The Stonebreakers by Philip Hook - review by Auberon Waugh

Auberon Waugh

Towards a Discreet Form of Censorship

Bad Sex Winner 1995

The Stonebreakers



It was only two days after the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction ceremony at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand that Mr Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, revealed that he also has written a salacious novel. A couple of fruity extracts were released at the same time to whet our appetites.

Might Gingrich have changed his mind if he had been present to hear extracts from Edwina Currie’s novel, A Parliamentary Affair, read to great applause by the actress Paula Bingham? Currie was the runner-up for the much-coveted Bad Sex effigy, presented by the lovely Marianne Faithfull to Philip Hook for a passage from The Stonebreakers.

This is not the time to rehearse all the reasons for our institution of this Bad Sex in Fiction trophy, but in passing I would like to remind readers to keep their eyes open throughout the year for any suitable passages in novels published between November 1994 and October 1995 inclusive. The prize is now £250, generously supplied by Rowbotham Films.

The question we must ask ourselves when we contemplate Newt Gingrich and Edwina Currie knocking on the door is not so much whether we should let them in – they have no desire, in fact, to join the disreputable company of writers and storytellers – but how we can politely, and without hurting their feelings, discourage them from knocking. Writers essentially belong to the fraternity of poachers rather than the company of gamekeepers. When occasionally a writer is to be seen posing as a gamekeeper – this applies to journalists as much as to novelists – he always makes a fool of himself. People are not interested in our pompous pronouncements. Such things should be left to politicians.

Is it too much to suggest that bad descriptions of the sex act should be left to writers? It is not only politicians who are trying to elbow their way into the market. At times it seems that every housewife, out-of-work graduate and redundant executive has something embarrassing to tell us. Nor, of course, is it only bad sex they have to offer. Many wish to publish novels simply to tell us how sensitive they are.

There seems no way we can discourage the publication of all this tosh. Writers, being shifty fellows, know better than to support any suggestion of control. Our automatic response when anybody says that some newspaper article or book should never have been published must be to say, ‘Yes it should.’ This is not because we necessarily agree with the sentiments expressed, or welcome the information provided, or think it was worth saying, but because as soon as you appeal to an authority with power to determine what should and should not be published, you are in very deep water indeed.

Yet the overproduction of books threatens to become a major problem in countries like Britain, where space is restricted. As we know, the average Literary Review reader buys nearly thirty-five hardback books a year, there by accounting for 1,400,000 volumes. How many do they throw away? But the real extent of the problem becomes apparent only when you contemplate the 82,000-odd new titles published in this country every year. Few, I imagine, have a print run smaller than 2,000. At the very least, there are 164,000,000 books, most of them completely worthless, pouring out of the factories into our homes and places of work each year.

It is in this context that we should examine the comic opera of the new British Library, whose additional grant of£46 million in December brings its total cost to £496 million so far. First officially approved in 1978 at a cost of £78 million, it is still at least three years from completion. This is impressive enough. The fact that the building in all its hideousness has been shrunk to half the size originally planned and will be obsolete as soon as it opens, if it ever opens, is something different.

It was intended that the new building would fulfil all requirements of the British Library until 2030. Now that its size has been reduced (the measure of our shrinking prosperity as a nation), there will be only seventy-three more seats than there are currently. This works out at approximately £6,800,000 per extra seat. One could easily decide this magnificent cock-up was the natural result of a meeting between the world of book – the most incompetent business in the country – and the world of politics. By nature, they do not meet, until a politician, in retirement, turns up to collect his cheque from Lord Weidenfeld or Mr Murdoch, as the case may be. By nature, the two worlds are antipathetical, since the politician resents any renown or influence that does not attach to the word of politics. They should be kept apart. Only bad sex can result.

A simple explanation may be that this ugly and unusable building is the architectural expression of the novels of Edwina Currie and Newt Gingrich. But I perceive a destiny at work. The project was doomed from the start by this monstrous tide of new books.

The main lesson must be that where books are not worth preserving it is insane to spend huge sums doing so. The new building should be blown up and the St Pancras site sold. The old Reading Room should be preserved with its present collection of books, and new ones should be admitted only when they have been vetted by a hard-working, underpaid committee of redundant librarians and schoolteachers. Books not accepted should be quietly forgotten, their existence denied.

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