on 22 July 2014
Credit where it's due: if the basic aim of this book is to bring the writings of the fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich to a wider audience, then that is a worthy aim. Such is the level of ignorance and prejudice among even the reading public about the Christian tradition of spirituality, that an introduction, even at a fairly superficial level, may do some good. (Although the author greatly exaggerates the esoteric, 'underground' nature of Julian's thought: it has long been part of mainstream Catholicism. I have a book of 'catechism stories' from 1958 in which she is quoted approvingly, and her Revelations form the backbone of H. F. M. Prescott's erudite and profound 1952 novel The Man on the Donkey. But of course you have to flatter people that they are on to something new and different.) `New Age enthusiast for peace and love finds that she doesn't have to cross half the world to find a few congenial ideas: shock' might be the subtitle for our journalist heroine's extended autobiog piece.
The trouble is, it's so excruciatingly badly written. Reading it aloud was a perfect cringefest: between cardboard cut-out characters, info-dump dialogue, long-winded and gushing descriptions and an utterly predictable story, I soon abandoned the attempt in embarrassment, and just read the rest on my own. The book was a gift, so I felt I had to give it a chance. But you really wondered if the author had even bothered to read it over and use a red pen here and there before she turned it in.
The device of a dual narrative, where the main character finds their story partly mirrored in what they discover about an earlier character, is a time-honoured one and can be used to great effect if the two narratives contain unexpected parallels and revealing differences. But it can rarely have been used as disappointingly as here. It's just the same equally dull story told twice, in a framework of truly Victorian coincidences. The difficult childhood, the rackings of guilt and confusion, the caddish lover ... oh, yes, men are basically hollow, power-craving manipulators, except that you can have your morally superior cake and eat your romance too when one unexpectedly turns out to be the hero of your dreams, and you find an ideal happiness, only for events to take a tragic turn when ... but I won't trace what passes for the plot to its leaden conclusion: a few brave readers may still be wanting to find out for themselves.
The opening pages raise hopes of a thriller-style plot, with talk of whistle-blowers, illicit arms deals and journalistic skulduggery, but it turns out that real danger never threatens our heroine. The political action merely serves to introduce her to a lot of really nice, right-thinking people, none of whom are short of money; and in terms of column inches, the troubles of East Timor take a very poor second place to well-judged flower arrangements, beautifully renovated rural interiors and quality leather bindings. Never mind champagne socialism: this is aromatherapy socialism of the most suffocating kind.
What makes me angry is that this tosh gets published at all, at a time when it is more difficult than ever for new authors to break into print, when not only publishers but even agents righteously refuse to look at unsolicited manuscripts. How many writers with something genuine to say are languishing, gagged by obscurity, while glossy covers and laudatory reviews are lavished on fifth-rate tripe? How does Margaret Coles do it? Oh yes, of course, she's `a former Fleet Street and BBC journalist who now writes for the theatre'. She knows everybody!
Back-scratching? Nepotism? Oh darling, how could you say things like that! Of course we women don't carry on that way. It's just mutual support ... a helping hand! To the right kind of person, of course ...
Basically, a new age of patronage is upon us. Many factors are responsible - the slowing of economic growth, the decline of social mobility - but in the literary field, it's partly due to the abandonment of supposedly objective standards in the use of English and literary style. Ironically, these standards were dumped because they were too 'elitist' and 'exclusive'. So now writers are judged instead on their ability at self-promotion and 'impressing the right people'. We have progressed back to the early 1800s, but without the sense of 'noblesse oblige': from meritocracy to bulls***ocracy.