Reading or Studying?

I often listen to Radio 4’s A Good Read on a Friday night as I’m getting ready for bed, and so sometimes, I admit, I fall asleep before it’s got quite to the end.  But last week I heard it all the way through, more alert than usual perhaps because of a comment made by one of the contributors which set me wondering.

The format of the programme is very simple.  Two guests are invited to recommend a paperback book as ‘a good read’ and, together with the host, who has also nominated a book, they come together and discuss them.  Generally, as with so many discussions, the most interesting programmes are the one during which the contributors disagree.  Where one person fails to see the charms of the others all time favourite volume from childhood, or where another admits to not being able to finish something because they hated it so much.

Last week had some elements of that when opinions differed on Anne Enright’s The Gathering, and The Box of Delights by John Masefield. But it was the work that united them that generated the most thought provoking comment, which each of them repeated in their own way.

TS Eliot’s Four Quartets was selected by historian Ruth Richardson.  It is unusual in itself for a book of poetry to feature on the programme, which mostly focusses on fiction, with a dash of history and popular science, so it was not unexpected that this would be a point of note.  Ruth Richardson explained why she loved the poetry, picking out lines that meant something particular to her, or which had struck a chord with her on different times.  She also confessed that although she didn’t understand it all, she loved it none the less.

I’ve never studied it, she said at one point, rather defensively, as if failure to have ‘studied’ it might disqualify her from liking it.  Later, when giving her reaction to reading it, Harriet Gilbert, the host, also said that while she had read the book many years ago, she too had not studied it.

And I wondered what they meant.  Are there things that have to be studied rather than just read? Is reading a lesser activity than studying?  Which novels that you love might you have to qualify your enjoyment of by admitting a failure of study?

Is it about understanding every inter textual/mythological/ historical/ philosophical/ biographical reference contained in the text, or enjoying the rhythm and richness of the words; rather like understanding all the allegorical references in the bits and pieces around the edges of a Renaissance painting without actually looking at the rich colours or the sweep of the drapery?

Or does study imply that you have both read the thing itself, and read what other people have had to say about it?  My first thought was the idea of studying something at school or university, where the act of being taught it, revising it, and writing an essay about it, drained most things of any kind of excitement or enjoyment.

Are there any novels that you’ve enjoyed but which, if you were to recommend them, you feel you’d have to confess that you’d never studied?  I’ve certainly never done so, therefore for one day only, I’m going to give it a go…. looking back through the 19th century canon……

I read War and Peace (*)when I was a teenager, and loved it.  I don’t think I understood all the philosophy bits because I’ve never studied it, but it’s a great story.

* Insert as appropriate

Anna Karenina

Madame Bovary

Crime and Punishment

Cousin Bette

Tale of Two Cities

Following the Rabbit of Enquiry Down the Tunnel of Google

Even though I’m not at all interested in sport, I’ve been listening to Sport and the British by way of a podcast, so have occasional binges of listening, followed by periods in which the episodes just accumulate.

It is essentially social history told through the lens of sport; telling of class, social and sexual differences, Empire and commerce.  It’s yet another subject in that category of things that I don’t want to be involved in myself, but which I’m happy to hear people who are interested, talk intelligently about.

Had you ever wondered why, for example, if all of football, rugby and cricket originated in Britain, why rugby was exported to the Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand, while cricket made it to the latter two as well as India, Pakistan and the West Indies, and football went primarily to South America?  Well, no, nor had I, but it was, nevertheless,  interesting to hear an explanation involving which type of Briton went to which place, whether for colonial government or for trade.

A couple of the frequently mentioned expert contributors are academics from De Montfort University.  I remark on this only because I had never before heard of that University.  So, of course I did what I always now do in those situations, I went online and searched for it, and I now know that it is Leicester and became a university in the early 1990s.  Perhaps because the only university I might have previously associated with sport and sporty things is Loughborough, I delved further into why De Montfort is the source of such a fund of knowledge on the history of this subject.

