Monday, August 27, 2007

A reflection on Saville by David Storey

Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976. In such a vast novel it is inevitable that the pace will occasionally quicken and slacken, but a book like this can be read over weeks, almost dipped into as the passing phases of Colin’s life unfold. David Story was born in Wakefield, and so was I. It could be argued that his most famous and perhaps still most successful work is “This Sporting Life”, a portrait of a Rugby League player who achieves local fame and then notoriety as his life and career blossom and then fall apart. It was filmed in the early 1960s, with Richard Harris playing the starring role. Along with about 28000 others, I was in Wakefield Trinity’s Belle Vue ground soon after midday to make sure that I got a standing place by the railings next to the pitch to see Trinity play Wigan in a cup-tie. I was only ten and needed to be early because, had I been further back amongst the crowd, I would have seen nothing. Wakefield beat Wigan 5-4, with Fred Smith scoring the only try of the game at my end. They went on to win at Wembley that year, beating Huddersfield in the game where Neil Fox used a drop goal strategy not seen before or since.

But before that cup-tie against Wigan, the packed Trinity ground became a film set. We were all unpaid extras as Richard Harris and members of the Trinity second team filmed some actions Sequences for “This Sporting Life”. I show no disrespect for Richard Harris by recalling that the sequence required a whole string of takes, necessitated by the fact that the star kept dropping the ball! I have seen the film several times, but I have not yet managed to spot my short-trousered legs behind the sticks at the Belle Vue end. They are there, somewhere.

I digress at length from my intended review because Colin, the central character of Saville, could easily have been me, or perhaps my older brother. Like Colin we were brought up in a small Yorkshire mining village. Also like Colin we went to a grammar school and experienced similar tensions and contradictions as a result of social class differences. And again like Colin we both became, as a result of that education, something previous generations of our permanent-feeling community had never aspired to, perhaps never knew existed. Unlike Colin, we did not aspire to become writers, except of course for me, who eventually tried to become one! It was the education that changed everything and this aspect of Saville is beautifully portrayed, right down to the visit to the old Kingswell’s shop in Wakefield to buy the ludicrously expensive school uniform, a source of pride for the miner’s family, but also a pointer indicating how lives will inevitably diverge.

Saville also deals with how social mores were changing in the new second half of the twentieth century. Colin’s parents simply could not relate to how his life was developing, perhaps finding hardest to stomach the individuality that he developed and was determined to express. It was a quality you could not pursue when, as poor people, your lives were always inter-dependent. The communal nature of their poverty made this a desire they could not comprehend and occasionally his pursuit of his own ends was seen by them – perhaps quite rightly – as errant selfishness. Of course, we now live in an age where the individual is the norm, the indivisible unit of society and, perhaps, where an idea of community is mere nostalgia.

Above all else David Storey’s Saville evokes a time and a place. It also evokes a language, a dialect that preserves the use of thee, thy, thou and thine and, although occasionally laboured, the book’s specialised vocabulary and syntax create the sound of a Yorkshire twang.

Saville has no vast themes, no overtly historical settings against which the characters enact their lives. Rather it concentrates on a social and economic setting which was quite peculiar to these mining communities in Yorkshire. But this is the book’s real strength. What we have is a social document, as powerful and yet as specific as some of its nineteenth century equivalents. Now, after the closure of the pits, though the villages remain, these communities have disappeared to be replaced by settings that perhaps offer less chance of social mobility or self-respect than in Saville’s time. This provides and irony that my own novel set in these same places might bring into focus. But in Saville’s time, the idea that the pits would close never entered anyone’s head, a fact which makes Colin’s transformation through the book remarkable, credible and yet ultimately sad, since we now see it as effectively driven by necessity, not choice.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Recent reading - Swift, le Carre, Dawkins, Baverstock

A few books…..

