Zoella, Emily Dickinson, and the Swiss Government

Zoella Book

Perhaps it’s a way of simplifying things.  Whether it’s historical periods,  ideas or inventions, we like to link them all with one person.  Monarchs are a shorthand for their time. Famous scientists are picked out of a tangle of piecemeal progress to stand for that progress. Isaac Newton for example, is famous for his scientific work, and also for his ruthless efforts to deny the efforts of others.

Then there’s the writer, the name that appears on a novel,  or a collection of poems.   Surely a book is not like seventeenth century science hi-jacked by Newton, or sixteenth century England, personified by Queen Elizabeth I. Surely a book is about individual creativity?

Well, no not really.  A book has an author, which simplifies a complicated reality which involves a lot of people. To start with there’s the long suffering wife, husband or partner who might have lent financial support, manuscript reading time and ideas.  Then if you’re lucky there might be editors, agents and beta readers, all feeding into this project which carries the author’s name like a kind of branding.   Of course there are gradations, with someone like Emily Dickinson at one end of the scale – famously working in reclusive isolation – and Zoella at the other, who apparently chatted to an editorial team at Penguin, who then wrote her novel about a young girl who makes it big in the video blogging world.

However, even with contrast as stark as this, we have to be careful about making assumptions. The mythology of Emily Dickinson plays up her isolation, when in fact, for a recluse, she was extremely sociable – it’s just that she tended to carry out her relationships with people via letter.  About a thousand of her letters survive, although this is probably only one tenth of the total.  One of her favourite correspondents was sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, who according to biographer Wendy Martin offered friendship, advice, and editorial suggestions.  Emily Dickinson did not work in isolation.  Writing is communication and you simply cannot do it alone.

Emily Dickinson


And that brings me sadly, to politics.  Writers do not work alone, and neither do politicians.  While a writer bigging themselves up might be annoying,  the idea of the great individual can be positively damaging when someone in politics starts seeing themselves as some kind of superhero.  Governments are huge organisations involving thousands of people.  It is damaging when one person begins to think they are more important than the institutions that provide the stability of government.  In the UK, Theresa May wants people to elect her because she will give strong leadership, as though that is the key to success.  This is simply not true. In fact, you could say the opposite is true. A truly successful country has strong institutions that protect against the vagaries of individuals.

Switzerland, for example, is one of the world’s most successful countries. It also has a government designed to make sure that strong leadership concentrated on one person does not arise. The President of the Swiss Confederation is the presiding member of the seven member Swiss Federal Council. The person filling this role is elected for a one year term by the members of the Federal Assembly. The President chairs meetings of the Federal Council and undertakes representational duties, but does not have any powers beyond that of other members of the Federal Council. It is very unlikely that you know the identity of the current person holding the role of president – who happens to be Doris Leutard – because the Swiss system does not seek to concentrate power in one person.


Doris Leutard – This photo is from the website of the Swiss Federal Chancellery

The Swiss government is the equivalent of  an editorial team with Doris Leutard as the writer.   Doris might write an article after reading and thinking about pieces written by other people.  A partner will read early drafts over, make a few comments.  Doris may then change some things.   The fact that it’s got her name on the finished product should not deceive you.

If you are one of those unsung heroes who have helped a writer, leant an ear, read their stuff, made suggestions, given time and patience and received no recognition, this piece is dedicated to you.

A Game of Thrones – Fantasy in Exile


Game of Thrones

First a little history for you.   Folk tales took place in our world, even if their location was far away or long ago.  In contrast, fantasy authors since the nineteenth century have shunted their stories off into separate worlds, often helpfully mapped in the first few introductory pages.  This shutting away is a major characteristic of modern fantasy writing, illustrated by the fact that as of 2017, Wikipedia lists 202 fictional worlds created by well-known authors. It’s as though real life doesn’t have room for fantasy anymore.  Fantasy has been banished, like an eighteenth century convict sent to Australia.

A Game of Thrones appears to follow this familiar pattern.  The story is set in its own fictional realm, with maps provided of three fanciful continents, Westeros, Essos and Sothoryos.  However, the story opens with a more historical than fantastical feel. There are no wizards with pointy hats.  The powerful families of the book take advice from “maesters”, people who are like early scientists, studying the technical aspects of medicine, architecture, history, navigation and so on.  Old wives’ tales concerning lost magical forest dwellers do not impress them.  They have shut the old tales out of their minds.  In fact this shutting away of folklore is made literal, by a vast ice barrier.  This is a kind of Hadrian’s Wall, manned by a group of soldiers known as the Night’s Watch, blocking all access to the northern part of Westeros. It is not entirely clear what lies behind this fortification, beyond a sense of slowly developing threat. We hear stories of magical goings on, which the maesters airily dismiss.  An ocassional zombie-like creature emerges to do battle with the Night’s Watch.  It’s as though all the folklore of Westeros has been exiled behind that wall, just as fairy tales in the real world have been exiled to their own separate places. You get the feeling that the power of those tales is not happy to stay there.

Meanwhile in the medieval setting south of the wall, George R.R. Martin tells a well-handled tale of brutal, self-involved, incestuous politics.  There are complex meditations on the nature of power and virtue.  However, for me the real quality of the book is that underlying sense of old world legends and tall tales shut away, waiting to come back. If you were to write a book that was both modern fantasy and a thoughtful reflection on modern fantasy, then  A Game of Thrones would be it.



