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When the London Library magazine asked me to contribute an article to their Bibliotherapy series, I thought long and hard before saying yes. Against the idea was the fact that they don’t pay their contributors, and I still resent the massive hike in the subscription which was enforced a couple of years ago; on the other hand, I like the editor, Mary Scott – and it was an opportunity to write about a book (or series of books) that I’ve thought about a good deal. In the end the ayes had it, and here is the piece:

     Recently I found myself explaining to a teenager why people become grumpy as they grow older. ‘When you’re young,’ I said, ‘you look around you and think, “The world is a mess – but never mind, one day our generation will be in charge, and we’ll do things better.” Then eventually the time comes when your generation is [italics] in charge – or at least, certain members of it are; and guess what? They make just as much as a mess of it as their predecessors – and the awful thing is that you can’t see any way of stopping them.’

It is in this frame of mind that I reach for Alan Clark’s Diaries – because they remind me, in the most entertaining way, that however frustrating and ridiculous the world of politics may seem to a layman, it is even worse for an insider.

The diaries’ cardinal virtues are their candour and self-awareness. I suspect that if I had met Clark, I would have dismissed him as a spoilt, arrogant womaniser with alarmingly right-wing views; but on the page his openness to his own faults makes him tolerable and even endearing. ‘Fool, Clark,’ is his habitual cry as he chronicles another error of judgement or lapse into temptation. His account of trying to give a House of Commons speech after attending a wine-tasting is a classic.

Clark has the rare gift of writing amusingly about tedium, and what comes across most strongly is the sheer dullness of the daily grind in ‘the bloody House of C, being yerr’d at the Box by a lot of spiteful drunks, on subjects that bore and muddle me’. A Minister’s lot is slightly better than a backbencher’s, but he is still ‘a zombie in invisible handcuffs’, at the mercy of civil servants who vie to fill every spare moment with unnecessary meetings.

Not that there is a shortage of intrigue: Clark’s record of Mrs Thatcher’s fall will endure for as long as there are daggers to be drawn. What is fascinating is that the habitual objects of his animosity are his fellow Conservatives, while Labour and SDP opponents are accorded grudging admiration. A political party is a monster that eats itself.

Of the three volumes, the first to be published – covering the years 1983 to 1992 – is the best. In its prequel, Into Politics, Clark is a bit too full of himself, while the posthumous Last Diaries suffer from self-consciousness. But together the trio describe a Faustian arc: seduced by the political world, he sees through its hollowness and eventually finds the courage to resign, only to find that he can’t live without it; he sets about getting re-elected, and succeeds, but by then it is too late – he is too old and ill to achieve anything. Ah, Mephistopheles!

The quintessential episode is that of the Fur Labelling Order. An ardent animal-lover, Clark puts his all into legislation which will highlight the cruelty of leg-trapping. But as luck would have it, Mrs Thatcher’s constituency is home to some influential furriers, and she is about to make an official visit to Canada. She asks him to drop the issue, and to his bitter shame he does.

Only when he escapes the fetid corridors of power and engages with the natural world does Clark feel fully himself. Flying over Canada, he meditates on the terror of the Northern Ice-cap, ‘So utterly lifeless and bleak. In the desert there would at least be foxes and insects and little roots waiting to be nurtured by the rain. But the Polar route is all ice cliffs, and pale chasms of depth unknown.’ The beauty of that final sentence flashes from the page, reminding us of what will endure long after Secretaries of State have been forgotten – and that poets are the true legislators of the world.

    

Keats’s Grave

I wrote this for the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association (which cares for the house in Rome where Keats died) in order to promote its new Young Romantics writing prize for teenagers:

Burying a Protestant in nineteenth-century Rome was a dangerous business. Such was the hostility to non-Catholics that the authorities insisted on their funerals taking place at night; sometimes the mourners had to be protected by soldiers. So it was before dawn on 26th February 1821 that John Keats’s body was taken through the city.

If you visit the Protestant Cemetery today, you won’t find Keats’s name on his gravestone. Despairing of recognition for his work, he asked for the simple inscription ‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water’ – though his friends added a reference to ‘a young English poet’ and his ill-treatment by his countrymen. You have to turn to the stone beside his, inscribed to Joseph Severn, ‘Devoted friend and deathbed companion of John Keats’, for a positive ID.

The grave isn’t even in the best part of the cemetery. While Shelley’s ashes are buried in a quiet, shady spot, Keats lies in an exposed corner with the noise of a main road in the background. But many of those who have visited it over the past two centuries have felt it to be – as Oscar Wilde did – ‘the holiest place in Rome’.

They’re still coming. Such is their eagerness to stand on the edge of the grave (though you can read the headstone easily enough from the path) that it has just had to be re-turfed and repaired. The dozen mourners who followed the 25-year-old poet’s coffin early on that February morning can hardly have imagined such a thing.

As for Keats, I wonder if anyone who wrote his own epitaph ever got it more completely wrong. Only, perhaps, Shelley’s Ozymandias.

I had an illuminating conversation last week with Rosamund Bartlett, who has almost completed a new translation of Anna Karenina. I asked her whether there was a definitive text of the original to work from, and she told me of a 90-volume edition of Tolstoy’s complete works which was published under Stalin. This is now to be superseded by a 100-volume edition – but since there is a crisis of funding in Russian academe, it has only got as far as Volume 4. Will it be completed in our lifetime?
As it happens, I’m reading Anna Karenina at the moment in Constance Garnett’s translation. (Actually, she decided to call it Anna Karenin.) I confessed to Rosamund Bartlett that I found it impossible to take Vronsky, or Anna’s love for him, seriously once I discovered that he had a moustache – but she told me that all men did in those days and I must be more broad-minded.

