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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘literature’

Cultural Appropriation

On stories set firmly in a particular place

There are quite a few ideas for blog posts lining up on my pinboard at the moment, and most of them are the sort that require work to write: long, in-depth pieces that need some sort of study or concentration. With the state of things right now, both in the world outside, here at home, and in the office, the space for that level of study and concentration has been a bit hard to come by. However, there’s one thing that has been in my head, on and off, for years, and it’s been sitting in my head for so long that it’s about time I tried to put it into words. It’s about a book which (unlike these) I have read, a much-loved book, one I love myself, in fact, at least at some level. It’s a classic of 1960s YA fiction, particularly in Britain. The Owl Service, by Alan Garner.

If you haven’t read it: it’s a retelling of one of the most famous stories of Welsh mythology, the story of Blodeuwedd, an episode in Math fab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I realise, typing that out, that if you’re not already a fan of Welsh mythology all those words in the previous sentence might be so much noise to you. The Mabinogi is a collection of four linked stories, written down in the Middle Ages but presumably somewhat older, which survived in two known manuscript copies;* in the 19th century they were translated into English by the aristocratic philologist Charlotte Guest. Math son of Mathonwy starts with a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed started by a magical pig-theft as a grand distraction from a rather more sordid plan, and traces the threads that follow on from that plan and the destruction and havoc that follows as a result. If it can be said to have a single theme, it’s probably that magic always makes things worse. Blodeuwedd is a woman conjured from flowers to provide a wife for the cursed hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes; she is not particularly a fan of the idea herself, and goes off with another man instead. I won’t tell you the whole story here, but you can probably gather that it isn’t going to end well.

One reason I’m not going to retell the whole story here is that if you haven’t read The Owl Service then you should do; as I’ve said, it’s a modern retelling, bringing the story forward to 1960s Wales and turning it into a triangular relationship between three teenagers: an English girl who has inherited a Welsh country house, her step-brother, and the Welsh son of their housekeeper. The country house is located in an oppressive, narrow valley and the house seems haunted by sounds: motorbikes powering along the road up-valley, and invisible vermin scratching in the roof. As the book progresses there are dark family secrets, mysterious paintings, ghostly reflections, and of course the crockery set of the title. As stories go it is short but dense: there is a lot of information packed into its pages. Garner is very good at offhand description whose significance is not signalled, letting you make the connections yourself later. In the telly adaptation, made by Granada shortly after publication, quite a bit of further exposition had to be added, notably a “story so far” narration at the start of each episode which sometimes describes explicitly events which weren’t really explained or shown at the point they happened.

I must have first read The Owl Service when I was in my early teens, and I know that when I first read it I was already aware that it was an Important Book. I knew this because most children’s novels I recall reading included a few pages of blurb for other novels at the back of the book, and I’d read the blurb for The Owl Service several times in this way before eventually getting a copy of it.** Certainly, much of it went over my head, but I was taken with its description of 1960s Wales; of the valley, lush and green, that almost disappears when you hike uphill to look down from the surrounding mountains; and the combination of kitchen-sink realism and deep mythology, of the idea that all myths did happen, somewhere, in the real world, and that their ghosts still haunt those places. That, though—I came to realise many years later—is where the problem is.

Nowadays I have two translations of the Mabinogi on my bookshelf, although I carefully keep them apart so that we avoid a critical mass of mythology in one place (or more likely, questions on why exactly I need two different translations). If you pick either of them up, and turn to Math fab Mathonwy, you’ll see the story tells you exactly where everything happened. I said earlier there was a war between Gwynedd and Dyfed: it ended when King Pryderi of Dyfed was killed and buried near Maentwrog, just off the A496. The other man that Blodeuwedd went off with was from around Bala; and the key events in the Blodeuwedd story all occurred close to the Afon Cynfal, one of the rivers that flows down into the Vale of Ffestiniog. I know the area well.

What makes me uncomfortable about The Owl Service is that it’s not set there. It’s not set in some generic imaginary fictional Welsh valley that only exists in Garner’s (and his reader’s) imaginations, either. It’s inspired by a specific place that Garner had visited, Llanymawddwy on the upper Dyfi. If you read the book alongside the Ordnance Survey map of the area, you can track a lot of the walks that the characters take in the book. Garner describes, for example, the walk up to the Ravenstone on the county boundary; and there it is on the map, Carreg y Frân. This is a real place, a real village. But in Garner’s retelling, this is the place the story of Blodeuwedd originally happened, and keeps happening, reoccurring in every generation; when the myth itself is anchored in another real place, an entirely different stretch of the countryside.

