Can books change the world?

Personal physical change and negotiating life’s stages cannot be avoided. In pre-industrial times when the world altered little year on year, children still grew into men and women, they worked, married, reared children and became old. Most people lived briefly on the land, resigned to the rule of a remote hereditary monarch and his or her agents. In the eighteenth century, the population exploded and towns and factories dominated the landscape. Rational scientific thought and democracy underpinned how the country was organised. Britain changed at a massive pace and everyone, not just the ruling elite and the intelligentsia, became healthier and wealthier.

  Sudden change is hard to manage. Given time, powerful people can influence change. Power is the capacity to influence others to accept one’s own ideas. Hence it is bestowed, much like a gift. No acceptance, no power, just conflict. Strong belief, money and threats are powerful, but leadership and great communication are more likely to produce stable long-term change in supportive and inclusive cultures.

  The ‘generation gap’ is a great example of conflict between people and groups with differing power, in different stages of their lives. Strong parents, teachers, employers and governments, who foster the status quo, on the one hand, and relatively weak youth and young adults, who often try to undermine the prevailing culture on the other. It is a tension between the emotional needs of those who are building a life, constructing their identity and self-esteem, and the obstacles provided by their established and conservative elders’ intellect.

  Two writers illustrate the power of writing from within youth ideology. Stephen Spender and the poetry of the Spanish Civil War and John Braine along with the novels, popular music and film of the late 1950s and the 1960s.

  In the 1930s, Britain was relatively quiet politically, with a National Government following policies based on class and regional deprivation. The majority, who lived away from working class areas, were comfortable. The government tried to ignore the growth of fascism in Germany and Italy (Britain was officially neutral in The Spanish Civil War), until the invasion of Prague in 1939. There was a clear division amongst British writers. The older generation, Eliot, Lawrence, Huxley and Joyce, viewed events as a link in a long chain and whilst freedom and equality were all very well, standards must not fall. Spender belonged to a younger group which included McNeice, Auden and Day-Lewis, all from the privileged classes and educated at public school and Oxford University. They were left-wing anti-fascists whose writing did not fit with Britain’s comfortable majority.

  In the 1960s, Britain was stable politically and dominated by consumer-led affluence. Cars, home-ownership and foreign holidays were common and not restricted to the middle classes. Legislation relaxed the laws on homosexuality and contraception, and abortion and divorce became widely available. University places expanded. With the advent of education grants, young people were not constrained by work and could devote time and energy to the general issues of the day, for example, by challenging consumerism and protesting about nuclear weapons. This was the ‘permissive society’ which contained John Braine, a working-class boy from Bradford. He had a series of  dead-end jobs after leaving the local catholic grammar and then became a librarian. His first novel, in 1957 was Room at the Top.

 So the question remains – did Spender’s and Braine’s writing directly influence others? Did it have sufficiently powerful attributes in itself, or did it simply exploit the prevailing ideology of the time?

  Successful writers are members of the workforce. Basic talent needs training to produce the quality and consistency that earns a living. Whilst writing is one way of making personal sense of the world, constructing a successful commercial vehicle from these insights is an additional complexity. Writing for others, starting with commercially minded publishers, requires writers to be business-like as well as inspired. Widely read influential authors usually have an accessible style, with appealing or shocking content and strong messages can be passed to large numbers of people, hooked initially by a strong emotional impact.

  Spender, amongst many others, went to Spain to assist the Republican cause, only to return disillusioned. His poems from 1939, Two Armies and Ultima Ratio Regum, reflect this mood. In Two Armies, he describes how ideology is responsible for death, bullets being merely the method,

All have become so nervous and so cold

That each man hates the cause and distant words

Which brought him here, more terribly than bullets.

and in Ultima Ratio Regum (1939), he graphically highlights the power of money, compared to the value of a boy’s life,

The guns spell money’s ultimate reason

In letters of lead on a spring hillside.

Consider his life which was valueless….

Ask. Was so much expenditure justified

On the death of one so young and so silly

Lying under the olive trees, O world, O death?

Spender realised that influence comes from money and ideology, not writing. He was talented and well trained, but wrote against the grain of complacent middle England, about a distant conflict, in a format that was accessible only to a literary elite. Once public opinion had been sufficiently outraged, Britain went to war to neutralise fascism, and not because of poetry.

  Braine, on the other hand, wrote about Joe Lampton, who succeeds by marrying into wealth. Northern aggressiveness, political radicalism, rebellion, explicit sex and an overnight bestseller.

I felt sorry for her at that moment as if she’d been an ordinary girl and not 

the daughter of Harry Brown with a hundred thousand pounds as a barrier 

between her and real sorrow.


I had no hope of marrying her; but I saw no point in letting her go. She 

was my weekly shilling on the pools, my selection at random with no 

hope of winning. And I suppose that to run two women at once tickled my vanity.

Braine was a working-class lad who learned writing through apprenticeship. Like Spender, he was left wing, and whilst the book hooks in the reader with raunchy language and content, his hero’s behaviour is a warning against materialism. It was successful because it appealed to the growing and increasingly affluent youth market, part of a popular culture which also covered real and serious issues, for example by the songs of Bob Dylan and films like A Taste of Honey.

  Writing on its own cannot make things happen. It is nevertheless a powerful tool. Personally, it can help make sense of the author’s world and perhaps the reader’s. Successful writing can also bring fame and fortune. For it to be influential however, it must be for or against something within a greater culture or ideology. Remote worthy writing is less likely to be influential than popular work that is appealing and captures the mood of the majority.

Spender and Braine both moved away from their early backgrounds and influences. Spender ultimately had a stellar career, a knighthood and professorships. Braine moved from Bradford to the south and joined the political right. Their needs as adults were thus met.

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