Choosing ignorance over reality; why I won’t be reading “Go Set A Watchman”

The author of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

The author of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

Whenever a teacher forces you to do something in a lesson, you approach it with suspicion. Why would they make you do it, other than if they thought you wouldn’t want to do it in the first place? I remember being told that my GCSE English class would be reading To Kill A Mockingbird ahead of our exams- the only group in my year to be doing so, with Of Mice And Men and Lord Of The Flies being delegated to other groups. Warning signs were evident from the get go, and rumours flew along the tables of the grueling task that awaited us. Then of course I read it, and it turns out I need not have worried.

Saying To Kill A Mockingbird helped me to rediscover my love of reading might sound like some overused hyperbole, but its reputation shows that my opinion is not a lone voice. It wasn’t just the colourful cast of characters that entertained, inspired and intrigued in equal measure, with the mystery of Boo Radley still pervaded ominously throughout Tom Robinson’s trial. Nor was it just how vivid the setting was bought to life, acting as a key factor for particular scenes (such as the jail house) rather than just a backdrop. It was the message of peace, tolerance and acceptance that permeated each page and helped me to fully appreciate the power of literature. Understandably, it has bought its author Harper Lee acclaim and praise of the highest order- all of which has been somewhat tarnished with the release of its follow up, Go Set A Watchman.

But is it really a sequel? Maybe an appendix would be a more appropriate title, given how many have described it as a series of anecdotes and ideas bound together. This is just one of numerous concerns I have regarding the novel’s publication, fifty five years after the original book. Why has it taken all this time, considering she has consistently vowed never to write another book, and that this new book is based on a manuscript that was previously rejected? These questions were enough for me to distance myself from it, and I didn’t think anything of it until some further details emerged regarding one of the book’s central characters.

Atticus Finch is arguably one of the best characters in literature. A beam of positive spirit, greeting everyone with a gentle smile regardless of their background, his direction in life was always towards what was right- not just for his family, but society in general. In To Kill A Mockingbird, he is gentle but firm, calm yet decisive; peaceful, yet commanding a sense of respect and understanding. His attitude wasn’t just demonstrating how we should act; it was demonstrating why we should act in this way. Given the character’s legacy, it was all the more shocking to hear of his transformation in Go Set A Watchmen, where an elderly stubborn Atticus now shares views that are more in line with some of his fellow citizens in the original novel; in other words, a racist.

Now, authors, musicians, filmmakers, anyone creative for that matter, can create a stone cold classic and then stumble on the follow up; hence why “the difficult second album” has become such a common expression among bands. However, this is usually not such a problematic issue because it usually concerns an entirely different piece of work; the acclaimed status of the previous piece remains. Yet here, a classic character of literature has been twisted and warped into a shadow of what he once was. Even his original incarnation is harder to aspire to when you have the full picture in mind.

Thankfully, I see a way out of this, where I can avoid the new incarnation of Atticus Finch from ruining my perception of the character from the original novel. It may not be a popular path of action, and one that I would usually scorn as hopeless and narrow minded, but there are always exceptions to rules. So what is my master stroke? Not reading it altogether. Avoiding the backlash online might be a bit trickier, but if I consciously choose to feign ignorance, my original memories will not be affected; or in any case, the least amount of damage will be done.

Granted, I may be running away from the issue rather than resolving it altogether, and above all Go Set A Watchman may present a series of events more akin to reality; a collection of hard truths that some hastily brush under the carpet when in the public view. I certainly can’t just shrug my shoulders and bemoan “Oh, it’s just a book.” By that same logic, none of the themes present within To Kill A Mockingbird would matter- and though some of the frantic scribbles of analysis may have been instigated by my teachers, the messages still seem clear as ever now.

Personally, I would like to continue to aspire to a figure that champions racial equality and therefore equality in general, so I am determined that my own perception of Atticus Finch will remain as it has been for so many years. It is not as if he is a real person that has suffered a fall from grace; as a character, each reader’s perception of Atticus Finch is a result of their own individual interpretation of him, regardless of how many may share it, and it exists firmly in our imaginations. I was forced to read To Kill A Mockingbird and its impact has yet to fade. Now, with my own choice in the matter, Go Set A Watchman has no place in my mind.

Jack The Lad #3: Savouring the sight of St Swithuns

Always a proud moment

Always a proud moment

My latest column for my local paper, the East Grinstead Courier, looks at the importance of moving a town forward while maintaining its identity- in particular the architecture that defines it.

