By Jean Baird | October 19, 2011



The National Book Trust administers the Booker Prize in the UK. The organization appears to be networked with everyone, with connections to anything and everything connected to books. Its motto is “inspiring a love of books.” Notice that it’s all about books, not about writers.


As well as the Booker, the Trust administers an array of other book prizes that includes  BBC Short Story, Early Years Awards (for books for pre-school children), Teenage Prize, John Llewellyn (writer under 35), Orange Prize (women), Power of Reading, Roald Dahl Funny Prize, Sunday Times Short Story Prize, Kim Scott Walwyn Prize (for women in publishing), Nestle Children’s Book Prize, New Writing Ventures. Notice also that not once is the Trust’s name attached to any of these prizes. The Trust runs numerous reading campaigns including Children’s Book Week, Children’s Laureate position, Diversity in Publishing and Get London Reading. The Trust also develops and produces an astonishing array of Resources for Schools.


The Writers’ Trust of Canada also administers a stable of prizes, including lifetime achievement, non-fiction, fiction, children’s writing and many others. In the Trust’s literature it says the organization was founded to “encourage a flourishing writing community in this country.” While that is certainly true, the impetus to start the organization was to produce a series of teachers’ guides about Canadian literature that had been produced by a combination of teachers and writers for The Writers’ Union of Canada. Once the project was complete, TWUC felt it would be in a conflict situation to promote and sell the guides so The Writers’ Development Trust was born and took over that aspect. Teachers who used them still remember the guides as a great resource. Sadly, nothing has replaced that service to educators in the many years since.


Over the years The Writers’ Trust (“Development” was dropped along the way) has administered other projects involved in education. For a time, Writers in Electronic Residence found its home with the Trust. There was once a fund to supply funding for writers in schools. Canada Book Day, which developed into Canada Book Week, was also administered by the Trust until it was cancelled by the Trust, not by its funders, in 2003. For a time I was the Director of that program. In addition to the prizes, the Trust administers the Woodcock Fund, a fund created by George Woodcock during his lifetime to provide grants to writers “facing unforeseen financial need.” After Woodcock’s death, and then that of his wife Inge, a large portion of their estate was left to this fund. At the time of this writing, Don Oravec reports that the Woodcock Fund has supported 162 writers and given out $752,773 in financial support.  He anticipates reaching the million-dollar mark in another 2 ½ years. The capital is preserved and has held up well even with the 2008 financial meltdown, continuing to earn about 4.5%  annually with no risk.


For many years the Trust has also supported emerging writers through the Humber scholarship and the Margaret Laurence lectures, the latter given annually at the Writer’s Union AGM. The Margaret Laurence lecture is designed to provide a small honorarium to a senior writer and the lecture is designed to inspire younger writers, even though the Union is currently short on younger writers.


Like most non-profit organizations that support the arts, The Writers’ Trust has had its share of ups and downs. These days the executive director, Don Oravec, is trying hard to stabilize sponsorship for its prizes (you can imagine the challenge of fundraising in the recent economic environment) and to develop new projects and programs. Since his tenure began, the Trust has taken over ownership and running of the Berton House in the Yukon, and has launched a cross-country workshop program organized in conjunction with local libraries. Currently, the Trust has no programs or projects involving education or promoting Canadian literature into schools.


During my time at the Trust, the Canada Council approached the organization. There was high concern at the CC that the amount of Canadian literature being taught in secondary schools was in decline. Might it, asked the CC, be time to dust off those teachers’ guides and rewrite them? Since I had published a national art and literature magazine for high school students and worked with schools across the country on that project as well as Canada Book Week, I was called into the project. Too much had changed in both education and publishing to start producing secondary materials when we didn’t know what primary materials were being used, or why, so I developed an extensive research project. The executive summary can be found here:



The final report included a series of recommendations about what could be done to improve the situation, which turned out to be even worse than had been imagined. The Writers’ Trust board at the time was very excited about the report and its potential, but nothing further has been undertaken. Subsequent reports, notably one looking at school library collections, confirmed the veracity of the research. When George and I moved to BC it continued to bother me that no action had been taken. Since education is provincial it is difficult to initiate effective changes at a national level. I developed a provincial project called BC Bookworks, and under the umbrella of ArtStarts we applied for and received funding from CC and Heritage. The aim was to initiate ways to get more CanLit into BC high schools. We had meetings with all stakeholders, educators and librarians. In the middle of the project the English Language Arts Curriculum for grades 8 to 12 came up for review, the first time in many years. Because we already had the communication networks in place, we decided to respond to the curriculum and request CanLit be mandated.


We considered pushing for a distinct CanLit course but were concerned it would be an elective, as the grade 11 course is in Ontario; without sufficient enrollment, the course is often cancelled. Here’s an excerpt from my final report:


Mandated curriculum


English 12 First Peoples


Research suggests that in the environment of a Canadian literature course students learn context and cultural literacy. Considering the support for a distinct Canadian literature course (as indicated from the teachers’ survey) we carefully reviewed a new ELA course in B.C. that was in development and pilot during this project; English 12 First Peoples (ENG 12 FP) provides a template for the development of a Canadian literature course, or a series of classroom assessment models for various grades.


An education steering committee (educators, administration, Ministry, elders, writers, approximately 40 members) worked with six ELA teachers to create a vision for the course. The teachers worked as a unit to develop classroom assessment models (CAMs) and exams based on the new ELA curriculum, then wrote teachers’ guides and exams.


