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Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Sara Maitland's book - and the social divide in Durham (and elsewhere)

Ah yes... Sara Maitland.

I’ve been busy trying to be a marketing guru. Mercifully, Black Friday and the even more dubious Cyber Monday are behind us. I can carry on doing what I like best, being a writer.

The Sara Maitland reading and interview was in one of the Durham University colleges - St Chad’s, I believe. You don’t have to have grown up on a council estate (I suppose you’d say ‘project’ in America) to have a certain unease creep over you around a university like Durham. It is terribly attractive. Fine buildings tucked away behind mature trees, splendid all-weather sports pitches, and a sense of history surrounding  it. It has traditionally been seen as the place your kids went if they couldn’t get into Oxford or Cambridge. And, with its college system, it seems to aspire to be a replica of those institutions. Walk through Durham, which is essentially a mining town - in an area where mining has been eradicated over the past fifty years or so, with resultant devastation of communal life - and you will likely be struck by the huge difference between the people you run into at one end, down by the bus station, and those you encounter at the other, up towards the cathedral-castle-university complex and barely half a mile distant. One lot are more or less ordinary, not very well off, in many cases quite down-at-heel; the other lot tend to be fresh-faced, self-confident, well spoken, very well dressed and, in the case of many foreign students, carrying fancy shopping bags containing items of expensive clothing.

I am trying hard to steer clear of making a judgement here - and endeavouring to direct myself back to Sara Maitland’s book. Please bear with me. Why are the differences between the two ends of our social scale on my mind right now? Well, they are all the time these days - and the simple answer is that we live with the legacy of Thatcherism.

Greed is good.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
It’s every man for himself.
Failure is the fault of the individual.
Wealth at the top will trickle down to the bottom.
(No metaphorical suggestion there that one class is pissing on another? Course not.)

We seem to have adopted the very worst of American economic and political philosophies, while their best lie skulking under a desk somewhere, scared to show their faces. More immediately, I have this morning been listening to a BBC radio phone-in commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, published in the middle of the Second World War and recommending the measures which made up what we now call the Welfare State and, of course, our National Health Service. The very idea, it seems, is being eroded by one Government after another in the name of cutting costs.

I may return to this theme. I may not. I am not a political sophisticate, and I am sure there are plenty of people out there who could shoot me down in flames, but my gut tells me that something is going badly wrong. Salaries at the top end of the scale have become obscenely high, while many, many people who work full-time cannot afford to live. We suddenly have a perception that there are good and bad neighbourhoods, good and bad schools, good and bad hospitals - and as the middle classes desert their local facilities in search of something better, there’s a snowballing deterioration in all three. In the US it ends up with gated communities, and I’ll bet we’re on our way there too. Perhaps it’s as well I am not younger. I might be on the streets causing damage to random symbols of unwarranted wealth and privilege.

Nevertheless… I went into St Chad’s College, one of a minority not draped in a black gown, and listened to my good friend Sara read from, and answer questions about, her book, Gossip From The Forest, in which she recounts a series of walks in various British woodlands - and one abroad, I seem to remember - and talks about the genesis of folk tales and fairy tales, re-interpreting some of these traditional stories with present-day insights.  I should add, of course, that the book is timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the first edition of the brothers Grimm’s collection. Later today, A. will return from town bearing a number of copies of the book, one of which is for us. I dare day I’ll get to read it over the Christmas break.

STOP PRESS: I am mistaken. Waterstones (formerly Waterstone’s) do not possess three copies. Nor even one. Well, what do you expect when you decide to eradicate the apostrophe from your brand name?

Lunch is over. I have had a my wee rant. I must return to my critique of a novel extract which arrived in yesterday’s post, then glance at another which arrived this morning. And maybe on Thursday I’ll get back to my memoir.