The Librarian, by Salley Vickers

My favourite fictional work about librarians is A Month of Living Vicariously, by Tony Price. It’s the novella I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2011, and it has so much of myself in it, that there’s no way I couldn’t love it like a child of my own. I truly think it’s the best thing I’ve written for NaNo, and every time I read it in the months after November 2011, it cheered me up and made me laugh. (Available in PDF format on request!)

But Salley Vickers’s latest novel is much better, of course. And it made me cry, which is always a good sign, and made me feel good at the same time.

It’s the story of Sylvia Blackwell, an idealistic recently-qualified librarian who takes up an appointment as children’s librarian in East Mole, in the year 1958. We follow her trials and tribulations as she works to share her passion for books, and for encouraging children to read and love them, in the hostile environment created by her boss, her neighbour (who happens to be chairman of the Libraries Committee), the local middle-class ladies, and an education system that fails 75% of children, before they even start secondary school, by making them jump through the 11+ hoop. (I challenge anyone who reads this not to share the author’s conviction that the 11+ is iniquitous and barbaric: how can we still countenance it in so many parts of this country?)

Sylvia succeeds spectacularly, and she fails. She falls in love and has a hopeless affair with a married man. She moves away from East Mole. She has changed lives for ever.

I won’t give away anything about Part 2, the last 40 pages; but I hope you will read them and weep, too. The final Author’s Note by itself is worth the price of the book (which is in any case a modest £8.99).

You should read this book,

  • if you love books, libraries, or librarians
  • if you are grateful to librarians or have ever been one
  • if you share the author’s rage at the closing of public libraries, and the damage being done to future generations by the policies that have led to those closures
  • if you remember the 1950s, or want to know what they were like
  • if you just want a great read

Thank you, Salley Vickers!

At the Book Launch: Haunted by Christ

We were invited to attend the launch this afternoon of Richard Harries’s new book Haunted by Christ, sub-titled: Modern writers and the struggle for faith. In the fifteen chapters of the book, Harries discusses the work of twenty modern novelists and poets, for whom God has been a reality, or a nagging presence which they have been both attracted to and / or repelled by, and how they have dealt with this ‘haunting’. The wide-ranging list of writers includes Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Edward Thomas, T. S. Eliot, Stevie Smith, Samuel Beckett, W. H. Auden, William Golding, R. S. Thomas, Edwin Muir and George Mackay Brown, Elizabeth Jennings, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo and Evelyn Waugh, C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman, and Marilynne Robinson.

The launch event was held in the chapel at Harris Manchester College in Oxford, and was attended by a large number of friends and fans of the former Bishop of Oxford (which includes ourselves!) among whom were people we got to know during our time in Marston, whom it was good to see again. Former archdeacons and area bishops, bishop’s chaplains and diocesan officers, college chaplains and principals, occasional clergy (like ourselves…) and other friends. It took the form of a conversation between +Richard and Jane Shaw, the recently appointed principal of Harris Manchester College, followed by a time for questions and contributions from members of the audience. Philip Pullman (a good friend of +Richard’s) was there and asked an interesting question about how we should respond and what we can possibly do, about the present alarming state of the world.

The whole discussion was erudite, civilised, humane, stimulating – so much more than most contemporary discourse in the Church or just in society generally. I felt nourished, intellectually and spiritually, in a way I haven’t felt for a long time. I look forward to reading the book – and perhaps reporting on it here. Many thanks to +Richard and all those responsible for the event.

Missing: Victorian Librarian

Somewhere high in the Austrian Alps there may lie the body of a librarian, for that is where Robert Proctor was last seen, at the head of the Taschach valley, on the morning of Sunday, 6 September 1903.

How could anyone resist an article with an opening sentence like that? The article, by C. J. Wright, entitled The Missing Librarian, appears in the latest issue (no.59) of Slightly Foxed, which subtitles itself ‘The Real Reader’s Quarterly’. If you have never read Slightly Foxed, or are not yet a subscriber… WHY EVER NOT? Of all the publications I subscribe to or have ever subscribed to, this is the only one – the only one – that I read, without fail, from cover to cover. It describes itself as:

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach. Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine.

And it is just what it says on the tin. It’s a constant source of discovery and delight. I used to think I would need to search out and read every single book its contributors write about, which would have proved a challenge when so many are now out of print. And yes, it has introduced me to lots of previously unknown books and writers I have since enjoyed. But that’s no longer essential: it’s often sufficient to eavesdrop on the enjoyment of the article writers, some of whom have indeed come to feel like fascinating friends. (If I have one small niggle about them, it’s that so many do seem to be the product of a private school, or at least a boarding school, education. But we can’t all be State-school kids, I suppose.)