At the time of the writing of this report the pilot for this course has been completed but the final curriculum and CAMs are not available until September 2008. Jean Baird was able to review the ENG12 FP CAMs but the document is not available for distribution.


Response to curriculum draft


The ELA 8 to 12 curriculum in B.C. had not been reviewed or revised since 1995. A draft revision was scheduled to be posted in the spring 2007, was delayed several times and eventually was posted for feedback in the fall 2007. A thorough review of the draft revealed no mandate for Canadian literature. In the Achievement Indicators there were examples of Canadian literature but there was no clear prescribed mandate.


We consulted with our now established education network and developed a response. The draft curriculum provided a timely opportunity to address the number one priority for educators and stakeholders. Those who had worked on the curriculum, administrators and executive of BC Teachers of English Language Arts (BCTELA) all concurred that mandating the inclusion of Canadian literature at all grade levels would have greater long-term impact and by necessity, involve every ELA secondary teacher; we decided on this approach rather than a distinct course that would have been difficult to place in an already very full course selection.[1]


We drafted and revised dozens of letters until all the educators being consulted agreed on approach and wording. We then reviewed our databases, specifically the stakeholders’ network, and drafted a request for support. That request was also vetted through the stakeholders. Finally we circulated the request. We hoped for a list of responses of between 50 and 100 individuals and organizations to indicate a broad base of interest and support. It also seemed the best course for ArtStarts to collect those names and compile one response to make it easier for people to support the initiative.


Response far exceeded our target. The final list of individuals and organizations ran more than 50 pages and represented hundreds of organizations and thousands of individuals. We were not prepared for the level of passion about the issue. We only asked for people to indicate they supported the initiative and to give name, contact information and position (i.e. Jane Doe, Vancouver, teacher). Many people took the further step of writing detailed and passionate letters.


At the end of December packages were sent to the Minister of Education Shirley Bond, Premier of British Columbia Gordon Campbell and the person in the Ministry responsible for ELA curriculum, Gail Hughes-Adams.


We worked closely with executives of BCTELA, and in the end, the formal response from BCTELA also included support for mandated Canadian literature on the new curriculum. We know that the English department at UBC made a formal response as did various Boards of Education across the province and many individuals. In February at the BCTELA professional development day, Gail Hughes-Adams told the educators in attendance that she received about 200 responses to the draft curriculum. The number one concern was to mandate Canadian literature into the final curriculum document. Insiders at the Ministry believe the response is directly attributable to the ArtStarts initiative.


The final curriculum will not be completed until the end of May, so at the time of this report we do not know the language that might be used for the inclusion of Canadian literature. We have received a letter from Joel Palmer, Director Learning Initiatives Branch responding on behalf of Shirley Bond and Gordon Campbell, indicating the Ministry “will be changing some of the Prescribed Learning Outcomes for ELA 8-12 to include specific reference to Canadian literature.” The PLOs are essential to real impact and change since that is the part of the document that becomes law in B.C.


Rallying the troops on the response to curriculum allowed the project to:

  • Illustrate the effectiveness of the new networks;
  • Expand those networks (a database of curriculum supporters creates a broader network that now includes more educators but also parents, grandparents, prior students, etc);
  • Create a model of advocacy that can be duplicated in other provinces;
  • Increase awareness around the issue of Canadian literature in schools;
  • Illustrate the broad level of concern for this issue.


Here is what we reported and requested to the Ministry in the letter mentioned above:


…Both the teachers and the stakeholders noted that a key to achieving a higher presence for Canadian literature in the classroom is clear direction from the provincial curriculum. Currently only Saskatchewan has a mandated Canadian literature course, a unit in the grade 12 course. According to the research, elsewhere in the country it is possible, and more likely probable, that a student can graduate having never studied a Canadian novel during high school. The exception to this trend is private schools where Canadian literature is taught on a regular basis.


Please accept this letter and the material in the accompanying package as a formal response to the BC Ministry of Education’s draft of the new English Language Arts Curriculum for grades 8 to 12. We are suggesting that in each year from grade 8 to 12 each student should “read, both collaboratively and independently, to comprehend a variety of literary texts, including one or more significant works of Canadian literature.” The proposed amendment allows for the study of a play, several short stories, a collection of poetry or poetry by three or four different poets, one or two novels, or work by Canadian literary critics.


You will note that the IRP developers have already included many Canadian literature examples in their Achievement Indicators, so this addition merely affirms the study of a selection of Canadian literature texts as a requirement at each grade level. Since Achievement Indicators are suggestions only, we believe the curriculum needs the force of prescription.


Included with this letter is a list of organizations and individuals—writers, publishers, parents, educators and educational administrators at all levels, provincial and national writing, publishing and literary organizations—that are in support of this proposed change to the curriculum. We are also including a selection from the many detailed and passionate letters received. A copy of this package has also been sent to Premier Campbell and the Honorable Shirley Bond.


The development of the English 12 First Peoples course indicates that the province of BC recognizes the importance of cultural literacy in the classroom. The organizations and individuals listed believe that cultural literacy must include Canadian books and Canadian literature for all students.


The proposed amendment to the curriculum would position BC as an education leader. Canadian literature in BC classrooms would also support the ambition to make BC the most literature jurisdiction in North American, for surely we cannot make such a claim when we are not teaching our own literature in all our classrooms.


