We all have a story worth telling.

A few years ago I was heading off on a long train journey, I think to a work conference (remember those?) when I realised that I’d forgotten to pack a book. I ducked into WH Smith’s to see what they had to offer, expecting the usual array of “holiday reading” trash but instead found East West Street by Philippe Sands. Yes, a factual book about interconnected families, war crimes and the International Criminal Court was my idea of a good travel read. It is an excellent book and I still think about it often.

To partially explain, I studied the International Criminal Court as part of my Masters in Human Rights, so it was a topic I already knew a little about and had an interest in. What we didn’t learn at university, and what Sands explores so brilliantly in his book, is about the actual people behind the processes, statutes and conventions. Throughout my formal education, social history was largely sidelined. We learned about laws, revolutions and great thinkers but not about the people, individuals and families who were affected by these, lived through them and whose destinies were determined by them.

In a previous post I talked about what I was reading, and mentioned that I tend to stick to a theme for a while in my book choices. I anticipated that the theme of biographies/memoirs would continue with Obama’s latest. Well I’m afraid I took a slight detour into my current area of study by reading Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks, about the Deaf signing community which I would recommend for anyone involved with deaf people. I then did a swift about turn to read Jews Don’t Count by David Baddiel which I would recommend to everyone. Yes, everyone, including you. Even if you are not Jewish (I’m not), especially if you are not Jewish. Even if you think you are a liberal progressive (I think I am), especially if you think you are a liberal progressive, but also especially if you aren’t. Just read it. It’s short, like an old timey persuasive pamphlet type thing and it’s saying something very important.

So then my themes merged and memoirs melded with Jewish stories and I have just finished House of Glass by Hadley Freeman. I’ve been a fan of Freeman’s writing since she wrote a fashion column for the Guardian that I always read even though I have absolutely no interest in fashion, she’s that good of a writer. I haven’t read her other books, but House of Glass sounded intriguing so I delved in. Similar to East West Street, it takes major events in history – World War II and the Holocaust – and lets us see them through the eyes of real people, who were trying to live their real lives. It is beautifully written, with even an amount of humour but always real love and warmth for those whose stories she reveals.

Both House of Glass and East West Street have plots and twists worthy of thrillers or mystery novels but document the real lives of people, often family members or acquaintances of the authors, a product of research and investigation into parts of their lives that were hitherto unknown to their loved ones. My own parents have been doing family history research as a hobby for years now. As far as I know none of my relatives or ancestors were involved in international affairs or single-handedly shaped world events. In fact a good lot of them resided in a place called Dull. Farmers and mill workers from Dull don’t make for much mystery or intrigue and I don’t think I’ll be writing a book about them, but I do want to know about them. I’ve visited Dull. It was, well, dull but it was interesting to see where my forebears lived, worked and no doubt had their own personal dramas. Much genealogy research is records-based – births, marriages, deaths – at the basic level these give places and dates but occasionally they can include other snippets of lives such as whether they died after a long illness or were found drunk in a ditch. Census records can reveal occupations, how many people lived in a house and whether they were wealthy enough to employ “help” or whether they were the hired help to another family. One relative of mine was a police officer, and it’s fascinating to look through his police notebooks and find out what crimes he was investigating and learn that he was once commended for catching a runaway horse.

Through my parents efforts I know more about some distant ancestors than I do about closer relatives. Living the past year through a pandemic, with lockdowns keeping us from seeing our families, it’s natural to re-evaluate our relationships with our nearest and dearest, or farthest and most distant. I want to hear all their stories and piece together the unique jigsaw of my family with all its branches extending around the world, containing Scottish stories, English stories, Jewish stories, tales from Australia and Sri Lanka and possibly beyond.

It also makes me wonder what future generations will know or learn about me? Digital records might make it easier to investigate but what impression will be left behind of my life? Facts of my birth, marriage and not-yet-completed divorce will tell one story, but what of my personal social history? Well I suppose I’m still writing that…

On finding unexpected connections

I seem to go through phases of reading certain types of books. For a long time I was deep into the Beats. Then I forayed into filling the gaps in my reading of modern classics – Catch 22, Of Mice and Men, Catcher in the Rye, some Hemmingway, some more Salinger. Then in response to the Black Lives Matter movement I read several books on that theme – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. I like to immerse myself in an era, a genre or a milieu, finding the structures of it, seeing all the elements interplay, exposing the commonalities and highlighting the differences. Now, it seems, I’m taking a turn at autobiographies and memoirs. Two that I’ve just read back-to-back have thrown up some unexpected connections between individuals that I wouldn’t have expected to have much in common, which got me thinking more broadly about the connections between us all.