And now I know; they have a whole team of people there – a collection of no less than 8 Professors and Doctors with a multiplicity of publications to their names.  And to top it all, you can do an MA in the subject, should you be so minded.

The idea that there are so many academics operating in what, until now, I could only have imagined was a very tiny arena, made me pause.  It reminded me of a Partner of the accounting firm where I did my training, a diminutive man, disappointed that he never grew tall enough to be a footballer, in the same way a young ballerina might be aggrieved that she grew too tall for the Royal Ballet, who turned all his professional attention onto being the tax adviser of choice to football clubs, when, in the 1980s they were first rushing headlong into public Listings to raise capital.

He was ferocious in his pursuit of footballing clients, going directly head to head with anyone who might try to compete with him.  Doing whatever it took, and then bouncing along on an inflated cushion of his own self importance at having such ‘glamorous’ clients.

And I wondered about the dynamics of competition between 8 academics, in the same department, all studying aspects of the same thing.  Maybe it’s no more competitive than academics expert in Medieval swordplay, or 18th century domestics arguing the odds, but somehow I can’t help but think that people who choose sport as their area will be particularly cut throat in their ambition to be the winner, the top dog, the most published, the most frequently consulted.  I like the idea too that now they’ll be able to crow that it doesn’t matter any more that they’ve never been invited on In Our Time; they’ve had a whole series.

So there you have it.  All I was doing was listening to a quite interesting programme on the radio, and now I’m constructing a drama, with a new cast of characters, at a university in the Midlands.

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

When Santa very kindly brought me a Kindle for Christmas I knew immediately that this would be the book I would download first.  A number of my friends had spoken about it, waiting for me to read it so that we could discuss it, and then it won the Booker Prize from a much criticised short list, but I had been waiting for the paperback to appear…..

I’d heard bits of it on Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 so I knew to expect the rather laconic, laid back tone of a rather dull man looking back over the most puzzling or interesting thing that had happened in his life.  The impatience of friends to talk about it made me suspect that there were layers of ambiguity in the plot which begged for discussion and speculation.

I also spent a little time scanning the multitude of reviews on the amazon site.  Clearly this is a book that has polarised opinions; some love it, others simply ‘don’t get it’, to quote Veronica in the book.  I suspect it is that one either likes the rather cool style and the lack of clear resolution, or one doesn’t.

The novel is short and told in the first person by Tony, now retired, who looks back on certain events in his life.  The first of the three sections focuses on the friendship of three and then, when Adrian arrives at the school, four school friends; pretentious, believing themselves destined for great things, they debate the nature of history both amongst themselves and in class.

In the second, the friends disperse to different universities and Tony begins what is an unsatisfactory relationship, for him, with Veronica culminating in an awkward weekend spent at Veronica’s parents’ home.  When they subsequently split up Tony is appalled to receive a letter from Adrian telling him that Adrian and Veronica were going out.

Many years later, after he has been married and divorced, become a father and grandfather and retired from his job, Tony receives a letter from a solicitor informing him of a bequest from Veronica’s mother.

It is at this point that we realise that Tony may not be as reliable a narrator in his straightforward ordinariness would have us believe.

This, and the subsequently unleashed events, forces Tony to reconsider his telling of his own story.  Has he been entirely honest with himself or us?  Has he fully appreciated the impact his past actions had on the people around him?  The more he thinks about it, the more details he recalls; details which throw in the potential for a very different interpretation of the events in the story he is telling.

There is a twist at the very end which you may or may not anticipate, but it did make me go back and think about all the little clues which had been scattered through the narrative until then, but there remain unanswered questions, and huge uncertainty about some of the things which neither Tony nor I are ever going to ‘get’.  Clearly, however, he was much crueller and significantly less empathetic than he thought he was.

I found it a very easy book to read, and finished it very quickly; I’m not sure how much of it I will retain, perhaps the contemplation of what unreliable narrators of our own lives we all are, how we work on and embellish those stories of ourselves, from our own point of view, and how they probably become less and less recognisable to others who were there at the time with us.