When the final curriculum was released, our suggestion had been implemented. Supporters cheered, said “Good for you, Jean. What a wonderful precedent this sets for the rest of the country.” I said, Baloney. Nothing will happen without passionate and organized advocacy across the country.


So I’ve continued to push. Here, another excerpt from my final report:


CanLit Education Coordinator


BookWorks BC has made great strides in making Canadian literature a stronger presence in the classrooms of B.C. secondary schools. It has worked to unify communities—publishing/education—and create a unified approach. In order for the momentum to continue there needs to be a focused coordinated approach. It is recommended that the position of CanLit Educator Coordinator be created. Jean Baird has had discussions with Don Oravec at The Writers’ Trust and Susan Swann at The Writers’ Union about a joint initiative of these two organizations to create this position.


A CanLit Education Coordinator could also work to create other partnerships. Poetry Out Loud is a joint initiative of The Poetry Foundation and The National Endowment for the Arts, www.poetryoutloud.org This program democratizes poetry excellence in a classy, enduring way, accessible to young people regardless of background. It contributes to cultural heritage, to oral heritage and showcases the variety and wealth of aesthetics and activities in poetry. In order to participate, teachers and young people need to read poems and think carefully about them. It could work beautifully in Canada and would have a much richer impact than a spelling bee (referred to by many educators as The Geekfest). An Education Coordinator could work with the Union, the Trust and the League of Canadian Poets to see whether Poetry Out Loud could be expanded into Canada.


Susan Swann was very excited about the possibility but couldn’t get any action at The Writers’ Union. The board at The Writers’ Trust weren’t convinced that organization should be involved in education—even though its roots are in education and it has been involved in various education programs over the years, it has strayed from those roots and the current board has no interest in going back. CC and Heritage had expressed interest in funding such a position. Again, to my knowledge, no action has been taken.


A group of publishers in Ontario did get as far as meeting with the deputy Ministry of Education. He got it. Immediately. He understood, as does the Department of Canadian Heritage, the huge impact it would have for the Canadian publishing industry (most of which is in Ontario) if Canadian educational dollars could be repatriated. But after the suggestion floated around the response came back—it would be perceived as “protectionism” to mandate CanLit in ON schools. Huh? Is teaching Canadian history or geography protectionism?


I wrote to Ian Wilson, then head of Library and Archives Canada about the following section from my final report:


Better resources/working with other organizations:


Library and Archives Canada/CanLit Educators’ Database


Educators believe that a user-friendly and constantly updated online directory of Canadian books, writers, and related curriculum materials is the most important resource that could be developed.[2] Teachers would like easy one-stop access to resources, ideally a database of Canadian Literature titles recommended/reviewed by teachers that is sortable by grade level, and themes. Such a database could also indicate whether other support material is available, such as films, interviews with the author, lesson plans. In short, a website designed specifically with teachers for the needs of Canadian ELA teachers.


It is important that such an initiative be housed with an organization that has the administrative structure and expertise to take on a project of such large scale. The host organization must also have an understanding of the education system as well as a thorough knowledge of the complexities of the publishing industry—concerns of writers and publishers. The ideal organization would have an established record of success working with schools. And, it would need easy access to Canadian books.


Library and Archives Canada fits all these requirements. Library and Archives Canada has an established reputation with educational/cultural projects. The holdings of the Library, the depth of the Archives and the expertise of its staff and librarians make the institution uniquely positioned to host such a project.


A letter of inquiry was sent to Ian Wilson at LAC. Mr. Wilson responded with interest, asking for a brief, detailed proposal which was completed and sent March 2008.


Teachers and students from coast to coast would use a CanLit Educators’ Database. Educators around the globe would quickly use it. Such a website would:

  • Create links among writers, artists, publishers and students, educators;
  • Work to create better links between literary/language arts and fine arts, social studies, and history studies;
  • Increase writer visibility and title viability in schools;
  • Supplement school resources;
  • Respond to curriculum needs;
  • Provide a reviewing tool about Canadian literature that is distinct to schools.


A CanLit Educators’ Database would benefit schools, libraries, readers, and researchers both nationally and internationally. The database would make LAC’s vast archives accessible to Canadian schools in a format that is pertinent and user-friendly.


I never received a response to the requested detailed proposal and to my knowledge nothing has happened.


Can you see why I’m a little frustrated?


By odd coincidence, on the very day I was working on this report, George forwarded the following request he’d received from the Globe and Mail:


Hello, Mr. Bowering. The Globe and Mail is doing a spread this Saturday to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird and I have been asked to solicit quick comments from prominent writers about what the book meant or means to them. Do you have any thoughts? I am looking for no more than 100 words, an email or a quick phone call.

Thx  for your attention.


George replied:


If To Kill a Mockingbird were a suggestion rather than a book title, I would be all for it. For a long time this book has been a staple on the reading lists for Canadian high schools. I am thoroughly tired of it. When teachers are asked why it is there, they say because the stockroom is full of copies from last year, and because it is pretty cheap, compared to Canadian books. Then when asked, they can’t think of any Canadian books. Do we wonder why?


I wrote the Globe guy, explaining about BC Bookworks. I told him that during the project a teacher had suggested we call the campaign “Kill the Mockingbird.” Harper Lee must have made several fortunes from royalties from Canadian education dollars.


He thought that was funny, then confessed he’d never read the novel. How, I asked him, did you avoid that? Turns out he attended a private school. At private schools they do teach Canadian literature—administration and parents expect it, and there is funding for books.


