In search of Harper Lee

It's the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill A Mockingbird, but the author is maintaining

Spare a thought for residents of the small Bible Belt town of Monroeville in Alabama, where this week a horde of journalists were traipsing the sun-baked, dusty roads in search of anyone who might know a shy old lady living in the town's sheltered housing complex.

July 11 marks the 50th anniversary of 84-year-old Harper Lee's landmark civil rights novel To Kill A Mockingbird, which is set in a fictional equivalent of the town and draws heavily from Lee's own life experiences. Like her protagonist Atticus Finch, the author's father was a lawyer who represented black defendants in the Monroeville court house, and like her book's young narrator Scout, as a child she was tomboyish and withdrawn.

But if newspaper editors were hoping to glean something new of the author's enigmatic personality, they were surely to be disappointed. It says much about the relationship between Harper Lee and her keen press following that a five sentence exchange with Daily Mail journalist Sharon Churcher last week was re-reported the world over. In the fifty years since the book's publication, Lee has said barely a word to the media, and she has not given an interview since 1964.
 
In lieu, journalists have been speaking to friends and associates of the author, known locally as "Nelle". Taken together, these give us at least an intimation of why she has been so guarded.

The Mail's most insightful source was 87-year-old George Thomas Jones, a retired businessman from the town who has known Harper since she was a girl. He said:

I'm not a psychologist, but there's a lot of Nelle in that book . . . People say the publicity the book got turned her into a recluse but publicity didn't ruin her life: I don't think Nelle's ever been a real happy person. '[Her father] was a real genteel man, who listened more than he talked ... but he sure didn't show much affection. I used to caddy for him on the local golf course. He was so formal that he would wear a heavy three-piece suit.. '[Later] my late wife was [Harper's own] golfing partner and she knew never to ask her about [the book]. It's not just something she didn't want to talk about - it's a subject you wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole.

Meanwhile, the BBC's Washington correspondent Steve Kingstone spent time with retired minister Rev Thomas Lane Butts, who describes himself as a close friend of Lee's.

She [once] asked me, 'You ever wonder why I didn't write anything else?' And I said, 'Along with several million other people. She said, 'I would not go through all the deprivation of privacy through which I went for this book again for any amount of money...[Besides] I did not need to write another book. I said what I wanted to say in that book.

The New York Times had to settle for the writer and documentary director, Mary McDonagh Murphy, who has interviewed Lee's sister Alice, and who suggested she has shunned reporters in the opinion that "writers should not be familiar and recognisable; that was for entertainers."

A three-day festival has been planned to commemorate the novel next week, including a panel discussion of the book featuring Southern scholars and writers, outdoor readings, and expert walking tours of Monroeville. But To Kill a Mockingbird's publishers have organised the festival on the assumption that Lee will not take part. A spokesperson for Harper Collins said: "The legacy of To Kill a Mockingbird speaks for itself."

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories