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A Good Read?
  Noel Coward







There was a programme in the “A Good Read” series on Radio 4 a few months back, in which barrister Anthony Julius and Guardian columnist Sarfraz Mansoor joined presenter Martha Kearney to choose one book each as a recommended good read. The two men chose “Trilby” by George du Maurier and “American Pastorale” by Philip Roth. Martha Kearney chose “Double Whammy” by Carl Hiaasen. The discussion of the two men’s choices was quite worthy and approving and moderately dull. It was only when they came to talk about the Carl Hiaasen novel that it all took off.

Hiaasen, if you don’t know, is a Florida journalist who writes crime novels which are very funny yet full of anger about the way the Florida environment is being ruined by big money. I have read a couple and enjoyed them a lot. (My 19-year-old son loves him and has read all of them.) Martha Kearney must have thought she was on to an easy winner with her choice, but to her (and my) amazement the two men said they had found it a complete waste of time reading it.

Sarfraz Mansoor explained it thus. He had grown up in a working class home where there were no books, so when he discovered books they had been very precious to him – each one a discovery, an opening on the world, a lesson on life. So he could never envisage reading a book which did not tell him about the world. To put it another way, he never read for pure entertainment, and he felt that the time he had spent reading Carl Hiaasen was time down the drain. Anthony Julius, though he had apparently not grown up in a non-reading home, agreed completely – what was the idea of wasting time on a frivolous yarn?

Martha Kearney could not believe her ears, and I could not either. Were these two men completely without a safety valve? Doesn’t everyone need to escape now and then? Don’t we all feel the occasional urge to have a quick Agatha Christie or Ruth Rendell? Must we never read Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, or Jilly Cooper?

Apparently not. There are still puritans among us, or utilitarians at least, for whom everything has to be useful, nothing frivolous. Michael Wharton, when at the helm of Peter Simple’s “The Way of the World”, had the inspiration of inventing a missing fourth Bronte sister, who was quite different from her sisters in that she hated literature and creative stuff, and loved technology and industry. Her dream was to cover the dreary and featureless Yorkshire Moors in pylons, telegraph poles and wind farms. I can’t remember the name he gave her, but for me she has always stood for the no-nonsense, sensible approach to life which says that it is a waste of time reading Carl Hiaasen when you could be learning about poverty in Africa or post-Soviet Russia, or learning how to install your own solar panels.

This cropped up again in a recent radio discussion between crime expert Marcel Berlins and John Williams, author of a new study of American crime fiction called “Return to the Badlands”. Williams was disposed to argue that American crime writers provided the best modern picture of America, displacing the old social realists. Berlins was disposed to say, Hey, hey, hold on! Once you elevate crime fiction as social realism you start forgetting about the entertainment, the stabbing and sleuthing which is what the crime fan tunes in for in the first place. There has to be a balance, said Berlins, and I agree, even if Julius and Mansoor would not.

But book arguments take more forms than just pleasure v. purpose. Recently I was telling a man at a dinner party that I had just been reading Rupert Brooke’s forgotten travel book, “Letters From America”, and had loved it all except the introduction by Henry James whom I had found as obtuse and maddening as ever. The man’s brow darkened and thunder was heard. He was a Henry James fan. We got through that episode safely, and he then told me of a time when he had, amazingly, been part of a three man-group abroad in China, the other two men being John Smith and Tony Blair.

I won’t identify the dinner guest, in case it embarrasses him, but he has variously been in arts management and politics for many years, and in the far-off days when John Smith was the next Labour Prime Minister, he had to accompany Smith and the man who turned out to be the real next Prime Minister on a fact-finding mission to China.

“Smith was a very cultured man,” he said. “I could have long chats with him about, oh, I don’t know, architecture and Scottish history and the Waverley Novels. Blair never took part in this. It meant nothing to him. He had no small talk outside politics. I do not believe he has ever read a book voluntarily in his life. I know for a fact that when he became Prime Minister he said only two things to his first Arts Minister: Don’t spend too much money and get some good celebrities along to Downing Street for a party.”

“So I couldn’t have a ding dong argument with Tony Blair about Henry James, then?”

“Only if he thought Henry James was somebody who was a danger to his majority in Parliament.”

Scary. Tony Blair is clearly a man who would not bother to read Carl Hiaasen, then. Or want to tackle Philip Roth, or George du Maurier, either, come to that. Scary.


The Oldie Oct 20 06