Thursday, 31 March 2011

Writing By Hand

I don't know about you, but I would be completely lost without the BBC and consider it one of the major blessings of civilisation.  In one manifestation or another it is on in this house most of the day and living in a time or place where that would not be possible is something I prefer not to contemplate.  As I expect most of you know, the BBC publish a range of magazines to complement the superb programmes that they put out both on radio and television and we in the Senior Common Room take three of them, BBC Music, BBC History and BBC Focus.

As you can see, the Focus magazine concentrates on issues to do with all branches of the sciences and technology and those of you who live in the UK won't be surprised to hear that the current edition is packed with articles to do with Brian Cox's series on The Wonders of the Universe.  However, it was a much smaller item that caught my eye over breakfast this morning. (I hope you're duly impressed - reading about science over the breakfast table - of course, you might not find that impressive at all, just terribly sad, but if that's the case I'm sure you'll be too polite to say so.)  The article was a report on findings from Norway and France about the neurological impact of writing facts down as opposed to reading them on the computer screen.  And I quote:

it's thought that writing is better, because when jotting down letters with a pen, the brain gets feedback from these 'motor' actions.  This is turn helps fix what's been written in the memory.

Well, I would have to say to start with that I'm not sure that like is being compared with like here.  Surely the comparison should be between writing notes with a pen on paper and typing those same notes onto a computer, however, I do have some sympathy with the view being expressed.  I have always claimed that, unlike those people who don't know what they think until they hear what they say, I don't know what I think until I see what I write.  Writing has always helped me clarify my thoughts and I find that that is the same whether I am writing by hand or typing onto a computer screen.  In fact, thinking about it, because I can do the latter faster I think it is possibly more helpful here.  When it comes to remembering things, however, having the experience of shaping the letters is, I find, extremely helpful and this has really been brought home to me lately by the arrival of my Kindle.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love my Kindle and I have no intention of being parted from it, but I am finding that when I make an electronic note while I'm reading I don't remember what that note was about in the same way as I would have done when I was jotting things in a notebook.  Oh, yes, it's very convenient to have all those notes collected together for me in one place, especially as the passages I've highlighted are there as well, but somehow I don't seem to remember the points I was making as well when I do it in this form as if I had written them, rather more slowly but with that additional kinaesthetic element, by hand.  Lately, I have found myself going back to the notebook even when I am reading electronically because the salient points of whatever I have been reading are proving to be less firmly fixed in my mind.

Clearly this isn't just my experience or the article wouldn't have been written, but I found myself wondering how other e-reader users felt about this.  Are you using the annotating function to any large extent and, if so, do you find it as easy to fix points in your mind this way as you did when you were writing them down?  I would be interested to know.

And, an additional note for those of you of a certain age who might feel that you are finding it difficult to remember anything.  Yesterday morning that same wonderful BBC brought us Professor Lewis Wolpert, himself eighty-two, explaining that it isn't that we forget things but simply that the act of recall takes longer.  I don't know about you, but I find that incredibly comforting.  

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

In the Bleak Midwinter ~ Julia Spencer-Fleming

I have never quite been able to decide whether the way in which one is constantly being introduced to new writers is one of the blessings of belonging to the blogging world, or one of its major curses. Practically every day, it seems, I go hurrying over to the library site to see if I can locate either a specific book or anything by a previously unknown author that I would never have thought about requesting had it not been for something one of you had recommended. (As you can see, I'm putting the blame fairly and squarely where it really lies.) Ultimately, this way lies madness. I walked out of the library this morning struggling under the weight of no fewer than seven volumes. It's a mile and a half walk home!

Nevertheless, sometimes there is no doubt that such recommendations are a blessing. So whoever it was pointed me in the direction of Julia Spencer-Fleming, thank you. You always know you are onto a good thing when you reach the end of a book and automatically look for the next in the series because you don't want to leave the main characters behind. This was definitely the case with In the Bleak Midwinter, the first of Spencer-Fleming's novels about Clare Fergusson, the newly ordained Episcopalian priest of a small upstate NewYork community and Russ Van Alystyne, the local chief of Police.

Being the first woman priest in this small town is going to be difficult enough for Clare, especially as it is clear that she is as different as can be from her predecessor; she doesn't need anything that is going to make life even more complicated than it already is. Cue disaster in the shape of a newborn baby abandoned on the steps of the church and the discovery, hard on the heels of this event, of the body of a young woman. These two incidents bring Clare and Russ into close contact and they find it easy to collaborate having both come from military backgrounds which have shaped their minds to work in pretty much the same sort of organised way.

Who is the baby? Who is the girl? Is she the baby's mother and if so who might want her dead? Why was whoever left the child on the church steps so insistent that he be adopted by a particular family from the congregation? Spencer-Fleming develops a convincing plot line that kept me guessing almost to the end.

 However, good though her plotting is, I think her really strong points are her ability to create realistic settings and to draw extremely believable characters.  Clare has come from much warmer climes and the New England winter is a real shock. It was to me as well. I really felt the cold and most particularly the difficultly of day to day life in a countryside that is almost impossible to penetrate once the snow comes down. I thought we'd had a difficult winter this year, but it was as nothing to what the people of Millers Kill have to face. If we have another bad spell next winter remind me not to complain before I've re-read this, will you.

