In my last update I wrote, “I’m told reviews will be appearing in various eye-catching organs, though I won’t tempt fate by itemising which ones – I’ll believe them when I see them, and give links in subsequent posts (provided they don’t turn out to be hatchet jobs, or maybe even if they do). It seems fairly certain there will be a piece on the book and me in the Glasgow Herald, in all likelihood on Sunday 21 October.”
First things first: the Herald piece was postponed for a week because something else apparently came up, as it often will in the newspaper world. But there was in fact a review of the book in this morning’s national press. In an earlier update I included this link – https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2018/aug/25/the-ultimate-guide-to-autumn-tv-film-music-theatre-politics-sport – to show that on the strength of an advance copy, the Observer had heartily endorsed The Ballad of Syd & Morgan as one of four novels to watch out for in the autumn. Well, this morning the Observer followed up with this review:
Hmm. Not exactly a hatchet job, but closer to one than I’d personally been expecting. The reviewer, Johanna Thomas-Corr, is of course entitled to her opinion – and I even learned a couple of new facts from her review, which is pleasing. I liked the wry humour in her descriptions of Syd and Morgan too. I’m not going to dwell on the head-scratching she provoked by saying about my plot, ‘The catalyst is this…’ and then presenting a premise I simply do not recognise (and I mean rather more than simply misreporting that Syd ‘cycles’ to King’s College Cambridge to meet Morgan when actually he goes on foot). I guess we all make mistakes. But what I’d like to discuss a little more fully here is her criticism that “we remain outside the characters, with Middleton nervously reporting on what ‘seems’ to be happening.”
The novel is predicated on the fact that the reader (like the narrator) is never made privy to the thought processes of either character. Everything about the encounter has to be deduced from what the characters say and don’t say to each other, and what they do and don’t do in each other’s company. In an earlier draft I did try to ‘get inside the head’ of one of the two men, but fairly soon I realised I couldn’t possibly be so presumptuous. But there’s another reason too why I stayed steadfastly ‘outside’ these characters – and as readers of this blog are probably coming to expect, it has a degree of crankiness about it.
This reason occurred to me only last weekend, while reading a fascinating Guardian profile of another writer I’ll happily confess to being a fan of: Haruki Murakami. Oliver Burkeman wrote, “Murakami’s sense of himself as a sort of pipeline – a conduit between his subconscious and that of his readers – is so pronounced that he even pauses, after referring to himself in passing as a ‘natural storyteller’, to issue a correction, ‘No, I’m not a storyteller. I’m a story watcher’.” I’m no Haruki Murakami – please don’t get me wrong – but my own honest contention is that in writing my Ballad, to some degree I ‘watched’ the story unfold rather than taking a more active authorial hand in its creation. Yes it’s a novel, a made-up story, but what I reported on (respectfully, I would hope, rather than ‘nervously’) seemed to me to be ‘what actually happened’. Given that these two men were who they were – and where they were in their lives at that particular point in time – I felt that this was how they interacted.
A hugely subjective view, I know, and in all probability hopelessly undermined by my own inadequacies of perception and insight, but this was the story that I ‘watched’. To the extent that when one early reader of the manuscript suggested that it was all perhaps a bit quiet, where someone like – say – Ian McEwan might have introduced some overt sex or violence into the proceedings, all I could do was shrug and reply that, well, I can’t really change the facts.
“I suspect the encounter would have made a better one-act play,” Johanna Thomas-Corr concludes her review. Maybe she’s right. At the suggestion of Henry Layte, my publisher, a short while ago I wrote a version of this story for the stage. That was interesting. But no novel can simply be re-rendered as a playscript; a play must exist in its own right, and has to be imagined from its own first principles. So I found myself hamstrung from the start, feeling able only to turn my novel’s dialogue into speeches in the mouths of the characters. Why? Because those were the words that I actually heard. I could no more change them than describe a real football match and make up goals that weren’t actually scored (much though I’d have liked to do so during 50 years of supporting a usually shot-shy Reading FC).
Well, there we are. I’ve written what I’ve written and I’ll have to take the rap for it. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, Phineas T Barnum is supposed to have said. That still doesn’t stop it knocking you for six when you first read it. But now for the silver lining. I read the Observer review online, and beside it there was a link to Sean O’Hagan’s excellent thinkpiece published by the Guardian just after Syd Barrett’s death in 2006. I hadn’t read it for many years, and time has not dimmed the lustre of this quite marvellously measured take on Syd and what he came to mean to people like me. Do read it: