I have a book ready to publish on Kindle. After years of writing and polishing tens of thousands of words I just have to think of a few words for the title. This seems as difficult as writing the whole book, because the title is a book in miniature.
I thought some customer research might help. After discarding dozens of titles, four were left. We posted these on Facebook, and asked friends for their preference. The choices were:
a) Putney Bridge
b) Best Eight
c) One King Two Planets
d) Frost Hardened Juniper
Here are the results – thank you to those who responded:
Putney Bridge 5
Best Eight 4
One King Two Planets 10
Frost Hardened Juniper 3
Now I know this was hardly a large sample of respondents, and you might not call an election result, or calculate a drug safety profile with these numbers. Nevertheless, there was a clear winner – One King Two Planets. Interestingly, this was the most obviously “high concept” title on the list. High concept is the Hollywood blockbuster style of title, encapsulating the basic premise of a film using the minimum of words, as in Planet of the Apes, or Snakes on a Plane.
Out of the choices available, One King Two Planets does do the best job of summarising the basic plot of the book. It seems clear and simple but does provoke questions, as in how is one king supposed to cope with two planets, and what is an old fashioned king doing in a sci-fi scenario of multiple planets anyway? There might also be a nod to the way people use their leaders as symbols to both unite and divide themselves.
So this was a useful exercise with an interesting result. To be honest the winning option was not my favourite. I preferred titles which had resonance for me having written the book – Best Eight, Putney Bridge. I won’t go into why they mean more to me, because, if you were someone looking for your next read, I wouldn’t be around to explain all the deep and meaningful nuances of my favourite titles. As a writer, it can be hard to step back and put yourself in the position of someone looking for a title to catch their eye. A poll can help put you there.
Daisy Jones & The Six is the story of a 1970s rock band who, amidst major relationship dramas and substance abuse, make Aurora, one of the decade’s greatest albums. After starting the book, I was soon thinking of parallels with Fleetwood Mac, who like Daisy Jones & The Six had lead singer and writing responsibilities shared between a man and woman in a fraught relationship. Both fictional and real bands had famously solid rhythm sections, and a talented, down to Earth female keyboard player, in a difficult romantic entanglement with another band member. And of course Fleetwood Mac suffered, fought, partied, drank, snorted, and wrote their way to the Rumours album of 1977. A quick check on the internet revealed interviews with author Taylor Jenkins Reid which confirmed the link.
The book is an interesting reconstruction of a band making a successful album, the story told from the varied points of view of musicians, technicians, managers, wives, children, photographers, accountants and rock journalists. Creating a massively successful album involves a lot of people. Does it happen because one person imposes his or her creative vision; or because others are allowed to shine, bringing many talents into play? Both alternatives seem to happen at the same time, in a way that cannot be planned for. The book’s fictional Aurora album is something that people strive to achieve, but which happens almost by accident. And even if a turbulent group of people make an album that they are pleased with, is the audience going to like it? Musical preference is highly subjective. By bringing all these factors together via many voices, Daisy Jones & The Six does catch the spirit of an intense collaborative effort where an evanescent chain of events leads to something which is greater than the sum of its parts.
While the book is very good in its exploration of the nature of a complex creative endeavour, if I was to quibble I might suggest that the fictional project itself is perhaps a weaker aspect. Compare for example the name of the album Aurora with the name of the real album Rumours. The title of Fleetwood Mac’s most famous album is deceptively simple, introducing its collection of songs in terms of the kind of hearsay which by its very nature is enigmatic, and which invites people to read their own concerns into them. Rumours circulate in times of trouble, and you never know where you are with them. Aurora by contrast is the sort of title which sounds impressive, but which is kind of straining for significance. And the fictional band name, The Six, does not compare well with Fleetwood Mac. The name of the real band is less literal, and has a pleasing rhythm to it. Now, I accept that no author would be able to recreate a hit album in book form, but it might have been better to leave the Aurora album more impressionistic.
