Belonging’s what it’s all about for choir fan Gill
A BBC Breakfast producer turned freelance journalist and commentator, Gill Hornby made her fiction debut
A BBC Breakfast producer turned freelance journalist and commentator, Gill Hornby made her fiction debut two years ago with school gates drama The Hive.
Such was the advance buzz, pardon the pun, that the film rights to the book were sold a year before it had even been published — though it now seems it is in development as a TV series.
Set in what Hornby calls the “sort of generic home counties small town” of Bridgeford, the book’s focus on group politics and female friendship proved a critical and commercial success — paving the way for its successor, All Together Now, which hit the shelves in June.
Although she was born in Yorkshire, Hornby — whose brother is the bestselling novelist, Nick Hornby — grew up in Maidenhead, the family having moved south when she was 18 months old.
Today she and her husband, the equally bestselling novelist Robert Harris, live in the West Berkshire village of Kintbury, making Hornby something of a local author.
It turns out that this year’s Henley Literary Festival, which starts on Monday, will be her third in a row.
“Yes, last year we did a literary quiz evening, which I set, and the year before I came and talked about my last book.”
It turns out, too, that All Together Now is also set in the fictional town of Bridgeford. Does that mean Hornby had both tales in mind from the beginning?
“The first one, yes. The first one I’d had in mind for about 20 years but hadn’t had the opportunity or the impetus to write it. And then when I did, and I sold it, they bought a two-book deal, so I had to do a second book.
“The second book was going to be about the empty nest — about children leaving home — which seemed to be a natural companion volume to the sort of school gates novel, which is what The Hive was, and also because my children were starting to grow up and I could see what a kind of interesting transition it is for people to go through.
“Anyway, so it did start out being like that, with lots of people with their kids leaving home — and it was all incredibly gloomy and miserable and not what I wanted to write at all, actually.
“And then one by one I found that they were all joining a choir, so I turned it round and made it about the choir — sort of turned it inside out and made it about the choir that was solving everybody’s various problems of loneliness and alienation — and did it that way.”
Hornby admits this authorial breakthrough gave the book a different focus to what she had originally envisaged.
“It did. I like writing about community. I joined a choir myself three years ago, so my own relationship with my choir was growing as I was sort of growing the book.
“I could see how joining a choir — what an impact it had on people’s lives and how it is, in essence, the formation of a community. Just getting people together and getting them to sing, that is exactly what it is.
“I just watched it grow and watched how people’s lives were enriched by joining it. And how a network was formed.
“It struck me that a choir is a sort of perfect society, that everybody’s doing a different thing — the sopranos from the altos from the basses — they’re all doing their own bit, and yet when they put it all together they make something other. It’s the sort of perfect metaphor for society, really.
“And also that the strong carry the weak. If you’re in a choir with a hundred people, it doesn’t really matter if you can sing or not, particularly, because there’s always somebody’s voice to carry you.
“It seemed to be the sort of perfect metaphor for me to use, just because I’m very interested in this concept of community and how we need one another.”
We seem to be touching on politics, don’t we? In a May 2013 interview with the Observer, Hornby laughed off potential comparisons with her husband’s books, saying: “I’m upstairs writing about ladies who lunch and he’s downstairs writing about ancient Romans.”
In a sense, though, The Hive was just as much about power as Dictator — the concluding novel in Harris’s Cicero trilogy, which is published on October 8.
“It was, completely, yes. It is about power. Yes, it’s odd, isn’t it? I mean, people take things [books] much more seriously, don’t they, if they’re historical or a sort of axis of power.
“But the people who really affect our lives, actually, are the people we are committed to or the people who live in our neighbourhoods — much more than politicians do.
“I think our neighbours and our close associates have much more effect on our happiness and misery than people in government, who generally seem to come and go without much impact on people one way or the other.
“That makes an enormous difference to your life. Much more than whether it’s the Tories or Labour is, you know, the people you’re actually eyeballing every day, what they’re like. And people have real power over you in your life.
“The school gates is just one example, but people do have power over us — people who we mix with or who we associate with.
“People’s ex-spouses, for example, are much more powerful in their lives than their current spouses half the time because they can create so much more misery!”
Hornby appreciates that the stresses and strains of our everyday relationships can lead people to take refuge in the online world. But in her view this is a grave misstep.
“The other thing that is happening to our lives which hasn’t happened in the last ten thousand years is that the internet has really come between us and each other.
“People sit in of an evening and talk to people in Australia and at the end of the evening have this idea that they’ve had a social life, but they haven’t looked anybody in the eye or touched them or eaten the same food as them.
“And in fact they’re completely alienated and lonely. The internet enables you to live in a street full of people like you and never talk to them, because you can just talk to people on the other side of the world instead. And in fact that’s a source of immense misery, I think.”
So what’s the answer? Perhaps it is to be found in the themes of Hornby’s new novel, which she describes as “family and community”.
“The point of All Together Now is that — I read something the other day about social alienation and there was a mantra — “participation is belonging” — and that really stuck with me.
“We can live in our towns and not belong to them because of, you know, just being able to access so much of the world via our computers.
“But all you have to do is go out and just do one thing — like join a choir or, you know, have kids in school or whatever — and suddenly you do belong.
“And belonging is everything. Belonging is what it’s all about. And our towns and our communities are nothing if the people in them don’t feel a sense of belonging.”
All of which brings us back to Hornby’s earlier comments about the joys of communal singing.
She herself is a member of Rock Choir — “you don’t have to read music or anything, you just have to learn the lyrics” — which has more than 16,000 people on its books nationwide — including in Henley.
“We all used to sing together every Sunday — 50 years ago, 70 years ago, we would all be singing together once a week anyway. We just did it. And we don’t do that [any more].
“And as a response, community choirs and more sort of strategic ones like Rock Choir are popping up all over the place. Now a quarter of a million people belong to amateur choirs.”
This latter point is important to Hornby, who says: “The other thing that the book is a celebration of is amateurism, because I think we’re becoming incredibly professional.
“Everything is very professionalised in this world. You know, if you’re good at something you immediately want to monetise it.
“You see it on X Factor all the time. Seventeen-year-olds realise they can sing: “I can sing! I am going to be a star!” Nobody sort of does anything for its own sake.
“And All Together Now is a celebration of a sort of amateurism — of just singing for its own sake, to no end whatsoever, except enjoyment, companionship and the music itself.
“You know, I’m not saying that people don’t have to earn their own living, but it’s awfully nice to just do something, you know — just do it for fun. And being together.”
Gill Hornby is at the Kenton Theatre on Thursday, October 1, at 12.30pm. Tickets are £9. For further details or to book, call (01491) 575948 or visit the festival website at www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk