Friday, 28 June 2013

John Boyne's This House is Haunted: review

Mornin' all, I've reviewed John Boyne's new novel, This House is Haunted, for The Telegraph. Read it here.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jane Austen and the ludic possibility of the ten pound note

Austen: good choice
If you look at who's currently on the British pound notes, you may find yourself shamefully turning to Google, as I did. Matthew Boulton and James Watt? They made steam engines. Sir John Houblon? He was the first Governor of the Bank of England. They're a pretty serious bunch. Economist Adam Smith, prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, scientist Charles Darwin... They all remind us of power, empire, good works. When we use those notes, we think - that is what money is. It forms society.

So what about a little bit of playfulness on our banknotes? There has been a lot of sneering at the choice of Jane Austen for our tenners. I will leave aside, for the moment, the case for other women - there are myriad others, of course, but I intend to look at why we should celebrate Jane Austen.

Austen writes "romances", apparently. First of all, let us correct this misapprehension. The term romance has now been entirely degraded; helped by a vision of Austen as purely motivated by a kind of soppy, Barbara Cartlandish love in which all that is necessary is to get a man (and Bridget Jones hasn't really helped us in that regard), we now categorise Jane Austen in the same breath as Mills and Boon.

This is entirely, almost flabbergastingly wrong. Romance is what drives the novel. In French, novels are still called "romans." The structure of Austen's novels may have the teleology of marriage - but that is because, generically, their ancestors are the Jacobean and Regency comedies that went before her. She is using one of the deepest structures of fiction, and she makes it not a stricture, but something alive and eternal.

That's not to mention the economic and practical necessity that would beset a single woman in the Regency period. This isn't about love. It's about decisions that might mean the difference between wasting away in a garret, or having a real roof on your head.

Her novels are supremely intelligent, ironical, and well-structured; keenly observed and with an eye that deflates pretension. Her heroines live, love and sparkle, their shining sharpness cutting through the flim flam around them. They know what money is for. They know that too much of it is awful; they know that too little brings the wolf.

Paula Byrne's recent biography of Austen reassesses her life: gone is the reclusive, spinster maiden; in her place is a canny businesswoman with relatives who saw the French revolution and many wars; who knew how to negotiate her contracts; who had a deep understanding of people - and, more importantly, what motivates them. 

That is why she's a perfect choice to adorn a banknote. Not because she's a novelist that is beloved by millions. But because she understood the world, and she understood that the little scraps of paper that we pass to each other every day are heavily weighted with more than just a financial obligation. They are the difference between life and death. And she laughed at it all, a cool, clever glimmer in her eye.

So no more economists, no more scientists. Let's have a little Austen in our lives, and let's live, and love, like she did.

Monday, 24 June 2013

A Child in Time: My favourite children's books

PW, about to write something.
Hello there. I've written a piece for The Telegraph about my favourite children's books, for their Child in Time series. You can read it here.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

New issue of PORT magazine - The Golden Age of magazines

Well hello. There's a new issue of PORT on the stands, and it features a big piece about magazine editors. We're entering a new golden age, with new titles springing up, and quality and culture getting better. Oh, and my interview with the writer Tishani Doshi is also in there. Go and buy it, you know you want to.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas: or, why real books are best

At my school, Lancing, you were assigned a tutor, whom you would meet once a week for half an hour or so to talk about non-academic subjects - your personal development, your career choices, or anything that was on your mind. I had one of my Greek teachers - a deeply spiritual man who decided that he wanted to become a monk on Mount Athos. In order to do this, he had to give away all his worldly possessions. And so he gave me some of his books.

One of them, Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu, I've had knocking about my various abodes since he presented it to me. It's an Oxford Classics paperback, with a mysterious painting on the cover by Judith Millais, showing a woman putting a finger to her lips. I've only just got round to reading it - a mere fourteen or so years later - and boy, was I pleased to have done so.

It's a wonderful book - part Gothic horror, part romance, with a good dose of morality and humour. The story concerns a young woman, Maud Ruthyn, the heiress to a fortune, who at the death of her father is put into the care of her Uncle Silas, about whom there hang many rumours - that he killed a man, that he is dissipated and criminal. If Maud dies, then Silas becomes the sole heir to her princely fortune.

The danger mounts steadily, and appears in surprising and intriguing forms: a vicious French governess; a brutish son. Le Fanu expertly creates a sense of claustrophobia and mounting hysteria. It's not just a physical battle, though, that Maud must endure: it's a moral one.

When I finished the book, I thought about who had given it to me, and I thought about his story, and why he'd read it in the first place. It is an extremely spiritual novel - it perhaps describes the battle of the soul to win goodness, and ends with a resounding paean to God. It must have meant a lot to him.

And now, it does to me too - not just the text of the book, but the physical book itself. After a party at my house, it's received a wine stain, and it's crumpled and the pages are bent back, but it is still itself, and it contains a hoard of other stories around it.

One day, who knows, I may give it to someone else. And they will have it by them, and think about me when they read it, on into the future, and the book will continue acquiring layers of meaning until the day when it falls apart.