On the Radio, Maybe

When I first started work in London, in an office in Surrey St, if it was raining  I would take a short cut from Kingsway to the Strand by ducking through Bush House; through the fancy main door on the midpoint of Aldwych, down the stairs and out through the back door onto the Strand.  It didn’t cut that much time off the journey, but it afforded a bit of shelter, and made me feel like a new ‘secret things’ about my new city.

This week it was an entirely different experience to enter the building, involving queuing outside, having my name ticked off a list, my bag inspected, wearing a special badge around my neck and walking through a metal detector before being escorted down the stairs and across a courtyard and down more stairs.

A lot has changed in the intervening years: Aldwych Tube station is now used only as a set for movies and pop videos and, these days, we expect to be challenged and searched before entering any building, and it is fair to assume that the BBC is more vulnerable than most institutions to the headline seeking trouble maker.

Experience sharp moments of insight into the huge changes that I’ve stopped noticing, it was comforting to also see that some things have the potential to be universal: that people will want to gather together to talk about books.

I was part of the audience for a recording of Radio4 Book Club.  About two dozen people gathered together in a small studio in the basement of Bush House.  We sat facing Jim Naughtie and the author Ross Raisin, who were either side of a coffee table over which two microphones were angled like awkward birds.

There was no mistaking that this was a radio programme, and not to be seen by anyone else.  The coffee table was chipped and marked, the chairs were the sort that would grace a church hall, the walls were fawn and padded, the illumination was fluorescent strips, technicians at banks of controls were visible through a glass partition and Jim was tie-less in shirt sleeves, a set of earphones clamped to his head.

I often wake up to Jim Naughtie’s voice on the Radio 4 Today programme, it’s a voice that is part of the radio listening psyche.  I  know it belongs to a person, but it usually has a magic disembodied character to it; it has a force and an authority.  In person, it’s a quiet voice, presumably modulated by years of experience to be the perfect voice for radio.  He didn’t raise it to quell the hubbub of pre-show chatter; throughout he spoke quite softly, either used to being listened to, or happy to carry on whether people are listening or not.

Everything about the proceedings was informal.  In advance, we had been asked to submit questions, but this was more to make sure that we were prepared with some, rather than to pre select which would be asked.  The first person was picked out and briefed, but after that it was open to anyone to ask anything they liked, by raising their hand and attracting the attention of the man with the wandering mic on a long stick.

It’s all glued together with Jim’s quiet authority and relevant interjections at suitable intervals.  He acknowledges that he may look silly with the headphones on, and that it can be a bit ridiculous to have to repeat the same introductions several times trying out different intonations, but he’s not self concious about having to do it, so we all sat there in silence watching a professional at work.

I liked the calmness of it all, especially when in a break to deal with a crackling microphone the author pointed out that in his introduction, Jim had awarded him with prized he’d not won.  A quick redraft, and off they were rolling again.

We were discussing ‘God’s Own Country’ by Ross Raisin, a book I warmed to during the discussion.  Ross Raisin has a lot of charm, and he engaged with every question and gave thoughtful answers, especially to a small group of teenagers who had come as part of a school trip.

I was disappointed not to ask a question.  I was primed and ready to go until I had a coughing fit; and there is nothing worse than trying not to cough when you need to; it makes it all so much worse.  In my panic, I missed a couple of questions which I think may have covered some of the topics I was interested in, and I didn’t want to repeat a point, and then it took a while to recover my composure…..

They recorded much more than they will need, so I will be listening keenly when it’s broadcast to hear how they fashion the programme out of the raw material.

I’ll let you know the transmission date when I know; it’s likely to be April or May next year.  I’m working on a review of the book too.

The Jam Generation

The last couple of weeks I’ve heard the closing few minutes of The Jam Generation Takes Power on Radio 4.  Finally, I searched out and listened to the final episode of the series.

The premise of the programme is a discussion of the impact on their youth of the crop of politicians currently leading the parties in Westminster.  Be it Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat they are products of the same cookie cutter: all of an age, from similar backgrounds and education.  They have more in common, it seems, with each other, than with any group of their constituents.

