and opening up chapters and pages, and it still feels like an imaginary world when you’re walking in.  Would you say your philosophy is still along those lines, in terms of housing emotions, and these books that you grew up around?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

George always said that he never wrote a novel, but every corner of this bookshop was a chapter from his unwritten novel, and I think you do sense that personality and spirit in every corner.  I also love the fact that he used to say that everyone in this bookshop is a fictitious character, so leave your everyday self outside the door, and the idea is that you come into the bookshop and you enter the space as if you were to enter your imagination.  I hope that we’ve still retained that spirit; and that is something that I feel on an everyday level, that there’s something very magnetic and imaginative about the space, not only the physicality of books and the beautiful design of books, but also that a bookshop is somewhere where you can be alone together; it’s that wonderful combination of solitude and gathering that is something we want to encourage here.  And also, making it somewhere where people, especially children, can come in and feel a sense of magic.

 

Also the presence of the tumbleweeds really is the heart of the bookshop, in terms of feeling connected to this space.

 

Ben Holden:

Can you tell us a bit more about the tumbleweed tradition, and how it lives on today?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

George spent a lot of his youth travelling; he left Boston with $40 in his pocket and went to Mexico City, and then travelled extensively in South America, and was really struck by the hospitality that he received, and so he felt that it was just natural to return that.  When he opened the bookshop, on the very first day, he invited a couple from Australia to sleep in the bookshop, and in exchange for a bed, he asked, and we still ask, for people to write a one page story of their life, to help us for two hours per day, and to read a book a day. 

 

And so that tradition has continued, amazingly; it’s actually become the most important part of the bookshop to me; this sense of being open to strangers, when we’re not very open to strangers in society these days.  The incredible effect that that has - people are so amazed by it, and we have letters in the archives from people who had come into the bookshop planning to steal a book, and George saw them and would say:  “Could you mind the till for an hour, I’ve got to get out to the supermarket, and you can sleep here tonight - here are my keys.”  And so, obviously, they didn’t steal a book and ended up having an incredible experience.  I think, now, we’ve housed over 40,000 people.

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

 

Even just having that permission, that ‘borrowed time’, that time that’s kept just for this, must have changed the way they looked at time and writing. 

 

Sylvia Whitman:

Exactly, and often a lot of them were aspiring writers, so this is actually a real necessity for them, to be in this bubble for a moment to reflect on things that they might not be able to in their everyday life.

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

I was wondering about the people who spend the night here.  Do you think they ever see the ghosts of the past writers?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

Apparently they do!  Apparently, in the Dostoyevsky section, there’s someone who appears regularly!

 

Ben Holden:

Imtiaz, in terms of night, and in terms of creating a space in which to imagine and inhabit your sensibilities and consciousness as a writer, you have quite an unusual process it could be said.  Do you want to talk a little bit about how you go about finding that poetic space for your work?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

First of all, I walk about.  I walk and I find that the rhythm of walking unleashes something that sets a poem in motion.  And then I sit around cafes and stations, and all kinds of public spaces, lying in wait for a poem, lying in wait for those conversations and half conversations that people have, that can trigger a poem.  And then I write on A4 sheets of paper, because I never really know if the line I am writing is going to become a poem or a drawing, but it’s only when I take all of those pieces of paper home, that I’m able to give in shape. 

 

And very often I can start a line, say at 11 at night, and find that I’ve been working on that line and it’s four in the morning before I know it.  There’s that moment, just before dawn, when time seems to stand still, where it holds its breath, and that’s a moment that I find it’s as if the writing falls into that space, as if it’s a space where writing is allowed to happen.

 

I think a poem, in many ways, is a way of playing games with time; it’s like leaving a signature on time.  The line in a poem has to do with how the poem moves in time, and it goes on kind of a walk or a dance, and in that moment, I’m in some ways mirroring what’s happening during the day, but in that stillness of time, letting the poem walk in a different way; it has feet and can get into a stride of its own, and you recognise the music when it happens. The white at the end of the line is like the silence in the night; it’s when time stops and takes a breath, and decides whether to turn the next corner or move onto the next line, or the next verse.

 

~

 

Imtiaz Dharker reads her poem, ‘Heavenly emporium’:

 

He takes the pieces of china home

and places them together, not

 

to recreate the thing

they were, but to make

 

a shape wiser than a cup or plate,

the broken edges uncontained

 

and patient enough to lie in wait

for the tide to turn, for the full moon.

 

 

Ben Holden:

How do you know, then, when a poem that does turn a corner is going to last the distance?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

I never know.  I never know if the poem is right, I never feel it’s finished - you ask any publisher and I’ll still be changing lines after I’ve sent it off.  I sometimes change lines after the poem is published.  I sometimes read a different version to what I’ve actually published! So, I feel as if a poem is something that, in my mind, never really ends.

 

Ben Holden:

Can we discuss ‘Poetry Live!’, started by your late husband, Simon Powell, and I think that’s how you met Simon.  How important is it to you today that poetry be read aloud?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Well, over 25 years ago, Simon had this brilliant, beautiful and completely mad idea that young people shouldn’t just read poetry off a page but hear it spoken by the poets who write it, and that he could take this out to thousands of young people.  So, what they hear is the voice, the breath and the accent of the poets themselves, and see that the poets are real, living people, who look much like them and have lives much like them, and are talking about quite recognisable things, doing this in a language they understand. 

 

What happens then is that yes, they listen, and they come in rowdy and just happy to get a day off school, but when the poem is being read, they’re listening at pin-drop silence.  And what we find is that when they go back to the page, they’re seeing the poem in a different way, and hearing it in a different way, and they have a better way into it.  So seven poets travel around the country reading to thousands, it’s 25,000 students a year - Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, John Agar and others; but it doesn’t really matter who they are; they’re breathing, living people, and this is what the students are seeing.

 

Ben Holden:

Sylvia, how do you think of poetry’s significance within a shop?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

I’m seeing a resurgence of poetry at the moment, and we have expanded our poetry section, not because we sensed an increase in demand at the time, but because it’s a very important section for us.  And, thinking about our sister bookshop, ‘City Lights’, who has this amazing room just of poetry, and we wanted to go in that direction, and so we just opened this poetry room up and we were so happy to see the success. 

 

And, I don’t know whether it’s because of the unsettling times that we’re living in, if you think of the line from T S Elliot, “This is one moment, but know that another shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy”, whether at these times, people want something that goes straight to your heart; or is it social media, and this is a really good form for social media, and there’s a lot of instagram poets and people have been coming in asking for their works.  I don’t know what it is, but it’s so heartening as a bookseller to see this resurgence.  Do you feel that Imtiaz?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Yes, I agree with this.  I think especially in a time when there’s so much white noise; there’s so much chaos and unnecessary noise, that when they find that still moment of poetry, they respond to it.  And also it’s a shared experience, in a time when church is a different kind of a place, people are not getting the same kind of shared experience; at least, this is a kind of secular experience where people share something that lifts them up and takes them out of themselves, and I think young people especially are responding to this.  Because poetry is speaking in a language that goes beyond the meaning of the words; it says things that the heart knows before the mind has a chance to catch up. 

 

Sylvia Whitman:

Some of our most memorable events have been poetry (events).  Readers get a lot out of hearing the poet’s voice, out of hearing the music, and sometimes we do have accompanying music.  Recently we had Kate Tempest, Saul Williams, Scarlett Sabet, Salina Godden, and people were utterly captivated.

 

In 1958 (Allen) Ginsberg gave a reading with Corso, and someone was reading before them and Corso shouted, “This is not real poetry!”, and when he was asked what real poetry was, he stripped naked, stood up, read his poems, and he had two friends who acted like bodyguards, who threatened to beat anyone up if they left during the recital.  And then Ginsberg followed naked, and that was when William Burroughs gave his first reading of ‘Naked lunch’ and George said, “No-one knew whether to laugh or be sick”.

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

I think that’s an interesting point as well, because it raises the question of what is real poetry?  And I think nowadays, the idea of what is real poetry is wider and wider, and as such, makes exciting times.  I find these very exciting times, because the idea of poetry is bigger and bigger now.

 

Ben Holden:

Imtiaz, you talked about poetry in the context of time, and you’ve said there’s this capability of poetry to loop time.  In the context of Simon and ‘Poetry Live!’, is it fair to say that poetry brought you together, and it enabled you to live together with him?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Yes, I think that’s absolutely true, because poetry has this whole feeling of presence and absence, the ability to use memory and time to keep time.  In a way, keeping time, it’s like dance in a way.  I have this poem which is named after the sanskrit word for ‘Beat’, and I was thinking of a beat that accompanies a Khatak dancer.  If you think what the feet do, it’s a moving outwards from a point and coming back to a central point; and for me, that’s the whole idea that keeping time changes the idea of time; it’s almost as if the timeline loops and time can co-exist, past and present.  And I feel in many ways that’s what I’m doing in keeping Simon, keeping the person who’s absent present, and it changes the ideas of loss and lost time.  And in the line between the beats is the [‘Kali’?], the empty space, the sideways swipe of the hand, which is the absence, which is also very much part of the line itself - the presence - the silence between the line.

 

Ben Holden:

And Sylvia, your father lives on so abundantly in this shop, and memory is a constantly a provisional act; memory lives in the present, and the books are characters of their own.  This place itself feels like a timewarp and when you walk in, you feel like you’re in another dimension.  Again, for you, on a personal level, he’s still here - that must be quite comforting?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

Yes, absolutely.  You do feel not only his aesthetic in the shop, he always wanted gaps between the shelves, so that one reader could exchange a glance with another reader on the other side, very romantic; but then also his values.  The citation ‘Live for humanity’ painted on the step going into the fiction room - I feel that not only in the way the bookshop looks, but also in the values that the bookshop is founded on, and I hope we are continuing that today.

 

~

 

Imtiaz Dharker reads her poem, ‘The trick’.

 

In a wasted time, it’s only when I sleep

that all my senses come awake. In the wake

of you, let day not break. Let me keep

the scent, the weight, the bright of you, take

the countless hours and count them all night through

till that time omes when you come to the door

of dreams, carrying oranges that cast a glow

up into your face. Greedy for more

than the gift of seeing you, I lean in to taste

the colour, kiss it off your offered mouth.

for this, for this, I fall asleep in haste,

willing to fall for the trick that tells the truth

that even your shade makes darkest absence bright,

that shadows live where there is light.

