The Common Reader

I’ve been reading  No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy by Mark Hodkinson.

The book is a memoir of Hodkinson’s life as someone determined to make his way in to a career as a “writer” starting from a background marking him as an outsider. It includes his reflections on British literary culture and the media industries surrounding it, and general questions about literary merit, what marks “good” and “bad” books, and who gets to decide on the contents of the canon or if we really need one.

This is almost a sub-genre of British non-fiction for the past 100 years, and Hodkinson acknowledges precursors such as Sum Total (1960) by Ray Gosling, which he republished in a new edition from his Pomona Books imprint. One difference between his life and those authors is that he went in to his adult working life after attending tertiary college and getting some A-levels. He never attended university, never sat in any lectures for a degree in “English” and it seems he has never been touched by any debates about “criticism”, its history and assumptions, or the rise of “Theory” in any varieties. There is no desire to follow after Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, or Terry Eagleton, and a limited interest in the debates they engaged in. There are opportunities for new kinds of stories and testimonies to be published, now and in the future, but principled arguments about gatekeeping and teaching a canon are not a concern. This is where we diverge from a similar recent book: Jolly Lad by John Doran. Both writers found their way in to the profession through NCTJ courses, both very interested in alternative/independent music, and engaged in its subculture. But Doran spent some time in higher education and it left a trace of respect for the theorists and how their ideas feed in to curating past culture and evolving our current one.

Books are judged in the end as works of entertainment; but that can include a range of effects and styles and subjects, as with cinema and other media. Taste evolves to distinguish the good and bad works according to the originality of their creation and avoidance of cliché and formula, as he learned working in a warehouse stocking mass market western and crime paperbacks that had no appeal to him.

I went to a comprehensive school. A lad in my class said I was posh because my parents were still together. I had a chippy dinner every day for three years… None of my friends had parents who were teachers. No men in my family or anyone I knew worked in an office…. Everyone’s house – family and friends – was full of ten-bob ornaments and religious trinkets… The television was always on. No original artwork was on the walls. My parents drank tea; coffee was considered ‘hoity-toity’ – their words.

…I have never seen [my parents] read a book, not even on holiday or over Christmas, those times when there is often a fleeting union of page and person. I don’t remember seeing books at the houses of my childhood friends either, aside from those belonging to visiting grandmas, usually a Mills & Boon or Catherine Cookson. Any bookcases that found their ways into homes were used as shoe racks or receptacles for snow shakers and ornaments brought back from seaside holidays in Llandudno or Rhyl.

Education offers opportunities, but in practice only some entrants have been given the route to success afterwards. Hodkinson was born in the mid 60s, long enough ago to experience a sense of early failure officially endorsed, and being put on the path of low expectations. Of course we’re not like that nowadays.

Teachers spent a good portion of lessons settling everyone down and dealing with constant interruptions. Kids shouted out, answered back and provoked facile arguments. If anyone showed an interest in the lesson or did homework, they were mocked, told they were creeps and arse lickers. The teachers gave up, stressed out and worn down.

It was going on everywhere, this disaster. The British educational system of the 1960s and 1970s suited the few and failed the many.

Poor schools serve poor areas, and the pattern of deprivation reaches around outside the classroom. A book which had a strong youthful impression was Rule Of Night (1975) by Trevor Hoyle, a bleak slice of Northern rough behaviour and boys ending up in borstal. It’s another one of the books he reprinted later on Pomona and I can confirm that it was grim stuff. It was also the route in to the world of “cult books” and the second-hand shops that have to be searched for them, even harder if you haven’t heard the title correctly.

I had heard Rule Of The Night talked about reverentially at school but I’d never actually seen a copy. The book was perceived as an item that might belong to an older brother, much the same as a Yes double album with gatefold sleeve or a heavily embroidered Wrangler jacket. I detected from overheard conversations that it was a dark, tough book with an aura of the verboten, and it was about Rochdale, specifically the area where I had grown up – its streets, alleyways, lock-up garages, pubs, working men’s clubs and waste ground.

