Lucy Mangan on books

The Power of Books

The Power of Books by Lucy Mangan for The Stylist.

Nothing has the power to transport you to a different land like a book. A historical thriller can land you in a bustling 19th-century music hall; a poetic love story can take you on a journey to Chile, San Sebastián and Santorini in just one chapter, or introduce you to the type of character who you feel you know better than you know yourself by the final page. Stylist’s award-winning columnist and literature enthusiast Lucy Mangan muses on why books have the potential to inspire change, inspire thought and inspire imagination…

“I read about a hundred books a year – most for pleasure and some for work, although I usually enjoy the latter ones so much that the division tends to become meaningless somewhere around the 20th page. As a child, it was really all I did. School, meals, birthday parties, trips to the park – these were all unwanted and to my mind completely unwarranted interruptions to the vitally important business of reading.

I loved books then and I love them now. I wouldn’t exactly die without them, but I would be unutterably miserable. I would shrivel inside. My life as I know it and love it, would be over. Though on the plus side, I would at last be able to make a start on my untouched box set of The Killing.

A love of narrative is something we are born with. As soon as there was language, you can bet that there were tales told around the Paleolithic camp fire, and storytellers – of the oral or, in time, writing kind – have been esteemed and privileged throughout human history. From an extra handful of beans in your share of the medieval family stew through to the Booker Prize – it all stems from the same desire to reward those who can feed our deepest needs.

Why do we love stories so? Perhaps because they allow us to escape in a way that no other medium does. Reading is active, watching is passive. The written word is immersive, the screen affectless. The level of character and world-building detail in a novel surpasses anything ever captured on film or television. Books allow a level of escapism that nothing else quite permits. When I was young, I could be one of the Railway Children, a Treasure Seeker, a member of William Brown’s gang, one of the Famous Five or a boardingschool girl, and all before lunchtime, without leaving my bedroom.

Perhaps we love stories because fiction is a painless way of transmitting important knowledge and life lessons. Children will sit spellbound through a telling of Little Red Riding Hood imperilled by the Big, Bad Wolf, and absorb the eternal truth behind it a million times more effectively than they will any lectures, however impassioned, about ‘stranger danger’. Myths, legends, folklore and fairytales keep us safe.

But we also read, as author and screenwriter William Nicholson puts it, to know that we are not alone. Which is to say, we read for confirmation that others feel, think and act like we do – that our problems are not unique, that they can be understood and that our joys can be shared. We read Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë and know that women have been falling for unsuitable types and dealing with difficult mothers for centuries. It’s just that some of them got to do it in beautiful Georgian houses. We have the comfort of knowing that only the surface changes – people have been wrestling with the problems we think are particular to us since the dawn of time.

ENDLESS APPEAL

I realised it when I first read the section in Antonia Forest’s End Of Term where schoolgirl Lawrie mentally (and somewhat evilly) works out the ethics of ditching her netball match and stealing her twin sister’s part in the school play. It blew my tiny 11-year-old mind. People – presumably all people, because Lawrie was no prodigy (she wasn’t even that good at netball, TBH) – had complicated inner lives! They had bad thoughts as well as good! Just like me! It was as heartening a revelation as it was enlightening. The world looked different after that.

We also lessen our isolation in more tangible ways through books. We lend them to friends (and how much more meaningful that is than simply recommending a film or telling someone to catch up with a good series on iPlayer), we sing their praises on Twitter, we discuss them in groups especially convened for the purpose. Even now the greatest bond between my best friend and me – after our pre-pubescent love for Phillip Schofield – is our shared love of dystopian fiction. Or ‘plague books’ as we call them. We first realised how simpatico we were when we discovered we’d both checked A Parcel Of Patterns (take one 17th-century Derbyshire village, add buboes and romantic subplot and stand well back. It’s SO GOOD) out of the school library and felt – no, KNEW – it to be The Best Book Ever Written. I gave copies to other friends as presents for years after that. If they looked at me funny, I knew I not to bother with them again. Ditto The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë’s astonishing, timeless story of a woman escaping a terrible marriage) in my adult years. Above all, books are the stuff of inspiration. Jo’s literary endeavours in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women sowed a seed of belief in me that making a living by writing might be possible. Confessions Of A Failed Southern Lady by Florence King detailed and dissected (in a way that still makes me sick with laughter more than 20 years on) her schoolmates’ endless bitchery and strengthened my spirit when it was about to be broken by bullies at school Thousands of other books let me try out thousands of lives and attitudes in safety and helped me define who I am and who I am not. They have given me perspective, hope and confidence. They made me less afraid then and they buttress me still whenever I’m in danger of falling. I know The Killing’s good, but can it really do all that?

