Lee, Laurie: As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning

                 

The proposer noted that the three books for which Laurie Lee (1914-1997) is remembered are autobiographical.  “Cider with Rosie” (1959) covers his life up to 16. His father abandoned the family and left his second wife to bring up a large group of kids. They lived outside Stroud in Gloucestershire.

Then he spent 4 years as a junior clerk in Stroud. Next “as I walked out one midsummer morning” he travelled to London and then across Spain. “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” was published in 1969, ten years after “Cider with Rosie”. Finally, “A Moment of War” (1991) covers his return to Spain to fight in the Civil War.

He also published books of poetry, one of essays and records of some of his foreign visits. In this we see him going to Ibiza to write “As I Walked Out.” He was largely unimpressed by the tourists, but enjoyed the booze, the grub and the talent.

After the Civil War he married. His wife also died in 1997. He was a poet, writer, lecturer, and journalist, and was awarded the MBE. He died in his home county. Life was made easier for him because “Cider with Rosie” sold 6 million copies.

He kept a notebook on his travels, not with a view to writing books, he said, but rather to be able in the future to relive the events.

Why did the proposer choose the book? He was very fond of Spain, and 1934-6 was a dramatic time for a writer to be there. He had also enjoyed books about Spain by V.S. Pritchett and Gerald Brenan. But Lee’s poverty, honesty, compassion and charm drew him back to the book and its beautiful evocation of his Spain.

Finally, he noted that Almunecar has changed and is now like Marbella Old Town. And he wondered if Lee had a map? He hoped so, but he chose some areas with no roads and it must have been difficult to avoid getting lost!

This book was well received by the Group. “It was a delightful read, beautifully written …his language is poetic and lyrical” said one absent member. A surprising number of the group knew Spain well, through the decades, and had undertaken various walks there. One had walked through the Pyrenees into Spain, and one had been reading the book while olive picking near Malaga. Another who had driven across Spain now wished he had walked it!

The book was published some thirty five years after the events described. The book falls into 3 sections. The first describes his decision to leave his country village and set off on a great walk, with destination unknown. He carries a violin, and becomes skilled in busking for money. “It’s really a description of two journeys, one through part of England and the other through Spain. I love his description of life in England in the early 1930’s and the fascinating characters he meets on his journey. It amazed me how many others were wandering around the UK about the same time. On reaching London he manages to earn some money pushing a wheelbarrow for a year. The reason he gives for going to Spain is because he knew the Spanish for “Will you please give me a glass of water?” and  is almost laughable”. As well as meeting other tramps and the great army of unemployed searching for work on the way, he has a brief relationship with a rich girl, which is brought to an abrupt end by her father, and he finds work on a building site.

Then he sets off for Spain, saying he knows nothing about the country and does not speak the language. The central and most powerful section of the book describes with great power his journey south through the searing heat and immense poverty of Spain, how he adapts to their way of life, and picks up the language. “Having made a similar but swifter journey by car from south to north a few years ago, I was able to picture the vastness of the country, its unforgiving climate and the many delightful places he visits. I had forgotten how desperately poverty-stricken and wretched a lot of country folk were at that time in Spain”.

Everyone really liked the power and precision of his descriptive writing:

The thick silent dust, lifted by the shudders of heat rather than by the presence of any wind, crept into my sandals and between my toes, stuck like rime to my lips and eyelashes, and dropped into the breathless cups of the roadside poppies to fill them with a cool white mirage of snow.

His face was as dark and greasy as a pickled walnut and a moustache curled round his lips like an adder.”

Green oaks like rocks lay scattered among the cornfields, with peasants chest-deep in the wheat. It was the peak of the harvest, and figures of extraordinary brilliance were spread across the fields like butterflies, working alone or in clusters, and dressed to the pitch of the light – blue shirts and trousers, and with broad gold hats tied with green and scarlet cloths.”

At Toledo he comes more into contact with expats, and there is a change of tone as he travels to the south coast, and gets to know Republicans worried about an impending challenge to their new Socialist government. Then the book ends with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and his short-lived return to Britain. He soon leaves for Spain again with the ambition of playing his part in the Civil War.

Also very striking were his descriptions of how easily war breaks out, and how quickly violence can escalate:

That special adrenalin in the young which makes war easy, and welcomes it, drew me voluptuously to Altofaro”.

It was not victory, however,…. when the militia returned, round about midnight, there was no singing or cheering welcome. The wounded, the shocked, the dying and the dead were unloaded in bitter silence…El Gato walked speechlessly away trailing his rifle like a broken limb.”

There were many aspects of the book which attracted discussion. One was the issue of how honest he had been in what he wrote. Some felt there was an element of selective memory, and perhaps distortion, in his account? For example, he presents himself as a rural peasant who knows nothing when he sets out. Yet he has a rich girlfriend in London, can play the violin, goes in for poetry competitions, and seems able to mingle easily with the eccentric poet Roy Campbell and his partner.

It seemed amazing that he could recall so much of the detail of his journey. He often says “I remember…” but does not own up to having kept a notebook, as we now know he did. Just for the purpose of reliving the experiences, he said, but it is commonplace for writers to undertake great walks largely for the purpose of writing a book at the end. Or is he simply grafting later memories of Spain on to the walk he conducted as a twenty year old?

He falls into a long tradition of British writers describing walks in Spain – such as Hilaire Belloc, G.K. Chesterton, J.B. Morton (Beachcomber), George Borrow – and there are a group of French writers who have done the same. And they all seem to find the same Spain. So was his choice of Spain less random than he claims?

Much of the book contains talk of sexual experiences of various kinds, some briefly described, more hinted at. But we now know from biographical information that he met his “muse” while he was in Spain, and that she supported him financially, yet the book does not refer to her and suggests that busking was his main source of income.

And the fact that the British Embassy was aware of his presence and rescued him from the Civil War, along with other British nationals, again made us wonder if were quite the peasant tramp that he presents.

Even his amusing story of climbing into a girl’s bedroom by ladder in London had the cynics amongst us wondering if it had really happened or whether he had been reading “Le Rouge et le Noir”.

But in the end we concluded that it did not matter if he were selective or inclined to embroider – wouldn’t most do that in an autobiography?  It only mattered if while reading the book you found yourself doubting his veracity. One of or two of us had had that feeling, but all had enjoyed the book, even if, in the words of his biographer, Lee was “mythologising’ his youth.

His use of language was another area of discussion. It was argued that his great strength lay in his ability to describe in very visual and striking terms (“the road ran like a meridian, like a knife-cut through a russet apple…”). This flowed largely from his stunning use of imagery – of similes and metaphors – which were always fresh and arresting. It was no surprise to find that poetry was his first love.

