Follies and Nonsense

August 5, 2015

Go Set a Watchman  

Most of us can’t read Go Set a Watchman without being influenced by our earlier experiences of  To Kill a Mockingbird – and the gulf between the two has left many readers disappointed.  Yesterday it was reported in the Guardian that a US bookshop was refunding customers who were disappointed that it was not “nice summer novel” but more of “an academic insight into Lee’s development as a novelist.”

There’s something faintly disturbing about that to me. I recognise that the situation with Harper Lee is unique – not just because of the status of To Kill a Mockingbird, but because of the doubts surrounding the way the book was published.  But surely one of the joys of reading is having our expectations overturned, and being made to look at the world in a new way.

And really – would anyone have ever recommened To Kill a Mockingbird as “a nice summer novel” – something to read on the airplane or the beach?

Alhough I love To Kill a Mockingbird – I cannot regret reading Go Set a Watchman. It does give an insight into the development of a novelist, but it is also interesting in its own right.

Watchman is a growing up novel.  Scout has become Jean Louise – all grown up and coming back to her home town after working in New York. Reading the novel, I shared Scout’s journey as she discovers her father hold views she finds abhorrent, and when I finished I felt a bit battered and bruised. Some of my earliest moral lessons came to me from Atticus, imprinted on me at an early age, as for so many other readers. I don’t think that’s diminished by finding him a more complex character – as Jean Louise’s uncle says – he’s no longer godlike and perfect. He’s so far from godlike and perfect that a man who we saw as a heroic fighter for justice for black people now supports segregation and says they are not in any way ready for equality.

It’s clear that many readers weren’t happy being confronted by this new vision of Atticus. It’s not been any easier for us than it was for Scout to let go of that child-like idealisation.

In fact her uncle confronts her with this – and says she has a Daddy complex. It’s one of the least satisfying parts of the novel – this wordy and at times abstract confrontation. I would guess that the psychoanlytic approach was very fashionable when the novel was written, and seemed edgy and modern too – but now it just seems clumsy.  And yet that’s also one of the strengths of the novel. The personal is political – as feminist thinkers were to say later, in the 1960s and 70s.

Ursula Le Guin’s blog post about the novel is well worth reading in its entirety.  Le Guin’s personal experience adds so much to my own fumblings towards understanding the context. Here’s her conclusion

So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.

Little white lies . . . North or South, they’re White lies. But not little ones.

Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.

 Having re-read it, I still think Mockingbird is a much more accomplished novel – but perhaps Watchman was more ambitious.  Watchman reads like an early draft, but there are glimpses of the skilled writer who wrote Mockingbird. Not just in the childhood scenes that Lee was persuaded to transform into Mockingbird, but in the character of Jean Louise, and the way she challenges her Aunt, her father and Henry – the man she was considering marrying.  I can’t help but wonder what Watchman might have been, if it had been worked on and polished to the same standard as Mockingbird. I doubt it would have been as popular as To Kill a Mockingbird. But it might have been a better novel.


August 4, 2015

Online toys for writers  

It’s entirely possible I might be procrastinating again, but anything that keeps the accounts at bay for another hour or two must be a Good Thing.

So which of us could resist playing with the latest language analysis tool? Here it is – the IBM Watson Personality Insights Service

From the website –

The IBM Watson Personality Insights service uses linguistic analytics to extract a spectrum of cognitive and social characteristics from the text data that a person generates through blogs, tweets, forum posts, and more.

So I selected a huge chunk of text from my novel-in-progress and pasted it into the text box and pressed analyse, wondering if the results would say something about me, the writer – or about Alice, my narrator.

And this is what the machine said…

You are genial.

You are calm-seeking: you prefer activities that are quiet, calm, and safe. You are confident: you are hard to embarrass and are self-confident most of the time. And you are empathetic: you feel what others feel and are compassionate towards them.

You are motivated to seek out experiences that provide a strong feeling of well-being.

You are relatively unconcerned with achieving success: you make decisions with little regard for how they show off your talents. You consider helping others to guide a large part of what you do: you think it is important to take care of the people around you.

Well, that’s not Alice – certainly at the beginning of the novel she’s pretty much the opposite of self confident and in fact the section I analysed included a panic attack.  An interesting result.

Still it reminded me of that other fun tool, I Write Like, which analyses your writing and compares it to the writing of a whole host of well known writers. I’ve had results in the past ranging from Dan Brown to Margaret Atwood, but hadn’t tried the new novel yet.

So I pasted the same selection from my novel in there and my result was –

I’m not having much trouble in sticking to my follies and nonsense theme so far, am I?

Quietly bemused and no wiser about my novel, I guess it’s time to start working on the accounts…. But if you would be kind enough to tempt me away from them, please do try the tools out on your own writing and share the results.



August 1, 2015

Jack the Ripper  

Jack the ripper

There’s seemingly never much of a gap between Ripper stories hitting the newspapers, but this week I’ve seen two – both interesting for very different reasons.

The first one is the new museum – you can take a look at the website here.   Of course the story of the Ripper holds a fascination for many of us who are interested in crime, and the museum itself is designed to appeal to that curiosity, as a journey through a series of themed rooms. There’s an imagined sitting room for the Ripper. How? Since we have no idea who he was, how on earth can we imagine his sitting room? As the website says, you decide – An artist, a doctor, an aristocrat? No mention of the possibility he was a journalist, which we will consider later…  The other rooms cover the second murder, a police station, a victim’s bedroom – and an adults only mortuary with shocking autopsy photographs.

What is fascinating about this is how much it is a constructed fiction – but no doubt it will attract many ghouls, including crime writers with an interest in the darker side of human nature. Ahem.