Clare herself I found really attractive. As someone who was brought up in the Church, but no longer belongs, she struck me as the sort of priest the ministry could do with encouraging. She leads her congregation in the ways she feels are moral without actually judging them. When I am screaming at a character, "And you call yourself a Christian?" Clare is trying to find a way of helping that person see for themselves that what they are proposing is not acceptable. The best thing I can say about Clare is that I would like her for a very good friend.

Something that I will be interested to see is how Spencer-Fleming develops the community in which her novels are set. I'm seeing her here in relation to Louise Penny, who has created in Three Pines a group of individuals every bit as important and as central to her work as Inspector Gamache and his police team. So far I haven't felt that there is anyone among the inhabitants of Millers Kill who is going to become a recurring and important character but that may change further into the series.

All in all then, this is a mark in favour of being introduced to new writers and a book worth adding to the pile as I struggle home from the library.  Thank you.


Sunday, 27 March 2011

This Year 'Don Quixote'?

I'm still working my way slowly though Susan Hill's book of reading delights, Howards End is on the Landing, and this morning, curled up in one of my favourite coffee shops, I came across her piece about the books with which we form a special relationship despite the fact that they have been standing unread on our shelves for decades at the very least.

They become known in a strange way, perhaps because we have read a lot about them, or they are books that are part of our overall heritage. I think I know a lot about 'Don Quixote'. I do know a lot about 'Don Quixote'. I have just never read it. I doubt if I ever will. But I know what people mean when they talk about tilting at windmills; I recognise a drawing of Quixote and Sancha Panza. I believe Cervantes to be a great European writer. Why do I believe that? What possible grounds do I have for believing it? Other people's opinions, the fact that it has an honourable and permanent place in the canon? So, 'Don Quixote' has an honourable, permanent place on my shelves. It would be wrong to get rid of it.

I feel exactly the same about Don Quixote. I too have a copy and, like Susan Hill, I have never read it. Nevertheless, this doesn't stop me from being convinced that I know what the novel is about. After all, I did once, long ago, see a stage version at the National starring Paul Scofield. That has to count for something, surely?

Well, two people who we know did read the book were William Shakespeare and the up and coming star of the King's Men, John Fletcher. I don't know about you, but I always find it astounding that Shakespeare and Cervantes lived at the same time, however, that is, in fact, the case. Indeed, they died on the very same day, April 23rd 1616.

Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605 and the first English translation, by Thomas Shelton, hit the book stalls outside St Pauls in the early Summer of 1612, just in time for Shakespeare to pick up a copy and decide that one of the stories it contained would be ideal fodder for his Christmas production for the company he had been part of since its foundation in 1594. By this time most of his work was being done in collaboration with the young Fletcher and this was no exception. The play, Cardenio, was written, the music composed by Robert Johnson, who also worked with them on The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, and the whole entertainment presented at court over the Christmas period 1612.

What, you've never heard of a Shakespeare play called Cardenio? Ah, well there's the rub. We've lost it. Careless, I know, but nevertheless, a fact. What we do have is a bowdlerised version from the eighteenth century by one Lewis Theobald called Double Falsehood which he claimed was based on the Shakespeare and Fletcher original, but if he had the three copies he said he did they almost certainly went up in flames in the Drury Lane fire of 1809. Please, don't ask me to say any more, it's just too painful. If it's any sort of consolation, what does still exist is the music for that first production and you can see it, I believe, in the Bodleian Library.

Recently, however, there has been considerable interest in both the Theobald play and in attempts to use it as a basis from which to reconstruct the original Cardenio. There was an Arden edition of Double Falsehood published last year and there have been two university attempts, one here in the UK and one in New Zealand, to stage a version of what scholars have thought might be something like the original of 1612. Now, we have the first professional production opening at the Swan Theatre in Stratford next month. As you can imagine, this has caused considerable interest, not to say controversy, and I can't wait to see how Greg Doran (a director, for whom I have the greatest respect) has set about rebuilding a script from very little original material. Fortunately, there are going to be several opportunities during the coming months to talk with him about the process, including an afternoon workshop in June that I've managed to wangle myself a place on.

There is no way that what we are going to see on stage this summer can possibly be thought of as a reliable reconstruction of the performance King James and his court saw during those seventeenth century Christmas festivities. Theobald must have completely gutted the original. For instance, there is no subplot in Double Falsehood and I am reliably informed, by someone who definitely knows, that there is only one play from that period which doesn't have at least one subplot and often more. Shakespeare certainly always liked an extra line of plot development knocking around. Nevertheless, if even just a few lines are reliably by Shakespeare that has to be worth something.

And now, I have to decide whether I am going to celebrate this event by making this the year in which I change my relationship to the Don. Is this going to be the year when I finally take my copy down from the shelf and actually read it? Maybe, we'll see.


Friday, 25 March 2011

Lasting Damage ~ Sophie Hannah

I have been a fan of Sophie Hannah ever since I picked up her first crime novel, Little Face, and made the acquaintance of Sergeant Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse. As I suspect is true for many crime addicts, I am intrigued and gripped as much by the developing story within the police team as I am by the individual cases that are the subject of each of the books and I am definitely gripped by the cases. Sophie Hannah certainly knows how to write a thriller that keeps the reader on tenterhooks to the very last page. Lasting Damage is no exception.

Connie Bowskill is worried and, as we very soon discover, she's been worried for sometime. That worry forces her out of bed in the early hours of the morning to surf the net for details of a house she's seen that is up for sale. Bringing up the estate agent's website she finds that there is a virtual tour available and so she clicks on the button in the hope that she will find evidence that will settle those worries one way or another. Well, she finds evidence all right, but it isn't what she was expecting, because what she sees is a woman lying face down in a pool of blood. However, when she brings her husband downstairs and gets him to search the site, the woman has gone. What is more there is no sign of the blood either. The carpet is perfectly clean, the room perfectly normal.

And so the process of investigation begins and as usual it isn't until the very last pages of the novel that it becomes clear which of the many twists and turns in the plot will finally reveal the truth. Inevitably, it will take a mind that can see past the obvious and join dots that are so far apart as almost to belong to different puzzles to solve the mystery. Which is another way of saying that it will take Simon Waterhouse. And this is a problem because as the story begins he and Charlie are hundreds of miles away on their honeymoon. But then you surely didn't ever expect that to be the proverbial bed of roses, did you?

This is a very good book. They are all very good books. However, I am beginning to have a 'but'. While each of Hannah's books works extremely well as a single novel they all follow exactly the same pattern, not only in respect of the way in which they are structured but also in terms of the type of crime and the nature of the victim. Now, I am a great believer in pattern. To quote Kenneth Pike, man is a pattern-making, pattern-seeking animal. But, having shown that we know how the pattern works the trick to keeping an audience's attention is to break it without having the structure fall down around our heads, especially when the chosen pattern is as obviously signalled to the reader as it is in these books. Hannah is a good enough writer to do that and I am beginning to wish that she would find a way of making her work fresh. For me, she is starting to sound the same note rather too often.


Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Romeo and Juliet ~ Royal Shakespeare Company

For one reason and another I spent most of last week in Stratford including, on Saturday, going to see the RSC's current production of Romeo and Juliet in the newly rebuilt main theatre. I am not going to go into what I think about the new theatre here, mainly because no one is going to want to read a rant. Surfice it to say that I think they made a mistake trying to put a new stage in the old theatre building. They should have pulled the whole lot down and started afresh. It's too late now to do anything about it, so I'm just going to have to learn to live with it.

The production of Romeo and Juliet, is however, worth revisiting. It started out last year in the Courtyard theatre, the Company's temporary home a hundred yards up the river bank and I very much enjoyed it then. During the intervening year it's consolidated its better points and dealt with some of the problems and is now a very polished theatrical experience indeed.

I always feel with this play that there are no half measures. You are either going to like the way the director decides to approach the production or you are going to hate it. I have seen more performances of Romeo and Juliet that have left me seething than any other play in the canon. In fact it is the only play I've ever walked out of and I've lost count of the number of times I've wanted to stand up about twenty minutes in and say to the uncomfortable looking cast something along the lines of "Okay, you've got this wrong, haven't you? Shall we go back to the beginning and try again?"

But when a company get it right it can be so good and Rupert Goold has brought this production together very successfully, although I'm not sure it is for quite the reasons he intended. There are a couple of very erudite essays in the programme, one about the Counter Reformation and the other an exploration of suicide in the arts, but although they are both extremely interesting they don't signal what is, for me, most obviously successful about the interpretation. The production works for me because they have managed to find a way of exploring a universal aspect of human nature in a way that keeps it firmly rooted in Shakespeare's time and yet also ties it to our own. For what is the quarrel between the Montagues and the Capulets but a sixteenth century manifestation of gang culture and even more specifically, knife crime?

For the most part the play is presented in Elizabethan Verona, but it begins with a streetwise twenty-first century youth, complete with hoodie, listening to a recorded tourist guide. This is Romeo and the costume choice works as we slide into the sixteenth century setting partly because of the colour and the materials chosen and partly because of the Universal nature of the teenage uniform of tee-shirt and jeans. When Juliet appears in something very similar, she works in both time periods as well. And that is all it takes to bring home to you the disturbing fact that one tribe of teenagers, turned against another tribe by elders who ought to know better, are exactly the same now as they have ever been. Whether it is on the streets of Renaissance Verona, or amongst the tower blocks of modern day London, the murder and mayhem that is unleashed is terrible to behold.

A second feature of the production which helps to hammer home this disturbing fact is the attention that has been paid to ensuring that the lovers come over as very young teenagers. I don't know exactly how old Mariah Gale and Sam Troughton are, but I would have thought early thirties and yet they both manage to communicate that frantic, explosive switch from one extreme of emotion to the other, that is  the hallmark of teenagers everywhere. Gale in particular does the sulky thirteen year old so well there are times when you want to slap her. And the fact that you know wouldn't be the sensible way to handle the situation is neither here nor there. Like all the 'best' teenagers, she just gets to you.

The production closes in Stratford very soon and I'm not certain if they are taking it anywhere else, but if you do get the chance to see it then it's worth looking out for. The new season gets underway next month with Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice. I know they have to fill the theatre, but it would be nice to break away from the obligatory exam texts once in a while. I wonder when someone is next going to be brave enough to give a season of Timon of Athens?

PS. Sam Troughton is a very good actor, but I find it hard to forgive him for making me feel very old indeed. I remember watching not only his father, but also his grandfather. Damn him!


Monday, 21 March 2011

Shared Fetish

How do I manage to do it time, after time, after time? Here I am again running rings round myself in order to try and catch up with everything that needs to be prepared for this week. Actually, I know why it's happened this time. I was involved last week in the appointment of a very senior academic position (which I would love to gossip about, but to do so would definitely be unprofessional) and I underestimated just how much time and energy it was going to take. So, here I am battling away to finish a lecture on the relationship between The Taming of the Shrew and The Taming of a Shrew and read David Nicholls' novel, One Day, both of which I need for meetings on Wednesday.

Fortunately, the Nicholls is hardly the most demanding of works, in fact I'm not certain how we are going to sustain an hour and a half's discussion on it. It's taking time, but not much brain power. And, every now and again it makes me smile in recognition of something that strikes a chord in me, like this.

[Emma] drinks pints of coffee and writes little observations and ideas for stories with her best fountain pen on the linen-white pages of expensive notebooks. Sometimes, when it is going badly, she wonders if what she believes to be a love of the written word is really just a fetish for stationery. The true writer, the born writer, will scribble words on scraps of litter, the back of a bus ticket, the wall of a cell. Emma is lost on anything less than 120gsm.

If there is such a thing as a fetish for stationery then I definitely share it. I love the feel of a clean sheet of paper that has still to be marked in anyway. I can get tingles up and down the back of my spine just remembering the thrill of having a new exercise book at school, a book that has, as yet, not even been sullied by so much as a ruled margin. Friends buy me notebooks as presents because they know I will go all gooey-eyed and drool my incoherent thanks as I imagine all the world shattering observations I will record in them.  I don't, any longer, hanker after the 'best fountain pen' because I learned a long time ago that the surest way to defile a beautiful sheet of paper was to turn me loose anywhere near it with real ink. But it does have to be a very particular make of biro and always, always a fine nib and black ink.

And, do you know what? I reckon I'm not alone in the blogging world in sharing Emma's fetish. I suspect that there are a lot of closet stationery obsessives out there right now. Have the courage to come out and admit your addiction and we can form a blogging branch of stationery fetishers anonymous. Just as long as no one ever really tries to wean me away from my notebooks, pens and rulers that is. This is a fetish I'm actually happy to claim as my own.


Saturday, 19 March 2011

Twisted Wing ~ Ruth Newman

Browsing round the library the other day, a seriously dangerous occupation which should definitely carry a health warning, I came across a book by an author I hadn't heard of before but which had a recommendation on the front by Sophie Hannah.

Scary, tantalisingly unpredictable and very, very hard to put down.

As Sophie Hannah is one of those few writers whose works I automatically read, I thought it was worth a risk and took Ruth Newman's first novel, Twisted Wing, home with me. It was a good move.

Set in the fictitious Ariel College, Cambridge, the story begins with what appears to be yet another in a series of killings. A third student, June Okewano, is found horrifically butchered in as many years. However, this time two other students are found with the victim. One, Nick Hardcastle, becomes the immediate suspect given that he is discovered attempting to replace June's intestines back inside her body. The other, Olivia Corscadden, is in what appears to be a catatonic state, unable to respond to anything.

Detective Chief Inspector Stephen Weathers calls in his old University friend, forensic psychiatrist, Matthew Denison to try and unlock the evidence that he feels sure must be in Olivia's mind if only she can be reached and helped to communicate. Over a period of weeks and eventually months, Matthew pieces together not only all that has happened since Olivia and Nick arrived at Cambridge, but much about Olivia's early life that will prove relevant to the investigation as well.

The reader is encouraged to fit the pieces in the puzzle together at the same time as the investigative team and consequently makes as many false moves as they do. In fact, I pinned the culprit very early on, but was repeatedly made to think that I had got it wrong and that I was doing that individual a disservice. At least my mistakes didn't directly lead to an innocent individual being accused of murder. Matthew Denison is not so lucky.

Newman is a real find. I was completely gripped by the story from the very first pages and thoroughly convinced by the characters she has created. The atmosphere of menace is deftly evoked and the eventual denouement both realistic and terrifying in its implications. I thought at first she was looking to build up a series, and would have been happy to go on developing a relationship with Weathers and Denison. However, given the metaphorical coup de grace delivered in the final pages I don't see how that would be possible. Nevertheless, I have her new book, The Company of Shadows, on reservation from the library and hope it will live up to its predecessor. If you like Sophie Hannah, or even more, I think, if you enjoy S J Bolton then it would be worth your giving this a try.


Thursday, 17 March 2011

Rivers of London ~ Ben Aaronovitch

Peter Grant is just about to finish his time as a probationary police constable and is awaiting his first permanent assignment to a branch of the service that he hopes will be more exciting than the paper pushing job he is expecting.  Well, fate smiles on him.  He finds himself involved in a murder investigation and, as a result of an interview with a ghost, assigned as apprentice to Chief Inspector Nightingale, the Last Wizard in England. 

And there you have it, I've mentioned the 'W' word.  I think it's very unfortunate that the quote on the cover invokes the world of Harry Potter, because in fact Rivers of London is much more akin to Shaun of the Dead meets Hot Fuzz and like those two films, it is definitely not for children.  You wouldn't want your ten year old reading some of the language that is used and no school child should be introduced to certain of the gods of London rivers that populate the world that Peter finds himself investigating.  Don't get me wrong, this isn't a book that is in any real way offensive, it is just that it is a book that might reach the wrong audience if it isn't carefully marketed.  By all means give it to your sixteen year old who is looking for a book that will amuse and speak to the inevitable cynicism of most teenagers, but don't give it to your ten or eleven year old who is searching for a Harry Potter replacement.