He did on occasion go for a description that also used the sound of language, its rhythm and cadence, – e.g “submerged in the wheat, sickles flickered like fish” to convey meaning. But most of the time his sentences concentrated brilliantly on poetic imagery rather than poetic rhythm. This differentiates him from many other writers of “poetic prose”. And the rhythmic inertia of his little poem that he quotes may illustrate why his poetry was less successful than his poetic prose.

And his approach was by no means a bad thing in this book. It gave the language a muscular feel that suited the descriptions of the exhausting walk, the wild interior and the grinding poverty.

Another factor, illustrated in some of the examples above, was that he was inclined to write sentences in an unexpected order of words, which similarly increased the arresting effect of what he was saying, while slowing down the flow of the words and the drive of the narrative.

What then of his politics? Although he was very compassionate towards the Spanish rural poor, to the extent of returning with the aim of fighting in the Civil War, he did not reveal any party political leanings. “Unlike so many of my age, for whom Spain represented one of the last theatres of political romanticism, I hadn’t consciously chosen it as a Cause but had stumbled on it by accident, simply by happening to be there.

Some felt, however, that he might have exaggerated the poverty he encountered, while others said they had seen similar things. At any rate, we strongly suspected his focus was on describing and empathising with the poor. Any one better off is dismissed with scorn. This reminded us of J. B. Priestley’s lop-sided description of poverty in his “English Journey”.

And one of our travellers noted that when travelling, whatever your background, you tended to be approached by people of all social classes who were equally friendly. It was hard to imagine this had not also happened to Lee. And even at the outset of the book he was at pains to establish his working class credentials with his work on a building site. But such attitudes are hardly unusual at the age of 20, as was the way in which he fell in love with all things Spanish while rubbishing all things British.

An interesting question was the relationship between the young person portrayed and the older person writing the book. The older persona does not appear much, other than in “I remember” mode, but occasionally there is a characteristically terse aside fro the older Lee- e.g. “I’d developed an ingrowing taste for the vanity of solitude.” Such remarks disarmingly acknowledge the naivety of the young man.

Being written in the mode of a journey, one might see the shape of the book as the naïve and immature young man at the beginning has through his experiences come of age in both his outlook to life and his sexuality. Nevertheless, some felt he still had a lot of maturing to do, and one who had read the third volume did not see much sign of that happening in that book either.

Perhaps the truth was that he remained throughout his life an Epicurean, for whom wine, women and song were his joys, and who was fairly lazy when it came to writing, having only produced the three books of real substance.

The proposer drew our attention to an interview on an arts programme when Lee volunteered that Paradise would involve unlimited capacity for food, drink etc, with friends always accessible when required. He thought his writing was voluptuous and secret as he never allowed others into his office. He claimed he had a tape of typing and switched the recorder on when reading Playboy or admiring the view from the window! He came over as charming.  

We debated, but did not resolve, why this book had been less successful than “Cider with Rosie”, as this book seemed better. Not as fashionable a subject as a nostalgic idyll in the English countryside? Too big a gap between the books? Spain of less interest than France or Italy? Too many other books in the same vein? Too long and vague a title?

We also noted that the books were fairly short, around 200 pages. Some of us would have wanted them longer, giving more detail of the travel in the way of Eric Newby. Perhaps this reflected his laziness, and the minimum target given him by the publisher. More charitably, his writing was very succinct. If you viewed much of the book as a kind of prose poem, 200 pages was long enough.

What about the title? The first line of a folk song. Was there perhaps also an echo of  Piers Plowman’s famous medieval walk:

“In a somer seson, when softe was the sonne…

[I] wente wide in this world wondres to here”

We concluded it was a fascinating book and a very enjoyable discussion.

But we were in a Scottish winter season. Behatted and begloved, we left to find frost thick on the ground……

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Lee, Arthur Gould: No Parachute: a Fighter Pilot in World War 1

The proposer of this book likes military history, but has only recently been reading about the war in the air. A friend had recommended this book as being the very best account of aerial combat during World War I. It is based on real diary extracts and letters of the 22-year old pilot (now the author), written to his young wife in the periods between skirmishes over the trenches in search of the Hun.

We noted that many years elapsed between the events described and the publication of the book in 1968, and we guess there has been much editing and lapses of memory, with perhaps a stiffening of the author’s opinion. Perhaps even some exaggeration? On the other hand a letter to a loved one at home might accentuate the positive and gloss over some of the horrors (which would likely be removed by the censors). But horrors are there aplenty, and excitement too: at times the book resembles tales of that Boys Own favourite, Biggles but the action in No Parachute is real not imagined, and relates to action in the skies over the famous arenas of war: the Ypres Front, the Battle of Messines, the Third Battle of Ypres, the Arras Front and the very important Battle of Cambrai.

It seems that Britain started making fighter aircraft too late. At the start of the war, aircraft were designed for reconnaissance, and especially for artillery observation.  Later, came the first real ‘fighters’: faster and more manoeuvrable, still doing reconnaissance work but also targeting enemy aircraft, strafing ground positions and going after tanks. This was the first time in history where aircraft fought each other, and so commanders and crew had scant idea of how to go about their task. Most pilots learned their skills ‘on the job’, with only basic prior training with no notion of the horrors of combat. British pilots received only 15-20 hours of flying experience before being posted to a squadron and being thrown into battle.

The diary begins on 18th May 1917 following a period when British planes were distinctly inferior to those being made in Germany and France. Casualties in the preceding April, known as ‘Bloody April’ had been especially high, and morale in the squadrons was low. The best British fighter plane at the start of the diary was the Sopworth Pup, which came into service in Autumn 1916 but had been outclassed by the latest German aircraft. The Pup was no match for the Fokker Triplane in the skilled hands of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen and his ‘circus’ of highly experienced pilots. For example, the Fokker’s guns could fire rapidly through the arc of the propeller, but the Pup’s could not. Our pilots were aware that they were vulnerable, and wondered how long it would be before a better aircraft with decent weaponry would emerge, whilst young pilots with their all-too-brief training were being killed every day (at least, when weather permitted flying; often it didn’t). Overall, casualties on the British side were four times more than on the German side. The psychological challenge for pilots was immense: they were pitted against a superior force and they often questioned the ‘why?’ of war, having little notion of the strategic aspect of the ground fighting going on in the trenches below. But, by November squadron 46 (Lee’s squadron) received the first of the Pup’s successor, the Sopwith Camel. In good hands this was a much better fighting aircraft, being fast, manoeverable and with synchronised guns. It wasn’t perfect: the mass of the rotary engine was large in relation to the aircraft’s body, and so there was a tendency of the aircraft to twist and crash on take-off. Thus many novice pilots died before even becoming airborne.  One source claims that 413 pilots died in combat and a further 385 pilots died from non-combat related causes.

