John Bird: Helping people requires some detective work

Georges Simenon hit upon a way of writing stories that enlightened thinking with his Maigret series. He found that sometimes a problem cannot necessarily be tackled as a problem until it is understood

In the early 1990s I would trawl through second-hand bookshops looking for the green and distinctive covers of Penguin crime books. I was after the works of Georges Simenon, who had invented the detective Jules Maigret in the early 1930s. I could, in some obscure junk shop pick them up for 30p each, at times never paying more than 50p.

Then I would try Charing Cross Road in London’s very centre, and the centre of the city’s second-hand bookshop trade. To my dismay you’d have to pay up to a few quid a copy. And pay I did because I had individually, with the aid of no degree in analysing Simenon’s work, picked up my own take on this sleuth.

I discovered things that later I found out to be true. That what Simenon’s detective was fascinated with was people. And how they came to do what they did. This was not the usual struggle to ascertain justice. This was an investigation into thinking itself. Into rational and irrational thought.

At the time I was struggling under a mighty self-imposed weight. We had started The Big Issue a few years before and we were spreading all over the world. But the work we were doing was to do with the emergency of homelessness, when the people we met were riven with problems. They had often been abused, adding self-abuse to the reasons why they were down and out.

Georges Simenon
Georges-Simenon-1
George Simenon’s most famous creation Maigret was not your stereotypical sleuth

We acted like an A&E department. We were mopping up problems that were the failings of government, problems often caused by inept government programmes.

There was great satisfaction knowing that “a hand up not a hand out” was helping people to improve their lives and win them some sense of their own involvement in their own lives. They were not simply the recipients of help but able to grow personally. You would meet defeated people one month and a few months later you would meet sellers, marketers, confident and assured. They had their own money got by their own efforts. And it made many of them feel proud.

Sometimes a problem cannot necessarily be tackled as a problem. Its history, where it came from, how it happened, why it happened has to be understood

But I knew that what was really going on though was we were responding to need in this A&E way. We were doing nothing to prevent people ending up where they needed our help.

Prevention became a passion of mine. I kept asking why was it that we had a supposed socially supporting system that had so many holes in it that there was a danger we would be overwhelmed by the failings.

I needed to think counter-intuitively. I needed examples where people thought counter-intuitively. And that’s where I met Maigret. And found that reading him made me think around problems, and through them. He informed my thinking. He aided and abetted me in seeing problems as composites. And that A didn’t always equal or lead to B.

How do you sharpen your thinking? You read. But what if what you read is little more than to pass the time away? An entertainment.

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Maigret described the world around a person in such a way that you realised that the description may well not take you towards solving the crime because the crime in some ways was not an essential part of the story. That the people were.

Georges Simenon had hit upon a way of writing stories that enlightened thinking and I was trying to think, but knowing I really did not know how to think. I was responding to crises but not breaking out of the day-to-day nature of crisis. I was not developing the thinking that was necessary to take the argument about poverty to the next level. I was held back by education and understanding.

Last week I had dinner with John Simenon, the son of Georges Simenon. Penguin have been publishing new translations of Maigret stories once a month for a few years and will continue into 2020; yes, there are that amount of them. The first came out in 1931 and the last in 1972.

I wanted to share with him that I had moved my thinking on, because of the work of his father. That sometimes a problem cannot necessarily be tackled as a problem. Its history, where it came from, how it happened, why it happened has to be understood.

Penguin has rescued what seemed to me to be a decline into obscurity by a detective writer who was writing about the bigger conditions of human life; especially among the poor, the troubled, the injured.

Maigret himself is not uninjured. There is the question that hangs over the stories of his relationship to his wife. Where are the children? Even though you know that they want them. A man who gives his life to allowing people to grow out of their difficulties gets very little recompense. He is a public servant and he has to deal with the vagaries of political and state power, not always knowing what to do next.

John Simenon keeps his father’s work alive through film, the translations and through promoting and proselytising.  He has his father’s eyes, and what seemingly looked like a pair of his glasses. He keeps the wonder of an artist who probably knew more about life and its prejudices and its incites than any other I know.

It’s good to be found in such company.

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