Having become involved with an investigation that clearly concerns the forces of magic and enchantment, Peter finds himself searching the archives for information about that other source of enchantment, the theatre. The murder, or rather murders, because our criminal does not stop at one, take place in the heart of London itself, in the precincts surrounding Covent Garden, and it soon becomes clear that the motivation for what is happening can be traced back to events that occurred in that quarter of the city centuries earlier.  If Peter is to have any hope of understanding what lies behind the killings he must consult those who know the metropolis far better than he can hope to, which is where the Rivers of London come in.  You've probably heard the expression 'Old Father Thames'.  Well, here you actually get to meet him, and Mother Thames as well. Although not at the same time as they haven't been on speaking terms for decades.

I have to say that at first I was rather sceptical about the whole thing, it felt gimmicky rather than truly original. Within a couple of chapters, however, I was hooked.  Aaronovitch brings just the right amount of cynicism about both the police service and the current social climate to his writing and as a result the book is not only very funny but also, despite the magic, recognisably about the world in which we live.  It is also, if you happen to know the parts of London about which he is writing, very well researched.  I suspect non-Londoners might appreciate a map, but if you are a London theatre-goer then you're going to feel very much at home in this world.  I am a convert and pleased to find that this is the first of a trilogy, the second and third parts of which are due for publication later this year.

If you like crime, if you like humour, then I think you should give this a go.  If you have older teenagers to buy for and can't think of what they might enjoy, I would say this is a must.  I know I've already earmarked two copies for birthday presents later in the year.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Everyman ~ Philip Roth

I promised last week that I would write about our book group discussion of Philip Roth's Everyman but I had to put it on the back burner for a while until I had time to think about what turned out to be an unexpectedly mixed reaction to the work. As a group our only other encounter with Roth was about eighteen months ago, when we read and  thoroughly enjoyed, The Human Stain.  There wasn't one of us who didn't want to go back and re-read it straight away because there was so obviously so much there to think about and learn from.  Everyman, however, split the group in two, those of us who had not only 'enjoyed' it but thought that there was something extremely profound being explored in the text and those who had struggled to engage at any level and really couldn't see the point.

The book tells the story of an unnamed main character who I am going to call Everyman, beginning at the moment of his funeral and then building up his life through a patchwork of scenes until, in the final pages, we return to the moment of his death on the operating table. During a scant two hundred pages we learn about his childhood as the younger son of a Jewish Jeweller, his time working in a Design Business, his three unsuccessful marriages and his  final years spent in a retirement complex on America's East Coast.  And throughout the figure of Death walks with him. We are never for a moment allowed to forget this man's mortality, the fact that at any moment something may go wrong with the intricate and delicate instrument that is the human body.  It is no coincidence that there is an image of the inner workings of a watch on the cover of my copy.  In its concrete form it is a reminder of the clocks and watches with which Everyman's father worked; as an image it serves to reinforce the unpalatable truth that it only needs one element to go out of balance and the entire mechanism will fail.  

So, we are with Everyman, when as a child of nine he makes his first visit to hospital for a hernia operation and witnesses the death of a fellow patient.  In the Star Beach Retirement Village we experience vicariously the incredible pain of one of the women who lives there, pain that eventually drives her to the ultimate answer of suicide.   And, we follow the progress of Everyman's own bodily weaknesses as one by one the valves in his heart fail and have to be shored up artificially.  But perhaps the most damaging failures, weaknesses and deaths are not the physical ones, but those which occur in his relationships with his family.  We learn little about his first wife, or why he found the marriage so unsatisfactory, but the break-up leaves him alienated not only from her but also from his two sons.  While it seems that his second marriage, to Phoebe, is far more successful and their daughter, Nancy, does retain her feelings for her father, again he destroys the relationship almost on a whim and marries a woman with whom he has nothing in common and who soon goes the same way as her predecessors.  Even the closeness he feels for his older brother, Howie, is destroyed by his jealousy of Howie's loving family life, business success and continuing good health.  This is a man who walks with Death in one form or another all his life.

And yet, this is not, on the surface at least, a religious book.  There is no suggestion that we should read this as a warning that Death might call at any moment and we should therefore look to the content of our lives in case we should be called to answer for our deeds and be found wanting.  In fact, if anything I felt there was a measure of moral ambiguity here.  Everyman may feel that he has lost all and that Howie has everything and we, as readers, may feel that we want to point out that Howie has lived a pretty much unblemished life, working hard, loving his family and hurting no one and thus perhaps deserves what he has, but in the final pages I think Roth raises a caveat to this easy response.  Everyman is in the graveyard where his parents lie buried and this is what Roth writes:

His mother had died at eighty, his father at ninety.  Aloud he said to them, "I'm seventy-one.  Your boy is seventy-one."  "Good.  You lived," his mother replied, and his father said, "Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left."

