Reading My Way Through 1959

The cover of Free Fall by William Golding,

I’m planning to spend 2019 reading only novels from 1959, with some extra homework on the side.

Why? Because in 2017, I set myself a similar reading challenge – only books by women – and it helped me focus. I read more, and more widely, and more books that were new to me. I discovered some new favourite writers (such as Edna O’Brien) and the habit stuck: I continued to read more books by women in 2018, and feel better for it.

But in 2018, with no specific challenge, I read less overall, and caught myself lazily returning to old favourites out of which I have already chewed all the flavour.

So, for this year, I needed a challenge, and focusing on a specific time period seemed like a good idea. The mid-20th century happens to be where my head is at a lot of the time anyway. It also happens to be when the Big Novel I’m working on is mostly set, so this also doubles as research.

I landed on 1959 specifically by asking my handful of discerning Twitter followers to choose between 80 years ago, 70, 60, and 50. (It was close – 1969 nearly won.)

As of this morning, I’ve started reading Free Fall by William Golding, which I found on Wikipedia’s list of British novels published in 1959, and then happened to stumble across in a secondhand bookshop in Osterley on Sunday. “Perhaps you found this book on a stall fifty years hence which is another now”, he writes eight pages in, bending my mind somewhat, despite being ten years out. It’s not quite my usual thing – very self-consciously literary, prose verging on Joycean – but it seems to have hooks in me already.

A low resolution image of streaks of light on a curving road.
From the front page of the Manchester Guardian for 1 January 1959: ‘The lights of south-bound vehicles on the Preston Motorway’.

On the side, though, I’m also going to try to do something I’ve been thinking about for years: reading a daily newspaper for each day of 1959.

This has never been easier than today with local libraries offering access to The Times and the Guardian, and the incredible British Newspaper Archive providing scans of all kinds of local and national titles.

On 1 January 1959 the Manchester Guardian was declaring A PROSPEROUS NEW YEAR with “Industrial shares index at highest level ever”. It reported that actor Alec Guinness had been awarded a knighthood, and that the West had rejected Nikita Khruschev’s suggestion that Berlin be made a “free city”. Meanwhile, in Cyprus, EOKA issued a defiant new year message for the British government: “We will emerge from our present peaceful attitude as FULLY armed avengers to return the blows.”

Postcard of Coventry Cathedral.

Given my interest in post-war architecture, I was also interested to read this:

To-day, for the first time, hymns and prayers have sounded in Coventry’s new cathedral. They came not from the choice and chapter but from the unaccustomed voices of the masons and labourers, tilers and glaziers and plumbers, whose hands are raising the walls of what to-oday we heard called “This great fortress of God in Coventry.”

Unfortunately, an opinion piece on racial tension, and a surge in white nationalist tendencies, suggests that there’s little shelter from the problems of 2019 to be found in desk-bound time travel.

I’ll also be making a point of listening to music from 1959, and watching films and TV from the same year, without being exclusive about it. I’m looking forward to rewatching Room at the Top for starters, which I last saw as a teenager in Steven Bennison’s media studies class at Bridgwater College.

If anyone feels like joining in, or borrowing this idea but wallowing in a different year, go for it – I always enjoy company on these expeditions.

True Crime

A mural in South London.

There are lots of problems with ‘true crime’ writing.

First, so much of it feels as if it’s been written by a sweaty Dennis Franz-alike wearing a dirty vest in a seedy hotel. As if the writers would actually like to be doing the kinds of things they’re writing about, and are writing for people who feel the same. Pornography for repressed psychos, basically, or at least the chronically morbid.

Then there’s the stuff that goes out of its way not to wallow in the gore and physical horror but instead attempts to ‘tell the stories’ of those murdered and of those left behind. Sometimes it has a noble purpose — to ensure that the true weight of the crime is underscored as justice is administered; to keep the story in the news so that the case won’t be closed; or simply re-balancing attention from killer to victim. Too often, though, this also feels like pornography, albeit of a more subtle kind: ‘I can’t imagine what it must be like…’ (But with a shudder that sits somewhere between fear and thrill.)

Still other examples turn the police into unblemished heroes (The Badge);  massage them into archetypes (crusading, compassionate) for the sake of a neat narrative. It is about strong men struggling with demons, refusing to give up. This is another kind of fantasy, albeit often a reassuring one.

I’m thinking about all this because I’ll admit I used to be one of those weirdos who is somewhat interested in the Jack the Ripper case. It was something I came to as a teenager via Sherlock Holmes, and I guess Hammer Horror — not the best route, I now realise. At first, I was more interested in Victorian London, and books about Jack the Ripper were merely a useful, easily available vehicle for accounts of, for example, Jewish social clubs in Whitechapel in the 1880s, or the lives of those who slept hanging in rows on ropes for want of a bed.

Later, I began to feel a nagging irritation at the fact the case offered no closure. How could someone kill six women (the number is debated) and get away with it? Surely some papers would turn up, or a DNA test, wouldn’t they? (There is a whole industry devoted to ‘startling new evidence’.) My theory — because one had to have a theory — was that ‘Jack’ would prove to be the most boring, anonymous 20 to 35-year-old living on or near Flower & Dean Street, and definitely not a mad doctor or prince or whatever else.

I can pinpoint the moment when I realised this was not a healthy thing to be interested in — to have as something even vaguely resembling a ‘hobby’, for goodness sake. It was when a friend booked places on a Jack the Ripper tour of the East End one autumn evening during which the guide, with, I thought, evident glee, declared: ‘…and cut her open from vagina to breastbone’. He made the motion with his hand as he said it. The Americans on the tour giggled but I thought, very Englishly, ‘Steady on.’ He was quite the showman, he had a living to make, I understand all that, but it wasn’t right, and it cast the whole business into sharp relief.

I still have a couple of books about the case on my shelf (both long discredited, I gather) which I catch myself dipping into from time to time, but I haven’t bought any more since. I have also read other bits of true crime writing such as David Simon’s Homicide and the Library of America anthology. I listened to the first series of Serial like everyone else on the planet. The fact that true crime podcasts so often include long-winded justifications for their own existence betrays that their creators doubt their own motives: corpses + grief = subscribers.

Some of the true crime writing I’ve encountered, I enjoyed, if that’s the right word, but some gave me that sick feeling. So much of it concentrates on the killing of women, accurately reflecting the sad ways of the world, no doubt, but leaving me queasily asking… Why am I reading this? And why did they write it?

In recent years, driven primarily by determined female historians, thinking around the Ripper case in particular has moved on. It won’t be solved and in talking endlessly about the murderer, and especially in depicting him as a semi-mythical satanic figure akin to Spring-Heeled Jack rather than a sad arsehole, we do the victims a disservice. So, the new thinking goes, let’s look at and talk about them as whole people, who lived long, full lives before they became merely ‘victims’, if we absolutely must continue to dwell on this horrible case. To which end, Hallie Rubenhold is working on a book about the victims of Jack the Ripper due out next year; and Dr Fern Riddell’s Tweet thread on the same subject, from 2013, is here.

If Jack the Ripper destroyed Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Kelly, and got away with it, the best justice we can now hope for is to put them back together with greater completeness and reverence than their humble lives might otherwise have prompted.

Hungry for Culture on a Council Estate

BOOKS: Quiet Flows the Don, The Rattle Bag, Jeeves and Wooster

It’s been interesting to see conversation in the past week about working class access to culture prompted by Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at Glastonbury.

Personally, though I get where they’re coming from, I’d like commentators to think twice before implying that to be working class is to be essentially lumpen, leaden, tasteless and disengaged.

I grew up in a working class family, mostly on a council estate in Somerset, and mostly skint, but there was culture everywhere, assuming you don’t define culture only as Shakespeare and Beethoven.

There were libraries, both in town and at school, where idealistic librarians delighted in the slightest sign of enthusiasm on the part of kids like me. They went out of their way to push cool books and to acquire books by authors in whom I showed any particular interest. By the age of 16 I’d read, for example, Joseph Conrad, James Ellroy, William Gibson, Ernest Hemingway and Philip K. Dick. (All a bit male, I realise, but I’m working on that now.)