The memoir train started because my older daughter is learning about World War 2 at (home)school. She had spotted my copy of Anne Frank’s Diary on a shelf some years ago and had expressed an interest. Now that she’s a bit older (11) I figured it would be ok for her to read, but wanted to do so myself first, just to be sure, to jog my memory and also so that I’d be better equipped to discuss it with her. Around the same time, I was on the Waterstones website ordering her a thesaurus and I spotted that they had Barack Obama’s A Promised Land reduced and Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park in paperback. I had been meaning to buy Jollett’s book since it came out, so both got moved into my basket and arrived a few days later. While I was waiting for them to arrive, I finished Anne Frank, handed her over to my daughter and up popped an email from Bookbub (if you are a reader and aren’t signed up to this already, then check it out – daily personalised ebook offers usually for a few quid each) letting me know that Janey Godley’s memoir Handstands in the Dark was on offer. Well that would bridge the gap nicely.

Ok, maybe an explanation of who those people are is required. Not Anne Frank or Barack Obama, I assume you all know who they are…

Mikel Jollett is the lead singer of The Airborne Toxic Event, one of my favourite bands, I wrote about seeing them here and here but definitely saw them one more time then that. In recent years the band haven’t been quite so active, but Mikel has become prominent as a political commentator on Twitter. Jollett is based in California, and while I haven’t “met” him – despite various attempts I have met almost all the other band members but not the man himself – I have, however touched him and had his sweaty t-shirt pressed against my face. Don’t worry, it’s all part and parcel of being front row at a smallish gig. In any case, we have connected, in a manner of speaking. We have been in the same place at the same time and are connected by not only the music but shared interests in writing, literature, politics and possibly more. We would have a shared frame of reference.

Janey Godley is a Glaswegian comedian famous for her “Trump is a C*nt” sign on one of his Scottish golf courses a few years ago. I first came to know her work on an appearance of Have I Got News For You, and more recently she’s been entertaining us during lockdown with voiceovers of videos, most notably of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid briefings. We both live in Glasgow but I haven’t met her, or knowingly been in the same place at the same time. However, all Glaswegians, adopted or native, share a special camaraderie and we would certainly have a shared frame of reference.

In his book, Jollett writes about his life born into a cult, living with addicted and mentally ill parents, his chaotic, impoverished and often violent and neglected childhood. So far not much I can directly relate to, although it makes for fascinating reading and is beautifully written. Later he writes about finding his way in a middle-class world, having to mask, suppress or hide his working class background. He attends a prestigious university and finds himself a fish out of water. Here I can definitely relate. As the book goes on, I find more and more commonalities between us. Our shared frame of reference gets wider.

Godley’s memoir recounts her life growing up in Glasgow’s east end in the 1960s and 70s. It too is a life of extreme poverty, surrounded by people struggling with addiction and violence. There is abuse, albeit of a different type. I didn’t grow up in Glasgow but I worked for a voluntary sector organisation providing advocacy to children and young people with disabilities all over the city for 8 years. A lot of my work took me to the east end. I grew familiar with Shettleston, Parkhead, Haghill and Bridgeton. I spent many hours on the number 19 and 41 buses to Easterhouse and all stops along the way. I saw the poverty and abuse that still persisted in the early 2000s-2010s. Kids who had never been near the City Centre, whose whole lives were contained in one postcode. Older siblings caught up in gangs, groomed or selling themselves on Glasgow Green. Kids driven to stealing phones because there was never any food at home. Kids sent to young offenders prison because they wouldn’t admit that’s why they stole. The shame of poverty still hung in the air. Kids in wheelchairs who had worn out shoes because they weren’t deemed worthy of spending money on. So many disabled children in inadequate housing. Families worn out from fighting for things they should have been entitled to. It may have been 40 years after the time Godley was writing about, but, all too sadly, we would have a very wide shared frame of reference indeed.