Pilots were hit and frequently crashed, sometimes scrambling out of the broken plane to the safety of allied forces and sometimes being taken as a prisoner of war. On other occasions they became ‘flamers’, and died in scorching agony or jumped from the plane to certain death. There was ‘no parachute’ and the author frequently asks ‘why?’. One belief was that the authorities in London thought pilots might bale out unnecessarily, thus wasting an aircraft.

Our author-pilot seems to have been a miraculous survivor, a statistical outlier. He has many near scrapes, his uniform is frequently holed (once the fuel tank is ruptured), his aircraft is often holed too, his joystick is hit, he survives many mechanical failures of the aircraft, and his gun frequently seizes up. He attributes his skill as a pilot to a longer training period than most – injury having delayed his transfer from training ground to active service. However, he takes rather a long time to claim his first kill, and altogether his tally is rather modest, only seven. Nevertheless he received the Military Cross and rose to the rank of Captain. After the War he served in the newly formed Royal Air Force, eventually becoming an Air Vice Marshall.

The pilots – the ‘chaps’ or ‘fellows’ as they are generally called – have spare time when the weather is bad. They gather in the Mess, they sing bawdy songs – probably more bawdy than the ones published in the book – they binge-drink heavily and have headaches in the morning. They are mournful when their comrades are killed (the average survival of these pilots was only three weeks). Flying low, they see the wretched state of soldiers in the trenches and they feel thankful not to be one of them.

Indeed, flying these single-seater ‘kites’ could be fun, and the pilots experienced the great thrills of looping, the elation of fine-weather flying with blue sky above and ‘white lambswool clouds’ below, and the satisfaction of a perfect landing. It was cold up there, the cockpit was open to the weather, limbs and hands became numb. However, the Officers’ Mess was warm and cosy, a place of comradeship where friendships were formed, stories traded and backs slapped after a successful sortie.

We found the adventures riveting. We became engrossed and wondered how we ourselves would have fared in the cockpit of a Pup or Camel. One member had brought with him one of his own Biggles books, circa 1956, and we reflected on the differences between the Biggles author WE Johns and our No Parachute author AG Lee. It’s all there in Wikipedia. We learn that Johns, in contrast to Lee, was a very unlucky pilot, breaking several aircraft, and subsequently (or perhaps consequently) becoming an instructor. After brief active service he was shot down and became a prisoner of war. After the war he was a recruiting officer, but he famously rejected an application from TE Lawrence (of Arabia). All that’s a digression, but we in the book group are used to digressions.

Another member came to the meeting with a plastic model of the Sopwith Camel, a surprisingly neat little biplane. It is easy to see how it gave the Fokkers a hard time. Over 5000 real Camels were made at the Sopwith Aviation factory in the war.  Powered by a French 130 horsepower engine (about the same power as a family car today) they could reach 117 mph, more than the Pup’s 111 mph, whereas the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane could do only a paltry 103 mph. Except for some alloy skim near the engine, Camels were made of fabric stretched over a wooden frame, hence the nickname of all such aircraft: ‘kite’.

We reflected on the difficulties of communication. The aircraft were not fitted with radio and so communication was achieved by hand signals, streamers and wing-wobbling. Ground radio did exist, and when a pilot crashed in allied territory a rescue party with technicians would arrive surprising quickly as messages could be sent. Feedback from the squadrons to the command in London may have been poor. One member pointed out that the Red Baron was better looked after, being brought home to a hero’s welcome of girls and bubbly, and encouraged to give feedback to aircraft manufacturers.

The language of the diary was ‘as expected’, but rather short of the pilots’ slang that has by now enriched the English vocabulary, sometimes to the dismay of foreigners who can’t understand what we are talking about. I tried to compose a sentence of slang to illustrate this (a good way to overcome my insomnia). What about ‘They tore a strip off him after he ditched his kite; he had caught a packet after a cock-up in a dog-fight that ended tits up’. Not poetic I admit, and I can’t find this particular sentence in the book. Probably most slang came later, from the RAF in WW2. Overall, the language sounds predominantly upper-middle class, and probably the pilots were recruited from the English public schools. I can’t verify this. Lloyd George seemed to imply they were. He said of the pilots ‘They are the knighthood of this war…they recall the legendry days of chivalry not merely by the daring of their exploits but by the nobility of their spirit’. To this eloquence, Arthur Lee replies with a Churchillian turn of phrase ‘only occasionally were these …(pilots)… scions of the knightly families of Europe. They came from every social level, from the cities and countryside, from the streets and farms and forests of lands all over the world’.

By December the tone of the writing changes. Lee was by now tired, ill, to some extent disillusioned, and perhaps shell-shocked. He’s done 118 patrols with 56 combats. The Medical Officer said Lee needs a good spell of leave, and he is relieved of duties and sent home.

In an Appendix written years later he pours scorn on the decisions made by government authorities at the War Office in London, who had no experience of fighting aircraft, and were slow to pick up technical innovations. He identifies multiple failures of high command and rivalry between War Office and Admiralty for the materials, engines and labour to supply the two separate air forces, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS).

We enjoyed the book immensely: the thrilling encounters, the insights, and the comment on why so many pilots were killed unnecessarily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lodge, David: Small World

Our book group’s discussion of David Lodge’s satirical campus novel Small World (1984) produced a scenario worthy of inclusion in the novel itself.  It became apparent quite early in the proceedings that the book’s proposer was labouring under the misapprehension that he had asked us to read another novel by David Lodge, Nice Work.  He forlornly brandished the covers of the two books for our inspection, citing an uncanny similarity of appearance.

We had barely recovered our poise after this revelation, and agreed that we would, in fact, discuss Small World, when a late arrival joined the group by taxi from a long luncheon.  In his case, the comic novel he was irrepressibly set on expounding seemed to be Whisky Galore.

Making sense of the ensuing discussion was at times challenging, and to produce a cohesive account of the evening is a task beyond the abilities of this writer.  I will therefore simply outline our more relevant exchanges in the order in which they arose.

David  Lodge’s biographical background was sketched in by the proposer.  Notably relevant were his tenure of a Professorship in English Literature at the University of Birmingham, his additional experience of teaching in American universities, and his literary friendship with Malcolm Bradbury.

There was agreement that the novel, although satirical, was not in all respects an exaggeration of the truth.  There were enough academics and conference-goers in our group with experience of the period in question (the 1970s), to verify Lodge’s portrayal of such events as potpourris of booze, ennui, sex, and tourism.  This was qualified by the lament of scientists present that such was not their way, and that clearly scholars in the humanities were more promiscuous and hedonistic – or at least had more opportunities to be so.