The hills above Llanymawddwy

Is this cultural appropriation? I’m really not sure; in any case, that’s hardly a well-defined term. Garner certainly tried to put a lot of effort into trying to make his story both realistic and respectful. He learned Welsh to write The Owl Service, but not for vocabulary or to read the myth in the original; rather, he learned it so that he could make the English speech of his Welsh-speaking characters follow Welsh syntax, because he felt that this would be a more respectful way to make them sound Welsh than the superficial technique of dropping random Welsh vocabulary into their statements. In general this works really well, with just one spot where he shows off his erudition to the reader in a slightly clunky way. The feeling I am left with, though, is that he did just come along to Wales and immediately feel as if he had found some deep, spiritual, mythological meaning to the landscape that wasn’t actually there, a meaning that was his own romanticised interpretation of that landscape as filtered through one of the most famous of all the Welsh myths. In a sense this is no different to if he’d travelled half way around the world and felt he had discovered something deep and exciting and mystical there; the only difference is that he’d only travelled a hundred miles or so over the border from Cheshire. The village and the valley in The Owl Service are haunted by the sound of motorbikes, because the road through Llanymawddwy leads to Bwlch y Groes, a steep, high pass that has for many years been well-known in the biking world. I have no doubt the reason motorbikes are important in the plot of The Owl Service is that Garner, visiting Llanymawddwy and exploring the valley, will have frequently seen and heard bikers driving through the village and up the valley towards the pass; will have sat up at Carreg y Frân and heard them roaring in the distance.

Am I the right person to point this out? I’m not Welsh either, after all, and although I’ve spent a lot of time there for one reason and another, I’ve never lived there. I don’t speak the language beyond a few simple phrases like “mae hi’n bwrw glaw” or “dw i wedi yfed cwrw gormod”, although I probably speak no less than most people who live in Wales do. As an English person living in England, are my own attempts to learn Welsh and read Welsh mythology just as appropriative as Garner? Some would probably say so. As someone who spends a fair amount of time in Wales—albeit not as much as I did a few years ago when I commuted over the border every day—it feels like the right thing to do.

The Owl Service is still a fantastic book, despite its flaws, and despite the niggling impression I have that it represents one Englishman’s superficial interpretation of a myth more than it represents the myth itself. In some ways I suspect my biggest disappointment is, as always, that the Good is the enemy of the Perfect. The Owl Service is so embedded in the imagination as the reimagining of the Blodeuwedd story, it seems difficult to believe that any other, potentially better, potentially more Welsh reimagining of it would ever take its place in th canon. Am I just being too much of a perfectionist critic? Maybe so. And the story of Blodeuwedd still exists, and is never going to disappear.

* The bound manuscripts are known as the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch. This naming pattern clearly chimed with JRR Tolkien, as in his fantasy mythology, The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings were the translations of a set of manuscripts known as the Red Book of Westmarch.

** Incidentally there are still a few classic children’s and YA novels that I only know in this way, from the blurbs in the back of other novels. The Silver Sword is one that springs to mind; or Smith by Leon Garfield.

The Writer's Voice

In which FP reads, and learns more about writing as a result

Writing this post from the other week, with its long rant about the poor quality of the worldbuilding in BBC3’s Being Human, has made me think more in general about the quality of writing, and the quality of my own writing. After all, am I in a position to excoriate other people’s ability to write and worldbuild, when I don’t exactly have much to demonstrate on my own behalf there?

It set my brain off on a tangent, though. Not so much about worldbuilding, but about the authorial voice. Because that’s something I used to worry about, years back: I would never be any good at writing because I didn’t have my own voice. If you read any of my prose, there would be nothing at all distinctive about it. Whether that was true back then, back when I used to worry about such things, I don’t know, and I have no real desire to go back and read anything that old. It probably isn’t true any more, though. Certainly, one of the things K likes about my blog posts is that, she says, in my writing I sound just as I do when I speak.

I’ve been a reader since I was small: I’ve been able to read since before memory, since before virtually all of my memories, so I have no conception of what it feels like to see words and not understand them. Ever since I started reading for myself, though, I’ve been a silent reader, a very quick reader, and I also tend to be a very poor reader. Because I’m a quick reader I skim too much. I miss things. I miss things out, have to go back, don’t notice Important Plot Points and don’t take in any of the craft involved in the work. However, I think I’ve found a solution to this. I’ve started reading things aloud, and it has turned around the way I look at writing.

What started all this was: I’d just started reading a book I’ve had sitting around unread for a couple of years almost, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.* Only on the second or third chapter, we had to take a plane journey, and K didn’t have anything interesting herself to read. “Read to me?” she asked. So, since, I’ve been reading a passage of Wolf Hall to her in bed every evening. It’s been a couple of months now; reading aloud is much slower than reading silently, and we’re not awake enough for a chapter** every single night. In doing it, I’ve learned a lot about syntax, prosody, and prosody’s representation. Hilary Mantel has been one of my favourite novelists for many years now,*** and Wolf Hall, award-winning and all, is very readable, but it’s not always the easiest novel to read aloud. Its long sentences are just slightly too long for comfort in the voice: lists of things, and there are many lists of things, always have one term too many to easily read aloud. Her authorial voice is very readable, very concise and very accessible, but her sentences are sometimes a little too long to know automatically where the stresses are intended to fall. Which isn’t to deny that it is, absolutely, an excellent novel; it just isn’t perfect for me to read aloud, at least not without a rehearsal.

Wolf Hall‘s sequel will be coming out before too long, and no doubt will be something I will read to K at some point. In the meantime, we are assembling a list of books to be read: The Third Policeman after last week’s opera;**** some Peter Ackroyd, such as Dan Leno And The Limehouse Golem; maybe Lanark, although that will be a mammoth adventure. In the meantime, I am taking a lot from reading aloud. It makes me confident that I do have a voice when I write, a voice I can manipulate if I want to. It makes me confident, too, that I have a readable voice, a voice that might be publishable. Most importantly, it has helped an awful lot to reconnect the craft of writing with the act of reading. The two, obviously, are very closely linked; but I think I’d forgotten just how closely linked they are. I think I’d forgotten to write for the reader.

* I can tell you where I started reading it, too: waiting for a train in Frankfurt an der Oder.

** Strictly speaking, it would be very hard to read a chapter every night, because Wolf Hall has very uneven chapter lengths. Some are getting on for a hundred pages of the book; others are no more than two or three.

*** At root, her earlier historical novel about the lives of Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins is one of the things to blame for the time I got myself on the telly the other year.

**** Tricky, with all its footnotes.

Is it about a bicycle?

In which I hasve been to see an operatic adaptation of that classic 20th century Irish novel The Third Policeman, so write a review filled with in-jokes

Thursday night: to the Cube Cinema. Not for a film, but for an opera: The Third Policeman, adapted and produced by a chap called Ergo Phizmiz. Having read the novel, I was intrigued as to how a stage adaptation would work: of all the books I have read, it is…

The Plain People Of The Internet: By, there’s no footnotes yet. What are you doing there getting forty words or more into a blog post already and not writing any footnotes?

I was wondering when you people might turn up. Somehow, I thought you might. The footnotes were something I was wondering about, because they do rather alter the structure and format of the novel.* How would they be presented, in operatic form?

The Plain People of the Internet: So did they put signs up on the stage then? Cards with the footnote text on? Or a simultaneous narration chap type of thing?

Well, no. The works of de Selby*** were integrated into the main part of the libretto. But now, you’re getting me ahead of myself. I meant to say how faithful an adaptation it was, but you people there have led me down the line of criticism much quicker than I had intended. Everything is getting turned and turned about, and we’re getting to the wrong parts of the review first. Which is ironic, really. The Third Policeman is sometimes said to be a classic surrealist novel, or a classic postmodernist novel, but at heart it really has a quite straightforward start-to-finish plot. No fiddling around with flashbacks or more complicated temporal structures: it starts at the start, ends at the end, and gets there directly.**** Nice and straightforward to translate into a stage production, so long as you manage to replicate the mood. The mood, indeed, is the important thing.

The Plain People of the Internet: The key to the whole lock, stock and breadbasket!

Indeed, if you want to put it that way. There have been innumerable…

The Plain People of the Internet: We counted them.

You don’t know what I’m going to say!