It’s how he learned to love and hate the bootboys:

The book… fell into the genre forged by the prolific Richard Allen, whose real name was James Moffatt (his editor chose the pseudonym). Moffatt wrote 290 novels under forty-five pseudonyms, averaging 10,000 words per day. Skinhead, his first novel as Richard Allen, was published in June 1970 and sold more than a million copies.

I recall seeing these pulp novels in second-hand bookshops and they were usually well-worn, with scuffed covers or bendy spines; they’d clearly passed through many hands… Moffatt’s ‘research’ was said to have been chatting to a group of drunken east London skinheads in a pub before dreaming up the close-cropped psychopath Joe Hawkins who kicked and punched his way into eighteen books.

Not all books are the same as each other, and he learns to judge quickly from the covers:

At first I knew little, if anything, about the books and authors I was perusing. Within weeks I learned to trust one particular publisher where the quality was consistently outstanding: Penguin. Unwittingly, I was setting down the foundations of my collection and personality as a reader. My loyalty to Penguin was such that the front covers almost became irrelevant as I turned the books over, searching for the little penguin in an oval outline, usually in the bottom left corner…

On a theme, I remember picking up books published by Virago Press – ‘The international publisher of books by women for all readers, everywhere’ – but putting them down again. The covers were awful. They usually featured a glum woman looking out of a window or, for a little variety, a glum woman sitting on a chair looking out of a window. Or else it was a woman (glum) carrying hay on a sunless evening, or a smudgy still life of flowers or fruit. They might have been excellent books, and one or two had excellent titles (Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner and A Pin To The Peepshow by F.Tennyson Jesse, for example), but they looked so determinedly unappealing, especially set against the orange glow of a Penguin.

Luckily, Sylvia Townsend Warner has now been published in Penguin.

The title comes from a remark from one of the second-hand book dealers he encounters.

’Don’t be silly,’ he chastised. ‘Aleister Crowley? Thomas De Quincey? And what’s this? No one from round here reads Tolstoy, especially not twelve-year old kids.’

The long narrative section of this book is interleaved with a separate chronology of incidents in the long decline of his Grandad into dementia. These sections are presented in italics, and are heavier on dialogue. They show young Mark slowly becoming aware of the strangeness, and then recognising the deterioration for what it is, and the final stages just as he is on the brink of leaving home and setting out as an adult himself. We have it revealed that this experience has been at the back of the progress after leaving school and making a way in the world. It is alongside the stories of troubled young men he knew, affected with depression and suicide attempts. There is less detail about the positive aspects of his personal life – it’s mentioned that girlfriends come and go at various points, but he settles down in to a stable relationship and becomes a dad without giving us any detail of the courtship.

The relationships that get closer attention are with the books that came at the right time, such as A Kestrel For A Knave, The Catcher In The Rye, and also Three Men In A Boat and The Diary Of A Nobody.

Although I could trace a strand between my life and, for example, A Kestrel For A Knave, I didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to ‘see myself’ or my environment reflected back in books and, likewise, there was no overriding desire to escape, to seek out the fantastical. I was also largely blind to class. This – whatever appeared before me on the market or at Boots or WH Smith – was all I knew, so I assumed it to be literature, which was almost wholly posh people writing about their lives, usually from long ago.

Along side the love of books is – like the young John Doran – an interest in music, specifically the various shades of “alternative” and post-punk that were active in the late 70s and early 80s. We hear the story of his own group Untermensch (later renamed Monkey Run), which seem to be much like the group Killing Stars in his novel The Last Mad Surge Of Youth (both have a song responding to the 1981 Brixton Riots, entitled “Brixton Riots”), except that the fictional band manage to become bigger than Duran Duran, somehow, although they have disappeared into middle-aged irrelevance by 2007.

The lyrics and subject matter of the songs were eclectic, too. Authors and artists who I had considered personal to me were being sung about or quoted widely. The list of bands with literary references was endless; I felt dusted by intellectualism by merely being aware of these groups and their influences.

Driving this was his excitement at the anarchist outsider ethos of Crass, who were perfect for the cult book reader:

Crass wore black clothing and were part-army legion, part-missionaries as they moved through Britain in a knackered van, performing at scout huts and shabby pubs, where they sang and shouted about all manner of injustices and forces of oppression. Afterwards, shell-shocked kids were left walking their home towns, deafened by the noise, dumbfounded by the enlightenment: so that’s how the world works.

