Go Set a Watchman on sale at Books and Books in Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Harper Lee's fraught return to Maycomb County casts a stark light on both the past and present

How do we talk about Go Set a Watchman? Does its existence diminish To Kill a Mockingbird? How does it stand in relation to that text?

We always knew that Scout would speak her mind. We just never expected she would say these words. “You’re a coward as well as a snob and a tyrant, Atticus,” she rails at him. “You’re a nice, sweet, old gentleman, and I’ll never believe a word you say to me again. I despise you and everything you stand for.”

Even if you have read every word printed about the contentious publication of Go Set a Watchman, it is still stunning to come across these exchanges in a novel that is either a long-lost novel by Harper Lee or a very early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, depending on whom you listen to. But no wonder Atticus Finch’s daughter is angry: she is just as shocked as we are. Scout – that scrappy tomboy in overalls who stands with her fellow youngsters Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield as an icon of American literature – is now Jean Louise, a sophisticated 26-year-old woman.

As Go Set a Watchman begins (its title is taken from the Book of Isaiah) Jean Louise is coming back to Maycomb County from her somewhat mysterious life in New York. At the station to meet her off the train is not Atticus, who is 72 and suffering badly from arthritis, but Hank Clinton, her father’s junior partner. Hank and Jean Louise have known each other since childhood, but now Hank is very much in love with her and wants to marry her. He calls her “honey” and a “child”, but she resists his unappealing blend of declared love and financial ­prudence (“I have now reached an economic status that can provide for the support of two”). And so begins Jean Louise’s challenging, unhappy return to Maycomb, the place that she, and so many readers, once happily called home.

I can’t recall when a book was so eagerly awaited as Go Set a Watchman. There were the Harry Potter Years, certainly, those midnight bookshop openings and eager kids dressed as wizards staying up all night. But we watched Harry Potter rise to classic status before our eyes (whether that status is deserved is another story altogether): Mockingbird has been firmly in the pantheon since it was first published in the summer of 1960. It is a book that is not only a staple of classroom teaching but also genuinely beloved. Oprah Winfrey, writing at the time of its 50th anniversary in 2010, called Mockingbird America’s “national novel”. The 1962 film adaptation won three Academy Awards; and an upright, stalwart Gregory Peck became enshrined in the collective imagination as the embodiment of Atticus Finch.

Yet part of the wider fascination with Mockingbird always lay in it being Lee’s only novel. Nelle Harper Lee, who will be 90 next year, is often lazily described as a “recluse”. What this seems to mean, in 21st-century parlance is “someone who doesn’t give interviews”. Like Neil Armstrong, another figure whose staggering fame was an early harbinger of the growth of celebrity culture, she wisely decided early on that she had little to gain by talking to the press. That didn’t stop the folks in Monroe­ville, Alabama – her native town, on which Maycomb is based – from capitalising on her success; head to Radley’s Fountain Grille on South Alabama Avenue and order up a plate of buffalo wings and “loaded cheese fries” in homage to Lee, why don’t you? To Kill a Mockingbird was a fascinating singularity; the novel was all the more adored because it stood alone.

But then, late in 2014, Go Set a ­Watchman was discovered among Lee’s papers. Or so we were told. The story of Watchman’s publication is a gripping tale in its own right. Tonja Carter, Harper Lee’s lawyer – who took over after Lee’s sister and gatekeeper Alice died, aged 103, in November 2014 – attests with certainty that she came across the manuscript in a safe-deposit box that year. But a rare books expert from Sotheby’s, Justin Caldwell, has said that he encountered the manuscript as early as 2011 when he went to Alabama with Lee’s literary agent in order to appraise her papers. And then, for a while, there was the mystery surrounding the decision to publish the manuscript, whenever it had been found. Why hadn’t it been published before? When publication was announced, in February this year, Lee – who had a stroke in 2007 and now resides at an assisted-living facility in her home town – was reported to have said, “I’m alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to Watchman.” But others were not so sure; so much so, that following “an unspecified complaint”, Alabama State’s human resources department was concerned that Lee might be the victim of elder abuse. The case was closed after officials spoke to Lee.