The Plain People of the Internet: Ah, but we counted them. Five hundred and twenty-seven.

Don’t be silly. Nobody has counted them, and there aren’t five hundred and twenty seven. There have been innumerable…

The Plain People of the Internet: Well then, how would you know?

Shush now. There have been innumerable dream…

The Plain People of the Internet: Fünfhundert, sieben und zwanzig.

…dream sequences committed to literature, but none of them, to my ears, quite ring true. The Third Policeman is the only book I have read that does have the feel of a real, genuine dream. It has dream logic, hallucinatory dream logic, buildings with impossible perspectives or images that are two contradictory things simultaneously.***** It has dream-logic in the plot: the mechanics of Eternity or the machinations of the eponymous Policeman Fox.** And this is something that came across very well in the opera. The combination of live actors, Phizmiz’s music, projected video, shadow-puppetry and all, had a wonderfully dreamlike atmosphere to it, wonderful at capturing the tone of the book itself, both surreal and slightly frightening. Moreover, clearly the company had some finely-honed stagecraft skills: the projected video seemed to be a single stream, and the music was essentially continuous, so there was no space at all for the cast to miss any marks, whether acting on their own, as a group, or with partly-prerecorded dialogue. With several costume changes for two of the three actors, things offstage must have been hectic.

I would go back and see The Third Policeman again, but Thursday’s performance was the last one in Bristol. If you’d like to see it yourself, then it is coming up in the next few weeks in Rotterdam, Dartington and Bridport, according to Mr Phizmiz’s website. If you’re going to be around any of those places, I’d recommend it. Having read the novel, I was intrigued as to how a stage adaptation would work: of all the books I have read, it is…

The Plain People of the Internet: By, there it is: if you saw us coming, then we’re sure we saw that. And you never even told us: Is it about a bicycle?

* Someone once said, about this site, that the profusion of footnotes meant I wasn’t a very good writer. I see their point,****** but disagree. A heavily-footnoted work such as The Third Policeman is possibly as close as you can come to a hypertext narrative in book form, and reading it leads to one skipping up and down and flipping between two separate trains of thought, main text and footnote, as one goes. Rather, in other words, like browsing the Web with a dozen tabs all open at once, flipping to another whilst one waits for the first to load.

** Or, at least, the dreams I have have that sort of plot. Maybe not everyone’s dreams are the same.

*** A most distinguished and unique philosopher who is generally only to be found within the pages of O’Brien’s work.

**** It’s certainly not a postmodern novel when compared with Lanark, one of my favourite novels; although it did influence Lanark greatly — or apparently, at least. It says as much in the pages of Lanark, in a section where the book’s author lists all his various sources and inspirations, including some sources and inspirations which allegedly inspired passages which, if you look them up, don’t exist anywhere else in the novel. Now that’s postmodernism.

***** One of these — a cracked ceiling that is at the same time both just a pattern of cracks in plaster and a detailed map of the local area — was one of the few things in the book that didn’t seem to get mentioned at all in the opera.

The Plain People of the Footnote Internet: No Plain People either, but to be fair Mr O’Brien kept them to badger in his newspapery work. Now, here’s a thing. You know those horror films where your man thinks it’s all a dream, but then he wakes up and the evil axe-wiggler nightmare is still around and about the place? Is this the same here? You, reading or writing on the outside of that screen there, thought that you had escaped into a footnote and had gotten yourself away from us, only for Plain People to jump in and interrupt your footnotes too? And does that mean we are about to tap you yourself there on your shoulder?

****** ie, that I can’t edit properly.

Adaptation

In which we discuss the Scott Pilgrim movie, one case of a comic-to-film adaptation that keeps all the spirit of the comic it came from.

Back, back in the mists of time — well, in December 2007 — I posted a review of Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, the fourth, and at that point, the latest, book in the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O’Malley.

Since then, of course, the world has moved on. In Spring 2009 the fifth book, Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe was published, with shiny metallic cover. We quickly bought it,* and I intended to write about it on here, but somehow other things kept coming along and SP5 never got its review.

Forward to this year, and publicity started to appear for Scott Pilgrim, the movie version. The sixth and final book, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, was published this summer. “I really must write on the blog about this one,” thought I, “before the film comes out.” But it didn’t happen. So, last weekend, we went to see the film, not sure if we would love it or hate it.