It was observed that universities and academia ran on much more cash-strapped lines nowadays, with attendant pressures on their staff, and that David Lodge was depicting more easy-going times.

Structure and narrative elements were discussed: one reader pointed out that part one seemed very different from the rest of the novel; another commented on the enjoyable interweaving of different characters and threads; a third on the undisguised use of coincidences (for example Cheryl reading the very book that Persse is seeking).  It was observed that underlying literary references, such as the quest for the Holy Grail, were lightly handled, and exuberant satire was the dominant mode.  Racial stereotyping was commented upon as an easy source of humour.  Overall, one reader felt that Lodge was perhaps trying a bit too hard, and preferred others among his novels, while another thought that this was his best work.  There was some brief discussion of the merits of Nice Work, Changing Places, Deaf Sentence, and his academic book The Art of Fiction.

We discussed the place of Small World within a well-defined genre, the campus novel (although of course the ‘campus’ of this novel is global).  Tom Sharpe, Malcolm Bradbury, Kingsley Amis and Bernard Malamud were invoked.  One reader complained of a certain predictability, but another drew attention to significant differences of approach within the genre.

In so far as Lodge’s characters are used to exemplify different methodological and philosophical approaches to the study of literature, we felt that the satire was quite subdued, and that Leavisite, structuralist, feminist, Freudian, etc approaches were presented with only slight exaggerations.  The function of literary criticism is, however lightly handled, a pervading and serious theme of the book.  We were mostly happy with Philip Swallow’s remarks at the conference as a reasonable everyman’s definition of the function of literary criticism, and one that illuminated our own activity as a group of people meeting to discuss literature.

Llosa, Mario Vargas: The Bad Girl

The proposer first came across Llosa’s writing when visiting Miraflores, an upmarket neighbourhood of Lima, the capital of Llosa’s native country, Peru, and the setting for the opening section of ‘The Bad Girl’.  The assistant in a bookshop recommended Llosa as an introduction to Peruvian literature.  The proposer had subsequently read a number of his books, but found this to be ‘by far’ the most accessible.  It was also more overtly international in its content and sphere of action than some of the others, which contained, for his tastes, rather more than he wanted about Peruvian history and politics.

‘The Bad Girl’ has been compared with last month’s book ‘Madame Bovary’, by Llosa himself as well as others.  However, the group felt that the comparison was rather stretched.  Like Madame Bovary, the bad girl is seeking escape from her circumstances in pursuit of a flawed ideal.  But Madame Bovary’s ideal is romantic, whereas the bad girl’s is financial: the ‘high life’ at any emotional cost.  A similarity does exist however in that each of them pays a heavy price for their ‘escape’.  We felt that Llosa was less judgemental about his characters however, and both the narrator Ricardo and the subject of his obsession, the bad girl, are treated sympathetically.  The even-handedness of Llosa’s account of the bad girl was evidenced by the range of opinions about her in our group.  Some saw her primarily as a victim, others as a selfish predator.  She had elements of the classic ‘femme fatale’ of noir fiction and film, using her looks and charm ruthlessly to get what she wanted, and not hesitating to break up families and embark on bigamy.  As for Ricardo, we noted that he too had a fascination with the exotic – represented in his case both by the bad girl herself and by the attraction of life in Paris.  Like her, he is following his dream, although he is considerably more timid, and only at the very end of the story is it implied that he will produce the work of literature (the book itself) which will transcend his role as a humble translator of the words of others.

We agreed that the book was a superbly ‘easy read’, being very linear in structure and engaging in its content. Because of the range of characters and locations, each chapter felt like a new short story, although continuing the main thread of the narrative.  There was one reader who felt that sometimes we got too much circumstantial detail about Ricardo’s daily life, and another who thought background research had been a little too overtly displayed.  However, these were minor objections. We discussed whether it would make a good film, which raised the question of how the highly explicit sex scenes would be handled.  It was agreed that these were not pornographic, since the writing did not seem calculated to titillate.  It was pointed out that in today’s cinema, explicit sex scenes had become widely accepted.  There was also some discussion of the portrayal of the bad girl as a woman with a deep need to be dominated, as demonstrated by her acquiescence in the degrading treatment meted out by Fukuda.  Equally disturbing was her comment when Ricardo, for the only time in his life, hits her: “You’re learning how to treat women, Ricardito.”  A comparison was drawn (not in terms of literary merit!) with the current best-seller of the moment, ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, which takes as its premise a female’s need for submission and rough treatment.  As mere men, we felt disqualified from drawing any conclusions from this, and moved on.

Returning to the qualities of the book in general, discussion ranged over characterisation and structure.  One reader thought that it was a very engaging love story, which was two-way and not a one-sided obsession.  Someone else pointed out that the bad girl was frequently trying to escape Ricardo, and that he was, until the end, the one who sought her out and ‘gatecrashed her party’.

The explication of the initial mystery of the bad girl’s origins was felt to be very satisfyingly delivered in the later part of the book.  Her father was in fact only one of a number of vivid minor characters who came on stage for sections of the book before disappearing forever.  One of the most enigmatic of these was Yilal, the boy who wouldn’t speak.  There was a feeling that his role in the story was rather tangential, but he at least demonstrated that the bad girl was capable of one altruistic relationship.  In some measure it was felt that the coming and going of minor characters left readers with quite a few loose ends, although this could well have been intentional.

Although the book seemed squarely aimed at an international readership, one of us pointed out that there was a continuous strain of political reference in the story, most notably with the account of what happened to Ricardo’s friend Paúl, and with the observations of Ricardo’s uncle on the decline of Peruvian idealism and democracy.  It was noted that Llosa himself was very active in politics, and in fact ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990.

Finally, in the light of Llosa’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, there was some discussion of the qualities necessary to attain this distinction.  Among the requirements were universality, prolific output, longevity, and, no doubt, consistency with various political considerations at the time of the committee’s deliberations.

From the Nobel Prize we meandered to J.K. Rowling’s forthcoming first adult novel, Scottish independence, Catalan independence, whether ‘the further south you go in Europe the worse it gets’ (economically!) and, finally, whether Richard the Second had been unfairly treated by historians.  By now we had really lost our thread, the bottles of wine and beer were depleted, and so we slunk away into the night.

di Lampedusa, Tomasi: The Leopard

So the story on the street was that the Monthly Book Group was reading ‘The Leopard’. As a fan of Scandic noir your roving correspondent zipped through 700 pages of Jo Nesbo and hastened to leafy Fairmilehead…..

