Carnegie Medal 2006

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Mal’s Acceptance Speech for the Carnegie Medal 2006

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Tamar is a historical novel. It is also, at a certain level, about history. A fifteen-year-old girl discovers that her life has been shaped by events that occurred fifty years ago, in a past of which she is only dimly aware, and that those events were, in turn, dictated by earlier ones. She realizes, in other words, that as well as being an individual she is part of a human continuum. This is hardly a profound or difficult concept, but it worries me that it is in danger of being lost. I sense a widespread disconnection from history, that people —younger people in particular —have little idea about how they “got here.”

Disconnection or alienation from the past has political consequences. A clear example is the popularity of Margaret Thatcher’s mutilation of the trade unions in the 1980s. Many of those who supported her in this seemed to have forgotten or not known that they owed the social benefits they enjoyed —health, education, social security —to the trade union movement. Now I do not think that there is a single young person of my acquaintance who has any knowledge of the social history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have the somewhat gloomy feeling that, as a result, those struggles will have to take place all over again. There are already companies, including supermarkets and call centers, whose attitudes toward their employees are not that different from those of nineteenth-century mill owners. And “globalization” is, of course, a euphemism for the exploitation of cheap labor. I’m not quite crazy enough to think that my novel can address, let alone affect, any of these matters, but I’d like to think that one or two readers might take a livelier interest in the “connectiveness” between their present and the past.

I’ve done little bits of work for [England’s] National Reading Campaign. In fact, I’m a “Reading Champion,” and I’ve got a badge to prove it. The National Literacy Trust campaigns under the slogan “Reading Is Fundamental,” which is of course true. But as the Carnegie award ceremony takes place on July 7, 2006, it is perhaps appropriate to say that reading is also anti-fundamentalist. Fundamentalism —of any variety —is a form of illiteracy, in that it asserts that it is necessary to read only one book. It is unbelievably stupid to imagine that this kind of illiteracy can be combated with bombs and bullets. And terribly scary that the U.S. and Britain are being led by men who do not, or cannot, read. Three hundred years ago, Jonathan Swift wrote a satire called The Battle of the Books; it would be great if Bush and Blair could be helped to read it. It has a great deal to say about the “collateral damage” that is incurred when violence is used in a battle over the printed word. They might also discover that when it comes to struggling with fundamentalism, there are arsenals packed with weapons of mass education in all our towns and cities. They are called ‘libraries.’” – Mal Peet

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