David Lister: Those reclusive authors really know how to live

The Week in Arts

Saturday 10 July 2010 00:00
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There was a wonderful moment in the BBC4 programme on Tuesday about the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

The reporter was throwing a little farewell party in Harper Lee's home town of Monroeville, when he saw a lady cutting a piece of cake to take away. "I'm just taking a slice to give to Nelle," she said.

Nelle is the first name of Harper Lee. The author, who has not given an interview about the book for nearly half a century, was sitting in her house down the road from the BBC man's party, and for sure was not going to miss out on her slice of cake. It's a scenario that could have comfortably been in the book.

There has been one other thing that struck me forcibly in the anniversary celebrations. A newspaper printed a small extract from an interview that Lee gave in 1963. She remarked that she was working on her second book. It has become received wisdom that she decided never to write another book because, as she once remarked, "I said all I had to say." But here she was in 1963 beavering away on a follow-up. Is the unfinished manuscript still sitting there in her house by the cake crumbs? What a publishing sensation it would be if we were ever to get sight of it.

The enigma of Harper Lee has hovered over the anniversary celebrations in a manner that has no parallel that I can recall. Camera crews have descended on the small Alabama town of Monroeville to discuss this woman and her work as if she were long dead, but she is there behind the locked door that they are all filming, talking to no one. The late J D Salinger was a literary recluse, but he was never in a position to look out of his front window and see the world's news outlets chatting about him in the street. Nor would he ever have had the impish humour to get someone to grab a piece of cake from a media party in his honour.

Journalists are often asked which person they would most like to interview. Surely the answer has to be Harper Lee. Is there any other world-famous cultural titan alive who has not granted a proper interview for 47 years? She makes Bob Dylan look like a media tart. We can't cope with Harper Lee's silence because we are so used to artists wishing to publicise their work, as much when it is enjoying an anniversary as when it is new. We assume there is something almost sinister, something to hide, when they refuse to play the game – which, of course, they rarely do.

Perhaps that mysterious second novel that she was working on was about an author who eschews all publicity for the best part of half a century, determined to let her masterpiece speak for itself, sees her mystique grow and grow, and ends up a happy octogenarian chuckling over her cake as she peeks out of the window to watch dozens of people talking about her.

I suspect that no major cultural figure will ever again be allowed such privacy.

The Royal Opera House has a quaint tradition of someone walking around ringing a hand-held bell to signal that the interval is about to end. It set the institution apart from other theatres and concert halls, nearly all of which have an electronic bell sounding the various warnings. But this week I noticed at the ROH that it has set itself apart once more with a new kind of interval warning. The five-minute bell has been replaced by a dramatic trumpet fanfare. The opera house is experimenting with these interval fanfares, all of which are composed by schoolchildren.

I'd love to see the pupil fanfares adopted by other theatres and concert venues. It's a brilliant idea. New music from young, budding composers, and it's not even part of the performance. What a great, free bonus. Suddenly, interval warning bells seems so old hat.

The BBC has decided not to axe 6 Music. Following the highly publicised proposal to scrap the station, a high-profile campaign to save it featured big-name rock stars, and has brought the station kudos and new listeners.

Imagine a conversation that might have taken place some months ago in the top echelons of the BBC. "Let's say we're going to axe 6 Music. I bet there will be a high-profile campaign to save it, and the outcome will be more kudos and more listeners."

Plus, of course, the BBC can now say: "We're asked to make cuts, but when we try to make one there's an almighty protest."

Of course, it's a Machiavellian and absurd scenario to suggest that BBC bosses would put 6 Music forward for the chop without having the slightest intention of ever actually chopping it. Absurd. Totally absurd.

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