Being the book group with a difference, and one that reads to themes rather than the same book, Endsleigh Salon had pondered the idea of One Author, One Book for some time, eventually deciding to give it a go. We would choose one author and we could each read whatever we fancied by said author for our March meeting....well, such a resounding success we plan to make it an annual event.
Now I can promise faithfully that it was not me who uttered the name first, but I was delighted when someone else did, and even more delighted when the rest of the group agreed, so that was settled... Penelope Fitzgerald.
I have read all the books bar Innocence which I am keeping back safe in the knowledge that for one last time, on one special day I know not when, I will read and savour that feeling I get on reading one of Penelope Fitzgerald's novels for the very first time. It is inexplicable and ridiculous I know, but it feels like walking on virgin snow, and once I start those footprints in the book there is no going back, the read cannot be undone and what we have is all there is. Subsequent reads will reveal layer after layer, but that first read creates a unique feeling of immediacy, a sense of really 'being' wherever I have been taken, something that feels so special to Penelope Fitzgerald's writing and which I think we all struggled to find the words to describe last Tuesday evening.
In the end I chose Human Voices because I remember it being very funny, and very sad by turns as Penelope Fitzgerald describes life inside the BBC during the Second World War and in House of Air and a piece called Curriculum Vitae, Penelope Fitzgerald's credentila for writing this book become evident...
'I left Oxford with an honours degree and might perhaps have stayed there, but it was 1938 and it hardly seemed like the right thing to do at the time. In 1939 I took a job at Broadcasting House...designed to look, and does look, like a great ship headed south, and in 1939, 'with the best engineers in the world, and acrew varying between the intensely respectable and the barely sane, it looked ready to scorn any disaster of less than Titanic scale...'
A string of young girls make up what is known in-house as the Seraglio and it is clear that the sexist atmosphere is very much the norm for BBC 1941, and Penelope Fitzgerald, writing from her 1988 vantage point has a feminist perspective on it all. She knows exactly the moments to emphasise in order to make her point but in that discreet and unshowy way that she has.
'Inside Broadcasting House, the Department of Recorded Programmes was sometimes called the Seraglio, because its Director found that he could work better when surrounded by young women...'
Broadcasting House immediately becomes BH and remains so throughout the book, the director becomes the RPD and thus I was admitted behind the scenes and into the closed shop that was the wartime BBC.
Recent court cases and accusations of ageism against some of the women presenters at the BBC makes me think plus ca change since 1941 etc, and if I'm honest I do look at some of today's male presenters and wonder whether women of the equivalent age, and shall we say of similarly 'weatherbeaten' countenance, would be found acceptable. If only the women had the chance to stay long enough to look weatherbeaten we might find out, but I sense most of them dispatched long before anno domini makes itself apparent... and I had written this before A.A.Gill's personal onslaught on Mary Beard, declaring her 'too ugly for television.'
Mary Beard is currently doing a fabulous and far more capable job of presenting the Romans to us on TV than I suspect A.A.Gill or anyone else could, and don't miss Mary's response. It is gracious and deliciously laced with intelligent and Romanesque revenge and I'm really hoping the contest can be staged in a sort of huge gladiatorial arena and with Clare Balding commentating of course. Interestingly I had only recently been thinking, in Team Middlemarch mode, about the personal slurs on George Eliot's looks, and the inevitable hurt it must have caused, and telling myself thank goodness that wouldn't happen nowadays...
Penelope Fitzgerald would have much to say about it all I feel sure, but meanwhile she keeps her focus firmly on wartime as Lise and Vi settle into the Seraglio in 1940, scurrying around the the flagship building designed to resemble a great liner, which makes the Eric Gill (sorry, we are a bit over Gill-ed today) figurehead of Ariel and Prospero even more significant. I couldn't help thinking of The Tempest, and storms and shipwrecks and this disparate group of castaways as the Corporation lurched from one hilarious moment to the next amid a sort of low-key atmosphere of chaos..
'The corridors were full of talks producers without speakers, speakers without scripts, scripts which by clerical error containd the wrong words or no words at all. The air seemed alive with urgency and worry.'
And as if broadcasting during a war wasn't difficult enough..
'Broadcasting House was in fact dedicated to the strangest project of the war, or of any war, that is telling the truth. Without prompting the BBC had decided that truth was more important than consolation, and in the long run would be more effective..droning quietly on, at intervals from dawn to midnight, telling, as far as possible, exactly what happened...'
That truth began with Big Ben, which must always be relayed from Westminster and chime live on the radio...'the real thing, never from a disc'. It's absence would be a sign to the public..'that the war has taken a seriously unpleasant turn.'
The fact that the mechanism froze in cold weather was neither here not there, a problem to be passed to the Ministry of Works.
And the BBC has power..
'As a cross between a civil service, a powerful moral force, and an amateur theatrical company that wasn't too sure where next week's money was coming from, they had several different kinds of language and could guarantee to come out best from almost any discussion.'
As I have grown to appreciate with Penelope Fitzgerald's writing, the focus is often on lived lives rather than a linear plot and her uncanny ability to take me where she wants me to be, to watch it as it might really have been.
I think this might be what I mean by immediacy, others may interpret it differently. This feels like fiction at its best for me these days. A.S. Byatt and Elizabeth Taylor are spoiling me for anything less,
In fact plenty of note does happen in Human Voices too, some of it utterly hilarious.
The French General's live broadcast to the nation, as funny on my second reading as my first, the hunt for authentic sound effects during the Blitz feels so very ridiculously 1940s BBC, and all contrasted with moments of acute sadness. Meanwhile expect Penelope Fitzgerald's consummate wordsmithery, of the subtlest but most exquisitely simple and highly effective variety to stop you in your tracks.
... the typewriter slumbered.
And I think about it, those big old Remingtons, and yes they do.
Philip Hensher summarized like this...
“Fitzgerald has been widely and justifiably praised for the excellence, discretion and solidity of her historical imagination, which brings unlikely periods of history to life with unarguable, strange rightness.”
And it is that 'strange rightness' that I think many of us at the Endsleigh Salon were struggling to describe. Between us we had read Innocence, Offshore, The Beginning of Spring, The Blue Flower, The Gate of Angels, The Bookshop, The House of Air, The Means of Escape, and bar one dissenter who had dipped into the Collected Letters rather than the fiction and hadn't warmed, we were all of one accord.
A brilliant writer, and thanks to my fellow salonistas a brilliant and inspiring evening, and should your own book group be feeling a little stuck or stale I can highly recommend this approach.
And for anyone twiddling their thumbs today and wishing to brush up on their Latin, I took a picture of this plaque the last time I was at the BBC (ahem) and though I think I may have asked you before I have forgotten what you said, so any ideas??
I can see something about beauty in there...and possibly truth and wisdom... and Miss Vanstone from Nonsuch Girls, if you are reading this (very possible), I know I know, you tried your best, I should have paid attention.