Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Bell

Having come to Iris Murdoch two years ago, I have become convinced that she truly is, as so many critics argue, one of the greatest British writers of all time. I can still feel Christmas morning 2008, when I woke in my mother's house, padded downstairs to fetch a coffee and a warm mince pie, then returned to my bed and curled up under my duvet to resume The Sea, The Sea where I had unwillingly left it the night before, about halfway through. It was Christmas morning, for heavens sake - I heard the rest of the family stir and one by one go downstairs. Bits of broken conversation, laughter and smells of cooking mingled and drifted up to my room, but I ignored them and stayed with Murdoch. I simply couldn't put the book down, and only finally, reluctantly, even sulkily, did so when my mother came and knocked on my door to tell me that everyone was waiting for me so that we could open the presents. The Sea, The Sea remains one of my favourite books.

And so I have come at last to The Bell, one of the most popular of Murdoch's psychological studies of human behaviour. Here we find a group of social misfits - though largely, it must be said, no more 'misfitting' than any of us - holed up in a religious community awaiting the arrival of a new bell at the Abbey nearby. The opening sets the score, and is one of Murdoch's most brilliant:

"Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason."

Thus, are characters drawn with such a deft pen. And it is the characters who matter in Murdoch's novels. Ordinary situations are made extraordinary by the doings of ordinary people - momentary lapses of sanity, bad decision making and misreading of others motives create, for the characters in Murdoch's world, outlandish situations. In The Bell, I think I audibly groaned when Dora hatches her plan for the medieval bell that Toby has found at the bottom of the lake. I just wanted to shake her - don't be so stupid, surely you can see that this is going to go horribly wrong...? But of course, she goes ahead with it anyway, and of course, it all goes horribly wrong.

I love the way Dora's personality is cleverly revealed through her lack of belief in her own decisions. Frequently, she decides she will refuse to do something, and the next paragraph begins with her doing just that thing. Likewise, we are told early on that Toby has recently discovered and enjoyed the word 'rebarbative', and the word turns up regularly when Toby is the central character. Such simple techniques, so cleverly handled, are what raises Murdoch above her peers.

What really makes Murdoch stand out, though, is, of course, her brilliant understanding and encapsulation of the deep psychological motives, often unknown to ourselves, that govern our movements. A character - here, Michael, for example - may examine himself thoroughly, and believe that he has read a situation accurately, only to discover later that in fact he never had any idea what others were thinking or feeling and he has misjudged the whole scenario fatally.

Despite the academic depths of Murdoch's books, I am always surprised by how overtly readable they are. The Bell is funny, cringeworthy, pacey in its latter half (my only criticism would be that it takes a little while to really get going), intriguing, warm, and, at the end of the day, simply tells a good story.

For me, The Sea, The Sea is still Murdoch's best, but I have many more to go, having read only four so far, and The Bell, being comparatively short, is a pretty good place to start if you are unsure as to whether or not Murdoch is for you.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ministry of Stories

In 2002. the writer that is demi-god Dave Eggers (who would despise me for calling him that, but he is, so nur) started a children's creative writing space in San Francisco. It was named after its location, 826 Valencia. Over the past 8 years, its success has led to 'franchise' projects in cities all over the states, each with its own themed shop - The San Fran branch has a Pirate shop, the Brooklyn branch a Superhero store, the Seattle set-up a Space Travel Suppy Company etc. Famous and not-so-famous authors hold writing workshops at the Centres, teachers offer one-to-one tuition, field trips and school trips are organised...

Last year, Roddy Doyle, inspired by Eggers' success, set up his own Fighting Words project in Ireland, and I am utterly delighted to read in The Guardian today that Nick Hornby is now fronting the first English equivalent, to be called, in a nod, one presumes, to Harry Potter rather than post-war Britain's penchant for creating Ministries for Everything, the Ministry of Stories. (The name concerns me slightly, as I can't help feeling that older children will be put off by something so obviously childish - where an 18 year old might feel fine saying they were off to 826 Valencia, will they really be so happy to say they're visiting the Ministry of Stories? A minor point perhaps, but not irrelevant.)

Anyway, as an English teacher, I could not be more excited about this. I have prayed for years that the 826 projects would extend as far as Britain, and now, my wish has come true. It only remains for a branch to open in the North of England, and my non-working hours will be filled.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Golden Age of Illustration

The Edwardians have been described as a generation of young men and women who refused to grow up. Theirs was the era of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, stories which have come to define the dreamlike lives of many upper class boys and girls in the years preceeding the First World War. The Fabian idyll of the Belle Epoch could not have been ended more cruelly, but while it lasted, this was a time to embrace childhood and the imagination.

Between 1880 and 1930, some of the greatest artists in the world turned their considerable talents to illustrating children's books. Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Water Babies were inevitably popular choices, but many artists also looked to Fairy Tales for inspiration. I have collected here a small selection of my personal favourites by artists whose work you will be more than a little familiar with - and perhaps a few to whom this is your first introduction. Explore them further, I urge you. I grew up with many of these pictures, and they still have the power to make my heart beat faster in wonder.

Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939) is probably the best known children's story illustrator of the time - maybe of all time. His Art Nouveau style never patronised, and his use of muted colours instilled a twilight realism into every image. Below is a scene from Cinderella (or Aschenputtel) and below that, from The Goose Girl:

These next two are from Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and exhibit a dangerous beauty all of their own:

Over the Atlantic, Jessie Willcox Smith (1863 - 1935) was creating similarly dark illustrations, in which many of her heroines seem to cower and shy away from the fairy folk that approach them, as seen here in Cinderella and Snow White:

Kate Greenaway (1846 - 1901) had, of course, been drawing for children for a long time by the 1880s, and her pictures provide a sharp contrast to the threat that seems to lurk inside the pictures of Rackham and Smith. Greenaway was all about spring and meadows and flowers and washed out pastels. Here she shows tea parties and picnics in benign settings:

Likewise, Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879 - 1964) developed a twee style that is instantly recognisable as her own, but she was not averse to tackling some of Anderson's darker stories, such as The Ugly Duckling:

Even Edward Burne Jones (1833 - 1898), arguably the most talented of the Pre-Raphaelites, sourced ideas from Fairy Tales, using his trademark rich colours to imbue weight and depth to the stories he illustrated. This is taken from a series of pictures of Sleeping Beauty:

Edmund Dulac (1882 - 1953) is, for me, the most alluring of children's illustrators. His pictures from the Snow Queen have adorned my walls all my life, and he is part of the reason this is my favourite Fairy Tale. There is a loneliness, a haunting aspect, to his characters that really touches a nerve in me. Can you make out the Snow Queen herself in this first image?

And this, from the Little Mermaid, demonstrates again Dulac's simultaneous coldness and warmth:

Kay Nielsen's (1886 - 1957) work is more stylised, as shown in this illustration for The Tin Soldier: is that of Wilhelmina Drupsteen (1880 - 1966). These two come from Snow White:

All of these artists influenced the way children's books were illustrated for decades to come, and in no work is this more evident than that of twin sisters Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone (1928 - 1979 and 1998 respectively). I have shelves of books from my own childhood that have been lovingly brought to life by these two exceptional artists. Their prescision is phenomenal, and their use of light... well, you only have to look at these few examples to understand. This first is from The Princess and The Pea. Look at her dripping skirt!

The above illustration for The Little Match Girl is, to me, so flawless that even without knowledge of the story, it can break hearts. The truly beautiful can do that, I think.

And this, from The Frog Prince, pulls together flavours of the medieval and the Roaring Twenties in one single image that seems to even smell of wet trees and damp rock.

All of this is not to say that there are not stupendous children's illustrators at work today, for there truly are. But I think the era from which all the above pictures come is known as The Golden Age of Illustration for a reason...

Monday, 15 November 2010

Dark Matter

I have just moved into a Grade II listed cottage, built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, held up with beams from ships that sailed with the Mary Rose. No wall is straight, no doorway high enough for a man to pass through without stooping, no window large enough to let in more than a teaspoon of light. Pear tree branches scrape at the glass at night, wind howls down the chimney and through gaps in the ancient doors and windows, and the floorboards creak and groan continuously.

And so, alone in my cottage, I decided to read a ghost story.

Dark Matter is the tale of a doomed arctic expedition which results in one man, alone with his diary and a pack of huskies, living in perpetual night at the northern end of Svalbard (Spitsbergen at the time). He sees things in the snow and on the rocks, but more significantly, he feels things - horror, fear, malevolence, the things that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up without tangible explanation.

Michelle Paver writes well, though with a fondness for simple sentences that I found slightly childish (she is best known for her children's series beginning with Wolf Boy, after all). It is a book about place, which those of you who read ...Lamp - and Book regularly will know is my particular love, and it is indeed even about the very place I most dream of visiting one day.

Dark Matter is atmospheric, characters are well-drawn and likable enough where they need to be, though I might also suggest a little bland, and it is suggestively creepy enough to count as a ghost story. But did it do what ghost stories should do above all else, and scare me? Did I dread turning the light out at night? Did I see things in the corner of my eye, and fear what might be standing outside my bedroom door when I opened it? No.

I could make some suggestions as to why not - primarily, for me, it is too definite in its adamancy that what Jack experiences is a 'real' ghost, and way too simplistic in its reveal of the reason for the haunting. Far more interesting, surely, is the potential ambiguity that comes of the psychological trauma of being alone in 24 hour darkness in a landscape so brutal? The idea that even Jack could not be sure that what he saw was real, rather than a trick of his mind, would have made this more powerful. In all ghost stories, it is the not-knowing that is the most frightening aspect.

Although it is not being marketed as a children's book, I would recommend this to teenagers rather than adult connoisseurs of the genre. It is short, and enjoyable from the point of view of someone for whom experiencing first-hand this landscape and the Aurora Borealis is the number one dream, but is most certainly not terrifying. Not even to a young woman reading it alone in a 400 year old cottage in the Peak District...

