Sprint for Shakespeare - or beware Bohemian bears
BY PETER STOTHARD
Every day the Durrants company sends the Man Booker judges the latest advice, speculation and comment on our work from the pages of the press.
For those of us with long newspaper memories this is still a strange arrival. The name Durrants means to me those old library envelopes in which their cuttings service used to be kept last century, the cuttings that were prey to chaos and carelessness in every newspaper office but which were still the nearest thing to permanence that most of our articles ever had.
Now, of course, Durrants is all electronic, a line of blue www-type in place of the yellowing print. But by Durrants we Man Bookerists still get to know how we are seen — from Bombay to Bournemouth — and which of our long list is judged the most worthy or likely to win the prize in October.
Alongside my distinguished and industrious colleagues I have been living with this decision all year. We now have a long list of twelve from an original cast of 145 novels. And in a few weeks we will have a short list of six.
But shhh! Say it quietly. For the past few days the Chair of the Man Booker judges has been off the job. Guiltily (for with our long dozen to reread and reread by the end of the month I ought not to be straying) I have been reading The Winter’s Tale instead.
This has been almost purely for pleasure. I will not deny the pleasure in judging our list. But that should not be the purest pleasure. Criticism is a form of work. Judging the Man Booker Prize is and ought to be hard work.
So, instead, I have had in my hand the Arden Edition of what I once thought was my favourite Shakespeare play. Maybe I still do think that. Fortunately, I am not going to have to explain later this year precisely why — and not to writers of Durrants clippings. Pleasure can be unexplained. Let’s say that The Winter’s Tale would certainly make it to my short list.
Still do I feel guilty? Yes. But Shakespeare, I persuade myself, does have his Man Booker role too. He clears the mind. By being above all English others he puts lesser distinctions in their place. I am going to be a better reader next week for having spent some time with him.
Or shhh! That is my excuse. Mostly I have merely been enjoying myself.
There has been just one problem. I have not been rereading my probably favourite play in the form that I would now most like to have it. I have been seduced by something that does not yet exist.
Think electronic. Man Booker judges have this year become pleasantly accustomed to paperless readings — both of the new novels themselves and the latest articles about them. And for the past two weeks a new electronic offering has been dangled before me. I want it now.
The Bodleian Library, as I have discovered, has been holding out the prospect of a digitalised version of its1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. The only authoritative text of The Winter’s Tale is in this most magical of magic books.
Oxford’s electronic task, I am told, can readily be completed. It can be made to happen. The magic of the Bodleian First Folio can be made to appear on my screen, everyone’s screen, anywhere, everywhere. But not until we have £20,000.
Only £20,000. The library is challenging its supporters to what surely should be only a short race, a Sprint for Shakespeare, to contribute cash, £20 at a time, in the modest spirit of every little bit helping.
Why do I want it? Why do we want it? You may well ask. Are we being picky pedants here?
Do we want it so that, for example, the shift-working compositors of the Folio, with their different approaches to spelling do and go can be seen by anyone anywhere? Well yes. That is one reason. Do we want to wonder on the 43 stage directions, including the peculiarly famous ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’, and what they tell us?. Yes, we do.
And then what sort of play is it? What did its first publishers think that it was? Where did it fit? That is another reason? There are a thousand indefinable others. Every copy of the First Folio has its own secrets.
Of course, like everyone else, I have lived happily for many years without the yearning to read this first Oxford text, anywhere, at will, in its first form. But, knowing it is possible to have it, I now want it rather badly. Man Booker judges and all literary critics can be as electronically demanding as anyone these days. Why should we not be?
I have even agreed to join the ‘champions’ of Sprint for Shakespeare. Vanessa Redgrave is our leader. I want this to happen. We have agreed to help the Bodleian to raise the money. So please help. Give something, anything, some money, any money.
This is not what I normally do. I do not think that I have ever been a ‘champion’ of anything before. Give a little. Or give a lot.
Or beware the bears of Bohemia.