Apart from that, I enjoyed Daisy Jones And The Six, a perceptive study of what it’s like to try and create something great in partnership with other people.
Max Beerbohm’s novel Zuleika Dobson, is the story of a beautiful woman who makes Oxford’s entire male undergraduate population want to die for her. Now I know this sounds like an unlikely scenario, and many reviews focus on this. Even the story’s narrator seems to suffer a crisis of confidence when faced with the logical conclusion of his tale. So what does he do? Naturally, he takes advantage of Oxford’s links with the study of classical antiquity, and does a deal with a couple of Greek gods. Stay with me here – he talks Zeus and Clio into upgrading his investigative abilities. They confer upon him the ability to swoop about the place, seeing a story from every angle, like a kind of mythical drone camera.
Still with me? If you are, I think this piece of classical whimsy actually has a serious point. It is, in fact, a way of bringing our attention to the way we happily accept bizarre conventions, like that of an omniscient narrator who, aside from an ability to travel anywhere, also has access into people’s thoughts. Never mind about the practicalities and privacy issues, readers just accept this curious arrangement.
Acceptance of things because (a) lots of people do them, (b) glamorous individuals are seen doing them, and (c) they have been done for a long time, is a major feature of Zuleika Dobson. Oxford is a good place to set a story exploring this aspect of human nature, because it’s a university town with celebrities, lots of traditions where things are done a certain way because they have been done that way for a long time, and a population of young people looking for a lead. All these factors conspire to make Oxford’s undergraduates plan to do something very stupid for very stupid reasons. The ensuing events might seem farcical, but they serve to demonstrate an important reality. Zuleika Dobson was published in 1911. Within three years, millions of young men from Britain and Europe would allow themselves to be led into a terrible war.
That is really the end of my review. Zuleika Dobson was an interesting book, elegantly written, making interesting points about the malign power of crowds. But the second part of this article, if you wish to read on, is my thoughts on whether you should be taking any notice of my views in the first place. Zuleika Dobson makes the point that people can make bad decisions when part of big groups, and that individuals make wiser choices. But in recent times, the celebration of the individual viewpoint has become problematic. After all, we are now in an age of populism.
Populism puts too great a value on individual opinion. If you happen to think 5G masts spread viruses then you can broadcast that message. In the age of the internet, anyone has a platform to say what they think. The idea of worthy individuals standing against the crowd has taken on a different feel, after being hijacked by populist politicians. Donald Trump, for example, even as president, presents himself as the individual voice of truth standing against the dark apparatus of state. Maybe today the value that we place on the individual voice has itself become degraded, a habit, which we parrot unthinkingly, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
So where does that leave us? As far as book reviews are concerned, I would say that a truly personal reaction to a book is always worthwhile no matter who you are. I don’t think it is the case that literary education, or a gift of insight from the gods is needed to be a book reviewer. It’s great to have everyone contributing their thoughts on Amazon and Goodreads – much better than relying on the literary critic of The Times. But the thing is, a good review will have an aspect of challenge to yourself, making you look carefully at your own assumptions. Some learning will take place, even if it doesn’t look like learning in an academic sense. The fact that the review is your individual opinion is not enough by itself. For example, I wrote an initial version of this review where I said that Zuleika Dobson was insightful in the way it portrayed the value of not following the crowd. But there was something in me that wasn’t entirely happy with that, some niggle that wouldn’t leave me alone. So, dammit, I took the review down and wrote it again, to try and explore my misgivings. That’s what I think you have to do with a book review. You have to be true to yourself in a disciplined way. Populism is not like that, because it’s lazy. Many populist positions are emotional reactions rather than thought-out conclusions. And it’s this thoughtless emotionalism, disguised as brave individualism, which could very easily lead to a lot of people doing something very stupid for very stupid reasons.
That’s me doing my very best to be true to my feelings about Zuleika Dobson.