In Godley’s book there here are gangs, not cults, but the similarities and overlaps with Jollett’s book and life were striking. I never would have imagined that a Californian rock star and a comedian from the east end of Glasgow would have quite so much in common, or that I would find so much in common with either of them. Even little things, like they both take to running to cope with the harshness of their lives and to take back what little control they can. I get it – running is cheap and can be done anywhere, so perhaps isn’t too surprising, but it was interesting to see layer upon layer of common threads woven through each life story.

It made me wonder what other two apparently random people might find themselves connected? I can’t remember when I first heard of the “Six degrees of separation” theory – the idea that any two people in the world are linked through a chain of no more than six acquaintances. At first it seemed unlikely to me, but then I thought. I’ve lived in Scotland, London and Sweden. I have family in Australia and Sri Lanka. That already extends my first links to a good spread around the world. I have friends from places as disparate as Finland, Malawi and the US. That covers even more of the globe. Maybe it’s not such a crazy theory after all.

I love it when I meet people and we have something unexpected in common. Finding that shared interest or experience reminds us of our common humanity. People are people, after all. We may be different ages, nationalities or come from different cultural backgrounds but if we allow ourselves to look beyond preconceived expectations we will find something that will make us yell, “really, me too!” and share a profoundly beautiful moment together. I adore those moments.

Indeed thinking back to this time last year, it was both horrifying and fascinating to see just how quickly COVID-19 spread from a localised outbreak to a global pandemic. News reports in the UK focussed on China, then Iran, then Italy as it crept ever closer to us. The virus doesn’t travel by itself, it travels from human to human, from person to person as they move from place to place. International travel, full flights and packed commuter trains help transmission, but it still spreads around the world one person at a time. We have been told to isolate ourselves for almost a year now, while we as humans, in all continents, have never been so connected by a single event. We are not only experiencing it as those who lived through previous pandemics or significant global events like the world wars, but thanks to technology we are able to witness others, share our stories and have more of a collective experience like never before. We all now have Covid as a shared frame of reference, for better or for worse.

So in short, Janey Godley, Mikel Jollet and I are connected by only a few degrees of separation. I’m just about to start reading Obama’s book, I wonder how many degrees between he and I????

Books and bookshelves

Books and bookshelves have been in the news a lot recently, whether it be reports that we are reading more during lockdown, recommendations for which books to tackle during lockdown, or even whether we will ultimately fail to finish those books we finally attempt during lockdown. As we peer into people’s homes on Zoom etc, the bookshelves frequently in the backgound have been coming under scrutiny, leading to the inevitable advice as to how to arrange your shelves to impress.

I am a reader. I am as fascinated by other people’s bookshelves as it is possible to be. I look at the rows and stacks in envy. I would love a wall filled with shelves groaning with books from floor to ceiling.  I don’t have that. I have a couple of smallish bookcases, the biggest one shared half with my kids, the others spread where I can squeeze them into my small house. The majority of books I have read in my life, I don’t own. As a child and teenager I made frequent use of our local library, then once I had read through that I graduated to the central library in town. Some (I hope) are still at my parents’ house. Many other books have been borrowed from friends and handed back. Some belonged to my ex and remain with him. In the past 5 years or so I have read on a mixture of physical books and kindle. I don’t mind either. I’m not a purist, a book is a book. The kindle has several advantages over physical books, especially with the aforementioned small house and lack of shelf space. Recently, though, a few things have happened that have made me think about the books I do and don’t own.

One day, my youngest daughter (6) picked up my kindle and asked what it was for. I realised she never saw me read. I only do it after she’s in bed or when she’s away at her dad’s house. Then my older daughter was bored one day. She devours books the same way I did at her age, but she had read through all hers. I told her to have a look at my shelves. She was at once astonished and confused. She had never thought she could touch my books, never mind actually read them. We talked about which ones might be suitable for her now, and which might be more appropriate in a couple of years. It then struck me that many of the books I would naturally introduce her to, I don’t have in my possession to give her. 

