Friday, 28 September 2012

The Booker Prize - who would you nominate?

Next month the Booker Prize will be won by some lucky person -  depending on how you look at it. Having won such a prize who would ever write again or need to or even dare to if you were an inexperienced writer?  Having won the top prize in publishing would you be happy as a writer to spend the majority of your year going to literary festivals, putting up with journalists and sycophants or worse still people who are envious and tell you you're rubbish. Would you be ready for the sour grapes, the talks, the television shows, the way that nobody thinks you need paying because you're obviously already making so much money, the way that people intrude so rudely into your life. You don't  have your privacy any more, everybody wants a piece of you.
The saying 'be careful what you wish for, the gods  may grant it' comes somewhere fairly close to all forms of celebrity. When I was twenty five I was convinced I was Jane Austen. I did go through a phase where I wanted to be rich. It was short lived.  I once had a friend who said, 'you can tell what God thinks of money by the people he gives it to'. Not perfectly true of course but you can only eat so much, drink so much, drive one car at once, sleep in one bed. What else is there? I remember Bianca Jagger saying that one of the most difficult things about being married to Mick was keeping up the houses they owned.  Can you imagine?  All that hassle, all that stress?
I have a house, a car and my caravan. I can pay my bills.  What else would I want?
I would like to be able to do what Catherine Cookson did if I ever did make any real money. She gave most of it to the Newcastle hospitals and a great many people, including me, have been bloody glad she did. That's what money's really for, not to spend a hundred million on a yacht as I heard one guy had. It had three heliports. Presumably for the windmills in his head.
But what really bothers me about the Booker Prize is that it is elitist and the very word makes me want to throw up.  Who says what makes a good novel? 

So, if you could nominate writers for the booker prize you would choose?

I would choose Ian Rankin becaue his plots are brilliant, his characters are memorable and he takes on big issues each time he writes.
I would nominate PD James, not because I think she's the most wonderful woman in the world and doesn't believe in bullshit but because her prose is almost poetry.
I would nominate C.J.Sansom, who is every bit as a good a writer as Hilary Mantel.

The trouble for me was that because her book won the Booker - I'm talking about Wolf Hall which won a couple of years ago - I was prejudiced against it and that really is the problem. A lot of people think that the shortlist is books which are indecipherable to most people so many folk who might enjoy them don't because either they think they aren't clever enough to understand or that the Booker like some Oxford College is there for certain very clever people and that isn't most of us.
Hilary Mantel writes simply, with authority, clarity and near genius. They say you can make a moderately good writer into a good writer but you can't make a good writer into a great writer and really that's why MAs in Creative Writing are almost always a waste of time. You could go out and do almost anything else and gain more from it. Who on earth would want to spend her youth sitting in a little room pouring out stories about god knows what because she hasn't got any experience? It's bad enough sitting in a little room writing all day when it's what you do for a living when you get older. It's anti social and it makes other people think you're bloody bananas. And in some ways you have to be. Neighbours at my last house thought I was a nurse and always on night duty since I wore my  pyjamas during the day. I've been working at home for thirty years, all alone, of course I'm bloody bonkers.  And yes, I write for money but believe me there are not many rich writers around and when was the last time you told your bank manager you'd never heard of him and how come he wasn't one of the top bank managers in the country?
I sat on my balcony this summer in Santorini and read Hilary Mantel's book, Bring up the Bodies. It is superb.  I left a whole load of things at home so that I could take the hardback with me, I loved it so much.
But - and it's a big but - it amazes me that she was not awarded the Booker for her best novel which is Beyond Black, the only novel I have read in years which had new ideas. They say there is no such thing. Well, I don't believe that. Hilary Mantel has new ideas.
I haven't read the other nominated books so I shouldn't say I hope she wins, except that I hope she wins, because a  it would be the first time it had happened twice to a woman and b because it would be the first time it had happened to a woman.
I went to my hairdresser before I went off to Santorini and there in a glossy women's magazine I discovered that the editor was going to read the same book as I was on holiday and that really is the point. Hilary Mantel is not writing for some stupid literary elite, she writes for everybody, she is accessible to everybody and so are all the great writers, Austen, Dickens, Fitzgerald and dozens more.
My lovely balcony. I could have stayed for a month
Me in Santorini. I wrote every day, read every day. Bliss
It would be a great thing if the Booker Prize was an event. It isn't really, not for millions of people the way that Strictly Come Dancing is.  But it could be.  It just needs sensible people to take the opportunity of short listing top writers and the writing world needs to stop placing writers into categories. A novel is a novel is a novel and somebody somewhere has grabbed up a copy of this wonderful book, stuffed it into her suitcase and is sitting on her balcony on a Greek island being grateful that Hilary Mantel spent hours, days and weeks and months so that we could enjoy her work. That is what reading is about. If the novelist doesn't entertain there are plenty of other jobs that she could do.  I'm very glad that Hilary Mantel chose to be a writer. She made my summer brighter.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