 

 

 

Ben Holden:

Imtiaz, you’ve moved around a lot.  We’ve talked about London, Glasgow, Paris etc.  Carol Ann Duffy has said you would be the only candidate for world laureate if such a post were to exist, which I completely agree with.  And you’ve also said in one of your poems that you don’t fit.  In verse, you said, “I don’t fit, like a clumsily translated poem”, but this sense of displacement, dislocation, being on the edge of things, and you’ve also called yourself a cultural ‘mongrel’; this is all very positive though and it’s the lifeblood of your work, isn’t it?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

I’ve always felt as if I’m hanging on by my fingernails, half understanding things and just about to fall off.  But in a way, I think that’s quite good for a writer, not to be comfortable, not to feel you are safe in one place.  Even the idea of home in many ways, - what is home? Home is changing constantly.  Even for an exile, or a refugee, or for someone who has emigrated, they may have an idea of home that feels like a safe place, but, actually, home is gone behind their backs. All of that has changed. 

 

And Gertrude Stein again said:  “What good are roots unless you can take them with you?”.  So, for me, home has always been the places where I find other writers, my relatives are ancestors in books, and that’s why, in many ways, coming to a place like this is coming back to a huge family that I discover and rediscover another relative I didn't know I had, and that's what a place like this does. The randomness of it. The fact that you have safe places for a moment without knowing it. That you can walk into a dangerous area too, because that's what books are too, they’re not about safety, they’re about pushing you into dangerous ground as well, but that’s what every place is; nowhere is ever just safe anymore, you don’t want it to be; it has all kinds of traps and trip wires.  For me, this bookshop especially, to come back and find it, was a great moment.

 

Sylvia Whitman:

We just put a quote by James Baldwin in the window, I can’t remember the exact quote, but the sense is you think you’re in pain and lonely, and then you read. 

 

Ben Holden: 

The idea is you feel that what you’re going through, and how you’re feeling, is the first time anyone’s ever been through this, and then you read.  And I think home, for me, as a construct only really exists when you’re a child, and then it becomes a state of mind.  And Imtiaz, this place feels like home for you?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Yes, and I did recognise, first of all in the philosophy of the place and then everything I saw when I walked into it, I recognised that openness and that generosity which is what you wish for from home.

 

Ben Holden:

I have to ask, although we’ve talked about displacement being so key to your sensibilities, you’re also very sharpened about topography and geography, and it’s very important for your process.  What about the location of this shop? Have you been led here because of its geography and the faultlines underneath this store?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Yes, the idea of Paris and the idea that this shop is actually sitting on kilometre zero, which is the beginning of all roads in France, and if you look at it the other way, the end of all roads in France.  So, that seems to me such a beautiful, circular image for all of what we are doing which is journeying outwards and the possibility of back again, but it is kilometer zero, the dark heart of nothing.  I mean I see that as what is happening all of the time, the outward and the coming back.

 

Ben Holden:

I have to ask Sylvia also, Shakespeare and Company is obviously a landmark, but we’re also opposite Notre Dame.  Now, Notre Dame is a husk of its former self and it’s a sobering sight for us.  If you don’t mind me asking, what was that day like for you?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

On the day, we received lots of messages from relatives and friends, and the only way I can describe it was that it was like watching the moon in the sky split in two.  And I realised that this building somehow seemed immovable for me, somehow it seemed impossible that anything could change about this building, so it was utterly shocking; it almost felt like a very horrible nightmare. We were very fortunate that we were about 15 minutes away from losing one of the towers and no-one died, so we’re actually really lucky. 

 

Now, in the aftermath, there has been this sense of sadness looking at the building,..., and I do hope there will be a quick reconstruction, because it feels like an ill, lost friend at the moment.

 

Ben Holden:

There was a fairly major fire at the shop, am I right, in around 1990?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

Yes, there was, in this library; and in the midst of the fire, George came in and threw out his most precious books, because a lot of the library came from Simon De Beauvoir’s English language library, so they were very precious to him.  But, in a very George-like way, the very next day, he re-opened, and said, “Don’t mourn. Let’s get back to business, let’s organise!”, so it was quite dramatic, but he kept going.

 

Ben Holden:

This shop is often full of tourists and all manner of people browsing.  How do you reconcile its position as a landmark with that sort of caché with visitors to Paris, but also with day to day functionality and its key role as a local, thriving bookstore?

 

 

Sylvia Whitman:

This is something that I think about every single day; it’s a real challenge.  Whilst we’re incredibly lucky to be a destination for people from around the world, and even a destination for people who wouldn’t normally go to a bookshop, so it’s a fantastic opportunity to showcase writers, books, publishers that we care about, and to meet people from around the world.  On the other side of this, it’s a real priority for us to remain a local bookshop that is a nice and welcoming place for local readers and writers, and also a place where you can be comfortable browsing for hours, because isn’t that one of the joys of being in an independent bookshop is that you’re not pressured into buying something?  This library, in fact, the whole of the first floor, is not commercial, so the idea is that it is a space that people can come and sit and meet and read for 12 hours a day.

 

Ben Holden:

I love that you have a library in the bookshop and always have.  And it started with Sylvia and George predominantly as a lending library?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

Yes, Sylvia was much more organised; she actually had lending cards and she lent the books out.  Ours are really at people’s disposal to pick up and read, but we don’t encourage them to take them with them!  It’s a really important part of the bookshop, and encourages the sense of this being a space that is not primarily commercial, and this was one of the most important things for George; and he felt he was following in the footsteps of Sylvia and creating a place that was more of a lending library than a commercial space, and he would indeed be quite irritated sometimes when people wanted to buy a book!

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Do you have people now who come here and work on a whole manuscript?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

Yes, we do.  There’s one man actually, I haven’t dare ask him what he’s working on, but I’ve seen him everyday for the last six months working in one corner or another.

 

 

Ben Holden:

Where do you think Shakespeare and Company is going?  With all the closures of independent bookshops, do you have any view on the landscape?  Also, do you have any other bookshops you like?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

So many! I’d like to do a world journey visiting all of the bookshops I’d like to see around the world, because there’s so many and in extraordinary spaces, like a bookshop in a theatre, in a cathedral, or in a boat.  Like you, I feel instantly at home when I go into a bookshop.  It’s as if there’s a kind of unspoken community, we’re all connected.

 

Ben Holden:

I’m also thinking about the digital age and how people are now consuming and buying books?

 

Sylvia Whitman:

Well, we have almost tripled in size and business in the last few years, and that’s quite extraordinary, and it’s made me think a lot about that direction and the responsibility that goes with that.  I have been trying to read a lot of books by Rebecca Solnit, such as ‘Hope in the dark’, as well as the books ‘Utopia for realists’ or ‘Poetry for the future’.  They’re books that are very informative about the reality of today, and yet not scaremongering, so there’s a sense of hope. 

 

And so there's two ways we’re doing that. One is trying to present books we really care about, through displays and events, that we think are important for people to read.  We’ve just put a quote from Rebecca Solnit downstairs that says inside the word emergency is the word emerge - from emergency new things come forth.  And I think the other way is to work with associations like Médecins Sans Frontières who are doing a lot for refugees, or Room to Read who create libraries in places where people don’t have access to libraries, and Arts Emergency who put people in touch who are not from the literary world and want to break in, but have no contacts. 

 

In general, independent bookshops are revered in France; it’s a wonderful country to exist as an independent bookshop - the river is lined with booksellers, there are over 1000 independent bookshops in Paris.  Last month, the French parliament passed a law against ‘GAF attacks’ which is an acronym for Google, Amazon, Facebook; these companies now have to pay a 3 % fee on revenue they make in France.  It’s so inspiring, I’m so proud that this is a country that’s taking action.  To re-establish fiscal justice is bringing the fiscal system into the 21st century.  There is no reason why one of these huge corporations shouldn’t pay tax like anyone else with economic activity in France is paying.  I think this is one of the reasons independent bookshops are still thriving in France.

 

Ben Holden: 

Mitterand passed a law known as ‘Langs Law’, so that bigger booksellers couldn’t undercut smaller, independent stores.

 

Sylvia: 

This is so valuable to us. It means that chains can’t undercut more than 5% of the price of a new book. If feel there is a lot being done.

 

Ben Holden:

How do you order your bookshelves?  George, as I understand, didn’t like to order alphabetically, which for a bookseller is, once again, extraordinary, but he preferred a more holistic approach?

 

Sylvia: 

Yes, he called these ‘interesting marriages'; he’d have a history of the CIA next to a biography of Henry Miller.  (On Sylvia’s personal book collection) They are alphabetised, but only the ones I’ve read.  They are friends, and I need to go back to them when I need to find a line I’ve read for me or a friend. But the books I haven't read are in total disaster piles and under the bed; it’s chaos.

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

I’m with George on this; I don’t put anything alphabetically, because in a lot of ways that wouldn’t make sense to me.  It has to be clusters of things that go together, like poetry would be in one section and even in poetry, it would be books I think speak to each other. The books on my shelves are having constant conversations, I don’t think they’re ever really quiet; they are shuffling and whispering to each other all the time.

 

Then, of course, like you, I’ve got the books I haven’t read yet; they’re not even on shelves.  My books have gone off the shelves; there are not enough shelves to deal with them.  Some are stacked in clusters.  Occasionally, when they fall down, it’s quite interesting because you get to look at another set of things and they have a new kind of conversation, a  kind of accidental conversation.

 

~

 

Ben Holden:

Now we might do a short tour, with the idea that Imtiaz, along the way, might browse the shelves with the serendipitous wonder that brings and choose a book.

 

~

 

Sylvia Whitman: 

This is the new poetry room.  There’s a quote I love by Jeanette Winterson we’ve just put up that says:  “Fiction and poetry are medicines; they heal the rupture reality makes on the imagination.”  We also have section for French poetry, love poetry, Beat poetry.  Have you read Ferlinghetti?

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

Oh yes.

 

Sylvia Whitman: 

He just turned 100, and so this is a new collection by ‘New Directions’ of his greatest poems.

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

He was a regular here, wasn’t he?

 

Sylvia Whitman: 

It’s really got the best collection of his poems here.  Just listen to this line from ‘I am waiting’:  “And I am awaiting perpetually and forever a renaissance of wonder.”

I’ll give you than one (‘Ferlinghetti’s greatest poems’, published by New Directions).

 

Imtiaz Dharker:

I was going to have this one as the one I chose, thank you!

 

 

[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 from me on twitter and instagram.  Find me @thatbenholden.

Write a really perceptive, nice review or shout loud enough about this episode on social media, and you could even win a signed copy of Imtiaz’s latest two poetry collections:  ‘Over the mood’ and ‘Luck is the hook’.

