Published by drpladm on Sun, 01/25/2009 - 18:39
as i write this at my desk i can reach across and touch the spine of a book on the shelf below the window: the cover is in that washed-out orange so popular in the 1930s, but now it’s protected with a cellophane wrap. i often pick it up, let the pages fall open at the frontispiece, and feel again the thrill i felt that day in 1967 when i first opened a copy. i was at the local library, a curious relic of victoriana which smelt of beeswax, paper, and the tramps who crowded round the reading table. but i only had eyes for the book that day: the nine tailors, by dorothy l sayers.
this is the book that changed by life. a dangerous and well-worn cliché - but one i’d like to save before it becomes little more than a marketing slogan. i’m particularly conscious of the dangers of cliché. as a journalist for much of my life, until i took up full-time writing, i know juts how dangerous clichés can be. one example sticks in my mind. as a young reporter i was called out to the scene of an accident. a giant concrete drainage pipe had rolled off an articulated lorry and crushed a mini. when i got to the scene the ambulance, thankfully, had long gone, but a man stood by the squashed remains of the car.
“what happened to the driver ?” i asked.
“i am the driver,” he said. “it’s a miracle.”
you may not be aware of the fact that reporters often spend a lifetime trying to find someone who will say this. they almost never do. but it doesn’t stop us reporters, or sub-editors, turning the story into a “miracle escape.” (the usual trick is to ask the traumatised victim if they feel their survival was a miracle. if the answer is yes the unscrupulous journalist can turn it into a quote.) but this was a miracle. the man could not recall the accident at all. he’d simply woken up standing in the road beside the car he’d been driving. i wrote the standard miracle escape story of course, but no one believed it. i doubt if anyone does now. that’s how debilitating clichés can be.
the book that changed my life is in the same shameful category of cliché as miracle escape. five minutes on the internet can reveal the thousands of books nominated by thousands of readers for the honour of being the book that changed my life. a random selection brings these – how to win friends and influence people (dale carnegie), getting things done (david allen), the sea wolf, (jack london), the dead, (james joyce.) but read any of the rationales put forward for these nominations and the detail is often disappointing. stephen king, for example, cites the lord of the flies, on the grounds that it is both a story with a message, and a great tale of adventure. that makes it a great book: not a life-changing book. this is what most people really mean when they make such a nomination – it’s just another way of saying this is a book i’ll always remember.
so why, for me, is the nine tailors the real thing ?
the first clue, fittingly, was the book itself. colin dexter once said that the secret to success in crime writing was short chapters. he was, i suspect, only half joking. that’s because what i call the “texture” of a book is very important. that’s why we pick books up, flick through them, judge their heft, even smell them. when you pick up an inspector morse and let the pages fall open you see short, snappy chapters. it looks readable, interesting, pacey. when you start reading you can’t stop because if you flick just a few pages ahead at any point you can see the end of a chapter in sight. and every chapter end brings a twist, and a renewed impetus to read on. it is almost impossible to stop reading. (especially so, as they are beautifully written).
when i first picked up that copy of the nine tailors in 1968 i flicked through the pages: what did i see ? foremost was w.j.redhead’s architectural sketch of fenchurch st paul. then there is the arcane bell-ringing nomenclature, used for chapter headings, (lord peter called into hunt), and then the maps – lovingly drawn to illustrate the village’s main landmarks (or watermarks) and also the relationship with the wider parishes of the fenchurches, then, sayers has her sleuth, lord peter, set out in writing the main points of the case – a kind of shopping-list of clues. this catches the eye too – and it’s a cunning way of helping the reader - and one i have happily stolen on several occasions. and finally, the coup de grace for a ten year old, the rows of numbers used in setting out the methods for the bells to ring, the basis of the code which lord peter must break to uncover the mystery of the missing wilbraham diamonds. codes, maps, history, gothic buildings – a heady brew indeed.
how could anyone resist this book ? so i read the first fifty lines, fifty lines that i am confident i have re-read a thousand times. and it was within these lines that i found the one element of this great book which did the most to change my life – a genius for recreating a sense of place. i can do no better than quote directly the moment when this becomes clear. the scene needs little rehearsal i’m sure. wimsey and bunter are walking in the snow-covered fens as dusk gathers. their car lies behind them in a ditch. ahead the only sign of civilisation is the tolling of a church bell.
another half mile and they came to a signpost and a secondary road that turned off to the right. bunter turned his torch upon the signpost and read upon the single arm:
“fenchurch st paul”.
there was no other direction; ahead, road and dyke marched side by side into an eternity of winter.
