Editor's note: In Thursday's programme, Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy.

    Novelist Laurence Sterne

    Tristram Shandy on In Our Time came about through an accident that Laurence Sterne himself might have found entertaining.

    I was at the BBC beano for arts programmes where Tony Hall spoke inspirationally of what the BBC would do in the future, and in the tea scrum before the speech and the clips I bumped into John Mullan, also known as Professor of English at University College London.

    He said, after about three seconds, "Have you ever done Tristram Shandy?" I rang up producer Tom Morris who said, "No, but we should and we have a slot quite soon".

    I transferred this to John Mullan who was well pleased. He was also right to be well pleased with his characteristically energetic contribution on the programme itself. I believe he is even now drifting around Broadcasting House, approaching producers with other terrific ideas. As long as he doesn’t leave us out, that’s fine.

    Michael Winterbottom’s film A Cock and Bull Story had an awful lot of Tristram Shandy in it, even though it departed from the text. It is remarkable how this very curious production has caught the fancy of writers and directors and artists over the last two hundred years.

    I read it (sorry about this, but for the second time; the first time was in another country called my twenties) in the States when I was doing some filming with Daniel Radcliffe last week and was afflicted with a chest infection.

    Sometimes, with a chest infection, when short breath is accompanied by short temper, the playful prolixity can become a kind of grinding garrulity. I now realise I have offended every literary academic in the country. Although, if they were fair, two, at least, of the three of them owned up to feeling some tiredness, in some states of mind, sometimes when they tackled Tristram Shandy. But of course the three on the programme this morning know it off by heart.

    It is a quite wonderful book and I can’t see why it doesn’t stay as a template for ever and a day.

    So after the programme, out into the warm air to see rough cuts on a recast and regenerated David Lean and Ken Loach, then into the office and into a conference call with Paul Nurse and others for an open discussion we’re doing at Oxford in October about the origins of modern science, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of Warden Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College, who made a swift transition from being a Cromwellian to a Charles II man without any noticeable sign of embarrassment.

    Just heard from Tom Morris that Tristram Shandy has zoomed up to 88th on the bestseller charts of a major online bookseller, from about position number 25,000.

    Tom has also just told me that we’ve had an amusing letter from Mexico, which follows a letter from Arizona which included a sketch of Bertrand Russell because the correspondent had heard the programme on which Bertrand Russell was mentioned, and I had a lovely note from Australia from a couple who came together (this is still in the mode of Tristram Shandy after all) through an affection for – yes, In Our Time.

    Best wishes

    Melvyn Bragg

    PS: How Daniel Radcliffe has transformed himself from a boy actor as Harry Potter, making him the best known boy actor in the world over those seven blockbusting films, into the toast of Broadway is, by any standards, remarkable. He stars in The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh. The reviews were extraordinary. I interviewed him the morning after in the famous Sardi’s in the theatre district. His first remark was “My mother could have written them”. It seems he has galvanised himself, somehow or other, into a parallel career and, by the looks of it, on the way to making a comparable impact.


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    • Comment number 6. Posted by John Thompson

      on 2 May 2014 00:08

      To raise a land tax for the realm’s defence, created by the need to billet a large mercenary army in England,William the Conqueror had a survey of each man’s land and possessions,carried out,what annual dues were lawfully his from each shire. William’s kingdom had come under threat from King Canute of Denmark,King Olaf of Norway and back home in Normandy. Exercising his rights as feudal overlord,hewanted an account of his lands by his tenants-in-chief.Feudal law grew up under the needs of warfare,demanding more knights,more fiefs and more castles.Feudal monarchy was the New Leviathan,the medieval equivalent of the socialist state.In a feudal monarchy the king owned all the land.This was England after the Norman Conquest.By defeating Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066,he claimed to have established his legitimate right to succeed Edward the Confessor as King of England, but owing to Harold’s resistance,he was able to claim he had won the whole country by right of conquest. Hence forward, every inch of land was to be his,and he would dispose of it as he thought fit.He distributed most of it to most of his Norman followers,but not by giving them absolute right,they were to be tenants and held the land from him.That is why the king wanted to know all about them-the number of ploughlands and ploughs in each manor,the number of villains, bordars , cottagers, slaves,freemen or sokemen,the extent of the woodland or the meadowland,the amount of tax payable,and the total annual value.The last item interested the king the most,
      usually given in 3 ways-as it was on the day when King Edward was alive and dead
      (5 January 1066),as it was when the survey was made(1086),and as it could be if the land was fully exploited.

