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Monday, November 19, 2012

RJ Ellory,

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HOW TO KILL A CULTURE My mission is very simple: I want to kill a culture. I have been thinking about this for a long time. It has engaged my thoughts and energies for a considerable number of years, and I think I have the key. I am sure it has to do with reading. It has to do with literacy. It has to do with the way in which we communicate with one another, the way we educate our children, the way we create the next generation. I think I shall begin with television. I shall ensure that the vast majority of televisual ‘entertainment’ is banal and unimaginative. I’ll create ‘reality’ shows that present the most mundane ideas as interesting and important. I’ll work my way into schools. I’ll incapacitate a teacher’s ability to just teach by overwhelming them with bureaucracy and paperwork. I’ll frustrate all their endeavours with rules and regulations designed simply to inhibit their natural ability and purpose as an educator. Then I’ll start to close the libraries. I’ll say it’s because of lack of funding. Everyone is already worried about money, about tax, about the rising cost of social needs, and it will be easy to convince them. After all, who’s using them nowadays? Certainly not the kids, right? Of course, I’ll keep on funding the manufacture of arms and drugs and other such vital things, but the libraries can definitely go. Then I’ll lower the price of books. That will be easy enough. I’ll talk about a fair marketplace, the necessity for competition. I’ll use business terms. I’ll put it all in the realm of finance and commerce, and most people won’t really understand it. I’ll devalue the worth of a book to such an extent that bookstores and publishers will go out of business and writers won’t be able to support themselves. It might be difficult at first. I might face some protest, some disagreement, but those that have the will to protest and disagree will be in the minority. You see, the longer my plan continues the less people will be reading anyway, and those that do read will be served a diet of ‘literature’ that does not challenge, that does not provoke debate, that does not raise intelligence or enhance their understanding of life. We wouldn’t want that, would we? I mean, there have been dangerous precedents, haven’t there? Upton Sinclair’s novel ‘The Jungle’, when read by Theodore Roosevelt, provoked a government-ordered enquiry into the way Americans were being fed. Sinclair used the proceeds of the book to build a socialist meeting house, and went on to write another one hundred books about industrial corruption. Edith Maude Eaton’s ‘Mrs. Spring Fragrance’ highlighted issues about racism against the Chinese in America that caused the Chinese Exclusion Act to be repealed in 1943. Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ was the first acknowledged publication about the truths of terrorism. Fiction can powerful, provocative, contentious, impactful, unforgettable, and even when read for pleasure alone, there are few books that do not – even in some small way – change the perspective of the reader. Wasn’t it Helen Exley who said, “Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labelled ‘This could change your life’”? So yes, I have to be careful of those who read, of those who encourage and promote reading, of those who would attempt to inspire others, of those who would seek to fire the imagination or lift the spirit of their fellow Man. And if I am successful in my mission, if I manage to reduce the population to unthinking, unquestioning robots who merely do what they are told, who believe what they hear on the radio or television, who never challenge or fight back or demand justice for wrongdoing, then what will I have? Well, I will have exactly what I want – a society without art, without music, without culture, without vision, without a future. It was accomplished by the Romans, you see? They brought the society down to a point where sex and violence became the mainstay of that culture’s ‘entertainment’. It was accomplished in Hitler’s Germany, where people became afraid to say anything at all that contradicted the ruling tyranny. It was the same in Stalin’s Russia. Yes, I am sure it has to begin with reading. If I can kill the desire to read, if I can stem the availability of books and literature, then more than half the battle will be won. Now, you will read that, and you will think, “This is not the same. This is not Rome or Germany or Russia. This is the modern west. This is not comparable at all.” Or is it? Since April of 2011, we have closed over one hundred and fifty UK libraries. A further two hundred and twenty-one static libraries and thirty-six mobile libraries are now under threat. If that threat becomes a reality, we will have reduced the number of UK libraries by twelve percent. That’s one in eight. As for independent bookstores, just today an article in The Telegraph reports that the number of UK bookstores has halved since 2005. That’s over 2000 closures in the last seven years – over two hundred and eighty a year, close to six a week. Six hundred towns now have no bookshop at all. The library at Thebes was considered to be the greatest in the world. There were four words inscribed over the doorway: “Medicine For The Soul.” That – for me – says it all. Telling stories is as old as speech, and no less important. Telling stories is a tradition, a heritage, a legacy…it is the past making its way toward the future in an effort to show us those things we have failed to learn by our own experience. Telling stories is a hope that magic can be restored to an age that has almost forgotten. Through the pages of a book we discover history, science, music, art, the collected lessons of the thousand or more years of thinking Man, and if the lessons for the future are not to be learned from the past, then were will they be learned? We are bound by rules and regulations. A society exists, due – in some part – to the existence of rules and regulations, but those rules and regulations can be viewed as lines within which to remain, or lines to cross. More often than not, any accomplishment of value flew in the face of considered opinion to the better. Without those who defied mediocrity and good behaviour, we would have no electricity or air flight, there would be no Michaelangelos or Thomas Edisons; we would not possess the technology to address the problems that exist in this world. I believe wholeheartedly that we – as a race of people – possess the wherewithal, the intelligence, the financial and technical resources to cure all of Man’s ills complete. If the minds of men were turned to constructive activities, as opposed to devising more ways in which they can kill one another faster, then we would cure cancer, world hunger, AIDS, ignorance and illiteracy, racism and prejudice. It has been proven that illiteracy relates to an inability to think, an inability to solve day-to-day problems, an inability to communicate, to work, to preserve and maintain a marriage, to raise a child. Illiteracy is at the root of anti-social behaviour and crime. Literate people can think, they can communicate, they can solve problems, they can hold down a job and get things done. Lower a society’s literacy level, and you kill it. It’s that simple. So, when you hear about libraries being shut down, when you see another independent bookstore going out of business, when you see someone promoting the need for a ‘competitive pricing structure’ that allows books to be sold at a fraction of their value, know what you are seeing. You are seeing the end of something priceless: the ability to think, to communicate, to express oneself, the end of one’s ability to solve problems, to preserve a family, a culture, a society, a race. As Kofi Annan said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.” It has been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Perhaps the reverse is also true: that once we have lost the ability to use a pen, all that will remain is the sword.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

16 comments
AND THE BEAT GOES ON…

The tail-end of October into the middle of November saw me moving away from the current project of completing ‘The Devil and The River’ (due for publication some time in 2013), as I undertook two entirely different writing projects, both of which are still under wraps, the first very definitely a literary project which will be released in the spring of 2012, the second a tentative venture into an entirely different genre and arena. The first is a certain, the second is an unknown, and – at least to some degree – these activities have reminded me that it is always necessary to look forward, to keep reviewing what you are doing, and, if needs be, to reinvent yourself.
Perhaps the music side of things was not enough, after all!
Nevertheless, mentioning that as I am, The Whiskey Poets project is still very much at the forefront of my attention, and we are in fact playing a gig at a private party today. The CD saw the release of four tracks, three originals and one cover, and we have since completed the writing of a further five or six new tracks. We are aiming to have a live set ready for gigging in the New Year, but I am extraordinarily busy, as are both Chris (bass) and Simon (drums). With full-time jobs, families, and all else that is required of you as a human being, it is not the easiest thing in the world to routinely find the time to do what we need to do.
Anyway, all that aside, we will be on the road soon, and we are looking forward to it immensely. We have invested in a 5500 watt PA system, so we can pretty much deafen anyone from a hundred yards.
If any of you want one of the CDs, they can be obtained through the website (www.whiskeypoets.com).
Since we last spoke, ‘Bad Signs’ has been released (October 27th), and it appears to have been well-received. Unfortunately, Amazon is pretty much the only public forum where any kind of wider public response can be posted, and the vast majority of people who buy and read books don’t post reviews on Amazon. Hence, the reviews you wind up with – though very positive in the main – are not wholly representative of the overall opinion. Nevertheless, those that are posted are very much appreciated. Of course, it is impossible to please everyone all the time, and it never ceases to amaze me when I get a critical or negative review which begins, ‘I have read all of this author’s books, and though I liked the earlier ones, I didn’t like this one, and this is why…’, and yet they have never posted a single word about the books they did like! Is that the seemingly natural human tendency we have to point out only those things that we find fault with, and never acknowledge those things that we consider good? I don’t understand it! It’s like spending time with a friend, and the only things you ever say are those designed to draw attention to aspects of their personality or character that you dislike. Methinks such a friendship would not survive long!
Anyway, authors are not in the business of soliciting reviews, and this is merely a comment on the oddity of things, of which there seems to be no shortage in life!
I was reading Emerson the other day, always a good way to spend your time, and I came across two quotes, quotes I have read before, but they seemed particularly inspiring and relevant today.

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”

“The crowning fortune of a man is to be born to some pursuit which finds him employment and happiness, whether it be to make baskets, or broadswords, or canals, or statues, or songs.”

