Saturday, December 29, 2007

There is nothing like a Dame...Jacqueline Wilson

The honours system may be moribund, but I couldn't help feeling a rush of pleasure when I read that Jacqueline Wilson has been made a dame. I can't think of a more deserving author. There are few writers who have done so much to get children reading, particularly children from deprived backgrounds. Also, she has worked tirelessly to promote reading and although she probably became a millionaire several years ago, she hasn't retreated to an ivory tower. Every fan letter receives a personal reply and when she does one of her famous signing sessions, Jacqueline Wilson won't leave until she's talked to the last child in the queue.

At this point I have to declare an interest -I've done two events with her (the first of which was the biggest signing session of her career to date) and she was the nicest author I've ever met.

At the first session, neither Jacqui or I had any idea how big the signing was going to be, but I think we'd both estimated that three to four hours would be enough. In the event I think I'd slightly overdone things on the publicity front and we had a queue that was a quarter of a mile long. Many authors would have insisted on capping the queue after an hour, but Jacqueline Wilson was just delighted that so many people had turned up and the signing lasted for almost eight hours! It was the highlight of my bookselling career.

During the whole session, Jacqueline Wilson didn't take a single break. Afterwards I asked her what her secret was and she replied 'A strong wrist and a cast-iron bladder.'

What impressed me most of all was the way Jacqueline Wilson dealt with her readers. She must have talked to hundreds of people that day, but she made every child feel special and the welcoming smile never wavered. She spent at least a minute chatting to each person and agreed to every request for photographs. It would be easy to assume that this was an example of a writer trying to ingratiate themselves with their reading public, but Jacqui had made her money and didn't need to do these marathon signing sessions to raise her profile.

Some people are very dismissive about the literary merits of Jacqueline Wilson's novels, but when you see a queue of hundreds of excited children it is impossible to be cynical. Wilson has not earned her popularity by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Her popularity rests on her ability to discuss serious issues in a way that entertains, comforts and never, ever patronizes the reader.

Two years after the first signing I held another and had the rather surreal experience of riding on a carousel with Jacqui (it's a long story). After the ride I took this picture:

See the name on the horse?

The British honours system is a strange, imperfect anachronism but on this occasion, the decision to make Jacqueline Wilson a dame was a wise one.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Patrick Hamilton

Some books take time and perseverance to reveal their charms whilst others begin brilliantly but somehow lose their way. Patrick Hamilton's Slaves of Solitude gripped me from the first page and remained utterly compelling until the end.

After his death, Hamilton was compared unfavourably to contemporaries like Orwell and Greene, but this novel is a remarkable achievement and I'm amazed that a man who drank three bottles of whisky a day was able to write such a profound and sober assessment of human nature.

On the surface very little happens. The main character is a 39-year-old woman who has fled the Blitz for a boarding house in a thinly disguised Henley-on-Thames and the novel chronicles her relationships with the other boarders and the threats to her purgatorial equilibrium posed by an American GI and a German friend. However the genius of this novel lies in Hamilton's ability to conjure up the claustrophobic atmosphere of the English boarding house with its petty resentments and unspoken feuds. I stress English boarding house because I cannot imagine this novel taking place in a country like Italy, where people would be less inclined to silently seethe with anger.

The Slaves of Solitude takes supposedly typically English qualities like good manners, self-control and decorum and shows how underneath the facade of civility, people are consumed by hatred, resentment, jealousy and lust. Hamilton's portrayal of the inner life of Miss Enid Roach is a masterly microcosm of English society in the mid-20th century.

The War is ever present, but rather than heightening the novel's sense of drama it merely acts as a dull backdrop - an enervating fog of rations, blackouts and uncertainty. The distant drone of enemy planes occasionally punctuates the silence of the night, but life is elsewhere and the aircraft never bother dropping their bombs on this drab, provincial town. This is an England that I never knew, but one that I caught glimpses of as a child. I can taste the flavourless, watery soup served to the guests of the Rosamund Tea Rooms and imagine the sterile atmopshere of the dining room, with its whispered conversations and clinking cutlery.

As for Patrick Hamilton, he was one of the most prominent writers of his day. In addition to his novels, he wrote the screenplays for two of the most successful Hollywoood films of the 40s - Rope and Gaslight. His early years were marked by poverty but he became that rare creature, a financially secure writer and like many successful novelists, he was the victim of a posthumous backlash. Hopefully the pendulum has swung back because the Slaves of Solitude is, without a doubt, one of the great English novels of the 20th century.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


A few months ago I received an alarming email from Amazon informing me that Evil has been dispatched. I hadn't a clue what they were talking about until, two days later, a DVD arrived of a Swedish film called Ondskan, translated into English as Evil. It was brilliant and the next day I recommended it to a notoriously curmudgeonly colleague at work, almost certain that he'd find something wrong with the film. He loved it too.