 …only to find that “The Leopard” under discussion was Sicilian noir.

 Oh dear… a quick gulp of Nero d’Avola to refocus

….and here was the host explaining that he liked foreign novels as they gave a very different slant on life. And he had read “The Leopard” by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in conjunction with a visit to Sicily. It was fascinating to read of the toils and tribulations of the author in trying to get it published (it was finally published posthumously 1958) yet it had become the biggest selling Italian novel of all time.

Amongst the things that attracted him to the novel were the very vivid, strongly delineated, characters. He liked the contrast between their thought processes and their actions – this even applied to the dog! And the novel was full of contrasts, such as order and disorder, respect for the church co-existing with lechery and greed, a Prince contrasted with a dog, and so on.

The translator must have gone to enormous efforts to capture the quality and subtleties of the original. The only small flaw was that the title would more accurately have been translated as “The Serval”, a serval being a North African “tiger-forest-cat” now extinct in Sicily.

All agreed on the quality of the writing. There were some enlivening touches of humour, such as the account of the Prince’s visit to the brothel in the great opening scene. The language was eloquent, evocative and rhythmic. Lampedusa could conjure up with equal intensity both the opening scene – with its imagery of luxury, languor, rank perfumes, and eroticism – and the contrasting scene fifty years later with its imagery of dessication, of sterility, and frustrated virginity. He bought alive the smells and atmosphere of the countryside. There were sharply etched vignettes of violence – the dead soldier with his guts hanging out, or the death of the hunted rabbit – and death was always there in the background imagery.

The only reservation was that the author occasionally used a metaphor drawn from the mid-twentieth century, which jarred given his success in persuading the reader he was living in the 1860’s.

One enthusiast for the novel was a fan of historical novels, which he greedily consumed as a guilty secret. For him “The Leopard” was in the top ten – or indeed maybe five –  historical novels of all time. It was even better –wonderful – on a second reading. Some such novels merely use the historical setting as an interesting context, whether for a lightweight or heavyweight story. However, others, such as Scott, are interested in exploring the process of history itself –  sociological, political or economic developments.

Lampedusa’s great novel was a heavyweight both as a serious exploration of history – of political and sociological developments in Sicily and Italy – and as a serious exploration of the history of a man, his family, and his values. It had many layers of meaning. And even one reader who did not normally like historical novels had much enjoyed it, despite being obliged to read it on an iPhone (….run that one by me again?…………a novel read on an iPhone??! – ah, you see, the iPad failed……).

The structure was unusual, and, for most of us, brilliantly effective. Lampedusa had started with the idea of telling a whole history through the events of twenty-four hours (drawing on the structure of “Ulysses”). This proved too ambitious, and instead he offered eight different episodes. Six were set around the time of the Risorgimento between May 1860 and November 1862, one in July 1888 at the time of the Prince’s death, and one in May 1910 with his three daughters in old age. However, Lampedusa succeeded in revealing the whole history of a man, a family and a society from these few emblematic episodes. He draws on the stream of consciousness techniques pioneered by Joyce and fellow modernists to help reveal the whole person through their sequence of thoughts.

We knew that Lampedusa was drawing much of his story from his own family history. We also knew that he was battling depression, triggered by the destruction of his family palace in an Allied air raid in 1943. He was being nostalgic for the great days of his family – but also realistic. But what was he really trying to tell us?

One of our globetrotters, discussing “The Leopard” while dining in Amsterdam with his Italian researchers (as one does) reported that they were all enthusiasts for the book. They thought the take home message was “everything has to change to remain the same” (a quotation from Tancredi referring in context to the need for the aristocracy to engage with Garibaldi and the revolution).

And another reader also admired how the seemingly infinite capacity of the human spirit to adapt to changing circumstances was beautifully depicted. However, he had found the book a struggle (“…one of these books that I had to force myself to re-open. The time frame, pace and setting of the story were turn offs….”).

A different angle was that the Prince had failed with all his children and his wife. His legacy was a broken household, which never recovered. He lost one son who escaped to England. The other son Paolo was no great use and stayed at home. At least he married and continued the family line. The three daughters did not marry. Should the Prince not have tried to persuade Tancredi to marry his daughter Concetta?  He treated his wife Stella badly. He failed to manage his estates properly. He gave Don Calogero recognition and indeed promoted him in the best circles but what did he get in return? At the conclusion Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica was well connected and the Prince’s three daughters were nothing. The resources they had left were devoted to God and fake relics. Only Benedico the dog really adored the Prince. Thus the story was one of bitterness and decay, although told with exquisite style and insight.

Another who shared that interpretation saw the last episode (May 1910 – “Relics”) as the key to the book. By shifting the viewpoint to the Prince’s daughter, Concetta, instead of the Prince himself, we finally see him in perspective. We learn for the first time that Concetta has spent her life hating her father. The Prince can now clearly be seen as too obsessed with Tancredi, his charismatic nephew, with whom he identifies. Tancredi’s skills of ironic charm, manipulation, dissembling and financial acquisition have led to a predictable outcome as a serial adulterer and politician. As an aside we learn that Tancredi – so skilful in monopolising the attention and money of his “nuncle” –  described him to a friend as “his terrible old uncle”. And the importance of Tancredi to the interpretation of the novel is reinforced by the fact that Tancredi is the only main character not based on a historical person.

Against this background the Prince’s behaviour, while in many respects gracious and noble as befitted a “leopard”, can also be seen as lazy, self-regarding and self-indulgent. He looks for his own image in his children, and fails to find it, rather than respecting them as individuals. The fact that having daughters end up as bitter old maids was common in contemporary Italian (as in Scottish) society did not absolve the Prince of his failure to consider their needs. Even though there are signs that Concetta has some of his own spirit, he fails to recognise it until too late. And his son with spirit has fled to London.

The story told so late in the day to Concetta by Tassoni, which, she thinks, puts Tancredi’s behaviour  in a different light, is reminiscent of the themes about time and memory recently explored by Julian Barnes. Concetta’s conclusion that she should have taken more control of her own life instead of being consumed by hatred is no doubt valid. But her conclusion that, with more encouragement, Tancredi would have married her rather than the rich and beautiful Angelica, is probably yet more self-delusion, yet more manipulative charm exerted by Tancredi from beyond the grave. Meanwhile, despite the Prince’s efforts to get in touch with the eternal world of the stars through his astronomy, there is no escaping the remorseless destruction of time. His last relic – the mouldering rug formed from the skin of his faithful dog – is thrown out of the window.

