Saturday, May 16, 2009

Holding up a Mirror

'He's in Leeds tomorrow. He did Sheffield yesterday', said the guy across the aisle. The London Review of Books Bookshop was packed to the gunnels for the launch of ‘In Falling Snow’, by Caryl Phillips, a writer who describes his life as ‘recklessly peripatetic’.

I’d never been to a book launch at LRBB before, but was drawn to a description on the mailing list of the author and his new work. Introductory remarks by John Cloud, a professor of English from Leeds University, described Phillips, born the West Indies but raised in Yorkshire, as a 'literary craftsman' and his tenth book as 'a cracking good read' about 'the evolving fortunes of England'. This latest work is in line with his others in holding up a mirror to society.

Phillips said he's 50 but he looks younger, a handsome man with a deep reflective voice honed over hundreds of launches.

His tenth book, 'In the Falling Snow', focuses on Keith, a middle-aged black social worker in London, taking stock of his failed marriage and his relationships with a teenage son and elderly father. Phillips explained, he wanted to show a view of England as represented by three generations. It explores the notions of nationality from days of ‘knowing who we were because we were not them' to his own generation, who ' recall Blair Peach and suss-laws' up to the current 'Ashley Cole/Lewis Hamilton generation' with their 'proprietorial glee and confidence'.

England, he said, was the only country he cared about, although he lived in New York for a umber of years. 'Bush was their problem; Mrs Thatcher was my problem'. He’d felt uncomfortable about Britain's involvement in the war against Iraq but his own loss of local knowledge was brought home to him when someone had to explain ‘Oyster Card’ to him.

It was when he mentioned the authors he'd most admired I realised what was meant about ‘holding up a mirror’ and why he was so well placed to do it. He liked, he said , 'all those sixties novels by writers like Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, David Storey and Ken Loach. Although fifteen years older than Phillips, and having read them more or less at the time they were published, I knew they depicted a section of society that tended not to appear in mainstream fiction.

Writing, he said, as well as reading, developed ‘the transformative act of generosity that is the moral basis of fiction’ – the willingness to enter into the lives of others.

He wasn’t going to get any arguments from an appreciative bookshop audience.

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