The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 20, 2012

C. K. Stead

A few years ago, I read My Name Was Judas by C. K. Stead, the novelist-poet from New Zealand, and blogged about it. I also posted a review on Amazon, and recently I received an interesting message. It read:
Hello there - we enjoyed your review of My Name Was Judas. We at the BBC World Service are making a programme with C.K. Stead and wonder if you'd like to send us a question for him - for us to put to him during our recording on 19th October. We may even ask you to record it over the phone. Would you be interested in doing this? If so please could you contact me at: Many thanks, Gill, BBC World Book Club.
I replied immediately: I couldn't think of any questions, but would I be able to attend the recording? Gill said I would and I headed to Broadcasting House this morning, rather aquiver with anticipation.

The receptionist had a badge in my name and bade me sit while we waited for the producer, Karen, to show up. Looking around, I saw other enthusiasts, about twenty of them, most older than me. I noted that 80% of the attendees were bespectacled.

Around 11:15, Karen turned up and took us to the eighth floor where the recording would take place. Some of the attendees were to ask questions, and they even knew in what order they would do so. There were refreshments, Karen said. In the green room were some crisps and savouries and bottles of wine and water.

'A bit early for wine?' I thought, but others didn't agree and lunged for it. I hung around gormlessly and had a glass or two of water. Karen said that Stead would be having wine during the chat, so she thought we might all share it.

As happens during such gatherings, some of the people appeared to be regulars, and chatted with each other companionably. There was also an enthusiastic fellow explaining that he had been approached by Gill because of his review on Amazon. He had been reviewing for about fifteen years, he said, and murmured that he had written over five hundred thousand words.

Recording room 80A
Recording Room 80A, Broadcasting House.

Sound room behind 80A
Sound room behind 80A.

We trooped into the studio shortly thereafter. C. K. Stead was already seated behind the microphone with the charming Harriett Gilbert. Karen introduced them and the sound engineers, and explained that this was not a live show, and so if anyone stumbled over a question, they could always ask it again.

Harriett Gilbert with C K Stead
Harriett Gilbert & C K Stead at Broadcasting House.

Stead had celebrated his eightieth birthday just a couple of days earlier, and he was looking remarkably spry.

C K Stead
C K Stead

The format of the recording was simple. Harriet would read out questions mailed in from around the world, or take a question over the phone, or ask someone in the audience to ask their question. Stead would answer, he would read a passage from his book, and so on. We were asked to keep our phones off, but all other noises were permissible, Karen had told us. We could laugh or cry or cough or shuffle our feet.

Most questions turned out to be by Kiwis from various parts of the world. Stead was asked why he chose Judas as the narrator, where the idea had come for a retelling of the life of Jesus, whether he had had any worries about any negative ramifications from his iconoclastic novel. He was asked if he considered himself in the position of Judas, who was a trusted apostle and yet was to subvert his 'teacher'? Who read his manuscripts? Did he come from a conservative Christian family, given that his own first name is Christian? His book had come out at about the same time as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion - why was he gentler than Dawkins on delusions and superstitions? And what was with all the poetry interspersed among the prose?

Stead quipped that he was probably the only unbaptised Christian on the planet - he was named after his Swedish grandfather but had never been baptised. His father was a lapsed Catholic who didn't like anti-Catholic jokes but otherwise didn't practise his faith; his mother was rather vague on religion; his grandmother was stridently irreligious. So the seeds of unbelief were sown in his mind, and he always felt that religion was caused by lack of understanding of the truth, and that as science progressed, the necessity for divine causes would recede more and more. Stead felt, however, that the force of Dawkins' atheistic argument was blunted by his anger. He understood Dawkins' anger, he said. It stemmed from frustration with superstition, which he himself shared.

It was when he was writing a novel about Katherine Mansfield and wondering about how to characterise D H Lawrence (he thought Lawrence had a messianic fervour about him) that it occurred to him that characterising Jesus would pose similar interesting questions. As a sceptic, he pondered how a gospel could be written that described Jesus from a realist viewpoint. If he were to excise Jesus' divinity, how would the miracles be explained? Stead felt that the story ought to be told by someone close to Jesus: who closer than an apostle? The choice of Judas was quite obvious, then, he said, because Judas was the outsider among the apostles and could suit the role of a sceptic.

Stead said that the conservative Christian population in NZ was fairly small, and although he received a poison-pen letter or two, there wasn't quite the backlash that he had feared. Indeed, some 'pick-and-choose' Christians loved his novel because it enabled them, so to speak, choose the parts of the Jesus story that appealed to them (the defender of the meek) and ignore the parts they didn't (God allowing the crucifixion of his 'son'). But some Protestants were upset at his depiction of Jesus as less than filial towards his mother. 'Everybody knows Jesus loved his mum', they cried, although it's clear from the few references to Mary and Jesus in the gospels that he was not very generous or kind to her. After all, being a messiah is a full-time job, and while Jesus loved people as a collective, his individual relationships - with men or with women - were less exemplary. One Protestant woman who reviewed his book was so incensed that she didn't read the last five chapters, said Stead... And yet she published her review.

As to his politics, Stead has always been left-wing. Yet when he found certain aspects of the liberal ideology unacceptable and criticised it, he was treated by his left-wing cohorts as a traitor. Criticism from within is far worse than criticism by Tories, he said. In an interview with the Guardian, he talked about his quarrels with the left:
"And they have been quite bitter, because if you are regarded as left-wing and are seen to renege, it seems to give more offence." In the 80s Stead became involved in rows over both feminism and Maori rights. "I think a lot of feminist posturing in the 80s just misrepresented the relationships between men and women and was a lot of wishful thinking. Perhaps I was insensitively mocking of ideas such as not saying words like 'heroine' or 'actress', so Cleopatra was a hero played by an actor. But I was very resistant to the idea that you should be told what not to write." 
But today, Stead said he didn't want to get into details because it would appear he was driven by self-pity or self-defence or self-promotion, and he wasn't interested in any of these emotions.

The book is filled with poetry, and Stead, of course, is a famous poet. He loves the idea of language modified by form, he said, and the restrictions placed thereon by poetry. Someone asked if he felt poetry was dying out as it was too elitist, and he rejected that notion completely. Previously, he said, people wrote poetry but for themselves as though it were a private sin. These days there's poetry everywhere, on the Internet especially, and large amounts of it. Good poetry can only be written by the 'linguistic elite', he said, and requires concentration and attention from 'linguistically elite readers', by which he meant people for whom language was important and well-understood. But there was nothing else elitist about poetry, he said.

Yet another query about his poetry in the book was about its positioning at the end of every chapter.  Could the poems not have been collected at the end, as a kind of anthology? Stead meant for the poetry to adumbrate and illuminate and propel forward the ideas in the chapter, and from that point of view their location was important. There was a code in the poetry, he said, which only a Professor of English at some university decoded. The poems followed a thirteen-syllable tercet form, and the number thirteen was chosen to represent Jesus and his twelve apostles.

So there you go. The recording will be broadcast on December 1, 2012. Watch out for it on BBC World Service, if you like!


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