Emerson was an exceptional writer, and an extraordinarily perceptive man, and the above two quotes seem to say a great deal about where we aren’t in this society at this time.
My brother reported to me the details of an article he’d recently read in one of the newspapers. Apparently a survey was undertaken of a great number of schoolchildren, ages ranging – I seem to recall – from eight to fifteen. When asked, ‘What do you want to be when you’re an adult?’, over seventy percent of them replied, ‘A celebrity’. When asked what it was they intended to be celebrated for, they didn’t understand the question.
I have been watching the recent Murdoch inquiry events, the phone-hacking ‘scandals’ et al, and it seems to me that Murdoch is a primary contributor to this current phenomenon where one is a ‘celebrity’ if a) one has money but produces nothing of any real value, or b) one shouts loudly enough that one is a celebrity without actually producing anything of any real value, or c) goes on a television program that is titillating, contentious, scandalous, gossip-driven, or just plain idiotic, and tells everyone that one is a celebrity, again without producing anything of any real value. I was in the supermarket yesterday, somewhere I go routinely, and I still cannot fathom the interest that justifies the continued publication of so-called ‘human interest’ and ‘chat’ magazines. The headlines blow my mind! ‘Slept with my boyfriend while his fiancée rotted in the garage’. ‘Shock horror – Cheryl Cole changes her shampoo’. ‘Chantelle is terrified she’ll get fat!’. ‘Katie dumped by new BFF’. ‘Danii says no to Simon for ever!’. And I’m thinking, ‘Who is this for? Who cares? Who, really, gives a single, solitary, meaningless crap about this banal and pointless drivel? Really?’
But these magazines keep being published so people must be buying them, and I’m wondering if those readers will ever read a quote by Emerson, or anyone else for that matter, that gives them some sort of real inspiration, a desire to create something that only they are capable of creating, something unique that leaves a mark on the world around them, and somehow improves it for the better.
Methinks, perhaps not.
Anyway, all that aside, I am not going to start ranting again. I have ranted so many times, and I know – for the main part – that it falls on deaf ears, and those whose ears are not deaf, well they pretty much have the same attitude as I about the shameful state we seem to have descended into as a culture.
When we are closing libraries, graduating a third or fourth generation of teenagers from school who not only don’t want to read, but can’t, when we are witness to half a dozen ‘I Hate Reading’ groups on facebook, between them possessing a membership that’s getting on for a million people, when we see professionally-printed notices and signs in the public domain that are littered with grammatical and spelling errors (Bussinessess Open As Usual; Newspapers & Ciggerettes; If You Look Under 21, We Will Need Proof Your Over 18 – all real examples within a mile of where I live!), then I think we are long past the point of being in trouble.
However, I will shut up. I get very vocal about this, and then I realise I am taking ever more firm and certain steps towards the status of Grumpy Old Man’, a status I am not resisting, not by any means, but it’s not very rock ‘n’ roll…or maybe it is. Elvis was a voracious reader, specializing in books concerning religion, philosophy and spirituality, and I know for a fact that Keith Richards is rarely without a book.
Personally I think books are cool and sexy. I think girls who read books are cool and sexy. I think that a lot of girls think that boys who read books are cool and sexy.
Why aren’t books cool and sexy any more? They are, and they should be, and that’s all there is to it.
End of story, so to speak.

Okay, on to other things…

We are all done and dusted on the copy-edit for ‘A Dark and Broken Heart’, due for release in May, 2012.
The blurb is as follows:

It should have been so easy for Vincent Madigan. Take four hundred thousand dollars away from some thieves, and who could they go to for help? No-one at all. For Madigan is charming, effective, and knows how to look after himself. The only problem is that he's up to his neck in debts to Sandia - the drug kingpin of Harlem, known as the 'Watermelon Man' on account of the terrible act of vengeance he inflicted against someone who betrayed him. This one heist will free Madigan from Sandia's control, and will finally give him the chance he needs to get his life back on track. But when Madigan is forced to kill his co-conspirators, he finds that not only is the stolen money marked, but an innocent child has been wounded in the crossfire. Now both Sandia and the collected might of the NYPD are looking for him. And beyond even this, the one person assigned to identify and hunt down Madigan is the very last person in the world he could have expected. Employing every deception and ruse he can think of, Madigan is engaged in a battle of wits that will test him to the very limit of his ability. Can he evade justice for what he has done, or will his own conscience become the very thing that unravels every one of his meticulous plans? Will this final lie be his salvation, or his undoing?

It is, once again, a very different book from the last one. It is set in New York in the present, and spans just a few days in the life of Vincent Madigan. There is no backstory to this one, as such. It is just a linear narrative, or, as a friend of mine so perceptively and accurately says, ‘Like one of those books where there’s a bunch of people and shit just happens…’, which – as far as I can see – is perhaps the most excellent way of describing any book! So yes, it is a book where there’s a bunch of people and shit just happens.
But, as I alluded to earlier, there are a couple of other things in the pipeline that will be around before May, so watch this space.

So, there we have it. A brief update. A brief rant.

I am sad to note that Tony Blair is still alive and well. Someone commented to me recently that he seems to be getting ever more orange in colour. I think he made a deal with the Devil, and has to spend one day a week in Hell in preparation for his eternity. Maybe Blair is learning the ropes, as the Devil has finally decided he’s had enough and has selected Blair as the most eminent candidate for his replacement. Headhunted, so to speak. With Hussein and bin Laden gone, Ghaddafi also, it seems that most of Tony’s closest chums have gone to prepare his reception in the bowels of Hell. Best place for him.

So, on that cheery note, I bid you farewell for now.

I trust all is well with you and yours, and I hope we shall speak again soon.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

2 comments
LONG OVERDUE…

It is hard to believe that the better part of six months have elapsed since I last posted a blog. I have determined to post more frequently, and perhaps post shorter blogs, as I know five thousand words is a little long for my musings and diatribes!

Since we last spoke I have been travelling again, but to fewer places than last year. I have been back to France twice, once for the very prestigious and longstanding Paris Book Fair, called Salon du Livre, and again to bring my son back from Paris where he had spent a few days with his penpal. I spent several days in Switzerland at a book festival, then went to Mantova in Italy for a wonderful series of events. A soon as I returned from Mantova, I headed out to St. Louis for the Bouchercon 2011 extravaganza. Once more, Bouchercon was all about friends catching up with friends, and I had the great pleasure of spending some time with Daniel Woodrell again. Daniel has recently become one of my very favourite authors, not only because of his truly astonishing books (the most recent of which - ‘The Outlaw Album’ – I am currently reading), but because he is just one of the best people.

The Edinburgh Festival was a highlight this year, with a really excellent event. I didn’t make it to Harrogate, but did make it to The Lichfield Arts Festival, the ITV3 Crime Thriller Awards and my brother’s wedding!

I also took on the position of Vice Chairman of the UK Crime Writers’ Association, and will be assuming Chairmanship duties in about a year and a half. The current Chairman is my very dear friend and travelling companion, Peter James, and it has been an absolute joy to be working with him on this. We have some exciting things in the pipeline, including the forming of a brand new organisation dedicated specifically to those of you who enjoy reading crime fiction!

However, as far as my own projects are concerned, ‘Bad Signs’ is out in a few days, ‘A Dark and Broken Heart’, due out in June 2012, is now finished and with the copy-editor, and I am half-way through ‘The Devil and The River’, the new book for 2013.

I have also finally found the time to get into the recording studio, and my band ‘The Whiskey Poets’ and I managed to get four tracks down on a CD. The CD, entitled ‘The Moonrise EP’ has been very-well received, and is actually on sale as a CD or as a download through the Whiskey Poets website (www.whiskeypoets.com).

We have just invested in a very substantial 5000w PA system, and we will be on the road soon, if all goes according to plan!

So, there we have it – a brief and to-the-point update on where I am now at, but – as I said – I intend to post more frequently, and in briefer splurges!

I trust all’s well with you.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

4 comments
THE FRENCH INTERVIEW

Recently, on a trip to France, I met a wonderful lady called Catherine Dô-duc. She and I had been in touch by e-mail, and then I met her in La Garenne Colombe, and we started talking about books and music and life, as is always the case when you meet people of like mind! Anyway, she asked if I would do an interview for her blog and website, and I agreed, Over the subsequent few days, once I had returned to the UK, she sent me a series of questions and we completed the interview in four parts. This interview (in French, of course!), has been posted on her website. She was kind enough to send me a complete transcript in English, and I reproduce it here for anyone who might be interested.

QUESTIONS TO RJ ELLORY

Inverview published in April 2011 on the Blog du polar
(http://leblogdupolar.blogspot.com)

Interviewing Roger Jon Ellory is sheer pleasure, but it is also a heavy responsibility, for his numerous fans are waiting round the corner...

Here is part one of our 4 episodes interview. You happy readers will spend April in the company of RJ Ellory... In this first episode, we'll talk about... writing. Next time, we'll talk about writers, then movies and music.

Episode 1
Writing... and writing

LBdP :When I start reading one of your books, I always have this strange ambiguous feeling : your words seem to flow out like a torrent of emotions and images, with a powerful drive and energy. And at the same time, when I read again, the words are so carefully chosen, the sentences have such a flow, the editing is so visual that it is almost cinematographic, I can't help wondering how much work it must have been. And yet you say you almost never rewrite nor modify, with a few minor exceptions. How do you explain that ?Experience ? Or do you carry your novels living "within" you for so long that once you start writing, the whole work's almost done.

RJE :A great question! Well yes, for me it seems that this is a very organic and immediate process. As you know, I wrote a great many books before I was published, and I think this experience was very valuable. I do not write a synopsis or an outline for a book, but I do carry the book around in my head all the time. When I am working on a novel I am thinking about it all the time – where am I going, what should happen next, if this happens then how would this other thing happen, you know? I change my mind, I go in different directions, and only when I am finished and I understand how the book has ended can I then resolve all the little details from the start of the novel. I work as quickly as I can – writing perhaps 50,000 words a month, and in this way a book is finished in its first draft in about two or three months. Then I step away for a few days, and when I go back to it I spend a couple of days just tidying the areas where it needs some attention, and then I am done.

