“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach (1979)

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“It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.”

Many books like to show us the world from the point of view of an animal. Obviously there’s Animal Farm, or The Animals of Farthing Wood, The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa that gives a lizard-eye view of the world, or The Last Family in England from Matt Haig which shows us life through the eyes of a pet dog. In this instance, the book appears to have more in common with the likes of Br’er Rabbit in that it’s a fable intent on teaching us something about ourselves through the actions of a seagull.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull isn’t like the other gulls in the Flock. While they’re focused on finding food and surviving, Jonathan is far more interested in the act of flying, spending all his time studying the art and learning how to become the best flyer he can. His actions upset the Elders, however, and he becomes an Outcast for going against the societal conventions and so leaves to better practice his skills.

While away, however, he finds that perhaps he isn’t so alone as he thought. There are others he can learn from, other gulls who have been cast out of their flocks for their love of flying. Jonathan can now be free, and help the next generation of outcasts perfect their abilities. This edition of the book also comes with the rediscovered “Part Four”, which sees Jonathan’s legacy live on as time passes and he becomes something of a mythological figure to the gulls, rather than something more tangible.

It’s a short read, but beautiful in its brevity. The main takeaway is about self-perfection, and how we don’t have to follow the crowd. Those that go their own way and do things differently often achieve greatness unimagined by the others. There is much to learn here about individuality, creativity and passion. The fourth part, which was only published for the first time in 2013, has distinct parallels to organised religion and questions its nature. Bach was inspired to finish it after surviving a car crash and seeing in it truths he’d written years before without knowing they would become relevant.

I didn’t really know what I was expecting from this book, but I got more from it than I could ever have imagined. It’s the kind of book that’s so full of gorgeous lines that I could paper my bedroom in them. I’ll limit myself to just one, here:

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”

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“The Uncommon Reader” by Alan Bennett (2007)

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“One has been enjoying Fifty Shades…”

“At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber.”

With wind and rain lashing the south of England, and the skies the colour of a particularly nasty bruise, the only sensible course of action was to buckle down with a novella and hope that neither the roof blew off or lightning destroyed the shed. I headed for a book that hasn’t been on my shelf long, but I’ve been aware of and meaning to read for years. It concerns a very important woman indeed, and has a very important message.

In The Uncommon Reader, the main character is none other than Queen Elizabeth II herself. She has just discovered that a mobile library pops by the palace every Wednesday and, once aboard and exploring, decides to borrow a book. Although it isn’t that good, she reads it anyway and returns it the following week, taking another book with her. Soon she is mesmerised by the literary world, a world that until now she has rarely experienced.

Encouraged in her new passion by Norman Seakins, a skivvy from the kitchens (who soon recieves a rather hefty promotion), the Queen begins to devour books, finding within the pages of Proust, Dickens and Plath truths about the human condition that, in her priveliged position, she has never experienced. Her obsession begins to affect everything else. She becomes late for everything, has little interest in anything that keeps her from her books, and she is taking less interest in her appearance. She’s even learnt how to read and wave at the same time. The royal household is worried about what her new hobby is doing to her – reading, they suggest, excludes her from many of her subjects – and begin to take matters into their own hands.

More than anything, this is a love story to the written word. Reading and writing are both spoken of fondly, revealing to all the true magic and wonder that exist in the simple activities. The Queen makes for an excellent character and, while I’m a royalist anyway, I found myself even more enraptured with the notion of this mysterious old woman who rules the country and keeps herself to herself. The Queen is, of course, a very private person – by nature of her job, she has to be, really. As she says, she is not to have interests, but must be interested in everything. To see this side of her, no matter how ficticious it may be, is wonderfully interesting and brings her to life a little bit more. This Queen is sweet and duty-bound to a fault to perform the tasks asked of her, but she keeps an edge of steel that reminds you that even though she is a twenty-first century monarch, she’s definitely related to those royals of old.

The secondary characters make for interesting folk, too. Norman Seakins is a young man who doesn’t treat the Queen the way everyone else does, seeing her rather more as a grandmother figure than as his monarch. The Queen’s private secretary Sir Kevin Scatchard is less of a pleasant fellow, unable to see any good coming from the Queen’s new hobby. He gets his comeuppance in a brief scene when one realises that to deny the Queen anything is futile.

The ending tugged at my heartstrings a little, and made me somewhat sad, but otherwise this is a wholly charming and wonderful novella about the power of books and the passion people can (and should) have for them. It’s quite funny in its own way, and does very well to portray the Queen as a human being, with her own opinions, thoughts and feelings. I think sometimes we forget that behind closed doors, she must have her own ideas about things. We might never know what they are, but this book offers a tantalising glimpse of what might be happening behind palace doors.