Week 116: The Pause Button

European-FlagsWe are living through a freeze-frame here, as Thursday 23rd June creeps towards us.  Some of us remember being asked, way back in 1975, whether we wanted to be part of Europe.  Yes, we said – especially we the young, voting for the first time in our lives.  We are the post-war generation: blessed with the astonishing gift our parents and grandparents gave us of being the first Britons in history to feel confident that we would not be at war with our fellow Europeans in our lifetimes.  We have children born as European citizens, part of a forward-looking, joyfully international community that looks back at a world shaped by mediaeval boundaries as a primitive past that we have matured out of.  Fragile, endangered and vulnerable though it is, we are the generations that are comfortable with our multiple identities.  We belong; to our families, our friendship groups, our communities, and also to the long histories written into our DNA that we choose to respond to – as Scots who have never been north of Watford, fifth-generation Latvians, descendants of Africans, Norsemen: we all know who we think we are.  And we have the right to feel part of the European family, too, not waifs pressing our noses to the glass from our off-shore island.  We can drop by, move in, invite others to pull up a chair: Europe is our home and we live here.

So you will appreciate that I was already living under a cloud of apprehension as this hateful, ridiculous referendum slouches ever nearer, and the rhetoric and the propaganda became ever more unhinged.  I think this must be a little like living through the summer of 1939, and it is horrible.  And then Jo Cox was murdered. rose

At times like this, when the world seems to teeter on its axis and faith in the essential wisdom and goodness of humans feels quite hard to hold onto, I need books to give me backbone and to give me solace.  This might be a very good moment to curl up into a little ball with The Wind in the Willows (the NorthernReader Ultimate Comfort Book) and stay there until it has all blown over.  Not long enough? How about all twelve Arthur Ransome novels? Or Winnie The Pooh with its extremely pertinent reminder that ‘everyone’s alright really’ (unfortunately I am not nearly as nice a person as Pooh and, even as I try reciting his helpful observation, my Inner Unpleasant Person – never very far beneath the skin – is thinking about one or two of the least savoury of the present campaigns and muttering ‘well not him, obviously’).

Perhaps I need the long view.  Norman Davies’ Europe: a History has much to commend it.  No-one could accuse Professor Davies of short-changing the reader – one thousand pages taking us from the Ice Age to the end of the twentieth century – a breadth that might encourage a sense of ‘this too will pass’.  Oxford and Cambridge University Presses both have their multi-volumed Histories, of course, and offer plenty of opportunity to specialise as well, with histories of Early Modern, Enlightenment and Modern Europe jostling for consideration.  But there is more to life than non-fiction, and there is useful perspective to be gained by a re-read of Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty greeksDead, or Seamus Heaney’s marvellous Beowulf , both salutary reminders that we  come from a long line of marauding chaps who like fighting.  We tend to buy into the whole hero thing a teensy bit uncritically, it seems to me.  How much nicer the world might be if we lost no opportunity, when reading these tales out loud, to point out that heroes (and the gods of hero cultures) are a bunch of intellectually-challenged thugs who have neither the brains nor the courage to give debate, compromise and consensus a whirl.  Mothers, tell your children.

So much of European history has been a sorry narrative of fighting to the death over little indistinguishable bits of muddy ground.  The role of the Captain in Hamlet is barely a dozen short lines, and no actor yet besieged his agent to get him the part, but in his brief moment on the stage he captures all the hopeless futility of war between neighbours:

Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.

Hamlet predicts

The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds

Hamlet was written four hundred years ago.  Shakespeare’s audience recognised the tragic idiocy of war as age-old then, and we still respond to the play today because we still live in that same world, in thrall to mediaeval notions of boundaries.