I had teachers who refused to talk down, either in terms of age or social class, and lent or gave me copies of books by C.S. Lewis, Raymond Chandler, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mikhail Sholokhov. (Actually, I never got round to reading that last one…)

And, though I didn’t realise it at the time, the bearded socialist in the Lenin cap who ran the secondhand book stall in my home town was carrying out practical redistribution when he tipped me off to an unadvertised five-Penguin-paperbacks for a pound offer. I built a library that way, stacking my rickety shelves with everything from George Orwell to P.G. Wodehouse, via Len Deighton and Dashiell Hammett. Libraries are great but owning a book — scribbling in the margins, bending the corners, dipping in and out over the course of years — is different.

Then there was Auntie, and her extended family. When I started to develop a serious interest in films as a young teenager I didn’t need an art-house cinema because I had the BBC and its lingering Reithian desire to improve and educate. There was Moviedrome, for example, which saw Alex Cox beaming the cultest of cult films into the corner of my bedroom. (I inherited my Nan’s nicotine-stained punch-button TV and VHS recorder when she upgraded. Something something flat screen TVs something something benefits.) And I remember being floored by a season of film noir in about 1993 where I saw things likeThe Big Combo and Double Indemnity for the first time, book-ended with serious-minded discussion and accompanying documentaries. Meanwhile, Channel 4 gave us the Banned season which my friends and I stayed up to watch hoping for titillation but came away from having seen The Life of Brian, fully contextualised as part of a serious debate about censorship. I started listening to Radio 4 at about the same time — hours a week of quality drama (Clive Merrison is the best Sherlock Holmes) and discussion of varying degrees of intellectual rigour running as background noise, drip-feeding my brain.

My parents not only encouraged my consumption of culture but also set a good example. My Dad has been a serious, obsessive fan of blues music since he was a teenager on his own Somerset council estate. Though he’s not a great reader in general he will read about music and so our house was always full of heavyweight volumes by American musicologists, either borrowed from the library or (the secret weapon in many working class bookcases) cancelled and sold off by the library service for 10 or 20p. He also introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock, spaghetti westerns and Hammer horror; to the Kinks, the Bluesbreakers, and the Pretty Things. All, with hindsight, pretty hipster cool for a small-town lathe-operator.

Mum is and always has been a reader — one or two books on the go at any time, speeding through the pages, always keen to explain why she likes or dislikes any particular book. She expected me to read and to enjoy reading and — not in a pushy parent way, but quite naturally — and it worked; I did, and I do. On a couple of occasions she even tried to write novels — Mills & Boon romances, I think — on a typewriter in the dining room. She didn’t get far but that sent a powerful message, too: just because we’ve got fuck-all, and live somewhere like this, doesn’t mean we have to be passive — we’re allowed to create! I started writing myself on the typewriter she abandoned. (Or did I just steal it from her?) I suppose Dad’s various bands over the years, and his dabbling in songwriting, underlined that point.

When I went to university I was sure I would be at a disadvantage and, sure, I sometimes felt a bit lost when people started to compare experience of going to the theatre — to date, I’ve seen, I think, four plays, ever — that is a world from which I feel cut off. In many ways, though, I felt more rounded in my education than some of my peers, and more confident in my own sense of what was good and bad, and what was worth studying in the first place.

I worry sometimes that the infrastructure I enjoyed has been eroded. Libraries have closed or become less ambitious, and TV seems less willing to lecture or challenge in case it gets accused of being patronising or pretentious. But then I hear a story about a refugee in the Lebanon learning to play the violin largely from YouTube videos, and remember the existence of, say, Project Gutenberg, or, and I think, no, there’s reason to be optimistic. There’s more culture to enjoy, and more cheap or free ways to enjoy it, than ever before.

And if there’s one thing we council types are good at it’s stretching scraps and mince out to a full meal.