 

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, providi

 

Jacqueline Wilson in Roehampton Library

Jacqueline Wilson in Roehampton Library

November 13, 2019

Jacqueline Wilson wrote her first ‘novel’ when she was nine, filling in countless Woolworths exercise books with scribblings.

Today, with over 100 books to her name and over 40 million copies of them sold, Jacqueline has gone on to fire young imaginations like few others alive.

Her vivid creations - beloved characters such as Tracey Beaker and Hetty Feather - remain inspirations to children everywhere. She is a former Children’s Laureate and was appointed a Dame in 2008.

In this episode, Ben discusses with Jacqueline how she manages still to tap into that child’s-eye-worldview, as well as how the magical library of her own childhood led Jacqueline to pursue those dreams of writing…

For the episode, Jacqueline selected Roehampton Library as her chosen venue. The library is very dear to Jacqueline, not least as her close friend Stuart Wynn works there. Stuart joined Ben’s and Jacqueline’s conversation and his enthusiasm for the role of librarian is infectious. Indeed Stuart wanted to be a librarian from around the same tender age that Jacqueline decided she wanted to be a writer.

 

 

….

 

Please find below a full transcript of Episode 2: Jacqueline Wilson

 

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 an 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:

 

So, this week’s location has just afforded me a shelter from the storm.  It’s one of those grim, wet days here in West London, proper cats and dogs stuff out there.  But, I’ve stepped inside a concrete oasis.  I’m in Roehampton library; it’s a brutalist beacon, nestled just around the corner from a GP surgery, church and youth centre, within a very lively housing estate.  It was chosen by one of Britain’s best selling and most beloved authors, Jacqueline Wilson.  With over 100 books to her name, and over 40 million copies of them sold, Jacqueline has fired young imaginations like few others alive.  She is a former children’s laureate and appointed a Dame in 2008.  Jacqueline has chosen Roehampton library, partly because it’s where her good friend Stuart Wynn works.  I’m excited to sit down with them here in a back office.  Hopefully, we can walk off with a few leaves taken out of their books.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Jacqueline, why Roehampton library?  Can you describe the place for our listeners?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

It’s not the most esoteric and quiet, and leatherbound volumes-type library, at all; it’s a community library on the edge of one of the very biggest council estates in London, the Alton estate, which won goodness knows how many awards.  It’s a most interesting estate; it’s lively with everything that that entails.  I think this is a fantastic library; it wasn’t one I went to as a child because I lived a little bit further away in Kingston, but I saw the Alton estate growing up, and it changing the whole atmosphere from a sleepy, little, almost country village, to the vibrant, strangely noisy place that it is today. And, I just love the idea that, as well as the usual chicken shops and little supermarkets that are all along this parade, there is the library, and it’s a fantastic library; it was opened in 1961, and yet, it’s modernised itself, it’s so modern that I was only hearing today that they’ve recently had a drag artist talk for the children - how current is that! And, they do so many different activities here for adults, for children; it’s so colourful, it’s so warm, it’s so well decorated; to me, it’s everything a library should be; and in a community, where, possibly, there either isn’t the money or the inclination to have shelves of books all over people’s flats, it’s fantastic that they still could get introduced to whatever books they want. 

 

Ben Holden:

This feels like a real hub, Stuart, how did you come to work here?

 

Stuart Wynn:

I came to work here in 2009 after having worked as a casual Saturday assistant at Southfields library which is one of the next closest libraries to here.  It is a great space, I love working here.  I love working in libraries; it is the one thing I wanted to do from when I was in primary school and secondary school.  The first thing I wanted to do at secondary school was be an assistant in the school library, but it was flooded when I first got to school, so it was agonising just waiting for it to open; and I went in there, met a wonderful librarian called Wendy, who I still will talk to now, and we send each other postcards on Hardy’s Dorset and Brontë’s Yorkshire, and it’s wonderful.  It’s a super place to work and come into everyday; it’s not always about the books like I thought it would be, but helping people in the community, directions, newspapers, internet access, photocopying - it does so much more than the traditional “Shush!” attitude.

 

Ben Holden:

And, how did you guys strike up your friendship?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

In a rather unlikely place.  Stuart and I are very lucky; we’ve both had successful kidney transplants, and we met up in the post-transplant unit where you have to keep going back again and again, particularly in the first year or so, just to check you’re not rejecting your kidney.  And, they do wonderful jobs, - we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them -, but they are dreary places, and you need to take a book with you, because you wait for hours.  And, I noticed there was this young man opposite me, and he had his head in a book, and I had my book, and I would glance at him occasionally, simply because I’m always interested when I see somebody reading.  Stuart was glancing at me, and when we sensed it was more or less my turn on the list to go through, he said, shyly, “I’d just like you to know that I really love your books and they’re very popular in the library where I work”, and I was amazed because I wasn’t looking my best, shall we say! 

But, we started chatting, and after we’d both been to see our various doctors and nurses etc, we joined up again and we started talking about children’s books; and I pride myself on knowing a lot about children's books, and I’d been living twice as long as Stuart, but he knows far more than me, and it was incredible.  And, in fact, my partner and my friend had their car, and we gave Stuart a lift, and the other two didn’t get a word in edgeways!  We were just bonding over our favourites and discussing things.  And then, sometimes we got lucky, and we were having treatment on the same day and we visited each other, and we’ve been pals ever since.

 

Ben Holden:

What were the books that you two bonded over?

 

Stuart Wynn:

Lots of female authors which have been forgotten about, mainly people like Jean Rhys, Stella Gibbons, Dorothy Whipple; the children’s authors like E. Nesbitt, and Noel Streatfeild.

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

I was particularly delighted, because Noel Streatfeild opened this very library, and Stuart has a wonderful photograph of a much younger Noel Streatfeild with a group of the most tidy, well-scrubbed children I’ve ever seen in my life, and there is a plaque as you come into the library saying that she opened it here.  And, as Noel Streatfeild has always been one of my all time favourite authors, I just loved that connection.

 

Ben Holden:

Where were the libraries that were special for you growing up?  I know you wanted to write from a very early age…

 

Jacqueline Wilson: 

I did, from (the age of) six.  I know it was from six, because I had my tonsils out and I was told that the Doctor who was trying to make conversation said, “What do you want to do when you grow up little girl?”, and I said, “I want to be an author!”, which was a strange reply in those days; but, I loved books before I could read, just looking at the pictures and making up my own stories.

I came from a council estate too; we didn’t have much money; I only had three or four books throughout my little girlhood, so my mum actually joined me to Kingston library when I was six, and in those long ago days, young children and picture books weren’t so much included in libraries, but she did get permission for me to go.  And Kingston library which is still going strong now, though, very sadly, the beautiful room in which the children's library was is now one of the computer rooms, and the actual children’s library is in a glorified portacabin, which rather shows nowadays that we put the very best and most precious things in the precious room, and things that perhaps aren't as high priority in some people’s minds in the glorified portacabin, but that’s just me being mischievous!

But, I loved Kingston library; I went there every week in the school holidays, and as soon as I was able to travel by myself, I went practically everyday to the library.  I just liked it as a place to hang out, but I borrowed armfuls of books throughout my childhood.  By the time I was 11, I was given special permission to actually use the adult library too, but under supervision - I had to show my books, so no ‘Lolita’ or ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’ for me! 

But I just loved both places, and I joined the school library too.  And, until I was actually able to earn my own money and start to buy books, I mean, libraries just nurtured me and kept me going.  The thing I particularly liked (about the library) was that, in my own home, there were very popular books, like the James Bond books, or big blockbuster-y type books that my parents did read, but apart from an untouched set of Dickens, there were no classics, there were no modern literature novels - that wasn’t anything that interested my parents.  Now, obviously, I read for sheer fun and pleasure a lot of the time, but having access to the library, it did make me take out some of the classics that I maybe just heard mentioned.  I mean, some I put back the next day thinking, “No, not for me”, but some I persevered with.  And, in a way, truthfully, my library gave me more of an education than attending secondary school did.  And, I just think the idea that, nowadays, so many of the libraries have closed or are under threat, or looked on as very low priority in a council’s spending, I think is very sad.

 

Ben Holden:

I’m always amazed that whilst you’re very prolific, each book has the same fresh child’s eye view and wonder and rhythm.  How do you maintain that after such an illustrious career and so many books; how do you keep that child’s eye view?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

I think it’s something that you just have.  I’m recently reading a proof copy of another biography of E. Nesbitt, and there’s quite a long quote from her that says from the way that you write about children, you not only have to put yourself in their shoes, but you have to remember exactly how it feels, and how you can get so upset, and how you can get so over the moon with excitement over something really quite trivial. 

And I know times change and children’s interests change, but their emotions don’t change.  And, I think, I can remember so vividly everything that happened to me before I was about 14, whereas ask me what I was doing two years ago, I would struggle.  And so it’s just something that comes easily to me; in that, I would have thought it would have been a very shrewd move, because a lot of children have grown up reading my books, because I’ve been around such a long time, and I know that if I wrote adult books there might well be an audience, but I just couldn’t write about twenty or thirty somethings, I just couldn’t get into that head.  I couldn’t write about women my age.  I specialise in children, and I’m not going to change now.

 

Ben Holden:

And you also leap around from different periods, and obviously, Tracy Beaker is now a mum herself?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

Yes, I thought that was too good a chance to miss, but you see, I don’t do it from Tracy’s point of view, it’s from her daughter, Jess’s point of view.

 

Ben Holden:

And your new novel, ‘Dancing the Charleston’, is a period novel, but again, presumably the same rule applies whatever the period, in terms of the preoccupations and rhythms that you’re tapping into, it doesn’t matter, or does it?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

I think children do feel the same way about things, however, the further back in time you go, the more you can get away with, in that, if I were to write about a modern child now being incredibly cruelly treated, being kept in a cupboard, and even beaten by a stepfather say, this would be very controversial and very difficult, and very hard to get across in a way that wasn’t too frightening or too unpleasant.  But, stick it back in Victorian times, and somehow, - because even children who haven’t read Dickens might have seen a Dickens adaptation-, we’re used to that; it somehow doesn’t seem as shocking or as immediate, and children can feel great sympathy for these characters, but I don’t think it traumatises them the way it would with modern children. 

And for ‘Dancing the Charleston’ which was a joy to do, because I’ve always liked the 20s; I found that, in particular, that first real exciting age, when suddenly all the stuffiness of Victorians moved on through the Edwardian age, then, suddenly, we’re in this mad jazz age.  And I also wanted to show that, as well as a few bright things leaping around doing all sorts of controversial modern things, there were also your ordinary folk, 95% of people just pootling along, doing the same old things. So, I wanted to show the difference between those two worlds, and yet, I don’t really go into any of the major events in the 1920s, because I don’t think a child of 10 would really notice them. They would only notice their own home, their neighbours homes, so it’s easier in a way, you don’t have to tackle great political issues or the social injustices. You can just show that one family is poor and that another is rich, but you don’t have to do anything too much about it, you’re just experiencing it all through the eyes of the child. 

And I think also children have a freshness about their viewpoint.  Because, the first thing is you lose a best friend, and it’s as if nobody anywhere has experienced the torment, or the first time a 13 year old falls passionately in love - this is a whole new thing for you, and it just seems impossible to think that anybody could have gone through that, and I think that’s what makes it so exciting to write for young people.

 

Ben Holden:

You must still find joy in those little faces at reading events.  It must be magical for you?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

It is magical and it’s one of things I like most.  But, I do think you have to be literally in two minds if you are a writer, particularly a children’s writer, because, a lot of the time, you are at home, and it’s just you and your notebook or you and your computer, and you’re in your own little bubble.  But then, also, most children’s writers are required to get out there and do events in lovely libraries like this, in bookshops, at literary festivals, and then you’ve got to try and have a bit of razzmatazz and a few, not literal, magic tricks up your sleeve, but something that keeps them awake, and it’s quite hard work, but when it comes off, it’s fantastic.

 

Ben Holden:

When you’re writing, are you inhabiting a similar space to the young girl who was in the library in terms of your consciousness?  Is there a link to that imagination that was sparked in the library?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

I think there is.  One time I was lucky to have an exhibition put on about my work in the Seven Stories in Newcastle, which is the National Centre for Children’s Literature, and they consulted with me about the way I wanted it done. And I suddenly thought about the way I was in my bedroom as a child daydreaming with my small shelf of books, a few library books and my notebook and pen.  And that was my life then.  And I wanted that to be at the beginning of the exhibition, so that similar types of children could go in and see that it was a small, very modest bedroom, but that this was special to me.

And after you went through the exhibition and various books featured, and there were novelty things about the TV series of Tracy Beaker; then, at the end, they had photos that went right across one wall of part of my bedroom now with all the bookshelves.  And I have a rather swish chaise longue, but, basically, it’s exactly the same - it’s somewhere to rest, to daydream; I have a notebook and pen and old typewriter that I gave to the exhibition to show that I’m exactly the same person, with a lot more grey hair and wrinkles, but that it’s still the same process.

 

~

 

Extract from ‘The Illustrated Mum’ by Jacqueline Wilson, followed by discussion

 

Jacqueline Wilson: 

This is a little extract from the book called ‘The Illustrated Mum’, and it’s about an unfortunate little girl called Dolphin who has a very insecure life with a very extraordinary mum, but Dolphin worships her mum.  And, Dolphin isn’t that great at school at all, and like many similar children, she’s picked on by some of the others, and she decides, even though she’s not a good reader and finds reading a big struggle, a place of refuge might be the school library.  And she meets up with the librarian, Mr Harrison, who was:  “youngish and fat and funny.  He had very short, springy hair like fur, and brown beady eyes, and he often wore a jumper.  He was like a giant teddy bear, but without the growl”.  He’s very kind to Dolphin and he tells her to make herself at home.

“I wandered around the shelves picking up this book and that book, turning over the pages for the pictures.  I could read, sort of, but I hated all those thick wadges of print.  The words all wriggled on the page and wouldn’t make any kind of sense.  I looked to see if Mr Harrison was watching me, but he was deep in his paper.  I knelt down and poked my way through the picture books for little kids.  There was a strange, slightly scary one with lots of wild monsters.  Marigold would have loved to have turned them into a big tattoo.  I liked a bright, happy book too about a mum and a dad. The colours glowed inside the neat lines of the drawing. I traced around them with my finger.  I tried to imagine what it would feel like living in a picture book world where monsters are quelled by a look, and you feel safe in your own bed, and you have a spotty mum and a stripy dad with big smiles on their pink faces and they make you laugh.  “What are you reading?”.  “Nothing” I said shoving both books back on the shelf quickly”.

There’s a little boy called Owly Morris, you know, one of those horrible nicknames, because he wears very thick glasses and he’s another sad little soul.  But, this is my way of making Dolphin and Owly make friends, bonding over the books. And Dolphin promises not to call him Owly anymore because he doesn’t like it, and he says, ‘Don’t call me that.  It’s not my name”

I thought about it. “Ok, Oliver.” 

“Thank you, Dolphin”. 

“They’re calling me bottlenose now. I don’t know why.  What’s wrong with my nose?” I said, rubbing it.  “It’s not too big and it doesn’t have a funny bump”. 

“Bottlenose dolphin.  It’s a particular type of dolphin, right? The sort you see performing.”  Owly made high pitched dolphin squeaks.

So they whistle and squeak and Mr Harrison has a kindly word with them, and like any true librarian, he says: 

“Here, seeing as you’re both interested in dolphins, try reading about them”.

He found us a big book from the non-fiction section, and put it in front of us.  Big pictures of different dolphins alternated with chunks of text.  I looked carefully at the pictures, Oliver read the words. 

It was quite companioble.  So they make friends and I think that’s another wonderful thing about libraries, whether you’re a sad little kid who hasn’t got any friends; whether you’re an elderly person who’s a bit lonely and doesn’t have anybody to talk to at home; whether you’re a young mum with a toddler and you’re worn out and you’ve lost touch with all your work colleagues; whether you’re a middle aged woman whose marriage has broken up, libraries are better than shops, because you don’t need money to go in them, and you’ve got companionship all around you, and the smiley faces of librarians, hopefully, and they’re fantastic places.

 

Ben Holden:

Stuart, it must be a challenging, but also very fun and rewarding job working in a library?

 

Stuart Wynn:

Oh yes, whether you’re finding a book someone’s requesting, or recommending a book, or you help someone who’s not very IT savvy, it feels so good.  You know, we do very little these days to help one another, and to come to work each day for my job, and to feel that achievement, to help people, and they appreciate it, they’re so thankful, you get hugs sometimes, and if you’re very lucky, you might chocolate at Christmas, but it is wonderful. 

 

Ben Holden:

What people don’t always understand about library closures is that they are so much more than just repositories for books.  They’re so much more than that.  And yet, during 2018, 130 public libraries closed in the country, which was a net loss of 127. And spending on libraries fell by £30m, and by £66m in the year before. 

 

Stuart Wynn:

We (the local authority) haven’t closed any (libraries) for a long, long time.  We’re doing quite well.  In 2017/18, Wandsworth achieved some of the highest number of issues in London, so Wandsworth are very lucky, and we’re bucking the trend and doing quite well here.  I can’t imagine not having a library to go to.

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

I think this is where libraries are really needed, and I think, in urban areas, they still perform such a wonderful, wonderful job, and luckily, around here, they still are.  I have moved to the countryside, and what is so dreadful, is that all the tiny, little branch libraries in the little villages seem to be closing so rapidly.  In fact, I am in a fortnight going to open a very small village community library run by volunteers, because there are so many people without the transport or mobility to get themselves many miles to the nearest big library.  Again, if you’re bed-bound, how wonderful it must be to have a kindly library van come around once a week. 

(Volunteers do an incredible job, but...) You still need people with some kind of expertise to give advice, at the very least to help select appropriate books for the customers.  It just seems so sad.  I have noticed, I have not yet met another writer, and I know quite a lot, who didn’t live in their libraries as children.  Because even in the most affluent home, you can’t keep up with the child who, in the summer holidays, could read a book a day.  Libraries are desperately important. 

You can meet people quite naturally in libraries.  Whereas if you go particularly to meet other people, you go a bit self-conscious or a bit shy, but if you’ve got a purpose for going there, it works a treat.

 

Ben Holden: 

Jacqueline, you mentioned that you have a number of books, and I’ve read in your biography that you have over 20,000 books.  Can that be right?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

When I moved two-three years ago, though I was moving to a bigger house, I did think I had to downsize a bit.  It was very painful indeed, and I kept sneaking in more and more.  I’ve still got about 12,000 I would say, maybe more, and I have got books in every room. 

I have a big sitting room.  You see, this is girl from council estate, so it’s only quite recently that I’ve had a really biggish house, and, for me, it’s not the joy of showing off my house, it’s the joy of having enough space for my books.  And in the living room, all the way down one wall, from floor to ceiling, there’s wonderful, wonderful books and that’s where all my modern, hardback novels are.  And then in the conservatory, I’ve got heaps and heaps and heaps of paperbacks, because I thought if people are relaxing in the sunshine, if they’re coming to stay, I don’t mind people borrowing a paperback - they can just pick one off the shelf; I’m much more protective of my hardbacks.  And in the dining room, which is actually so grand we don’t dine there, I have a big bookshelf of my ultra-special and antiquarian books that I look at lovingly and very carefully, and gloat! 

Upstairs, well the bedroom has heaps of books. In the spare bedrooms, in one where there will probably be females sleeping, there are extra books about women novelists and all sorts of things they might like.  In the other room, there are some slightly more masculine authors, and also lots of serendipity books.  So, basically, wherever you go, you're surrounded by books.  And I have a big attic, and there are many, many bookshelves hidden up there. 

And, of course, if you're a children's author and write lots of books, and are lucky enough to be printed in about 40 different languages, you get all of them sent to you as well.  Often, I keep them in case we meet up with a child from that country, but they take up shelf space too. 

 

Ben Holden:

So you’ve kind of curated your dream library?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

I have, and this is the way I always wanted it to be.  20 years ago, I lived in an extremely small terraced house, but it’s amazing that nobody got killed going in there, because there were piles of books along the narrow hallway everywhere.  You couldn’t move for books. When I eventually did move somewhere else, it took my very painstaking partner about three months of every single day moving box after box of books.

 

Stuart Wynn:

My idea of decoration is bookshelves. There was a great book of essays by Anne Fadiman called ‘Ex Libris’ as well;  it’s about books and book lovers and couples merging their book collections, and there are wonderful bits in there about book collecting and book reading, like do you snap the spine, do you place books face down, do you use a bookmarks - the do’s and don'ts of book readers and book lovers.

 

Ben Holden: 

Jacqueline, are you quite reverential with the books themselves?  Are you someone who breaks the spine or turns the corners?

