+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘literature’

Ahead of the curve

On never really understanding the popularity of something

It’s shaping up to be another quiet month on here. December is the tiredest month, after all: next week it’s Christmas itself, last week it was the office party, and in between I am at home worrying whether all the presents will get delivered in time. Time, then, to pull another old post from the backlog of drafts and get it into some sort of shape.

On Twitter over the past couple of years, it seems as if some arguments or some topics seem to come around, be propelled back into the spotlight, on a very routine and predictable schedule. An example in point: the multimillionaire writer Joanne Rowling, who seems to be unable to avoid the temptation to say controversial things on the internet which seem to have alienated huge swathes of her previous fanbase. As I said, Rowling is a multimillionaire, multimillionaires can afford expensive lawyers, and as such I am carefully stepping around the things she has said—which I, personally, have found genuinely very offensive—without describing or repeating them. In any case, offensive words are best left to wither away and drift off unheard into the wind.

The point of this post, though, is to write more about Rowling’s work than her political beliefs. It’s to say, out loud, something I’ve hinted at on here before, but never actually said out loud for fear of offending people. A dark secret, you could call it. I don’t have to go around throwing Potter merchandise or books in the bin, because I’ve never really thought Harry Potter was very good.

There, I said it. Harry Potter was never actually very good. I’ve kept quiet about this because I’ve had various close friends who, absolutely, adored it. My ex-partner H, for example, who had me take her to a midnight book launch event for the final book. Or Colleague Em, who I went to see one of the films with. I’ve still never seen all of the films, but did like their aesthetic* and did somewhat admire the way they turned a sow’s ear into, maybe not a silk purse, but something much more focused and better-structured than their source material.

My first memory of Harry Potter, the book series, is of seeing displays of the books in Waterstones in Edinburgh, back when the cover of the first was a slightly cartoonish drawing showing a steam train next to a modern InterCity one, so you can understand why it piqued my interest. I didn’t really find out what it was about, though, until a year or two later when the hype machine had started to kick in, and you started to see newspaper articles about how adults were furtively reading this “children’s book” on their morning commute. Part of that machine, you might have heard, was the whole story that she wrote the first book sitting in cafes in Edinburgh whilst living as a penniless single mother.

It was at this point I started to become wary. Back then, these stories often didn’t just talk about generic “Edinburgh cafes”. They talked about one specific cafe, Nicolsons, on the corner of Nicolson St and Drummond St. I knew it well: I spent four years studying within a stone’s throw of it, some of those years living within a stone’s throw of it too. I say “I knew it well”: I mean, I walked past it several times per day, and if you’d asked me directions to it, I’d have done fine. I went in it exactly once, the whole time I lived in Edinburgh, because when I lived there, it was the posh cafe in the area. It was the one that gave you mini doughnuts when you ordered a hot chocolate. It was certainly not one I could afford to go to very often. If I wanted to eat out I’d go to the City Restaurant,** or to a greasy spoon in Nicolson Square where I once received an unexpected shower from a sudden leak in the ceiling above me. If I wanted a coffee, I’d go home. Nicolsons? Too expensive for a student, even one with a grant and a part-time job. So I’ve always been somewhat suspicious.

Only today, as it happens, doing background reading for this blog post I discovered that Nicolsons belonged to someone in Rowling’s family at the time, and all of a sudden the story, or rather the promotion of the story, begins to make a little sense. I didn’t know that back at the time, of course; and a year or so before I left Edinburgh Nicolsons closed and was replaced with a Chinese restaurant. Other Edinburgh cafes picked up the mantle of claiming to be “the place where Harry Potter was written,” much as almost every town in Britain has a “Charles Dickens slept here” plaque if you look hard enough.

Aside from the whole question of where it was written, and how genuine that story was—which is somewhat irrelevant to the content of the books themselves—I was left entirely cold by descriptions of the story. Now, I can understand reading (or writing) books about magic. I can understand wanting to read P G Wodehouse, or to an extent even Enid Blyton.*** I was baffled by the concept of somebody wanting to write a school story in the modern, forward-thinking and progressive 1990s. Particularly a school story in which the boarding school itself was the place of safety, of order and authority, and of home. A book that posits that setting must surely be a deeply reactionary, conservative book, whichever political party the author is giving money to. Without ever reading the book, I already knew that much. As we’ve seen over the twenty-something years since, it turned out to be right.

You can see echoes of Rowling’s recent behaviour early on, in her response to whether or not it made sense for Kings Cross station to have a Platform 9 3/4, when at Kings Cross—like most large UK stations off the top of my head—platforms 9 and 10 face each other across a pair of tracks, rather than being back to back. From memory: her response was that she’d been thinking of Euston, from a time in her life when she regularly caught the train from there to Manchester. Which is fair enough, except that at Euston platforms 9 and 10 also face each other across a pair of tracks; and they’re only used by the local trains to Watford.**** It seemed odd at the time to double down rather than admit to a mistake or—as you might expect an author to do—admit to inventing something fictional in which the details don’t need to be strictly real and parallel with the real world. Nowadays, it seems more characteristic.