Mind The Gap

This is not strictly a bookish subject, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about, partly because I’m planning to draw on my own gap-year experiences for my new novel.

For parents who spent their happy-go-lucky months between school and university working in wine bars and taking the Magic Bus to Greece, the rise of the gap-year industry is a baffling phenomenon. Though many companies have taken a battering from the prolonged economic winter and the rush to beat inflated university tuition fees, there are still scores of specialists in Britain competing to send teenagers out across the world. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the idea of a gap is finally catching on, with up to 8 per cent of students at Ivy League universities opting for one; while the newly created American Gap Association finds its feet, many are signing up with British organisations such as Projects Abroad and Global Vision International.

With schemes that offer instruction it’s relatively easy to see what you’re getting for your money. If your brain has any spare capacity after A-levels, you can spend eight weeks learning Spanish in Havana through Cactus Language for £2,296, or 12 weeks mugging up on Mandarin in Beijing through Cesa Languages Abroad for £5,718. (Prices tend to include accommodation but not flights.) More expensive still is Art History Abroad, which gives expert tuition to small groups in Italy; it’s highly recommended, but at £8,160 for a six-week course (including travel) it’s a major investment.

It’s when the words “community”, “volunteering” and “sponsorship” start to appear that things become more opaque. Anyone paying for the privilege of building a Guatemalan school beneath the baking sun is entitled to wonder where their money is going to. “A lot of companies are reluctant to tell you how the costs break down,” says Macca Sherifi of the advisory website gapyear.com, “but they will if you press them.”

Travellers Worldwide, whose monkey-rehabilitation programme in Argentina caught my eye (£1,795 for four weeks), were happy to send me a pie chart showing that 6% of this constituted their profit while the rest went towards running their operation and providing support for the volunteers. The Year Out Group, an association of established gap-year companies, stresses that a donation to the local community is not generally part of the deal: they’re being helped by your unpaid labour, and what you spend on food and accommodation.

But is the work you’re doing genuinely helpful? Responsibletravel.com recently announced that it was discontinuing ten volunteer programmes at orphanages, partly because the high turnover of helpers was unsettling for the children, and partly because many of the inmates had proved not to be orphans at all – their parents had simply handed them over so that they could benefit from a Western education. ‘The majority of volunteering placements are of an extremely high standard and are extremely beneficial to a community, says Macca Sherifi – but there are exceptions, generally in the form of firms run by locals who want to make a quick buck out of backpackers. Before signing up  you should insist on being put in touch with people who have recently returned.   

Even companies that follow the letter of the law may be little more than travel agencies with a fig-leaf of philanthropy. (The offer of a ‘cultural tour’ after your stint of work is often a giveaway.) If you want to cut out middlemen, Ecoteer will put you directly in touch with some communities, meaning that you could pay as little as £50 a week. You’ll have to organise the trip yourself, without professional back-up – but then, that’s exactly the kind of challenge that a gap year ought to involve: an experience which is handed to you on a plate is not going to make you more self-reliant.

The basic rule of packages is that the longer you stay, the better value for money you get, because the lion’s share of costs – such as training, administration, visas and insurance – are the same. Thus Oyster’s marine-conservation programme in Thailand costs £1,096 for two weeks or £1,496 for a month; working in a school, orphanages, medical centre or national park in Kenya through Outreach International costs £1,200 for one month or £2,100 for three.

Some gap-year schemes can be seen as financial investments, providing a qualification which will help you find jobs through university and beyond. The Tante Marie cookery school in Woking has a four-week certificate course costing £2,995; AllTracksAcademy offers a six-week course for would-be ski-instructors in Whistler from £4,950, and Flying Fish a ten-week dinghy-sailing and windsurfing equivalent in Greece for £5,990.

Many people, of course, cannot afford these prices. Voluntary Service Overseas caters for the less affluent through the International Citizen Service, encompassing countries such as Ghana and Bolivia: no contribution is necessary, though you are asked to try to raise at least £800. There are also scholarships available: Art History Abroad has one worth £3,400, while the Royal Geographical Society offers grants of up to £4,000. Paid work can be found through websites such as overseasjobcentre.co.uk.

 Some parents may be feeling rather envious by this point. If so, bear in mind that 160,000 career-breakers and “grey gappers” also set out each year. Hold that Magic Bus!

 

Genre Bending

At Monday’s Royal Society of Literature meeting, Neil Gaiman made a remark which was grist to the Tomorrow’s Books mill. Working as a journalist in his twenties, he said, he often used to interview authors; over a drink in the pub afterwards, they would tell him about a book of theirs that hadn’t found a publisher because it was different from the work they were famous for. He said to himself, ‘That’s not going to happen to me!’ and adopted the motto, ‘Never pop out of the same hole twice.’ We salute him and all writers who enjoy the challenge of experimenting with different genres – and we look forward to bringing you some of their rebellious work

This weblog has been too long in abeyance, for which I apologise: the sad fact is that writing novels and earning a living as a journalist does not leave much time for anything else. But the moment has come to re-engage with it – and where better to begin than by announcing some good news? Two of the books featured on this site have recently found publishers: Student Suppers – retitled Goodbye Cockroach Pie – is now available from Inky Paws Press, while Michael Meylac’s collection of interviews with ballet dancers is to be issued by I.B. Tauris next year. We wish them both well.

My thoughts on the latest film version of a novel that emphatically does stand the test of time:
http://moreintelligentlife.com/blog/anthony-gardner/gatsby

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