What is really troubling though, is that this was supposed to be a museum devoted to the women of the East End and the suffragettes. This is how it was described on the planning application that was approved last year.  Instead of that, it’s been transformed into a museum which focuses on someone who killed women of the East End.

The justification for this change? “It is absolutely not celebrating the crimes of Jack the Ripper but looking at why and how the women got in that situation in the first place.”  Victim blaming words calculated to irritate even the least radical feminist. He probably meant only that it was intended as a social history exhibit. Just as he probably meant to say he was planning to open a Jack the Ripper museum when he accidentally described it as a women’s history resource.

So who is the man behind the ultimate bait and switch?

Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe. Former diversity chief of Google.

(I can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.)

The other story is from the Telegraph, and claims that the mystery of who Jack the Ripper is has finally been solved. There is, of course, a book associated with this theory, although it comes too late for the opening of the Ripper museum, and potentially makes it obsolete already.

How many theories are there already? Too many to mention, although Wikipedia makes a valiant effort.

The Duke of Clarence is frequently mentioned as a suspect – the first one I read about in one of Colin Wilson’s books. It’s always fascinating to look back and see where one has picked up some very dodgy ideas…

One of my favourites is that expounded by Patricia Cornell, the writer of many crime novels featuring Kay Scarpetta, a forensic scientist who has many run ins with fictional serial killers.  Her case against Walter Sickert, the artist.  She wrote a book – perhaps erroneously described by Wikipedia as non-fiction – Portrait of a Killer, which has since been rather thoroughly debunked.

Another recent suspect fingered by the Telegraph, if I recall correctly, was Aaron Kosminski – a Polish Jew who had spent time in a lunatic asylum and may – or may not – have been suspected at the time. The dodgy evidence in that case was DNA on a shawl that was supposed to belong to one of the victims – but there were very many reasons why the evidence was not reliable.

So there are a couple of interesting features about this new suspect, although as far as I can tell, nothing that can possibly provide anything like proof.

The first is that apparently the Ministry of Justice is considering granting an exhumation order for Mary Jean Kelly – who was the last known victim of the Ripper.  The writer, Dr Wynne Weston-Davies, believes that she is his great aunt, and was killed by her ex husband, as revenge for her leaving him to return to her life of prostitution. The other victims were killed as cover, because Francis Craig was a reporter with detailed knowledge of police methods. He was also a plagiarist – which might be evidence of a sort. I was reminded of the Thomas De Quincy quotation – “If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.”

(Yes, I guess writing a post about Jack the Ripper IS procrastination. No, I haven’t killed anyone recently. Honest.)

The Telegraph story adds this to the small pile of clues –

“Followers of the case have long puzzled over why a series of infamous letters which originated the “Jack the Ripper” nickname were sent to the Central News press agency at the Old Bailey rather than a national newspaper, which would have been the most obvious destination to an ordinary member of the public.

Dr Weston-Davies suggests Craig was indeed the author of these “Dear Boss” letters and sending them to a news agency would have been a straightforward choice for him.

As a journalist who sometimes syndicated his own work, Craig knew it was the best way to have their contents sent to every newspaper in the land, further deepening his camouflage as the killer.”

That certainly reads like a clue that might belong
in an episode of Ripper Street.  Still, I have my reservations. I’m not sure how proving her identity would be sufficent to show her ex husband was the killer, even with the addition of a good story stringing together a few pieces of circumstantial evidence.

Still, it could add some substance to the theme of Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe’s museum. How do women get into that situation in the first place?  Work as a prostitute, marry a man, leave a man…

If only that story really did belong in a museum.


Sources –

Guardian article – Museum billed as celebration of London women opens as Jack the Ripper exhibit

Museum website – About page

Telegraph article – Jack the Ripper identity : mystery ‘solved’ in new book


July 31, 2015

First Post  

“Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” So says Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – and it’s pretty much the only thing I have in common with her.

She also says, “I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good.” For some reason I always forget that part.

So this is my new blog. I’m still playing around with the settings so it may all change, but I reckon the only way to learn is by doing.

Actually, I’ve just completed a Coursera MOOC – “Learning how to learn” – and apparently the best way to learn is to do, and do over. And if you find something difficult don’t just keep banging your head against it – get up and go for a walk. So that’s good to know.

I’m at the beginning stages of working on a new novel, so one thing I learned on the course was very enlightening. The theory goes, there are two main kinds of thinking – focused and diffuse. This illuminated something for me – I love editing and rewriting, but always have difficulty with the blank page – the first draft. My dominant mode of thinking is focused -logical, analytical, and directed. The first draft requires diffuse thinking – this is the mode where ideas crash into each other and become more than the sum of their parts. It’s like dreaming while awake.  This is much harder for me – perhaps for most people. But again it can be accessed by switching off the focused mind. Going for a walk is good – there’s something about rhythmic activity that works. I used to find it happened when I was weaving. Some people find playing music helps, or doing yoga or T’ai Chi.

Come to think of it, I think there was an interesting quotation on exactly this in my Open University Creative Writing course, which was what set me off writing novels in the first place.

Ah yes, here’s the relevant quotation from the reflective commentary on the assignment which eventually became the prologue of the first novel I actually completed.

Fay Weldon says that ‘there have to be two personalities in every writer’: A, who produces the first drafts, has to be ‘creative, impetuous, wilful, emotional, sloppy’; B, who works on them, has to be ‘argumentative, self-righteous, cautious, rational, effective’

Considering how easily impetuous, wilful and sloppy comes to me, it’s surprising that first draft is always so hard.

So now I’m off now for a walk.


Many thanks to Blogmistress Babs Saul for giving the kickstart I needed and getting me up and….crawling…  If you need help find her here – I cannot recommend her highly enough.