LBdP :You're a virtuoso as far as structure is concerned. For example, in A Simple Act of Violence, the progression of the story is very much influenced by the pages in italics, where the reader gets acquainted with the story of John and Catherine. The reader's vision undergoes an impressive shift from the initial fear to more and more understanding and even empathy. In fact, the sensation of horror shifts from the criminal to the system that made him/her a criminal. At the same time, the investigation follows a slower path ("slow motion thriller" like !). And yet you never lose your reader ! How do you work on that? Is the rhythm an intrinsic part of your writing project right from the start, or does it impose itself while writing?

RJE :No, I think it is an intrinsic part of the process, and I think about it like a piece of music, a symphony with many parts perhaps, and each part adds to the whole, but as each part progresses you hear repetitions of earlier themes, you hear melodies that you heard before but perhaps in a different key, and then you start to understand the whole piece. Also, as you progress you feel the tension of it, and you have an idea where it will end and how you will feel as the conclusion. This is not always the case, and sometimes it takes you to a different place than you expected. There is an old saying that the journey is always far more interesting than the destination, and I think this is perhaps the truth with my books.

LBdP :Always in A Simple Act of Violence, the CIA "shepherd" convinces his future agents by evoking the duality between morals and ethics. What's your position about this?

RJE :I think there is a great confusion between ethics and morals. I think morals are those rules established by a society that dictate what we can and cannot do, based on the society’s belief in what will be right for the survival of the majority of people. Ethics is a personal thing, however. Morally it is wrong to kill another human being. But ethically, if that person is a kidnapper or a killer and they are threatening the well-being of your children, then is it wrong to kill them in self-defence? Well, the answer is not as obvious as it seems. This is also the way society looks at it. Morals are social, ethics are individual, and where we have difficulty is where the society tries to regulate the ethical decisions of individuals without appreciating the circumstances and situation of that individual.

LBdP :You are very much involved in educational and culture issues. Do you feel that lack of culture leads to fanatism or terrorism? Is this one of the issues you wanted to deal with A Simple Act of Violence?

RJE :I feel that lack of education leads to all of society’s ills. Intolerance and racism, bigotry and fear of others is founded in ignorance, and lack of education is the cause of ignorance. Educated people, whether they are self-educated or formally educated are the most tolerant, the most aware, the most respectful of other people. And yes, I think I am always trying to give both sides of the story with my novels. A Quiet Vendetta for example, started with the idea of writing about the worst kind of person I could think of, and yet by the end of the book you felt a certain sympathy and empathy for him, almost as if you could forgive him. Why? Because you could now understand him if not morally, then at least ethically.

LBdP :You say that a writer should not only write about what he knows, but about what he's interested in. Would you envisage to write a novel with, let's say, a feminine viewpoint ?! Or where the main character would be a woman?

RJE :I said that a writer should not only write about what he knows, but also what he is interested in. And I have written a book with a central female character. It was the second book to be published in the UK, and it is called Ghostheart’

LBdP :Your novels are always located in the US. And yet, you have a somewhat terrifying vision of the system that underlies the functioning of this country. How do you deal with this?

RJE :I think I was weaned out of infancy on American culture. I grew up watching Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, all those kinds of things. I loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there was so much colour and life inherent in its society. I have visited a good number of times, and I honestly feel like I’m going home in a strange kind of way, a bit like 'deja vu', if you know what I mean. And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area that you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important. Also many writers are told to write about the things with which they are familiar. I don’t think this is wrong, but I think it can be very limiting. I believe you should also write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose. I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. I think any author wants to write great novels. I don’t think anyone – in their heart of hearts – writes because it’s a sensible choice of profession, or for financial gain. I just love to write, and though the subject matter that I want to write about takes me to the States, it is nevertheless more important to me to write something that can move someone emotionally, perhaps change a view about life, and at the same time to try and write it as beautifully as I can. I also want to write about subjects – whether they be political conspiracies, serial killings, race relations, political assassinations or FBI and CIA investigations – that could only work in the USA. The kind of novels I want to write just wouldn’t work in small, green, leafy villages where you find Hobbits! And as far as my terrifying vision of this country, I think this same vision could be shown in any country. I think I could write about the UK or France or South Africa or Brazil in the same way. Every culture and society has its shadows, and we are simply directing a light towards those shadows.

LBdP :Stephen King's French translator, William Desmond, says that one of King's strength lies in his ability to reconnect the reader to his childhood emotions and feelings, to dig a hole in the multiple layers an adult has to build on top of his childhood. In a recent radio interview, you said something rather similar when you talked about one of the first books you read when you where a teenager. When I said that my first reading of A Quiet Belief in Angels, immediately made me think of Mark Twain, I thought of that aspect, that ability that you have to restore childhood innocence and to revive long gone emotions in your reader. Do you think that this could be one of the secrets behind the success of your books?

RJE :With me, the most important thing about any novel is the emotion it evokes. The reason for writing about the subjects I do is simply that such subjects give me the greatest opportunity to write about real people and how they deal with real situations. There is nothing in life more interesting than people, and one of the most interesting aspects of people is their ability to overcome difficulty and survive. I think I write ‘human dramas’, and in those dramas I feel I have sufficient canvas to paint the whole spectrum of human emotions, and this is what captures my attention. I once heard that non-fiction possesses, as its primary purpose, the conveying of information, whereas fiction possessed the primary purpose of evoking an emotion in the reader. I love writers that make me feel something – an emotion, whatever it might be – but I want to feel something as I read the book. There are millions of great books out there, all of them written very well, but they are mechanical in their plotting and style. Three weeks after reading them you might not recall anything about them. That is not meant as a criticism, because that degree of clever plotting takes a great intellect, and is probably something I just could not do well. However, the books that really get me are the ones I remember months later. I might not recall the names of the characters or the intricacies of the plot, but I remember how they made me feel. For me, that’s all important.
I have done, and still do, a tremendous amount of research. It was always very, very important to me to ensure that everything mentioned in the book was genuine and correct as far as the time and place were concerned. It can be quite a task. There is an old adage as far as writing is concerned – ‘Wear your learning lightly’ – meaning that you cannot bury your fictional work beneath a ton of facts. I have to be careful of that too; to make sure that the history and the cultural aspects necessary to give a sincere reflection of the time and place weren’t so overwhelming that the story beneath was lost. Some facts are hard to find, others somewhat easier, but still the responsibility lies with the author to make his or her work as sincere and genuine as possible.

LBdP :Related to the previous question, have you ever been asked psycho-analysis related questions about this childhood reminiscing faculty? How do you react to such interpretations?

RJE :I spent many years reading a great many books about the mind, life, people, human psychology and the way in which we work. I don’t think anyone has a monopoly on the truth. I don’t believe there is any science or religion or philosophy that knows all the answers to all of man’s difficulties. I have never undergone psychoanalysis, but I think I have asked myself a lot of these questions, and always with my brother and my friends we are discussing such subjects. It is an area of great fascination for me, and I often think about the effect of the past on the present, and how the past influences who we are and the way we live our lives.
To be completely honest, I think I don’t remember a lot from my childhood, but I must do. I think the emotional effect of my childhood experiences are there inside me, and when I write I sort of subconsciously draw on those experiences and emotions all the time.
I have often said that the French, more than anyone I know, look at everything twice. They see something for what it is, and then they look beyond. I think this is a fantastic quality, never taking anything completely at face value. This is something I try to do also, and I think it serves to help us understand ourselves and understand life far better. And the more we understand, the better we can survive and achieve a quality of life.

Episode 2
Writing and writers

LBdP :It seems that international crime writers form a kind of itinerant group travelling from Salons to Bookfairs all over the world, from Paris to Dubai, New York, Montreal... What do you think of this "globalization" of literature ? Do you appreciate meeting your "friendly competitors" in such occasions?

RJE :I do enjoy meeting other writers, and I do enjoy this globalization of literature, but the thing that I enjoy more than all of this is the fact that I have the privilege of meeting readers from so many different cultures, and seeing where one aspect of literature is important to one culture, and yet in a different culture it is something else.

LBdP :Are there any contemporary writers with whom you feel a particular connection ? Be it in literary approach, themes or other common points?

RJE :Well, there are contemporary writers I have met who I feel a sense of familiarity with, if for no other reason than we look at life in a similar way. I very much enjoyed spending time with Don Winslow, also with Daniel Woodrell. I talk to John Connolly, and he and I share a great many similar viewpoints about writing. I have met Michael Connelly and George Pelecanos, Robert Crais, Walter Mosley, and found them to be very intelligent, very perceptive, very human people, and I enjoy spending time with them very much.

LBdP :In France, we have at least one bad habit : that of overcategorizing literature. Your books must have come as a relief to the unfortunate so-called "intellectual" readers who still had to hide away if they wanted to read crime fiction. With your novels, they can proudly claim that they read literature ! Is this evolution common to many countries, or is it peculiar to France?

RJE :No, it is common to a lot of places, but perhaps in France there is a greater understanding of this than anywhere else. The reception I have received in France has been extraordinary and very special. I love to visit France. I love to speak with French readers. For me it is a great honour to have been so warmly received, and I hope this relationship and friendship will grow more and more as the years progress. The terms ‘human drama’ and ‘slow-motion thriller’ were coined in France, and this said a great deal to me. It said to me that you care, that you are interested, that such things are important, and though I am not too concerned whether I am writing thrillers or crime fiction or human dramas, it is great to be able to talk to people who just appreciate the books for what they are, as opposed to trying to justify why they are reading them! I do not think you need a reason to enjoy a book. Books are like wine: if it tastes good, then it is a good wine, no matter the year or the vineyard!

LBdP :Stephen King, in a florilege of texts consisting in advice to would-be writers, provided a bibliography of ca. 70 books in which only one was non-American. Do you think this is representative of the vision Americans have of world culture ? Do you feel, as some do, that European writers have somehow lost contact with the world as it is ?