And for this particular retired vicar, in whose breast still beats the heart of a librarian, how could I not be intrigued to read of a colleague who met such a mysterious fate over a century ago? According to Wikipedia, one of Proctor’s friends thought the missing librarian may have committed suicide up there above the Taschach valley. But C. J. Wright leaves the mystery much more open. Perhaps in the far future, a few thousand years hence, his frozen and preserved body will be found, like that of Ötzi the Ice Man, and the mystery of his death be finally resolved. But perhaps it’s more fun that it’s not.

Robert Peston’s WTF?

WTF?WTF? by Robert Peston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert Peston for Prime Minister!

His North London Jewish background is so familiar to me from my own history and native place. He’s my kind of political commentator, too, and in this book (bracketed by a letter to his much-loved late father) he addresses the problem of why the world has gone ‘bonkers’. How come the world’s most successful, wealthy democracies are throwing themselves into the arms of mad populist leaders, and voting for such lunacies as Brexit and Trump?

Peston’s analysis and prescriptions sound totally like common sense; yet in the midst of all this madness which so often leaves me feeling really depressed, he somehow snatches hope, and a degree of optimism, from the jaws of despair.

The key fact is that behind the madness of those 2016 votes, lies the deep dissatisfaction of all those in our societies who feel they have been left far behind in the growing prosperity they see around them. It’s this inequality of wealth, opportunity, prospects, and the fair sharing of the wealth of nations, that we need to address and radically change. It’s a call to the 48% to stop trying to stop Brexit (and if we can’t stop it, at least hoping it will be the unmitigated disaster we’ve all along said it would be), and to work as hard as we can to make it work the best it can. What’s needed is some kind of ‘Brexit mission’ to reunite the country, and mend what’s broken in our economy and politics.

As Peston says, he doesn’t have all the answers, and maybe some of the answers he has are also bonkers. But we at least need to be thinking, and especially talking, about the issues he raises here.

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In which I waver from my faith – in democracy

Hand on heart, I have a terrible confession to make. I have been one of those — and we are many, many — who have been secretly wondering if democracy is such a great idea after all. When we see Donald Trump in the White House, and the United Kingdom set on a collision course with the iceberg of a no-deal Brexit — all as a result of the democratic process — aren’t we bound to ask ourselves that question?

I’ve even come up with lots of bright ideas for how to remedy the situation, by reverting to some kind of a limited franchise. People like that foolish woman who greeted the announcement of the 2016 General Election with the cry, “Not another one!” She’d be on my little list. Anyone who didn’t want to vote would be on my list. Anyone who didn’t vote would. Anyone who reads the Daily Mail or the Murdoch press…

They’d all be disenfranchised, and because it was their own fault, there would be concomitant small curtailments of their civil rights. You see how it begins? I’m already ten steps to becoming a Fascist dictator!

So it’s great that Philip Collins has written When They Go Low, We Go High, published last year by 4th Estate, and surely not well enough known. It’s quickly rising up my list of Books That Everyone Must Read (especially if they want to be permitted to vote). (No!) Its subtitle is ‘Speeches that shape the world – and why we need them’. Philip Collins is a journalist, and was chief speechwriter for Tony Blair from 2004 to 2007. Though I’m trying hard not to hold that against him. But chiefly, he is passionate about democracy. This book is all about his conviction that liberal democracy is not only the best form of government, but the only one that really makes human flourishing possible. But he freely admits that democracy is in crisis, endangered on many fronts; though this is also nothing new. Perpetual crisis and danger seems, in fact, to be the permanent state of democracy.

The book quotes and analyses many of the most important speeches that have been made all down the ages, from the time of Pericles to Barack Obama, about the importance of government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. The list includes Cicero, Lincoln, Kennedy, Churchill, Reagan, Elizabeth I, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King among others. Alongside the extensive extracts are Collins’s comments about how each speech works, what makes it great and important, and why it matters.

The five main sections of the book define five political virtues:

  • through politics the voice of the people is heard
  • politics commits us to persuasion rather than force
  • through politics the demand for recognition can be heard
  • equal consideration of all citizens in free societies is the means by which the material condition of the population is improved
  • when politics prevails, the worst of human instincts can be tamed.

Among the greatest dangers currently facing democracy is populism. On this, Collins writes (p.81)

Populism begins with recriminations about the governing elite and, to use Donald Trump’s extraordinary allegation, their ‘criminal enterprise’. It ends with recriminations about the constitution. All the while it claims to have special knowledge of the will of the people. It is a fraud from start to finish. Plato hated democracy because he thought it led to populist rulers. There is a risk, if we do not find the words to advertise the virtues of conventional politics, that Plato’s anguished prediction will be proved right. The task for the responsible democrat is therefore to describe what has gone awry and find words for a better future, like the wonderful writing in Jefferson’s 1801 Inaugural Address and the compressed poetic expression of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg. The solution to disenchanted politics cannot be populism. It has to be better, more enchanted politics.