      The basis of the whole medieval economic system(9/10 of the population consisting of agriculturalists),had been serfdom or villeinage.The essence of feudal property was naked exploitation,including compulsory labours,innumerable dues and payments,theobligation to grind at the lord’s mill.The peasant who’d saved a little money would attempt to buy himself out of the lord’s demesne. The greatest number of the villani,described in Domesday, were rendering labour services,in return for holdings which their lords acquitted from the heaviest forms of public taxation,holders of tenements on which the village economy was based.The terminology in Domesday is vague about the different classes of peasant: after the Norman Conquests there was no revolutionary change in the relationships between lords and peasantry.King William insisted that the men to whom he gave lands should occupy the legal position of theEnglishmen they’d supplanted,because the Normans had no clear-cut scheme of social relationships which could be applied to the peasantry of a conquered country.There were no Norman stock of well-defined terms that could be used for the drawing of distinctions between one class of peasant and another.Many small landowners had been ruined by the Conquest or by the taxes imposed by the new king:there was an increase in cottagers and a decrease in villani.Domesday had been completed before the king left England for Normandy.The inquest had been taken and there turns had been drawn up,by counties and hundreds.The county,the largest and most stable division of the kingdom,was adopted as the unit of arrangement,but within each county the lands of each tenant in chief were brought together under separate headings.Though not a feudal record(we do not know the obligations of the higher social orders to the king),Domesday Book was done to reveal the territorial base on which feudalism rested.

      Domesday is unique among the records of the medieval world.Once regarded as a fiscal record-a collection of facts which would enable the king to correct anomalies in the assessment of the country to his gelds.It may also have been a way of settling outstanding pleas.In the background of the inquest,the king’s officers had been faced with the operation of distributing a large force of fighting men among the king’s barons in proportion to the productivity of their demesnes.The recent threat of an invasion had impressed on the king and his council the inadequacy of their knowledge of the economic resources at their immediate command in an emergency.The king had a need to know more about England-‘how it was peopled and with what sort of men.’ This was the greatest achievement of William’s reign,this undertaking without precedent, forced upon a reluctant country by the king’s will,a demonstration of thoroughness, efficiency and the energy with which at the end of his reign he could still enforce the execution of a great design.Seems like the Easter bunny ran away with Domesday Book.Does this a millennium before remind us of the growth of inequality and the concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite few,the 1% ers?

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    • Comment number 5. Posted by All for All

      on 27 Apr 2014 16:56

      Just as delivery eluded the intent of Walter Shandy, too acutely distractible to render satisfactory account of the world for the benefit of his son Tristram, so for Tristram the telling wanders of his own Life and Opinions, the communication at first sight merely of accidents in the life of his family, a small world.

      Might similar be the judgement of posterity on In Our TIme, even with calls from Circles beyond the compass of our Virgil, any instruction from The Divine Comedies of greatest value not in their fragmentary learning - delightful, admirable and valuable though such might be - but more in their communication of character, serious and playful, in the exploration of hope?

      Six months from now our United Kingdom might be no more, our sense not enough of character shared, so troubling our fragments of believed history and explained experience, so lacking in coherence and conviction any assertion so far of 'better together'. Should the cost prove ruinous, the weakening of defences disastrous,
      might we look back and blame 'the religion of laughter'?

      Clues perhaps from BBC Online News:

      From Profs Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746

      And from French economist Thomas Piketty
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-echochambers-27164181

      Thomas Paine was content in his fierce ridicule of English finance to borrow the authority of Isaac Sterne, "In France they order these things better"; but it was the thinking of Paine that came so near to saving Britain and America, France and the world, from all that has passed of ill in neglect of equality. We continue to be led easily astray, away from our own society (wherein the creation and sustenance of real rights, shared freedoms not such as degrade each other), instead to the company and thrall of Mammon, there if we tarry sure along with our children and their dreams to perish.

      We digress, but...

      Democracy was last reviewed In Our Time in 2001: the weaknesses of mob-rule set against those of elite-rule in test by Ancient Greeks; the crude balancing of class powers advanced by the Romans; consultation advised in the Koran but in history lost to autocracy; in the West hopes realised vain of peace for freedom under those claimed infallible as pope or owed loyalty as kings by divine right; dread of Hobbes' Leviathan replaced by Locke's cautious revolutionary optimism; concession in the West of a wider franchise rationalised as perhaps to deliver - with constitutional safeguards - elite-service by the most able. Ambiguity noted: our 'social mobility' not for the best but to strengthen nation against nation, the grip of Mammon over all.

      The American Dream now mocks as much the Greatest Nation on Earth as the once Greatest Empire, its understanding ghettoised: for the desperate and those most rewarded, happy to serve, 'my county right or wrong' to keep family or estate together; for those in the middle, hard at work in good times laughing-off their worries ('insecurity is good'), in bad times blaming anything but their lack of a decent social contract (the Greatest rocked by traitors), praying to God but worshipping Mammon.

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    • Comment number 4. Posted by This is a colleague announcement

      on 26 Apr 2014 17:16

      I hope the chest infection's fully resolved, Melvin.

      I liked the idea of being in another country called your twenties. I'd perhaps have been inclined to have said "read by a young man, who went by the same name as me in those days" or words to that effect.

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    • Comment number 3. Posted by All for All

      on 26 Apr 2014 16:17

      John Thomson @1
      "ludicrousness"

      Not at all to take way from Sterne's shared delight, but might we rise even further above our own consciousness, perhaps enable the Tristrapedia to write itself?

      Each of us is privileged, from within our own tiny but complete bubble of being, for a while to observe and infer the processes of consciousness. That bubble growing, the view beyond is ever less refracted, through planar interfaces ever larger with other bubbles our knowledge grows of others and of worlds beyond, and that first so much magnified view of ourselves comes down to 'size', to reality, sharing the love and frustration and finally that mix of impotence and faith, the lot of our virtual Maker.

      Though in the end we might truly 'find ourselves' in love for each other, the way can be confusing, troubled and disappointing, for our sanity guided then best in love of God and Man, for our wisdom and survival no authority above those twin eternal stars, of reason as shareable and of care to be shared for all. Our growth in life will always be in the midst of decay, of improvisation and falling sashes, words and names mis-spoken, the emergence of glory and tragedy for the individual much by accident: but our 'accidents', if we live long enough, bringing us ever closer to break-though, to Heaven on Earth?

      To make simply of laughter 'our religion', laughter sanctified at whatever, laughter indulged at whatever, plainly would be at best a crude guide to the refinement of empathy, to fulfilment necessarily shared with others so like ourselves as really to be part of us. Some will resent the implication of dependence on the satisfaction of needs beyond the moment, beyond 'our own', beyond those of family and friends, beyond the horizons of own time and space. Some bubbles never will grow much, lacking surfactant for empathy: but with longer larger life, by science made longer and by art - such as that of Sterne - made larger, even in backwoods and mean streets hope for most, for this Earth enough?