RJE :I think there is a revolution going on. American literature – certainly in the fields of crime – has seemed to dominate the last thirty or forty years of publishing, but now, with the prominence of Scandinavian fiction, I think that publishers are now looking to South America, to Europe, elsewhere for ‘the next big thing’. I think this will serve to break down some of the barriers and get a lot more wonderful non-English writers translated into English and distributed around the world. Personally, anything that gets more readers reading, regardless of language, genre, subject or nationality, is the most important thing.

LBdP :What do you think of e-books ?

RJE :As far as e-books are concerned, I don't use one, probably never will, but anything that gets people reading is fine by me. E-books will never take the place of hard-copy books.
The tactile quality is important, the disposability, the fact that you can lose them, give them away, read them right until the plane touches down (as opposed to having to turn off electronic devices half an hour before landing), you can leave them on your sunlounger while you take a dip in the pool, and come back to find they are still there. Books never run out of charge, and physical books say something about you, and you can decorate a house with them!

Episode 3
Writing and movies

LBdP :Can you give us any news about the movie adaptation of A Quiet Belief in Angels by Olivier Dahan ?

RJE :I can’t tell you anything at all! I wrote the screenplay for Olivier, and he has had it for the better part of two years. I thought it was a good screenplay. I thought it really captured the emotional essence of the novel. But I think Mr.Dahan has lost interest in the project. I think we are now going to work on getting it into the hands of some other directors, directors who possess a sensitivity for the emotion of the story, and who are not afraid to make a ‘slow-motion thriller’!

LBdP : Did you enjoy the experience?

RJE:
In very simple terms, especially when we are dealing with novels that travel a little deeper than your average action-thriller, we are working with a great deal of thought and internal monologue on the part of the central characters. What they think and feel constitutes a significant part of the story. Therefore, in the field of novel adaptation, we are facing an inherent contradiction. Books focus, in the main part, on what our characters think and feel, whereas films focus on what people do and say. Often the difficulty in transcribing from book to film is that scenes have to be created that tell us aspects of the story that were entirely individual and personal in the minds of the characters throughout the book.
Additionally, a book – in general – has a scene of some significance every one thousand words. It is not a law, of course, but every three or four pages there is the introduction of a new character, some aspect of dialogue necessary to the plot, a conflict, a resolution, a red herring etc. In film, we are dealing with a scene of some significance every three or four minutes. Any more than that and the viewer becomes overwhelmed with information. There is too much to absorb. So here we have the conundrum. A book of one hundred to one hundred and fifty thousand words will give us a hundred to a hundred and fifty scenes. A film will present us with a scene about once every three minutes, and a film, on the whole is ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes long.
The work of the treatment writer and the screenplay writer is to take one hundred and fifty scenes, all of them important to the story, and collapse them into thirty or forty scenes of a film. How is that done, also taking into consideration that additional scenes have to be added in order to tell us aspects of the story that were only thoughts and feelings in the novel? It’s a tough job.
When I was commissioned to write the screenplay for ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’, the director told me that he knew many aspects of the novel would have to disappear, but all he wished to accomplish was that a filmgoer, leaving the cinema, would perhaps feel the same emotional impact as a reader having finished the book. That made a great deal of sense to me, and was an idea I could work with. I wrote the screenplay, and it taught me a great deal about succinctness, about clarity in dialogue. It taught me a great deal about how to say more with less words, and was a very valuable learning experience. Whether the film will ever be made is a different story!

LBdP :Many of your readers think that your novels seem to be written to become movies. How do you react ?

RJE :Reviews and criticisms are different animals. Reviews tend to give the reader an overview of the story, and are quite specific, in that the reviewer is often careful to highlight the fact that what they are saying is very much their personal opinion. Criticism is generally a more hostile and censorious affair, making a point of stressing what the reader did not like about the book. Critical comments can be very effective in introverting the author’s attention, contributing to that ever-present spectre of self-criticism that all creative people suffer. We criticise ourselves and our own work all the time; do we really need people to also remind us of our own failings? Perhaps, perhaps not. I read an article a while back that suggested that creative people, irrespective of genre or media, were composed of fifty percent ego and fifty percent insecurity. They possessed sufficient ego and arrogance to consider that what they created was worth sharing with the world, and at the same time they were terrified that what they created would be hated and despised. Artists, musicians, dancers, writers, poets, actors – I think they all suffer the same ghosts. I think it is – to a degree – a necessary affliction, though some artists take it very seriously. I think the trap that artists can fall into is when they start to take themselves very seriously. It is perfectly acceptable to be serious about one’s work, but when you became serious about yourself you run into difficulty. When you become too precious and conceited about your own work, then criticism becomes almost painful, I should imagine.
I know from personal experience, and also from talking to many other authors – both successful and not so successful – that the natural human error in all cases seems to be gravitating towards the negative, rather than the positive. Faced with two hundred reviews on amazon, the author focuses on the three very negative and harsh reviews rather than more than a hundred and fifty glowing reviews. Is that human nature in general, or is that just the case with those who attempt to do something creative? I believe it was Oscar Wilde who said, ‘I don’t care what people say about me, just as long as they spell my name correctly...’, but I think this was bravado and bluff. I do care what people say about me, and I am sure Wilde did as well; the trick is not to care too much, so that others’ negative and critical viewpoints do not take over your own self-belief in what you are doing. I try not to concentrate on the negative. I try not to concern myself with how much better my fellow writers might be doing, for – as Krishnamurti said – ‘A life of comparison is a life of misery’.

LBdP :You said you'd thought about Clint Eastwood for the adaptation of A Quiet Belief in Angels. What would you think of Martin Scorsese for A Quiet Vendetta, or Michael Mann for A Simple Act of Violence ? Any other ideas ?

RJE :Those were my exact ideas! How strange that we have the same choices exactly! I also like very much the work of David Fincher, and also I think that Ben Affleck shows a great talent with such films as Gone Baby, Gone and The Town.

LBdP :Usually, crime fiction fans have a particular taste for the Golden forties of "film noir" (Big Sleep, Maltese Falcon, Asphalt Jungle...). Which movies would you take with you on a desert island and why?

RJE :I love these movies – the writing, the dialogue, the tension, the strength of character. I love movies that tell many stories within one story. Not only crime stories, but human dramas as well. I love movies that invoke feelings across the entire spectrum of human emotions. I love movies that make you think, make you work hard to understand what is happening, and for this reason I will choose ten movies as follows:
• The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
• White Heat
• North by Northwest
• Strangers on a Train
• Twelve Angry Men
• All The President’s Men
• Capote
• Seven
• Three Days of the Condor
• The French Connection
That is a very hard list to make, but that gives you an idea of the sort of film I am interested in.

LBdP :Your approach to writing, your will to suggest specific emotions in the reader made me think of the Actors' Studio approach to acting. Does this method grossly consisting in "stocking" inside you emotions and feelings that have marked your real life in order to be able to call them back when needed has anything to do with the way you work when you write ?

RJE :I think those emotions are already there. I think I continue to live life with a viewpoint of experiencing as much as I can.
I often say that if you are not prepared to do something at least once a month that would embarrass your family, then you are going to lose your sense of humour. Life is not a rehearsal, it is the main performance! I think this attitude contributes greatly to the speed, the intensity, the immediacy, the spontaneity, the organic way in which I write. I write. I just write. I do not think about what I have written until after it is finished. I think I live life like this, always trying to make things happen the best what, but not afraid to get it wrong. Sometimes getting it wrong is the best way to learn how to get it right.

Episode 4

Writing and music

This is the last episode of our interview with RJ Ellory. This week, music is on ! RJ speaks about his passion and has made the remarkable effort of selecting his 20 favorite albums, those he'd take with him on a desert island. That was not an easy thing to do.

And as a final fireworks, the Blog dared ask RJ to answer a « revisited » version of Proust's questionnaire. Some of you might find it a terrible cliché. We thought these questions were very revealing. After all, this questionnaire has become a monument ! In the final lines of this episode, RJE talks about his projects, which will give us the opportunity to ask him more questions in the near future...

LBdP :You're a guitar player, rather into blues rock if I heard you well. Did this kind of music impose itself naturally as a spontaneous choice because, for example, of the way blues bands can take on long improvisations in which the musician (especially the guitarist) can express himself freely (provided he stays in tune !!) ?

RJE :Well, I have always been passionate about music, and just as I found a great empathy in American literature, so I found a great empathy in jazz and blues and country music. I have had long discussions about this very subject with my friend, Antoine de Caunes! Someone once said to me that music was the way in which one person translated their emotions into sounds, and then gave those sounds to someone else who translated them back into emotion for themselves. I agree with this. I think good literature works on an emotional level, and I definitely feel that good music works on an emotional level. As far as long improvisations are concerned, I am not so much this kind of musician. I like to conceive of a song that I write as delivering an emotional message, and when the message is delivered the song is done.

LbdP : Have you been influenced by the "white blues" wave of the 60s-70s in England (Clapton, Mayall, Alexis Korner and so on), or rather by "roots" blues players ?

RJE :Yes, of course. Influenced by both. I listen to everything from Son House and Blind Willie McTell to Led Zeppelin (from Birmingham!), and everything in between. You cannot understand any form of contemporary western music without appreciating Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Bob Wills, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Howlin’ Wolf – they are all there in the pot, everything from zydeco to rap, and they are all important.

LbdP : Do you read music ?

RJE :I do not read music for the guitar, but I read music for the trumpet, though I do not play trumpet any more. It is hard to sing and play trumpet together!

