Howards End Is On the Landing: a Year of Reading from Home

Susan Hill's title is only half helpful - it gives a fair impression of what the book isn't, but not quite what it is. As a memoir of the reading life, Howards End Is On the Landing is not ruminative, like Geoffrey O'Brien's The Browser's Ecstasy, or summative, like Clive James's Cultural Amnesia. Rather, it is personal, practical and anecdotal, as the title suggests, though with a longer time span and more varied settings than the title promises - not a year of reading from home, but a lifetime of reading, writing, meeting, publishing and broadcasting, in numerous places.

This is not entirely a case of false advertising. The book's diverse chapters - there is material on pop-up books and W G Sebald - spring from Hill's shelf-browsing in the place she now calls home - a book-crammed farmhouse where she lives with her husband, Stanley Wells, identified here, with mock-grandiosity and ironic detachment, as "the Shakespeare professor". And stirring in the background of this occasionally delightful book is a rather uninteresting "crystallising" experiment, wherein Hill resolved to read only books that she already owned.

Thankfully, Hill is too excitable for this new diet to receive much sustained attention. She is happier telling us about books she has read in past years, and about encounters and near encounters with Iris Murdoch, Arnold Wesker, T S Eliot, Ian Fleming and her hero Benjamin Britten; the reader - or at least, this reader - is happier to be told about these things than about her arbitrary decision to choose Our Mutual Friend over Bleak House in her final 40 books. (The list itself is the most valuable thing here, an idiosyncratic commingling of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Only Trollope and Wodehouse receive two spots.)

As a thinker, Hill is shaggy - she is rigorously unphilosophical and assiduously unsystematic. The most appealing manifestation of this relaxed temperament is her disdain for the idea of reading obligations: "I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new. I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don't and that's that." But relaxation, if unchecked, is mere laxity, and the book suffers from its lack of ambition and shows no sign of having been proofread.

In her dealings with books and writers, Hill offers little in the way of critical illumination - that is, she offers a fair amount of critical comment, but rarely is it illuminating. As a result, when she expresses a quirky point of view - "I am bored by Jane Austen" - it remains a quirky point of view.

The arguments offered in support of such topsy-turvy judgements are often thin. It does not tell us much to refer to the "porcelain veneer" of Austen's work, especially if we do not agree with the description.

The book is stronger when Hill is providing off-trail recommendations. Without falling into ahistorical aestheticism (a thing of beauty is a joy for ever, and so on), she likes to revisit works that were once loved but have fallen out of favour or print. The book is best read as a discursive reading list. John Wain's novel The Smaller Sky is one of a dozen books that I had never heard of and am now eager to read. Wain aside, the writers whom Hill believes to be suffering unjust neglect are women, with Elizabeth Jane Howard and Iris Murdoch being notable beneficiaries of her feisty praise.

The book's controlling metaphor, though Hill nowhere acknowledges it, is of reading as eating. We are told that she would give up buying books just as people give up chocolate for Lent; two pages later, with nothing to establish the connection, Hill explains that she excuses her book-buying "on the vague grounds" that a paperback is better for you than a bar of cho­colate. Elsewhere, she praises slow reading as against gobbling up, remembers the post-natal practice of "reading-while-feeding", and disparages thrillers and comic novels as "ice-cream reading". Hill has a voracious and varied appetite and her taste, with a few exceptions, is impeccable.

But her personal preferences are finally beside the point - her book is a celebration of reading tout court. A celebration, not a defence. Though Hill wonders at one point when educated men ceased to be as educated as Lord David Cecil, this is not a book about literature under siege or the disappearance of memorisation, about slipping standards or falling literacy rates. (It is not a rant, despite Hill's occasional tetchiness.) She is writing about reading not out of annoyance with its detractors, but out of adoration for its own positive virtues.

It is particularly rare and refreshing to find a book that treats reading as a first-hand activity, in defiance of the old distinction between life and literature. Time spent in the company of The Blue Flower or To The Lighthouse constitutes experience, like sex or bungee-jumping. Hill recognises that reading has a centrality in people's lives; indeed, for those of us without political ambition or practical ability, it is more or less the only thing worth doing.

Howards End Is On the Landing: a Year of Reading from Home
Susan Hill
Profile Books, 236pp, £12.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.