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Friday, 22 December 2017 09:18

Letter from London #29

Written by Edwin Riddell
Shakespeare Shakespeare

A few years ago I ran into an old college contemporary in a London club.

Storm Thorgerson was one of those people instantly recognised by their manner or bearing. On this occasion, he was sitting in a corner reading a volume of Shakespeare. Rather ostentatiously I thought, but that was Storm. He'd achieved success in life as a graphic artist, notably on album covers for the likes of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Anyway, his career was a long way from the English and Philosophy degrees for which we had both opted at university. When I asked him about the Shakespeare, he said he'd always been grateful    for studying literature. It had provided him with a lifelong interest and pleasure.


That remark struck me. If I had not been a professional writer, I'm quite sure that I would have been an even more avid reader than I am now. Imagine that.


Such thoughts were prompted through discussion in these pages about the difficulties writers face nowadays in getting published. Even seasoned authors face much diminished advances. Consulting royalty statements recently, it was sobering to note that one got an advance approaching $10,000 back in the 1990s for a first book. Advances of any kind are now pretty rare, and mostly meagre.

Of course, alongside the decline of traditional publishing, there have sprung up hundreds, if not thousands, of new online outlets   Few of these seem to provide much in the way of financial reward. On the other hand, they undoubtedly give a means whereby many more authors can reach  an audience than ever before.

Writing was always an itch that required the majority of its sufferers to keep the day job. Otherwise, down the ages, most of us have survived on a diet of more or less hack work.


John le CarreBut I would like to suggest that there now exist far more urgent, noble, and compelling reasons for treasuring and encouraging literature, whether as reader or writer.

The English spy novelist John le Carré (Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy) recently told an audience that “something truly, seriously bad is happening...  a kind of burning of the books...where real news is declared “as fake news, the law becomes fake news, everything becomes fake news. I think of all things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain, in Japan, obviously in Germany. To me, these are absolutely comparable signs,” he said.

Le Carré's words have struck echoes. Writing in The Guardian this week, columnist Rafael Behr noted: “The goal is not always to execute a specific outcome but to stoke existing tensions, nurture rage, exacerbate polarisation and shroud everything in such a fog of lies that truth becomes ungraspable. The purpose of fake news is to debase the currency of all news, and so undermine the foundations of pluralistic politics.”


Writing is about truth, or it is about nothing. But that truth comes in a host of forms. It includes - but is more than - the proving of rational, objective or scientific fact. The truth of a person's nature, the real significance of an event - truth has a myriad aspects. A good example of this slow reveal of human nature is a book I have just read for the first time, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. It's an unusually effective kind of emotional suspense story set on the East Coast in the post-WWII era.

Anglo Saxon Attitudes by Angus WilsonOne of my favourite comic English novels is Anglo-Saxon Attitudes by Angus Wilson. Its subject is the importance and limitations of truth. It is at times wildly funny, and a mordant take on British society in roughly the same postwar years. Much of it is set around Christmas.


Each time a person sits down to read or write they are taking part in a transaction that is designed to elicit or illuminate an aspect of truth - whether it be of life, fate, love, or journalistic fact.

As for John le Carré, he admitted to being old-fashioned and writes every day with a pen. Now 85, he said he would continue working. “I would go on writing even if I knew I was not going to be published, ever. I couldn’t help it.”

Recommended reading:

John le Carré:  Smiley's People

Angus Wilson:  Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Richard Yates:  Revolutionary Road


~Edwin Riddell


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