Quick recap for people who have never heard of Scott Pilgrim, never seen it, never read the books: Scott Pilgrim is a 20-something slacker geek with no job, in a rather bad band, who starts dreaming about a mysterious girl. She turns out to be a real girl, a delivery courier called Ramona who knows the secret of using people’s dreams as shortcuts between places in the real world. Scott immediately falls in love, but quickly discovers that her emotional baggage is somewhat more real than most people’s, as she has a whole league of Evil Exes she’s dated in the past, who Scott must defeat in video-game-style fights before he can win her heart. Now, read on…

Adaptations often get a bad press. What works well in one medium, after all, doesn’t always translate; but if an adaptation’s not faithful, it can end up pleasing nobody. Scott Pilgrim vs The World, though, is one of the most faithful adaptations I’ve ever seen, despite the fact it has to cut six books’ worth of action down into one single film. From the moment it started, with the same fonts onscreen as in the book, it was, I think, as close to the comic as any live-action adaptation could get. Lots had to be cut out, of course – the books are set over the course of a year, the film over a few weeks at most – and due to release schedules the last act is radically different to the final book; but, overall, the spirit of the books is captured extremely well. Some subplots were pruned entirely; some of the backstory was moved to an animated short; and some of the characters’ emotional lives are simplified or made less explicit; none of it feels missing from the film, though. Moreover, the film uses a lot of the books’ stylistic quirks. Just like in the books, each new character gets a little black caption explaining who they are and what they’re up to. Just like the books, the film is full of cunning references and semi-hidden jokes. The film does a very good job, like the books, of portraying a realistic world in which, nevertheless, video-game events can happen.

There are a couple of places where you could argue that the film’s better than the books: in plot terms, there are two places where the story is told in a slightly better way.** In general, though, I still prefer the books: a much fuller story, because there’s more space to tell it in. At some point, I should write an essay about the ending of the series, and what I think it says about life; that’s not for today, but it says something that the books can inspire me to consider something like that.

Some reviews of Scott Pilgrim vs The World have said that it’s “too hyperactive”. It is, definitely, a fast-moving film: that’s what you get when you compress that much shelf-space into one movie. Philip French, in the Observer, complained that at 1 hour 52 it’s “overlong” – maybe that was the effect of the various fight scenes, which do come close together. Myself, I found it both witty and touching; but I did worry that a newcomer, someone who’s never read the books, would have no clue what was going on at all.

In general, for both me and K, it’s the case that we can’t watch films too often. Once we’ve seen something, even a film we both love, it has to sit on the shelf for a few months before we can happily watch it again. As we walked out of the cinema after seeing Scott Pilgrim vs The World, almost the first thing we did was: work out when we have some time free to go back and watch it again. If that isn’t a recommendation, I’m not sure what is.

* Coincidentally, the day I bought it was also the day I auditioned to go on Mastermind – I stopped off at Forbidden Planet on the way home.

** Spoilers: the defeat of Todd, the third Evil Ex is directly caused by Scott in the film; in the book, it’s a bit of a deus ex machina. It’s set up earlier, so not a complete bolt from the blue, but Scott doesn’t really have much involvement with it. Secondly, the treatment of Scott’s extra life is handled better in the film, in that he has to “replay” the previous few scenes a second time, but knows how to handle them better; in the book he returns to consciousness straight after the dream/afterlife sequence with Ramona. You can, of course, find examples of video games that work in either way, but I preferred the film version.

Books I Haven't Read (part the tenth, maybe)

In which we criticise a Great Writer, at least by volume

With such a big pile of books each for Christmas, there was bound to be something that I wouldn’t be able to make it through. The ironic thing, though, is that this Book I Haven’t Read is probably, in one sense, the easiest read on the pile. Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett.

Back when I was a teenager, I read an awful lot of Pratchett. I must have read every Discworld book at some point by now, and I’ve got copies still of most. The Parents, being unusually observant, picked up on this: and at some stage they started buying me a copy of his latest book every Christmas. As he’s kept on producing books, this kept on happening.

Now, at one time, I did enjoy Pratchett’s books. Back when I was a teenager. He’d published about ten, fifteen or so; so there were plenty to get through without it seeming too daunting. Moreover, he hadn’t run out of ideas, and the Discworld series hadn’t started to reach critical mass. Back then, Pratchett didn’t worry too much about making his world consistant, and presumably his readers didn’t worry about it too much either.

