Authors into the future

Skeletor lookalike, patriot and speaking as a mother Andrea Leadsom recently attracted ridicule for accidentally suggesting that Jane Austen was one of our greatest living authors.

Yet it is unfair to lampoon Leadsom, who has had both children and a glittering career in investment banking, for such a simple slip of the tongue.

After all, this is a mother whose political party routinely confuses polar opposite concepts. The Tories have misidentified weakness as strength, instability as stability, uncertainty as certainty.

These walking contradictions and doublespeak merchants have in recent years convinced themselves that Theresa May is capable of effective leadership, that Brexit can be a success, and that Liam Fox deserves a senior ministerial position rather than to be hunted down using pitchforks, shackled into stocks in the village square and pelted with rotten turnips before being harnessed to a hayrick and made to tow it to market with a pack of feral dogs biting at his unshod heels.

Even Leadsom’s own surname seems mistaken: lead some what? Some sort of badly-organised church hall jumble sale for a charity that later turns out to be a front for offshore money laundering? Her incompetence so obviously exceeds even that of the current incumbent that the faintest whisper of Leadsom as a possible future party leader sends black clouds of dread billowing across the soul.

Little wonder, then, that Leadsom struggled momentarily to differentiate between being alive and having been dead for 200 years. For zombies, such distinctions are not clear cut.

Far more important than her minor mouth mishap was what Leadsom said next: “I think many of us probably wish she were still living.”

Now here is a sentiment with which no right thinking person could disagree. If only Austen could have been kept alive!

What better to reassure us, at this time of turmoil, than a living connection to Britain’s golden literary past, whose twilight glow still glimmers in our rose-tinted rear-view mirrors.

What a comfort it would be to come face to face with the esteemed author, and find her still registering vital signs at the astonishing age of 242 years. People would queue around the block for an opportunity to see the decaying flaps of her ancient skin, to stare into her blind rotted eye sockets, to hear the rasping of her artificially ventilated breath. They would watch entranced as a skeletal hand creaks outwards, pen trembling, wasted muscles replaced by electric motors, to autograph a barely legible ‘JA’ in the front page of a crisp new paperback of Pride and Prejudice.

At such a ripe vintage, no-one would expect Austen to be capable of producing new fiction. If she did, it would probably be a disappointment, like when Harper Lee finally followed up To Kill A Mockingbird, or when Morrissey did that book that everyone hated apart from Terry Eagleton. What we want from our centuries-old literary giants is not fresh copy but repeated affirmation of their greatest hits – a more modest goal, and surely achievable within our lifetimes by cutting edge medicine.

I therefore hope that Leadsom, who has said that men should not be employed in childcare because they are potential paedophiles, will now act decisively to support research into maintaining the life of noted writers far beyond the usual span of human days.

It may prove too late for Austen, whose buried dust is probably past the point of reanimation. But what about sustaining our current literary talents into the future?

Imagine our descendants 200 years hence: the hardened survivors of desertification and sea level rise, scraping by on the last remaining pockets of habitable land. If only they were able to ask a still-living JK Rowling why Harry and Hermione never got together, it might lift their weary spirits enough to carry on in the face of an ecocatastrophe accelerated by the author’s own generation. (Austen would surely have enjoyed this irony, if she were still alive; but she isn’t, and probably still won’t be in 200 years.)

Two centuries of hindsight would make for fascinating, if heated, discussions about the planetary apocalypse with environmentalist writers such as James Lovelock, his disheveled, barely-recognisable husk of a body pumped full of stem cells and tubes.

At the weekends, exhausted from days spent scouring for fragments of viable food or huddled in tunnels to escape a nuclear winter, our dwindling species might find welcome distraction in a meet-the-author with E.L. James’s nervous system preserved in a chamber of crackling plasma.

These undead authors will be hooked up to computers, enabling them to speak like Stephen Hawking, their vocal chords having long since disintegrated. The only exception will be Stephen Hawking, who will have reprogrammed his software to emulate the voice of Jane Austen.

Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, but with Leadsom we can dare to dream of a world in which authors don’t die, they just lose the capacity to exist independently of medical hardware. As a mother, Leadsom may be unable lend her time to furthering this worthy cause, but as a Tory MP and former investment banker who managed tens of thousands of multi-billion pound accounts, she would be well placed to help raise the required funds.

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