Marketing Your Book: An Author’s Guide – Alison Baverstock

It stated the obvious, but I suppose most of these books do. Rule 1: Be creative. Rule 2: There is no rule 2. Rule 3: Same as rule 2. The most enlightening bit was the use of the word “lookist” to describe the fact that a lot of publishers decide what is sellable on the basis of the appearance of the author. So that’s where I am going wrong!

Gulliver’s Travels – Jonathan Swift

It’s a good read and probably every bit the masterpiece its reputation claims. The problem with satire, however, is that it doesn’t stand alone. Parody, on the other hand, ought to make sense in itself, but obviously more sense if the object of the parody is understood and familiar. Satire only seems to make sense if you know the original.

The section in Lilliput describing the bloke with different sized heels on his shoes, for instance, is very funny, but only when the footnote has provided the context. He is described as having to negotiate a political line between the faction that likes high heels and the other that likes low ones. He makes awkward progress with both groups, since he can barely walk or stand up straight in a pair of shoes made up so he can have a foot in each camp. The reference is beautiful. It refers to High Church and Low Church in the Anglican tradition, and therefore to Whig and Tory, the opposing political parties of the time. To stay sweet with both, certain royals kept a foot in both camps, making their progress as ridiculous as the rough-shod Lilliputian.

In the books three sections, Gulliver is too big, then too small, then everyone is a horse except for the noxious Yahoos, of course. It was still a lot of fun and, probably, hard witting. The trouble, again, was knowing the targets. If today’s Yahoos are considered… perhaps Swift might have googled his yahoos if he had been writing today.

One last observation is about well-known classics in general. The most famous scene from Gulliver’s Travels, at least the one most depicted, is of Gulliver strapped to the ground by Lilliputian string and twine, while the little blighters run all over him. In Don Quixote, an equally quintessential scene is the tilting at windmills, mistaken by the knight for giants. It is interesting that both of these much quoted scenes appear very early in their respective books. I wonder if that might have something to do with certain people never getting very far through them!

A Devil’s Chaplain – Richard Dawkins

Some excellent essays. A touch too close to being a bit racist here and there, but perhaps that was inaccuracy of language. For the first time I think I actually understand something about evolution. His point about the 98% figure of genetic similarity with chimps was well made. He cited the fact that if you compare two books, there will be a lot of common letters and the figure would suggest similarity. But if you were to compare them sentence by sentence, they would probably share only a tiny fraction of commonality.

What I still don’t understand about theorists on evolution is how they still discuss superiority or desirability for breeding in terms of strength, speed, size etc. After many hundreds of thousands of years during which human cooperation in agriculture, shared civilisation and eventually technological change has transformed the success rate of the species, why are qualities of cooperation, constancy or intellect now not also included in the factors that influence natural selection? Perhaps they are. Maybe I should read late Darwin.

The idea that atheists just go one God further was also a point well made. Many of us would admit to being atheists when it comes to Mithras, Zeus, Thor, etc etc. Of all the Gods, most people who claim not to be atheists probably only admit a belief in one and thus reject thousands of other. It’s a bit like claiming to be a vegetarian on the grounds that you don’t eat duck, but do eat all the rest of the animal world.

The point about cloning and identical twins was made a few too many times, I think, but then it was a collection of essays. It is a point, however, that the non-scientist would find it hard to relate to, since for someone from that starting position the twins are “natural” and the “clone” is not, despite the fact that genetically they represent identical concepts. The position would be really interesting, however, if the twins, or triplets or quads etc arose as a result of in vitro fertilisation and then implantation, and hence were not “natural”.