Once the Referendum votes have been cast and counted, one way or the other, the Pause button will be double-clicked.  Whatever the result, we must not let hatred and fear have any resting place.  We will play on.hands

Week 115: ‘Honour is Purchased By the Deeds We Do’

WP_20150803_16_37_18_ProOur dog Bingo shares an official birthday with HM Queen.  His, admittedly, is a date arrived at for slightly different reasons: less in need than Her Majesty for a date when the sun might be presumed to shine (ha!) on the public outpourings of congratulation, Bingo has rather more in common with Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear, who has an official birthday to make up for the fact that he has mislaid his own in his long travels to a new life.  While we, of course, feel honoured to have been adopted by this small and determined cocker spaniel, it is the Queen’s privilege to bestow honours from the sweetie-jar of the British array of knighthoods, dameries, and orders of this and that.  This year’s little lot have attracted the opprobrium of the ranting Brexiters, who, glittery-eyed as the madness takes hold, see evidence in the Birthday Honours that everyone’s being horrid to them and you have to be pro-EU to get a medal around here.  Well, it’s a point of view, I suppose, but it does rather miss the point that you have to earn honours by achieving something.  Unlike, for example, the drear lists of the aeons-before-yesterday third-raters driven by grudges, arrant xenophobia and an inability to comprehend (or indeed to think it worth teaching) the basics of history or economics.

So, having got that off my chest (thank you: there will undoubtedly be more despairing pro-twenty-first-century bleatings from me as we move ever more swiftly to the referendum clifftop), how does the Honours system fare in books?

Once upon a time, it seems, things were much simpler.  Some chaps were knights, principally because of their prowess at killing other people in a very sporting manner, and others were lords, principally by dint of being the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of other chaps who had not only been awfully good at killing people but who had impressed some king or other (himself a chap awfully good at killing people but with the added finesse of getting other chaps to do at least some of the killing for him) and been given a slightly casually carved-off chunk of  Britain to go and be mini-me in – sorry, make that ‘go and hold in the name of King Whoever’.   Presumably on the grounds of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies even closer’, many of these lords were brothers or younger sons of kings.  The whole thing is the teeniest bit testosterone-fuelled – girls only got to be ladies by marrying, or being the daughters of, knights and lords (which is one in the eye for all those mothers who told their daughters that being a lady is all about good manners and having a hankie on you at all times).  And what all this leads to, in bookish terms, is of course Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (read the fabulous translation by Simon Armitage) and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King (now I come to think about it, that’s a knight and a lord doing the writing: come on, Ma’am, a knighthood for Mr Armitage please).  It does not take a social commentator of genius to spot that the whole world of Arthurian legend is really frightfully County, where, darling, absolutely everyone knows everyone else and is titled, has a huge country estate and enjoys blood sports.  Oh, and the girls hang g and laround in inappropriately flimsy frocks and lust after the brawny chaps rather than the infinitely rarer thoughtful ones (Gawain, for example; brave and handsome and with an IQ struggling towards a whole number on the evidence of the text; or indeed Arthur himself, the last man on the planet to spot what is going on between his wife and  —  Freud-thou-shouldst-be-living-at-this-hour —  Lancelot).

All this land-owning brings us to Shakespeare.  William himself didn’t have much of it, but what he had he held, grimly moving boundary stones to gain an extra few inches on his fields in Stratford and buying the biggest house in his old home town.  But knights, lords and kings were his stock-in-trade, and his English history plays are awash with people called Suffolk, Warwick and York.  A moment’s inattention at the theatre and one can feel high and dry in a sea of people addressing each other as Leamington Spa or Chipping Sodbury, bringing about strong feelings of solidarity with Winnie the Pooh, who querulously enquired, ‘Three Cheers for Pooh! For who? Why, what did he do?’.  When you add into the heady mix the fact that there were very few Christian names to go around, you can see what a social nightmare living in Mediaeval England must have been, as exemplified in the snappy little dialogue between Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York in Richard III (it’s Act 4 Scene 4 if you’re dying to read on):

QUEEN MARGARET

Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill’d him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;

DUCHESS OF YORK

I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holp’st to kill him.

QUEEN MARGARET

Thou hadst a Clarence too, and Richard kill’d him.

The Queen is cheating at this point, because the Duke of Clarence (the one who gets drowned in a butt of malmsey) has a perfectly good first name, George, which has the unique selling point of being unbagged by anyone else in the play (although to be honest there are so many bit-parts for Lord This and Lord That, any one of whom might have been known to their friends and relations as ‘good old George’, that I’m afraid I did not go and look them all up for you.  Sorry).