They have reached the leadership of their respective parties at a younger age than in any previous period, when typically a party leader would be one of the more experienced members, rather than the most fresh-faced and photogenic.  One of the consequences of this trend is that they have barely any experience outside of politics other than their youth.

To explore what impact growing up in Britain in the 1980s has had on them is possibly the only analysis it is possible to do.  They have been nicknamed ‘The Jam Generation’ because of the popularity of the group’s songs and Paul Weller’s politically inspired lyrics during that period.

I suppose it comes to us all that moment when we realise that the Prime Minister is younger than us; I must admit I had expected to be a bit older before it happened to me.  But there we are.  I’d thought I was part of the ‘Jam Generation’ myself, having been quite a fan in the early 1980s, but it seems I was a touch superannuated even then, being closer in age to the member of the band themselves than to what must have been a teenage fan base.

And in the appreciation of pop music those decades and half decades are important.

What first piqued my interest in the programme was a vivid memory of an argument between a friend, the same age as me, and a friend of his sister’s, some 5 or 6 years older than us.  It was probably 1982 or ’83, or at least not long after The Jam had broken up.  The point at dispute was which band would be remembered longer: The Beatles or The Jam.

It was one of those typically unresolvable arguments, fuelled by alcohol and righteous indignation on both sides.  The Beatles had broken up before we had reached record buying age, while The Jam was the soundtrack of our first years away from home, echoing the bleakness of the market that we faced when  first looking for jobs.  They felt so much more relevant than what felt like the old fashioned hippydippy ness of the Beatles.

The last fire-fight of the bout resolved into a call and repeat of :

”Smithers-Jones’ is better than ‘Eleanor Rigby’

‘No it’s not.’

‘Yes it is’

‘Eleanor Rigby sets the standard for social realism is pop songs’

‘No it doesn’t’

‘Yes it does.’

Punctuate with pointed fingers stabbing the air and pint glasses banging on the table at awkward angles on a table already swimming in beer.

I’m sure you all have an opinion on this.

Meanwhile, perhaps the best line in the radio programme was:

‘It’s not often you see Paul Weller’s words quoted in the Economist’.

In the meantime, I know it’s not conclusive, but I have frequently played Jam tracks on my iPod, but no Beatles.

Digital archiving

The BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Tales from the Digital Archive’ set me off on a meandering route of imaginings this week.  Apparently to keep up with the evolution on technology Libraries now accept the old computers, floppy discs and general digital ephemera as part of the literary donations from writers and other luminaries.

Where before it was boxes of scraps of papers, diaries and hand written manuscripts to be pored over by academics in white gloves, now they take the actual computers which are tended by IT specialists schooled in the art of opening documents in long superseded software without changing the date for ‘last viewed’ careful of inadvertently amending texts.  The sweat and grease from the hands of researchers, and perhaps the odd spilled cup of coffee used to be the greatest danger to  authorial detritus, now it is Windows relentless upgrading.

With the physical computer in front of them, exhaustive researchers and biographers can’t resist taking full advantage.  They study screensavers, desktop images and the way in which the owner organised the files on the hard disc.  Seeing when particular amendments were made to texts, they check the internet search history to see what research was done on the same day; they check patterns of usage of the computer to know what time of day it was customary for their subject to work.  They can use digital analysis techniques to compare different versions of the same piece of work – ‘analysis that, ‘done manually’ used to take days.’

There will be no secrets from the literary scavengers, no quick little breaks to check the cricket score or today’s horoscope on line.

Now I’m not deluded enough to think that anyone will ever want to examine the organisation of the files on my laptop, but it did make me pause to think what might be revealed about me if they did; all those hours of random reading on the internet, those games of spider solitaire while I’m girding myself to get going, the checking of my email in the hope that someone will have sent me something amusing to divert me, the bitty way in which I draft blog posts; all those quarter finished stories, and bits and pieces that should have gone somewhere that didn’t; that story about the destructive nature of hope that I keep trying to get to work……

Maybe I should start deleting some of the history files.  I still don’t know whether to believe the claims that it is impossible to really delete anything from a computer memory.  If it’s true, why is there so much stuff I can never seem to find again?