Maybe because there weren’t shelves to peruse or maybe because we don’t share similar tastes, but I didn’t read any of my parent’s books either. Despite my parents also being avid readers, we didn’t have shelves full of books around our house. My dad is also a frequent library user, and my mum has always had a complex system of rotating books around various friend circles. I have no idea how she keeps track, but when a friend comes for coffee, a carrier bag full of books will be produced from somewhere and exchanged for another bag. So books were around, but not available to me, or shared or discussed.

I have also, in recent years, been making efforts to fill the gaps in my literary knowledge. I decided I couldn’t call myself a reader if I wasn’t familiar with some of the classics. That’s probably not true, but I have a perverse working-class guilt thing that I’m not well read enough to call myself educated and I feel embarrassed when I don’t get a reference or recognise a quote. Although I have always read, I avoided some of the more literary writing because I feared that it would be boring, like the books we had to read at school, or above me and I wouldn’t “get it”. However, I can’t keep blaming my school or my parent’s lack of bookshelves forever, so it was time to take matters into my own hands.

I’m sort of focusing on modern classics first, because the reasons given above still niggle at the back of my mind and classic classic still seems more like homework. I started with Kerouac, meandered through a few other Beats, went on to David Foster Wallace, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, Joseph Heller and have just finished The Catcher in the Rye. I think I’ll linger with Salinger for a while. It’s comfortably Beat-like and have found that, like music, although I will always support women creatives when I can, in my vastly female-dominated home and work environment, I crave the masculine voice and perspective, the male presence, so will escape away with my male writer friends for now until I can see the real ones again.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all high-brow stuff. I’ve also read a fair few lighter books, some non-fiction and even some books written by celebrities who have something interesting to say. Oh and a few textbooks too…

I want my daughters to grow up surrounded by books, theirs and mine, and not get shelf envy when they go and visit friends and family. This is hard to do with electronic books, so I’ve been trawling 2nd hand bookshops to buy some of the volumes that I’ve read on kindle in order to have a physical copy and to look out for classics that I’ve not read yet. It’ll take me a while and I may have to evict some other possessions in order to fit them, in, but slowly and surely, one day I will have my own wall of groaning bookshelves. Let’s hope we’re not still in lockdown Zoom land by then…

In the interests of transparency and because you may be as nosy as me, here are my current bookshelves. I do have an order in with a 2nd hand bookshop online but couldn’t wait until that delivery to post this.

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Mainly Fiction 1

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Mainly Fiction 2

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Big books on the bottom!

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Mainly non-fiction and old study books

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Current study books

 

