Monday, 5 July 2010

The first Eleven

SEEKING a link between soccer and literature may not be the easiest thing in the world, but that’s just what Mark and Tim at The Big Green Bookshop ( have managed to do.

They have produced a team of literary hard kickers, drawing their inspiration from PD James, President of the Society of Authors, who stated in a recent speech that England produced the greatest poet – Shakespeare.

Selecting The Bard as their captain, the duo went on to name EM Forster as goalie, and Charles Dickens as left wing or striker. Their other big players were Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson, TS Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Jonathan Coe, Sarah Waters, Ted Hughes, and finally DH Lawrence.

Such ingenuity made me smile, but it also made me think.  The lure of picking my own national squad was irresistible, but inclusion was dependent on each writer’s influence, rather than my own likes and dislikes (though in most cases personal preference coincided with importance).

With this thought in mind I dropped EM Forster, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes. Jonathan Coe and Sarah Waters had to go because I have not read their work. Sadly, TS Eliot was also excluded because he was American.
Instead I brought on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, Virginia Woolf, Edith Nesbit, Roger McGough and Dennis Potter.

Chaucer was a master storyteller who not only knew about plot, but created wonderfully believable characters – and the two don’t always go together.

He was a keen observer of human nature, satirising the social order of his day, and his work is as relevant today as it was more than 600 years ago.

More importantly, he was one of the first authors to write in everyday English, rather than Latin or French, following normal patterns of speech, and he established new forms of metre and rhyme, laying the foundations of the English literary tradition.

His language was simple and uncomplicated and is surprisingly easy to understand – amazingly,  is not so very different to the English we know today.

Milton’s work may not resonate with modern man, but it should. His ‘Paradise Lost’ is an epic tale on a grand scale, relating tales of war in Heaven, Satan’s fall from grace, the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden. 

Written in blank verse it highlights the conflict between Man’s freewill and God’s foresight, taking in the nature of sin, shame, relationships, fate, death and politics.

Milton, an ardent Puritan, wanted to justify the ways of God to men, and he held his vision throughout, showing an astounding breadth of knowledge as he discussed theological and philosophical issues, as well as drawing on the pagan past to support his argument.

Above all, ‘Paradise Lost’ is suffused with hope for Man as he is given the chance to form a new relationship with God. 

Milton’s language may be complex, but the ideas contained therein have inspired a wealth of art, music and literature – and they have made people think about the nature (and attraction) of evil.

Virginia Woolf helped change to form of the novel, using innovative methods, including stream of consciousness techniques, to record the actions and thoughts of her characters.

In her novels and essays she gave voice to women, without resorting to the angry polemic of later feminist writers.

She took the craft of writing very seriously, keeping notebooks where she tracked her experiments as she sought new ways to capture character and express what she had to say, and these give an insight into the creative process.

I included Edith Nesbit because she broke the mould for children’s authors, paving the way for today’s writers, who make their characters tackle real, tough choices, even in imaginary worlds.

Nesbit was the first to do this, just as she was the first to move away from morality tales and fairy stories of earlier periods.

She wrote about real children, who may have magical adventures, but remain firmly rooted in the real world, and have to face the consequences of their actions. And she did so using language her young readers could understand, without being condescending or patronising. Most of all, she made reading fun.

Similarly, I selected Roger McGough because he makes us realise poetry can be fun: that it is not difficult, or scary, or only for ‘posh’ people.

Purists may dismiss him, claiming his early work was nothing more than quirky and funny, but over the years it has deepened and matured, with layer upon layer of meaning.

He may noy be classed as one of the literary ‘greats, but he has done much to publicise and promote poetry and his influence on readers is incalculable: he has helped change the language of poetry for ever, writing about things they know, in language they understand, making them feel that they too could write.

Personally, I am not a fan of Dennis Potter, but I wanted to include a modern dramatist.

I opted for Potter because he wrote specifically for the modern media of television, rather than for the stage, using popular culture, references and allusions – especially music and song.

Whether or not you like his work, you cannot deny he was a trail-blazer, using modern techniques to alter our perceptions of reality as he tackled some dark issues.

Like the original list, mine is headed by Shakespeare. He drew material from a wealth of sources to conjure his own inimitable work.

In his plays he tells a story like no-one before or since, with unforgettable characters experiencing a range of emotion. There is comedy, pathos, anger, grief, guilt, jealousy and love...

The plays – and sonnets – transport us to a brave new world where the power of language can conjure up people and places. Some 400 years later we are still held enthralled by the power of his words, and he speaks to us so strongly that each generation has interpreted Shakespeare to meet the demands and concernsof its own time.

Samuel Johnson was a lexicographer, essayist, man of letters, poet, journalist and novelist. There was seemingly no end to his talents, but he is best known as the creator of ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’, which set a standard still followed today, including (for the first time) examples of words as used in conversation.
His own matchless prose never faltered. Erudite and scholarly, the structure of his writing was perfect, always well balanced, always correct, and always with the right word in the right place.

I did wonder if he should be included with a list of novelists, dramatists and poets, but it is difficult to know how to categorise Johnson – and all writers all owe him a debt of gratitude.

I also wondered if Jane Austen was of sufficient stature for inclusion, or whether I was letting my heart rule my head. 
But I genuinely believe she deserves her place in the team. She steps away from the florid, sentimental gothic genre of the 18th Century, mocking its melodrama and lack of reality.

Her novels centre on women and their place in the world. Each is a comedy of manners, brought to life by Austen’s sharp writing, her ironic tone, her eye for the ridiculous and her clearly drawn characters.

Read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and you will see that people have not changed much on the last two centuries: Kitty and Lydia Bennett would be perfectly at home laughing and giggling with today’s boy-mad teenagers.

Austen’s work has been emulated by many, including 21st Century ‘chick lit’ writers and romantic novelists – to say nothing of films and TV series.

Women and their role in society are also central to Charlotte Bronte’s narratives.

Her heroines, unlike many of those who went before, are not pretty or wealthy. Instead they are strong independent women who work for a living and asserted their right to feel and think as they chose.

They make their own way in life, doing what they think is right, refusing to be influenced by the opin ions of others.

A whole industry seems to have grown around Dickens: he has inspired books, films, television serials, plays, musicals, parodies and the parks. He would, I feel, have approved of anything which helped his work reach a wider audience. His novels were written in installments, each ending on a cliff-hanger to keep the public reading (a kind of Victorian soap opera I guess).

His descriptive powers were second to none (look at his description of fog in the opening chapter of Bleak House), and he created characters who seem to have taken on a life of their own and passed into English folklore – Scrooge for example, or Mr Pickwick.

His convoluted plots relied heavily on coincidence but, nevertheless, they keep us reading to find out what happens.

Additionally, he used his novels to expose many of the social injustices and double standards of Victorian life, so his sphere of influence extended beyond the literary world to politicians and social reformers, who campaigned for improvements.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for commenting on my blog. I love to hear from readers.