Absolute Friends – John le CarrĂ©

A story of two co-operatives, Edward Mundy and Sasha. They are cold war people who have also been also urban terror people back of the West German variety. They have complicated lives, but on the face of it no more complicated than most. Eventually they outlive their usefulness as operatives and so are set up as examples. After many years of service to both sides to spite the middle (or perhaps the other way round), they are set up by a CIA-inspired plot to create a political justification for the war on terror, and a political lever to force the position of central European states. The problem with the end of the book is that it was probably written before any of the preceding material was constructed. The problem with the final “setting up” project of the plot is that two hardened intelligence people would have smelled rats, coypus and copious other rodents in any escapade which apparently involved extensive charity of the monetary kind paid straight in to the pocket. In fact Ted takes the trouble to get his Turkish girlfriend and child back to Turkey before the denouement, but in the end it was all too convenient that things turned out that way. Beautifully written and superbly paced, the book was a joy until the polemic emerged.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

A Culture of Benidorm

Sunday morning choir at the harbour

Mention Benidorm and with it, by implication, the concepts of package tourism, hotel buffets, British bars with one euro a pint lager, northern English Working Men’s Club turns imitating something neither themselves nor their audience have ever been, lobster-impersonating spit-burnt sunbathers and fried English breakfasts with the bacon already coated in tomato sauce, and I would bet that very few punters would auto-associate the phrase “cultural experience”. More likely, perhaps, might be the image of over-revelled revellers spewing out from the industrial-sized, garish and scruffy discos along the strip at nine in the morning, seated wavering by the roadside amidst the split, cracked and squashed plastic waste which these no doubt environmentally aware individuals seem to generate by the ton.

Benidorm, certainly, is not Spain. Like many other popular mass tourism resorts around the world, it has an identity which is quite apart from its host country or hinterland. Benidorm is not Spain in the same way, perhaps, that Kuta is not Bali, Nice not France, nor Acapulco Mexico. On the same scale, Blackpool is Britain! In effect these places are melting pots of imported identity, usually with a strong flavour of the largest group of visitors. In the case of Benidorm, of course, it’s the Brits. A fortnight in Benidorm can offer about as much exposure to Spanish culture as the experience of September lights in Blackpool informed the visitor of the Lancashire cotton industry. (The past tense is highly relevant here.) Equally, Benidorm juxtaposed with the word “culture” might vie for a definition of “oxymoron”, alongside German with humour, Ireland with culinary and British with honest. (I may borrow here and there from our working Men’s Club humour tradition, but perhaps employing a consistently different skin colour!)

Benidorm is known for its seven kilometres of perfectly kept, clean beaches, its year round tourism, its millions of visitors. It has fine places to eat in its old town and environs. It has nightlife, theme parks and five star golf resorts. It is surrounded by mountains, has an island nature reserve. And in a European sense, the area as a whole is truly cosmopolitan and increasingly sophisticated.

So when my wife and I came here about five years ago to claim a November base while we examined the possibility of a life-changing shift from work-a-day pressures, our prime goal was to investigate whether, near this tourism megalith, there might be space for a small rental business, aimed at those who might crave proximity to the iniquitous den whilst also wanting to retain a suburban distance from the rasping motorbikes, the hen and stag parties, the beachfront Harley Davidson pubs, the plastic glass discos and even the line dancing. Well we found our place and took the plunge. What we had not bargained for was “the culture”.

In that first month, as late-booking package tourists ourselves, we were making our first visit to mainland Spain for 24 years and we were pleased to find an odd festivity or two. Having lived here for a few years we now know, of course, that it’s actually quite hard to avoid them! The Benidorm town band – symphonic bands are the Valencian tradition, we now know – did a free concert in the salubrious Benidorm Palace, a place whose usual show apes the Folies Bergeres. The local choral society did the Venusburg music from Tannhauser alongside original compositions for the band and some populist offerings. We sought and found a sub-set of the band doing a jazz and Latino evening at the CAM Bank auditorium where, another night, there was a chamber music recital. Just along the road at the Cultural Centre in Alfaz del Pi there was an American pianist who had studied in Barcelona playing Montsalvatge.
Similarly, we found a soprano giving opera arias in Calpe.