LbdP : How would you describe the difference (if any) between music and writing as a mode of expression ?

RJE :I think they are very much the same. Literature is evoking an emotion with words. Music is evoking an emotion with sounds. I think writing a song is like writing a chapter, and writing an album is like writing a book. Both are there to deliver an emotional message, and both can accomplish this but in different ways.

LbdP :Elliott Murphy said in one of his interviews : "If you play blues the other way round, you get out of jail, your wife comes back to you and you find a new job !" Does it work ??

RJE :Ha, that’s wonderful! And if I play country music backwards do I get my dog and my pickup truck back as well? I shall try it and let you know, though I don’t think I want my first wife to come back!

LbdP :How many members are there in your band, the Whiskey Poets ? Any projects, any chance to see you on stage one day ?

RJE :There are three of us, and we are relatively new. We are rehearsing songs to record in May, and we will record five or six tracks. And then we hope to be on the road.

LbdP :20 albums you'd take with you on a desert island ?

RJE :
• Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland
• The Thirteenth Floor Elevators – Bull of the Woods
• Gene Casey & The Lone Sharks – Rhythm ‘n’ Twang
• The Gun Club – The Las Vegas Story
• Jeffrey Lee Pierce Quintet – Wildweed
• Bo Diddley – Hey! Bo Diddley
• Captain Beefheart& The Magic Band – Safe as Milk
• Cream – Disraeli Gears
• The Doors – The Doors
• Sir Douglas Quintet – Mendocino
• Dr. John – Gris-Gris
• Elvis Presley – The Sun Recordings
• Holly Beth Vincent – Holly & The Italians
• Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow
• John Martyn – Solid Air
• Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
• Kelly Joe Phelps – Shine-Eyed Mister Zen
• Led Zeppelin – Led Zep 1
• Paul Butterfield Blues Band – The Elektra Years
• Roky Erickson & The Aliens – The Evil One

LbdP : What about your projects ?

RJE :Saints of New York will be published in France at the beginning of 2012. I'm working on a novel set in Tennessee in 1974 at the end of the Watergate era. The central character is a young Sheriff investigating the bizarre, almost ritualistic killing of a young teenager, and while investigating this murder he is also dealing very much with the ghosts of his Vietnam war experiences. I hope for it to be somewhere between Apocalypse Now and Angel Heart!

Proust's questionnaire revisited

Your favourite virtue
Integrity, the willingness to hold a position against disagreement and criticism

Your favourite qualities in a man.
Commitment to an agreement

Your favourite qualities in a woman.
Empathy

Your chief characteristic.
Perseverance

What you appreciate the most in your friends
Camaraderie

Your main fault
Impatience

Your favourite occupation.
Writing

Your idea of happiness.
Good friends, good food, good wine, good music, good conversation.

Your idea of misery.
The emotion attendant to a recognition of personal failure.

If not yourself, who would you be?
Kelly Joe Phelps, or some other blues guitarist and singer.

Where would you like to live?
Upstate New York.

Your favourite colour
Cerulean blue.

Your favoUrite bird.
Heron

Your favourite prose authors.
John Steinbeck, Annie Proulx, Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, and on and on and on...

Your favourite poets.
William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson

Your favourite heroes in fiction.
Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Sergeant Bilko, Bad Blake (from ‘Crazy Heart’ by Thomas Cobb)

Your favourite heroines in fiction.
Irene Adler, Sophie (William Styron), Thelma and Louise

Your favourite painters and composers.
Velasquez, Caravaggio, Turner, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Gershwin

What characters in history do you most dislike.
Hitler, Hesse, Goebbels, Himmler, Eichmann, Mengele etc., Tony Blair, George Bush, George W. Bush, Hoover, Harold Wilson, Stalin.

Your favourite food and drink.
Jack Daniels and Buffalo wings!

World history characters I hate the most
Apart from the above, there are very few others. I do my utmost not to hate people, but some can’t help but deserve it!

The natural talent I'd like to be gifted with
An extraordinary ability to play the guitar

How I wish to die
Very old, but still working!

What is your present state of mind.
Determined!

For what fault have you most tolerance
Impatience

Your favourite motto.
Success is entirely dependent upon constancy of purpose. (Benjamin Disraeli)

RJ Ellory answers to readers' questions

Questions from Pierre F.

Don't you think culture can lead to intolerance ? Some extreme right leaders are very intelligent.

I think lack of culture and lack of education is far more likely to be a causative factor in intolerance. Fear is ordinarily founded on ignorance, in my opinion, and the common denominator in cases of intolerance, racism and bigotry seems to be lack of understanding and lack of education about that which you are intolerant of. If culture was the cause of intolerance, then the solution to intolerance would be to return to the state of a completely uncultured race, and I don’t think that would be a realistic solution. I feel that lack of awareness and lack of culture are far more likely to foster and encourage intolerance and racism than the reverse.

About A Quiet Belief in Angels : which novels influenced you in writing this book ?

I think In Cold Blood was the only novel that really influenced my outlook when I was writing A Quiet Belief In Angels, and in a way it was more to do with Capote as a character than the book itself. He was raised in the Deep South and moved to New York, just as was the case with Joseph. People have commented that the novel seems Steinbeckian in its style, but I have read only ‘Cannery Row by Steinbeck and there seems to be no similarity to me at all in the style. A novelist I greatly admire is Annie Proulx, and I think The Shipping News and her short story collections were influential in my work when I was writing ‘Angels’. I am also inspired by poetry, especially such poets as Robert Frost, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams.

About A Quiet Vendetta, are your characters purely fictional or have you been acquainted to similar people in terms of behavior or attitude ?

Well, the fictional characters of Hartmann and Perez are definitely characters of my own creation, though the story is obviously littered with real characters from the history of the Mafia. I have had no first-hand experience of individuals who deal in such circles, so they are purely from my imagination.

About A Simple Act of Violence, some readers have compared it to Don Winslow's The Power of the Dog. Have you read it ? Was it part of your sources when you researched your books ?

I came across The Power of the Dog in late 2008. A Simple Act of Violence was written in early 2005. I have now read The Power of the Dog, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but it is a very, very different type of book from mine. It was not part of my sources when I researched my novel. My sources are invariably non-fiction when it comes to the factual/historical background of a book.

From Edmond

How do you explain that A Quiet Belief in Angels is categorized among crime novels, since the murderer has no real motive ?

Well, the genre of a novel is entirely subjective. I just intended to write a good story about something I was interested in. I consider them human dramas, not crime novels as such. It was the French who coined the phrase ‘the slow-motion thriller’, and I think this is a wonderful expression. I am not much concerned about slotting into some predetermined pattern or pigeonhole, and I think my books are crime dramas, in a way, but they are crime dramas where the crime is secondary to the effects of that crime on families, communities and societies. I think there is also some degree of explanation postulated by Joseph as to the killer’s motives and rationale as he is waiting in the hotel room at the end of the book, but it is Joseph’s thoughts that we get. I am not a psychologist, and I do not presume to try and explain the reality of a serial killer. I think some books have done that well, and a lot have done that very badly, and I never wanted to write a novel from the killer’s perspective. I wanted to write the biography of a young boy, so influenced by traumas in his early life, that he dedicated his life to discovering the truth, regardless of what obstacles he met. I did not want to write a psychological text on why Man is capable of doing such things.

From Catherine S.

Would you consider writing a novel that would not involve any criminal action ?

Yes, I would. The thing that interests me more than anything is people. I like the drama that is created between people when they try to survive and overcome personal difficulties, so yes, I might one day write a novel that has no crime in it, except perhaps a crime of the heart (a betrayal, a deception etc., something that generates tension and friction between the characters).

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

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The Death of Common Sense
By Lori Borgman
________________________________________
Three yards of black fabric enshroud my computer terminal. I am mourning the passing of an old friend by the name of Common Sense.

His obituary reads as follows:

Common Sense, aka C.S., lived a long life, but died from heart failure at the brink of the millennium. No one really knows how old he was, his birth records were long ago entangled in miles and miles of bureaucratic red tape.

Known affectionately to close friends as Horse Sense and Sound Thinking, he selflessly devoted himself to a life of service in homes, schools, hospitals and offices, helping folks get jobs done without a lot of fanfare, whooping and hollering. Rules and regulations and petty, frivolous lawsuits held no power over C.S.

A most reliable sage, he was credited with cultivating the ability to know when to come in out of the rain, the discovery that the early bird gets the worm and how to take the bitter with the sweet. C.S. also developed sound financial policies (don't spend more than you earn), reliable parenting strategies (the adult is in charge, not the kid) and prudent dietary plans (offset eggs and bacon with a little fiber and orange juice).

A veteran of the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression, the Technological Revolution and the Smoking Crusades, C.S. survived sundry cultural and educational trends including disco, the men's movement, body piercing, whole language and new math.

C.S.'s health began declining in the late 1960s when he became infected with the If-It-Feels-Good, Do-It virus. In the following decades his waning strength proved no match for the ravages of overbearing federal and state rules and regulations and an oppressive tax code. C.S. was sapped of strength and the will to live as the Ten Commandments became contraband, criminals received better treatment than victims and judges stuck their noses in everything from Boy Scouts to professional baseball and golf. His deterioration accelerated as schools implemented zero-tolerance policies. Reports of 6-year-old boys charged with sexual harassment for kissing classmates, a teen suspended for taking a swig of Scope mouthwash after lunch, girls suspended for possessing Midol and an honor student expelled for having a table knife in her school lunch were more than his heart could endure.