"You lived."  It seems to me that there is implicit in that phrase the idea that we cannot spend our lives in the shade of Death, we have to live and that not to live is in itself a death.  "Atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left."  What is asked of Everyman in the Morality play is not only unrealistic, it is also in one sense a sin against the life we have been given, whoever or whatever you may believe we have been given it by.  I don't end up much liking Roth's Everyman figure, I'm pretty sure I would have rather known Howie any day of the week, but I'm not certain that I can in anyway condemn him.  Morality stands on far less resolute foundations now than in did in the early sixteenth century.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Last Dragonslayer ~ Jasper Fforde

Those of you who have read the Thursday Next books (and if you haven't, for goodness sake why not?  Pick up a copy of The Eyre Affair immediately!) won't be surprised to hear that Jasper Fforde has branched out into writing for children.  If ever there was an author who had the sort of imagination that children would immediately recognise and respond to, it is Fforde and The Last Dragonslayer is going to the top of my 'books to buy for birthday presents' list as of now.

Set in a country that is just about and absolutely immediately recognisable as the England we all know and occasionally love, Fforde tells the story of Jennifer Strange, one time foundling in the convent of The Blessed Ladies of the Lobster, currently Acting Manager of Kazam Mystical Arts Management and (I don't think I'm giving too much away) soon to be The Last Dragonslayer, responsible for riding the country of the Last Dragon, Maltcassion.  Not, you understand, that Maltcassion has done anything to warrant his being got rid of, but he is sitting on thousand of acres of prime real estate and while he remains alive no one but the Dragonslayer can set foot there.  

Lightly disguised as a walk through the realms of a fantasy world that you have to have a seriously clever mind to have thought up, Fforde, as usual, casts a searing eye on the greed and folly of the consumer society in which we live.  If Jennifer has to kill Maltcassion, and she seriously hopes that that won't prove to be the case, then she feels that the least she can do is turn the land into a sanctuary for some those animals whose very survival is threatened by humankind, such as the buzonjis, the shridloos and of course, the quarkbeast.  (I'm sorry, there are no dodos or mammoths in this book.  Fans of Pickwick will need to pick up the latest adult novel, One of Our Thursdays is Missing.  I'm hoping there will be a reappearance of the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat as well.)  Everyone else simply wants a piece of the very expensive action.  Hounded on every side by companies demanding she endorse their products, real estate developers who want to build theme parks and supermarkets and warring monarchs who want to create yet another bloody battlefield, Jennifer has until Sunday lunchtime to decide what to do.  And you thought you had problems making you mind up what roast to cook.

You don't have to be mad to enjoy Fforde, but I find it does help if you have followed the White Queen's advice and practised believing six impossible things before breakfast every morning.  Once you've got the general idea you will find an absolute and irrefutable logic in every thing he writes.  For example here is Maltcassion on what he calls 'the more endearing features' of humankind.

'Well, counting in base ten is pretty wild, for a start,' he said after giving the subject a moment's thought.  'Base twelve is far superior.  You also have extraordinary technical abilities, a terrific sense of humour, thumbs, being built inside out - '

'Wait!  Being built inside out?

'Of course.  As far as the average lobster is concerned, mammals - with the possible exception of the armadillo - are built inside out.  Any crab worth his claws will tell you the soft stuff should definitely be on the inside.  Bones in the middle?  Whoever designed you was having a serious off day.'

Argue with that, I dare you.

Jasper Fforde is one of the most original voices writing today and I am so pleased that he has turned his attention towards children, who will recognise him as one of their own and enter into his world without a second thought.  If you haven't already had your own passport stamped then I recommend you do so immediately.

PS  I have just checked the Mammoth Migration Site and I think the Lammer Herd and the Grampian Herd are due to cross paths in my back garden tomorrow morning.  We who are about to die, salute you.  It is a very small back garden.

Friday, 11 March 2011

An Uncommon Writer

Well, here we are, at the end of the week, and I've made it in one piece. I'm going to celebrate by spending this weekend with the latest book by one of my favourite authors, Sophie Hannah, whose sixth crime novel, Lasting Damage, has just arrived from the library. The phone is coming off the hook, I'm detaching the door bell from the batteries and I shall repel all borders. I will also find time to catch up with my posts here and my on-line visiting ready to get back to a more organised schedule on Monday.

Meanwhile, I want to share what I think is a lovely story. When it first came out my library reading group all read Alan Bennett's wonderful book An Uncommon Reader. I'm sure all of those readers who are in the UK know about this gem but if you are from overseas and it hasn't come to your notice it imagines the arrival of a mobile library in the precincts of Buckingham Palace and the gradual conversion of HM the Queen to books and to reading for pleasure. The writing is absolutely typical of Bennett's perceptive observation and wry humour. It's the sort of book you read at one sitting, not only because it's fairly short, but also because you can't put it down until you've finished it.

Well, as I say, everyone in the group loved it and Mary, the librarian who runs the sessions, decided that because it had given us such pleasure she would contact Bennett's agent and just say thank you on our behalf.  So, she sent him an e-mail and asked him to pass on our best wishes to the author. That would have been the back end of 2007 and none of us had given it another thought until last week - when a postcard arrived.

The postcard, of the Yorkshire Dales, had been sent in September 2009 but had been rather vaguely addressed and it had taken the Post Office sometime to work out where to deliver it. To be honest, the sender's handwriting didn't help either. However, when we deciphered it, we discovered that it had come from Alan Bennett himself.  He thanked us not only for our kind thoughts but also for taking the trouble to contact him and spoke about the process of writing the book and how it had been easier than most because he didn't know HMQ and could therefore let his imagination do the work.   He wrote as if we were the ones doing him the favour instead of our being the people who had benefited immeasurably by the pleasure given by his wonderful writing. We would have been thrilled by a response from his agent, but this was so personal, and so typical of a man who is known here (much to his chagrin) as a National Treasure.  He is, indeed, a most uncommon writer.