But a different sound changes his life:

The Smiths were perfect in every way. The music was everything: sad, euphoric, clever and catchy. The lyrics, funny and intelligent and poetic. They were also direct and comprehensible, evoking wonderful imagery while offering homilies to self-empowerment and self-belief. Morrissey endorsed the outsider, the quiet-but-clever kid, and he made him cool. He had none of the reticence and deference that is painted heavily upon the working class. He dared to have his say and did so eloquently and brilliantly, sometimes proffering an outrageously spiteful view but then falling coquettish, twinkling his sapphire-blue eyes, pursing his lips, smiling a smile of which he knew the power and beguiling effect.

By now Hodkinson was already on his odyssey around the provincial news world, a series of jobs at the Middleton, Moston and Blackley Guardian and then the Oldham Evening Chronicle, and the Halifax Evening Courier.

I was lucky… to enter local journalism when it was still a relatively buoyant industry. The paper was thick each week with classifieds and adverts from traders, estate agents and car dealers – businesses which, a decade or so later, defected en masse to the internet.

His success in the alternative music world rises as far as a few singles and a support slot with the pre-breakthrough Stone Roses in 1988, but that side-street of his life is passed by quickly. We do not get immersed in the differences of regional music scenes like Doran as he soon finds his way in to publishing by writing books about bands, starting with Thank Yer, Very Glad about indie stars The Wedding Present. After that many other opportunities come along, mostly for mainstream acts he had less interest in, and also a chance at sports journalism for the nationals. Football doesn’t get a lot of attention in this book but he did write about the experience of fandom in his other books such as Believe In The Sign, which are a handy alternative to the Fever Pitch focus on the big teams.

It seemed in the 90s that the publishing industry might be getting interested in the lower orders, and agents pick up on this:

I acquired an agent; I was still passionate about becoming a novelist. He was well-connected, enthusiastic and hopeful… He soon began to receive rejections. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh was popular at the time and he referred to it often.

’There haven’t been proper working-class novels like his for years,’ he said.

’It’s more about the underclass,’ I said.

’Well, you know what I mean. It’s gritty.’

He took my response to be pedantry or, worse, facetiousness, but I was being matter-of-fact.

’He’s good at what he does, Welsh, but he’s a different writer than me,’ I said.

‘He’s doing very well for himself.’

He grinned and it prised from me an opinion I’d been determined to hold back.

’Do you know why I think he’s popular? His books are bought mainly by squalor tourists. They get a vicarious thrill from reading about the losers and heroin addicts and people shitting the bed. They’re reading about all that stuff in their drawing rooms and wine bars, from a comfortable and safe vantage point. There’s something morally questionable about that and it makes me uneasy.’

Another side to this debate can be seen in an early interview Welsh did with Elizabeth Young at the start of his career (in her anthology Pandora’s Handbag): the established Glasgow writers of the 80s “Scottish Renaissance” disliked the new intruder from Edinburgh, but they were quite awful at portraying drug users as anything more than tabloid ogres. Welsh saw himself showing up their version of social realism for having its own blind spots and prejudices.

Later on he has Pomona and gets to put out titles he believes in, including books that deserve a bigger audience such as Weirdo Mosher Freak. Simon Armitage becomes a Pomona author as well, and he seems a nice chap. Running your own publishing house also brings the problems of dealing with authors and agents who suddenly demand more money from foreign rights sales and the like, and Hodkinson admits that his only real minor successes have been in the music-related books that play to audiences that already existed.

As well as being a rather disgruntled small businessman, he also doesn’t like the state of public libraries nowadays. This book is up to date with references to the pandemic, and in its final chapters he discusses his trips to a therapist to find out if there is a deeper problem behind his long acquisition of a collection of what is now around 3500 books.

’I felt the government fucked it up. In fact, I felt the whole world did. I couldn’t believe or accept what was going on, the hysteria, the mass compliance.’

’Did you ever feel this was to do with you rather than anyone else?’