And so we bought the place and we were owners of a house with two apartments, a beautiful Mediterranean garden, proximity to the tourist hub, but still very much a part of its own town, a place with outstanding local services. Our aim was limited, pragmatic and clear. After some fifty-six years of unbroken professional employment between us, we decided that a change was potentially better than a rest. We had already lived and worked in five countries and had extended experience of several others, but we had also concluded that pounds of flesh weigh the same the world over. Though we had gained a few of these over the years, having them occasionally demanded and extracted ran the risk of their being ripped from critical areas. Over the years the pay had been good, the pressure significant and, overall, the rewards worth the pain. But times change, lives change, priorities change and people reach fifty.

This was the time to do something different, to trade income for quality. We bought a house in La Nucia, just five kilometres from Benidorm’s beaches, the town’s skyscraper hotels visible from our front balcony. Our aim was to establish our own niche business renting the two bedroom garden apartment while we lived a modest if sometimes indulgent life on the first floor. We have now been doing this for more than four years, have an established clientele and basically have achieved what we wanted to achieve. We will not get rich from the trade. That was never our goal. From the start we wanted to offer simple, clean, affordable accommodation at a reasonable price, modelling our pitch on the kind of place middle class backpackers like ourselves would find both satisfying and a little surprising at the price. And it has worked well. What we had not bargained for was the “culture”.

For some sixteen of our thirty or so post-graduation years we had lived in London. We were vultures of the cultural type whenever energy levels ran to it. We were friends of the English National Opera during its ‘power house’ years. I was a teacher and, during school holidays, used to walk from Balham to central London for the lunchtime concerts, St James’s in Piccadilly being my favourite venue. Then we moved to Brunei and then to the United Arab Emirates. In Brunei we were members of the Music Society and helped to organise concerts. In Abu Dhabi, cultural events were very much in the purview of the diplomatic and private sector people, and there was and remains a vibrant cultural life in the city which, after all, is the nation’s capital. So we were able to attend good quality cultural events, comprising mainly music, theatre and visual arts, in both places. And then we came to Spain.

Our initial visit had suggested that there was more going on in this sphere than a browse through the package tour brochures might suggest. But if I was to relate that in the last eight months we have been to four operas, four full orchestral concerts, ten chamber music recitals, five local festivities, an international film festival, uncountable art exhibitions and goodness knows what else – and furthermore if I were to qualify this by saying that not once did we have to travel more than ten kilometres from home, would you associate this with Benidorm and the Costa Blanca? And, if you are mildly surprised by what I have just claimed, it would probably further surprise you to learn that in addition to this, Benidorm itself is building a new cultural centre, that ten kilometres down the road the new Villajoyosa Cultural Centre is about to open and that this year La Nucia, our home town, itself opened a 600-seat concert hall and a 3000-seat outside auditorium.

Perhaps I need to re-state how local is my claim. About thirty kilometres down the road from Benidorm is Alicante, a regional centre with a nineteenth century theatre presenting a full programme of ballet, drama and opera. About a hundred and forty kilometres north is Valencia, where the programme of the spectacular new Reina Sofia opera house is coordinated with those of New York’s Met and London’s Covent Garden. What I have described excludes those venues and only includes what can be found within ten kilometres of where we live, within ten kilometres of Benidorm, a cultural paradise.

You may have guessed that we are very keen on music, my wife and I. But we are also keen on theatre, dance, painting and the arts in general. We don’t tend to go to pop festivals, but if we did we have those locally as well.

Why not check out the listings for La Nucia, Altea, Benidorm, Alfaz del Pi, Villajoyosa and Finestrat? Choose your time of year and you could attend a superb musical event every night of your stay and I guarantee that the performance standard will be as good as anywhere. And if you can also take in Joachim Palomares and his ensemble playing their arrangements of Piazzolla tangos, or Altea’s April opera week or La Nucia’s Les Nits festival, you are in for a real treat. And when Benidorm’s new cultural centre is open, imagine glossy package tour brochures offering deals inclusive of stalls seats for Puccini or a performance of Steve Reich’s Drumming! Followed, of course, by a one euro pint of lager, bacon and eggs and a northern comic, perhaps.

Saturday, 11 August 2007