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defendants in the Monroeville court house, and like her book's young narrator Scout, as a child she was tomboyish and withdrawn.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."

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.