That, you see, is what you don't get with an ebook. Real books are part of us, part of our stories. And that is why they will survive, adding links into the chain of our greater narrative.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Memory and the curriculum

Homer: He knew things by heart
As usual, there has been a lot of hoohah about Michael Gove's new curriculum. He wants to get rid of coursework and return to single exams, marking a return to apparently "oldfashioned" practices.

And why not? There was a predictable reaction on Twitter, including a remark from one writer who sputtered angrily that there was no such thing as a profession that required remembering and "regurgitating" facts. I think that use of the word "regurgitating" is key, because it suggests a misunderstanding of what remembering is.

Memory is the key to knowledge, which in turn leads to wisdom. You cannot know a subject unless you have memorised certain facts about it. I remember being at law school - you cannot absorb case law and statutes by accident. The only way to do it is to sit down and learn them, by rote. And why shouldn't pupils be taught how to do this? It only puts more unfair advantages onto the products of schools where rote learning is encouraged - ie, the public schools. There is a reason why private school children are over-represented in the legal profession - and it's not just because of parental background and encouragement. It's also because from the very beginning pupils are encouraged to memorise, to learn, to absorb, to be tested.

You can only truly know something if you have memorised it. I remember the heady days of my final exams, when I knew Virgil, Shakespeare, Homer, inside out. The Aeneid came alive inside my head: a vast, echoing chamber of beautiful imagery and striking scenes, linking together with all the other things that I'd had to con by heart. Things collide: you see shapes and patterns, you become aware of greater structures. You know things. A poem, learned by heart, is a poem understood.

We've forgotten what it is to be learned - learned in the law, learned in a subject. That means memorising things. It means being able to know, without looking it up, where to find something. If I didn't know Latin grammar off by heart, I wouldn't be a very good Latin teacher.

It's true if you're a doctor or a teacher or a taxi driver. All jobs contain a certain amount of memorising, whether it's a technique or a protocol or whatever. To suggest that memorising leads to "regurgitation" is simply wrong. It leads to broader, deeper understanding; to insight; and within your chosen field, to success. That's why I think Michael Gove is right. We should return to unlocking the potential of things that are greater than any computer, any search engine: that is, our own human minds.

***UPDATE: A rejigged version of this piece is now on the Telegraph website, here.****

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Judging the Costa Children's Book Award

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears - I have an announcement to make. This year I have the extremely exciting privilege of being a judge on the Costa Children's Book Award, which last year was won by the excellent Sally Gardner, for her book, Maggot Moon.

I look forward to sampling all the wonderful children's books that are out there, and to the rigorous judging process itself. My fellow judges are Emma Kennedy, the writer, and Jo Anne Cocadiz, who is children's buyer at Foyles. Let the entries commence!

The Costa Book Awards website is here.

Tips for Pippa Middleton as Contributing Editor of Vanity Fair

Pippa Middleton: Editrix extraordinaire
As a contributing editor myself, I know a few things about the game, and so I thought I’d give Pippa Middleton some friendly tips as she faces up to her new role as a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair.

1) You will be expected to contribute. This means that you will be writing a piece of what I call “writing” every so often, depending on the terms of your contract (this is the gold plated paper that you signed, over which Graydon Carter was looking so pleased).

2) You will also be expected to edit. My top tip for editing is to read the “piece” through carefully, and mark anything you’d like changed or deleted or even added in! Everyone has their own idiosyncracies, but mostly you can use a red pen, or a pencil (you can rub out the marks more easily with a rubber.)

3) When writing a piece, I find it useful to use my familiar mascot, an Apple laptop. This isn’t compulsory of course – you may find that a PC works just as well. Or perhaps a member of staff could type your thoughts up on your typewriter. Remember, though, to convey the writing to the office (the place where all those people sit looking angry and staring at computers). These days, it can be done simply by using email, which is an advanced, electronic form of carrier-pigeon. Just press a button, get your sister to marry the heir to the throne, and ping! Off it goes into one of the world’s best known and prestigious magazines. Just like magic.

4) A deadline is not actually a dead line – imagine that! No, it’s a date for handing in your “piece”. I find it useful to mark these in my diary so that I don’t forget them. And don’t book any routine dinners the night before or you may find your hangover gets in the way!

5) Finally, you have to get paid. This is harder than it sounds (no joke.) Some magazines don’t pay at all, even after you chase them for ages; others will give you the equivalent of a packet of Smarties. But if you’ve already signed the aforementioned contract, then the money will just whoosh into your account every so often. Remember  – those fascinators won’t buy themselves!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

June Literary Review out now

What ho! It's that lovely time of the month again - the day Literary Review drops through your letterbox. Yes, the June issue is out now - and guess what? There's something really exciting in it - yes, that's right, it's a lost novel by James Joyce! Oh, no, sorry. It's not. It's my biannual children's round up. Still, that's fun, isn't it?

It features reviews of: Melvin Burgess' The Hit, Gillian Cross's After Tomorrow, Piers Torday's The Last Wild, Audrey Niffeneger's Raven Girl, Terence Blacker's The Twyning, Mary Hooper's The Disgrace of Kitty Grey, William Sutcliffe's The Wall, and F E Higgins's The Phenomenals: A Tangle of Traitors.

I'd suggest that you go and buy it now. Not to mention for the other toothsome treats in the mag.