As the end neared, doctors say C.S. drifted in and out of logic but was kept informed of developments regarding regulations on low-flow toilets and mandatory air bags. Finally, upon hearing about a government plan to ban inhalers from 14 million asthmatics due to a trace of a pollutant that may be harmful to the environment, C.S. breathed his last. Services will be at Whispering Pines Cemetery. C.S. was preceded in death by his wife, Discretion; one daughter, Responsibility; and one son, Reason. He is survived by two step-brothers, Half-Wit and Dim-Wit.

Memorial Contributions may be sent to the Institute for Rational Thought.

Farewell, Common Sense. May you rest in peace.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

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SOCIETY – WHERE DID IT ALL GO SO TERRIBLY WRONG?

Seems to me that the recent riots and revolts in Greece, Tunisia, Cairo, Bahrain and Libya are not about democracy, nor about religion, and – in a way – they are not even about politics.
Seems to me that they’re about human rights.
A revolt against the corruption of bankers and governments, each working hand-in-glove to milk ‘the system’ for all they can; a revolt against a ruling party, managing a country by tyrannical dictate, enforcing ‘laws’ with threats of violence and incarceration; public protests against politicians robbing the taxpayer through fraudulent expense claims…they are all saying the same thing.
We – the people – gave you the power to serve us, not to serve yourselves;
We – the people - gave you the authority to manage our finances, to design and enforce laws that protect the majority against the criminal minority;
We - the people – entrusted you with the education of our children, with the responsibility of assisting us as parents and guardians of the next generation to ensure that the next generation was literate, compassionate, well-educated, responsible, productive, all the qualities that are required to make a society work.
And what have you done?
You have lied, deceived, misled, sought personal gain above the well-being of the communities you serve.
You have failed to design and enforce laws that serve the majority.
You have permitted the education system to be corrupted by psychologists and psychiatrists, who – serving their own personal and financial goals – have invented such conditions as ‘attention deficit disorder’ and ‘attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ as an explanation as to why ‘certain children’ can’t be taught, and to justify administering life-threatening drugs that destroy their mental and emotional well-being before their lives have even really begun.
Last week I wrote a four-page letter to Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education. I asked some specific and pointed questions:
Why are children no longer taught to read?
Why are we closing libraries, one after the other, when a local library is one of the very few places where real reading is encouraged?
Why are we asking ourselves for the reasoning behind closing the libraries when it is plainly obvious – people are not reading any more, and why are they not reading? Because we are not teaching them to read in school. It doesn’t seem so difficult to understand, does it?
How can we go back to the teaching itineraries of past decades? How can we do that? That should not be so hard.
My son, now fourteen, had to write an essay about the book, ‘Kestrel for a Knave’, by Barry Hines. A great book. A book I read in school and thoroughly enjoyed. He wrote the essay. It was a perfectly good essay. I asked him how much he enjoyed the book. ‘Oh,’ he replied. ‘we didn’t have to read the book. We just watched the film in English class…’
Just before Christmas I gave a series of lessons about Text Transposition (taking prose, for example, and turning it into a play or film script) at a local Sixth Form College. I attended three classes, thirty-five English Literature AS-Level students in each class. Not one of them had heard of Truman Capote. Nor had they heard of Faulkner, Hemingway or Steinbeck. A number of them had heard of Tolkien ‘from The Lord of the Rings ‘ films, but none of them were aware that those films were based on a book. Of the one hundred and fifteen students I spoke to that day, seventeen and eighteen years old, all of them approaching their AS Level exams, only nineteen had ever read a complete book in their lives. Nineteen.
I had read nineteen complete books before I was ten years old.
Their English Literature Module consisted of two assignments: Read Chapter One of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy. Secondly, read Chapter One of ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker. Why read only one chapter? Very simple answer to that! Because the examination requirement was the same in each case: ‘Describe, in your own words, how this novel begins.’ That was what they would be asked come examination time.
When I did O-Level at sixteen years of age back in 1981, we studied the following works: ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ from ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer; ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Shakespeare’; ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding, and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee. We read both novels three or four times. We discussed them in class. We did watch the films, but the films were a ‘reward’ for working so hard, and we only saw the films after we had thoroughly studied the books. After the films we discussed how the films didn’t even come close to conveying the power of the books.
As far as Chaucer was concerned, we dissected Chaucer. We studied the language. We recognised the origins of modern language, as well as the Old English, Greek and Latin sources beyond that. We really learned about the evolution of our own mother tongue, because it was considered important.
And Shakespeare? After Chaucer, well Shakespeare was a breeze! We read that play; we each took characters and enacted the play in class; we read it again; we studied revision notes; we made our own revision notes. We discussed the issues of racism, bigotry and greed. Then we watched the BBC adaptation with Warren Mitchell as Shylock. Towards the end of term, as a class award for doing so well in the mock exams, the teacher took us to Stratford and we saw the RSC production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’. We enjoyed it so much that we made a deal with the teacher. If we did well at exam time, would he take us back to Stratford to see ‘Twelfth Night’? He agreed. We worked extra hard. We went back to Stratford and we did see ‘Twelfth Night’.
In our classes no-one was ‘dyslexic’. No-one had ‘attention deficit disorder’. I was at a school for ‘orphans and wayward children’ established by a trust fund. Everyone ‘came from a troubled background’, some of them from the worst backgrounds you can imagine, and yet none of them employed this as an excuse to be impolite, rude, discourteous, unproductive or violent. No-one was caught with a knife. Teachers were not assaulted.
The reality is that society has fallen to pieces.
It is a cliché to speak of values, but values have disappeared.
I was in the supermarket the other day, and yet again – standing at the till – I was assaulted by the same explosion of banal and mindless ’headlines’ across the newspapers and magazines. There seems to be rash of pointlessly idiotic periodicals that cater…to whom? So-and-so has been cheated on by her husband; such-and-such a person had a nosejob that went wrong; look who’s put on three pounds in weight since we photographed them last week… Basically the Katie Price/Jordan phenomena of ‘the celebrity lifestyle’. In a survey conducted last year it was discovered that over seventy percent of surveyed children, aged between five and twelve, when asked what they intended to be when they grew up, replied ‘a celebrity’. When asked what they wished to be celebrated for, they didn’t understand the question.
Katie Price is a role model for our children? Wasn’t she a sex-worker just a short while ago?
Is it only me? Am I the only one who does not care in the slightest for the mindless banalities of ‘celebrity personal problems’? Does it really matter that Kerry Katona is in rehab again? How does that affect my life? How does knowing this improve the quality of my existence, or the well-being and security of my family? If I fail to know that some footballer has been seen in a nightclub with some other footballer’s girlfriend, am I not going to be able to perform so well at my job? Is my salary going to be docked when I am questioned about these important issues?
Probably not.
Sadly, the ‘Chat’, ‘Closer’, ‘Heat’, 'Big Brother’ society is here to stay. I trust it will not stay long. I work as hard as I can to remain optimistic, but it is hard work!
I believe that if people were really taught to read in school, if they had a love of literature and learning instilled in them at an early age – as we did – then this kind of mindless dross would just be left aside, or would never have appeared in the first place. I think that’s right.
Which goes back to the first point I was making. This situation with education is merely a symptom of a sick society. It has been said that the downfall of every great civilization has been preceded by a rise in sex and violence as forms of entertainment. Now, I am no prude! Just read my books. I can write sex and violence as well as anyone. But sex and violence as the only form of mass audio-visual entertainment? I think we’re already there.
People are not crazy. People are not naturally anti-social and dangerous. Bigotry, intolerance and racism are not inherent in the human make-up. Humanity is inherent in the human make-up.
Propaganda and lack of education create racism, intolerance, religious and political discrimination. These are created conditions. They are manufactured and promoted conditions. And who are they manufactured and promoted by? Well, it’s simple. By those who possess a vested interest in creating conflict between races and cultures. The politicians, the bankers, the arms dealers, the drug cartels, and – in reality – some aspects of the psychiatric and medical professions. Why those last two? Because they make money if you are sick. Because they make money if you are ‘mentally unwell’. Seems to make sense that with all the knowledge, experience, skill, technical ability and finance we possess as a race of peoples that we could invest said resources in developing real understanding and real cures for the things that ail us.
If we just took all the money that our ‘governments’ spend on figuring out ways to kill one another, and we spent it instead on figuring out ways to help one another…
What do you think would happen?
Do you think we might resolve problems of education, crime, war, famine, disease, cancer?
Maybe?
I know that Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead was a hippy, I know he was at the forefront of the Californian drug culture, but he said an interesting thing: ‘If we had any nerve at all, if we had any real balls as a society, or whatever you need, whatever quality you need, real character, we would make an effort to really address the wrongs in this society, righteously.’
I have always believed that the human race possesses everything it needs to solve all of its own problems – disease, war, famine, illiteracy, insanity, corruption, drug abuse and criminality.
So why do we not do this?
Very simple, very obvious. Because there’s no money in it.
There is no money in peace. There is no money in well and happy people. There is no money in honest, law-abiding citizens.
But this is what we want, I hear you say. This is what we want! We want peace, health, well-being, an absence of war and criminality and insanity!
Which begs the question: Who does not want these things?
Again, the answer is simple: criminals, drug dealers, arms manufacturers and the like, and back of them are the corrupt politicians, their hands buried deep in the pockets of the taxpayer, possessing controlling interests in the media, the psychiatric drug companies, the medical research organisations, the weapons developers and distributors.
If I was a politician, or a government official standing behind the ‘puppet-politician’, then how would I ensure that my income sources did not dry up? I would use whatever media channels I could to convince people that people are fundamentally crazy, that there are criminals everywhere, that behind every corner and on the edge of every schoolyard is a paedophile waiting to snatch your child away; I would use those same media channels to decry and denounce my political opponents, using whatever propaganda – colour, creed, religious persuasion and personal interests – to make people see that we are all different, and that if people are different then they cannot be trusted. I would use this as a means of generating hostility and tension between denominations, between religions, between races and political groups. I would make it clear that people are not getting on, that conflict is always inevitable, and by these means I would promote an air of constant tension where people would feel that they could not freely speak. Hence I could justify expenditure on an ineffective police force, on arms, on pointless medical research for invented diseases (Bird flu, anyone? Swine flu, perhaps? Where did all that money go? Who had controlling shares in the failing medical research companies that were saved from bankruptcy by the government-assigned contracts for the ‘cure’ for those diseases?).
I would then distract the public’s attention away from the real issues facing society by lowering education standards so people cannot read, and thus cannot find out for themselves; I would employ ‘authorities’ to ‘research’ mental conditions that ‘prevent’ people from learning, thus giving myself a good ‘explanation’ as to why schools were failing; I would stifle any teacher’s purpose to really teach by overwhelming them with an impractical and ineffective curriculum that consistently demonstrated the futile purposelessness of teaching at all levels; I would tie up the Police and law authorities with such bureaucracy they just cannot effectively do their jobs; I would flood the public with mindless and meaningless ‘entertainment’ that appeals to the lowest common denominator of intellects, thereby undermining free thought, power of choice, self-determinism, rationality and reasoning power. I would, effectively, make the masses believes that the ‘masses’ were stupid, when they are in fact not stupid at all. This, realistically, further promotes division between ‘classes’ of people.
I seem to think that this has been accomplished already, wouldn’t you say?
But enough is enough.
I am hoping that the ever-rising tide of revolution that we have seen in Greece, Tunisia, Cairo, Bahrain and now Libya will finally deliver the message to our politicians: We will not be lied to any more. We give you your power to serve us, not yourselves. Do the things that you said you would do when we voted for you. Enough is enough.
And now we have to address another issue, an issue that is close to my heart. The field of mental health and the care of those who have yet to find respite from crippling mental and emotional burdens. Why are we addressing this? Because here, I feel, is a fundamental aspect of what we are facing as a race of people. Why? Because if we fail to understand ourselves, we fail to understand one another. If we fail to understand one another, then we will never understand how a society could effectively survive. Over the years I have pursued a personal mission to try and understand as much as I can about the human condition. Philosophy, religion, psychology, psychoanalysis, every area of mental and spiritual address that I could access. I have come to some conclusions, and I raise these as specifically personal conclusions, not as any statement of fact. They are my opinion, and by stating these opinions, I do not wish to undermine or offend anyone. However, being the person that I am, I am going to communicate them. Put it down to the fact that I am a reader, a free-thinker, and – as we have been so often told – readers and free-thinkers are always troublemakers!
It as been reported, by eminent and credible experts in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, medicine, nutrition and physiology that all 'brain chemical imbalances' are generated by physiological, nutritional, vitamin/mineral-deficient and medical reasons, all of which had a remedy that did NOT include the use or prescription of toxic life-destroying psychiatric drugs.
Psychiatry electric shocks thousands of people every year in this country, including children under four years of age. They use Ritalin, Prozac and other phenomenally toxic and suicide-precipitating drugs to subjugate people into mindless anonymity and ineffectiveness. I know this will go against the grain, but nothing makes me angrier and more upset than to hear of the terrible, terrible crimes that are perpetrated against perfectly innocent people by the barbaric industry of psychiatry. I cannot condone or acknowledge terms applied by the psychiatric profession. It violates every ounce of my personal integrity. I can accept that there are mental conditions - depression, mood swings etc. - but these have their root cause in physiological and medical conditions. Always and without fail. To give someone life-threatening brain damage by the application of horrendously toxic drugs in the name of 'treatment' is anathema to me, and upsets me greatly.
I do not get depressed. I do not get 'exhausted'. I do not run out of patience with people. I never agree to do something I don't want to do. I allocate so many hours per day for writing, and regardless of how I feel I do that work. That is why I am eighteen months ahead of schedule. I do not get 'stressed', I do not 'need a holiday', I do not have accidents nor get ill. I do not get colds, even when I associate with people who have colds and flu. My son does not get sick. He does not have accidents. He is fourteen and has never had a cold, never had an accident, never been to see a doctor, never needed A&E. We had him on a proper low-carb, high-protein diet as a baby from six weeks old, and he is strong and fit and well. He eats three good meals a day. He sleeps well. He gets plenty of exercise. He is a teenager but he is neither rude nor arrogant nor ill-behaved nor unruly. He is not 'being a teenager' in the accepted sense of the word. Why am I like this? Why is my son like this? Because we are ‘lucky’? No, not at all. Because we understand nutrition, diet, sleep, why people don’t eat, why they don’t sleep, the cause of allergies and asthma and a thousand and one other things that – when untreated – can bring about nutritional and glandular deficiencies that create the appearance of ‘mental disorders’. A very brief case of hypoglycaemia can cause all the indications of psychosis. Oh, we have a psychotic! Let’s call the Police. The Police don’t know what to do. They turn such ‘rowdy people’ over to ‘the authorities’ because these people are having a ‘nervous breakdown’. Unbelievable! How about some proper food, some rest, some quiet, some space away from troublesome family members of ‘friends who know best’? How about a simple remedy? No, not at all. Such simple remedies don’t make any money for anyone. Let’s drug them. How about that? Let’s convince the world that there are ‘mental disorders’, and then we can go on lining our pockets with government money…
I am sorry, but I hear terms like 'bipolar' and 'depressed' and 'SAD' and all the other invented conditions like 'Expressive Language Disorder', 'Caffeine Disorder', 'Maths Disorder', 'Written Language Disorder' from the Psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, and it just makes my blood boil. They are criminals, murderers; they are barbaric. These are the people that run IG Farben and Roche and GlaxoSmithKline. These are the people who developed LSD for the Nazis to dump in the UK water supply. These are the people who developed Zyclon B for the concentration camps, and built the gas chambers as well, and they are still operating as 'beneficial drug companies'. There is the American Psychiatric Association, founded by Benjamin Rush, the profile of whom is still on their seal. And Rush? What did he come up with? A mental condition called ‘negritude’. What’s that? It’s being black. What’s the remedy? Beating someone until they are white. You know the remedy is working because the person is becoming ‘whiter’ in colour. True. Absolutely true!
Unbelievable!
I apologise again, but I am saddened beyond belief when I hear of someone else who has been duped into thinking that they have a 'mental disorder’ and that is the explanation for the difficulties they run into in life. There is a handling for all these conditions and NONE of them involve ECT, drugs or incarceration. They are not ‘psychiatric’ conditions. They are invented and manufactured conditions. Psychiatry – even by its own definition – is not a science.
And these are the ‘authorities’ who have now insidiously inveigled their way into our school system, who have labelled our children, made everyone think that there are ‘different types of children’, and it is a lie.
Children can be taught to read. Reading is good. Reading is important. Reading is vital. People who cannot read are denied any education at all, not just in school, but in life. Well-read and literate people are more tolerant, accepting, compassionate, patient, well-balanced, honest, productive, caring. They have less preconceptions and prejudices. Obama said this again and again. He employed it as one of the mainstays of his Presidential campaign. Literacy promotes success. Illiteracy promotes criminality and ineffectiveness. They are proven statistics. They are unavoidable truths.
So who doesn’t want our kids to learn? Who doesn’t want them to read? Who doesn’t want them to find out the truth for themselves?
It isn’t the parents. It sure as hell isn’t the teachers.
I wonder... Could it be the drug dealers – legal and illegal? Could it be the arms dealers? Could it be those who want people at each others’ throats? Could it be people who possess some kind of vested interest in keeping people subdued, stupid, unaware? Could there, in fact, be money to be made from governing a country where people don’t ask questions any more? Where democracy is outlawed? Where a tyrannical ruling party governs through fear and deception? Surely not! Surely people aren’t that corrupt and dishonest?
Seems to me that what is happening in the Middle East is a warning to all governments.
How did Abraham Lincoln say it: ‘You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time’.
We do not need a revolution, merely an evolution.
Enough with war, with religious intolerance, with racism and bigotry and hatred. These are not real conditions. They are not part of the human condition. They are false, fabricated conditions, and they must be recognised for what they are and ended.
That is all I have to say for now.