On reading (and finishing) Infinite Jest

It began about 5 years ago, when the librarians at my work (I work in a university) were discussing famously un-finish-able books.  Always one to rise to a challenge, I decided to attempt one of them.  I opted for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest because it was more appealing than James Joyce or Tolstoy. I used to be an avid reader (pre-children) of all kinds of books, but had fallen out of the habit (post-children).  The Irish comedian Dara O’Briain does a routine where he asserts that post-children it is impossible to keep up with all leisure pursuits or popular culture media that you may previously have enjoyed, but that it is vital to retain a few for one’s sanity and the odd chance you get to interact with other adults.  For me, I retained music (both recorded and live) and to some extent television, but out the window (figuratively) went films, books and all other hobbies.  As my first daughter got older, it became possible to claw back some time during evenings or weekends to pick up on those abandoned activities.  In hindsight, it was a mistake to attempt to read a famously un-finish-able book among my first reads in years.  I barely got 20 pages in before realising why it was famously un-finish-able.
But, fast forward 4 or 5 years, the younger child is now 3 years old and actually sleeps occasionally, allowing me an hour or so each evening to engage in a bit of reading.  It felt great to get back in the habit and pick up some books.  I started with the bar low – a couple of autobiographies, some easy crime novels that my mum lent me, then I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and the prequel Go Set A Watchman. On a roll, I upped the game and got into Jack Kerouac.  I could have happily stayed in Kerouac’s world for much longer, having picked up about 6 novels and a biography at the amazing 2nd hand bookshop near work.  However I had seen a couple of articles in the Guardian (here & here) marking Infinite Jest’s 20th anniversary.  Infinite Jest had sat on my bedside table for years, then had been moved to a high shelf when I moved house.  It mocked me. I knew I would attempt it some day, but had been avoiding it.  Then the stars aligned and having been inspired by reading the Guardian articles, with a good few books under my belt and firmly back in the reading habit, I found 4 nights when the girls were with their grandparents.  This was my chance.  I knew I needed a good solid run into the start of it.  In I went.
I tweeted about it to make it real – there’s nothing like making a personal challenge public to guard against failure.  Of those who got in touch in response, the majority had also started it but not finished it.  Some had had multiple attempts.  Some had been put off even attempting, the reputation making for too daunting a task.
As for my post on Watchman, I’m not going to write a review here, but as usual I’ll share some of my experiences of reading the book and what it has meant to me.
I worked with 3 bookmarks and a reference sheet. One bookmark in my current place in the main body of text. One marking my place in the endnotes. The third marked the end of the main book / beginning of the endnotes, so I knew where I was aiming for and wasn’t disheartened at the prospect of 1079 pages. Only a mere 981….  The reference sheet was a list of year names, although I found I needed this less and less as I progressed through the book and became familiar with the year order.
I also had to read with my phone handy for quick Googling.  I had to Google a lot.  Mostly unfamiliar words/terms.  Infinite Jest is littered with strange and unusual words.  I worked to the rule that if it appeared once I skirted over it, assuming meaning from context.  The flow of reading was interrupted too much already for the damn endnotes without stopping for every single one.  If it appeared more than once I looked it up.  These mostly turned out to be American brands or antiquated terms, and the search results frequently threw up reference to the book.  Clearly I’m not the only one Googling these terms, and clearly only the author has used them in the last century.  There are also the made-up words.  I sincerely hope there’s a band called The Howling Fantods.  Unfortunately every time I read “kertwang” I thought of “Numberwang” which probably wasn’t the intended reaction.
I endeavoured to read for 1 hour every night. Some nights I was so tired I dozed off after 30 minutes.  Other nights, if the girls were at their dad’s I would manage up to 2 hours.  I only took 2 nights off, when I was properly OUT out.  I would come into work bleary eyed and yawning. “Hard night?” “Umm, yeah….” with THE DAMN BOOK..!!
There were nights when I just didn’t feel it.  I was shattered, just wanted to shut my brain off and watch 3 episodes of Gilmore Girls in a row then slip into bed.  Actually sometimes I did allow myself 1 episode of Gilmore Girls to decompress and have a cup of tea before opening the book.  And through Gilmore Girls I learned that Glad (as in Man From / Year Of) was an actual US company.
I reached a point about 2/3 of the way in, about page 600 when hefting the book open was beautifully satisfying.  About 750 pages in, I pushed myself onwards, telling myself I only had a regular-sized book-equivalent to go.
Of course it wasn’t that simple.  The number of pages in no way relates to time taken to read.  I consider myself a fast reader, but progress here was far slower than normal.  I could plug away for a good hour, and advance a mere 10 pages.  This is in large part due to the constant flicking back and forth to the endnotes.  There are 96 pages of endnotes.  In minuscule font.  Some endnotes go on for several pages.  Some endnotes refer you to other endnotes or have footnotes themselves.  It is infuriating.  Especially when your flow of reading is interrupted only to find the endnote explains an abbreviation you are familiar with, gives some excruciating detail about a (fictional?) chemical manufacturing company, or simply states, “no idea”.  Some contain a few words that could easily be incorporated into the text (“or so he thought”, “and then some”) but the author forces you to stop, flip, read, sigh, grit your teeth then start back where you left off.  I came to loathe endnote no. 304 which one is directed to I think 4 times, at least once by another endnote.  And it goes on for 8 pages.  And did I mention the minuscule font?  I feared for my eyesight, envisioning a trip to the opticians resulting in a diagnosis of Infinite Jest-induced sight deterioration.
I found myself daydreaming about all the marvellous things I would do once I had finished the book and could reclaim those couple of hours each evening.  A panic set in when I realised I was going to Berlin for a couple of days in October.  2 nights away, then my BSL class was due to start the day I got back. 3 nights of not being able to read THE BOOK.  I had to finish before then.  There’s no way I could lose 3 days so (hopefully) close to the end.  I became all too aware that this book was beginning to have the same effect on me as the “Entertainment” that is the subject. All consuming.  Falling victim no doubt to some deliberate manipulation by the author.
It wasn’t all bad, though.  Much as the prospect of the daily reading appeared as a chore, once I settled down (3 bookmarks, phone, large cup of tea), once I entered the strange but familiar world, reading was actually a pleasure.  I WANTED to read it. Even when I was exhausted, eyes drooping and head nodding, I WANTED to keep going.  It was compelling.  What I wasn’t expecting, was that it was funny. It is a particular type of humour, but it appealed to me and I found myself smiling a lot and laughing out loud on more than one occasion. I particularly liked the many varied extraordinary and unusual ways that characters, often minor or incidental characters, were maimed or killed.  These descriptions are often briefly mentioned as almost throwaway comments, in the midst of several pages of excruciating detail about tennis training or filmmaking.
“Also, my own father, dead when his Kenbeck pacemaker came within range of a misdialled number of a cellular phone…” p776
Actually that whole section where Marathe is being “Swiss” is among the funniest and one of my favourite bits.
Getting through this book, understanding it, enjoying it and already planning on reading it again sometime, has meant I have proven several things to myself.  I shouldn’t be daunted by any piece of literature.  I am smart enough to read and “get” this kind of novel.  I sometimes doubt this about myself.  I didn’t grow up in a house with literary novels.  I have had to find my own path through classic and modern literature, and am well aware that I am still not particularly well read.  This was what made me explore Kerouac.  I had assumed his writing would be too intellectual/esoteric for me. I play down my own intellectual capabilities and tell myself that kind of genre is for other people. What I found, of course, is that Kerouac has a famously naturalistic style of writing that really appealed to me and I found myself wondering what on earth I had feared.  David Foster Wallace has a less accessible style, and the structure, language and complexity of Infinite Jest made it a tough read, but not an impossible one.  I was glad to get through it, also proud of myself for taking on the challenge and succeeding.  I won’t let myself be daunted by any book again.
Although it may be some time before I attempt another famously un-finish-able book…