Set around fifty years ago in an exclusive Swedish boarding school, Ondskan is a savage indictment of the type of institutionalised bullying that is bizarrely regarded as character building. The lead actor - Andreas Wilson - is incredibly charismatic and with the 50s setting the result looks like a cross between Tom Brown's Schooldays and Rebel Without a Cause. Sort of.

But Ondskan isn't some public school romp with Nordic Flashmans. This is a highly intelligent and compelling film about morality and the lead character's refusal to submit to the injustices of others will have you hooked. I promise.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Seven, They Are Seven

My main gift is a fairly useless one: I can listen to almost any piece of classical music and either know or guess the composer, country of origin and decade in which it was written. My mother-in-law thinks that I'm a genius and should find a job that utilises this talent, but when was the last time you saw a job for people who can identify unknown pieces of music? That's why I ended up in bookselling.

Tonight, however, I was completely foxed. I was channel hopping and stumbled across a concert at the Barbican on BBC4 featuring the LSO accompanied by a huge choir. The music was amazing, with a visceral, primeval quality, as if it was cast from the raw materials of the earth. Brass chords surged and swelled, whilst the percussion section issued menacing rumbles and roars. And all the time, the choir sang of death and destruction, wreaked by an enigmatic group of gods called the Seven:

Seven are they, In the Ocean Deep seven are they, Evil are they, evil are they, Seven are they,Twice seven are they! By Heaven be ye exorcised! By Earth be ye exorcised.

The words were sang in Russian and the repetitive chanting of sem, sem, sem gave the music a hypnotic, ritualistic quality. I wondered which contemporary composer had written this powerful music. I thought it might be Sofia Gubaidulina, whose St John's Passion had transfixed me during a car journey to B&Q, but there was something very male about the music. I racked my brains for other likely contenders, but had to give up.

The music finished, the audience applauded and an announcer who looked about 12-years-old said that the music was by Prokofiev. I was amazed, particulary when I discovered that Seven, They Are Seven was an early work, first performed 90 years ago. The words are apparently from a Mesopotamian cuneiform from the 3rd century BC

I realise that this is probably of no interest to you (and thank you for reading this far), but this was a remarkable piece of music, quite unlike anything I've heard and I think it would also appeal to people who don't like classical music. Sadly, despite Prokofiev's stature as a composer, recordings of Seven seem to be thin on the ground.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


When I was in my teens I used to complain that Thomas Hardy's novels relied too much on completely implausible coincidences. How little I knew. As I grew older I experienced one bizarre event after another and began to realise that anything could happen.

Last week I went to take part in an aptitude test session at Tolworth Tower - a grim, 1960s office block surrounded by roads in a desolate place on the border between the London suburbs and Surrey. When I booked the tests I was asked if I knew where the tower was. I said I had been there before, but didn't mention that it was when I was 17 and on my first date. I wanted to ask a girl out but didn't quite know how to go about it, then hit on what seemed like the brilliant idea of going tenpin bowling. We met at the bus stop and travelled the eight miles to Tolworth Tower's bowling alley.

I thought the day had gone well but she obviously didn't share my views and I never saw her again. I resolved to abandon tenpin bowling as part of my wooing technique.

After the aptitude test I decided to catch the train to Twickenham and revisit the places I had known since childhood. There were a few changes. Every other building seemed to be a restaurant and what had once been a very English area had been augmented by Slavic faces with beautiful cheekbones, Africans and Asians. I had grown up here but searched in vain for a familiar face.

I walked down to the River Thames - this part of Twickenham hadn't changed much in 250 years - and visited the church where my parents married and I was Christened. It was empty and after lighting a candle for my father, I studied a noticeboard to see if I recognised any of the photos of the members of the parish council. They were all strangers. How can you grow up somewhere, attend school with nearly a thousand other local children and, within a short space of time, feel like a stranger? Where had everyone gone? I began to feel slightly depressed.

Suddenly the church door swung open and a woman asked me if would be much longer. I explained that I was about to leave. 'Okay that's fine.' she replied 'When you go can you make sure that you shut the door very firmly - you really have to slam it.' I nodded and just as she was leaving I realised who she was. I wanted to rush after her and say how strange it was that after visiting Tolworth Tower for the first time since our one and only date, I should bump into her like this, but by the time I had obediently slammed the church door shut, she had vanished.