Published with permission from The Stylist.  Click here for more book news from the Stylist

 

 

World Book Day

Picture 1This morning I took the child to school dressed as Cottontail from Peter Rabbit.  As we stepped out onto the street we were met by hundreds of small people dressed in various costumes, from Cat in the Hat to Meg and Mog, an impressive range of characters  were conjured out of sugar paper, old rags, glow in the dark paint, Spanish shawls and even wigs wired so that they would stick out al la Pippy Longstocking.

World Book day was taken seriously amongst the little people.  Excitedly they formed a line in the playground as the bell sounded, all clutching the books which their favourite characters have been brought to life in.  All desperate to explain in painstaking detail who they were and why.

If you didn’t know what was going on you would be scared, there is something extremely frightening about a large group of small children all squealing and shouting and running around like crazed creatures from a horror movie.  Being circled by a group of Disney Princesses and Superhero’s was like being in some sort of terrifying nightmare.  A gang of tiaras floating on pink nylon ruffles pulled on the capes of their crusaders and masked arachnids scaled the climbing frame in search of sequined fish tails who were stalking the bats hanging upside down.   A group of rabbits hunting Fantastic Mr Fox and Pirate Squidbones pushing Alice off the seesaw definitely made for a more interesting drop off that’s for sure.  If only school was like this everyday.

For a look at some of the best costumes from today’s celebrations take a look at the photographs from CBBC Newsround.  They really are incredible!

Support our librarians, not just our libraries.

Volunteer
Libraries have suffered throughout the centuries, enduring book burning’s, fires, bombs, natural disasters and war, but it seems now, according to journalist and writer Catherine Bennett, that there is a new threat, Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey.  Bennett wrote a brilliant article for The Guardian last week aptly titled Need some help at your local library? Look under A for amateur.  Bennett raises her concerns about the recent surge in volunteer run public libraries which seems to be the only solution that local councils, our culture minister and the Arts Council seem to be offering communities whose libraries are facing cuts and closures in order to keep them open, just.   It has been these volunteers that have had to step up to the plate in order to ensure a basic service for their communities.  Since last year the number of volunteers has risen from 23,400 to 33,000, Ed thinks that’s  “very Impressive”, obviously pleased with himself, as Catherine Bennett states so aptly, for ‘the delivery, for virtually nothing, of a treasured public service.’

He’s clearly onto something here.  Surely he can roll this idea out across the public service sector and save us all loads of money.  How about starting with the NHS, forget those overpaid doctors and nurses and their years spent training.  I’d much rather be attended to by a volunteer with some basic first aid knowledge and a passion for helping people.  Public transport.  Pah, I’ve always wanted to drive a train, how hard can it be?  And what about all those MP’s and government officials? Perhaps as a way to show their commitment to recent imposed austerity measures, they could simply volunteer to work, saving tax payers millions?  I know what you’re going to say.  I’m taking it too far.  But am I?  Surely the logical conclusion of Ed Vaizey’s solution is a workforce of untrained volunteers across the board, delivering our services at cut price costs.

If only we’d know that librarians weren’t integral to the running and managing of libraries ages ago, think of the money we could have saved?  As Bennett says in her article; ‘… local libraries have, for years, squandered unimaginable sums on librarians who are manifestly surplus to the operation of a statutory comprehensive and efficient library service.”  Their years spent studying and training is utterly pointless because anyone can do it.   Of course, Vaizey isn’t  really suggesting that volunteers shouldn’t have some basic training, just that they should pay for it themselves;   “…a lot of these community groups would happily pay for them if they were raising money.”  So not only do you have to volunteer to keep your local library services going, you have to pay to train yourself and others to do it.  Lets hope everyone in the surrounding communities have deep pockets and a substantial pay packet each month.  We can just forget the places where the majority of people struggle to pay their electricity bills.

Now, I’m not knocking the people who do the volunteering.  Unlike what Vaizey and the Arts Council say, people are coming to the rescue of their libraries and their services, not because they’ve always had a deep desire to become a librarian, playing out their fantasies of illicit relations in the philosophy aisle.  They volunteer because often there is no other solution.  The alternative would be no library.   If councils don’t want to pay for them, then people have to run them for free.  Laura Swaffield of the Library Campaign recently said “Community libraries have mostly been created in haste and panic and conflict. They have mostly been created by communities desperate to do anything to avoid closing down their library completely. Their only choice was: Lose it or run it yourselves.”

The problem with the solution is that librarians are highly skilled and volunteers are not. Most have undergraduate and postgraduate degrees as well as vocational experience as library assistants and / or a librarianship qualification.  This level of training doesn’t indicate that it is not a highly skilled job, on the contrary, it shows that it requires knowledge, skill and expertise in a broad range of areas.  I literally do not have time to list everything librarians do and even if I did, I would still miss things out. (Note my use of literally in order to make my point.) For anyone interested take a look at Voices for the Library which gives you an insight into their world.  Librarians give business support, literacy support and IT support. They run book groups, homework clubs, school visits and ICT classes.  They are well versed and up to date with government and local council policy, they recommend books, teach people effective ways of searching through information, offer research assistance, advise on immigration, housing, debt and benefits.  They help people look for jobs, build archives and organise community events and my favourite, provide condoms and bin bags.  Volunteers, with all their transferable skills and enthusiasm cannot possibly deliver a service as specific and full bodied as this, expertly and efficiently.  As the government shows its contempt for librarians, we must remember that on top of offering a huge range of services they must also interact with the public on a daily basis in a range of different capacities and situations.  Rather than deriding the work they do, we should be giving them all medals!  For anyone who has ever worked as a waiter, shop assistant, health assistant, babysitter etc etc you will know how challenging working with the general public can be.  In order to highlight this point, see below for an example of some of the ways in which they carry out this public role.

- Suggesting a book for anyone from an 8 year old boy who never reads to a 70 year old woman who has read everything;
- Being unfazed by complex enquiries which could be of a sensitive nature;
- Understanding how to help people with computers who have zero confidence/experience and believe they can’t use them;
- Dealing with abusive visitors;
- Dealing with young people behaving badly – police have been called to library branches when young people have been climbing on bookshelves, causing problems, refusing to leave premises etc;
- Dealing sensitively with people who have mental health problems or learning disabilities and may be challenging to help properly;
- Keeping user information confidential;
- Huge training requirement around legal/ethical issues;
- Understanding the issues around safeguarding children and the elderly;
- Providing a safe, friendly space that welcomes everyone;
- Directing homeless people to the nearest shelter;
- Helping people with little or no English to use the library service by translating, using translation services or taking special care and attention to ensure people understand information;
- Collecting knives and guns;

With the position comes a huge amount of responsibility.  How many people do you know that can deal with complex situations daily and communicate with abusive members of the public, the homeless and those who don’t speak English not to mention those suffering from mental health issues, all with compassion, confidence and assertiveness.   Without the necessary training and skills, I expect those volunteering may not feel equipt to manage these situations as expertly as a librarian and once again, it will be the user that suffers.

And who is going to be checking their credentials going forward.  Is it simply a CRB check that decides someones suitability?  And can we trust those running these spaces, those who become the guardians of our books to ensure that certain titles won’t disappear from the shelves under the auspices of morality.  Will some well meaning volunteer decide that childrens book And Tango Makes Three is unsuitable for kids or Fifty Shades of Grey too racy for it’s members. 

I don’t know about you, but I would feel better if it were a group of trained professionals who fight against censorship and have no political or moral agenda that were ordering books and offering me advice, support and help.  You can be sure that the teenager in need of a condom won’t be asking their next door neighbour for them since they started manning the desk.  I find it hard enough buying them in Boots from someone I’ve never met before.  And what about the elderly lady with a proclivity for erotica or the 20 something suffering from depression who wants to borrow a self help book from the Books on Prescriptions section, they’re not going to want to be judged by the person living at the end of the road.

What happens when volunteers start to decide who should be able to borrow, who qualifies for their help.  What happens when an avid daily mail reader/ volunteer decides not to offer advice on benefits, housing and immigration law because he/she doesn’t like the people on them.  How can we ensure they stay democratic, free and accessible to all, even the difficult, lonely and disturbed when volunteers don’t have the skills to deal with them or even have those ideals at the heart of their motivation?  And what about those who don’t even believe in books and want to digitise everything, pushing for their own versions of libraries rather than remaining impartial, providing what other people want and need regardless of their own ideas.  After all, these volunteers can seemingly run these spaces in any way they want. With the best will in the world, wanting to keep your library open doesn’t qualify you as the best person to be in charge.