 

Jacqueline Wilson:

No, I don’t break the spine.  That is the worst sound ever!  And it’s very difficult, because some books are so badly bound nowadays, and some are so enormous, that you literally grapple with them to try and keep them open.  I think the best published books available now are Persephone Books, because they are beautifully published; they’re quite fat paperbacks with beautiful, pale grey colours, and you open them up and then they stay open - you don’t have to hold them down flat.  But, I am kind to books, I don’t turn down corners.  I have tried once or twice, quite self consciously, when it is a book I own for research, to take a pencil to try and mark it, but after three pages, I think, “I can’t, I can’t!”, and don’t do it anymore.

 

Jacqueline Wilson is invited to select a book from the shelves of Roehampton library

 

Ben Holden:

Jacqueline, maybe you could browse the shelves of Roehampton library, because part of the joy of libraries is the serendipity of discovering something you weren't expecting to walk out the door with, borrowing something new or an old friend?

 

~

 

Jacqueline Wilson:  Now, let’s see...Do we have any Noel Streatfeilds here?

 

Stuart Wynn:  We should do.

 

Jacqueline Wilson:  Yes! I’ve found ‘Ballet Shoes’!  Oh, and my goodness me, I truly didn’t know this...This is a 75th anniversary edition, and there’s a quote on the front:  “One of my all-time favourite books” by Jacqueline Wilson.  I had absolutely no idea, but it is my favourite book, and in this, my favourite library opened by Noel Streatfeild, what better book, so I shall borrow it and promise to bring it back!

 

 

[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 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.

 

 

 

Ken Follett in Canton Library, Cardiff

Ken Follett in Canton Library, Cardiff

October 31, 2019

For this first ever episode of Ex Libris, host Ben Holden met up with one of the most formidable storytellers of our age.

More than 160 million copies of Ken Follett’s books have been sold to date worldwide.

Ben spoke with Ken and Rhian Jones, Senior Librarian, in Ken’s childhood library in Canton, Cardiff.  This glorious Carnegie library was a hugely formative place for Ken as a kid: ‘I didn’t have many books of my own and I’ve always been grateful for the public library. Without free books I would not have become a voracious reader, and if you are not a reader you are not a writer.’

Ken was twenty-seven when he wrote Eye of the Needle, an award-winning thriller that became an international bestseller. He then surprised everyone with The Pillars of the Earth, about the building of a cathedral in the Middle Ages. The novel continues to captivate readers all over the world. Its sequels World Without End and A Column of Fire were both number one bestsellers in the US, UK and Europe. His many other novels include the bestselling Century trilogy, which comprises Fall of Giants, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity.

His newest book is a tribute to Paris’ Notre-Dame. Entitled A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals, it was published on 29 October, 2019 and prompted for this inaugural episode of Ex Libris a very cool exploration of the parallels between cathedrals and libraries - these sacred spaces that best express our shared humanity - as well as Ex Libris staples such as Ken's writing process, how he orders his own library and, to round the conversation off, a browse of those library shelves he used to plunder as a child, back in the day, so that he can pick out a book to take home...

 

….

 

Please find below a full transcript of Episode 1:  Ken Follett 

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; they are free of charge, and places 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 an 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 we are, appropriately enough, on Library Street. The sun is shining on us today.  I am about to meet up with one of the most formidable storytellers of our age.  Bold claim? Not really, when you consider that his books have sold an astonishing 160 million copies - you can’t argue with that!

 

Ken Follett has come a long way from his childhood home here in Cardiff.  In many ways, that journey towards becoming one of the world’s most successful writers began right here, in the very handsome library after which this road is named.  What say we venture inside the splendid ‘Canton Library’, where senior librarian, Rhian Jones, is waiting for us.  Lets get talking with Ken Follett.

 

Interview

 

Ben Holden:

Ken, thank you so much for joining us.  Ken, this is your childhood library, but I have to ask, of all the bookshops and libraries in the world, you immediately chose this one.  Can you tell us why and describe the place a little for our listeners?

 

Ken Follett:

Well, I was seven years old when I joined this library.  I learned to read early and effortlessly, and it became a huge pleasure for me, and that’s partly because some of the regular pleasures were denied me.  My family, for puritanical reasons, didn’t go to the theatres or movies; we didn’t have a TV; we didn’t go to football matches, and so, really, reading was the only pleasure that was allowed.  So, I read a lot and quickly, and books were expensive.  My family wasn't particularly poor, but a book was either two and six or five shillings, and young families in the 1950s in Britain did not have much disposable income, so I would get books for my birthday and Christmas, and that was the only time people got me books.  And then I discovered this place.  Free books, unlimited free books forever.  It was like Christmas every day! The first big thrill of my life was joining this library.

 

Ben Holden:

I’m interested to know why, in your very religious home and upbringing, why you had carte blanche to read whatever you liked, even though it was very confined in terms of the music you listened to?  I know you read the Bible, or were made to read the Bible, no bad thing as you’ve pointed out, to get to know it, but you could read whatever you liked, there were no restrictions there for you?

 

Ken Follett:

It's very strange...There was nothing in the children’s library that could corrupt me, really.  But, I got to the age of 12, by which time we moved to London, where there was a different public library, and I started to read James Bond, and looking back, I cannot understand why they permitted that - they may have thought that anything in print was ok.  I don’t know, my parents are dead, so I can’t ask them.  But even then, when I was 12, I was allowed in the adult library, which was in a suburb of London called Kenton, and, theoretically, they were supposed to check what I was reading, but they didn’t, and I was reading James Bond, and boy did I like James Bond!

 

Ben Holden:

Rhian, could you talk to the history of this place?  It is a beautiful building.

 

Rhian Jones:

It is a beautiful, absolutely stunning building.  The philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, donated the money for the library, I think a lot, around £5000 at the time, and it’s built on an old market.  There are two Carnegie libraries in the area, and they opened on the same day.  They opened the Cathays library first, then came down by tram to open this one up.  Like you say, it’s a free library and Carnegie was inspired because he had the barrier of not being able to afford membership, and when he got wealthy, he promised that he would give the children, boys and girls, the ability to enter the world of books.

 

Ben Holden:

For any listeners who don’t know much about Andrew Carnegie, he built 3000 libraries - 660 in the UK, 24 in Wales, and others extended to Fiji and South Africa. Notably, he gave away 90% of his wealth.  He was known as a ruthless man - ruthless in business, but equally ruthless in philanthropy.  He’s still regarded as the greatest philanthropist ever, and, he said, this stemmed from his childhood.  He said that:

If ever wealth came to me, it should be used to establish free libraries, so that other poor boys have opportunities similar to those for which we were indebted to that noble man.

This noble man was called Colonel Anderson, who would open up his home every weekend, and Carnegie was among the girls and boys who would choose a book amongst the 400 books.  And he (Carnegie) said he had an intense longing for a new book, and each weekend would bring a new book, and he revelled in those treasures.

And Ken, you’ve said you didn’t have money for books of your own and that:  “without free books, I wouldn’t have become a voracious reader; and without books, you are not a writer”.  This Carnegie legacy really was huge for you and very much in keeping with what he was trying to do.

 

Ken Follett:

Yes absolutely, I was in Reims in France a few weeks ago, and I saw this very big library and I said, I bet that’s a Carnegie library. The library is in an art deco building - this is a Victorian building that we’re in now.  And we went over and looked, and there’s a plaque saying in French that this is paid for by Andrew Carnegie. 

When you first sit down to write a short story as an adult, I found that I already knew 90% of what I needed to know about writing a novel, because I had read so many from such a young age. All the writers I know are the same; they were all voracious readers from a young age. That’s how you learn what a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter is - you learn how to describe landscapes, buildings; you learn about cliff-hangers and stories.  As you’re writing as a novelist, you remember things that delighted you in novels that you read, and you think, “I must do that”; “I must do surprises, cliff-hangers, suspense, and describe things that not only tell you what they look like, but what they feel like, and what the atmosphere is like”.  You get this because you read novels.

Books costing what they did, and the average family income of the 1950s, I wouldn’t have read all of these books if it wasn’t for the library.

 

Ben Holden:

And it is a very welcoming sanctuary. It’s very light, as you pointed out.

 

Ken Follett:

It is now; it was very forbidding in the 1950s.  It’s a Victorian building, and it wasn’t particularly light.  And there were notices up saying, “No talking”. I don’t think they encouraged toddlers.  I think I was pretty young to start at seven.  I think the campaign to get people reading younger was unknown then. In fact, my love of books was considered a possible health hazard.  Doctors were saying to me, “Do you go out and play, as well as reading all of these books?”, and, of course, I did, but the ethos that we have now, that children must be introduced to pictures and books and words as early as possible, I don’t think that existed in the 1950s.

 

Ben Holden:

Although it may have been a bit gloomy then, I know that in one of the first Carnegie libraries opened, in Dunfermline, there was a sign saying, ‘Let there be light!’ on the door, and he (Carnegie) wanted these places to engender enlightenment, and they were generally constructed with high windows, vaulted ceilings, and ornate designs.  The architectural style, of course, varies with the area, in keeping with community, and they often have lights outside as well.  But, when I was arriving here earlier, having not been here before, I thought it was a church at first, as it looks like a very beautiful neo-gothic church. And, of course, this leads us into your newest work which is about Notre Dame. This is a concise, very elegant, and I have to say, thrilling journey that you paint; we go inside and outside Notre Dame.  Perhaps you could kindly read a short passage, Ken, and we can talk a bit more about it?

 

Ken Follett:

“The cathedral of Notre Dame was too small in 1163.  The population of Paris was growing.  On the right bank of the river, commerce was surging to levels unknown in the rest of medieval Europe, and, on the left bank, the university was attracting students from many countries.  Between the two, on an island in the river, stood the cathedral and Bishop Maurice de Sully felt it should be bigger.  And, there was something else.  The existing building was in the round-arched style we call romanesque, but there was an exciting, new architectural movement that used pointed arches, letting more light into the building, a look now called gothic.  This style had been pioneered only six miles from Notre Dame, at the Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, burial place of the French Kings, which had brilliantly combined several technical and visual innovations.  As well as the pointed arch, it featured piers of clustered shafts, sprouting ribs up into a high vault that was lighter in weight, a semi-circular walkway at the eastern end to keep pilgrims moving past the relics of Saint-Denis, and outside, graceful flying buttresses that facilitated larger windows, and made the massive church look as if it were about to take flight.  Sully must have seen the new church of Saint-Denis and become enamoured of it.  No doubt, it made Notre Dame look old fashioned.  Perhaps, he was even a little jealous of Abbot Suger at Saint-Denis who had encouraged two successive master masons to experiment boldly with triumphantly successful results.  So, Sully ordered his cathedral to be knocked down and replaced by a gothic church”.

 

Ben Holden:

Thank you.  I have to say, what is great about this pithy new book is that all the proceeds go to the charity, ‘Fondation du patrimoine’.  Writing in this concise way about the Notre Dame construction and legacy, understandably, being written by you, it has the same narrative eye for detail that you deploy in your novel, ‘Pillars of the Earth’.  I’m curious, how did you hear about the fire?

 

Ken Follett:

April 15th, I was at home in the kitchen with Barbara, my wife, and we had just finished supper, and the phone rang and it was an old friend, in fact it was Yvette Cooper, who is an old friend and political ally of Barbara’s.  She said, “I’m in Paris, turn on the TV”, and, of course, we did, and you know what we saw, and we saw the great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris in flames.  It was a terrible, shocking moment. She said it was on fire, but that could have meant anything.  It was terrible.  I spent the evening watching TV, but also following on social media, and I realised the journalists covering this for TV and radio didn’t know what was burning.  In fact, one of them asked a question - “It’s a stone building - how can it be on fire?” - and I knew the answer,  because whilst researching the ‘Pillars of the Earth’, I’d gone up into the roofs of cathedrals.  In fact, in the ‘Pillars of the Earth’, the old cathedral burns. So, I had invented a fictional fire in the ‘Pillars of the Earth’, so I knew how it could happen, so I tweeted very simply what was happening - that the roof timbers were on fire.  You’ve probably seen in the roof of your own house, there are horizontal rafters and roof beams, so it was clear to me that was what was burning.

 

Ben Holden:

So, you knew what would be occurring in there because of your research - you’d effectively written it in a fictional sense.

 

Ken Follett:

Yes exactly right.  Then, of course, once the massive timbers have burned and begin to weaken, that’s when the actual roof begins to collapse, and, in the case of Notre Dame, it’s made of red tiles, and all of that debris collapses and falls through the ceiling - the curved, vaulted ceiling of cathedral. When you’re standing in the nave and looking up, you see those ribs, and the triangles in-between the ribs, well, of course, when the leads and burning timbers fall on that, they crash through and then may then destroy the pillars.  I guess, I was the first person to say that in a clear way.  However, many people know more about cathedrals than I do!

 

Ben Holden:

Well, you say that, but I know that you were invested as an officer (Ordre) des Arts et des Lettres prior to this.  Of course, you are being modest, but you are a world authority on cathedrals, and correct me if I’m wrong, there is a statue of you outside of the cathedral of Santa Maria? I think you’re perfectly positioned to speak to it, also as a storyteller, someone who has lived and breathed the process as we’ve heard in your extract and the way you’re talking about it, immediately seeing how this was unfolding in a forensic way, you became a spokesman or interpreter for people watching this around the world, didn't you?

 

Ken Follett:

Yes, first of all, explaining what I’ve just explained about the fire, but also, of course, which I thought about a lot when I was writing ‘Pillars of the Earth’, was the meaning of cathedrals to us, spiritually.  I’m very interested in them materially, very interested in how they were built, and how the masons worked, and where the money came from.  But, there is something else, the enterprise of building one of these great churches was not merely a material thing.  I’ve compared the building of a cathedral to a Moonshot partly because, although everything technical about a Moonshot is fascinating and it’s leading edge technology and costs a fortune, ultimately there is not enough motivation to go to the moon.  Ultimately, we don’t do it because of the technical advances it brings, ultimately we do it because human beings have to reach out like that to something special, not just materials.  I believe that’s what they were doing when they were building cathedrals, as well as creating a building that would be used as a conference centre and tourist attraction.  Medieval people also had the sense that we have, that we want to reach for something that is beyond the material life.

 

Ben Holden:

Some of this must come from the upbringing around the corner from here and the religiosity of that?

 

Ken Follett:

It must, mustn’t it?

 

Ben Holden:

It must have been, because you describe it so vividly as an emotional moment, and you said Notre Dame must have seemed eternal.  Having thought so much and having visited so many cathedrals, there must have been something.  Actually, in ‘The Column of Fire’, the third novel in the Kingsbridge series, when Ned Willard, the lead protagonist returns home, and I’ll read short paragraph...

“He looked out of the parlour window across the market square to the elegant facade of the great church, with its long lines of lancet windows and pointed arches.  It had been there everyday of his life, only the sky above it changed with the seasons.  It gave him a vague but powerful sense of reassurance.  People were born and died, cities could rise and fall, wars began and ended, but Kingsbridge cathedral would last until the day of judgement”. 

 

Ben Holden:

That must have been a nightmarish sight. The nightmare of something that is not possible is coming true.

 

Ken Follett:

Yes, people feel it in an earthquake.  How can the earth be moving when the earth is one thing that is always still?  It’s that kind of feeling, allegorically, as well as really.  The ground beneath your feet seems to be moving when a fire like that burns.

 

Ben Holden:

Of course, there have been fires which have ravaged libraries, most famously the Alexandrian library.  There’s a wonderful book by Susan Orlean which came out earlier this year called ‘The Library Book’ which explores a big fire in an LA public library in the 1980s, which was the biggest fire in the states.  Over 400,000 books were lost, and she explores libraries through the prism of the fire.  I understand there was a fire here as well Rhian?

 

Rhian Jones:

Yes, somebody broke in and tried to steal a computer and was unsuccessful, and burned the place down, and went to prison for it.

 

Ben Holden:

When was that?

 

Rhian Jones:

I think it was in the 1990s.

 

Ben Holden:

There are few signs of this outside which you pointed out - remnants of where the building has now been renovated.

 

Rhian Jones:

Yes, it has changed from the original features, but the Council did an amazing job, and poured lots of money into it.

 

Ben Holden:

And Ken, what do you make of Notre Dame and the fire? What do you make of the plans and the reconstruction, the aftermath? There has been some controversy in France.  As you pointed out in the book, Macron decrees it should take five years - what do you make of the plans now?

 

 

Ken Follett:

Well, I was privileged to go inside Notre Dame a few weeks ago and interview the architect, Philippe Villeneuve, who’s in charge of the reconstruction.  What they’re doing at the moment is, you can see now actually from the outside that they’re putting in timber reinforcements under flying buttresses and in window spaces. If they don’t do that, then structure will move, because all the stresses have changed; because the roof is now not pressing down on the walls, the buttresses press walls inwards to balance the weight of the roof, but now that the roof has gone, they would move the walls - the walls would tilt inwards, and so they have to be braced.  All of those empty bits have got to be kept to their original shape until the rebuilding gets going.  It’s going to be a heck of a job to finish it in five years.  It was a wonderful moment, I thought, when the president of France said on TV that evening, on the 15th April,  “Nous rebâtirons!”, - “We will rebuild!”-, a moving, moving moment. 

The French are not like us, in that they don’t mind spending a fortune on public works.  You can tell if you drive around France and look at the viaducts and bridges and so on - just fantastic - if they want to do something like that, they’ll find the money.  They may yet do it, but it’s going to be difficult.  They will restore it almost 100% to what it was, but they’re talking about, and I think it’s quite nice, perhaps it will have one feature that’s completely modern - a bit like in the courtyard of the Louvre.  In all those 18th century and renaissance buildings, in the middle is the glass pyramid - it’s stunning and that’s a modern feature and that can work.

In fact, Viollet-le-Duc, when he restored Notre Dame in the 19th century, he built that very narrow spire that they call ‘La flèche’ - ‘the dart’ it means - and that really wasn’t medieval at all that spire, and so he added what was then something rather modern to his restoration of a medieval cathedral, and I think they’ll do something like that. It won’t be one of the bizarre ideas like putting a swimming pool on the roof or something like that, but there may be just one feature.  The one I like is the one in which they restore the spire, but have a laser beam going out of the top of it, a bright white laser beam going up ad infinitum into outer space, and I like that idea, because it’s not at all intrusive and it’s absolutely representative of the spirit of a cathedral - the reaching for the heavens of a cathedral.  That’s my favourite, but they haven’t decided and don’t need to decide for a few years, but I think we can be pretty sure that, by and large, it will look as near to the original as possible.

 

Ben Holden:

And all proceeds from the book will go towards that endeavour?

 

Ken Follett:

Well, that was the original idea; it was my French publisher’s idea, and she said we will give all the profits from the book to the rebuilding fund, and I said I will do the same with my royalties.  By the time I finished my book, the building fund already had a billion euros, and so, she said let’s give the money to the la Fondation du patrimoine, which gives money to all the ancient buildings in France, and so that’s what we’re doing.  And, in fact, I’m going to hand over a check for over 100,000 euros in about one month’s time, and that will just be the beginning, - there will be lots more, so all of those ancient buildings in France that I love to visit will get a little boost from my book.

 

Ben Holden:

And you’ve written that the cathedral is about what people can achieve when they work together.  Your obviously doing your part there, and then some.  You also write in the book about the cathedral’s visitors, be those tourists or yesteryears pilgrims travelling for the same reasons, which I was quite struck by, and you describe those as: 

to see the world’s marvels, to broaden their minds, to educate themselves, and perhaps to come in touch with something miraculous, otherworldly, and eternal.” 

I’d like to think that libraries and cathedrals both can serve those purposes, and there is obviously, here, in this beautiful, quite church-like library, there is a lot of common ground between these institutions, these human monuments.

I can’t think of any other public edifices or expressions of the human spirit, or statements of intent by us as a species that work in the same sort of way, but maybe I’m missing something, as I’m very partisan about libraries.

 

Ken Follett:

Well, it’s very interesting you should say that.  You probably don’t remember that passage from the ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ in which Victor Hugo says the cathedral is a library.  For medieval people who could not read, they would go into the cathedral, and everywhere, there were images that told them stories, obviously abbreviated stories.  A cathedral is full of statues, painting, and sometimes, decorative fabrics that show you characters in the Bible - Adam and Eve, the serpent, and Noah, and all the prophets; and then, the new testament characters - Jesus and the disciples, and then the saints. 

And to us ignorant people in the 21st century, these statues all look the same, but there is an iconography to them, and if you look at the iconography, you know which saint is which.  Each of the saints has something in his hands which tells you which saint he is, and that would bring back to the people the story of that saint - usually the story of how that saint died. Saint Stephen is the saint who has an arrow sticking into him; Saint Jerome always has a book; Saint Peter has the keys, and so on.  So, the inside of a cathedral wasn't merely decorative.  All of those symbols would bring to many people’s minds the bible stories that they had heard.

 

Ben Holden:

Because both spaces are really about the exchange of ideas or stories down the ages, are shared histories, and being able to access them in a spiritual or mindful place, or space, interior or exterior.