Monday, February 14, 2011

14 comments
A COMMENT ON READING…

In October of 2010 I went to Alcatraz. On the way towards the ferry there was an epigram from some congressman or governor or somesuch: ‘If you break society’s rules, you go to prison. If you break prison rules, you come to Alcatraz’.

It was an overcast day. It was raining. It was the best way to see Alcatraz.

I took a lot of photos and uploaded them on facebook. I look at those images now, and it’s hard to imagine anywhere more terrifying. It is the most visited National Park in the USA. Why do people go? Morbid fascination for the horror of the place? Wanting to understand what it must have been like to be incarcerated there for years upon years? I don’t know. All I know is that it is the most chilling and unsettling place I have ever been in my life.

During the audio tour, both ex-convicts and ex-wardens speak. One convict simply said that New Year’s Eve was the worst night of the year on ‘the rock’. Why? Because the San Francisco Bay Yacht Club held their New Year’s Eve parties on boats in the bay, and if the wind was blowing in the ‘right’ direction, ‘You could hear the clink of glasses and the laughter of girls…’

It left me speechless.

During that same San Francisco trip I had dinner with Walter Mosley. It was like riffing with Kerouac and Mailer and Salinger and Martin Luther King to a soundtrack of Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Mingus and Gil Scott-Heron.