It’s something to do with that sort of fan, though, the sort that tends to be a fan of Pratchett, that they crave consistancy and reliability. They want the world to be as solidly-built as our own, even when the fraying at the edges is fairly obvious; even when its development over time is extremely obvious.* Even if the author doesn’t worry about tying up loose edges and gluing bits of geography together, assiduous and energetic readers will start doing it for him. And they did. A lot of effort started to be put into making the whole thing “make sense” in some way, to the extent that Pratchett ended up writing entire books apparently just to make incoherency a coherent part of his universe.** That should, really, be the point where you realise that a good idea’s been taken too far.***

All of that, though, is by-the-by compared to why I didn’t manage to read this specific book. I gave up on Unseen Academicals because, well, it generally isn’t very good. It’s not a book that gave me any sort of urge to keep reading at all. The characters are rather flat and lifeless, and the Deliberate Air Of Mystery surrounding the Mysterious Characters seems, well, all too deliberate, as if someone had written it all according to the How To Write A Discworld Novel manual. If I was a fan, I might have managed to finish it. Not being, I didn’t.

All novels, as you know, like to have review quotes in their blurb. For writers starting out, it may well be from a better-known writer who has taken a shine to this novel. For better-known writers, it will be an impressive quote from a review in a Top Newspaper. You can tell a writer who’s gone too far, though. They have what Unseen Academicals has: a quote from the writer themselves, about how great their own book is.**** It’s not a good sign, when you think you’re your own biggest fan.

* Note for non-Discworld readers: the Discworld started off as a parody of swords-and-sorcery fantasy. With the sixth book it started to expand to cover parodies of other literature, and by now has covered just about every aspect of Real Life of the past 200 years or so. As a result, it’s not actually a “fantasy” world any more, apart from magic used for comedic effect.

** Well, at least one. I’ve read it, and it does read like it’s largely filler./p>

*** And, yes, I know I complain about consistancy in Doctor Who. But the annoyance there is more the selective consistancy; the have-your-cake-and-eat-it grab-stuff-from-anywhere approach that Russell T Davies tended to take with the programme’s backstory.

**** Douglas Adams, I have to admit, did manage to get away with this once, by not sounding serious about it.

Subtlety

In which something is hard to understand

Both K and I now have big stacks of books we collected over Christmas. As there are some books I had last Christmas that I haven’t read, yet, there’s plenty now to keep us both going for a few months.

As mentioned the other day, one of the books I received this year was Gödel, Escher, Bach, by Douglas R Hofstadter. I asked for it specifically, but in doing so, I was already aware that it may well end up on the “Books I Haven’t Read” review list. Because, after all, its reputation precedes it. It’s a long book, a complex book, and it deals with some complex and subtle ideas.

Luckily, though, it’s also a very readable book. With its detours and its playfulness, it reads almost like a more complex, grown-up version of a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series. It’s definitely not going onto the Books I Haven’t Read pile, because I’ve almost finished the whole thing. However, I might have to start a new pile specially for it: the Books I Don’t Think I’ve Properly Understood pile. Many of its arguments are rather gentle and subtle, others are brutally subtle, and others I admit to having to skim over. This may well, according to some of its arguments, prove that I am indeed conscious and intelligent. Either that, or I’m slightly tortoise-like in my thinking. I’m not, as yet, sure which.

Twenty percent of evil

In which we discuss The Turn Of The Screw Coupling

It being Yuletide, there’s nothing quite like a ghost story. Was it Dickens who started the Christmas ghost story tradition, or is it more down to BBC schedulers of the 1970s? Never mind. It being Yuletide, we sat down in front of the telly to watch the latest BBC version of The Turn Of The Screw, by Henry James. It seems like only the other day that it was last made for the TV; but here it is again.

I should admit, I’m not particularly a fan of The Turn Of The Screw, the book, thinking it rather dense and over-written, too wordy to be frightening or atmospheric. Partly this might be because I first read it in a less-than-ideal place: while working in a call centre, between calls. Being interrupted every few minutes by the phone chiming puts a slightly different perspective on your comprehension of mysterious horror and pernicious evil. The book itself begins with a properly seasonal framing story, which the new version ignored entirely, ripping the meat of the story out and sandwiching it within an entirely different framing story set some decades later. It’s now a 1920s tale told to some kind of doctor or detective by some sort of inmate – the narrator of the story proper.