’All the time. I always question myself, too much probably. It makes life complicated. Like I said, I felt lonely, as if everyone else was going mad and I was the only one sane, but everyone else thought it was me that was mad. I think a few friends were a bit worried about me actually.’

Perhaps, like Morrissey, his variety of outsider turns more sceptical and conservative when getting older. They both expressed distaste for “squalor tourists”. Like him, there was no interlude in Higher Education and no exposure to tenured radicals except in the figure of the A-level Sociology lecturer Mr Davies (told the students to call him “Rob”), who despised Orwell’s “plain language” and was seen in full as simply an avatar of Malcolm Bradbury’s Howard Kirk, experienced through the TV version.

Davies set the chainsaw ripping through everyone’s belief system, left them feeling wrong-headed and wretched. The Cohens put up a game defence but it was futile. Sometimes his speed of thought, depth of knowledge and precision of expression became hypnotic and left the class near catatonic and paralysed, as if put under a spell by a witch doctor. We began to wonder: why was this man, assembled from kryptonite and dynamite, teaching A level sociology in a scruffy northern provincial town?

’He’s a fuck-up,’ Sarah Cohen told me in the refectory one lunchtime.

There is a limitation here that can’t seem to be addressed: as an adult, does he ever read non-fiction that isn’t autobiography or popular history? There are some citations of pop-neuroscience near the end, and we learn that he waded through other biographies and reference works in producing his own non-fiction books. But does the adult Reader read for something other than simple pleasure or reassurance, something that might be worth persisting through more than 30 difficult and seemingly unrewarding pages? Well, some of them do – they do it to understand what various thinkers might have thought, with no guarantee of agreeing with them or getting any advantage from doing so. That’s an aspect of higher education, including courses with a scientific or mathematic content, but it’s not one this reader seems to have any time for. It is missing again in his discussion of Robert McCrum’s idea of what “well read” people should have read. The usual canon proposed by university men like McCrum or A.N.Wilson includes such joyless wonders as Locke and Hobbes as well as The Communist Manifesto. They’re not fun but they did set out some ideas that we don’t need to reinvent all over again, and the secondary literature can be helpful to navigate it. Engels is mined for a quotation about the 19th century working class, but there is no sign of any further interest in him. Hodkinson is not an autodidact. Though his teenage reading included a penumbra of thinkers around the storytellers, they were deep background to the narratives.

Readers, authors, and academic critics can all be wanting and offering different things, and Hodkinson gets a glimpse of this in his only excursion into the world of Eng.Lit. students, when he went to see an author meeting some readers.

The journalism course was rigorous and comprised thirty-six hours of lectures a week, divided into four sections: shorthand, law, public administration and general journalism. Every few weeks we had an ‘outing’ which we had to write up as a feature. One was a talk at Sheffield University given by an author called Stan Barstow. I was familiar with his name but unaware of his work. At the end, he invited questions from the audience. He was bombarded with abstruse queries, few of them about his latest novel (A Brother’s Tale).

’Can we get back on track?’ he pleaded.

The request went unheeded. The same huddle of people, each in their early twenties and archetypal university students – striped scarves, duffel coats, greasy hair – continued to harass him (‘Like a dog with a bloody bone,’ as our lecturer said afterwards). They wanted to know how he saw the future of the novel and whether it was a writer’s duty to please and appease the reader or confront him or her, to pierce the consensual ‘now’ in the furtherance of the very art form itself; expression as agitation, as it were. I struggled to follow this philosophical approach and realised how vocational our course was in comparison. Barstow constantly ran his fingers through his thick grey hair and, between sighs, tried to summon satisfactory replies. It was hopeless.

The trouble is that we’ve come to expect too much or too little, and aren’t sure who should be in the priestly caste to administer the religion of literature for us.

Everyone has a different feel or need for books, a different relationship with them. To some they are functional carriers of information. To others they span the phantasmagorical to the ordinary, through which they can recognise, validate and bolster their own lives. And some turn to books to daydream or escape.

The picture in the banner is the still from the film Dunkirk that was used to make the sleeve of a Smiths single. What looks like a young man distressed and alone in a street in the 80s was in fact an actor soldier with his comrades in the middle of an historic event.

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