I’ll leave you with this from The Library Campaign who wishes these volunteers luck stating that they will need it. “Nobody knows what chance they have. And we note that there is advice for councils who want to offload their library services any way they can. But there is no advice for local people who don’t want their libraries to drift out of public service control, don’t want to pay their taxes but do all the work themselves and do want councils to listen to their views and suggestions.”

 

 

 

Book Hive Teaser Trailer

Book Hive Teaser Trailer from Adam Laity on Vimeo.

Copyright Adam DJ Laity/Rusty Squid Ltd

Rusty Squid, the art group behind the fantastic interactive sculpture at Bristol Central Library have kindly given me permission to include their trailer for the project. Bristol libraries are celebrating their 400th year and to mark the occasion the arts council have funded a ground breaking project that looks at the role of print books and libraries in an age of digitalisation with art group Rusty Squid. Working with Bristol’s Central Library and using innovative technology and beautifully crafted materials in order to “arrest and capture people in a deeply personal way”, Rusty Squid have created an ambitious interactive sculpture called Book Hive. The sculpture will ultimately feature 400 animatronic books bathed in a warm light that will provide visitors with an immersive experience, where life-like animated books will interact with them, reacting to their movements in the space. Book Hive is a three month project, during which time the public will have the opportunity to influence its development and growth before the full 400 books are installed in February.

Rusty Squid explain that the piece is a “vivid response to the impact digital culture has had on the work of public libraries and the human relationship with the physical book. The hive is a metaphor for the power of libraries. Digitalisation has made engagement and interaction with books an isolated pursuit, requiring only a remote connection. By contrast, libraries bring people in to a physical collective space, where you are no longer in control of the breadth of material you are exposed to, nor the people with whom you share the space. As in any swarm in nature, if you remove an individual, it is very simple and limited, but as part of the swarm, can become part of a much more complex and powerful organism. For Rusty Squid, libraries are a powerful metaphor for the swarms/hives in nature – Book Hive reflects and embodies this power.”

This seems a perfect way to celebrate libraries and their role in our lives and that of our communities. This year already, Wolverhampton’s libraries are set to face devastating staff cuts and a dramatic reduction in opening times which will have a huge effect on education and the increase in the city’s digital divide.

SaveWolverhamptonLibraries stated that a dark week lay ahead and that “The poorest and most vulnerable of our city’s residents will be worst affected.” It seems that the council in their decision making process refused to properly determine the effect this would have on children, vulnerable adults and education and this lack of scrutiny has led to the threat of the removal of services outside the core role of lending which includes working closely with disadvantaged primary school children to raise levels of education, schools outreach, IT assistance and training, CV writing and job searching.

Projects such as this are a great way to remind people that these spaces that provide so many different things to so many different people have the ability to bring us together for a shared and mutual experience. Libraries are democratic, free and accessible to all, they make learning and the pursuit of knowledge a collective experience rather than a solitary pursuit. Kio Stark, author of the book Don’t Go Back To School states that people don’t learn in isolation; “It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.” Rusty Squid and their sculpture highlights the role libraries play connecting people, bringing them together in order to interact on common ground. We need libraries to facilitate, empower and enable by providing a place to work and learn, to focus and study, to relax and let the mind wander, to have new ideas and to form questions, side by side, with each other.

Book Hive at Bristol Library

Picture 3Bristol libraries are celebrating their 400th year and to mark the occasion the arts council have funded a ground breaking project that looks at the role of print books and libraries in an age of digitalisation with art group Rusty Squid.  Working with Bristol’s Central Library and using innovative technology and beautifully crafted materials in order to “arrest and capture people in a deeply personal way”, Rusty Squid have created an ambitious interactive sculpture called Book Hive.  The sculpture will ultimately feature 400 animatronic books bathed in a warm light that will provide visitors with an immersive experience, where life-like animated books will interact with them, reacting to their movements in the space. Book Hive is a three month project, during which time the public will have the opportunity to influence its development and growth before the full 400 books are installed in February.

