A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
So, a couple of days ago, my book came out. It’s about conservative popular fiction, which I’ve spent many decades reading and studying, and trying to teach, though getting permission to teach it is hard because politically conservative fiction doesn’t often fit into university courses. Conservative fiction is also a bit of a dirty concept in British academia, since the worst damage done to the British university system over the past forty years has been by the Conservative Party. But one does research on what one is drawn to research, and I am powerfully drawn to reading old-fashioned Tory fiction because it fascinates me. It’s partly social anthropology, since those classes and opinions are not mine, and partly an apolitical appreciation for splendid writing. My main author of interest is John Buchan, but my book is also about Angela Thirkell and Dornford Yates, rampant Tories all.
Before the book came out, I was listening to the Guardian Books podcast about Modernism in 1915, and was horrified to hear Robert McCrum, whom I respect mightily but for whom I already had a word or two lined up to say because of his inaccurate remarks about John Buchan in his P G Wodehouse biography; anyway, McCrum dismissed Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps in half a sentence by saying that it (and by extension Buchan himself) was anti-Semitic. I wrote to Claire Armitstead, the Guardian Books editor to protest, and immediately got a reply asking me to take part in a Guardian Books podcast to discuss it.
Yikes. Naturally I said yes, we agreed a date when I would be in London, and then everything went quiet for a month. I cautiously told my editor and the marketing people at Palgrave, who were very excited, and produced a bound proof copy of the book for Claire to read beforehand. I wasn’t completely convinced that the podcast would actually happen, but when I sent a polite ‘here I am and what do you want me to prepare?’ email the day beforehand, all systems were clearly go. I spent the morning madly rereading the relevant chapters of my book. I was terrified by an insouciant email from Claire saying she’d got Robert McCrum to come in for the recording as well. I could hardly eat anything for lunch. I walked up to Guardian Towers, a fancy shiny glass block round the back of King’s Cross, at least an hour early, and looked very carefully at each one of the photographs in the downstairs exhibition space for ages. Then I went up the escalator, announced myself, and read the paper (free copies of the Guardian everywhere).
The Guardian is the British national left-wing daily newspaper. It is caricatured by the Right as being a predictable newspaper of protest and right-on sentiments, read only by the teaching and healthcare professions, and public sector workers. It’s not hard-core Socialist (I’m speaking to readers in the USA now), but it comes from a radical tradition where unions were right and Tories were wrong, and diversity is essential. That’s why it’s interesting that the Guardian wanted me to bang on about conservative writers. However, I observed the staff going in and out, and over that half an hour on a Wednesday lunchtime, not one person going in or out was not white (apart from the reception and security staff, which is not enough for proper employment diversity). Just saying.
Claire appeared grinning widely, and took me through corridors and rather lavish sitting and snacking areas to the studio. It was all a bit of a rush. I managed to smile hello at the wary-looking woman at the mixing desk (was not introduced), while Claire was introducing me to a friendly Mr McCrum. We shook hands. I put my bag on the floor, which contained my notebook with all my prepping notes, and there it remained for the whole recording. We sat at a smallish round table laden with heavy microphones and anti-sibilance baffles. My glass of water had spilled when I arrived, I kept mopping it up out of nervousness. I remembered to check that Claire had the right university affiliation for me (have just moved to Reading), and we were off.
It was a fast and intense conversation, more fun than a job interview, but more risky, since I didn’t really know what they wanted from me. Was I there as a performer, or to be crushed? I wasn’t entirely sure if I would be defending Buchan against all comers, or if anyone was on my side. Turns out McCrum was totally in agreement with almost everything I said, and the interview turned into a volley. I was whanging points back to him and at Claire, mainly saying ‘yes, but ….’ to correct the common assumptions about Buchan and The Thirty-Nine Steps that they were throwing at me like a tennis-ball machine. I haven’t had such a enjoyably combative discussion in years. I’m used to recording podcasts, since I did my own for three years, but podcasting a conversation is such fun!
And then it was over! Where did the time go? I was ushered out and taken back to the lift in about two minutes flat, barely having time to say a proper fangirl thank you and goodbye to Mr McCrum (barely got a second to smile thank-you-and-goodbye at mixing-desk woman). And then it was silence, until last night, when the podcast came out, and I got an email from the Guardian asking me to write an article (unpaid) for next week’s Top Ten Books column. It will be about Conservative Novels, and I will have a lot of fun tweaking perceptions.
You can listen to the podcast here.
Kate Macdonald, Novelists Against Social Change (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), ISBN 9781137457714, £58 (it was £55 a week ago! sorry about that)
Kate also talks about books that enthuse her mightily at katemacdonald.net.
This week, we scan biography, art history and current fiction.
Monday: Kate reads Frank O'Connor's two autobiographies about modern Irish history.
Wednesday: Jackie delves into Sebastian Smee's book of artists who influenced each other,The Art of Rivalry.
Friday: Moira negotiates the currents and quicksands of Jenn Ashworth's enigmatic Fell.