Wednesday, 9 March 2011


This is shaping up to be the Week From Hell.  In part it is my own fault.  I promised myself (and enough specialists to staff my own hospital) that I wouldn't over commit myself again and I genuinely didn't think I had done, but what I forgot to do was look in my diary when I said 'yes' to various requests and so didn't see that they were all scheduled to happen in the same fortnight.  This is the second week of that fortnight and if I make it to the end I promise I am never going to say 'yes' to anything on the spot ever again.  It is always going to be 'let me get back to you', so that I have time to look at the implications not only of the time given over to the actual event but also to the time that is going to be necessary to prepare for it. 

So, this is likely to be the only post I put up before the weekend and I apologise for lack of visiting and commenting this week.  

However, I thought I ought to tell you why my week from hell just got worse.  I've just been contacted by my credit card company who informed me that as a result of a charitable donation I'd made to the New Zealand Red Cross my details had been compromised and I was now being targeted by fraudsters.  They've stopped my card and I'm now going to have to make an emergency dash to the bank in order to have enough cash to buy food for the ten days before the new one will arrive.  As I know a number of bloggers have given to the same charity I wanted to be sure you were aware that there might be a problem and that it might be an idea to check your own card security.

As my mother would have said, "If it isn't one thing, it's another."

I hope you all have a better week than I'm having.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Everyman ~ The Original

This month our Monday book group is reading Philip Roth's 2006 novel, Everyman, and as it must be all of thirty-five years since I read the original morality play, I thought I ought to go back and revisit it if I was going to be able to make sensible comparisons between what I assume are texts that are meant to be considered together.

The earliest print fragment of Everyman dates to somewhere between 1510 and 1525 and although it has been suggested that it is actually several decades older than that if, as is often posited, the English play is based on the Antwerp text of Elckerlijc (c 1518-1525) then this fragment is probably very close to the time of composition. This isn't the place to go into theatre history and its developments, but if Everyman is as late as 1525 then the changes that were to take place in the intervening seventy-four years between this and the opening of The Globe on Bankside in 1599 with that ringing cry of Oh for a muse of fire are just unbelievable. Even the thought makes my head spin. (Look, we can argue another day about whether the choruses were in that first performance - stop trying to distract me and take me off subject!)

What strikes me most immediately about Everyman is how modern it is and yet how much it is of its own time. There can't be a single person who reads this who doesn't identify with the main character, facing his own death and realising that the life he has lived has not been as he might have wished. It doesn't matter whether you define a well-lived life in terms of religious belief or not, surely everyone of us has to have some regrets. And everyone of us has to share Everyman's fear as well. I know that there are some people who live in such pain, physical or mental, that death is a relief, but even in such instances there must be, I would have thought, a certain amount of trepidation. And, the 'associates' who desert Everyman, his friends, his kin and most especially his goods - well I bet there are a few people around now who are reckoning the cost of the financial turn around in more than just monetary terms.

But, at the same time, this is so much part of the medieval society, especially in its insistence that however much Everyman repents he has to get it all sanctioned by a priest. No question of finding your own way to salvation, you go the way the church lays down or you don't go at all. If this is as late as 1525, then Martin Luther has been making waves on the Continent and the Catholic Church in England, not aware of the home grown challenge just around the corner, would be keen to emphasise and reinforce its power over the people who would have made up the audience for this drama.

Something that I do find interesting is that unlike a lot of other plays of this type there is no depiction of the 'fun' that Everyman has had up to the point that death comes along and says "Oy". We just jump straight in there on the fateful day itself. Maybe the church wasn't taking any chances. Don't give the plebs any ideas, they can be creative enough in the ways of evil as it is without putting notions in their heads for them. It does make for a pretty dark play from the first line onwards.

But, the original version of Everyman has one speech in it that surely lifts the heart of every reader who meets it. Having been forsaken by those he thought would always stand by his side, Everyman thinks he is alone until he discovers his ailing Good Deeds and that virtue's sister, Knowledge and it is Knowledge who says to him

Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide,
In thy most need, to go by thy side.

This, of course, is the preface to the books published in the Everyman series. Words that still thrill me every time I hear them.

So, how is this going to relate to Philip Roth's book? That remains to be seen. Not only, of course, a modern retelling, but also one by a notably non-Christian writer. Our discussion this week is going to be very interesting.


Friday, 4 March 2011

Horror on the Rue Morgue

Actually, the horror starts before we ever get to the Rue Morgue, because I have to admit that crime fiction addict that I am and despite working for decades in a University English Department, last night I read Poe's classic story for the first time.

Somehow, I have missed out on any in-depth study of the literature of the nineteenth century and consequently many texts that others take for granted I have only encountered if the whim has so taken me. My whim has never extended to Poe. I've read some of his poems and we used to use a short story, The Oval Portrait, as a means of introducing our first year undergrads to the novel thought that we might be interested in hearing their views about a text rather than simply having our own thoughts parroted back to us, but other than that my whim had never been wafted in Poe's direction. Thus, horror the first.