“fenchurch st paul for us,” said wimsey.
this for me was the damascene moment – except it was on the road to fenchurch st paul. i don’t know when i knew i’d spend my life trying to write a book – but i know this was the moment i knew what kind of book i wanted it to be. a book about place. here was a story which didn’t just set its plot and characters against a backdrop – say an english village of the midsummer murder variety, or the oxford of gervase fen. no, here the landscape was indeed a character, without which the plot is nothing, indeed, you could argue, without giving away too much, that in the nine tailors sayers created the only english crime mystery in which the landscape is the killer. because in the end it is that simple - the fens did it.
this elevation of the role of landscape in the crime fiction genre is the book’s great achievement, for me. the english, oddly, are very bad at appreciating the role played by landscape in human emotions. that vague term “a sense of place” typifies the rather weak grip we have on what is a fundamental human emotion – the link between ourselves and the landscape. the oxford english dictionary offers, as a definition of the term, “authentic human attachment” to place, and for the better “spirit of place” the more helpful “cherished aspects of place”. but it’s still pretty limpid stuff. this, after all, is one of the great human emotions. people fight and die to protect the places they love, just as much as they fight and die to save the people they love.
further illustration of the fact that the english language – and perhaps english culture – has a massive blind spot on this subject is the complete absence of an opposite to the love of place. “placeless” perhaps, or – revealingly “characterless”. if sense of place is seen as addressing a strong emotional bond to a place, then the opposite could be “wanderlust” – the powerful urge to leave a place. even here we have had recourse to another language – german. the word was not allowed into the hallowed halls of the oed until 1902.
but can we do better than “sense of place” ? the american geographer and writer yi-fu tuan wrote a seminal book in 1974 called “topophilia” in which he discussed all the ways in which man was attached to his environment. the word has obvious linguistic roots. but while the book began a whole academic movement looking at how we appreciate landscape the word is perhaps too ugly to have become part of everyday speech. sara wheeler, the travel writer, has written about the lack of linguistic equipment to discuss this human emotion. she went looking – in her wonderful book on antarctica called terra incognita – for a european word which might fit the bill. the best she could find was the italian campanilisimo – which literally translates as parochialism, but without the small-town, small-minded connotations of the english. and there we have it: a word whose root, of course, is campanile, the bell tower. for us, the church tower. the central image of sayer’s greatest book – the nine tailors.
this is no coincidence. the church tower is an english icon of landscape. the point which pulls people together, draws them in, by sight – as well as by the sound of church bells. by putting the church tower at the centre of her great novel sayers created the perfect setting for a powerful recreation of a landscape which holds sway over the characters who inhabit it. a landscape so powerful it seems to overshadow the book like that leaden snowy sky under which wimsey and bunter trudged on christmas eve.
but the nine tailors had a bigger impact on me than that – because while it was about the idea of the people and landscape it was sayer’s choice of a particular landscape that really made an impact. the nine tailors - for me – is the finest novel that we have about the fens, finer even than graham swift’s waterland. for me, as a child reading the book in the anonymous, dusty, unromantic environment of the london suburbs, the fens were a revelation. all that space, all that sky, and the intricate mechanism of the waterways designed to drain them. and then there was what was hidden, ironically, in this most wide-open of english landscapes. it seemed to me to be england’s most desolate place, the last fastness of another country, before motorways, housing estates, and the all-pervading influence of london. a place where mystery was still alive. a place where people could, and do, just disappear. of course, this sense of isolation was enhanced by the fact the novel was set in the first half of the 20th century – but it holds good today. the fens is still a very special place,
so – how did this book change my life ? on that day in 1968 i was an eleven year old who wanted to be an architect and live in london. what happened after i read that book ? when i went to university i studied geography – writing my thesis on the perception of landscape. in 1999 i moved to ely, in the fens, commuting each day to london and a job on the financial times. in 2002 i had my first novel published – the water clock - a crime mystery, set around a cathedral in the fens, where a body is found one snowy night on the roof of the nave. (echoes here, surely, of what was actually happening that night wimsey and bunter trudged into fenchurch st paul). then i gave up the job at the ft to write full time in the fens, about the fens. at the same time i started learning how to ring church bells – a pleasure directly inspired by lord peter’s heroic triple peel on christmas eve. on winter practice nights my fellow ringers often sit and talk about how they are going to get home if the bedford levels are flooded – a conversation which could be dropped – accent and all – straight into the nine tailors.
perhaps a book was always going to change my life. i’m just very lucky it was the nine tailors.