It’s problem that has been researched for years, yet no organization will take responsibility and take action. BC Bookworks indicates that the public does care, and want to see changes—which both surprised and pleased me. As for decision makers, anecdotal or parental experience should not trump extensive and thorough research.


There is a glimmer of hope with the National Reading Campaign. Its first summit happened in the fall with two more scheduled. So, more talk and more research. Let’s hope this time some action also occurs.


End of Lecture, and back to the Bookers.

Jury: David Lodge, novelist and academic. Maggie Gee novelist and academic. Helen McNeil, critic. David Profumo, actually Baron Profumo, avid fisherman and writer. Edmund White, American novelist and academic.


Sybille Bedford Jigsaw: an unsentimental education VPL

One of the most interesting things about this book is that it is so interesting. Bedford has written a memoir of a certain time of her life using the novel form, and she had an interesting life. Born of an aristocratic German father and a roving promiscuous mother, Billi, as she is known, is raised for a while by her father in gentile poverty. Her mother has some money, but has divorced the father, leaving him with a palace but no income to sustain it. Billi learns to cook, and farm, and work hard. The father dotes over his art collection, and to some extent over the daughter.

But then Billi is summoned by her mother and leaves for France. Engaged to be married to a painter, the mother is also being pursued by a man young enough to be her son. Eventually she succumbs to the young adoring Alessandro. In her absence Billi’s father has died. The rest of the novel follows Billi’s adolescence and young adulthood as she moves around from various homes of her mother, to friends who are commissioned to care for her. The education of the title is not anything that occurs in a formal classroom.

The novel is about the birth of a writer; how Bedford learned to observe and to write. And man, can she write. Billi comes of age in the generation between the wars, and she captures the tension between pain and loss, and desire to create a world without war. The reader knows that Hitler is in the horizon. Most of the characters in Billi’s life are without jobs—the idle-but-not-rich. They play tennis, redesign houses and refurnish them and immerse themselves in reading. Billi’s mother introduces her to the classics, and the new writers including Alduous Huxely, who for a while is a neighbour. (The books mentioned in this novel would comprise a more interesting reading list than much of the 1969 to 1989 Booker winners and short-list). She rubs shoulders with the intellectual set, has her photo taken by Man Ray. In various ways they are all gambling away fortunes, buying cars and squandering time on tennis, the shared “heroics and banalities.”

Then Alessandro has a brief affair, the mother seeks assistance for her grief and anger from a local doctor who prescribes morphine. There is a quick descent into addiction, secrecy and increasing seclusion. In the end, Alessandro, beaten and near-destroyed himself, leaves. Billi is left with the morphine-mad mother, and Alessandro’s Remington typewriter.

The morality of this age is pretty forgiving, as is the press. One character, a prominent judge, several times is on the abyss, but the time does not allow good men to be brought down by scandal. On the other hand, there is a whiff now and again of condescension: “What Louis felt the morning after his abduction is not known. He did not return to France until some fifteen years after the war, that is after an absence of over thirty years, as a middle-aged man (with a Tahitian wife in his baggage) who had not become a latter-day Gauguin but a moderately unsuccessful export-import man.” In this world, one would not want to be the exotic Tahitian wife!

Unrequited love. There is nothing new to be said about it. Whether it befalls one at eighteen, at thirty, at seventy, the pangs are much the same: the delirium, the hopes, the despair, the waiting. At eighteen one may believe oneself to be uniquely stricken, at thirty one may be able to say that no pain is irreversible, at seventy one knows that it is: irreversible

Rose Tremain—Restoration VPL

Guest report from Michael Matthews:

Do you want to know about Bedlam, who was there, what sorts of things happened there, what that looked like and smelled like? Rose Tremain can tell you, because she does the research. She is also outstanding in her attention to misery, whether it is a penniless immigrant sleeping in an outdoor London concrete stairwell in London at the end of the 20th century, or a man in the middle of the 19th century prospecting for gold with no equipment but a small spade, sleeping on a New Zealand beach with no shelter, no resources save his coat rolled up as a pillow beneath his head.


Her miseries or hardships aren’t merely (merely!!) physical. Tremain’s people can have a very bad time if they fall in love with the wrong people, as in The Way I Found Her, or they may simply be the wrong sort of person, like Mary Ward in Sacred Country, who eventually gets to change her sex, becomes Martin, and finds the change just does not make life much less miserable.


Her protagonist, her agonist, in Restoration, Robert Merivel, is a medical student turned painter, turned musician, turned happy cuckold when his beloved King Charles chooses him to be married, strictly for show, to a royal mistress. Complication arises when Merivel falls in love with his wife, whose ardour goes only to the King. Out of favour with his King, Merivel loses his house and lands, loses a bird pet, loses his horse, Danseuse, and ends up in a curiously modern situation, as a volunteer help among the Quakers at the Bedlam hospital in Norfolk There’s lots of agony here, of course, and the greatest portion of it for Merivel comes with the death of John Pearce, a fellow medico, and a friend and conscience to Merivel. In all my life I have loved only two people on earth, and these two are John Pearce and the King,” declares Merivel as his friend is “put into his grave and the yellow clay of Whittlesea packed tightly around and above him.”


