Boyd Tonkin: Weary of history's highways, writers go local and take the old roads
The Week In Books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
Saturday 02 June 2012
I hardly need to tell you that publishers have strictly limited powers of prophecy. All the same, editors who fail to identify the surprise bestseller or to dodge the costly flop do have a certain knack for reading moods and detecting seismic shifts.
And for non-fiction, at this Diamond Jubilee season, the verdict from the shrewdest publishers could not be clearer. They believe that thoughtful readers in this country seek not the grand narratives of national identity, positive or negative – broad-brush tales of heroism or treachery, of grandeur or decline.
Instead, we crave close-up stories of local oddity and quiddity, of English (more than British) culture and – especially – of nature, studied under the microscope rather than scanned through the telescope. Small is beautiful again. The big picture bores us.
Or rather, the minute particulars of life and of landscape become the most scenic road towards a new vision of national and natural history. Hugh Barker's book on hedges (see page 32) is but one fruit in an orchard of idiosyncratic writing. It will also enclose books by Robert Macfarlane, Jean Sprackland, Harry Mount, Hugh Thomson and others.
Urban as well as rural beats inspire this trend. Spitalfields Life, the enchanting blog-turned-book about the East End's human cornucopia by the anonymous "Gentle Author", has just appeared. Next week, Rachel Lichtenstein publishes her history of London's Hatton Garden, Diamond Street.
This lyrical localism, so betwitched by small things and so suspicious of grand designs, has cut a distinct path for years. It has roots in the new nature writing of Macfarlane and his peers, and in the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and his crew. At its best, the genre (or patchwork of sub-genres) does not so much shun broader themes as find fresh ways to read global significance from local evidence. Remember, too, that it was a self-exiled German who so hypnotically located the imperial remnants of our national past among the ghosts, ruins and traces of a provincial present: WG Sebald in his path-finding walk through East Anglia, The Rings of Saturn.
As with all cultural transitions, this offbeat or oblique localism can be hard to read in narrowly political terms. Sometimes it can sound frankly nostlagic; at others, quietly subversive. One of my favourite examples, Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, maps out an avant-garde aesthetic of margins and thresholds from its authors' rhapsodic tour of the ragged borders between town and country, past and future.
But I do recall that "little Englander" was originally a term of abuse flung at anti-imperialists by late-Victorian colonisers who preferred to barge into other people's backyards. Much of today's most tightly-focused writing about the ground beneath our feet shares, in the best sense, that "little England" rejection of bullying globalism.
This winding path inevitably leads back to Rudyard Kipling. "Recessional", his poem for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, memorably imagines the downfall of the far-flung empire that the festival was meant to hail: "Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!/ Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,/ Lest we forget - lest we forget!". At the imperial zenith, Kipling looks into the abyss. Much of his later verse turns inwards and digs deep. He becomes a pioneer of today's excavators of a mysterious past, hidden beneath the illusions of imperial destiny. Like him, they try to identify "The old lost road through the woods./ But there is no road through the woods." Until you imagine it.
Coffee, books and bytes - Utopia in store
If the deal that Waterstones MD James Daunt struck to sell Amazon's Kindle and e-books has caused an earthquake in the book trade, then one aftershock prompted less comment. Like every other observer, I had expected Daunt to shrink the Waterstones estate and concentrate on making any visit to a smaller set of shops a more enriching experience. Well, he certainly wants the latter – the Amazon liaison forms one plank of that ambition. Yet it comes as a pleasant shock to learn that Daunt (pictured) plans to open new outlets rather than contract the total number of stores, using an e-friendly approach to widen the customer base for physical bookshops. Now that really is a Utopian prospectus.
Orange bears an epic final fruit
It feels fitting that Orange should round off its 17-year sponsorship of a global prize for fiction by women with victory for a first novel that re-imagines one of the oldest stories in the world. Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles, her re-telling of aspects of Homer's Iliad that turns around the love of Patroclus and Achilles, parries and then skewers many of the the routine objections raised to a contest for female novelists alone. Planted in the classical tradition (and in Greek culture), it stands an ocean apart from any patronising notion of domesticated "women's fiction" in an Anglo-American vein. Miller illuminates the world of men - not just rivalry and enmity but (via her couple) love as well. Meanwhile, her novel presents both actual women and the feminine ideal - of lovers, sisters, mothers, even goddesses – as the drivers of social and military masculinity. She thrives in the domain of epic and myth, but uncovers their human roots. In short, this is the sort of far-seeing and broad-minded winner that makes sniping critics of the Orange look extremely small.
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