We felt less confident in interpreting the book’s view of Sicily and its history. Those who knew the island felt that the author captured its texture and mood, and a Sicilian had confirmed that the book was totally in the spirit of Sicily. But are we to accept the Prince’s view that Sicilians, after centuries of rule by an endless series of invaders, are too proud to consider that changes suggested by outsiders will ever be worthwhile, and so it is not worth trying? Is this the author’s view? Or the Prince’s world weariness? And is the Prince’s political accommodation with the new regime to be judged as sensible pragmatism?  Or is it typically half-hearted – or indeed downright unprincipled? It was intriguing that – the moment when the Prince became less aloof and invited local citizens into his home – is pinpointed as the moment he began to lose his authority.

Our historical expert could, however, confirm that the plebiscite on Italian unification was a sham, with a question doctored to get the desired answer (…good heavens – couldn’t happen now!…). Garibaldi was none too bright – simply a catspaw manipulated by Cavour, who wanted to claim popular support for the takeover by the Piedmontese House of Savoy. A recent book by David Gilmour (“The Pursuit of Italy”) argues that the 1861 unification of the country was a mistake. Gilmour says many thinking Italians have begun to wonder why their country has for so long been intractably dysfunctional, crippled by corruption, organized crime and a hateful bureaucracy, and governed by an endless parade of shady leaders. Was it in fact a real nation or was it just a 19th-century invention? He argues that, despite the massive propaganda effort by the House of Savoy, Italian unification began simply as a war of expansion by Piedmont against Sicily.

So – at least for the majority  – this was a multi-faceted work of genius. Those who had read it once, or indeed twice, wanted to read it again, in anticipation of finding more meanings.

“I say” ventured your literary correspondent, keen to enter the debate, “isn’t it interesting that there is a character like Tancredi in Jo Nesbo’s ‘The Leopard?’….”

 …The only response was a decision that it was time to switch on the Italy v. Germany Euro semi-final. Just in time to see Balotelli’s stunning second goal.

 Balotelli, born in Palermo, our sporting adviser informed us. Well, he has the feline power and grace of a leopard….so…suggested your ever-alert correspondent….

   “the Prince reincarnated!”

  “…And perhaps the Azzurri are the only good thing to emerge from unification?!”

 Dazzled by my contribution, I settled back for the last swallae of Nero d’Avola…

 Sicilian noir – geddit??

Last, Nella: Nella Last’s War

IntroducingNella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’”, the proposer said that “Mass-Observation” was a United Kingdom social research organisation founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Their work ended in the mid 1960s, but was revived in 1981. The Archive was now housed at the University of Sussex.

Mass-Observation began after King Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. Dissatisfied with the pronouncements of the newspapers about the public mood, the founders initiated a nationwide effort to document the feelings of the people. In August 1939 Mass-Observation invited members of the public to record and send them a day-to-day account of their lives in the form of a diary. They gave no special instructions to these diarists, so the diaries vary greatly in their style, content and length. 480 people responded to this invitation, one of whom was Nella Last (1889 –1968).

Nella Last was a housewife who lived in Barrow-in-Furness. An edited version of the two million words or so she wrote during World War II was originally published in 1981 as “Nella Last’s War: A Mother’s Diary, 1939-45” and republished as “Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49′” in 2006. A second volume of her diaries, “Nella Last’s Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49”, was published in October 2008  and a third volume “Nella Last in the 1950s” appeared in October 2010.  Some critics see in her diaries a proto-feminism that anticipates the post-war women’s movement in her account of her own marriage and her liberation from housewifery through her war work.

The daughter of local railway clerk John Lord, Nella was married, on 17 May 1911, to William Last, a shopfitter, and had two sons, Arthur and Cliff. During the war she worked for the Women’s Voluntary Service (W.V.S) and the Red Cross. The wartime diaries were dramatised by Victoria Wood for ITV in 2006 as Housewife, 49, which is how she headed her first entry at the age of 49. Her son Clifford Last (1918–1991) emigrated to Australia following the war and went on to become a noted sculptor, with works displayed at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

So how did the Group feel about Nella Last’s diaries? Most – though not all – had very much enjoyed the book. There were many dimensions to it, and different dimensions appealed particularly to different people.

One was that of her relationship with her husband. It was a remarkable record of a woman living in close proximity with a husband for whom she felt, if you believed her, nothing other than resentment. The ebb and flow of their daily exchanges was carefully charted, and her relief at being able to sleep in a separate room. It was funny, sad and very honest. According to her internal narrative of her life, his lack of support – plus the disapproval of his family – had caused her to have a breakdown. She even drew a comparison between her “subjection” and political subjection. He had been an aggressor, perhaps not unlike Hitler, and she had colluded in her subjection. Her extensive voluntary work during the War, plus perhaps the process of reflection encouraged by the diary writing, had allowed her to break away from her “slavery”, and this had led to her being held up as an example of a proto-feminist.

“But why this ‘Lords of Creation’ attitude on men’s part?….A growing contempt for men in general creeps over me….I’m beginning to see I’m a really clever woman in my own line…”

Similarly there was the close-up view of her relationship with her two sons. Particularly early on in the book, it was clear that the relationship with her sons was providing her with the affection denied in her marriage. That with Cliff, the son who went to war, was particularly intense (“Cliff’s signet ring was pushed on to my third finger”), and it soon becomes apparent to the modern reader that Cliff must be homosexual. Although the family is introduced to his “very close friend”, who is later killed in the war, Cliff is unable to come out.  Nor do his parents suspect. This appears to be a considerable tragedy of misunderstanding, one that must have been repeated many times in the era. Cliff goes off abroad at the end of the War to become a sculptor in Australia, and only returns for a period when his parents are near death.

Cliff’s “Afterword” – written in 1989, eight years after the publication of “Nella Last’s War” and two years before his death – is fairly wry and detached. It must have been particularly difficult for him to read the diaries (his brother had predeceased his mother and was dead before the diaries were published). For example, there are passages such as this from 10 May 1945:

 “I’ve begun to take a ‘so far and no further’ attitude with that crab of a Cliff. He must not let illness be an excuse to be rude, discourteous and downright disagreeable. I’ve told him so very plainly – and a few other things. I had one of my ‘soap-box’ fits on V.E. Day. Perhaps I was a little bit unstrung, but I could see little reason for Cliff’s attitude. I tore the rosy rags he had draped around a few of his illusions…..He was not at all pleased, but the little storm passed in laughter. He said I was a ‘queer little bugger’, and I said, ‘I resent that. A childish vision of a bugger was of a thing with one leg that went bump in the night…”

We were struck and surprised by the fact that Nella did not “self-censor” her diaries in the way that most people of her generation would have done. Perhaps she was unaware that they would ever be published? Or did it fit with her personality not to care what people would think if she by that time would be dead?