Can you imagine the news of a familiar locale being torn down to make way for yet more property no longer provoking a reaction? Yet sadly, as such announcements become the daily norm, it is hardly surprising that the reaction has dried up and stagnated.

The Wallis Centre? The Parish Halls? The Rose and Crown? Going, going, and gone before you know it. Outrage becomes grumbling, before grumbling becomes roll of the eyes. Such developments are now taken for granted as part of modern life in East Grinstead.

But one recent proposal particularly caught my attention because of how it concerns our beloved St Swithuns. The proposal would see a property in Cantelupe Road extended vertically, with five new apartments on top. The nagging issue?  The town council is worried it would obscure views of the church.

There’s no denying that as the population expands, so must East Grinstead, and the town’s future will always be an important issue, but as soon as money is on the table, new plans take priority and charge ahead, leaving behind the cherished architecture that defines the town. But can you imagine having the view to such a prominent piece of the town’s fabric blocked by a wannabe skyscraper?

I’m lucky that I can always catch a glimpse of the almighty spire of St Swithun’s from my bedroom; though the church spires are merely a speck in the distance, it is still a beautiful sight to behold. Whether you’re part of the congregation or not, there is no denying that it remains a prominent part of the town’s character.

The town’s development needs to be in a way that does not fragment the overall identity of East Grinstead; that is what keeps people in the area after all. You can start off with the derelict houses dotted about the town’s estates; I passed a ghastly site on Grosvenor Road in Gardenwood the other day that could easily be turned into two apartments. Or what about the old wool shop on Green Hedges Avenue, sold last year but seemingly forgotten?

The big question is, if Cantelupe Road gets the thumbs up, what’s to say more applications won’t be pushed through? Before we know it, St Swithuns could be cowering in the shadows of stocky, monotonous monoliths, heralding a new age where you hear church bells and have no idea where they are coming from.

Such a sight is common in the capital or any city for that matter; but we are not a city. We’re East Grinstead, a small town that basks in the rays of an impressive history. If you keep hacking away at it, it will all seep out, and you’ll be left with just another small town.

Thankfully, the council rejected the proposal, but now the idea is out in the open, what’s to say that I won’t resurface? We moan enough about all manner things in our town as it is; therefore, we should do all we can to nurture the few strands of it we still admire and cherish.

“Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens; a modern classic, ten years on

My battered yet beloved copy

My battered yet beloved copy

Front, back, inside; Illinois from every angle

Front, back, inside; Illinois from every angle

Some music enthusiasts can pull their favourite artist and album out of thin air with astonishing confidence; the epiphany of the first time listen, the fervor that swelled within their heart, what each track truly means to them. I can now count myself one of those lucky few, though the question used to make me break out in a cold sweat, until a sudden moment of clarity earlier this year… Sufjan Stevens, the multi-instrumentalist maestro who makes masterpieces of every genre he delves into. He has to be my choice, and his stunning fifth album Illinois (or “Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise” if you will) is my all-time favourite album.

I was shocked to realize that today, the album is ten years old; although this is hardly surprising for me, given I have only known the album for five of those years. A faux-goth on the cusp of my teenagers, I was not caught in the firing line of over-exuberant critics that hailed Illinois; instead, it was early 2010, several months before the release of Steven’s follow up, Age Of Adz, listening to the album’s title track that my curiosity with Sufjan Stevens began.

With nothing else from Age of Adz on offer, I ventured into Stevens’ back catalogue, and of course the first result was “Chicago”, still his most prominent song thanks to the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack and a fantastic gateway to the rest of Illinois. I was eager to get my own copy of the album, and amazingly my lucky streak continued; as your average small town, East Grinstead is not regarded as a haven for physical music, and the only option for finding CDs was scouring the pre-owned collections in the various charity shops. Yet as I casually browsed my local British Heart Foundation that week, there it was. Without a doubt, it’s still the best £2 I’ve ever spent.

A whimsical anecdote might not seem like the best way to open a celebration of a modern masterpiece, but I felt my own introduction to the album was the best way to kick things off, given Sufjan Stevens’ fascination with and considerable talent at crafting stories through his songs. The second release in his Fifty States Project- and given that it has now been ten years and a third hasn’t surfaced, probably his last – Stevens uses the state as a backdrop for exploring his own personal anecdotes.