Agatha Christie, Hiding in Entertainment



The Boathouse at Agatha Christie’s Greenway estate near Dartmouth

Agatha Christie was a hugely popular crime and thriller writer who sold millions of books during a working life extending from the 1920s to the 1970s. In 1962 a UNESCO report quoted by her biographer Charles Osborne said that Agatha Christie was the most widely read British author in the world, with Shakespeare second, a long way behind. The Guinness Book Of Records – according to Wikipedia – claims around four billion copies of Agatha Christie’s books have sold worldwide, with only The Bible selling in greater quantities.  By any measure Agatha Christie was seriously successful.

Widely read though they are, detective stories have long been dismissed as mere entertainment.  WH Auden viewed them as tobacco, an addiction which wasn’t quite proper. Now, it is not for me to spoil things by claiming detective fiction for the earnest English Literature crowd, but it is interesting how closely detective stories are related to the earliest days of novel writing. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Puritan self confession narratives began to evolve into fictional moral tracts, which became what we now know as the novel. In the popularity of detective stories, it is easy to hear echoes from the novel’s earliest days. Detective stories involve a crime, usually a murder, and the successful uncovering of a culprit. On the way the best crime writers are able to explore our conceptions of morality.

So was Agatha Christie a writer who could explore morality?  If you were to read some of her autobiographical writings, you would not think it likely.   In fact, she talks of right and wrong in terms stark enough to sit easily amidst the adherents of fringe right-wing politics. The innocent and guilty are portrayed as fundamentally different, virtually as separate beings:

“Why should we not execute him? We have taken the lives of wolves in this country; we didn’t try to teach the wolf to lie down with the lamb – I doubt really if we could. We hunted down the wild boar in the mountains before he came down and killed the children by the brook. These were our enemies and we destroyed them.” (Quoted in The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie by Charles Osborne).

Statements like this do not offer much hope for a nuance and ambiguity. Nevertheless, through the 1930s and 1940s, the Agatha Christie publishing phenomenon exploded around two detectives, a former Belgian policeman named Hercule Poirot, who first appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920; and Miss Marple, who usually solved crimes in the village of St Mary Mead, making her debut in Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. None of the many novels featuring these two characters was to sell millions by presenting dull and obvious homilies.   Murderers are frequently portrayed sympathetically, while victims are often flawed in some way.  An Appointment With Death, a Poirot novel published in 1938, is typical.  An evil old woman called Mrs Boynton takes a holiday in the Middle East with her unfortunate family, which she has terrorised for decades. The family finally snaps, murdering the old woman with an overdose of her heart medicine, hoping that the murder will be overlooked as death by natural causes. The various suspects are considered by Poirot who just happens to also be holidaying in the area. As part of his investigation, Poirot interviews a doctor, who does not want the death investigated.  He argues that the world is better off without Mrs Boynton, and that one damaged member of the family, Ginerva Boynton, might have committed murder in self-defence:

“I should say mentally she is in an extremely dangerous condition. She has already begun to display symptoms of schizophrenia. Unable to bear the suppression of her life, she is escaping into the realm of fantasy… The sufferer kills – not for the lust of killing – but in self-defence.”

Meanwhile, crusty Colonel Carbury dismisses such liberal meanderings and pushes for a proper inquiry.  He does not want this because of any moral qualms, but because as he puts it: “I’m a tidy man.” You get the feeling that Colonel Carbury is a fool, whose neat conception of the world has no room for its true complexity.  Poirot himself is similar in outlook, admitting to no gray areas:

“The victim may be one of the good God’s saints – or, on the contrary – a monster of infamy. It moves me not. The fact is the same… I don’t approve of murder.”

Hazel Hatch and Salcombe Holiday 274 (2)

A letter, received by Agatha Christie, on display at Greenway House

So how to do you reconcile the novels with the autobiographical views?  Perhaps there’s a clue in the fact that Agatha Christie herself was always adamant that her stories were merely unimportant entertainment.  Perhaps by viewing her writing in this way, she was free to explore ambiguities that she was reluctant to accept in her daily life as a wealthy English woman who wanted the criminal classes shot like wolves and wild hogs.  If she came to different conclusions in her books, that didn’t matter, because her books didn’t matter, even if they did sell in their billions.

The word entertainment comes from a Latin word “tenere,” meaning “to hold”. We are held by the things that entertain us, given succor by them.  Christie novels offer a clear and comforting picture of morality where a supreme, seemingly all-seeing detective will always solve a crime. And yet alongside this reassurance there is an accurate reflection of the true complexity of human behaviour where innocent and guilty are almost interchangeable. In a Christie story, the wolf and the lamb not only lie down together, they are often the same animal. And as for Poirot, a character who Christie said she ended up hating, he sees everything, and yet seems blind to life’s gray areas.

In this respect it is not so fanciful to ultimately see a link between the world’s two top best selling collection of stories.  Perhaps they both hold people in a similar way.  In Exodus, for example, God has to ask Abraham for his help in deciding what to do with Sodom and Gomorrah. God sees everything, but in doing so, like Poirot, he is not involved. Abraham is involved, does not have a universal breadth of vision, but “understands” things in a way that an all-seeing power cannot. God has to ask Abraham for advice.  This section of Exodus is just like a Christie story. Perhaps it is a bit intimidating to feel that you might be writing a modern Exodus – so we might understand why Agatha Christie was so keen to dismiss the significance of her stories.  Nevertheless, significant is what they are.