The War itself, as experienced on the Home Front, intrigued most of us. True, there was little new in the way of factual information about what happened, but for most of us it was new to get a sense of how it felt to live through that period. One surprise was how little celebration and what a sense of anti-climax there was on VE and VJ Days (“I opened a tin of pears”).

It was also striking how often Nella referred back to her experience of the First World War:

“How swiftly time has flown since the first Armistice. I stood talking to my next-door neighbour, in a garden in the Hampshire cottage where I lived for two years during the last war. I felt so dreadfully weary and ill, for it was only a month before Cliff was born. I admired a lovely bush of yellow roses, which my old neighbour covered each night with an old lace curtain, to try and keep them nice so that I could have them when I was ill. Suddenly, across Southampton water, every ship’s siren hooted and bells sounded, and we knew the rumours that had been going round were true – the war was over. I stood before that lovely bush of yellow roses, and a feeling of dread I could not explain shook me. I felt the tears roll down my cheeks, no wild joy, little thankfulness…”

This was a salutary reminder that someone of her generation – aged 49 going into the Second World War – had already had to live through another World War. She would have been 24 at the beginning of the First War.

The sheer normality of much of the life that was going on – the strikes and the unemployment – was surprising. Once the Blitz with its bombing of Barrow had stopped, and the threat of an invasion had thus faded, there did not seem to be much fear amongst people that the Allies would lose the War.

However, the sense of scrimping, saving and making do to continue to eat and to live was forcibly depicted throughout the book. Nella’s pride in putting together dishes from very limited ingredients was also of interest to those of us who cooked (but less so to those who retained slaves to perform this function).

We were struck by Nella’s efforts to empathise with those afflicted by bombing and starvation in other countries, and she showed remarkable imagination in doing so. Even her applauding early on of Hitler’s gassing of lunatics – which shocks a modern reader who has the benefit of hindsight, and which would have been edited out of any other diary – seems to be little more than support for euthanasia.

It was intriguing to watch how easily she could move from the mundane to the philosophical and back again. Her thoughts on the discovery of Belsen show both her capacity for empathy and for a sophistication of thought surprising in a largely self-taught woman from Barrow:

Did their minds go first, I wonder, their reasoning, leaving nothing but the shell to perish slowly, like a house untenanted? Did their pitiful cries and prayers rise into the night to a God who seemed as deaf and pitiless as their cruel jailers? I’ve a deep aversion to interference, having suffered from it all my life till recent years. I’ve always said, ‘Let every country govern itself, according to its own ways of thought and living. Let them develop their own way and not have standards forced upon them’…Now I see it would not do. This horror is not just one of war. No power can be left so alone that, behind, a veil of secrecy, anything can happen.”

 There was unanimity in applauding Nella’s prose style, for example:

The garden is wakening rapidly, and I can see signs of blossom buds on my three little apple-trees… A blackbird seems to be building nearby – she has been busy with straw all day today – and now the old tree at the bottom of the next-door garden shows buds against the blue sky. My husband had a night off work and said he really must get another row of peas and potatoes in…The moon swam slim serene among the one-way pointing, silvered barrage balloons – I thought it dreadful when I once saw a Zeppelin against the moon. As I stood gazing up at the sky, I wondered if she had ever looked on so strange a sky occupant before…I do so dread these next few nights till the full moon. Tonight, with a slim crescent, it was clear and bright. Some poor city will suffer.

She could pen surprisingly fine lyrical passages of natural description, particularly when visiting the Lake District, which is her escape from urban Barrow and the War. It was difficult to imagine she had any time to polish any such prose, but that left it with a fresh, natural quality. She also had a fine ear for speech, and peppered the diaries with lively phrases that she had heard that day.

 Another dimension of interest in the book Nella’s development: how Nella grows in self-confidence and initiative as the War proceeds and she throws herself into supporting the war effort. She starts with the WVS Centre, takes on more with the canteen, and finally sets up a shop to help the Prisoners of War Fund. She clearly had entrepreneurial skills, which in different circumstances might have been very important to the shape of her life.

The book was also not without humour – for example in her account of the baby that arrived in a brown paper bag, or in her response to the request to write about the sexual mores of the time (“do you want me before I get dressed?”)

So…Nella Last, creative, witty, altruistic, energetic, beautiful writer, enchained by a man…a downtrodden Saint?

Well, not for all. A minority voice did not entirely take to Nella as a person (while still very keen on the book). Always a victim, always right. Insecurely recording every compliment. A rather spiky person, disparaging her colleagues – and look at the Ena Sharples body language in some of the photos. No wonder her husband kept taking her off to the Lake District to calm her down.

Well, steady on, she does show some self–awareness – e.g. “I had one of my soap-box fits” and her imaginative empathy of the plight of other people in the War is quite exceptional….

Good at empathising with people in other countries, indeed, but no empathy whatsoever with her husband, and no understanding of her favourite son when he comes back shot in the groin…

And would a man’s diary ever be published if he were so consistently dismissive of his wife? Or if he accused her of not understanding the offside rule….?

(Well, I never! So unreconstructed some people are! Let’s leave them debating, crack open the St Emilion, and continue reading some more Nella… She’s my favourite)….

This morning I lingered over my breakfast, reading and re-reading the accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation. I felt as if deep inside me was a harp that vibrated and sang – like the feeling on a hillside of gorse in the hot bright sun, or seeing suddenly, as you walked through a park, a big bed of clear, thin red poppies in all their brave splendour. I forgot I was a middle-aged woman who often got up tired and who had backache. The story made me feel part of something that was undying and never old…”

Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mocking Bird

It was the annual outing to Portie again. Your assiduous correspondent arrived to find the early arrivers in full flow on the topic of why there might be astragals on one side of the house and not the other (answers on a postcard) and sampling a fine Bourgeuil – Les Cent Boisselées 2003 (just send us a crate if you feel so inclined. Or two…).

 Moving on to introducing “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the proposer said that he had been encouraged to read it by his wife and daughters, and had bought the 50th anniversary edition. However, he had subsequently found a copy given to him for his 21st birthday, and thought, but could not be certain, that he had read it in the past! The book linked with last month’s “The Color of Water” in its examination of race relations, and had received a fair degree of recent attention because of the 50th anniversary and because of Rich Hall’s programme “The Dirty South”.

 Harper Lee (1926- ) was born Nelle Harper Lee in Monroeville, Alabama. She was the daughter of a civil lawyer, who had on one occasion defended two negros in a murder trial and lost. Her sister Alice was a lawyer. Harper herself had studied some law at university, but did not like it. She found little in common with her fellow female students. She spent a summer at Oxford, but dropped out of her law studies on return, feeling that she wanted to be a writer. She struggled in New York for some years, working as a reservations clerk.