Fay Wheldon was interviewed about the change in her own writing when she moved from writing long hand to using a computer.  She believed that it had fundamentally changed the structure of her work.  Hand written things tended to be more jaggedy and twisting, while things written under the discipline of word processing checking spelling and syntax, and with ‘cut and paste’ options, were much smoother and linear.

She commented that with a computer it is so easy to change words and phrases that there was much less significance in those changes now as compared to when it was a much more laborious and labour intensive task to complete.  And anyway, she concluded, no-one will be interested in ‘old’ technology any more.  She likened the current technological changes to the redundancy of monk copyists on the arrival of the Caxton press.

Only time will tell……

Meanwhile I’ll be doing the disc clean and defragging programmes just in case.

Radio 4

There is a great debate under way about the services provided by BBC Radio 4; an article in the newspaper invited a number of contributors to suggest changes they would make to the programming if they were in charge.

I have a radio in every room in my flat; there’s one in the bathroom because a bath without ‘Book at Bedtime’ just isn’t the same pleasure;  and one beside my bed because I need the even tones of a Radio 4 speaking voice to lull me to sleep and to wake me up in the morning.

When I’m away from home I either listen to the podcasts of favourite programmes I’ve downloaded specifically for the purpose of rocking me to sleep, or catch programmes over an internet connection to my PC.

Still there are programmes that  I only ever hear half of, because I’ve fallen asleep or because I’ve been listening in the car and arrived at my destination before the end; sitting in a car park to hear the last few minutes somehow feels a little odd.

With more time I could plan my day around the programmes I would like to listen to and catch up on, but so far I’ve never achieved this.

Needless to say then that I am the holder of strong opinions about the service, and never one to let the opportunity for drawing up a list go by, here are some of my favourites as well as my personal black list.


Today Programme, but only before 7, after that they become far too argumentative and shouty.

The World Tonight , but I prefer Ritula Shah to Robin Lustig.

In Our Time and Front Row which I listen to as podcasts

Thinking Allowed which quite frequently keeps me company very late at night.

Desert Island Discs, of course.  This is one of those where I don’t think I could have as a friend a person who couldn’t discuss the whys and wherefores of guests’ choices, at length.

I also quite enjoy the late night Saturday quiz shows Round Britain Quiz and even Brain of Britain, although I wouldn’t necessarily seek them out if their timing changed.

And finally, I like some of the drama; last year’s version of the Smiley novels starring Simon Russell Beale were programmes I waited for.

Now for the ones that make me turn the radio off:

Something Understood – regular readers will already know my opinion of this

You and Yours – oh dear, so dreary.

Those awful unfunny standup comedy shows/ the shouty performance poetry shows that are on at 6:30 in the evening and sometimes at 11 too.

Today in Parliament it’s far too noisy for the time of night it’s on.

Any Questions/Any Answers/Moneybox Live and anything  else at all involving public phone ins.  Just Don’t.  Isn’t Radio 5 Live the place for all that painful audience participation?

And finally those two holy cows Gardener’s Question Time and The Archers. Can’t bear ’em

So now I’m ready for a good debate.  What are your favourites?

Heroic Disagreement

Probably the greatest crime, of many, perpetrated by the first half of the BBC programme ‘Faulks on Fiction’ last Saturday was that it was dull.  It took me two attempts to watch the whole thing, and then only because I felt I should do so.

I had heard Mariella Frostrup give Faulks a grilling on Open Book during which she challenged him on the choices of characters represented on the programme.  During that discussion when he wasn’t patronising, he was defensive and flappy, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that I did not find him an engaging presenter.

The thesis behind the programme is that we should examine the brilliance of the British novel by examining the characters within the pages rather than worry about the biography or motivation of the author.  The first episode claimed to be an examination of the development of the idea of ‘the hero’ in British literature as it mirrored social change over the 300 years since the publication of ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

There will evidently be subsequent programmes on Lover, Snobs and Villains, and I will gird myself to endure them.