In Restoration the miseries and the extasies are…extreme. Lots of sobbing and shrieking, and the sobs and shrieks and grunts and yelps are those of joy or anguish— and it doesn’t seem to matter much which. To be human is to cry out and blubber, and to lick your tears

as delicate sauces to the meats that your tongue or your genitals are tasting. She caterwauls like an infidel…a wailing of pleasure worthy of an African wildcat” is a typical description.  When the Friends join in playing and dancing the tarantella in the Bedlam madhouse, the ecstasy and transport of the experience is the greatest that Merivel knows: “I have never seen nor heard nor been any part of any thing that was like this hour…I was no longer merely myself, but joined absolutely in spirit to every man and woman there, and I wanted to make a circle with my arms and take them in.” The genius in that simple sundering of the word “anything” into two words, whether it comes from the idiom of the 17th century or from the author, is typical of Tremain.


And Tremaine’s brilliance isn’t only in her rendering of drama or sensations, highs or lows. Look at this profoundly serene passage, Merivel’s thoughts occasioned by contemplating his horse: “I am most fond of animals. I enjoy about them in equal measure that which is graceful and that which is gross. And they do not scheme. No man, woman or child exists in this boisterous Kingdom who is not full of plotting, yet the animals and birds have not one good ploy between them. It is for this reason above all others I suspect, that the King is so attached to his dogs.”


Restoration ends with Merivel’s horse restored to him, and his country house, and favour with the King, and we see him at last in an open, airy upper room with birds and a lovely infant daughter. I enjoy that, for I certainly don’t seek agony in my life, nor do I wish any more news of agony anywhere else, or at any time or place. But Rose Tremain can be puttin’ on the agony and doin’ it with her style any old time, and I’ll just come running.


I had already done my report before Mike sent his, and I’ve decided to include it in its entirety. I like the different perspectives.

Written in three sections, the first part introduces Robert Merivel, the orphan of the official glovemaker to Charles II, recently restored to the crown. For a time he studies medicine but gives that up to become the official vet of the royal court. Robert is a glutton for foolishness, food and fornicating. At court he is a clown, always causing laughter if only for his ability to produce a fart at will. Tremain creates the world of this court, with its excess and pursuit of pleasure. It is a world made at court. Nothing else matters.

Robert is married off to Celia, the mistress of Charles II, to appease another mistress who is jealous. “He used you, Merivel. He looked around for the stupidest man he could find, the densest, the most foolish, the one who would accept whatever he did like a dog and cause him no trouble—and he found you! I begged him, don’t marry me to that idiot, I begged him on my knees, but all he did was laugh. ‘Who can I ask,’ he said, ‘to be paid cuckold except an idiot?’” In return for being a dupe, Robert becomes Sir Robert and receives an estate and a handsome income. His only task is to protect Celia on the rare occasions when she is not wanted at court. Alone in Norfolk, Robert proves to be the uncouth mirror of the King’s excess.

When Celia demands the king be monogamous she is sent packing to Norfolk where, to his surprise, Robert falls in love with her. In retaliation, the king strips Robert of his estate and possessions.

Part two tells of Robert’s retreat to the New Bedlam where his Quaker friend, John Pearce, is taking care of mad people. Robert is feeling mighty sorry for himself but John explains that the Act of Praemunire has allowed the King to strip Quakers of all their possessions: “Hundreds of Quakers have lost their houses and their land under the terms of this loathsome edict. The suffering caused by it has been beyond what you could imagine. So do not believe you are singled out, Robert. You are merely one of many.” Robert returns to his skills as a trained doctor and ministers to the mad inmates, all the while missing his beloved monarch.

As to be expected, much of the novel is about the concerns and traditions of the time—medical beliefs and procedures, morality, religion, politics, etc. But the novel is so much more, successfully creating a convincing texture of the time—smells, light, movements, the day-to-day workings of London and New Bedlam.

I’m less persuaded by the final section. Robert succumbs to his physical desires, gets one of the patients, Katherine who he has tried to help, (though inmates seems a more accurate term) pregnant and again is sent packing. He returns to London, does his best to save the life of Katherine and infant during childbirth, but Katherine dies. He sets himself up as a doctor to help the victims of the plague and during the Great Fire of London, saves a woman trapped in her burning house. It turns out she was the wife of a dear servant of the king and for Robert’s unselfish act he is returned to the graces of Charles II. Yup, restoration.

If a movie has been made of the novel, I try to watch it. A young Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Merevil, a part better suited to John Goodman. It’s bad. The script has been condensed to make it 90 minutes or so, and as a result the plot is muddled, the symbolism is lost or misplaced and the world of the Restoration totally Hollywoodized, and trivialized. Pomp and grand but hollow gestures. The best part—all the King Charles Cavalier dogs.

Margaret Atwood—Cat’s Eye GB collection

Elaine Risley is an artist, back in her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective—both of her work and her life, as her trip ignites a retelling of her life from childhood on. Compared to most children of the war and post-war era, Elaine has had a rather exotic upbringing. The family does not attend church. The mother is unconcerned with appearance or shopping. Dad is a scientist and the family travels with him, collecting bugs and doing research. When Elaine is 8 the father takes a job at the university in Toronto and the family settles down. Despite loving, tolerant liberal parents, Elaine has “no backbone” and in her efforts to fit in and make friends she discovers the terrors that little girls can inflict on each other. Much of the novel is about women’s capacity for nastiness, particularly to each other. What is chilling about the abuse of the children to Elaine is that it is condoned by the other girls’ mothers under the excuse of helping Elaine to “improve.” Elaine’s mother eventually becomes aware of the situation but “doesn’t know what to do” either. As a teen, Elaine becomes the verbal abuser, and reconnects with Cordelia, one of the childhood tormentors.

The growth and development of the artist’s story is most interesting in the descriptions of the paintings Elaine produces. All of which is happening during the emergence of the feminist movement, global terrorism and increasing urbanization. Like many of Atwood’s heroines Elaine isn’t particularly likeable, or interesting. The power of the book is in the exploration of childhood trauma and the astute observations of small gestures.

John Banville—The Book of Evidence VPL

Freddie Montgomery is a privileged son of an Englishman with an estate in Ireland who gives up a promising career as a scientist for a wandering dissolute life in the Greek islands. He makes a foolish loan, which he uses to have a good time for a few weeks, then leaves his wife and son as collateral to return to Ireland, planning to sell his late father’s art collection to pay the debt. His mother has beaten him to it, having sold the paintings to back her new business with ponies. Freddie robs a painting from a nearby estate, is caught by a maid and murders her with a hammer. In jail he writers his story for the judge, hence the novel.

Freddie is unreliable, in his life and as a narrator. The power of the novel are those things just barely under the surface, occasionally erupting, like Bunter who is Freddie’s inner demon. Sometimes controlled, other times self-justifying, the narrator makes us constantly aware of the process of storytelling, creating fictions, naming characters. Sexual tension predominates as well as themes of betrayal and self-deception. And it all takes place with the backdrop of bombings so you have to consider the whole shebang as an allegory of Ireland under England, trying to regain control through what often seems to be psychopathic behaviour. The novel has been compared to Camus, though I don’t remember Camus being so funny.

James Kelman—A Disaffection purchased, out of desperation, not available anywhere


Now we’ve bounced from Ireland to Scotland, Glasgow to be specific, complete with brogue. Patrick Doyle is a teacher, almost 30, unmarried, disillusioned with his job, and everything else. The novel takes us inside his head, sharing each thought in a stream-of-consciousness approach, swinging from suicidal despair to hilarity. And that’s about it. Nothing much happens—that’s not the point.


“But this is because he was a single chap and single chaps are single persons ergo they dwell on the past and there is nothing wrong in dwelling on the past. How can you dwell on the future? There is nothing to dwell on! It doesni exist. It is a blank. Everything has yet to take place. This is what the future is, the place where things have yet to occur. So how can you dwell on that? You’re cheating. Okay but just think of it as an empty room. No. Well then…. ”


“Doesni” is part of the brogue.


Patrick obsesses about everything—his job, unrequited love for a fellow teacher who is married, separation from family, and further from his personal life the work of Goya, Descartes, Holderlin, Copernicus, Schopenhauer, and on and on. He thinks he might be having a breakdown. No kidding—compared to this guy Larry David and Woody Allen are not neurotic. In places the onslaught of Patrick’s internal monologue gets monotonous. Several times I considered packing it in. But just as often I would plan to read 10 pages and would be swept along for 30. Or, I would get frustrated and scan then find that I was reading closely again.


The classroom sections are both hilarious and terrifying. The things he tells these 14-year olds. The things they tell him.


Kazuo Shiguro—The Remains of the Day VPL Winner

Guest report by Colin Browne:


I didn’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day when it was published in 1988. My daughter Susanna was a year old, and I only had eyes for her. But I think I see now why some people wanted me to read the novel. I suspect they felt it was right up my alley; that is, that I’d benefit from reading about the fictional experiences of the central character, a vain and neurotic butler named Stevens. By unravelling the butler’s history during the 1930s, Ishiguro explores the limits and perils of duty and the compromises required by a certain concept of dignity, or perhaps by dignity itself. I’m daily vexed by the pressures of duty, so my friends may not have been wrong. An almost religious sense of duty led to the undoing of my father, not in the way it undid Stevens, or Istvan Szabo’s Colonel Redl, but it made him too trusting, too firm a believer in a greater justice. In the end, he did not give enough credibility to the machinations that sideswiped him and that led to the end of his career in the Royal Canadian Navy. He believed, with a faith that would have put Joan of Arc to shame, that a man of honour and dignity would always be rewarded. Circumstances proved otherwise. Circumstances proved that such a man could be the perfect patsy.


In a 1995 CBC radio interview, Ishiguro told Eleanor Wachtel that he began with a theme, and while this provides the spine of the novel, its single-minded thrust allows the novel to become increasingly one-dimensional as time goes along. The narrative, or narration, takes place over five days in a series of interior monologues in which Stevens interrogates his career in an attempt to allay worries about his loneliness and approaching decrepitude. It’s 1956; England has changed, the great houses have changed, the role of servants has changed and Stevens has changed. He has recently been responsible for one or two minor errors at Darlington Hall and his new master, an American, fond of banter, has given him the Ford and encouraged him to take a trip, to loosen up, to get out and see the countryside. (I imagined that on his return his employer would have a severance package ready, and this is left open.)  Stevens tells us that he has never permitted himself such an indulgence and decides to aim the car towards Little Compton in Cornwall where a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, resides. Miss Kenton once carried a torch for Stevens, but after years of being neglected she left Darlington Hall to marry. In a modest flush of submerged desire, Stevens hopes she might return to Darlington Hall after twenty years to become housekeeper once more. The book’s prologue and six sections chronicle the motor journey of this repressed, fussy, fastidious, delusional man as he encounters the shades of his past and present—a carefully-plotted metaphorical journey on which the reader is cast as an eavesdropper in the back seat, listening to the wheels of repression rolling over unwitting nuggets of self-discovery. Was it a coincidence, or was it something in the air that moved Alan Bennett to employ the same strategy in his 1987 Talking Heads series? In both texts, the subjects are elderly witnesses to the painful denials and inevitabilities of Britain in the 1930s. With their unsteady memories, these self-propelled ruminators are apparently unconscious of the transparency of their confused, self-serving monologues. If Bennett and Ishiguro can be said to be mining similar territory, it’s because their subject is memory itself, memory being the central and overwhelming concern of 20th century literature and art.