But to end on a bright note.  The NorthernReader household has long presumed that Penelope Wilton’s Damehood must have been lost in the post.  Today, hurray and hurrah, it arrived.   To a truly great actress, congratulations.Dame Penelope Wilton

Week 111: The Festive Reader (and its prey)

hexhamThis week and next sees the Hexham Book Festival strut its stuff on a stage/in a café/gallery/library/cinema/Abbey near the NorthernReader stronghold: o joy, o rapture is a not unreasonable response, especially for James Naughtie devotees (as who could not be?) who have a  BBC Radio 4 Book Club session with Tony Harrison and the launch of Mr Naughtie’s own novel to look forward to. Wherever you are, certainly in Britain, it seems increasingly unlikely that you will not find yourself within sauntering distance of a literary festival of one sort or another between now and October.  Authors have become the new strolling players, ever on the road smiling bravely and often, answering the same question from Ashby-de-la-Zouche to Stromness and signing their little paws off.  Woe betide the plain, the recalcitrant and the reclusive: the modern author can forget the luxury of anonymity.  Should you happen to have a warm, engaging personality as well as a flair for writing fiction, your book sales can only be enhanced, but sadly the converse also holds: there are one or two writers whose dour demeanour and brusque absence of good manners has forever tainted my enjoyment of their writing.

Which is extremely unfair of me on two counts: a) because authors, no less than other more ordinary mortals, have the right not to be judged on their appearance and b) because such discrimination can only be applied to writers who post-date photography.  Yes, yes, I know that there are writers immortalised in pastels, watercolours and oils, but even setting aside the objection that only the wealthy, the famous in their own lifetimes or the writers with artistic siblings qualified for being captured on canvas, one glance at, say, the Droeshout engraving of William Shakespeare is enough to remind us that a good likeness can be hard to find.  But even though it undoubtedly shouldn’t donnematter, does it matter?  Are we drawn to or repelled by John Donne’s uncanny resemblance to Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy fame?  Is Philip Larkin’s reputation for unpleasantness bolstered by his frankly lugubrious mugshots?  And how would our reading of Chaucer change if we found a portrait which showed him to be a ringer for Shrek?

The idea of the author as celebrity, ever on the road promoting his or her work, is scarcely new.  Indeed we have an illustration of Chaucer himself reading his work to the chaucercourt of Richard II, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to hear him doing all the voices and keeping his audience enthralled.  Perhaps the greatest performer of his own work was Charles Dickens.  He toured the country, and the United States as well, giving readings of his novels so dramatic that people in the huge audiences fainted.  Dickens was clearly a brilliant actor: think what it must have been to be his parlourmaid, walking past the study door and hearing Bill Sikes and Nancy rather startlingly slugging it out, with pauses while their new-minted words were written down.  Now it is rare for the author to be the wisest choice of reader, but goodness me the pleasure of the perfect reading.  Alan Bennett, for example, clearly put upon earth to give us Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner and The Wind in the Willows (among much else, Bennett has also recorded Alice in Wonderland which is also sublime but somehow never quite made it onto the NorthernReader Truly Indispensable list).  The BBC’s Radio 4 is the source of much realewisding-aloud perfection:  I have recently much enjoyed listening to Damien Lewis reading John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth, not least because I am at heart shallow  (it should come as no surprise to learn that I am eagerly awaiting the film of Our Kind of Traitor).

But deciding which famous actor should be tasked with reading your favourite book, or indeed your own first novel, for posterity is perilously close to deciding who should play you when they make the biopic (not that there’s any harm in Being Prepared, of course: who does not have their list of eight records, a book and a luxury ready just in case Kirsty phones?)  The fact remains that most writers today, including the ones who only became writers as a by-product of their Badger-like aversion to Company, have to pitch up at endless events where a brightly anticipatory audience demands insights into the creative process, answers to questions about how much you fancy your own main character, and a preview of your latest effort read, falteringly and woodenly, by you, aware as you are that you have either not explained who these characters are and what the hell they are doing sitting in an empty ballroom/on an upturned boat/in the Sistine Chapel discussing the death of someone else the audience has never heard of, or that in the depth and complexity of your introductory explanations you have killed off any need for purchasing your book together with, judging from their frozen glazed expressions, much of your audience’s will to live.

