Overheard in the supermarket: a woman bemoaning the fact that she had visited the local public library with aview to using one of its computers, only to find that they were in great demand and she should have bookedher session beforehand: They just don't have enough computers, she announced with some venom, they seem to be spending all their money on bloody books! What they want them all for? So that's my question: Why books? For the purposes of this post books are: novels, short stories, plays - truth-telling verisimilitudes of any kind, which from this point on I will call TTVs for short. That out of the way, it is a fundamental question right enough, particularly so at this point in time when there is so much coming on stream that threatens to trivialise, or to appear to trivialise the TTVs. There are e-books, for instance, electronic book readers, techno-books, soaps, games machines, docusoaps, docudramas and much else, none of which are in themselves necessarily trivialising, though the ways in which they have been, and are being, used tends to make them so. I have even seen the soaps proclaimed as today's novels - more on that later. So, given all that, what are books for?Do they have purpose which cannot be fulfilled by any of these would-be usurpers?
We first encounter the TTV as children - not necessarily in book form, and always assuming we were lucky enough to have that sort of childhood. For us then they had much the same purpose as play. With no experience of the world, we role-played to discover as best we could what it mught be like to be a bus driver, fighter pilot, parson or parent. From stories read to us we heard what others thought it would be likeor had found it to be. Or maybe we encountered threats, real or imagined, that our small world held for us, and in the safety of the game or the story we rehearsed the ways to deal with them. We learnt, too, that actions - including our own - have consequences and began to realise that we should have to deal with those as well.
Some things never change, or not much. I remeber that our professor at London University used to impess upon us that: There are more ways of living a life than can be lived by one person living one life. If we want to try the other ways - or some of them! - we can probably best - or most easily - do it in a book. And the book in question will be a TTV, a novel or a biography, a mask of artifice revealing in its fiction a valuable truth.
We could widen the question, of course, and ask what are T.V. dramas for? For have I not already mentioned hearing them proclaimed the new novel? That proclamation was put out by no less a person than Jane Tranter, Controller of Fiction at the BBC in a recent speech to The Royal Television Society. What she actually said was that: television has supplanted the role of the novel in addressing the big social issues of the day. She was comparing the nineteenth century novel with present day television drama, but her words leave scope for some ambiguity: did she mean that in the nineteenth century folk read novels for the same reasons that people today watch T.V. dramas? Or did she mean that the world of the imagination has moved on from the nineteenth century novel and is better served now by T.V. drama, an altogether superior commodity? Certainly, those nineteenth century readers were an enthusiastic bunch, going to much greater lengths to satisfy their passion than we are likely to have to do today. Many clubbed together to buy the instalments they could not afford by themselves, many were illitierate; in both cases they would gather together and have the latest instalment read out. Today we sit mostly in family groups in front of the box for our nightly fix. Maybe even the family group is doomed; the writing has been on the wall for some time in the form of games machines, but now there is another threat: a television set that two programmmes at the same time. Which one you watch depends upon the angle to the screen at which you sit. Of course, you need earphones so... But I digress:There seems little doubt that Jane Tranter meant to imply that the T.V. drama was superior to the novel in terms of imaginative content and the variety of experiences available to the viewer. I find that a staggering assertion at a time when B.B.C. drama, if not actually being dumbed down - and I think it is - is certainly at an all-time low.
To test my feeling, I retrieved an old Saturday Guardian Review from the recycle bin and found in that one paper the following books reviewed: When Will There Be Good News?, described as a crime novel that is funny, clever and always surprising; Casanova, a biography of energy and brio;From A to X; A Story in Letters, John Berger's long-listed Brooker contender; Palace Council by Mark Lawson, a historical thriller that chronicles the fortunes of black America; The Bellini Madonna by Elizabeth Lowry, a mischievous tale of high and low intrigue that entertains; and Girl in a Blue Dress, by Gaynor Arnold the re-telling of Dickens's life with his estranged wife taking centre stage. There were others I could have added, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, for example, not new I know, but then neither is everything on the box. The point is that just taking the books listed here, you would be hard put to it to find a comparable selection anywhere in the T.V. schedules.
Barely had I written the above, than Doreen suggested we sat down to watch My Zinc Bed, a BBC2 drama I had recorded a few days earlier. It was everything I have just been suggesting is no longer to be found among the schedules. It was on the theme of addiction, which did not immediately endear it to me, I having seen so many on that subject that were harrowing and nothing else. This was not like that. Indeed, nothing much happened. For sure, there were no tummy-wrenching scenes. The plot, such as it was, meandered, but mostly it was words. Dialogue. dialogue that made you listen and listen attentively. The pace varied, as did the emotive charge. It was difficult at times, but totally original. The exception that proves my rule, obviously! Encouraging, though.
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