The Fry Chronicles

And lo, the wind of Christmas blew in its annual drift of celebrity autobiographies. Obviously, Danny Dyer's was top of my list of must-reads, but it was Monsieur Fry's that ended up in my bag. And actually, I rather wish it hadn't been.

I love Stephen Fry as much as the next man, woman, child or endangered species does, but I found The Fry Chronicles cloying. It's not really, as it purports, about his time at Cambridge - this takes up a fairly miniscule amount of the book. The majority is concerned instead with, as Fry himself is at pains to stress in every other line, his enormous good fortune in finding highly paid work that he loved doing.

There is noticeably little about Hugh Laurie, for which there are many possible explanations: Fry didn't feel comfortable writing about him; Laurie didn't want anything but a few vague mentions; Laurie's American agents or lawyers didn't want anything but a few vague mentions; that's all to come in the next installment... I don't know, and, I realised as I read, that increasingly, I don't really care.

The problem I had with The Fry Chronicles is rather post-modern and is concerned with the set-up, which follows this pattern: Stephen tells us a story about how such-and-such a wonderful person (namedrop, namedrop) offered him a writing / acting / advertising job which paid an embarrasingly large sum of money with which he bought another house / car / computer, then proceeds to spend 4 pages whining about how none of this made him happy, and how he feels guilty that he still suffered from depression, and how he knows I, as his loyal reader, will HATE him whining about this, but how he still feels he must do it because that is his nature and after all, I'm reading the book because I am interested in his nature, aren't I?

Well, yes, Stephen, I suppose I am, but I am also interested in what that nature has to say about things outside of his own personal story. The parts where, for example, he uses Ben Elton's success as a springboard to give insightful commentary on the place of the arts in Thatcher's Britain, and suchlike, is far and away superior to whinging, self-indulgent moaning. His views on Rik Mayall, Alexei Sayle, class and alternative comedy are riveting and informative, particularly for one, like me, who was just old enough (in my early teens) to appreciate the rise of that scene. Now, that's not to say I wasn't expecting whinging, self-indulgent moaning, because of course I was, and I was expecting Stephen to apologise for it too, which he does at great length, but so much of it could have been edited out without taking away any of the sense. Stephen suffers from depression and feels guilty about it. We know this. He's told us before and he tells us again here. But once, twice is enough to get the measure of a man. Continuously telling us, and the measure begins to diminish.

I still love him, of course I do, and I still froth at the mouth for new QIs, but this book, unlike Moab is my Washpot, did not increase the fondness at all.

The Hopkins Manuscript

This isn't my usual kind of book, and I have no idea why I chose it; I was just strangely drawn, I suppose. After all, I bought it from the Persephone shop, so it's not like I just fancied a Persephone and this is all my local Waterstones had... Anyway, buy it I did, and what a happy accident it was.

The Hopkins Manuscript is a 1930s Sci-Fi novel, and tells of an impact between our Earth and its moon. It is, however, so refreshingly different in style to the fast-paced, action-packed, thriller-esque Science Fiction we are offered by today's cinematic experience as to belong to a different genre almost entirely; our hero, for it is written in first person, is an unlikeable middle aged rural chicken breeder, pompous, self-important, and rude. One of the small percentage of people to survive the collision, he sets about the day to day tasks of rebuilding 'normal life', but he and others are scuppered in their desire to simply continue a simple and peaceful existence by the larger machinations of warmongering government.

This book has haunted me since I read it. I cannot look at the moon anymore without thinking of The Hopkins Manuscript. The larger portion of the story is taken up with the build-up to the collision, with the moon's increasingly bulbous monthly appearance in the sky as it nears Earth described in such vivid terms that one does become surrounded by the creepy vacuous winds that accompany its approach, and one starts to see the otherworldly light in which Earth becomes bathed as its monstrous satellite begins to fill the night sky. There is a feeling of helplessness, of the natural horror of the impending destructive power of something so utterly beyond human power to halt.

Despite his selfishness and judgemental attitude, Hopkins becomes a trustworthy ally to us as readers, and dare I say it, we do, I think, warm to him. He is the right guide for a book which shows us the very smallness of our quotidian lives within the bigger picture; The Hopkins Manuscript is a 9/11 novel, in the sense that it makes you consider the life you will have lived in the event of a world-altering catastrophe. It is also, of course, a book still haunted by WW1 and living in the shadow of an approaching WW2 (it was written in 1939), and allegories are not hard to find. It is interesting that the final threat comes from the Islamic world, which adds a prescient nature to the novel, although better informed historians than I may well point instead to inevitability.

This is an alarming and powerful novel, both gentley prosaic and wildly terrifying, and I recommend it unreservedly even if you would never normally go near Science Fiction. It fits perfectly into the Persephone canon, and as both wonderful storytelling and historically significant document, is hard to beat.