The lyrics to Chicago and Casimir Pulaski Day; one of the best double acts in music

The lyrics to Chicago and Casimir Pulaski Day; one of the best double acts in music

Sufjan Stevens alongside John Wayne... there's something incredibly creepy about this, given the context.

Sufjan Stevens alongside John Wayne… there’s something incredibly creepy about this, given the context.

Regardless of the cities (“Chicago”), superheroes (“The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”) and, ahem, its serial killers (“John Wayne Gacy Jr.”), his songs only have a location through dashes of setting; give them a name, and really you could place them anywhere. That’s not to say Illinois is tacked on as an afterthought though; Sufjans actually heavily researched the state, reading around the subject and even going on road trips to broaden his own perspective. But it’s the strength of the narrative, a double assault with the richness of the melodies, which have the most effect; you feel his words could be lifted from works of literature.

But don’t mistake this as Stevens being pompous or patronising; it’s more that Stevens attempts to create as striking a picture as possible, to make stories rather than just songs. Take “Casimir Pulaski Day”, for example, and its opening line: “Goldenrod and the 4H stone; the things I brought you, when I found out you had cancer of the bone.” Considering it’s just Stevens and a guitar that opens the track, the bleakness of that line still leaves your emotions winded. On a day of celebration for many, Stevens finds himself contemplating the loss of his teenage girlfriend, the loss of innocence… perhaps even the loss of his faith, however briefly. “We pray over your body/but nothing ever happens” reads simply, but woven into the sombre melody it is incredibly powerful in conveying Stevens’ doubt in his Lord.

All this, from just one track on the album. You could fill a dissertation on the themes that emerge throughout the album, from his encounter with Carl Sandberg on “Come On! Feel The Illinois!”, what the wasp represents in  “The Predatory Wasps of the Palisades Are Out To Get Us!” and likening himself to a serial killer on “John Wayne Gacy Jr” (a particularly prominent point that is best discussed elsewhere). You don’t find many of the messages on Illinois straightaway, but gradually with repeated listens. The record itself almost acts as a veil unto itself; it’s pleasurable as a background listen, but you have to stop and fully concentrate to understand at the signals it sends. It’s a record that’s able to think for itself, without sacrificing any emotional capacity in the process.

You might not place much importance on nationality, in terms of listening to an album, but compare my first encounter as an inquisitive Englishman in 2010 with the average American in 2005 as can be. I had none of the angst and anguish that those who were shocked by George Bush’s re-election had, nor had I the familiarity with the locales and spirit of the 11th state. Maybe the lack of context meant I had even more to wrap my head around, unravelling the essence of a far-off land that was both similar and alien at the same time… would it be surprising if that made the impact even greater?

Abraham Lincoln is coming to town

Abraham Lincoln is coming to town

Black Hawk. Sauk leader, war warrior, Sufjan Stevens subject.

Black Hawk. Sauk leader, war warrior, Sufjan Stevens subject.

It’s no understatement when I say Illinois is a truly audacious spectacle of sounds, meandering mournfully before suddenly moving into an orchestral gallop. It’s ambitious- there was so much material recorded, that Stevens had enough to release a “sequel” of sorts the following year, featuring outtakes and rearrangements, called The Avalanche–  but what’s even more impressive is that it meets its ambitions, before adding even more instruments to the fro.

A classically trained oboist, Stevens’ knowledge of the classical form is evident in the complexity of some of the time signatures and how each instrument fits into the overall track; Stevens himself played over twenty instruments on the record. Just try and imagine what that must be like to replicate live; it’s virtually impossible to come anywhere close. Because of that, the record feels even more like a unique experience that you can only truly enjoy in one medium.

When it was released in 2005, the reviews were unanimous in their praise; many publications, as wide ranging as NME, Pitchfork and even Amazon named it as one of their albums of the year (the latter two even gave it the coveted top spot). Mentions on “best of the decade” lists later followed, and even as he released his seventh album this year, the phenomenal Carrie and Lovell, the first place for comparison was always with Illinois; because for an artist that dabbles in so many genres, it is hardly surprising that a piece that combines so many has become his signature.

At twenty one tracks and nearly 74 minutes, it certainly requires commitment, but if you give it your time and it will certainly give a lot more back. Illinois is such a rich and varied release that you can easily dip in and out of, but the full experience comes from immersing yourself from start to finish. Many critics make bold claims about certain releases, but as I do not feel I am qualified enough yet to call myself one, I have no qualms in saying this: Illinois remains a triumph for the power of music ten years on, and an album with such an astonishing level of arrangement, boldness and creativity certainly deserves to be celebrated.

