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Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: Book launch of the century

Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman: Book launch of the century

Amongst the many midnight openings last night, Waterstones Piccadilly organised a Harper Lee-themed evening of entertainment as customers awaited the unveiling of copies of Go Set a Watchman, the eagerly anticipated first draft/sequel to the author’s beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

There were Southern-themed cocktails and food and a screening of Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film adaptation of Lee’s novel, complete with plenty of popcorn, but the evening began with two panel discussions.

While the writers on the first each considered their relationship with Mockingbird, it was actually the second panel that offered the most interesting insights into the astonishing legacy of Lee’s work, as Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty and “recovering” lawyer (her words), and MP Diane Abbott discussed their experiences of reading Mockingbird, and what it taught each of them about justice and fairness.

Go Set a WatchmanImage: Charlie Wells/The Wall Street Journal

In light of the news that in his old age Atticus Finch has become a belligerent bigot, a revelation that has caused little short of public outcry, Abbott spoke in the lawyer’s defence, explaining that sometimes even people who do the right thing can be swayed by the more widely-held opinions of the larger society around them; a view that’s also suggested in the novel itself. “Have you ever considered that men, especially men, must conform to certain demands of the community they live in simply so they can be of service to it?” asks the now 26-year-old Jean Louise’s uncle of his niece in response to her railing against the racism her once illustrious father is now espousing.

Yes, Watchman asks some important but uncomfortable questions about white Southern identity during the early years of the civil rights movement, the sad thing though is that these weren’t merely relevant to the social and political landscape during which Lee was writing and the novel is set, they’re still just as applicable today. As Abbott was astute enough to point out, when it comes to race relations in the US, on the one hand we’ve come a long way since the 1950s depicted in the new book – no more segregation, equal rights for all, even a black president – but also no way at all. She cited a litany of racially motivated violence that has plagued the country over the last 18 months, including the recent Charleston church massacre, as evidence for the latter.

Go Set a WatchmanImage: The Mirror

As much as I’m a strong advocate for discussions of a novel’s literary merit – associated, of course, but ultimately another conversation in its entirety when it comes to Watchman – it’s impressive that the publication of this novel has the potential to inspire such heated and heartfelt dialogues about social and political issues. As Chakrabarti took pains to point out, civil rights are human rights and vice versa, you simply can’t have one without the other. As the discussion drew to a close, an audience member asked whether the women on the panel thought that when it came to affecting real social change, what was more effective, actions like the burning of a flag or the banning of a book, or the official passing of government legislature. Both acknowledged the significance of the latter, but agreed that it often takes the former for this to even be considered. The very fact that we were all in attendance discussing these issues was because Lee wrote a book, Mockingbird, that deeply affected us, Chakrabarti clarified, adding that wasn’t it wonderful that a place like a bookshop had become an arena for such impassioned debate.

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