I’m not going to delve into the whole thing; a summary is that the governess of two children becomes convinced that two evil ghosts are trying to attract her wards into their own world. These ghosts were evil when they were alive, we are told, are trying to cast the children into their moulds, and seem to be succeeding: one of the children has just been expelled from school for being unspeakably naughty. But while the governess starts to see the ghosts more and more frequently, and is convinced the children can see them too, noone else in the household thinks that anything at all is amiss. Thousands upon thousands of essays, papers and texts have been devoted to the question of: are we meant to think the ghosts are real, or meant to think they are in the narrator’s imagination. Whole critical careers have been staked on one side or the other of this argument.

For TV, though, subtlety is abandoned. The camera shows us: the children, possibly more of the household staff, know that the ghosts are there and have some idea what they are up to. The nature of Ghost One, Peter Quint’s evil, too, is much more explicit: he’s a Bad Man who has his wicked way with all the ladies. Because that’s often not thought so much of a Bad Thing these days, he’s violent to them too. The nature of the boy Miles’s evil is still left vague and mysterious. Peter Quint is trying to bring him up in Peter Quint’s image, so presumably he’s turning violent and misogynistic; but why would that get him expelled from a 1920s public school?* There’s not really a clear answer to that one, which is presumably why the film-makers left it still unexplained. It’s about the only thing that was.

Now, book and film/TV are different media, and it’s unfair to gripe purely about the fact that they are different media. Adaptations can’t be made unchanged, otherwise we’d hardly need the term “adaptation”. Anachronism, though, gets on my nerves a little bit. There were a couple of scenes in which the governess arrived or departed at their local railway station; I’m fairly sure it was filmed at the very scenic Cranmore station, on the East Somerset Railway, not too far from here.** This is the 1920s, so we should have a 1920s train turn up; at Cranmore, of course, that would be a GWR country branch train in the appropriate GWR dark maroon carriage livery.**** What train does the governess step out of? A 1950s British Rail carriage in 1950s chocolate-and-cream. It’s hardly very suitable; it’s just as anachronistic as a big diesel like this would have been. Or, indeed, as if Peter Quint had worn a James Dean jacket and shades. What’s the point of period drama if you don’t bother with a period set?

* we can presume, from his angelic tousled face, that he’s as yet too young to impregnate his house’s maid, which would be a very Peter-Quintish thing to do.

** At the Shepton Mallet end of Cranmore’s platform there’s an incomplete GWR “cash-register” signal, being slowly-but-carefully restored by the East Somerset Railway’s small signal-restoring team. You can see a picture of part of it here; it’s called a cash-register signal because, at the pull of a lever, a choice of signs will pop up from the black box. I’m fairly sure I noticed it pop up*** in the background of the station platform shots in The Turn Of The Screw, along with some platform buildings that looked rather Cranmoreish.

*** The signal itself, not the signs. Like I said, it’s not finished.

**** I forget the term for the colour; but then, most GWR fans tend to forget about it too.

Insult

In which we must have upset someone

I woke up, to find a bright, sunny morning outside. I threw back the front room curtains, and noticed something outside, on the window sill. Someone had left a book there. Curious. I wonder what it might be. Maybe it’s something good.

I looked closer. And then: I saw the author’s name in bright shiny letters. Jeffrey Archer.

What have I done, I wondered? What have I done to annoy the neighbours so much, that someone would leave a Jeffrey Archer book on the window sill? Or was it some random visitor from Weston-super-Mare, maybe? It’s a mystery to me. And, moreover, what should I do with it?

Books I Haven’t Read (I’ve lost count which part)

In which we compare two David Crystal books with the inside of my head

Yesterday’s post, about how we can’t stop ourselves buying books, segues quite nicely into today’s. We didn’t just buy books on Saturday; we bought more on Sunday, from the weekend bookstall outside the Watershed that I remember mentioning not that long ago. I picked up a copy of By Hook Or By Crook by David Crystal; and then, thought to myself, should I really be buying a David Crystal book when I already have a book of his on the shelves that I haven’t yet read? I didn’t pause for long, because “you’ve already got one by him” is hardly a very good reason for not buying a book, but it’s true that the one Crystal book already on our shelves is one that I’ve never been able to get very far with. It is: The Stories Of English.