Horror the second comes with the murders themselves. You seriously don't want to be reading this book if you have any sort of squeamish stomach. Whatever anyone might say about the violence in present day crime fiction (and I was watching a seriously graphic televised version of one of Val McDermid's books the other evening that was enough to turn anyone's insides with the exception of the victim, whose insides were already thoroughly 'turned') it has nothing on what Poe describes here. You will have second and third thoughts about your safety, even behind locked doors, after you've shivered your way through this story, I can tell you.

But, horror the third comes when you find out whodunit. Don't worry, I'm not going to give the game away, but what a ..........! If you tried that in a modern novel you'd never get it past the publisher - at least I hope you wouldn't.

Having said that, in many ways this isn't typical of how crime fiction has developed over the intervening years. You can see how it leads to Sherlock Holmes, with the emphasis on close analysis of the detail of the crime and its surroundings and I suppose that does relate to some extent to those books that rely to a large extent on the use of the forensic sciences, but in truth this is a justification of a particular mode of thought, a specific cast of mind, that just happens to play itself out through the medium of a crime. Catching the perpetrator is secondary really.

Nevertheless, I'm glad I've read it and can now move on to other material from the period that is new to me. Next up is M E Brandon's Lady Audley's Secret, which is another book I should have read years ago. Fortunately a friend whose judgement I trust implicitly read this last year and loved it, so with luck I should fare better. No more horrors, I hope.


Wednesday, 2 March 2011

How Do You Like Your Shakespeare?

Yesterday evening I went to hear a colleague give his inaugural lecture as Professor in Shakespeare Studies.  John actually received his chair almost two years ago but it's taken the powers that be this long to get round to organising the event and we're all still trying to work out just why it was scheduled for a lecture theatre in the School of Sport and Exercise rather than the School of English, but as John is also a mountaineer it wasn't, perhaps, that inappropriate.  John is one of the great textual scholars and has worked on many of the best known editions of plays not only by Shakespeare but also by his contemporaries.  His most recent work is the just published Sir Thomas More for the Arden Early Modern Drama series and I can't wait to get my hands on a copy to see what he has to say about those scenes which are now thought to be by Shakespeare and which it appears we have in the Bard's own hand.

Last night, John chose to talk to the title Sit Down For Shakespeare and if that seems a somewhat unusual choice then you have to see it in the light of the Royal Shakespeare Company's recent educational thrust that aims to engage children through the performance aspects of the works and which is called Stand Up For Shakespeare.

Now, you can't teach Shakespeare in Stratford and not acknowledge that what the man was doing was writing plays and writing them to be performed.  Not only would none of us even think of taking an opposing stance but much of the work in the department is specifically performance based and, what is more, aimed at exploring what the performance practice of Shakespeare's time would have been.  However, John is a man who has given his working life to a close examination of the text and what he was exploring last night was the dynamic that comes about when you remember that, to quote him, 'Shakespeare is a book' and as such can repay the sort of close attention to detail which it is sometimes difficult to pick up in the hurly burly of live performance.  This isn't an example he gave but think of the number of times that Richard III is likened to specifically nasty animals throughout the play that bears his name.  In performance you are unlikely to pick this up, but when you realise what is going on you can see that one of the things Shakespeare wants us to know about the man is his bestial nature.  I could ask is he a man or is he an animal, but that would be unfair on some very nice animals I've known.

Citing that example allows me to take the point about the essential dynamic between textual study and performance a stage further because no serious actor would ever approach a part like Richard III without exploring the text in exactly the sort of detail John would prescribe and then utilising what they find to inform their interpretation.  In my memory we've had the bottled spider of Anthony Sher and the toad-like Richard of Simon Russell Beale, both direct reflections of elements of the text.

Taking the issue of dynamics a step further something that John did look at was Juliet's speech in Act II Scene iii of Measure for Measure.  Juliet, you will remember, is imprisoned along with her lover, Claudio, for having anticipated their marriage.  She, for the moment, is 'safe' because she is pregnant, but the disguised Duke has just come to tell her that Claudio is to die the following day.  Her response in just about every edition you will find is:

Must die to-morrow!  O, injurious law,
That respites me a life whose very comfort
Is still a dying horror.

I love this.  The Duke, disguised as a friar, has been trying to reconcile Juliet with her position and she tells him exactly what she thinks of the so called mercy she is being offered.  BUT, that word law is an emendation, substituted by generations of editors who thought that the word used in the First Folio of 1623 had to be an error, because what the First folio reads is

Must die to-morrow!  O, injurious love,
That respites me a life whose very comfort
Is still a dying horror.

Now, we could argue forever as to which is the more likely word for Shakespeare to have written.  Law, clearly fits, but so too does love and in more ways than one because it is the loving mercy of the church that the friar is offering (whatever you might think of the form it takes) and it is also the love between Juliet and Claudio that has resulted in her pregnancy which has saved her life.  But, why do we have to select one or the other?  Yes, of course, in a text or a performance you are going to have to make a decision, but if as a member of the audience (for which ever medium) you can hold the two in your mind together then think of the dynamic which that creates.  It is the very dynamic between the rule of love and the rule of law that is the central concern of the play as a whole.

No one is ever going to persuade me that Shakespeare was not first and foremost a man of the theatre, but equally I know from personal experience that close reading of the text can illuminate a performance for me in ways that would not have been possible if I had not taken the time to explore the detail of the words on the page.  So, I like my Shakespeare both ways, thank you, and I'm just so grateful that I have the opportunity to experience the performance and the textual aspects at the hands of such erudite practitioners in both disciplines.