Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Back to the future - that's one direction

Back to the future – that’s one direction
Yesterday’s shock announcement that a ‘sequel’, written by Harper Lee before she wrote the phenomenon that is ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ will be published in July, soon had the trolls and begrudgers in twitter overdrive. It was said, variously, that Ms Lee, at 88, is senile and incapable of making a decision on publication; that she is profoundly deaf and unable to follow what is going on around her; that there exists documentary proof that Ms Lee never wrote another novel and we should be sceptical about any sequel’s authenticity; that an unscrupulous publisher has taken advantage of the fact that Ms Lee’s protector over many decades, her beloved sister, Alice, died last November. Etc., etc., etc. And this all within a few hours of the announcement of the publication of ‘Go Set a Watchman’.
The official version of events is that Ms Lee wrote ‘Go Set a Watchman’, which follows the life of the adult Scout Finch, first. Her editor at the time advised her to write instead a novel from the perspective of Scout as a child. This was duly produced and published, to great and unwavering acclaim, as ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The manuscript of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ was subsequently lost and has only now been found all these years later at a lawyer’s office, attached to an early typescript of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Ms Lee herself is said to have approved its publication, believing that it is ‘a pretty decent effort’.
I do not know the truth of the matter. All I know is that I will be beating a path to the nearest bookseller in July.  
From the sublime to the ridiculous - here is my own attempt at a short sequel, this time to Kathryn Stockett’s novel, ‘The Help’, which is set in 1960s Mississippi. It tells the ongoing story of the central character, Skeeter, after she moves to New York. I confirm that it is my own work, I am of relatively sound mind, have all my own teeth and have the mental capacity to sanction its publication!

Skeeter in New York

The beauty of moving to New York City from Jackson, Mississippi is that there is more between them than the 1,200 miles that divides them. They are two different ends of the universe. The contrast between the small-town introversion of Miss Myrna’s column in the Jackson Journal ,or the Junior League of Jackson Newsletter and say, Norman Mailer’s latest irreverent take on American life in Harpers Magazine. The world between Miss LaVole’s husband-snaring styles in Jackson and the stylish, modish fashion of Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Saks, Barneys and all the others in New York. The gulf between my parents’ sprawling farmhouse, claustrophobic in its familiarity and intrusion and my tiny second floor apartment in a Brooklyn brownstone on E34th Street, New York City, where there is no-one to question my every movement and thought. I’m sorry, Mother, but that’s what you did and would do still if I had not made the break. The difference between the small town, inward-looking mentality of Jackson and the cosmopolitan, easy impersonality of big city life.
In Jackson latterly I had no life to speak of at all. None of my friends was speaking to me. Stuart had left me in disgust and perplexity at my being someone he didn’t know at all. I had burned all my boats in the aftermath of the publishing of Help, a book I wrote in secret collaboration with Aibileen, Minny and a number of other coloured maids who fair blew the lid off life taking care of white families and  who are good enough to bring up their children but not to use their bathrooms.
In New York City, no-one knows of this. I have my own apartment containing all my important things. I have a desk that houses my typewriter. I have a bookcase of my own, where reposes in pride of place a box wrapped in white paper, tied with light blue ribbon. The box contains a copy of Help, the one signed by over five hundred Church members and sent over by Reverend Johnson. This is more precious to me than anything else I own and I will never be parted from it.
I have a job – a real job – at Harpers Magazine. My office is on Broadway, downtown Manhattan and I take the subway there every morning at 8.15, like a regular New Yorker. My work is as an assistant copy writer, which means that I help edit pieces commissioned or submitted on a chance by aspiring writers and make sure that they are in Harpers housestyle and not defamatory. I am surrounded by writers and writing, which is just the way I like it. Harpers and I are just made for each other!
I phone Mother and Daddy every week, on a Sunday evening. That way, I can feel that I don’t neglect or forget them, but also I can limit Mother’s endless questions about what I’m doing , what men I’m meeting, what I’m eating and wearing to a half an hour, once a week. Daddy is just happy that I’m happy. I phone Aibileen every Saturday morning when I know she won’t be trying to meet her deadline for the Miss Myrna column for the Jackson Journal. She is putting her heart and soul into her weekly column, I know, priding herself on giving the best possible cleaning advice to those who ask for it.
Here in New York, the world feels new and  - well, exciting. I feel close to the developing spirit of questioning the old order and can even make a contribution. I went with Aileen, my boss at Harpers, to a convention of the African-American Civil Rights Movement and was electrified by the speakers calling for what are basic human rights. I feel that we must enact the Civil Rights Bill that President Johnson is trying so hard to force through, to honour the memory of President Kennedy and also for the sake of Aibileen, Minny and all people of colour.
I am also going in August with Aileen and a couple of other people to Shea Stadium to see a new British group called the Beatles, who sound real lively.
‘Go find your life’ Aibeleen had said to me, when I was agonising over whether to take the job at Harpers. I sure am!

Thanks for reading,


Christo said...

Thanks for this, Sheilagh, and I am as surprised as you and everyone else at this sudden appearance having had Mockingbird as one of the most influential texts in my life to date. It confirmed many of my basic values as they were developing in my teens, and has been the source of dozens of English classes I have taught.
I found it hard to accept that it was a "stand alone" and never to be followed up by Harper Lee - its excellence had surely resulted from years of study, earlier writing and friendship when young with Truman Capote.
People are just so cynical today, and their hatred of "older people" humiliates them far more than it does Harper Lee.
Like you, I shall be in the queue in July.