Any selection or list by its nature will be controversial; every sentient viewer who managed to stay with the programme should have been compiling their own rival list, but, having said all of that, the one offered by Faulks was disappointing in its myopic, dreary bloke-ishness.

The suggestion is that to be ‘a hero’, the character is the main protagonist and is recognisably human containing a mixture of good and bad that the reader can readily recognise and sympathise with, if not necessarily like.  Of itself it’s a thesis I can accept, the short list of 7 was, however, not one with which I had any sympathy.

There was something so profoundly unappealing in seeing Faulks and Boris Johnston discuss Jim in ‘Lucky Jim’, interspersed by clips from a BBC adaptation of the novel, that I think if I weren’t such a dedicated reader it would have convinced me that reading was a shameful activity.

To test if my dislike of the programme was unique to me I checked on Twitter to see what comments were reflected there.  My two favourites were ‘all SF needs is an Elizabethan ruff around his neck’ (to go with his tufty beard and straggly hair?); and ‘Has SF ever read a novel by a woman?’.

So, from memory, these were his selection:

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

Becky Sharpe – (Vanity Fair) Thackeray

Sherlock Holmes – Conan Doyle

Winston Smith –  (1984) George Orwell

Jim – (Lucky Jim) Kingsley Amis

John Self – (Money) Martin Amis

An alternative, deliberately controversial list, for you to criticise …….

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

Becky Sharpe – Thackery

Orlando – Virginia Woolfe

Christine Guthrie – (Sunset Song) Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Dona St Columb – (Frenchman’s Creek) Daphne du Maurier

Martha Quest – Doris Lessing

Billy Prior – (Regeneration) Pat Barker

So what do you think?  Remember the conditions – Protagonists in British novels (OK I stretched it a bit with D Lessing), spread over the historic development of the novel, with something to say about the social changes at the time they were written.

Over to you.

Room 101

There used to be a programme called ‘Room 101’ on the BBC; an alternative take on those listing shows, this one required the guest to list the things that they disliked or about which they had a particular peeve.

The name was inspired by the Room 101 in Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ which contained each person’s worst nightmare; for poor Winston Smith it was a box containing rats that would be strapped to his face.

The list of things that I’d not like to encounter is a long one, and would include things like rats, road traffic accidents and gunshot wounds, but on the basis that I’ve managed to largely avoid them thus far (touch wood), I don’t spend too much time thinking about them.

There are also many irritants in life which are relatively easy to side step without too much trouble, like anything involving Simon Cowell or Noel Edmonds for which I’ve found a rapid channel change is the simple and convenient remedy.

But there are some things which do insist on aggravating me, that get in my way and for which I have to deploy specific avoidance strategies or scream and tear my hair (albeit metaphorically, mostly).

  1. Honey.  Can’t stand the stuff.  Don’t like the way it tastes and the smell of it can quite put me off my breakfast. It insinuates itself all over the place.  I have to read the ingredients on cold remedies and cereal bars very carefully, because the manufacturers just can’t resist, can they?  Regular readers will already know that packet reading isn’t a particular hardship for me, but reading labels only to find honey on the list of ingredients is just wasting my time.  And for those doubters, yes, there is honey in Toblerone; that’s what makes it taste so nasty.
  2. ‘Service’ that gets between me and what I want.  You know what I mean.  It’s arriving at a fancy-pants hotel where they won’t let you carry your own bag to your room, and then having to wait for delivery when the only thing you want to do is to have a shower NOW.  Or the buffet breakfast where you have to wait for the staff to serve the coffee, and coffee is all you really want.
  3. ‘Something Understood’ on Radio 4.  It’s on from 11:30pm on a Sunday.  I listen to the radio as I’m going to sleep every night, but my loathing for this mixture of ponderous sanctimoniousness and music snippets means that every Sunday I have to set up my iPod by my bedside so I can listen to a podcast of something, anything, more interesting as I drift off, instead.
  4. Badly designed things…..the thing that always come to mind when I think of this is the toilet paper dispenser in the Eurostar trains.  For about 4 years I used to travel from London to Paris and back again twice a month so I’ve had ample opportunity to stoke my annoyance.  The effect of the design of the dispenser is either that the pink sheets come out pre-shredded on the sharp metal edges of the box, or in wodges of ten, to be discarded straight onto the floor.
  5. Skin on cooked fish in restaurants.  Why do they do it?  I enjoy eating out; I like good food and I’m even prepared to spend a reasonable amount of money on it.  But I can’t bear the fashion of serving a piece of fish draped over its accompaniments, skin side up.  I’m not going to eat the skin; in fact I find the skin quite off putting,  so why present that to me first?  I feel that they’ve just been too lazy to skin it and learn how to cook it properly without it falling apart.
  6. People who talk in incomprehensible jargon.  They’re out there selling mobile telephones, manning IT help desks, trading in the City.  They don’t listen to the question you’re asking, they just give you the script.  They think they sound clever, but all they are doing is failing to hide their own ignorance.  Someone who really understands how something complicated works can explain it in a way that a non specialist can understand.  I’m sure when I was working in the corporate tax field I was guilty of using jargon sometimes, but  I like to think that I usually made up for it later.

