Please do not adjust your sets: a small item of good news has just come in from the world of book publishing. A novel by an unknown writer has reached the top spot in the Amazon bestseller list. It was ignored by reviewers when first published and was given no particular promotion or publicity by its publisher, and yet now translation rights are being sold around the world and Charles Dance wants to make a film of it.
Asked what could explain this extraordinary and unexpected success, a spokesman for Quercus, the publisher, uttered that book trade mantra, “word of mouth”. This, being translated, means, “ haven’t got a clue”.
On the face of it, the publisher’s bewilderment is not surprising. Hilary Boyd’s Thursdays in the Park does not conform to the 2012 rules of bestsellerdom. Its author is not a celebrity; her book does not provide mild S&M fantasies for the sexually restless. It tells the story of a woman approaching 60, who falls in love with a man she meets in the park when taking her grandchild to the playground, and who is tempted to leave her unsatisfactory, sexless marriage.
It has taken a while for the entertainment industries, caught up in their own particular crises, to notice that there is a significant and growing market which they have largely ignored. Last year’s box-office hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, based on Deborah Moggach’s novel of late love and rebellion, These Foolish Things, took film critics and executives as much by surprise as Thursdays in the Park has startled the book world.
Seen from the high ground of middle age – and it is those between 35 and 50 who dominate media and communications business – the lives of people over 60 are as obscure and alien as those of teenagers. Yet when good work is produced for those consumers, they have provided a market which is grown-up enough to make up its own mind.
It is, yet again, the much-maligned generation born in the post-war years which is loosening things up in its own way. The reaction in the cinema where I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was peculiarly heartfelt, as if the audience were relieved that at last a film acknowledged what they knew from their own lives – that the joys and disasters of love can be as sharp in late life as at any other stage, that, if anything, the conflict between desire and duty can be more agonising than ever. Time is passing; the stakes are higher.
As it grows older, the Sixties generation has raised a single defiant digit to the unimaginative, middle-aged forces of the media and marketing. It has done its own thing.
Of course, the age-based sneers will continue, with snarkily captioned pictures in the press of famous beauties whose looks are showing signs of the passage of time, and the usual jokes when a public figure over a certain age is revealed to have had an affair. It is as if an unspoken rule of acceptable behaviour requires that, for any decent person beyond a certain age, feelings of lust, and hopes for change or adventure, should be allowed to fade to grey respectability.
Eventually, though, the worlds of film and publishing will be forced by the market to accept that life is a little less tidy than they have liked to think, and that well-told stories which reflect that fact will make them money.
After that, who knows? Once it is accepted that the relatively old can fall in love and misbehave, perhaps there will also be a place for them as TV presenters and newscasters, maybe even in the higher reaches of government.
As for writers themselves, they should look to that exemplar of late-life dynamism Philip Roth, maybe read his astonishing novel Sabbath’s Theater, which takes age and inappropriate desire about as far they can go. Last week, Roth announced that, having reached 79, he would be writing no more fiction. Perhaps he wants to spend more time on his private life.
Cleaning up in more ways than one
At first it seemed like good news. Local councils have been taking action to tackle the ever-worsening problem of litter on paths, roads and in public places. Unfortunately (it’s the cuts, you know), many authorities have decided that the best way to deal with the problem is to privatise it, using commercially-driven companies to impose on-the-spot penalties of £75.
To no one’s surprise, the private firms have found litter vigilantism an excellent way of making a fast buck. Among those said to have been caught in the act by litter patrols are someone throwing an apple core into a hedge in the countryside, a person putting a cigarette-butt down a drain, and a boy playing “ Pooh sticks” in a river.
All of which has been good news for councils like Newham, who pulled in over £600,000 in fines last year, and Enfield, who made over £337,000. As usual, combining public services with market forces may raise money, but will do little to solve the underlying problem.