God, gods and godless

I had two Jehovah's witnesses at my door last week. This was most unusual. I can' think why it should be, I live on a busy street in a small city or perhaps they just call when I'm out. I get all kinds of people at my door. They can park and look at their maps when they are lost or they see me mucking about in my front garden and waffle over because they can't  find the cathedral / the way into town / the way out of town/ the fire station/ the police station or the hospital. I'm not sure whether it is comforting to have the hospital, the fire station and the police station so near. It reminds me of the Naked City when I was little, all those sirens. When something has gone badly wrong they all dash past at once. I can hear them from my bed in the middle of the night. New York has nothing on Durham.
I always try to be kind to people. I blame my mother, I'm so polite even when I'm clearly not interested and it is intrusive - people always bang on the door or ring on the phone when I'm working. It's very frustrating and of course working at home is never thought of as working, you are there to be interrupted.
I smiled at them and thought of how when I finished school, I won an award for religious studies, I'm not kidding you, I used to invite them into the back garden, give them tea and talk about the bible.  My mother in law had the easiest answer, she used to smile, say,
'We're Catholics,' which we were of course but I think my husband had the right idea.
When we lived in Ramshaw not far from Barnard Castle we built a house in the dip down by the river and we were hard at work, he was moving and facing stone and I was busy with the cement  mixer and this chap appeared around the side of the house. I saw the bible and knew what he was but Richard had much more idea.
'Hello, Fred,' he offered and the guy recognised him and smiled and started on about God and Richard said,
'Wonderful, and while you're here just give me a hand with these stones, will you?'
And the bloke did.  I thought it was the perfect answer.
I don't have anything half as good to offer these days except that when the woman said,
'Do you think God can save the world?'
I said,
'I just wish he'd get a move on,' and then I went back to work.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


My daughter got married on the island of Santorini last month. It was not quite what I expected. What's wrong with the cathedral, I said or the chapel in St Andrews?  When she was at university there I had visions of a misty autumn day and the long wide beaches. Santorini is famous for its black sand and volcanic rock, its hot summers and its superb sunsets.
There's nothing wrong with the sunsets in Stanhope, I said, where I have my caravan. Only a couple of weeks ago we had a bright red mackerel sky. You could have been married at the Abbey in Blanchland for less than three hundred pounds.
She didn't take any notice.  So twenty of us ended up on the Greek Island of Santorini. It'll be as hot as hell, I said, there'll be mosquitoes and I'm bound to be ill. It is almost a joke among my friends that every time I leave the country I' m ill but of course I had missed the most essential point, that this was not about me. We do tend to put ourselves in the centre of everything. I suppose it's natural. No wonder some people go abroad and then ring their mothers to say they are married, much easier than having the old girl along, being grumpy and embarrassing.
I don't believe in marriage, I think it's for people who are religious, I certainly don't like all that white dress and flowers and so on stuff. The feminist in me thinks that for centuries women have married because they couldn't manage by themselves. This is certainly not true of my daughter's generation, so I fail to see the point any more.
And so, what was it like?  It was the prettiest wedding I have ever been to and the bride and groom gazed into one another's eyes in a way that would have made Mills and Boon readers reach for the hankies.
My daughter says her husband understands her. When she feels ill he brings her camomile tea in bed. He takes her to the theatre though I'm not convinced that he adores Shakespeare. He also has the same idea as Oscar Wilde did when he said you should never give a woman anything she can't wear in the evening and on her wedding day my child wore the diamond on a chain he gave her three weeks after they met and a diamond solitaire on her finger which he bought her. He proposed to her in the kitchen of their tiny house. He went down on one knee and offered her a diamond. You can't beat it for style. And on their wedding day they gazed into one another's eyes as though no one had ever made a better choice. It was the perfect day. I still think the cathedral would have been nice but I fell in love that week, with one of the most beautiful islands in the world and we all had a fantastic time