But be not afeard, as Shakespeare so comfortingly reminds us; the isle is full of noises, and many of them at this time of year are the sounds of polite audiences applauding before they queue to buy your book.  Never mind that when they ask you to dedicate their copy you are pretty sure they asked you to write ‘To Dirty’  and it is only later – much, much later – that it occurs to you it is more probable that the name was Bertie.  Yours, dear author, are the sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.  And only three or four readers out of ten at every festival will unfailingly assure you that they will get your new book from the library.books

Week 103: The Film of the Book

untitled (6)It is a truth universally acknowledged that nowadays ‘I’ve read that’ can mean ‘I’ve seen the film’. There is no moral ground to be fought over here; frankly, in a world dealing with Isil, Donald Trump and climate change, no-one really gives a hoot whether you have read Middlemarch or watched the BBC adaptation. Sometimes your belief that because you once saw a film with the same name as a book you have not read you know what happens is misplaced. Mr Darcy, GCSE, A level and undergraduate English Literature students please note, does not go swimming in his undies at any point in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Neither Winnie-the-Pooh nor Babe are Americans in the books by AA Milne and Dick King-Smith (The Sheep Pig and utterly delightful). Come to that, the dull Inspector Morse has an equally dull and older sergeant in Colin Dexter’s novels. So the shape-shifting vertiginous journey from page to screen is an unpredictable process with very few rules. Add to that the fact that every film adaptation will infuriate at least as many I’ve-read-the-book viewers as it woos I’ve-never-read-the-book-and-I’m-not-planning-to, and you can see that all judgments are entirely subjective and you might find yourself shouting at the screen if you read on.

Let’s start with an easy one. Pride and Prejudice has been filmed twice (however tempting, I am ignoring Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, about to be unleashed upon a grateful, or bored, world). The 1940 version starred Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson and the principal hand in the script seems to have been Aldous Huxley’s. The plot bears some resemblance to the novel but is kinder, simpler and more romantic: three adjectives that illustrate the gulf between script and Austen, whose genius lies in her clear-sighted ability to be ruthlessly nasty about her characters. Olivier does his moody cleft-chin stuff to denote the romantic hero, an approach he had perfected the year before as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. I suppose we could be charitable and consider his performance in Pride and Prejudice as valuable war-work. Heaven knows people in Britain needed escapist, romantic films to go and see during the war, and this hugely popular film undoubtedly did its bit on both sides of the Atlantic to keep an idea of a heritage worth fighting for in the forefront of the public mind.

untitled (5)Sixty-five years later, the gods of the film industry decreed that the time was ripe for a new version, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen. The first odd thing about this perfectly passable adaptation is how uninteresting it is compared to the same producers’ earlier film of Helen Fielding’s clever modernisation of Pride and Prejudice: yes, of course, the really jolly Bridget Jones’s Diary (but don’t bother with Bridget Jones 2, 3 and so on ad infinitum: notice that Miss Austen did not do sequels).   And the other oddity is, ‘why did they bother?’, when the BBC version, made in 1995 and starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, still held its unassailable iconic status, wet shirts notwithstanding.

imagesGAFL9CJJThe BBC’s great advantage, of course, was being able to tell its two-hundred-or-so page story across six 55-minute episodes rather than the edited-highlights approach dictated by a film’s two hours or so. The great exemplar of How to Film a Novel was made by Granada Television in 1981. In eleven languid but compelling episodes, Charles Sturridge (and Michael Lindsay-Hogg) creased the spine of their paperback edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited at Page 1and filmed exactly what the text said. That they also, serendipitously, found the perfect cast, the perfect locations and even the perfect music is all part of the magic. Someone made a film of the same name in 2008. Oh well.

