By Philip Davis, Editor of The Reader magazine.
It was the re-opening of the beautiful Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool and The Reader was asked to provide a panel for the occasion. Members of the audience would be invited to submit a problem and the panel was supposed to suggest a book that would help with it.
If on the day of the event you had offered me the choice between going ahead with it or sticking pins in my own eyes, I might well have chosen the pins. It is not that I believe in art for art’s sake alone. I hate the idea that literature must not sully its beauty or diminish its autonomy with the thought of human usefulness. But equally I don’t in the least suppose that books offer direct solutions or utilitarian cures. Literature is not a set of practical self-help books – and for my part ‘How to Overcome Depression’ is just the sort of user-friendly book that makes me depressed in the first place.
But I was wrong: it turned out to be a surprisingly serious and rather moving event. I’ll give you just one example, because it was the one I mucked up. A quiet man in his late sixties said that a few years ago he retired after a lifetime spent being a mechanical engineer. Now he found that not one of the firms he had worked hard to maintain existed any more. Unlike someone who wrote books, he said, he had outlasted his work and had nothing to show for it all.
Of course, stupidly, it was only afterwards that I remembered what I should have said. I should have directed him, specifically, to the account of Daniel Doyce, the great neglected inventor in chapter 16 of Dickens’s Little Dorrit. Nobody will listen to Doyce; it is hopeless trying to get civil servants to pay attention to an invention that actually would benefit the whole nation. Wouldn’t it be better to give up, says his friend Arthur Clennam. ‘A man can’t do it,’ says Doyce:
You hold your life on the condition that to the last you shall struggle hard for it. Every man holds a discovery on the same terms.
You are not finally discouraged even now?
‘I have no right to be if I am,’ returned the other, ‘The thing is as true as ever it was.’
I wish I had remembered this in time. There is in it something rightly defiant of outcomes.
What the retired engineer said was sad but admirable. It made me feel oddly proud that what he spoke of was not just his problem: nothing we do may outlive us. Here is another quotation I only thought of later. I found it years ago in Norman Mailer’s account of a notebook of his in which he wrote down the good things he had read. And one of the literary passages which that wild man of American literature had noted down was this – unlikely though it may seem – from the work of the Edwardian English gentleman, John Galsworthy, author of The Forsyte Saga:
he still knew that he could help her no longer, nor could anyone else, for she had come now into that domain where her problems were everyone’s problems, and there were no answers and no doctors.
This is the territory literature inhabits: that holding-ground for human thought which exists in between a writing that is merely arty at one extreme and a writing that is merely message-bearing at the other.
This issue of The Reader takes its sub-title ‘I live and write’ from George Herbert’s great poem ‘The Flower’, on a seemingly miraculous recovery from depression. ‘Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart/ Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone . . .’. It is dated 1633 and we read it at the Bluecoat. But one of the things that stopped me turning the car back on my way there was hearing a popular broadcaster on a local radio station airing his views concerning literature (not all things are perfect in Liverpool). He said, ‘The Classics! They’re for the students and the posh.’ This issue is about the relation between living and writing, living and reading, for those who may be neither students nor posh, the freshness of old things coming back to new life; as they did for Herbert: ‘I once more smell the dew and rain,/And relish versing.’
This is why, as well as publishing new writing, we have created a series defiantly called ‘The Old Poem’ and also re-designed our Readers Connect section to feature a jury of different readers offering a verdict on a World’s Classic. It is also why we are thinking of starting a national campaign petitioning TV’s Richard and Judy to include old books as well as new in their promotion of reading. We launch our Shipping Lines literary festival here in Liverpool 7-9 November of this year: the lines are poetry’s connecting the world as the great Liverpool ships and their engineers once did. Let’s invade Richard and Judy’s London studio.
For more information on Shipping Lines or to register for regular updates please email reneeh [AT] liv.ac.uk or write to Renée Hemmings at The Reader Office (University of Liverpool, 19 Abercromby Square, Liverpool L69 7ZG).
In this living and writing issue, there are two novelists–Tessa Hadley and Philip Pullman–on what writing and reading the novel means to them. Read some excerpts from Melvyn Bragg’s new novel and have the privilege of being able to see some of his private drafts, showing something of how a novelist does it. Also (requested by many of our readers) there is a longer version of the article Blake Morrison published in The Guardian on the work of The Reader Organization in its outreach programme. Our new section ‘Book World’ concentrates on what is going on in the world of publishing and book-selling.
Our old friend, the poet Les Murray introduces the first in a two-issue presentation of his favourite Australian poets of all time: five in this issue, five in September.
Our new young friend, Morgan Meis writes from America on the bridges of the world.
Matt Simpson is one of the many distinguished poets based in Liverpool.
Stephen Sandy has sent us from Vermont a poem to launch our Shipping Lines literary festival: our editor first met Stephen when interviewing him on his memories of Bernard Malamud.
Two other pieces arise out of the more geographically limited wanderings of the editor. The interview with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips is a continuation of the conversation between Adam and Phil at the Radio 3 Live Thinking Festival held in Liverpool in November last year. At about the same time the comedian Phill Jupitus came to The Reader office to record material for a Radio 4 programme he was doing on little magazines. We got these poems out of him before he got out of the door: look for the reference to his colleague Russell Brand.