Harry Potter was an important part of many of my peers’ formative years. They—the ones that are my friends, at least—have distanced themselves from Rowling’s politics, and have learned to detach the art from its creator, much as I try to listen to the music of The Smiths without thinking of the politics of the lyricist. I don’t feel any pride in always being a wee bit suspicious of it, or in spotting these holes early on. Nevertheless, it does give me a slight advantage. Never having been fully into it, I don’t have to dissociate myself from it now. That’s something, I suppose.

* although A Series Of Unfortunate Events did the same aesthetic, better.

** Everyone who has lived on the South Side knows the City Restaurant; it’s an institution, although when I arrived in Edinburgh there were people who genuinely told me it just hadn’t been the same since they changed the chip fat in 1995.

*** I should add, I’ve never read any of Blyton’s “school stories”; the Famous Five books are all “what we did in our holidays” stories. I wondered even at primary school age, if you counted up the number of Famous Five books and the number of school holidays you get per year, surely they must be into their twenties by the end?

**** Edinburgh didn’t even really have a platform 9 back when Harry Potter was being written, in case you were wondering if that was the source. Back then, the only platform numbers under 10 were 1 and 7, a relict of the way train services eastwards and southwards from Edinburgh had been cut back in the 1960s. The track for platforms 8 and 9 survived, as little stubs used in the daytime to store the engines used by some of the overnight sleeping car trains to the north of Scotland which split or joined portions in Edinburgh in the middle of the night.

Anonymous from Grimsby

Or, some foundational literature

If you read this blog regularly, or, indeed, at all, you might notice that up above, underneath the name, there’s a strapline. You might have even noticed that, by the magic of JavaScript, it changes to something different each time you load the page. Try it, refresh the page now, you’ll see it change into something else.

There are a few random straplines in there, and they change now and again. One that’s been in there for a while, though, is “Reconciling the seemingly disparate since 2005”. The year, of course, is when this site first started. The rest of it, though, comes from a series of books I first read when I was a child, and which I suspect were a fundamental part of my upbringing, or at least in my understanding of a comic plot. They are: The Bagthorpe Saga, by Helen Cresswell.

I say The Bagthorpe Saga was a fundamental part of my upbringing: in fact, I’ve only even read half of it. When I was a child I read the first five books, either from the library or in second-hand copies I spotted somewhere along the way. I was in my 20s before I discovered another five books had been written that I had entirely missed out on, when I randomly found one in a bookshop. We’ll come to that later on though.

Helen Cresswell, the author of the Saga, was active as a children’s author and scriptwriter from 1960 through to the early 2000s. From Nottinghamshire, she was an author whose work always seemed firmly rooted in the East Midlands, and who is sometimes more closely connected with supernatural fiction than with the farce-style comedy of the Bagthorpes. Her mid-1980s book The Secret World Of Polly Flint came with a map which fits perfectly onto the real map of the Nottinghamshire village where it is set; and her book Moondial, also turned into a famously creepy BBC series staring Jacqueline Pearce as its villain, is set precisely at Belton, near Grantham, inspired by the stories of the real ghosts that haunt Belton House. The Bagthorpe Saga doesn’t involve the supernatural, and is set in a fictional village, but nevertheless feels firmly as if it could equally well be set in Nottinghamshire or Lincolnshire. It starts out as the story of Jack, an ordinary boy stuck in the middle of a family of eccentric geniuses: his father a scriptwriter, his mother an agony auny, and all of his siblings blessed with various academic or musical talents. Jack has no talents, so his uncle comes up with a plan to make him the most special family member of all, by making him appear to be clairvoyant. Naturally, it doesn’t quite work out as planned. In the second book, a feverish competition-entering frenzy results in the family’s pet dog becoming a national star, and in the third, the whole family (except Jack) tries to break as many unlikely world records as they can think of.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first discovered The Bagthorpe Saga, but it was in the period when virtually all of the books I owned—the fiction at least—were second-hand ones randomly chosen by The Mother from the withdrawn stacks in the local library. She didn’t really care about content, theme, order, or anything I have ever been able to identify; so the first of these books I read was actually the third. I was dropped in mid-stream, into a book full of references to prior events handily flagged up by footnotes.* Nevertheless, I picked up on what was going on, and found the whole thing completely hilarious. The idea of a house as large as Unicorn House, the Bagthorpes’ home, was completely beyond my comprehension, as was the idea of a contemporary family having staff: the Bagthorpes have Mrs Fosdyke, a truly sublime cook whose horizons are otherwise inches from her front door.** This didn’t seem to bother me, though; I was bowled along by the sheer ridiculousness of the plots and the comedy set-pieces. Each book, in fact, is more a series of set-pieces populated by stock characters than anything else. Like the best sitcoms, the characters are almost always trapped, unable to escape their own personal torture. This is most literally true in the case of the paterfamilias, BBC scriptwriter Henry Bagthorpe. A common pattern in the books is for Henry to become steadily more angry and at the same time see more and more of his usual lines of escape blocked off by various comic events—his very final resort being leaving to visit Great Aunt Lucy in Torquay, a rich, elderly and morbid woman with numerous loudly-ticking clocks, all wrong, in every room of her house.