Stevens the butler has convinced himself, and tries to convince us, that during the 1930s, his master, Lord Darlington, was at the centre of the world’s great affairs. Parroting his master’s words and ideas, Stevens recalls the clandestine, late night meetings by distinguished visitors to Darlington Hall. By virtue of his proximity to these visitors, Stevens began to believe that he himself was at the heart of world-shaping diplomacy. A reader may guess that the fictional Lord Darlington, whose guests included the Nazi foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, is modelled after the real-life Lord Londonderry, secretary of state for air in the National government of 1931-5 and at the time one of England’s wealthiest men. Like Londonderry, Lord Darlington was a well-meaning aristocratic amateur whose flawed vision of world affairs was that the upper classes of Great Britain, who shared so much history and culture with Germany, and whose great families, after all, had the same blood flowing in their veins, ought to convince parliament to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler. In Darlington’s mind, the wise men of both nations recognized that the true enemies were radicals, Communists and Jews (often conflated), and that the future lay in an alliance against those who would challenge and destabilize the status quo. In the novel, the naïve, pliable Lord Darlington also flirts with Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, the Blackshirts, and with anti-Semitism, firing a Jewish servant and asking Stevens to do the dirty work. Stevens, who believes that his dignity remains intact throughout the distressing procedure, complies. In an equally disturbing moment in the novel, Stevens abandons his dying father in an attic room in order to serve brandy downstairs to Darlington’s Fascist toadies. He fails to recognize that his father is asking, on the edge of the grave, for his son’s blessing, and leaves the old man to die like a sheep in a ditch.


In 1989, when The Remains of the Day was published, the complicity with Nazi Germany of some members of the British ruling class was becoming better known. The skeletons were being dragged out of the closet. Many of the gentry, especially those alarmed by Communism or Socialism—Londonderry’s town and country houses and his 50,000 acres of agricultural and industrial land were obvious targets for confiscation—were Nazi sympathizers in the early days of the Reich, and some remained so. Many Britons, including a disturbing number of intellectuals, were anti-Semitic. Many on the right and the left felt that democracy had run its course and that England needed a strong man like Franco, Stalin, Mussolini or Hitler to whip the nation into shape. Most changed their mind as the decade wore on, but their class allegiances had been exposed and appeasement discredited. Lord Londonderry, an early proponent of rearmament who went on to schmooze Herr Ribbentrop in the hope that a non-aggression pact might be crafted, came to abhor the Nazi martinet, yet by the time war was declared it was too late; he’d been sidelined.


The revelation of Lord Darlington’s Fascist sympathies, which leaks out during the first three days on the road, will not surprise a reader today. The form demands it. Not long ago, a text like The Remains of the Day, constructed of meditative flashbacks, produced surprise and elation, but it’s become an overworked form. The structure is predictable and the revelations, which come with an almost mechanical frequency, can seem overdetermined. The inner secrets of neurotic, sexually-confused mid-century European men have become woefully familiar. The fictional character with the troubled past is now expected to be a metaphor for childhood trauma either at the hands of family or state, or likely both. I’m not making light of this, and the need to identify and address the trauma is as urgent as ever, but the necessary excavations of the 20th century’s civilized brutality have become in many hands the stuff of cliché; the disturbing revelations of yesterday have become the plot-points and vulgar shorthand of the present. Ishiguro’s surprising work of 1986 has come to feel familiar and predictable today.


Perhaps he was not unaware of the shortcomings of his fictional or docudrama-like strategy, or of the possible sound of machinery whirring behind the crafty, knowing, deflective, self-deluding, first-person voice. It’s right to praise the almost perfect pitch of Stevens’ voice throughout the novel. Only on the occasions when it carries a little extra freight—in the foreshadowing, for example—does the tone waver or feel forced. But the result is that the careful plotting and release of information begin to reveal themselves like bones sticking out of a riverbank at regular intervals. In the 1995 interview, Ishiguro told Eleanor Wachtel,


I felt with The Remains of the Day I had actually come to the end of something. I felt that it was the end of the project I’d started with my first novel in my mid-twenties, and I finished The Remains of the Day in my early thirties. And while I was happy enough with that, I felt that I had come as far as I could with that project and I’d become somebody else. The kind of voice that seemed to me correct and authentic when I was in my mid-twenties no longer felt like the right voice for me…Although those earlier books are about life being hard to control, there’s something about the tone that suggests life is something that is controllable and rather orderly, that you can look back and say, ah! that’s where I took a wrong turning and that’s the path I’ve come. Whereas by the time I got to my mid-thirties, paradoxically, things were looking more and more complicated to me and more and more chaotic, and issues seemed much more complex than they did to me when I was in my twenties…I wanted to write a book that contained some of the chaos and confusion I felt.