I rewatched All The President’s Men last night, a great story, about two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at The Washington Post in 1972. Following a complex chain of evidence, they uncover a plot coordinated by President Nixon, to destroy his political opponents, and cover up the effort to do so.
I found myself wondering how Woodward and Bernstein would write about the current plight of the UK….
On the 5th May 2020, the UK death toll from covid 19 became the highest in Europe. The reasons are complex, but they include, according to The Times, a lack of preparedness, resulting from the fact that since 2016, government business has been paralysed by Brexit. According to the Times, recommendations of an exercise testing UK resilience to a pandemic were pushed aside in favour of frantic efforts to deal with the possibility of a no deal exit from the EU. Additionally you could suggest that following the 2019 election, politicians selected for crucial cabinet positions, won their offices thanks to their position on Brexit, not because they were the most competent candidates available. Brexit also damaged recruitment and retention of EU workers in the NHS.
So this is the crime if you like. Then comes the cover up. How do you turn a disaster partly caused by nationalism into a national celebration? Well, the first thing you can do is find people who can be emblems of national pride, preferably with a military background, harking back to the victories of wartime. You make those people the object of charitable giving, and celebrate the achievement of large amounts of money raised. Then you start a regular street celebration. Ostensibly this recognises the work of health care workers, but also functions as a unification exercise, complete with naming and shaming of non-participants, as has happened in our local area. A minute’s silence is a similar device, originally instituted in socially turbulent times after World War One – the primary purpose of which was not remembrance, but powerful, symbolic social cohesion, where non compliance can very easily lead to group shaming. This combination of emblematic individuals, street celebration, and mass silence, all gives the impression of national unity and achievement, in place of national disaster.
Now I’m not saying that if I were Bob Woodward I could attend clandestine meetings in late-night multistorey carparks, in search of clues leading to the person responsible for this elaborate and subtle cover up. Yes, the government organise mass celebrations and silences, but it’s people themselves who make them happen. Yes, the newspapers supporting the government and its agenda choose individuals of symbolic national pride for their front pages; but they only focus on these individuals because they attract readers. In the last analysis this is a conspiracy produced by a majority of the population.
Bob Woodward’s car park contact told him that the Watergate conspiracy went everywhere. The UK’s situation is similar, except there is no final author of the plot. This plot goes everywhere – to the people at the top and to millions of other people as well.
I obviously don’t want to make anyone feel worse than they already do at this dark time. It is very tempting to cling to anything that makes us feel better. But if we are to make wiser choices in the future we need to be clear about what has gone wrong now. There should be no cover up. The editors of the Washington Post knew that when they ran Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate stories in 1972. We have to be brave enough to run similar stories in 2020.
This detective story started with a Facebook appeal from a nursing home in Surrey for Personal Protective Equipment. The home had two patients with confirmed covid19, and two other probable cases, but the staff had no medical gowns.
My wife came up with an idea. She had heard about a recent Panorama documentary investigating PPE shortages, which mentioned a firm that made an offer to supply the NHS, but received no government response. Their product, seemingly unwanted here, had been going out to America. Perhaps if we rang this firm…
We watched the Panorama episode and duly discovered that the company ignored by the UK government, was called TLX Ltd of Bolton. So I picked up the phone and rang TLX. It turned out that TLX make breathable membranes, insulating materials, and fabric for medical gowns, but not the gowns themselves. A helpful TLX receptionist gave me the number of Macdonald and Taylor Ltd of Warrington who they supply with PPE fabric. At Macdonald and Taylor I talked to the production manager who said that there was heavy pressure on supply, but yes he had five boxes of gowns he could courier out over night.
I rang the nursing home, gave them a phone number and contact name at Macdonald and Taylor, who could provide 125 gowns. This sounds a lot, but as these items are single use, does not represent many days supply. At least it was something.
So that’s one example of how PPE is currently being provided for nursing staff in the UK. There must be a better way.