I find the language fascinating: both in use and in history. It’s such a playful thing, can be twisted and swerved, can be squeezed and stretched, and can be bent into truly awful puns. I love playing with it, I love its richness and I love its history, its constantly fluctuating and mercurial history. And so, I thought – rightly – that The Stories Of English would be an extremely interesting book. Crystal, moreover, is a very engaging and lighthearted writer. He’s very easy to read, very interesting, and clearly knows what he’s writing about very thoroughly.

So why, then, is it that I’ve never managed to get past the Middle English chapters? I’ve tried to read it several times, I’ve always enjoyed the sections I have read immensely, but I’ve never been able to get through Middle English. Every time, my enthusiam’s petered out somewhere in the fourteenth century, I’ve not come back to the book, and its later chapters have remained untouched. And so – given the number of times I’ve made an effort to read it – it definitely counts as a Book I Haven’t Read, even though it’s actually very good.

There’s one thing, only one thing, I can put my finger on. It’s quite a non-linear book. There are excurses and diversions. There are lots of box-outs. This is understandable. All histories can be highly non-linear, and The Stories Of English is deliberately written in a non-linear way, to take account of the parallel histories of different dialects of the language. I’m used to reading non-linear texts, or in a non-linear manner when I’m online and going down a Wikipedia hole, or when I’m researching something: flipping between tabs in my web browser, or shuffling through several open books on my desk, comparing pages and stopping to take notes. Only the other week, for example, I was sitting in the city reference library comparing passages in several books of railway history and taking notes on the development of Great Western Railway Wagon handbrakes. When I sit down to read a book for pleasure, by contrast, I’m not used to doing that. I expect my books to have a beginning, middle and end; a linear structure if not a linear narrative; flipping back and forth, both physically and mentally, needs more concentration. Crystal’s straightforward writing style, in this context, is deceptively easy to read. Especially when you reach the Middle English period, and the stories of English really start to get complex, purely because the amount of evidence available on the history of the language becomes much, much more comprehensive, it needs a lot more mental effort to keep track of things than you might think you’d need when you open the book.

By Hook Or By Crook, by contrast, is structured in a linear way, but one that’s orthagonal to its linguistics. It’s a road-trip book, essentially, with Crystal musing on anything of linguistic interest – or of any interest to him at all – which he comes across on the way. And it’s ideal for me to read, particularly because that’s the way my own brain works. Like him, I’m exactly the sort of person who would do an emergency stop and jump out of my car to photograph a misspelled sign at a level crossing. I’m racing through it, and I’ll probably have read it by the weekend; and I’ll probably read it again and again over the years. Its mode of writing complements my own favourite mode of reading, and my own favourite mode of thinking. It must also help that I know some of the places he writes about: for example, when I first opened the book at a random page I saw a photo of the Boston Lodge toll house apparently taken from a passing train.

The Stories Of English, by comparison, is something I have to concentrate on to get my head around. That, I suspect, is why it’s a Book I Haven’t Read. Yet.

Library

In which we go to the seaside

We should be banned from second-hand bookshops. They’re far too tempting. Even though we have hundreds of books, many many books we’ve never read, we still can’t resist popping into a second-hand bookshop and buying more. It’s not like going in a normal bookshop, where you have a good chance the same books will be on the shelf the following week. If you’re in a town you don’t know, and you visit a second-hand bookshop, there’s a good chance you might come across a book that you’ll never, ever see again anywhere else.

All this is making us sound very middle-aged. A weekend out for us: tea rooms and second-hand bookshops. It makes us sound like fifty-somethings. Oh well.

We’re still trying to find the Ideal Seaside Town, you see. So we went out on Saturday, to a potential one, and found a quiet (but windy) prom, a quiet (but very windy pier), a nice second-hand bookshop and a shortage of tea rooms. We did find more books for our library, though, squeezing into the bookshop. “Sorry about all the boxes everywhere”, said the proprietor. “You can’t get to all of our shelves at the moment”. Which is no doubt a good thing, because otherwise we’d only have bought more than we did.

On the pier, we got chatting to some fishermen who were leaning back and waiting for a bite. “You look a bit like Cliff Richard,” one of them said. Unfortunately I didn’t have a seagull on my head at the time, so there goes that joke. I can’t see the resemblance myself.