This realization was the genesis of The Inconsolable. According to Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day was “almost a rewrite of my previous book set in Japan, An Artist of the Floating World.” By setting the novel in England, he was searching for a way to reach more readers: “I thought I could use this mythical figure [the butler] and play around with the associations of that stereotype. I was dealing with a mythical England rather than a real England, and because it was something English, I think it was much more readily understood….” Hmmm. A mythical character in a mythical nation. A mythical narrative drilling through layers of mythical sediment. Wachtel suggests that The Remains of the Day is “a study of the failure of emotion.” This is partly true, but the social cannot be ignored. In his own words, Ishiguro’s subjects are “crucially flawed in terms of what they did and how they gave their energies and how they placed their loyalties,” especially when attracted to Fascism’s temptations and efficiencies. At the root of Ishiguro’s theme is the question of how he might have behaved if he’d grown up in Imperial Japan or Hitler’s Germany during the approach to the Second World War. (He was born in Japan in 1954.) Would he have gladly donned boots and tunics and sung marching songs in an idealistic pact with the future? Quite possibly. Would he have remained indifferent to the fate of his neighbours being assassinated en masse? Quite possibly. These are necessary questions, and at its best The Remains of the Day is intended to provoke them in every reader. Roth’s The Plot Against America takes them in hand more forthrightly. We should never forget that in Nazi Germany many of those who flocked first to the Swastika were university professors.

How would this novel fare vis-à-vis the Booker Prize candidates today, I wonder? This is an impossible question to answer. The care with which it was written is admirable. The mythical/metaphoric aspect to the characters, the mythical landscape and the interior monologue take it out of the realm of the naturalistic novel (I don’t think Ishiguro intended it to perch there anyway) and place it interestingly within the range of opera. It would satisfy on an emotional and a symbolic level if sung by a baritone of remarkable sensitivity, someone who would be able to embody the disembodied text. As it is, we glimpse in the novel the wheels of destiny grinding the faithful, the proud, the arrogant, the altruistic, the innocent and the timid beneath their weight. The wheels have a certain resplendent beauty that is reassuring and chilling in almost equal parts. They’re mirrored in this novel’s structure, and their prominence is amplified by virtue of the novel’s having lost its secret. But a reader who may find the text wanting for this reason must still contend with the narrator’s failure to budge himself from his comfortable delusions, his narrative of dignity. He will die as his father did.

For the interview with Kazuo Ishiguro, please see Eleanor Wachtel, More Writers & Company: New conversations with CBC Radio’s Eleanor Wachtel (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1996).

Bookjacket: “Kazuo Ishiguro has stepped into the one-dimensional cliché of the butler and found there a wonderful humor and tenderness that P. G. Wodehouse and J. M. Barrie never imagined. The narrative is as sly as Ford Madox Ford at his best.” Michael Ondaatje

Colin’s thoughtful and thorough review captures the intensity of the novel, but also in 2010 a dated quality. Colin did not have the advantage of reading the other short-listed books of 1989 so I will point out that both the Margaret Atwood and Sybille Bedord novels are using the same tool of reflection. As I mention below, I think Ishiguro’s win might have more to do with the influence of Malcolm Bradbury on the writing scene of the 1980s.


1989 David Lodge from the Guardian

Our shortlist meeting was the longest to date, and much of it was taken up with discussion of Martin Amis’s London Fields. It is public knowledge that two of the judges on the panel, Maggie Gee and Helen McNeil, successfully resisted its inclusion on the shortlist, an outcome I still regret. The final judging session was uncontroversial – all but one of us were unequivocally in favour of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. I consider it one of the best Booker winners I have read.

The success of the prize has had an enormous impact on the reception of literary fiction and other kinds of writing, not only directly, but also indirectly through the proliferation of new prizes that have imitated it. But the overtly competitive nature of these prizes, heightened by the publication of longlists and shortlists, takes its psychological toll on writers; and, given the large element of chance in the composition and operation of judging panels, the importance now attached to prizes in our literary culture seems excessive. A committee is a blunt instrument of literary criticism.


English notes the excessive influence that some Brits have had on the prize results, notably that Malcolm Bradbury has now been chair twice, a short-listed author once and a long-time member of the management committee. He was also the director of the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. Helen McNeil was an East Anglia colleague as was Rose Tremain. The winner Kazuo Ishiguro was an East Anglia graduate and a former student of Bradbury’s.


[1] In B.C. at the grade 12 level there is ENG 12 (a graduation requirement), ENG 12 FP (the new course, currently an elective for schools to offer and possibly an alternative graduation requirement), LIT 12 (a survey course, Chaucer through to the C20th). In B.C. creative writing can be offered at any grade 8 to 12, so to have a specific Canadian Literature course would mean it would be competing with at least two other courses at each grade level. Plus, it would always be an elective both for schools to offer, and if offered, for students to take.

[2] In the survey, educators identified a number of sites that they use on a regular basis for ELA classes. All are American. Sometimes Margaret Atwood will be included, or occasionally other Canadian writers, and often British writers, but these sites are predominantly about Amercian writers. The Vancouver School Board subscribes (for $4000 a year) to one of these sites: www.teachingbooks.com. There are no equivalent Canadian sites.


8886 words, October 20, 2011




  • Jean Baird

    Jean Baird is the co-editor, with George Bowering, of The Heart Does Break: Canadian Writers on Grief and Mourning (Random House, 2009), and the author of The Booker Project.

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