The elbow-room that television allows is why the BBC Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is absorbing while the film is baffling. Should you be in the mood for an extended masterclass in acting, I can heartily recommend a weekend indoors watching Alex Guinness glacially and monumentally bring George Smiley to life in Tinker Tailor and Smiley’s People. You could, of course, make it a personal Le Carré festival by reading the books. John Le Carré, or David Cornwell as his parents thought of him, has written twenty-three novels so far, not one of them a dud. Better make it quite a long weekend.

There are books which, while perfectly good in themselves, are not a patch on their apotheosis in film. Graham Greene wrote the novella The Third Man as a warm-up exercise for the screenplay: publishing it must have felt like a redundancy. John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps is a fast-moving adventure story with endless twists and daring escapes: Hitchcock’s film plays fast and loose with the novel and is much more fun. Several other films of the book have been made, including one or two infinitely more faithful to the original. Never mind: what you want is Robert Donat and Carole Lombard. Then there are the terrible books that made terrible movies: The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey come unbidden to mind. Even mountitled (4)re guilty of Crimes Against Celluloid are the terrible movies that feed upon the desolate corpses of perfectly decent books; or, in the case of The Cat in the Hat, -much-loved and important books. Please, Mike Myers, never do that again.

Films tell stories, and so do novels. They exist and thrive because we, their readers and audience, are forever greedy for more tales to enthral us, delight us, move us, horrify us and make us think. We are homo fabulans, the animal that tries to make sense of the world it finds itself in by imagining scenarios. It matters not a jot whether we read War and Peace or watch the latest adaptation. Either way, we will be letting Tolstoy take us by the hand and draw us into the lives of people we will love, or hate, judge and care about, as we let the story help us ask why we humans behave as we do. As Marshall McLuhan didn’t say, the medium doesn’t matter much. Find what works for you and get the message.

Well, when did we last have such an impeccably non-gratuitous picture?

Well, when did we last have such an impeccably non-gratuitous picture?

Week 98: Books for Birthdays

untitled (15)The lovely KatePonders has had a birthday. A visit from bestest-friend-in-the-whole-world, a morning’s shooting at clays (we know how to live) and an unfeasibly large amount of cake: we may have stumbled on the recipe for the perfect birthday celebrations. With the aching chasm of another 365 days to go before she has another birthday (2016 being, my maths suggests, a leap year), we do at least have plenty of time for a thorough survey of bookish birthdays to see how we might do it even better in future.

Serendipitously, KatePonders shares a birthday with Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party must therefore take first place on this week’s bookshelf. Fabulous, funny, menacing, absurd, enigmatic and contradictory, Pinter’s play is definitely a must-see as well as a must-read. I was quite surprised to find that it is not, as far as I can see, being staged anywhere at the moment. Presumably it is not an A level set text and therefore cannot be guaranteed to bring in enough audience to break even.   It seems to me to be a shame that theatre, especially in the hugely-funded London theatre, has largely become musical adaptations of Disney films, revivals of musicals from the mid-twentieth century or confections that string the collected works of Abba into some sort of narrative (no I haven’t seen it, nor am I making any plans to). The few bones thrown to us non-metropolitan types via the undoubted glories of live streaming should be the beginning of a rich play-going renaissance, not a meagre sop to keep us knowing our place and looking grateful. How easy it would be for the Arts Council, which currently gives an overwhelming majority of its coffers to London-based endeavours, to insist on countrywide screening as a condition of funding. ‘Thursday night is theatre night’: don’t you think that has a pleasing ring to it?

untitled (14)Eeyore, Kipper and Little Grey Rabbit all celebrate their birthdays, or have them celebrated for them, in children’s books, and the eponymous My Naughty Little Sister and her friend Bad Harry have a great time at another child’s birthday party, even if they do suffer the aftermath of greed later that day. As ever, we need to turn to Dickens for some relief from all the sweetness and light. David Copperfield has what he himself calls A Memorable Birthday. Yes, should vague memories of the plot of his Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation be trickling back to you, it’s THAT scene in which Mrs Creakle, the headmaster’s wife, has a crack at the difficult art of breaking bad news gently and, it would be fair to say, proves not to be a natural at it. Oliver Twist’s ninth birthday sees him moved from Mrs Mann’s establishment for ‘juvenile offenders against the Poor Laws’ to Mr Bumble’s workhouse. Good though the film is (even despite the inexplicable failure to cast the original stage ‘Nancy’, Georgia Brown), go and read the book again to send a shiver down your spine at the sheer relentless drabness and nastiness of the Victorian approach to welfare. Only Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes close.