Harper Lee on the porch in Monroeville, Alabama. Photo: Donald Urhbock/The Life images collection / Getty

Publication was slated for the very same day that the New Horizons spacecraft would swing close to Pluto, that most distant object in our solar system, its journey of nine years and three billion miles a parallel wonder to the release of Watchman. But then came more mystery, more fuss, as embargoes on publication were broken and news leaked that Atticus was not the man we thought he was. Twenty years on from the time of Mockingbird, the lawyer who defended a black man, Tom Robinson, when he was unjustly accused of rape by a white woman, saying that the case was “something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man” has changed his tune. With the grown-up Jean Louise standing before him, he speaks plainly in the language of Jim Crow: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?”

So how do we talk about Go Set a Watchman? Does its existence diminish To Kill a Mockingbird? How does it stand in relation to that text?

In the first place it seems to me wiser to read Watchman as a very early draft of Mockingbird, rather than an independent work. It seems clear that Watchman was the text submitted by Lee to the publisher Lippincott in the 1950s; Tay Hohoff, a forceful editor there, worked closely with Lee on draft after draft, through argument after argument, to coax out To Kill a Mockingbird.

Watchman is written in the third person, Mockingbird in the first. Watchman is best described as picaresque, a loosely linked series of events with no clear narrative through-line; Mockingbird is driven forward by the trial of Tom Robinson. One of the pleasures of reading Watchman is to admire the genius of an editor who saw what was hiding inside this strange, discursive book. Robinson’s trial is mentioned in a paragraph or two here: the character is never named, and furthermore Atticus gets him acquitted. It’s a worthwhile exercise to compare the opening two paragraphs of Mockingbird with Watchman’s: the former make you want – need – to read on; the latter, quite simply, do not. Watchman comes alive when Jean Louise’s recollections of her childhood with Dill and Jem and Cal, those characters we know and love so well, intrude into the present-day plot. (Jem’s ­appearance in flashback in this book is positively ghostly because we learn, brusquely, in the opening pages, that he dropped dead of a heart attack two years before this tale begins.)

The story of Watchman, when it finally gets going towards the second half of the book, is of Jean Louise’s horrifying discovery that not only is Atticus reading pamphlets with titles such as The Black Plague, he is also on the board of directors of the local citizens’ council. Citizens’ councils were white supremacist groups in the Southern states largely organised after Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that decreed segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Now, when Atticus decides he will take on the case of a black man, it is simply to fend off the “buzzards”: the NAACP lawyers “who demand Negroes on the juries in such cases”.

How is it possible that the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird has turned into (or had his origins in) this terrible man – a man against whom Scout stands firm, at great cost to herself, and her sense of what home is? For all the flaws in this novel, however, Atticus’s transformation is wholly believable; and I wonder if Harper Lee thought, once again, to teach us a lesson. For the lawyer’s attitude in Mockingbird surely can be seen as conservative and paternalistic; and Maycomb society, in both books, is strictly hierarchical, even within its white community. For all that this novel was written before – was transformed into – Mockingbird, it is possible to see how Lee would go back in time to imagine her character’s ideals before those ideals had been taken too far by “Negroes” who disagreed with Atticus’s statement of what he sees as simple fact: “white is white and black’s black”.

Shocking? Perhaps not when, 150 years after the end of the American civil war, it is just this month that the Confederate battle flag has been removed from its place above South Carolina State House; it took the murders of nine men and women in a church to force its removal. Though the motivation for publishing this novel can be debated (it will certainly earn a windfall for all concerned), it is hard to regret its appearance. It casts a stark light not only on the past, but on the present, too. “Leave the slaves out of it for a while,” says Atticus’s brother, Jack, debating with Jean Louise. Harper Lee, in Go Set a Watchman, reminds us that we can’t.

The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night; if ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come. 

Erica Wagner is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. She is working on a biography of Washington Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge

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Now listen to Erica discussing Go Set a Watchman on SRSLY, the New Statesman's pop culture podcast:

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.