      Comfort being taken in the celestial mechanics of Yorick, and in the groundworks science of Uncle Toby, we certainty can be tempted to 'leave as we find' the organisation of our divided world, able in good season to enjoy much of life's promise, seeing crisis and war as not to be blamed-upon but as either by ill-luck visited-upon our time-honoured inheritance, or just 'part of the deal', tradition as Nature.

      So tempted, or in innocence and by complacency led, many have perished, even in millions from single malignity; and today still we deny ourselves 'knowledge' of what could and should be our priorities in the public interest. Such knowledge will of course never be in shared omniscience, but 'only' in trust, in shared choice of conscience as guide, our reasons 'known' in good faith shareable.

      Until we make 'the bond of sympathy' real in equal partnership, not in vain between tribes and nations but in substance between freedom-loving social individuals, we will remain trapped, easily precipitated into the 'nineteenth-century' games of fear and greed for empire. Lacking partnership, we are vulnerable to every decision, high and low and cumulated, driven by non-human forces of our own inadvertent creation: ‘capital’ seeking its own concentration, ‘labour’ competing for advantage, the petty made vital, our lives swept away in 'gangs'.

      Only in trust can we hope to find and enjoy 'rule by the able', rule by ourselves, in every office at every level of whatever hierarchy needed, all free to hear and heed, to grow in ability and - as need and age might suggest - to step aside for up-coming others. Meanwhile, our politicians and pundits cast around for 'someone to blame', for someone to attack or defend that peace uneasy might be 'restored': with not a mention given to example, our own wild-fire example - the work in this Age of hardly more than hours for acclaim home and abroad - of sham democracy made genuine.

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    • Comment number 2. Posted by All for All

      on 26 Apr 2014 05:53

      "That's how to do it!", and Tristram Shandy might just as well have added, "Why don't you try?": From time under a near to Zero Hours Contract, building on his work as political pamphleteer and then sermon-delivering vicar, Laurence Sterne gave to the reading public works of priceless conscience. Whatever the Church thought of Sterne's sermons, in Tristram Shandy, Life and Opinions of, surely that settled if humble living was amply repaid.

      Today, though we see reflected in Sterne's work not only his own value but that of all of his characters, salaried or dependent, all bound in relations of lived duty and timeless affection, still we make heavy weather of his lesson. Our society affords no security, possible even for the rich a fall with no end but ruin. In dependence on the Zero Hours Contract, voice if not conscience is stilled, anguish and protest are self-censored, self-worth lost even in unfairest treatment and misfortune.

      Help comes only by patient luck (the survivor's tale), in charity (top-up or total, be it private or state equally gratefully resented), and from political utility (in display of piety, outrage and gesture, despair almost sealed). As the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition heaps duties on hapless small employers, and the First Minister of Scotland takes the chance to promote his campaign for higher (more generous) rank, our Coalition Government (in the run-up to next year's election) is "carrying out a review… to strike the right balance between flexibility… and protection".

      Unequal, and so excluded from respectable society, maybe from character of special vulnerability, perhaps unluckily from the sins of youth, most probably without ever any proof of unworthiness to belong, from deprivation of chance for others we 'earn' for us all our deprivation of democracy, our inequality inexorably corrupting, our leaders helpless to prevent our cyclical slides into crisis and war, at ever higher cost to people and planet. At the end of even the longest sentence might be thought to come release: but death and extinction are forever.

      We have such short time to treasure one another, in love and in fun, in both co-operation and competition. As we laugh and cry with Sterne, at ourselves and our passing, in time or too late the thought of our equal partnership?

