The Stephen J Cannell pipedream

When I was twelve my favourite programme on TV was The A-Team. Each episode provided a cocktail of fabulous characters, buddy-movie banter and inanely inconsequential violence.

The A-team was made by Stephen J Cannell Productions. The production logo which played at the end of each episode showed Stephen J Cannell sitting in his office bashing away at an ancient typewriter, then seizing the page and flinging it high into the air. The folio twisted and turned in the air before landing neatly on a stack of other papers, where it curled to form a letter C. Perfect.

When I visit schools, I am often asked what inspired me to become a writer. I think my first inspiration was Stephen J Cannell. I always watched the A-Team credits to the very end because I wanted to see my namesake fling that folio.

The video above shows the evolution of the Cannell production logo through the decades. In the early days, Cannell is shown puffing Hemingwayesque on his pipe as he finishes his masterpiece. Somewhere in the nineteen eighties, the pipe disappears and the office walls are bedecked with certificates and awards — a fine advertisement for kicking the habit.

Somewhere in the nineties, Cannell gets cocky. He chuckles to himself as he writes that final scene, and his fingers dive down onto the typewriter keys from ever loftier heights. I can’t blame him for that. When I know I am writing the final scene of a novel I find myself doing that weird high-typing thing, too. My right thumb bounces off the spacebar and into orbit. My little finger hits Return with such a flourish that both hands startle into claws. Oh dear, I’m doing it now, just thinking about it.

There have been many parodies of the famous Stephen J Cannell logo. As ever, the best parody is the Simpsons one: Itchy and Scratchy Productions! Note Bart and Lisa’s satisfied sigh after watching the logo.

I recognize that sigh, because it’s the sigh of my twelve year old self. All right, my thirty-nine year old self, as well. It’s a sigh that yearns to be Hannibal or Hemingway or both. A sigh that longs for an office, a typewriter, a pipe, a row of trophies and a single crisp sheet of paper twisting and turning in mid air.

How to Spend a Week’s Wages on a Book

If you read my blog you know that I love Africa. But I will say this: the books there are a bit pricey. In Burkina Faso where I lived, an average new novel (when you can find one at all) has a cover price of 11,000 francs. It sounds like a lot, and it is. For most people in Burkina Faso, 11,000 francs is more than a week’s wages.

That’s right. A week’s wages for a book.

Think of it in UK terms. Minimum wage, £6.50. A week’s wages, £273. Can you imagine spending £273 on one book?

We are fortunate to live in a place where we have access to bookshops, school libraries and public libraries, Kindles and Nooks. We are blessed that we can buy and borrow books without spending a fortune on them.

If you want to spend a fortune on a single book, the place to go is of course Ebay. As you know, there are some very optimistic sellers on ebay. At the time of writing:

  • £273.41 can buy you all 4 volumes of Moral Theology, published in 1713
  • £273.97 gets you a Handbook of Herbs and Spices, published in 2001
  • £273.33 buys you a used copy of Ray Mears’ World Of Survival
  • £271.99 would buy you The Accountants Bad Joke book OR Lumbosacral and Pelvic Procedures

Most of the ludicrously expensive books on Ebay are non-fiction, but I did spot a novel, too. Robert Harris’s thriller The Ghost is currently available at a Buy it Now price of £271.82. The seller of this used book is called Fortune International Ltd (not kidding) and in the smallprint they say: ‘Our company is dedicated to providing you with the best quality, lowest cost products on eBay.’

You can spend a week’s wages on a book if you want to, but thank goodness you don’t have to. We have affordable books all around us. All we have to do is read them.

Reading makes better readers but not better humans

The wonderful Michael Kevane (of Friends of African Village Libraries fame) has recently produced a short video (below) about his time as a Fulbright Scholar in Burkina Faso.

He wanted to discover whether reading fiction affects the economic preferences of individuals. By ‘economic preferences’ he means trust, contribution to public good, risk-taking and patience.

The resulting research paper makes for fascinating reading. It concludes:

Much as advocates of reading fiction would like to believe that reading transforms lives, deepens empathy, and develops better intuitions about the interior lives of others, the reality is more likely to be that effects are small or short-lived.

Or, as he phrases it in the video:

Reading makes better readers but not necessarily better humans.

As an author of books for young adults, it would be lovely to think that my ilk are saving the world. And no doubt Michael, as a champion of African village libraries, would have been pleased if his research had uncovered a clear link between reading and development. Alas, this is not the case. Reading provides relaxation, enjoyment and solace, but that’s pretty much all.