Bloody Cheek - From A Faint Streak Of Humility!

Posted at 00:00am on 27th October 2008

Reviews of your book are something a writer looks upon with a sort of love-hate relationship. In a sense they’re the life-blood of a book: a good one serves the same purpose as a shot of adrenaline in the arm, or a stiff G&T, a poor one may do what a dose of flu might do; none at all, and rigor mortis will rapidly set in.


There are some who say that for every bad review you need seven good ones to counter it. Others declare that all publicity is good publicity. My guess is that there may be an element of truth in both statements.


That doesn’t mean that a negative review doesn’t hurt, however. I remember the feisty journalist Melanie Phillips slating me in a review of one of my earlier books, which had elements of autobiography about it. Intended as an inspirational piece to enlighten and encourage the parents of drug-addicted adolescents, I’d made myself pretty vulnerable in sharing my own experience. I remember calling into question why it was that two of your children could turn out to be docile and compliant, when the third was a monster of rebellion and general obnoxiousness.

My book was couched in less controversial language than that, and was a genuine attempt to examine different personalities and their response to the same parenting. Melanie Phillip’s stinging reply was to trounce me, both as a mother and a writer. Rightly or wrongly, I wrote to her in an attempt to explain and justify my observations. I never heard from her, but then I don’t suppose I expected to.


Last week I received a letter from a reader of A Painful Post Mortem which displayed all the elements of very positive feedback, combined with a critical appraisal which left me wondering whether it would be wiser to bury it or flaunt it.


On the positive side, it was from Canon Michael Saward (himself an author, prize-winning journalist and regular broadcaster and, for five years Radio and Television Officer to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey) whose autobiography is titled A Faint Streak of Humility. The phrase was coined by a fellow clergyman who, knowing him well, affectionately used it to describe the Canon.

It’s just as well he has a tough skin. Whilst serving as Vicar in Ealing, Michael Saward was battered half to death when his daughter, Jill, was brutally raped in her Vicarage home. Now a campaigner for rape victims, she recently stood as an independent candidate against Conservative, David Davies. Her father, meanwhile, retired after some years as Canon Treasurer of St Paul’s Cathedral.


Naturally I was delighted to hear that my book had been well-received in such quarters. Who wouldn’t want to be reviewed by so illustrious a person? Following positive feedback, the letter finished with a critical comment which – since my book cannot be unpublished – cannot be viewed as constructive criticism. It is, however, very funny. Taking courage in both hands, and with Canon Saward’s permission, I have reproduced the bulk of what he has to say, below.


Thank you for ‘A Painful Post Mortem’ which I have read with much interest. I am greatly impressed with the book and, not least, your actual written style. Congratulations!

I have only one critical comment and that is the use of the word ‘ruddy’. You include it scores of times (five on a single page) which seems distinctly excessive. Your character Mark would, I suspect, have been far more likely to say ‘bloody’. Since (you have) the odd obscenity (elsewhere) I can’t imagine why you regard ‘ruddy’ as an acceptably reduced adjective.

It reminds me of W.S.Gilbert’s response to the suggestion that his operetta, originally spelt ‘Ruddygore’, might just as well be called ‘Bloodygore.’ He replied ‘you might well think that if I say that I admire your ruddy countenance it’s the same as if I said ‘I like your bloody cheek!’ Well – it isn’t – and I don’t’

Michael’s letter then finishes: Anyway, it’s a splendid effort. I hope it sells well.


I’m tempted to do what I did to Melanie Phillips and write to the Canon, to explain that ‘bloody’ might well have been the preferred profanity for my character, Mark, had he not been rendered inarticulate and repressed by overbearing parents. But I find that more than a faint streak of humility inhibits any desire I might have to cross swords with the Canon’s ruddy countenance! B….. cheek!

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