Archive for June, 2011

Trespassers W.

June 24, 2011

Riverwood – photograph by Liz Mathews

Let us trespass at once.  Literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground.  It is not cut up into nations; there are no wars there.  Let us trespass freely and fearlessly and find our own way for ourselves.  It is thus that English literature will survive… if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country.

(Virginia Woolf, The Leaning Tower.)

This advice should seem more dated than it is.  When it was written, in 1940, Virginia Woolf envisaged a future (if there was a cultural future) in which ‘commoners’ would have such free access to library books and education that nothing but their own diffidence could keep them from trespassing on the hallowed ground of Eng.Lit. and claiming it as common land for the republic of readers.

In this mass trespass she imagined the canonical greats, Shakespeare et al, (‘if they could speak – and after all they can’) encouraging the rabble with cries of ‘Read me, read me for yourselves.’  ‘They do not mind if we get our accents wrong, or have to read with a crib in front of us’, she reassured the hitherto-excluded.  ‘We shall trample many flowers and bruise much ancient grass.’

It’s a kind of bashfulness, a feeling that it’s not for them, that still keeps some people – even those who are able to read and have access to reading materials – off the imagined grass.  Yet a voice like Woolf’s, a lawless encourager of the outsider, can lead us waltzing onto those forbidden lawns, picnicing, admiring the view, swimming in the lake. Fortunately, there are now – still – many writers and thinkers and fellow-readers who can help each other to travel this pleasant path.

The advice that we should ‘find our own way for ourselves’ is, in its context, perhaps a rebuttal of the elitist education which created a divide between in- and outsiders; a reassurance that we can do it independently. But it also serves as a warning against false maps; repetitive directions along the same old routes with unnecessary guides always asking for money. (The  financial exploitation of even the literature market contrasts sharply with Woolf’s hopeful prophecy of the future; ‘Money is no longer going to do our thinking for us’.)

To set against the excesses of commercialism are the many literary enterprises – small presses, independent publishers, book festivals, poems on the tube, radio programmes, blogs, local bookshops – that are latterday encouragers of reading without boundaries.  They exist perforce within the capitalist world, but not primarily to serve it;  in fact, they have a completely different priority, which is to spread the word.

This summer, I’m participating in one of the world’s biggest literary events, the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which is very exciting.  As well as reading from my own book, I’ll also be reading as part of the Amnesty Imprisoned Writers series; both events on Monday 15th August.  The festival takes place in the Charlotte Square Gardens in Edinburgh, and somehow the idea of all those writers and readers celebrating literature on the grass of a garden square reminds me irresistably of Virginia Woolf’s ‘trespass at once’, even if the trespassers are – on this occasion – welcome.

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