 However, she had made friends with the composer Michael Martin Brown and his wife, and they made her the remarkable Xmas present in 1956 of a year’s wages to allow her to concentrate on writing, and also helped to find her an agent. This allowed her to finish the manuscript by 1959, and the book was published in July 1960. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and was adapted into the Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck in 1962. Lee described the film as “one of the best translations of a book to film ever made”. Peck’s grandson was named after her, and she remains close to Peck’s family.

 When a child her next door neighbours were the aunt and uncle of Truman Capote, and he spent a lot of time there. Capote became her best friend, and the character of Dill in her book was modelled on him. One of them was gifted a Remington typewriter, and they wrote stories together. There were not many other examples in literary history of two such major writers being childhood friends.

 She renewed her friendship with Capote when she went to work in New York. In Capote’s first novel “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948) there is a tomboy girl character, based on Harper Lee. Capote also said that in the first draft of his novel he had a character who, like Boo Radley, was a neighbour who left things in trees. This character, according to Capote, was based on a real life figure from their childhood.

 After completing her novel, Lee helped Capote with writing “In Cold Blood”. She was one of two people that the book was dedicated to, but she was hurt that no recognition was given to the part she had played in contributing to the book. Despite that, their friendship continued to the end of Capote’s life. But while he revelled in the limelight, she shunned it.

 Despite carrying out some work on a second novel and on a non-fiction book, Lee had not published another book, and continued to live a quiet private life in New York and Monroeville.

 The group were unanimous in their praise of their book. One survey had judged this was the best novel of the last century. While not perhaps going that far, we agreed this was a true classic – beautifully written, and also enjoyable despite its disconcerting subject matter. Her wry humour and good use of dialect also illuminated the novel with a warm tone. And what a brilliant title she had chosen.

 The main theme was of course race, but it was by no means the only theme. Another was that of a child coming to terms with the realities of the adult world. Also explored was the issue of how Atticus brought up his children as a single parent. And more broadly Lee was portraying the breadth of society in a small rural town in the South.

 The device of telling the story through the eyes of a six year old (even if one who seems knowing beyond her years) was brilliantly successful. It allowed a portrait to emerge of Atticus as a hero – a man of great integrity – with little sentimentality, as it also depicted his foibles from a child’s perspective. An interesting comment on Atticus from Rich Hall was that in reality he probably would have been lynched in the South of the fifties.

 The device of using the child narrator also effectively conveyed the view that racism was learnt from culture and not innate, and that children start with a sense of fair play. One of us remembered being brought up in a village where half the children were gypsies, and thinking nothing of playing with them all the time.

 Another attractive feature of the novel was that Lee showed a capacity to understand why people in her small town behaved as they did. She was unreserved in condemning racism, but she showed the capacity for empathy of the great novelist in appreciating how it evolved.

 However, there was no ambiguity about her moral judgements:

 “As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t forget it – whenever a white man does that to a Blackman, no matter who he is, or how a fine family he comes from, that white man is trash.”

 Part of the force of that statement by Atticus comes from taking the phrase “white trash” and turning it from its normal derogatory connotations of poverty and class into a term of moral judgement.

 (Well indeed, I ventured, didn’t the Country and Western song also play on the meaning of “trash” in the line “I like my women just a little on the trashy side”? Alas this scintillating piece of linguistic criticism was left withering on the vine…).

 Although, continued another, there was a degree of inconsistency in Atticus insisting that Jem should have to face a trial but not Boo Radley.

 What about the structure of the novel? The line of plot certainly misled some, as they had feared a rather sentimental court victory for Atticus in defence of his black client, Tom Robinson, and the realism of the court outcome was appropriate. An early comment from a publisher had been that the draft book was more a collection of short stories than a novel, and one member felt that there was still an element of truth in this, in particular in not integrating the Boo Radley sub-plot with the themes of the rest of the novel. On the other hand, suggested one, the Boo Radley story also showed how it is possible to make quite unrealistic assumptions about other people.

We were greatly intrigued by the fact that Harper Lee had only published one book, and had dropped unpublished her subsequent efforts. Why should that be? Was she one of those writers who only really had one book in her, such as Margaret Mitchell? Or did she recognise that she was one of those writers whose first book was always going to be the best (in which class we identified various writers ranging from Salinger to Colin Currie)?

 Or was she simply too much of a perfectionist? After all in 1958 she had thrown five years of work on “To Kill a Mockingbird” into the snow until a call from her editor persuaded her to rescue the manuscript. And perhaps if she had published other less good novels set in New York she would have lost the identification with the South that was central to her persona as a writer. Indeed, speculated one (who claimed to have been a model for a character in a play), once someone was identified as a writer they might find people were unwilling to open up in front of them, which would limit their raw material.

 In any event, we hoped that she had not destroyed all her other manuscripts or left instructions for them to be destroyed on her death. But we feared she would have.

 Lee had wanted to be the “Jane Austen of the South”, and she had succeeded very well in this ambition. There were also strong echoes of Mark Twain in the novel. But despite these nineteenth century echoes, the approach to racial issues was surprisingly modern for a book published in 1960. It had to be remembered that the book was written before JFK had come to power, and before Martin Luther King had made his “I have a dream” speech. The book’s depiction of racism and of sex could when necessary be brutally realistic in its language.

 The book was also prescient. Thus Atticus said: 

 “There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance. Don’t fool yourselves – it’s all adding up, and one of these days we’re going to pay the bill for it. I hope it’s not in your children’s time.”

 Was this, I ventured, a simple black and white tale?

 When those who had fallen off their chairs recovered from this minor faux pas, the view was that, at its heart, the book was indeed a kind of fable, which might help to account for its appeal to younger readers. However, there were elements of complexity too, such as in the character of Miss Maudie.

 Would the book have had any success in changing attitudes to racism? Probably not, we feared, with adult readers whose attitudes had already been formed, but it must be a powerful force for good with young readers, and was therefore a popular pedagogic tool.

 And were we being complacent in assuming we were all non-racists now? Some claimed everybody had a degree of racism within them. Or was that simply the thought police, and there was no satisfying them?

Well at least, we congratulated ourselves, we weren’t in the racist category of the Airdrie fan who turned up at matches in Nazi uniform, thereby attracting the first ASBO issued to a football fan in the UK.

 But steady on, riposted one, whose sympathies perhaps lay with the Diamonds, it’s not as if the whole club is like that! It’s not as if Airdrie United F.C. are putting pictures of the Wehrmacht on the front of their Matchday Programme!

 Oh, indeed not…