World Book Day 6th March “South Riding” – a novel that casts local government as the hero
In celebration of World Book day I’d like to convince you to pick up a novel about local government. I realise it’s a tough ask. If you work in the public sector you may not fancy another dose of harsh reality; and if you don’t you could be among the many mistaken souls who think local government is increasingly irrelevant or even boring.
What also makes it difficult is that there aren’t many books about local government to choose from, and it’s clear many writers, and publishers, prefer the more well-trodden corridors of power in Whitehall, missing the significance and the sharp edges of what my recommended novelist called “world tragedy in embryo”.
“South Riding” by Winifred Holtby is a bold, expansive story that draws you into the life of a whole community at a time of austerity. Local government is “the first line of defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies… poverty, sickness, ignorance and isolation”. The compelling plot includes a darkly motivated public-private scheme and a scandal centred on building on flood plains. It portrays the stark choices to be made about budget cuts and offers brave alternatives such as investing in infrastructure to create jobs, all wrapped up in a tale of dreams, love and death.
And all this was written around 80 years ago, in the long shadow of the First World War. Published posthumously in 1936, the book is still totally relevant, and hasn’t been out of print since. There are great characters, especially the 70-year-old first female Alderman of the County Council (loosely based on Holtby’s mother), the idealistic early feminist teacher and the Machiavellian councillor.
But the magic of the book, and the meat of it, is in the politics. It’s brave enough to show us the complex tangle of motivations behind the public decisions and their unforeseen consequences. Ultimately it has faith in the system to make positive change and its powerful human content, small triumphs and painful tragedies, lift it above any novel about game-playing in Westminster.
The reasons I love this book are the reasons that also motivate me to write. As the first-time author of “Hard Change”, a gritty but optimistic town hall thriller, I used a murder as the driver for similar, but contemporary, dilemmas. Like Holtby, I wanted to use fiction to get underneath the surface of power and politics in its widest sense, and local government allows you to get up close and personal.
I’m also aiming to follow in the footsteps of other great authors who have written about what’s important in difficult times. In the 1940s George Orwell wrote, “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics…’ All issues are political issues. The idea that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” I feel the same now. Local government is constantly being undermined and it’s important to me that we generate more stories which explore and make sense of what’s happening, particularly as the range of narratives on offer in the mainstream at the moment is depressingly limited. I know these stories are there. Lots of people have said to me that in local government, “you don’t have to make it up,” but I think we do! There’s so much doom and gloom surrounding the future of local government, and I think we need to fashion some new endings.
Using what I’ve learned from writing “Hard Change”, I’ve developed creative workshops that use story-telling techniques to explore leadership and challenge colleagues to reflect on the endings they want to see. The sessions are about thinking imaginatively and seeing the world differently, about exploring possible directions. Participants have found the sessions highly energising, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and alternative stories are emerging.
I’m also keen to hear from other writers – anyone reading this who is interested in writing about public life. Let’s share and support each other to get more stories out there, so that when future World Book Days come around there’ll be a wealth of local government novels to choose from; books that build on the fantastic legacy of “South Riding” and that look to the future.