As a child I owned copies of the first four Bagthorpe Saga books, collected at various times in the wrong order from different second-hand stalls. The fifth one, I took out of the library. In it, the Bagthorpes decided to go on a “foreign holiday”, to a cottage in a remote Welsh village which turned out to be allegedly haunted. The fifth book also took a somewhat disappointing turn, at least as far as I was concerned. Whereas the first four books were all reasonably self-contained stories, all plotted with an opening, various acts and a climactic finale, the fifth wasn’t. The fifth just…stopped. Mid-story. No conclusion, no over-the-top set-piece denoument,*** just a stop, as if the story just fell off the end of the last page. Just an author’s note, something along the lines of “and there we will leave the Bagthorpes, stuck in this situation, until the next book.” I never did go and get the next book and find out what happened next.

A few years later, though, now grown-up, I was wandering around an Edinburgh bookshop. Idly browsing the New Hardbacks section (never actually intending to buy any), I discovered: a new hardback Bagthorpe Saga book! Bagthorpes Besieged is the ninth book in the series, and I immediately bought it, despite not having read the three in-between. It both starts and finishes mid-story, and has to begin with a quick explanation of where we are in the middle of the current plot. I don’t know if I was just older (I doubt I was wiser), but, although the same elements of farce are still all there, although the plotting is still tight, it seemed a little less fresh and a little less funny than the earlier books. There are a few too many moments when the cleverness of the plotting are carefully laid out, where Cresswell explains outright that character A is talking about character B but character C thinks A is talking about D, so everyone goes away with entirely the wrong idea of things. The events just seem a little too stereotyped and over-the-top. Maybe this is just age; but also, I imagine it’s hard to keep writing as many books as this with the same stock characters and still find new, fresh, ridiculous events for them to become embroiled in.

One aspect of this is that: if you work out a timeline, the events of all of the Bagthorpe Saga books (there were eventually ten) must only happen over barely the span of a year, maybe a little more. The series, though, still tries to stay contemporary even though the books were written over a span of about twenty-five years. This leads to slight oddities here and there. At the start of the series Mr Bagthorpe types all his work out himself and has a single copy of it, which in the mid-1970s was perfectly normal; by the end of the series it seems a strange anti-technology quirk.**** In Bagthorpes Besieged Mrs Fosdyke is an avid viewer of Neighbours, a series which didn’t even exist when the first books were written; in fact, one thing I found slightly odd even as a child was how little TV the family watched in general when in my own house it was on constantly every evening.

The Bagthorpe Saga might be something I have, understandably, outgrown over the years but it still was my main introduction to the world of the farce, and I do still have a special place for it somewhere inside me. Being a precocious nerd with imposter syndrome, I can sympathise with all of the main child characters one way or another: William the electronics geek and radio ham, Tess the oboeist and fan of literature, Jack always worried he’s not in any way special, and Rosie always desperate to catch up with the others and prove herself. Throughout the series, William Bagthorpe’s constant off-stage companion is his radio contact Anonymous from Grimsby, a believer in extraterrestrial intelligence who we never meet directly. Living near Grimsby myself, with my father constantly fiddling with his radio ham equipment himself, I did sometimes wonder if I could somehow slip sideways into the fictional world, almost in the style of Cresswell’s other creation Polly Flint. I never did; but then, I’d never really enjoy the life of Tess or William Bagthorpe. I’d rather just read about them and the constant catastrophes unfolding around them instead. I might not cry laughing at The Bagthorpe Saga any more, but I will always enjoy it whenever I return.

* like this one.

** I did say you can imagine the series being set in Lincolnshire or Nottinghamshire: Fosdyke is a very East Midlands kind of name. Fosdyke is a village near Boston; the Fossdyke is a Roman canal linking Lincoln and Newark.

*** Not to give away any spoilers, but the finale of the second book is particularly over-the-top: for one thing it occurs live on TV.

**** He does start using carbon paper after one particular catastrophic incident involving his four-year-old niece.

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 the 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?