 

Ken Follett:

It was like Stephen Hawking’s book, ‘A Brief History of Time’.  That tells you how the universe began, how it developed, how we came into it, and how it’s going to end.  And, of course, a bible story, as depicted in images in a great church, tells you the earlier version of how the universe began, how we came to be in it, and how it’s going to end.

 

Ben Holden:

If I may, I will read one further short segment of your work.  This is another little passage I was struck by in the context of this conversation.  This is from ‘Pillars of the Earth’, and you frame there one of the protagonist’s Tom’s love of cathedrals…

“The walls of a cathedral had to be not just good, but perfect.  This was because the cathedral was for God, and also because the building was so big that the slightest lean in the walls, the merest variation from the absolutely true and level, could weaken the structure, fatally”.

See Ken, I see you as the master builder, because what he is describing there, to me, sounds very similar to the architecture and devotion that you pour into your narratives, and the way you combine the granular and period details, and epic history, and romance and intrigue, and interpersonal conflicts, all played out through lifetimes, hopes and dreams - you’re a master builder yourself.

 

Ken Follett:

Well, it’s an interesting comparison, certainly.  I start with a plan, like a builder always does. Not all authors do that, but most authors say that they know the beginning and end of a story before they begin, but a lot of people say that how the story moves from the beginning to the end is something that they discover as they’re writing, and I’m not like that at all.  I spend a long time planning the architecture.

 

Ben Holden:

Because everything has to be in its perfect position, otherwise the whole will fall apart?

 

Ken Follett:

Yes, there’s a logic to a good story which is very similar to the principles of construction in a building. The walls have to be straight, otherwise they will fall down and the story has to be logical, otherwise the readers say, “Wait a minute, that couldn’t have happened?!”, and then you’ve lost them. And works of art aren't perfect, especially mine, but you strive for perfection, because you don’t want to lose that reader; you don’t want that reader to be popped out of the story by saying, “Wait a minute. I know something about the 16th century, and that couldn't possibly have happened.”

 

Ben Holden:

Yes, because that reader would be as ruthless, in terms of consuming the literature, as you were here as a kid. If you weren’t into the book, you would quickly lose interest, and it’s still those antennae that probably whirr as you’re writing these, and thinking of that reader, obviously not as your childhood self...

I know that when you accepted your CBE, you said the honour was about doing what you love, making books and stories as entertaining and accessible as possible:  “Reading is a hugely important part of my life, and I’m glad to have others who enjoy it too”.  And that, again, speaks to what your motivation is, and where you’re aiming for, and that’s easier said than done, because you’ve sold over 165 million of your novels, so you are a real master at it, and it’s a real skill.

 

Ken Follett:

Yes, and it takes a lot of different things.  You have to get a lot of different things right to get that reader’s attention and keep hold of it. You know, I admire the writers of TV drama because it’s so easy to turn the TV off or switch to another channel - if you get bored for 10 seconds, you’re tempted to change the channel.  Now, we’ve got a little more leeway in literature, because holding a book in your hand or IPad is a bit more of a commitment than turning the telly on and off. But, still you don’t want someone reading a book because they think they ought to, or because they’ve started it, and now they jolly well ought to finish.

You want them to keep reading the book because they can’t stop, they don’t want to return to normal life or to turn the light out and go to sleep; they don’t want the plane to land or the train to arrive in the station - that’s what you’re looking for.

Emails from readers that I prise the most are the ones that say, “I gave up on reading and hadn't read for years, but someone got me ‘Pillars of the Earth’ and it’s got me back to reading again, and now I’m reading all the time’. That’s enormously pleasing to me, and I do think there are rather too many books in the bookshops and libraries that don’t enchant people in that way. If you read half a dozen books that don’t work for you, you think about all the other things that can fill your evening - you can stream wonderful TV drama, go to the pub, play computer games, surf the internet - there are so many rivals to literature for the attention of the person at leisure.

 

Ben Holden:

Of course, if they're a fan of yours, they can play the ‘Pillars of the Earth’ computer game, board game, there’s a very good TV series... 

What’s funny about ‘Pillars of the Earth’ is that you’d already achieved huge success when you’d written it.  It was obviously seen as a departure and something of a gamble by the team around you when you said, “My next book will be about a cathedral in the middle ages; it’s going to be 375,000 words or 1000 pages long”.  It’s not obviously commercial material on paper, and yet, you’ve said it’s probably your best, and certainly your most successful book.

The statistics are astonishing.  When The Times asked its readers to rate the 60 greatest novels of the last 60 years, ‘Pillars of the Earth’ was placed at number two, after ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.  It’s been the most popular ever title on Oprah’s book club, and it was voted the third greatest book ever written by a quarter of a million Germans in a poll. This is astonishing. 

And yet, when you sat down to write it, it was obviously something you really felt very passionately about, it was a bit of a gamble, and again, in terms of the process of you as an author, do you think that perhaps that moment in your life and career you had already achieved huge success, you’d honed your craft, but the fact that you were then to harness it with something perhaps more personal, but also a bit out on a limb, do you think that led to it becoming, as you’ve described, your best book?

 

Ken Follett:

I think you’re probably right, yes.  I think because it was so difficult; it drew out of me stuff that I didn’t know I could do.  I made the decision that it had to be a long book, simply because of the theme of it being a cathedral and everybody knows that takes a long time (to build) - years, decades. Having made that decision, I had to work my imagination extraordinarily hard.

One of the things I did was I made a list of all the things that had ever gone wrong in the history of cathedrals, and I made them all happen to Kingsbridge cathedral. That was part of my technique.

But, of course, you have in ‘Pillars of the Earth’, a group of people who go through a series of dramas.  And the easy way to do that is when you want to start a new drama, you bring in some more characters, and that’s not the best way to do it, because a reader is interested in the people he or she met in the first 50-100 pages, and really doesn’t want, on page 250, to be introduced to two completely new people, so the challenge is to think of more things that can happen, and more ways in which dramas can happen to the same group of people.

That was very hard and the only time in my life that I’ve felt what might be called ‘imagination fatigue’ is when I finished ‘Pillars of the Earth’.  I sort of thought, “My goodness, I don’t know if I’ll be able to write anything again”. I really felt that my imagination had done its life’s work and is finished now. It wasn't true, happily.   So, I think the challenge and difficulty of writing the book made me a better writer.

 

Ben Holden:

I understand that you are working on a prequel.  You wrote two follow up novels in the series - ‘World Without End’ and ‘Column of Fire’.  Do you feel the same risk, or obligation or pressure?  You have so many readers out there, legions of fans for these books.  Do you feel pressure still, going back in, taking it on again, to live up to imagination fatigue and everything you poured into Pillars?

 

Ken Follett:

I always feel that.

 

Ben Holden:

Did it feel easier after ‘World Without End’, after the wild success of ‘Pillars of the Earth’?

 

Ken Follett:

Well, you see, there’s a logical answer and an emotional answer.  The logical answer is that, of course, I know that after doing this for 40 years, I’m better than I was 40 years ago, and I’ve learned skills, I’ve learned a lot about literature.  The emotional answer is no, I don’t feel confident that the book you just mentioned, the prequel to ‘Pillars of the Earth’, I don’t feel confident that’s going to be a huge success, and I won’t until paying customers have started to send me messages saying, “I’ve just read your new book and I think it’s great”, and they might not do that.

That’s when I know I’ve done a good job, when I get messages from readers.  Before my books are published, they are read by quite a lot of people, - by my editors, my historical advisers, my friends and family, - I get a lot of advice, but the paying customers are a new category, and they are the ones I'm trying to please.  I don’t believe it until I actually see the evidence - and that’s not rational. I do, at a rational level, have confidence in myself, but at an emotional level I don’t.

 

Ben Holden:

But in the Kingsbridge series, they leap forwards, and perhaps backwards now centuries; they’re not segueing straight into..., which, I suppose, mitigates some of that, and also allows a fresh period for you to get into; and perhaps, that also allows for more leeway, and it makes sense on many levels.  But perhaps it wouldn’t be the obvious thing on the back of ‘Pillars of the Earth’ to jump forward as you have in ‘Column of Fire’ as well, but perhaps that allows for space for each of them to stand alone, as well?

 

Ken Follett:

When I thought about writing ‘World Without End’, I began to think about that, because when I would give talks in libraries and bookshops, and I always left a long time for questions at the end, because that’s what the audience liked, and sooner or later somebody would stand up and say, “I liked your books very much, and the one I like best is ‘Pillars of the Earth’”, and the others would applaud.  Now, that’s a message, especially for an author who is committed to enchanting people. 

Now, I couldn’t write a sequel to ‘Pillars of the Earth’ that involved the same characters, because that book tells you the story of the entire life of the characters; some are dead and some are pretty old, so there’s not much left that could be written. But, also, the building of that church was the most important thing that ever happened to them, so anything else that happened in their lives would be a damp squib in comparison, so a normal type of sequel was not possible.

So, that’s why I decided to write about the same town 200 years into future.  What’s happened now is that Kingsbridge has become the place where I tell the story of what was happening to England, and it was England, not Great Britain in those days. I get interested in some great historical period, some great historical drama, like the Spanish Armada, or the Reformation, and I think I can make a story out of this.  If I set it in Kingsbridge, it will have the drama; it may be a global historical drama, but the story is about how it affected half a dozen people who may as well be in Kingsbridge than anywhere else, which is a town I have already created, with a cathedral at the centre, which readers are already familiar with, and a place that many readers will remember, so that’s how the whole business of writing about Kingsbridge again and again came up. 

But, actually, it’s about something different each time: ‘World Without End’ is about the black death, and the book I've just finished is about the end of the dark ages and the beginning of the middle ages, so it’s about the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and the Normans, but it takes place in Kingsbridge.

It’s just become to me quite an effective way to tell the story of England by telling the story of Kingsbridge.

 

 

Ben Holden:

You’ve done it superbly.  It’s lovely for readers to know the lineage of the characters better than the characters do, and also your century trilogy, and again, the sustained storytelling of the course of the ages and history of the country, is remarkable.  I’m curious whether you are someone who has looked into ancestral links and has similar interest in lineage at a personal level?  This is a popular pastime for people in libraries which are oracles for local communities to discover hidden secrets.  Is this something of interest to you?

 

Ken Follett:

I’m not obsessed with it. My wife Barbara is quite interested; she discovered, actually, that my grandfather’s grandfather here signed his marriage certificate with a cross, so my grandfather’s grandfather was illiterate. That was quite interesting - four generations ago, my ancestor couldn’t read.