Rusty Squid explain that the piece is a “vivid response to the impact digital culture has had on the work of public libraries and the human relationship with the physical book. The hive is a metaphor for the power of libraries. Digitalisation has made engagement and interaction with books an isolated pursuit, requiring only a remote connection. By contrast, libraries bring people in to a physical collective space, where you are no longer in control of the breadth of material you are exposed to, nor the people with whom you share the space. As in any swarm in nature, if you remove an individual, it is very simple and limited, but as part of the swarm, can become part of a much more complex and powerful organism. For Rusty Squid, libraries are a powerful metaphor for the swarms/hives in nature – Book Hive reflects and embodies this power.”

This seems a perfect way to celebrate libraries and their role in our lives and that of our communities.  This year already, Wolverhampton’s libraries are set to face devastating staff cuts and a dramatic reduction in opening times which will have a huge effect on education and the increase in the city’s digital divide.

SaveWolverhamptonLibraries stated that a dark week lay ahead and that “The poorest and most vulnerable of our city’s residents will be worst affected.”  It seems that the council in their decision making process refused to properly determine the effect this would have on children, vulnerable adults and education and this lack of scrutiny has led to the threat of the removal of services outside the core role of lending which includes working closely with disadvantaged primary school children to raise levels of education, schools outreach, IT assistance and training, CV writing and job searching.

Projects such as this are a great way to remind people that these spaces that provide so many different things to so many different people have the ability to bring us together for a shared and mutual experience.  Libraries are democratic, free and accessible to all, they make learning and the pursuit of knowledge a collective experience rather than a solitary pursuit.  Kio Stark, author of the book Don’t Go Back To School states that people don’t learn in isolation; “It’s a social act.  Learning is something we do together.”  Rusty Squid and their sculpture highlights the role libraries play connecting people, bringing them together in order to interact on common ground.  We need libraries to facilitate, empower and enable by providing a place to work and learn, to focus and study, to relax and let the mind wander, to have new ideas and to form questions,  side by side, with each other.

For more information on the project at Bristol Central Library, click on the link.

LAMBETH UNISON’S MANIFESTO FOR LIBRARIES

Creative Commons, credit to Phil BradleyAs we begin 2014, it seems that Lambeth libraries are again facing an uncertain future at a time when more and more people rely on their services.  With the steady rise in membership, rather than investing more, Lambeth Council are threatening to make more cuts.  This will mean that Lambeth Libraries, already suffering from staff shortages and a lack of books, will find themselves in an even more precarious situation than before.

To fight against these cuts, Lambeth UNISON which represents the library staff has launched a Manifesto for Libraries, a campaign supported by The Friends of Carnegie Library.  By getting involved you can help protect the staff that run this vital service with ever decreasing resources and support your local libraries ensuring that they remain at the heart of our community where they will serve you and your families for years to come.

For more information click here 

Manifesto for libraries:

Lambeth citizens face unprecedented hardship through this period of austerity and in these times we believe more than ever we need access to information, literature and the digital world. The following is what we believe Lambeth’s public library service should provide (as outlined by Voices for the Library):

  • A wide-ranging, quality book stock available to borrow without charge.
  • Up-to-date ICT that is available to access free of charge and without restrictions, supplemented by support from trained staff.
  • Access to e-books remotely and without charge.
  • A wide-range of quality online services at no charge.
  • A space free from commercial influence.
  • Dedicated services for teens.
  • A service managed and run by professionals.
  • Volunteer opportunities but only as a support to paid staff, not as a substitute.
  • Library buildings that provide a modern, welcoming space.
  • A service owned by the public, not private companies or a sub-section of the community.

We note that, although Lambeth Council have invested in Library buildings, budgets to run Libraries have been slashed to the point where they can no longer provide the service Lambeth citizens need and deserve.

This manifesto asks local politicians to agree to the following when standing for election next May:

  • A commitment to increase book stock to at least the average amount of books of other London authorities – Lambeth Libraries have only 50% of the average London borough book stock
  • A commitment to increase staffing to at least the average amount of staff of other London authorities – Lambeth Libraries are proposing to reduce the staffing levels to the lowest in London
  • A commitment to increase public IT access to at least the average amount of other London authorities – Lambeth Libraries have only 50% of the average London borough public IT provision
  • A commitment to keep all nine public libraries open with no cuts to opening hours

Lambeth residents deserve a Library service equivalent to that provided for residents in neighbouring London boroughs with adequate levels of staffing, digital access and books.