Birthdays in books aimed at adults – and Dickens, of course, was aiming at absolutely anyone of any age who could be persuaded to join his legions of readers – are sadly often a focus of gloom and despondency, almost especially when the celebrant is a child. Poor old Leo in The Go-Between, for example, ends up with a thirteenth birthday that is certainly memorable. Irina’s name-day is the starting-point for Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; a good enough reason to urge you to read this wonderful, witty, dark and heart-breaking play from the greatest of nineteenth-century playwrights (and indeed one of the very greatest of any time). Irina is twenty at the start of the play, but still child enough to be thrilled with the spinning-top she is given. Perhaps Chekhov, a doctor, was ahead of us in acknowledging that, as the most recent research has established, the human brain does not achieve maturity until it is at least as old as KatePonders.

And we must have poetry. For once, Dylan Thomas is just right here: not, for me, his ‘Poem for his Birthday’, which feels too sonorous, too consciously beautiful, as if Thomas had slipped across the line between a unique voice and a parody of himself; but ‘Poem in October’ (another autumn birthday celebrant), with its wonderful images of the heron priested shore and a walk ‘in a shower of all my days’. Which of us has not had an autumn walk like that, misted and fine-spray drizzled, kicking up the golden leaves and letting thoughts and memories cascade? More sobering, perhaps, but indispensable, is Louis Macneice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’, whose litany of imperatives – hear me, console me, forgive me – could usefully be required reading for those contemplating parenthood. Finding a poem for someone’s birthday is, though, fraught with peril, as you steer a precarious path between trite nonsense on one hand and the tendency of good poets to think of birthdays as another milestone on the road to death: true, of course, painfully true, but not quite what you were aiming for to go with your carefully-wrapped present and your balloon. But we could certainly give Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’. ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy’ might seems a tad melancholy for what should be a happy day, but forewarned is forearmed, and we might do a lot worse than determine to keep the clouds of glory trailed about us. Now that would be a great birthday present.

Michelangelo-creation-of-adam-index

Week 91: Boredom

68208b428b_Hungry-and-Being-BoredIt is a well-known fact in the NorthernReader household that I have a low boredom threshold. One of the disadvantages of being quite bright, it turns out, is a tendency to spot who dunnit and where this plot is going rather sooner than the writer hoped. That is, of course, no reason in itself to stop reading; nor is the dawning realisation that I’ve been here before. I know, for example, what happens in Hamlet. The ending does not take me by surprise; and yet I can settle down in my seat for production after production, confident that the Boredom Elf will not be tapping me on the shoulder for the next couple of hours. But on other occasions …

We went to see the new, much-hyped, Tom Stoppard play, The Hard Problem. I adore Tom Stoppard. And his plays. I would vote for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Travesties and Jumpers for any list of Great Plays of the Twentieth Century. But I’m afraid the hardest problem a couple of weeks ago was what am I doing here trapped in the cinema (yes, once again the joys of streaming meant we were watching live, cheaply and locally) and what else could I have been doing that would have been more dramatically engaging? Cleaning the oven was a serious contender. The good news is that there was no interval: the ‘play’ (I use the term loosely) is short. The bad news, on the other hand, is that there is no interval, which means that the nicely brought up in the audience cannot make its excuses and leave until the end. Ah yes the end: I thought (hoped) I spotted it coming several times before it did. So why am I, self-evidently the Pollyanna of the critical world with never a cross word to say about anything (except Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer, obviously), being so vile and rude about the latest work by a really, truly great playwright? Well, it’s because I was bored rigid from the first few seconds, when I realised that the basic Law of Plays had been jettisoned. The Law, as of course you know, is that a play should have dramatic tension. It should be possible – easy, even – to spot that you are not at a reading. Especially not at a reading of an early draft along the lines of ‘is this an interesting idea? Might there be a play in here somewhere?’ Dear Sir Tom, yes there might. Had the production money gone on sending us each a slip of paper with the basic premise printed on it, we could have staged an infinitely more riveting evening by sitting around and debating it: for about five minutes, because, to be perfectly honest – and I do seem to be emulating William Brown this week and Speaking Truth One to Another – it isn’t a tremendously new or stimulating idea.

The Glums.  It all comes flooding back to me ... very, very slowly

The Glums. It all comes flooding back to me … very, very slowly

I have been bored before. I was the person who responded to the lovely Vivien Leigh’s declaration, ‘I will go back to Tara’ (it happens about eighty hours into Gone With the Wind) with the heartfelt cry, ‘oh please God no!’ That was me, moaning aloud with boredom and trying to read the programme in the dark as the interminable dreariness of Les Miserables droned by. Books have been flung aside before now at the moment when I realise that I have no recollection of any of the characters, cannot distinguish one from another, and do not care a fig what happens to any of them. As it happens, I stand by all these judgments; but sometimes, my boredom-o-meter swings wildly. Take Tess of the d’Urbervilles, for example. When I first read it, I was a rather earnest fourteen-year-old. I loved it (I spurned the light comedic touch at least as much as Hardy: we were, at that moment, made for each other). A decade or so later, a worldlier young woman, I flung the same book across the room and left off re-reading at the point at which Angel Clare flounces out into the night: his hypocrisy was intolerable to me (young people are, of course, notoriously self-righteous and both Angel Clare and I were young). Later yet, teaching ‘The Novel’ to undergraduates, an attempted reconciliation between me and Thomas Hardy was foiled by the relentless undermining of several hundred essays which not only repeated back to me the points I had made in lectures (note to students: have the courtesy to read the whole book and find your own episode in it to discuss) but also rubbed my face in the fact that they fully expected to garner a good degree without meeting me half-way by, for example, bothering to check how the book’s title is spelt. Four hundred essays on Tess of the Dubervilles are guaranteed to drive the iron deep into the academic soul.

And then there are the children’s books that it is the fate of every parent to read aloud again … and again … and again. Only the greatest – books and parents – can survive that sort of test. So thank you, wonderful Judith Kerr, Rod Campbell, Martin Waddell and Mick Inkpen. And hurray for Beatrix Potter, AA Milne and Kenneth Grahame. I still read them now: and I’m never bored.

Once again, thank you, Bill Watterson

Once again, thank you, Bill Watterson

Week 89: He Do the Police in Different Voices

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It’s been a trying week, watching and – even worse – listening to grown men and women squirm and cavort in the increasingly desperate hope that they might inspire us to like them, or perhaps pity them, enough to vote for them. What with one chap deciding that suit jackets are some sort of symbol of oppressive tyranny, making shirt sleeves a uniform regardless of the weather (I don’t know about you, but I’m not casting any clouts just yet), and another bloke inflicting an excruciatingly awkward Dick Van Dyke sound-alike audition on us when he grovelled round a multi-millionaire middle-aged and somewhat bafflingly self-appointed representative of Youth, it’s all been a bit demeaning. I’m afraid the answer to the question, ‘just how stupid do they think the electorate are?’ is pretty clear. So I thought we might turn away from the hurly-burly of the hustings and give some thought to the uses of disguise.