A day or so beforehand, I had drinks with Daniel Woodrell, author of ‘Winter’s Bone’, simply one of the best books I have ever read.

Earlier on my travels I saw Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Baltimore and Washington.

I saw Matt Skellor and Lurrie Bell play at Legends, Buddy Guy’s blues club in Chicago. I saw Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women at the Hi-Line Lounge, Ingrid Lucia and Gene Casey at the Rodeo Club, and then Gene Casey a second time at Hill Country, where I ate some of the best food I had ever eaten.

I hung out with Jack Lamplough and Emer Ferguson, two of the very best people I know, and we ate soft-shelled crabs and hanger steaks at the Bridge Café, the oldest licensed porter establishment in New York.

I went to France. I travelled through Paris, Rouen, Montpellier, Limoges, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Lille, Nantes, St. Malo (where I was stranded for a day and a half after pretty much every author had left for home, but found a great new friend in David Peace, the author of the incredible ‘Red Riding Quartet’), and on through Banon, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence, Besançon, Frontignan, Brussels and Geneva.

I did two tours in Canada, a tour in Australia, one in New Zealand, a trip to Amsterdam, another to Courmayeur in the Italian Alps, and most recently have attended the Istanbul Writers’ Parliament and the BC Negra Festival in Barcelona.

I visited forty-four cities in ten countries.

Half the year I spend writing books, and the other half I seem to be explaining why to strangers.

I remember reading an interview with BB King. He was asked about his life, about what was his most abiding memory after sixty years on the road, after more than one hundred albums, after playing with some of the finest musicians that ever lived. King paused, he smiled wryly, and then said ‘Airports and hotels rooms…’

I know precisely how he feels.

I do not mention this as some sort of couched complaint. Quite the contrary! It has been, and will continue to be, an enormous privilege and honour to be invited to international festivals, to meet readers, to speak about my books, to answer questions. I can never forget a line that came from John Lennon, I believe: Find something you love and you’ll never work another day. Well, writing has always been my great love, that and music, and my writing has now started to give me the time and space to pursue my musical interests. Writing has opened up doors for me where they would otherwise have been closed. I have met people – and in some instances become great friends with people – who would have otherwise been unknown to me. Without writing, I do not think I would have seen any of those forty-four cities.

My ninth book, ‘Bad Signs’ was due to be released in June 2011. It has long since been complete, as has a book for 2012, and I am currently working on the book for 2013. The paperback version of ‘Saints of New York’ was slated for release in April 2010. Well, that paperback release has now been postponed until September 2011, and the release of ‘Bad Signs’ – intended for a prominent hardback launch and a sensibly-discounted price, all in an effort to see if we couldn’t push it into the Sunday Times Top Ten list – has been postponed until October or November of 2011. This is of no great concern, at least not from the viewpoint of releasing a book each year, but it is of concern as a comment on the state of the British publishing industry. Booksales are down fifteen to twenty percent across the boards – fiction and non-fiction. Is it because of the ‘recession’, the ‘credit crunch’, the ‘economic slowdown’? No, it is not. It is because people aren’t reading. It is because we are now seemingly incapable of teaching our children to read, and bringing them up with the attitude that books are important.

My son is fourteen. When he started to learn to read at school my wife took it upon herself to do all she could to advance his reading ability. When he was 12 he was tested. We were proudly informed that he had the ‘reading age of a sixteen year-old’. No, he didn’t. He didn’t have anything of the sort! He had the reading age of a twelve year-old who had been encouraged to read. Last week he submitted a school essay about the Normandy landings. He wrote a sentence about an army captain tending to a wounded medic on Omaha Beach, and as he described this scene there was one sentence that stood out: ‘Get to cover!’ screamed the captain as he tended to a wounded medic, but things like irony bore no humour any longer.’ I honestly believe there are few fourteen year-olds who understand the concept of irony. In an earlier essay he used the word ‘travails’, and was assured – utterly and completely – by his English teacher that ‘there is no such word in the English language.’ My son showed her the word in the dictionary. She was suitably apologetic. For three weeks my son has had a copy of ‘Kestrel for a Knave’ on his bedside table. He wrote an essay about it. It was a good essay. I asked him how much he had enjoyed the book. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I didn’t read the book’. Puzzled, I asked him how he knew the story. ‘We watch the film in English class, and then we write our essay. We don’t have to read the book’. A couple of months ago I went to a local Sixth Form College to give some lessons on Text Transposition (taking text from a book and turning it into a different media – a play, a screenplay, a poem etc.), and I talked with one hundred and thirty-five students over three lessons. Out of those one hundred and thirty-five, only nineteen had ever read a complete book in their lives. These were seventeen and eighteen year-olds taking their AS Levels in English Literature! Their Literature module requirement was to read Chapter One of ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ by Thomas Hardy and Chapter one of ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker. Their examination question both cases was: Describe, in your own words, how this novel begins.

My brother, the person I rant and rave at when I get onto this subject, read an article in a leading UK newspaper. Apparently someone had done a survey of comparative exam requirements and results. He found that the percentile score that now awards you an ‘A’ grade at GCSE/O-Level was the same percentile score that would have given you a ‘C’ Grade five years ago, an ‘E’ Grade ten years ago, and fifteen years ago would have given you a ‘U’ Grade (Unclassified – basically so low that you didn’t even warrant a mark). The Labour Government’s plan to increase standards of education was – as were most of Blair’s policies – a thinly-veiled obscuring of the truth. If you drop the standard, then everyone wins. No-one gets left behind! Great…everyone has ten ‘A’ Grade O-Levels, but we have sixty percent of our adult population at a level of functional semi-literacy! Thanks once again, Tony!

When I did my English Literature O-Level (1981), I was required to read ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ from ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Chaucer, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by William Shakespeare and ‘The Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding. We read the books/plays. We went to Stratford to see the RSC perform ‘Merchant’. We saw the TV adaptation with Warren Mitchell as Shylock (amazing!), and then we read the play again. We alternated parts in class, we performed it as a whole play over three lessons. We talked about it, we studied it again, we watched the TV adaptation again. We loved the play by the time we were done. We appreciated what it was about. Oh, and we studied Chaucer first so when we got to Shakespeare he was easy in comparison! And seeing the play in Stratford and watching the TV adaptations were considered a real treat, a ‘reward. In fact, for paying so much attention and working so hard.

It sorrows me no end to see the closure of libraries due to lack of funding. It sorrows me more to see that very few people are fighting it, and those that are fighting it are of my generation and older. My grandmother – a WRAF WWII veteran who served as a secretary to Bomber Harris – used to say, ‘If you can read, you can live a thousand lifetimes.’ The younger generations have not been given the gift of reading, and – unfortunately – the responsibility lies at our own feet. Literacy promotes communication; literacy engenders self-confidence, tolerance, patience, a work-ethic, a pride in one’s own production and value in society. There is an incontrovertible link between literacy and honesty, an incontrovertible link between illiteracy and criminality.

So, what do we do?

We teach our kids to read again. We instil in them a love of reading. We teach them how to read. We raise a new generation of real readers, and with that we recover our ability to communicate, one with another, our desire for understanding, our desire for success.

It is a coincidence that the collapse of any society is directly paralleled by the rise in sex and violence as forms of ‘entertainment’, that in itself preceded by a noticeable decline in literacy and appreciation of the arts?

We have lost our heritage as some of the most well-educated and literate people on earth. We are still publishing vast numbers of books, and I do not even want to consider the number that are pulped!

Literacy is a gift, a legacy passed down generation to generation. In our desperate urgency to ‘raise educational standards’ we have completely forgotten why we are educating people. We are educating them to work, to produce, to become contributing and honest members of a society and a culture.

Why is it not possible to return to basics, to start teaching children to read again? It is not a difficult thing to do. It was accomplished with us.

Reading is where it all begins. Without the ability to really read, to understand what we are reading, to use dictionaries to increase our vocabularies, then we are lost as readers, and - more importantly – as a culture.

We have ‘dumbed-down’ our standards, our schools, our colleges and universities, simply because we have failed to observe that everything begins with basics. Teach nothing but Mathematics, Reading, Writing, basic Geography, History and Science until the child is eleven or twelve. Really establish the fundamentals of reading and literacy, and those will be the foundations upon which any and all further and more advanced studies will be stably built.

We test too much. We examine too much. We tie our educators’ hands with bureaucracy and administration. We do not let teachers teach, and teaching is perhaps one of the noblest professions that a society possess. Raise literate, productive children, and they will become literate productive adults, and there is the backbone of any society and culture.

And I know this little article about where I have been I the past year has turned into a monologue about educational standards, but I am in a tremendously fortunate position. I write for a living. It is my job. Unfortunately, as is being seen throughout every publishing company in the country, if not the world, authors are being ‘let go’ in their dozens, simply because it is proving commercially and financially impossible to continue to publish the number of books we do when people are not reading them.

I trust that the tide will turn. Part of this article has been written into a letter to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. I’ll let you know if he replies.

I wish the publishing industry was all good news and stories of success, but it is not. It is at an all-time low, and there doesn’t seem to be any real signs of short-term recovery. And while the vast majority of publishers are concerning themselves with the ever-increasing rise of literary consumption by electronic means, they are missing the point. If people are not reading, then it doesn’t matter what medium you use to deliver literature to them. They’re still not going to read it!

I shall step back, take a deep breath, and compose myself now. I shall endeavour to make the next post an awful lot more optimistic!

I trust all is well with you. Stay in touch. Your e-mails and letters mean a great deal to me.

Best wishes, as always,

Roger.