Sunday, November 13, 2005

A literary knight and his blog

Once, years ago, I took advantage of a special offer subscription to The Times Literary Supplement [ circulation 34,229 according to the 2006 edition of The Writer's Handbook ] but found it only moderately interesting and didn't renew the subscription.

Looking around the TLS website, I learned that now it costs £92 a year, "But if you care about the life of the mind, you will certainly find it indispensable."

I do care about the life of the mind, but does the TLS offer me more food for thought than Arts & Letters Daily which is free?

This week, browsing among the broadsheets, I noticed that the present editor of the TLS, Sir Peter Stothard, has a blog in the online edition of The Times newspaper which he edited from 1992 to 2002.
There's an interesting interview with Sir Peter by Liz Thomson, editor of Publishing News at The Book Place in which Ms Thomson writes -
"Stothard knew Blair - in fact, he and his wife, novelist Sally Emerson, had sold their house to him when he was just a rank and file MP. "But we were never close friends and The Times didn't support him in '97, though it did in 2001. There were plenty of fully paid-up Blairites who could have done it, but that wasn't what was wanted."

The "who could have done it" is a reference to Sir Peter's book 30 Days: A Month at the Heart of Blair's War, a diary of his time behind the scenes with Tony Blair as he attempted to win support for a war against Saddam.

A month in the company of any politician would be purgatory for most of us. Perhaps a long lunch at the Ritz with Boris Johnson might be fun, but I can't think of any other Member of Parliament I'd want to spend time with, and there are many, on both sides of the House, I'd expect to be deeply bored by.

However I've made a note to borrow the Stothard book from the Guille-Allès public library next summer, or at least to dip into it. A skilful journalist can make almost anything interesting.

Sally Emerson

Sally Emerson's books include In Loving Memory, reviewed at Amazon UK thus
"Sally Emerson has done a great service here for thousands of people. Seeking the right words for a card, letter or speech after the death of a friend or loved one can prove an insurmountable task…Emerson has collected 200 poems and writings to cover all occasions. The book is divided into sections (Rage, Grief, Parting, Missing, Remembering, Thanksgiving, Facing Eternity, Seeing the Pattern, Inspiration, Love's Power, Finding Peace, Hymns Prayers & Readings) and is indexed by author and first lines. It contains a diversity of sources from Shakespeare to Churchill, The Bible to The Bhagavad Gita and Joan Baez to Rupert Brooke...To me this is a coffee table book full of love and encouragement and I recommend it to everyone."

Of course it may be that the reviewer, Andrew Horner from Erskine in Renfrewshire, is a buddy of Ms Emerson. We can't always trust Amazon reviewers.

But perhaps we can in this case because I found several interesting diary-pieces written by Ms Emerson for the online magazine Slate in 2002.

Interesting extracts

"No sane individual would take the first baggy-trousered plumber who turned up at the door, but we entrust our entire health to the first person we're told to see, however senile or pompous or stupid he may be. Doctors can't advertise, of course, and there are no reliable reports on them, so really it is all just luck. The power of the doctors means some extraordinary abuses are allowed to happen."

"My 14-year-old son was mugged before Christmas for a very dodgy mobile phone worth about a pound. It had no back, 10p left on his pay-as-you-go voucher, and a scratched SIM card. But the two slightly older black guys who threatened him and his slightly smaller friend offered to "slice" them both up with their knives if he didn't hand it over. This was in a busy pre-Christmas street, on a Saturday afternoon. My son nonchalantly handed it over, of course, and wasn't at all upset, as all his friends have similar experiences all the time. He said he was amused by the sad expression on the robber's face when he saw the state of the phone. We haven't seen any police around for years. We are told it is because of the problem of terrorist alerts that we don't see them, but in the 10 years I've lived in my street in London I've only once seen a policeman on the beat there. I honestly think they've simply given up."

"Last night I had dinner with some fellow novelists in the upstairs room of a North London pub. It is said that when novelists gather together they discuss their advances. Far from it. Our meeting was devoted to sex at one end of the table and Jane Austen the other."

Test-reading blogs

Getting back to her husband's blog, it's usually a mistake, I find, to judge a blog by one or even two or three posts. My first impression of Sir Peter's blog was that it was too political in tone to appeal to me. But then I went back to his first posts and found one posted on 26 September headed Down with Nelson
"There has been a new biography of Lord Nelson for every year since he died two hundred years ago. And in case you think that you don't need to read another…"

Some of the happiest times of my life were spent on the north coast of Norfolk, not far from Nelson's birthplace at Burnham Thorpe. He is quoted as saying,"I am a Norfolk man and glory in being so." It is certainly a lovely part of England, or was when I lived there.

Searching for B M Gill

While cataloguing the books on the fifth shelf up on the left hand side of the sittingroom's chimneybreast, I came across two Coronet Crime titles. On one, under the author's name, was "Winner of the Crime Writers' Association Award for The Twelfth Juror".
"Is this yours?" I asked Mr Bookworm.
He read the blurb. "Doesn't ring any bells."
On the fly leaf was pencilled 200 pesetas. There was also a rubber-stamped note - Benissa Book Mark You May Exchange This Book For Half Price If Returned In Good Condition
Benissa is a pleasant Spanish market town I visit occasionally. The Book Mark was what used to be called a circulating library, renting out second hand books, run by a couple of British expats. It closed some time ago. The peseta has not been legal currency in Spain since March 2002.

DCI Maybridge a charmer

Opening the book I read -
"Detective Chief Inspector Maybridge was not gifted with second-sight. If he had been, he would have refused to lecture at the crime writers' seminar. He would have stayed at home and tended his garden and not become embroiled in the bizarre series of event that were not only horrific, but also personally very embarrassing.
However, on this bright Autumn Saturday, with no premonition of disaster to trouble him, his mood was tranquil. His lecture to the members of the Golden Guillotine Club wasn't due to be delivered until two-thirty and so he decided to drive the longer, more picturesque route across the Downs. Here, within close proximity of the busy centre of Bristol…"

Half way down the first page, I was hooked. For two reasons. I used to belong to the Crime Writers' Association and was once a reporter on the Western Daily Press at Bristol.

The book that hooked me is Seminar For Murder by B M Gill. The crime novel which won the CWA Gold Dagger was The Twelfth Juror, and among the reviews the publisher quotes at the front of Seminar is this from the Daily Telegraph review of Death Drop.
"Her writing is often as good as that of P D James, her sense of the interactions and terrors of school life is astonishingly acute, and her dénouement - classically contrived and staged - is brilliant."

Quick response from CWA

Despite it being a particularly busy week for the CWA, my enquiry about B M Gill brought a quick reply from a committee member Joanna Hines who passed on a message from the membership secretary.

"I see she is Barbara, and won the Gold Dagger in 1984, so I should have heard of her. Born 1921, and apparently still alive. Not a CWA member since 1999, anyway, and possibly never was. Seems to be a 'private person' not giving out information to websites, as far as I can discover."

So far I've had no response from B M Gill's publisher. By the way, Joanna Hines's email did not give the URL of her very nice website. I found it later and learned that her tenth novel, The Murder Bird is due out in 2006. I look forward to reading it.

She is one of the few authors not to have a photo of herself on her site. Searching for one led me to the Royal Literary Fund site. En route, I came across Love Reading where extracts from many kinds of books can be read. I had to register before I could read an extract from Joanna Hines's novel Angels of the Flood based on her experience of the floods in Florence.

The extracts at Love Reading, which describes itself as a unique service specifically designed for people who love reading but sometimes need help in finding new authors and choosing their next book, are in PDF [Portable Document Format] so you need to have Adobe Acrobat Read installed.

P D James review in TLS

Reviewing P D James's 17th novel, In The Lighthouse, under the heading "P D James, a new Iris Murdoch?", Ruth Morse who, I gather is senior lecturer in molecular biomedicine at the University of the West of England, writes in the style which put me off the TLS in the first place.

The book, detective Adam Dalgliesh's 13th case, is set on an island off Cornwall with a cast including scientists, diplomats, writers and landed gentry.

When it paperbacks, I expect to read it with my usual enjoyment. Had I never read P D J before, the heading and the pompous tone of the review would put me off trying this book.

There are more useful - though not wholly laudatory - reviews at Amazon UK where Barry Forshaw writes
"While PD James’ The Lighthouse moves satisfyingly in territory that the author has made very much her own -- the classic English crime mystery -- there are several new elements added, proving that Baroness James is not content to rest on her laurels. While Commander Adam Dalgliesh is once again at work, solving a case of murder in a secluded setting, cut off from the rest of the world (James has long been pleased to introduce variations into the beloved crime situations that exercised her predecessors), and while the structure of the novel presents the reader with the usual strongly drawn cast of suspects and victims, there is a new frankness here, with the treatment of sexuality more upfront than would ever have been countenanced in the era of Dorothy Sayers and co. But long-time readers of this most accomplished of British novelists will also be pleased to learn that the things we turn to James for are all satisfyingly in place.

If The Times Literary Supplement wants to increase its circulation - and I can't believe that only 34,229 people in the UK regard books as a vital part of their lives - perhaps it needs to become a little less consciously literary in tone.

But heaven forbid that they should dumb down too much, as has happened with other publications. Keeping the intelligent but unsnobbish reader happy is a tricky business.