Wednesday 26 July 2023

'The art of the everyday' - Sue Purkiss

 In the aftermath of Brexit, when great sadness lay over all the land - well, this bit of it, anyway - a small glimmer of light was a newspaper which had been founded specifically to fight the case for remaining in the European Union. It was called The New European, and I don't think it was originally expected to continue after the referendum.

But it did continue, and happily for its readers, it still does. We've subscribed to it since the beginning, and look forward to its arrival each week. I usually turn first to Alastair Campbell's Diary (I very much enjoy the podcast he does with Rory Stewart, The Rest Is Politics), and then to the features section, called Eurofile: I take my time over the other articles, which are thought-provoking and wide-ranging. The only page I never read is Will Self's: I'm not a fan.

Anyway - in the Eurofile section a couple of weeks ago was an article by Charlie Connelly, called The art of the everyday. Its starting point is a painting by L S Lowry from 1953, called Going to the Match. If I could just link the article, I'd do that, but it's behind a paywall, so I'm going to write about it instead - because when I read it, I felt that instant sense of recognition that you get when someone puts into words something that you hitherto were only vaguely aware that you were feeling. 

Here's part of what Connelly says about Lowry's picture.

'Although painted simply in characteristic Lowry style, each figure is the gateway to a life. Even those walking past as part of a group seem alone and I like to wonder what they are thinking about. Fish and chips on the way home? Will that war pension ever turn up? Is dad's cough getting worse? Will that useless lummox still be at left-half today after last week's shambles?

'The figures in Going to the Match are united by the hope their team will win, but as captured by Lowry they are singular people at their centre of their own singular story, each containing their hopes, fears, dreams and disappointments, reminding us that we are all unique and remarkable in our own ways.'

He goes on to advance the proposition that, while literature has always been 'focused on extraordinary people at the heart of extraordinary events', this is changing. He suggests that, perhaps because of the way the real world has been 'spinning increasingly out of control in recent years... there is a discernible trend for novels that eschew the remarkable in favour of the everyday. Instead of leading us from the ordinary into the extraordinary these books take us in the other direction. They are gentle in tone, their protagonists on the edge of things, vulnerable, lonely, marginalised, peope whose stories are underpinned by warmth and riddled with that concept deeply unfashionable in the modern world: kindness.'

Connelly cites as examples Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, and Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Ronan Hession. (I'd add A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman.) All gentle, all about ordinary lives, not extraordinary ones.

I'm enthusing about this because I'm a big fan of writing and reading about so-called ordinary lives - which is not to say that I don't also like reading about larger-than-life characters who have thrilling adventures. I do like such books, but, ironically, I'd also like to give a big shout-out for quiet books. (Hands up those of you who have been accused in the past, with an apologetic shake of the head, of writing 'quiet books'?) I've always felt that the lives of ordinary people - like Lowry's figures - contain just as much interest - albeit of a different kind - to those of extra-ordinary people.

Of course, there's room - and a need - for both. There's room for all kinds of books, all kinds of stories. But perhaps it's time for a spotlight on quiet books. Connelly's article puts forward recent examples of adult books which put ordinary people front of stage: could we do the same for children's books? Suggestions welcome! 


Roz Cawley said...

A resounding 'Yes' to this post, Sue! (from a fellow long term New European subscriber :-) )
A Great Sadness also lies over this little plot of land - and stretches a great deal further over the whole country if recent polls declaring that a majority now acknowledge that Brexit was a massive and long term istake (guess how we voted?!) - and the one channel for my feelings that was ALWAYS accessible to me throughout the period since The Vote (and through the trials of the pandemic) was to write about it - and thus process it in my journal. The ultimate in 'Quiet Books about Ordinary People', I suppose - though in my case the writing has often popped up on my blog rather than as a published book.
I've kept a journal since I was 16 (72 now) and I can quite definitely say that it has saved my life - and certainly my mental health - on more than one occasion. Reading books about ordinary people (and poetry - not necessarily about OP) does indeed give the sense that 'I am not alone in feeling this ...' and long may this kind of writing - for publication or for self reflection - continue.

Anonymous said...

Agree whole-heartedly! One of my faves is The Rector’s Daughter by F M Mayor.

Lynne Benton said...

Oh definitely, Sue! I so agree with your post! Another quiet book, which is quite old now but still lovely, is "The Enchanted April" by Elizabeth von Arnim. Not sure about many quiet children's books about ordinary people - I think the publishers are always looking for New and Exciting! Though those written by Hilary McKay might qualify - and are thoroughly enjoyable.

Paul May said...

Only just seen this, Sue and I completely agree. It's true of movies too - films like Straight Story or The Station Agent, and of children's picture books. I've always loved the quiet books of Charlotte Zolotov.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks for your suggestions, everybody - some new ones to me. I wish I could share Charlie Connelly's original article with you - it really struck a chord with me.

Emma Barnes said...

Have you read W.H. Auden's Musee des Beaux Arts? Saying a similar thing about a different picture. It's a favourite of mine.

Sue Purkiss said...

No, I haven't - will look for it. Thanks, Emma!