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    • Comment number 1. Posted by John Thompson

      on 25 Apr 2014 23:41

      Sterne when he wrote thought how can you write about your life? He had not many examples of the novel form.How does one convey the complexity,the simultaneity of the simplest human experiences using the blunt instruments of words on a page? It can’t be done.By writing a novel, he demonstrated the ludicrousness of the whole novelistic enterprise.He had as much fun while doing so as possible,turning the whole novel into a playground.He constantly has to explain things while doing so, makes digressions,the narrator ruminates.Sterne uses a disjointed chronology,fragments of his own life,stories of his family,opinions,using quirky devices, pictures, the strange use of space,reflecting the oracular use of words in sermons,the use of silence. Its
      narrative content is distributed across a bafflingly idiosyncratic time-scheme interrupted by numerous digressions,authorial comment and interferences with the printed fabric of the book. The comically fragmented storyline is a reaction against the linear narratives in favour of a novelistic shape that depended on association of ideas, a realistic impressionism.Sterne’s interest in the association of ideas involved the theory that time is only a convenient formula for the link between ideas.Sterne teases the reader by mimicry and impersonation,and is virtually indivisible from Tristam himself,repeatedly drawing his attention to his own presence in the fictional process,upbraiding and cajoling,indulging in a Swiftian war of nerves with his reader. The action of the book is intensely dramatic,with elaborate descriptions of physical posture, histrionic reactions,stage directions and scene-shifting.He worked in a long tradition of intellectual satire.

      He describes the events happening around Tristam Shandy’s own conception in vol 1,he’s not born until vol 3.Depicts how his family reacted at the time of his birth.He creates a wonderfully eccentric group of characters,Uncle Toby,Walter Shandy (father) ,Corporal Trim,Yorick.”I wish either my mother and father knew what they were about when they begot me.”We get the farce of family life and the narrator talking about it.There is no linear route through it all,nor plot, nothing is fixed,as the book reveals itself as an artefact with black and blank pages, asterisks, stars, squiggles, non-sequiturs, marble colours.Sterne dissolves the sense of order,he saw we had a mind that does exactly as it pleases,moving back and forth in time.The “I”is not a fixture:it dissolves every minute;its movements as uncertain as a transparent jellyfish as it washes back and forth in the current.A feminine sensibility followsconsciousness from sentence to sentence, image to image…It is receptive to sensations and believes in the mingling of meanings and in the oblique.He brings in Locke’s association of ideas,knowledge inappropriately applied to farcical circumstances,full of ribaldry,wit and faux-learning.From Locke,we get the idea how the mind works,the duration of time,the succession of ideas.He,being the Freud of his day.Hequotes copiously from many learned authors,Rabelais,Cervantes,Burton, Montaigne,Swift, Cicero.He cribs and plagiarizes,as then you didn’t write in a vacuum,you write about the books you read, what happens to you in life.What Sterne plays around with is the material nature of the text,the typography,the spatial layout between paragraphs,so the reader who’s drawn in can create meanings.As the book was published in instalments, it was keeping up with his life,and using his life,conversations,travels,using the materials to hand.Tells us about the things that formed his fortunes.’Shandy’ is Yorkshire dialect for ‘crack-brained’
      .
      Sterne was flamboyant and delighted in playing the parts of his own characters in real life; he became a cult figure in London,the subject of outlandish anecdotes and, to some, the object of disapproval.He published his sermons in 1760 as The Sermons of Mr Yorick(after the parson who features in Tristam Shandy).As with his fiction, Sterne was in his oratory a masterful user of shock tactics,while at the same time remaining capable of powerful emotion.Tolstoy is said to have been influenced by these sermons,which he read as a young man.Johnson,Richardson and Goldsmith were among contemporaries to denounce Shandy’s whirling,anarchic method or to be offended by its playful indecency.Yet Sterne’s oddity is neither an accident nor mere perversity;it is the strategy of an inventful,thoughtful comic talent.His novel dismantles previous conventions of narrative,substituting baffling changes of perspective and a subjective, fragmentary psychological presence for the clear storyline and the reliable storyteller.It points the way to later experiments by Joyce,Beckett, O’Brien and BS Johnson.His dismantling of literary form is a matter of degree,but his system of distortion shows a genuinely comic perspective on the world, part of what has been called the 'religion of laughter'.

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