Go Set a Watchman

I know, I know, late to the party. There have probably been hundreds of articles written about Harper Lee’s 2015-released novel.  I haven’t read them. Also, this won’t be an article or a review. In the same saw that I don’t write gig reviews, I write about my experiences of the events. I recently read Watchman and the whole affair made me think a lot, so I am going to try to coalesce these thoughts here.  I don’t think I’ve written a blog piece about a book before but I seem to be on a roll with blogging just now and it will make a change from writing about indie rock bands. Although if you are interested I am writing this listening to new Paws and Twin Atlantic and feeling very excited for the state of Scottish rock right now.  But I digress..

When I first heard the news that there was to be a new novel from the author of To Kill A Mockingbird, I was at first amazed, and then intrigued.  Harper Lee famously only wrote that one novel so there was bound to be a story behind this latest release.  There were news reports of people flocking to pre-order it.  Much as I was keen to find out more, I wasn’t so eager as to queue up in Waterstone’s. I read a little about the background to the new work. It was variously described as a sequel and a prequel. Hmmm. Then I read about how Lee was in failing health and the book was based on original draft manuscripts that someone had decided to release after all these years. Hmmmm. It sounded decidedly dodgy. But then I am a natural cynic. Was it dodgy or was it all part of the publicity? Was Lee re-evaluating her life’s work while she still had the chance? Or was she being manipulated for financial gain? I wasn’t sure. I let it sit for a while. Then curiosity got the better of me and I bought the book. But I still couldn’t quite bring myself to read it.

To Kill A Mockingbird is obviously a classic and regularly features in lists of favourite or influential books.  I read it at school. I can’t actually remember if it was on our curriculum or if I read it myself during a phase of reading similar genre books.  I remember racing through a trilogy on a similar theme, and read countless others dealing with the same themes or historical period of Mockingbird.  Those books were instrumental in me embarking on the path I have taken in life.  As a teenager, they taught me that inequality and injustice have been present throughout history, and still prevail in many places today.  They taught me that in order for us all to be truly free, all of our neighbours must be free.  They taught me about the notion of intersectionality many years before I knew the term or understood what it meant.  I went on to study Politics, then a did a Masters in Human Rights and have since worked in supported employment for people with learning disabilities, advocacy for young people with disabilities and/or mental health difficulties and now in a university disability service, ensuring equality of access to education for all. I can trace the foundations for my belief in this kind of work to novels like To Kill A Mockingbird.