So what are your top six rants?

Part of the herd or right on trend?

I have been listening to Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 ( with closer attention than usual this week.  It is a reading of a first novel ‘Snowdrops’ by AD Miller set in Moscow sometime in the last 10 years seen through the eyes of an expat lawyer approaching 40. I’ve not read the book and I’ve only heard 3 of the episodes so I’m only guessing how it’s going to end, but it has set me thinking.

It might be because I spent a couple of years as an expat in Moscow (in the 1990s), or because I’ve just completed the first draft of a novel set in Moscow seen through the eyes of an expat.  Is ‘Snowdrops’ a rival, or is it a sign of a developing publishing trend?

I’ve been listening closely to the style and content decisions made by the author, as I have faced many of the same.  How do you convey the Russian spoken fluently by the Russian characters and badly by the English ones?  Do you make everyone speak a stilted pidgin version of Russian, which because the novel is written in English are of necessity …in English?  Or do you drop in bits of real Russian which risks alienating an English speaking reader?

How much do you need to explain about everyday normalities of Moscow life for an English reader without labouring it and making the novel sound too much like a travelogue?

I recognise parts of the Moscow described in ‘Snowdrops’; I recognise the rather hapless hero too.  He reminds me of the type who, after a couple of ‘unfortunate incidents’, prompted one manager in my office to distribute a note to the effect ‘if you were only moderately attractive in your home country, passing through Russian immigration won’t have changed that.  If that beautiful young woman laying herself across your lap looks too good to be true, it’s because she is.’

So I can see similarities with my work; but I’m hoping the differences are greater.  ‘Snowdrops’ seems to be a story of decline, where I hope mine is one of redemption; it is a plot driven piece where I like to think mine, although I’ve worked hard on the plot, is more about character.

I’m not sure, either, that AD Miller is that interested in language, as otherwise it is difficult to understand some of his choices.   Bouncers at a restaurant are described as ‘Himalayan’.  Surely I’m not the only person who thought ‘I’ve never seen a Sherpa in Moscow’? A woman’s smile is ‘nice’.  Nice?  Hasn’t he read Writing 101? The city smells of ‘beer and revolution’. Er, no.

Or am I just jealous?

The actor reading the book for the radio has also had to handle the question of what accent he should use for each of the characters.  I was interested to see Lorelei King’s blog on the decisions she faced in a similar situation.

I’m not sure the actor reading this week has been as successful as Lorelei.  Even though the protagonist is described as speaking good Russian with a terrible accent, the actor is really over doing the terrible pronunciation.  Even the most cloth eared would know how to say the few Russian phrases he has been required to read.  It brought to mind former colleagues who described themselves as ‘nearly fluent’ when they could order a couple of beers, and say ‘hi’ and ‘thank you’; while the ones with degrees in Russian, who’d read ‘Anna Karenina’ in the original language, would say, that at best, they could ‘get by’.

But, oh, to have such problems……

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