Open Book: Children’s Laureate Special

Mariella Frostrup - BBC Open Book

Open Book with Mariella Frostrup this week was the Children’s Laureate Special.  Click on image above to listen to it via BBC i player.  Each laureate mentions the role of libraries in teaching and encouraging more children to read.

First created in 1999, the position of Children’s Laureate is awarded every two years to an eminent writer or illustrator of children’s books and designed to celebrate outstanding achievement in their field while thrusting them into the limelight to champion young reading.

Current Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, along with Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen, former Laureates, discuss the role, children’s literature, recent education policies and the importance of encouraging our children to read.

Labour MP and former Home Secretary Alan Johnson joins 9libraries for some Grapes of Wrath.

Photograph: Matt Lloyd/Rex Features

When MPs visit libraries in this age of austerity it’s too often connected with threatened or actual closures. Hull City Council is facing a £46m reduction in it’s revenue budget over the next two years on top of the £50m that’s been cut since 2011.
So far none of its main libraries have closed, although one, Anlaby Park Library is in the course of being transferred to community ownership.
The threat of closure galvanised the local population to rush to its defence and very soon the Friends of Anlaby Park Library (FAPL) was up and running recruiting over a hundred volunteers to be trained in order to run this precious piece of the local infrastructure. How many institutions could attract so many defenders to it’s cause? Situated on what looks like a village green in this more pastoral part of the tenth biggest City in the country, FAPL believes the library will become an even more integral part of the local community now that it’s been removed from the firing line of future cuts.
Despite many visits to Anlaby Park over the past few months, it’s not my local library so it wasn’t where I went to participate in the “9 Libraries 100 Books” initiative.
I live in Hessle, the small town at the western edge of my constituency. This is where the Humber Bridge connects to the north bank of the Humber. It’s elegant elevation replaced the ferry from Hull Pier to New Holland on the Lincolnshire coast over thirty years ago thus disturbing Hull’s edge of the world loneliness. Locals like to joke that the bridge was built simply to connect Hessle with Barton-on-the-Humber the little village opposite.
I’d joined the library when I moved to Hessle but had yet to borrow a book. I have so many books that I’ve yet to read that I have no reason to borrow but the library provides a wonderful source of local reference which I’ve often consulted.
Going to the library has been an important part of my life since my mother took me and my sister to Ladbroke Grove Library in Notting Hill as soon as we were old enough to turn a page. I remember her leaning over me, her chiffon scarf falling on my face, her perfume scenting the air as I sat deciding which picture book to take.
This time I knew which book I’d borrow before I arrived. I’d chosen it from the BBC’s Top 100 Books which 9libraries is attempting to read in a year. I wanted to choose a book that I’d never read before rather than re-read one I had. This gave me a choice of 62 of the listed books. I didn’t fancy the Harry Potters and felt that Artemis Fowl (which my son loves) might be a bit young for me.
There was one book that I’d always meant to read and which I hoped would be on the list before I’d even seen it.
It was book No. 29, The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
When I went to Hessle Library in August to borrow my book I found a building site where the library used to be. The library was being renovated and enlarged to become a centre for even more community activities and an office for the Neighbourhood Police Team.
The service had relocated to to a portable hut next to the Town Hall. The hard pressed but eternally polite staff told me that these cramped conditions would be worth enduring to keep the service running. The book I wanted wasn’t available but there were four copies in the system one of which would be available soon. A few days later a message on my i phone alerted me to its availability and I collected a bound volume of five Steinbeck novels the following Saturday.
So began my arduous task of reading one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century.
In June 1938, a few weeks after starting The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck confided in his diary:-
“If I could do this book properly it would be one of the really fine books and a truly American book.”
He succeeded. This isn’t just regarded as the greatest of his seventeen novels, it’s blue collar radicalism, folk wisdom and raw dialogue qualifies it as the quintessential ‘American book’ he had set out to write. It won him the Pulitzer Prize and remains his masterpiece.
Migration is a hot, topical, political issue. I found myself reading this book against the background of the terrible tragedy of drowned migrants off the coast of Italy. Nowhere is the motivation for migration or the deep trauma it exacts upon those migrating to seek a better life described more cogently than in this book.
The Joads migrate within their own country – from Oaklahoma to California – from dust bowl to fruit bowl so to speak. Whilst not crossing continents they meet the same hostility that migrants face today and are exploited even more ruthlessly.
Whilst Steinbeck was accused of having Communist sympathies (which was undoubtedly true and which he shared with millions of others in the west before the brutal truth about Stalin emerged), he was principally a Rouseveltian Democrat with a strong belief in the need for trade unions in a free society. But like all the great political books there is little of the tract or  thesis in The Grapes Of Wrath.
It’s a story about the the capacity of the human spirit to overcome false hopes and thwarted desires; for people to survive in the bleakest of circumstances with their humanity intact. The writing manages to be powerful yet tender, even delicate in its intensity. The hardship that the Joad’s endure never submerges the reader in misery because Steinbeck’s lightness of touch ensures a balance between laughter and despair.
What was most striking to me was Steinbeck’s ability to articulate the emotions of Ma Joad, the matriarch who is so much stronger that her husband and who takes the leading role on the road that she would never have taken so overtly in the home.
For those who remember the famous film starring Henry Fonda, be warned. It was a sanitised Hollywood version of this unflinching and profound novel that moves towards its incredible end in a way that the cinema of the 1930′s couldn’t possibly portray.