 

Ben Holden:

Adult literacy remains quite an issue in this country.  I think one in six adults still has major problems reading, it’s quite shocking. 

 

Ken Follett:

It’s not immediately obvious to you because most people can write their name and recognise some words.  Where you really find out is when adults fail at easy literacy tasks, like making an appointments diary or making a list, things that involve very elementary literacy skills, like looking at a map, etc. That’s when you find out when people have this inability, and, of course, this holds people back dreadfully.  And a lot of people that can’t read or write are actually very intelligent people; that’s why you sometimes don’t know they’re illiterate.

 

Ben Holden:

Rhian is this something libraries in Cardiff are working on counteracting?

 

Rhian Jones:

Funnily enough, I was in a library yesterday, and a young gentleman came up and said he couldn't read or write and needed some support, so there are literacy areas that we do tackle.  We do book clubs and we do read aloud, and we engage people from a very early age. It’s a welcoming place for people who do have problems, and we support them with that, but it is quite shocking for people to come and say they can’t read.

 

Ben Holden:

A library is not necessarily an obvious destination for someone who has issues, and the embarrassment and vulnerability around illiteracy.

 

Rhian Jones:

The library is there to support people, and because it’s becoming more of a community hub now, we do have more people coming in who may not have come in before, and we try and break down all the barriers, and we have people to help specifically if English is a second language, or if they need to have classes, we do try and support people.

 

Ben Holden:

Ken, if you forgive me, I will read one last little section from ‘Pillars of the Earth’.  Again, this is Tom Builder.  Another passage that struck me - Tom Builder around the transcendence of his job:

“Tom was enjoying building the wall.  It was so long since he had done this, that he’d forgotten the deep tranquillity that came from laying one stone upon another in perfect straight lines and watching the structure grow.  These stones would be part of Tom’s cathedral, and this wall that was now only a foot high, would eventually reach for the sky.  Tom felt he was at the beginning of the rest of his life.”

After all the research and outlining etc, do you experience this still? Do you get those moments when you are constructing these novels?

 

Ken Follett:

Yeah I do, I often think when I’m writing about how many people are going to read this. That does two things:  One is when I write something I think is really good, I think, “Yes, they’ll love that, that will bring tears to their eyes”, or, “That’ll make their pulses race”.  But it also means if I do something not so good, I think about all those millions of people, and I think, “No, no this can't go out, I’ve got to do this chapter again, it won’t enchant them; they’ll go, ‘That was alright’”, so, I do it again. So yes, I have that feeling of satisfaction, because every sentence I’m writing is like one of Tom Builder’s stones, and if I do it well, it’s exhilarating.  But if I lay that stone wrong, I’ve got to knock it down and start again.

 

Ben Holden:

You write very engagingly in the Notre Dame book of Victor Hugo.  You’ve mentioned him already and the ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’.  You say that Hugo had written 180,000 words in four and a half months - that’s astonishing, a prodigious output.

 

Ken Follett:

It’s terrific, absolutely terrific. Mind you, authors of this period had no qualms about digressing for several pages about something that was on their mind. Balzac’s the worst - at the drop of the hat. In one of his stories, there’s about 20 pages about the modern girl, I mean the modern girl in 1850.  It’s absolute stodge.  In the ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’, there's quite a lot of not very pertinent digression.

  

Ben Holden:

I was very struck by the short quote from Notre Dame that you put on the front of the book. I wondered if you wouldn't mind reading that; it’s very eye-catching prose from Victor Hugo.

 

Ken Follett: 

It was one of those spring days that is so gentle and pretty, that all Paris treats it like a Sunday, crowding the squares and boulevards. During such days of clear skies, warmth and peace, there comes a supreme moment at which to appreciate the portal of Norte Dame.  It is when the sun, already sinking, shines almost directly on the cathedral. Its rays, more and more horizontal, slowly leave the pavement and climb the vertical facade to highlight the countless carvings against their shadows, until the great rose window, like the eye of a cyclops, is reddened as if by reflections from a furnace.”

 

Ben Holden:

You’re about to embark on a friendship tour of European cities. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

 

Ken Follett:

Well, there are four of us, and we all have millions of readers in Europe who read us in their own languages, and the four authors are me, Lee Child, Jojo Moyes and Kate Mosse, and we all feel embarrassed and mortified that the message our country is sending to Europe is that we don’t want to be part of you anymore. We do. We love having all of those readers in different languages, and those, of course, who may who read us in English which is not their native language. And we just hate the idea that they might be feeling spurned by us. They’ve supported us, bought our books, they’ve written us fan letters, so we want to make a gesture that says we really cherish you.  So, the four of us are going on a short book tour; we’re going to Milan, Madrid, Berlin and Paris in November, and we’re just going to appear in theatres and talk about our work and answer questions like we always do, and also involve authors from the countries that are visiting in the evening, just to tell those people that there may be a lot of people in our country that don’t want to be part of Europe, but we do.

 

Ben Holden:

Speaking of politics, and you are a political animal, what have you made of the recent ongoing closures of libraries?

 

Ken Follett:

It’s terribly, terribly short sighted isn’t it? The most valuable thing a country can have is an educated workforce, and this is what libraries are about, even if you only come here to borrow books for pleasure, you’re still improving your literacy skills - even if you don't know you’re doing it, but you are improving your literacy skills. It’s not just about books in libraries; there are many people in our country that don’t have access to a computer at home.  It really has become a bit difficult to function in our country if you don't have access to the internet. We don’t have to invent something. We’ve got it. We’ve got this fantastic network of libraries and dedicated people who run them who are idealistic about the whole idea of a nation that is literate and educated. This is here already and it seems to me kind of insane that we’re inch by inch, bit by bit closing it down.

 

Ben Holden:

And Rhian, this is a hub, as other libraries have become.  Indeed, we can hear the Goldie singalong monthly group trooping in right now.  And, as we arrived, there were people doing a workshop on jobs and employment, and all the computers were being used, but you still have a good number of books which is so important.  But, as I understand it, most of the libraries in the area are now hubs?

 

Rhian:

There is one Carnegie library in Cathays that is sort of a historic centre, as well as a library, so they don’t have things like dementia clubs.  The hubs are always looking to break down barriers of loneliness; we have knitting groups, we have book clubs and read aloud groups; it’s become a community type place, buzzing, but at the core of it is the library service.

 

Ben Holden:

It’s great walking in the building, which is from 1907, and is painted in suffragette colours. Carnegie established libraries in the areas on the understanding that local taxes or contributions would sustain them, and obviously there is a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide a library service. How would you say the library system or network is at the moment, or has been recently in Wales?

 

Rhian Jones:

It’s been difficult. From being standalone libraries, we’ve had to do different things, e.g. service bin bags and bus passes, and all the services have been mounted up.

 

Ben Holden:

I did notice right at the front desk food bank contribution signs, which is also a sign of the times we are living in.

 

Rhian Jones:

We’re also a point system where people can drop of school uniforms and they go to our book distribution place, and someone sorts them out and takes them to families who can’t afford school uniforms. A lot is being done to assist people.  A lot of the libraries are going to be blood pressure hubs where people can go in and get their blood pressure tested.

 

Ben Holden:

Ken, as we’re in a library, I always like to know, are you someone who has as ordered bookshelves as your plots are well ordered and thought through, and is the construction of your library as meticulous and does it have strong foundations etc. as the cathedrals that you write about?

 

Ken Follett:

I work in a library, but my library at home is not big enough for my books, so the whole house has become a library.  I have novels alphabetically by author, history books chronologically by subject, so that makes it easy to find. I periodically run out of space. For the last book, ‘Column of Fire’,  250 books were bought, read or consulted.  I get to the stage where I have to give books away.  Other than history and fiction, my books are then ordered by subject. Reference books are a big thing, or at least they used to be.  I used to consult the Encyclopaedia Britannica at least once a day and haven't looked at it for decades now - it’s just so easy to look things up on the internet. The 20 volume Oxford Dictionary I still use - it’s the only dictionary for me, and one or two other reference books. Atlases of course, as the map is not quite the same - even if you’ve got a big screen computer -, it’s not enough, as I want a huge map.  I’m toying with the idea of new book and have just traced the route of an illegal migrant from Lake Chad in Sub Saharan Africa to Sicily. Now, I needed a huge map for that. If I do this book, and I might not do this, but it’s very important to know the details of this journey, almost mile by mile, because there’s going to be drama all the time; this is an illegal enterprise that they’re involved in, we know about the horrendous dangers facing these people - the internet was no good for me, I needed a paper map bigger than my dining table.

 

Ben Holden:

Do you like Ebooks?

 

Ken Follett:

I do occasionally read them. I have a preference, like most people of my generation, for an actual physical book. But I’ve used them quite often, and I don’t have a problem with it, it’s just not quite the pleasure I get.  And, I also like the way my books look - at home, in a bookshop or in a library, I like to look at that great, big bookcase, and think of all the pleasure and information and enlightenment there is on those shelves, and it’s all for me - I can have it all, I can borrow the books, I can buy them...what a great world we live in; and, of course, I’m conscious of this because of writing about the middle ages so much when a book was a rare thing. In ‘Pillars of the Earth’, the library at Kingsbridge monastery has 12 books, and they’re very proud of them.  Now, contrast that with what we have, and if we’re in a public library, it’s free and if we’re in a bookshop it’s not that expensive. It makes you feel privileged in the century we live in.

 

Ben Holden:

I would like to ask you to browse the shelves to see if there isn't something you’d like to borrow or take away?  Whatever you like, an old favourite or something new.

 

Book selection

 

Ken Follett:  ‘The Commitments’ (by Roddy Doyle).

Ben  Holden:  Great novel, great movie.

Ken Follett:  And I haven’t read this.

Ben Holden:  ‘Smile’ by Roddy Doyle - is that his most recent? Yes, 2017.

Ken  Follett:  I think I could read this one on the train going home.  Good first sentence:

“I stayed up at the bar a few times, but I didn’t want the barman thinking I needed someone to talk to”.   Because he obviously does need someone to talk to.  I quite like sentences that mean the opposite of what they say.  I think this will take me all the way to Paddington!

 

[END]

 

Thank you for listening to this, the first Ex Libris podcast.

Let this be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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 from me on twitter and instagram.  Find me @thatbenholden.

Write a really perceptive, nice review or shout loud enough about this episode on social media, and you could even win a signed copy of Ken’s modern classic, ‘Pillars of the Earth’ - believe me, they are like gold dust.

 

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October 29, 2019

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