I decided to re-read Mockingbird first.  After that I still couldn’t decide about Watchman. I didn’t want it to spoil Mockingbird for me. I got distracted reading a trilogy of Scottish books that my mum lent me, then decided to go for it.

Well, what did I think? Actually, I’m not entirely sure. I finished it last night. If it were a stand-alone novel, it wouldn’t be much good. However, I can’t imagine anyone reading it in isolation. So it only makes sense to judge it alongside Mockingbird. I know common consensus now is that it was a first draft of Mockingbird, but as it is set 20 years after the events of Mockingbird, it is natural to approach it as a sequel. Of sorts. It isn’t really a coherent novel. Well I thought it started off that way, but then literally lost the plot later on.

I liked the characterisation of Scout, now referred to primarily as Jean Louise. One of the reasons I love Mockingbird is how much I relate to Scout. I thought that when I read it as a teenager, and now I can also relate very much to an adult Jean Louise.  Scout / Jean Louise is the kind of female character I wish I saw more often. It’s all very well having “stong female” types but they tend to become one-dimensional in the writer’s attempts to continually prove their “strong” credentials. They lack personality, flaws and normality. Scout is a tom-boy who likes adventures, Jean Louise will stand up for herself in a world that values demure women, but we also see her vulnerable, occasionally feminine and self-doubting side too. The description of her train ride home is well written, you get the sense of who she is as a person, and it very much correlates with the Scout of 20 years previously.  My only gripe is that we never find out what Scout (I’m sorry, I can’t call her Jean Louise, she will always be Scout) is doing in New York. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think it ever says what she studied or what she is doing for a living there.  These are quite significant elements of a person’s life, especially when she has her internal debate about whether she can make a life for herself in Maycomb.  At one point she is told her talents would be required, but I’m none the wiser as to what these are, at least in a professional sense.

Unfortunately the novel looses its way somewhat in the middle.  It becomes disjointed, with large swathes of dialogue tenuously linked together.  The dialogue is lengthy, referencing Supreme Court decisions and local government functions that I had to go and google to make sense of. The dialogue often errs towards preaching, with extended passages espousing a character’s point of view on various topics, which become too long-winded and would have benefited from some serious editing.

Saying that, the language and characterisation is remarkably modern, considering it was written at the same time as, or prior to, Mockingbird. This is partly due to the point of view focussing on an adult Jean Louise, rather than 6 year old Scout, so there is less of the child-like vernacular. But even when the flow is messy, the brilliant writing of Harper Lee still shines through.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with the ending. I’m not too bothered about spoilers, seeing as it has been out for a year now and a synopsis can be easily found on Wikipedia. It all centres round Scout coming to a realisation about her worldview, in relation to her father’s. I didn’t buy it. She’s 26 years old, has been living away from home through college and then work for, what 8 years? If she was 16 at the time it may have made more sense, but everything we have learned about Scout tells us that she would have soaked up everything that college and New York had to offer, and would have conversed and debated and argued with a multitude of people from all walks of life along the way.  I just didn’t believe that she made it that far in life without that “shocking” revelation dawning on her.

So on the whole I’m glad I read it. There are some great passages and it was somehow nice to find out how Scout turned out. Part of me wants another sequel set in another 20 years, to see where she goes next. It reaffirmed my love for Mockingbird and the character of Scout. There were also some good sections in the too-lengthy dialogue exchanges about civil rights and freedoms which are worth reading and reminding ourselves about, particularly relevant for current discourse on immigration and religious tolerance in America (and elsewhere) today. It didn’t spoil Mockingbird for me, I view Watchman as kind of a set of extra notes on Mockingbird, which enhance my understanding of it and accompany it nicely.  I will definitely return to re-read Mockingbird again at some point, I can’t see myself re-reading Watchman, but I’m glad I gave it a shot.