Alan Johnson.

“to Tom who lived it.”

Tom E.Collins

At the beginning of John Steinbeck’s Nobel prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, two dedication lines appear: “to Carol who willed it” and “to Tom who lived it.” Carol was the author’s wife, who suggested the title to Steinbeck after reading Battle-Hymn of the Republic by Julia Ward Howe.

Most readers assume that the second line is a reference to Tom Joad, the father of the migrant family who make their way to California in the search of work and a better life, however, the line actually refers to Thomas E. Collins whom Steinbeck immortalises in The Grapes of Wrath as Jim Rawley, the manager of government camp Weedpatch and whose ‘…kindness makes ma feel human again.’

Tomas E. Collins was the Resettlement Administration staff member assigned to accompany Steinbeck on his tour of the migrant camps.  After the battle of Salinas in September 1936,  when far-right fascists and forces of agribusiness met with local vigilantes to send a brutal message to the migrant workers who were forced to accept less than subsistence wages, Steinbeck was so appalled by their treatment that he decided to go undercover to research what would later become the Nobel Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.  He contacted the Farm Security Administration in Washington and said he wanted to work as a migrant. They assigned him to Tom E. Collins, a camp manager at Arvin in California, whom later Steinbeck dedicated the book to.  Melvyn Bragg, when visiting the camp for the documentary Steinbeck: The Voice of America, he noted that it was “deeply touching to see that Collins not only ran a rare, uncorrupt and democratic camp, but had put up a schoolhouse, a library and a meeting hall.”

For Collins this was an opportunity to publicise the terrible conditions migrant workers were forced to endure.  In return Steinbeck learnt about the practicalities of day to day life for the workers and their families, from keeping battered trucks running to finding ways to feed large families with next to nothing.

Steinbeck’s time with Collins travelling from camp to camp meant that he experienced first hand, the extreme cruelty migrants and their families faced as well as daily acts of kindness between people who had almost nothing to give, all of which was written into a breathtakingly vivid picture of that period.  Steinbeck lays bare the lives of those families who travelled across country clutching promises of work and brighter futures in their hands only to be met with hostility, suspicion and violence.  Yet Steinbeck creates a hopeful and uplifting account of a community that stuck together that still resonates today.

This book has the most shockingly moving and generous ending I have ever read, just when I thought the Joad family wouldn’t be able to suffer any more humiliation, Steinbeck sends us a clear message that it is those with nothing, who give the most.

Battle Hymn of the Republic and The Grapes of Wrath

Dorothea Lange

The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a hymn by American writer Julia Ward Howe using the music from the song “John Brown’s Body”. Howe’s more famous lyrics were written in November 1861 and first published in The Atlantic Monthly in February 1862.  Later, it became the inspiration for the Nobel Prize wining novel, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck after his wife Carol suggested it.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fatal lightning of his terrible swift sword:
      His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps.
      His Day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
      Since God is marching on.”
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgement-seat:
Oh! be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
      Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
      While God is marching on.
The words of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” appear in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermons and speeches, most notably in his speech “How Long, Not Long” from the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building on March 25, 1965 after the 3rd Selma March, and in his final sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on the evening of April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination. In fact, the latter sermon, King’s last public words, ends with the first lyrics of the “Battle Hymn”, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”