This week’s title comes, as you well know, from Charles Dickens via TS Eliot. Dickens coined it in Our Mutual Friend to describe Betty Higden’s son (rather splendidly known as Sloppy, as if he were a prototype for Wodehouse) and his talent for reading out the lurid bits in the newpapers; and Eliot borrowed it as the working title for what he later decided to call The Waste Land instead. Eliot’s poem is a fabulous patchwork of different voices, colliding, overlapping, coming in from nowhere. If you haven’t read it, or at least not for a while, rush off and do so now, preferably aloud, and, now that you are not in school and it is not a menacing set text, find all the humour and zest lurking within it. Eliot was not necessarily everyone’s idea of the perfect dinner-party guest – not often given to having the table in stitches – but as well as the undeniably austere philosophy and the rigorously scholarly breadth of his cultural references, he was not unaware of the divine comedy of human existence. Try The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock if you don’t believe me.

I have NO IDEA who this could be

I have NO IDEA who this could be

Some disguises in fiction are, we are told, amazingly effective. Sherlock Holmes, for example, can baffle everyone around him – and especially, of course, Dr Watson, Baldrick to Holmes’s Blackadder – with his ability to metamorphose into – gosh! – a working class person. Poor old Mrs. Hudson, ironing the plumber’s outfit after Holmes comes back from a tiring day righting wrongs (or, of course, stalking people. It all depends on your perspective). At a slightly more sophisticated level, the basic premise behind GK Chesterton’s detective, Father Brown, is that we automatically presume that a bumbling Catholic priest must be too simple and unworldly to unravel the cynical heart of the villainous mysteries he stumbles across. His biretta works as a constant disguise, on the same lines as Edgar Allan Poe’s brilliant understanding of where the best place might be to hide The Purloined Letter. Graham Greene develops the idea in The Power and the Glory, and the Whisky Priest is just one of Greene’s flawed heroes whose greatness and courage is disguised, not least from themselves. Greene and Eliot knew and liked each other, incidentally, and were profound admirers of each other’s work. I remain unconvinced that that dinner party I am constructing in my mind would go with more of a swing if they were both invited, nonetheless.

Setting aside all the metaphorical ways in which characters in fiction (and indeed in what we laughingly call real life) disguise their true nature – and Jane Austen is the Mistress of Metaphorical Disguise – a change of costume and some greasepaint can shove the plot forward a treat. Would Mr Rochester ever have got round to declaring his feelings for Jane if he hadn’t happened to have a complete Gypsy Woman outfit knocking around? And doesn’t it say a lot for Jane that, on discovering that the man of her dreams is an occasional cross-dresser, she takes it awfully well? What with that, the endless lying and smirking secrecy and – oh yes! – not just common-or-garden adultery or even attempted bigamy, but actually keeping the present Mrs Rochester in the attic, perhaps Jane is setting her standards just a little bit low. Apart from anything else, I suspect that Rochester’s disguise is on a par with Violet-Elizabeth Bott’s Beatle wig in Richmal Crompton’s unmissable Just William stories (or, indeed, when a temporary and very muddy incarnation as a squaw in William’s tribe renders her unrecognisable to her own father).

untitled (22)Which brings me to the finest disguiser of them all. Should Martin Jarvis ever feel a bit down in the dumps and wonder what it’s all for, I hope he will take comfort from the hordes and legions of his admirers, whose lives have been made that little bit sparklier by his readings of Just William. And, if you are familiar with those, rush out now and acquaint yourself with Mr Jarvis bringing all PG Wodehouse’s characters to life on CD. Yes, that’s right, all of them. Once heard, never forgotten. Some people suffer from voices in the head (known in the NorthernReader household as Joan of Arc syndrome), and jolly miserable it probably is for them. Others, more fortunate, simply have Martin Jarvis being Aunt Agatha, or Jeeves, or Violet-Elizabeth, giving command performance for their (inner) ear only. Add Alan Bennett as Eeyore and you will never again question the truth that radio is the medium of choice.

And the good news? Readers-who-are-voters-in-the-UK-General-Election, the end – one way or the other – is nigh. My advice for Thursday night would be to go to bed early with a good book.

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PS You might think us gluttons for punishment, but the next NorthernReader Book Club is going to talk about POLITICS. Eleven o’clock in the morning on Thursday 14th May (see the Book Club page for how to find us). There will be cake. Now, why don’t more politicians use that simple and persuasive phrase?