I realise, reading this, that I had fallen from grace, become a backslider with regard to my faith in Democracy. I repent and recommit, and hope to make amends. But that means that, just as the subtitle of this blog pleads for a re-enchanted Church, so my citizenship pleads for just that re-enchanted politics.

Lost Connections, by Johann Hari

When he was 18 years old, Johann Hari went to his GP seeking help. He explained that he felt an enormous emotional pain that seemed to be leaking out of him uncontrollably. His doctor told him a story: that his distress was caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain, specifically a low level of something called serotonin. By taking antidepressants, his serotonin level could be restored and his depression would go away. Johann left the doctor, collected his prescription, and took the first of thousands of little tablets. Almost at once he felt relief, his pain seemed to be lifted. But after a couple of months, it returned and soon he felt just as bad as he had before. He returned to the GP, who prescribed a stronger dose. Again he felt an immediate improvement, which lasted for a few months until once more he fell into a severe depression. This process was repeated several times, until Johann was on the strongest dose of SSRIs, which he continued to take for 13 years. The side effects were horrifying. He put on huge amounts of weight as a consequence of almost compulsive junk food eating. And worst of all, he was still depressed. The drugs were not working for him, and he was not alone: although exact figures are not available for the UK, it is estimated that 1 in 5 US citizens are on antidepressants.

It was at this stage that he began to ask why? Why are so many people depressed? Why are chemical treatments apparently so ineffective? What alternative remedies might there be?

His latest book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression and the unexpected solutions, describes the results of his questions. He spent years looking at research data and interviewing the scientists who had collected it. He travelled all over the world, visiting many of the researchers but also going to places where different, innovative ways of dealing with depression had been tried.

His concluded that depression is not in the head, but mostly caused by real factors in the world outside. The one thing most of those factors have in common is that modern society is sick, and it should come as no surprise that so many people respond to that sickness by falling ill themselves. Johann sums this up by describing it as a ‘loss of connection’, because of the way we are forced to live in the modern world. Among the nine causes of depression and anxiety that he has identified, he lists disconnection from meaningful work, from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, and from a hopeful and secure future.

If you’re like me, you will respond to a lot of this by thinking, Of course, I’ve always known that; but why then don’t we, or doesn’t society, do something about it? Part of the answer is that Big Pharma makes billions of dollars from the widespread use of antidepressants (also they pay for and conduct most of the research which ‘proves’ the effectiveness of chemical antidepressants); but another large part is that there are too many other political vested interests that resist the major reforms to society that would help solve the problem.

This is a brilliant book, informative, full of heart-warming stories that you just long to see turned into one of those ‘feel-good’ films about people battling against overwhelming odds, to turn around their own lives, and the life of their neighbourhood. There are lots of things we can do as individuals, to lift ourselves out of depression (or to improve our emotional health generally); but much more than that is needed. We need to be working for radical changes to society and the way we live. It doesn’t have to be like this. The changes we need are hard to imagine, difficult to begin, and yet many of them don’t require a lot of expense: they’re simple enough to do, they’re not rocket science.

We know this stuff! Why don’t we do it, and why don’t we protest and keep protesting to the people in power to make these things happen?

Who’d have thought I’d be agreeing with Elton John? But I do, when he says of this book, “If you have ever been down, or felt lost, this amazing book will change your life… Read it now.”

See and read much more about it on Johann Hari’s website.

Stoner, by John Williams

I suspect this is an old man’s book. I don’t know that I would have known what to do with it 40 or 20 or even 10 years ago. One reader proposed as an alternative title: Life Sucks And Then You Die. But no. It’s the story of a life shot through with bitter sadness, disappointment, seeming failure, yes. But it’s also the story of a life heroically lived, and lived, as Stoner himself comes to understand, with moment by moment passion, and love. It’s not a sad or depressing book, but one that breathes quiet, considered, hope. And it has one of the best and most moving descriptions of dying (and who can do anything other than imagine what that is like?) that I have ever read.

I especially loved this paragraph:

He had no wish to die; but there were moments, after Grace left, when he looked forward impatiently, as one might look to the moment of a journey that one does not particularly wish to take. And like any traveller, he felt that there were many things he had to do before he left; yet he could not think what they were.

And this, which I guess could be the most important question one could ask oneself about one’s life:

What did you expect? he asked himself.