Glastonbury’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness

Bags unpacked, showered up, the first proper night’s kip in a week. I’ve now been back from Glastonbury for a couple of days and I’ve just started to rise out of the inevitable post-festival blues. Ah well, only 357 days until the next one and counting.

Glastonbury; always a ten, always worth it.

Glastonbury; always a ten, always worth it.

In any case, I’ve now had enough time to evaluate my experience at this year’s incarnation of the Worthy Farm festival (and watch an unhealthy amount of performances on iPlayer, considering the weather we’re having). This was my second time at Glastonbury, after going last year and vowing to return at every chance I got. I relished each sight as I descended Pennard Hill, from the Tipis and Park area in the south to the cluster of stages in the Silver Hayes and John Peel to the north, and everything in-between. Honestly, the impact was just as powerful as when I first laid eyes on it; only this year, it felt more like a welcome home.

But during your inaugural Glastonbury experience, it’s just enough trying to take it all in and find your way around the site, let alone pin down any clear objectives for just what you want to achieve over the five days you are there. There are many who are happy to go with the flow of the festival, but I am not one of those lucky few. As soon as the full line up was announced, I was analysing every stage to decide on my plan of action for each day; in particular, I wanted to spend much more time at the smaller, more unusual stages, and fully make the most of what Glastonbury has to offer.

If this was, shall we say, a “regular” mainstream festival, say at Reading and Leeds which has eight stages, or even Bestival which has twenty one to its name, then this wouldn’t be such a difficult job. But Glastonbury has over ninety stages. It’s impossible to cover every single one. You can certainly try though; some hurtle from stage to stage, trying to sample tastes of as many acts as possible along the way. Personally, I place a great deal of emphasis on enjoying a set from start to finish and taking it all in, so the idea of adding more stress by trying to see everything is incredibly off putting.

The Palo Voladores, an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony. It's almost "too" Glastonbury.

The Palo Voladores, an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony. It’s almost “too” Glastonbury.

But can you see the problem emerging here? In trying to decide what to do, it can be nerve-wracking just trying to come to a decision. What if the act you finally choose turns out to be a pile of rubbish (enough with the comments about Kanye already!) and you end up missing one of the highlights of the festival elsewhere? Glastonbury’s greatest strength is the sheer variety of things you can do there, but this also acts as the festival’s greatest weakness for the indecisive; there is simply too much to do.

I’m not just talking about bands as well; away from the main stages, all manner of things from Buddhist meditation to Mesoamerican ceremonies and salsa classes tempt your fancy. Considering the breadth of activities available for you to try, are you wasting your ticket if you stick strictly to the main musical trail? The stress truly is real; my parents went again this year, and spent every evening the week before in anguish as they weighed up clashes, even revisiting albums to try and come to a decision.

Yet maybe I am just nit picking; with a glorious balloon that swells with music, culture and celebrations, I have to be the one that looks for the needle to let out some of the air. After all, the sheer variety of things on offer isn’t just a strength of Glastonbury; it is its definitive calling card. To have it any other way would be ridiculous; in fact, what I love about the festival so much is that you CAN have it any way you want it.

Is it him you're looking for?

Is it him you’re looking for?

Call me crazy, but I was one of the few who didn’t witness Lionel Richie’s Sunday afternoon performance. I spent that particular slot with George The Poet in the Silver Hayes, and witnessed an astounding display of lyrical genius. Yes I missed one of the biggest sets of the weekend, but to linger on that minor detail would do George The Poet a great disservice; it wasn’t like I wasn’t enjoying myself elsewhere.

George The Poet was just one of numerous highlights across the weekend; Caribou, Songhoy Blues and FKA Twigs also stand out, but all in all there wasn’t a set that I didn’t enjoy to some degree. Now I’m home, the only stress that remains is whether I’ll be able to get a ticket for next year. Picture a trip to the beach in the height of summer; once you’ve swam around for a while and taken a break, you want to get back in as soon as possible, to explore the reefs and ride the waves. Ultimately, Glastonbury is a holiday unlike any other, and if it wasn’t bursting with too much to do in five days, it simply wouldn’t be the wonder that it is.