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?

Week 84: Tick Tock

article-1261326-08E97E88000005DC-775_233x321It’s one of life’s little achievements, realising beforehand that the clocks are going forward an hour during the night. In the far-distant land that was Me Going to Real Work in a Real Office, the only notes left on desks with the time pencilled oh-so-casually-on were the ones left at half past six in the morning by serial insomniacs, or party-goers for whom the dawn and the end of the carousing had merged, making it too late to go home and start out again and offering the chance to look utterly dedicated to the job (if a bit bleary and, later in the day, prone to calamitous misjudgements and a tendency to fall asleep during meetings). Now, in just the same way, Sunday morning when the clocks have sprung forward suddenly seems like the perfect moment to be unusually gregarious. Church sees its highest turn-out for weeks; cars are being ostentatiously groomed on front drives; husbands are volunteering for the not-strictly-necessary trip to the supermarket. And after all that unwonted early-hours activity, what could be nicer than to curl up in corner with a good book?

Not, for me, Audrey Nifenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (one L: she’s American). It’s a book that generated quite a lot of steam when it was published in 2003, but I have to confess that I thought it by turns tawdry and dull, which, you have to agree, is not much of a recommendation. Frankly I’d much rather have Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Mediaeval England (two Ls: he’s not), which is a vividly written exploration of what, when I was little, was called ‘Everyday Life in …’ (and a most enjoyable series of school textbooks they were, too, with lots of opportunities for colouring the illustrations, no doubt to the irritation of the teachers but at least we were quiet). Mortimer has now added The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England, presumably skipping earlier Tudors on the premise that Hilary Mantel has covered the ground efficiently, sufficiently and memorably.

Time travel, and the quantum physics thereof, form the core of what at first sight might seem like an unlikely pairing of books: Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. One is a more rollicking read than the other, but both are the product of scintillating minds. I have no idea whether they ever met, but I hope that they did; or will do, or are doing so right now somewhere else. Professor Hawking is quite simply one of arts-graphics-2004_1148573alife’s Good Things – and yes of course go and see The Theory of Everything, and find Benedict Cumberbatch’s brilliant performance in the 2004 BBC film, Hawking, as well. And keep your eyes open for the newly-emerging genre of Quantum Fiction. It would be fair to say that the great Quantum Fiction novel has yet to be written – so why not you? Take Post-Modernism as your springboard and venture forth fearlessly. Or, at the very least, experimentally.

Every year at this time we lose an hour. While good news for dogs, who find breakfast being served almost before they realised they were Actually Starving to Actual Death (and before they confront the heart-breaking reality that this ever-earlier room service does not carry on into tomorrow), it can be slightly existentially disconcerting for the thoughtful among us; or, if you prefer, those among us looking for an excuse to stay in bed for an extra hour anyway pretending to think deeply about something. Where did the hour go? What might I have done with it? And – a far more worrying subject for contemplation – how does that lost hour differ from all the other hours I lose doing nothing much? Never mind Ten Days that Shook the World (although do read it: John Reed’s first-hand account of the October Revolution is gripping); can I summon up sixty minutes of achievement. Once a year? Spread thinly over an entire lifetime? Time, perhaps, for some knuckling-down books.

petmarjorieThe trouble, of course, with inspirational testaments is that they can be rather crushing. Compared with Marjory Fleming, for example, I have clearly wasted my time on earth. Little Miss Fleming, should you not have come across her, was a Scottish poet, letter-writer and diarist of considerable wit and a charm based not least upon her dry acerbity. She appears to have had no truck with sentimentality (always such a high recommendation to the NorthernReader sensibility) and, indeed, her works were heavily bowdlerised for many years after her death to present her in a more anodyne light. And, oh yes, she was eight years old when she died. I think you might enjoy Oriel Malet’s Marjory Fleming, a fictionalised biography. Malet wrote it in 1946 (when she herself was only twenty) and it has been re-published by Persephone Books, which is a clear indication that we are going to enjoy it.

Tick, tock: tempus fugit. And, as those of you who wait breathlessly for the next epistle from the Northern Reader will have noticed, it has taken me four days to recover from the loss of that single hour to write to you. Shame on me. Normal service will be resumed at the weekend.WP_20150209_003

 

Week 45: Playing the Game

Nadal - ir is it Cumberbatch?

Nadal – or is it Cumberbatch?

I am not the naturally sporty sort. As an undiagnosed myopic, I experienced school sports as hockey – beefy girls looming out of the mist and a ball striking painfully on the ankle, lacrosse – the same but higher, and tennis – the same with whippetier girls and added ‘ping’ noise. The last time I picked up a tennis racquet, they were still made of wood and came with the same dinky little wooden presses that people use to press flowers (now there’s another pointless pastime). The school gym revealed my classmates to be either natural shinners up fantastically hairy and painful ropes or – like me- whimperingly earth-fixed. And then there was the horror of the communal changing room. My spectating career was no more illustrious. My father was a rugby referee and many a drear wintry Saturday afternoon of my infancy crawled past on the muddy edges of a playing field somewhere on the London circuit. I did quite like going to Twickenham but I am ashamed to tell you that that had more to do with the picnic. And all I remember of Wimbledon is the strawberries.   Oh, and John Newcombe’s luxuriant moustache (I was very young and impressionable – and bored out of my tiny mind).

footballSo I am disinclined to celebrate these long, long, endless weeks of football. Are there books out there to come to my rescue and reconcile me to this sporting summer?

Rugby league has its own laureate in David Storey, one-time professional player, Yorkshireman and writer. His first novel, This Sporting Life, has in the fifty-something years of its existence given lazy journalists a resonant strapline. It also, in its film version (for which Storey wrote the screenplay) gave the world the mesmerising talent of Richard Harris, surely the most dedicated of the British/Celtic Ratpack. Storey also wrote The Changing Room, a play which pre-dates The Full Monty and avoids its saccharine tendencies but shares its focus on the lives of working-class northern men. I am suddenly, if mildly, possessed with the desire to stage a musical version: a sort of it’s-grim-oop-north Chorus Line.

Tennis is less well served (sorry). Granted, we have the game Cecil won’t play in A Room with a View, and the young men in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September come from a world of garden parties and lawn tennis. But a game which is based upon the repression of wild emotion (or used to be) and involves standing rather decorously either side of a net is a difficult setting for the unfolding of grand passion (this is, as you can see, a direct challenge to the novelists and short-story writers among you. Rush directly to your laptop, tablet, or pen and paper and give us the Wuthering Heights of the tennis court please).

tour de franceCycling ought to be a hotbed of good plots, if the real-life scandals of recent years are anything to go by. But the only book worth reading that has come out of the whole two-wheeled business is Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, and even that isn’t a patch on its boating prequel. Incidentally, pure NorthernReader outrage has been provoked by the news that a council in Yorkshire has ordered the taking-down of lovingly hand-knitted tiny Tour de France jerseys from lamp-posts on the grounds that they might be too much weight for the posts to bear. If the good citizens of Yorkshire rise as one and refuse to pay any Council Tax at all, they will have the comfort of knowing that the Northern Reader is cheering them on.

So has any fictional good come out of the pointless human endeavour that is sport? Well, yes, hurray for PG Wodehouse. A keen golfer, his ‘Oldest Member’ short stories are a total joy and are particularly useful in pointing out the romantic potential of a round of golf. No mean cricketer, Wodehouse also gave us Mike and its eponymous opening bat. A fictional cricketing XI would have to include him, together with Lord Peter Wimsey, whose exploits on the pitch at Eton and Lord’s trail glory before him, almost to his undoing in Murder Must Advertise. As always with Wimsey, his creator’s besottedness does rather open him to the charge of naughty showing-off, and you do really have to have seen a match yourself to make any sense of the goings-on in the novel, but it is at least quite enjoyable. No, I’m afraid that I side with EM Forster’s Maurice, who ‘hated cricket. It demanded a snickety neatness he could not supply.’ Wonderful. We’ll have an anti-sport bookshelf, then, and Maurice shall begin it.

schoolfriendChildren’s books, of course, tended in the past to be fully signed-up to the importance and benefits of playing for one’s team/House/school/country. Girls in particular seemed to come in for a lot of exhorting to be frightfully good at sport. Dear kindly writers, illustrators and publishers of Girl, Schoolfriend and the like, did you really think you could change the natural inclination of millennia with a few well-chosen lines about winning the trophy for your chums? If there is a gender difference out there, it is that girls aren’t so easily conned. You will notice that Jane Austen’s heroines do not have to resort to displays of running, jumping or swimming to achieve their goals: unless we count Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy yomp to Netherfield as a competitive sport – and I think we probably should, but her victory is a psychological one (the feminine sport of choice).

And so we come, reluctantly, to football. Who in the name of God called it the beautiful game? And what were they thinking? Yes, I know Albert Camus played a bit, and claimed to have enjoyed it, and yes I also know that there is a book by Nick Hornby about watching the stuff. Well, Mr Hornby, purely in the interest of rigorous academic research, I have now watched a match. It was England playing someone or other. And it made me yearn for the fierce lyrical poetry of watching mould grow on a wall.  Now, excuse me, I have some dogs who would like me to kick a ball about with them …

On the other hand ... it's been too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

On the other hand … it’s been too long since we had a non-gratuitous picture

Week 26: Books for a Train Journey

Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Ta-ta-dee-dah.  Trains haven’t actually sounded like that for ages, or possibly for ever, but they do when we imagine them: which is all my dear readers in the benighted and line-less West Country can do at present.  So, time to curl up with a good book and transport ourselves back to a golden age of travel.‘Northumberland Coast’, BR (NER) poster, 1948-1965.

Almost as much as I like the fact that time only had to shape up and get accurate across Britain when the railways were invented (timetables meant that one couldn’t really say, ‘well, the train from London will be along at half past two.  Ish’: although of course as it turned out, 2.30-ish would be a utopian paradise of prompt arrival compared to the sadly current ‘well, the train from London should pitch up some time in the next six months when we’ve finished thinking about improving the line’) – almost as much as that, I like the impact that the railway had on fiction.  While I treasure a letter from my great-great-great grandfather to his beloved, casually and really rather thrillingly letting her know that he was planning to drive down for the weekend, in reality what he was showing off about (this was 1809) was that he was a young man about town with a gig, and his nipping off to darkest Berkshire was going to take quite a chunk of the weekend – up to and including the following Wednesday, in fact, the idea of the weekend being at least as much in its infancy as was the steam engine – and rather more planning than invading France.  His was the world of Jane Austen, who was only nine years his senior: a world of Colonel Brandon rushing off  hither and yon on horseback (which, now I think about it, he does have a bit of a tendency to do) and frightful aunts pitching up in carriages.  A single generation later, and the train had arrived in fiction.

Perhaps its single most dramatic effect was, as in life, to bring people together.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (not, I should add, the Hardy to embark upon if you’re on your own and feeling a bit low: it’s not the cheeriest book ever written) relies heavily upon the Great Western Railway to bring its tragic characters together and, this being Hardy, to tear them apart.  Dickens was also on the despondent side when it came  to trains, long before he was himself involved in a ghastly railway accident  – and the moral of that particular story, dearest reader, is do not travel with someone you would be embarrassed to be in an accident with – and trains figure in Dombey and Son entirely as agents of disaster.   Trains, and of course stations, figure quite prominently in the life and work of Tolstoy, too: not only does a train provide a most useful plot device in Anna Karenina, but Tolstoy himself had a tendency to flit about the vastness of Russia by locomotive and even managed a highly theatrical death-scene at a railway station which you can’t help suspecting the master story-teller must have hugely enjoyed.

We haven't had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

We haven’t had a non-gratuitous picture for a while

But where train travel really seems to come into its own is in crime fiction.  We begin with Sergeant Cuff of Scotland Yard, who swoops down to solve the mystery of The Moonstone thanks to the speed and reliability of the railways.  Where Wilkie Collins (a good friend of Dickens, incidentally) led, Conan Doyle was happy to follow, and Sherlock Holmes constantly gads about the place by train (and let’s not talk about errors in Tube journeys or whatever it was that made some of the more concrete watchers of BBC’s jolly enjoyable Sherlock get themselves into a flutter).  Holmes and Watson, who once would have taken several days and a series of stage coaches to get anywhere, spend most of the canon whooshing off from London to further-flung parts of England (although, sadly, they missed out on the glorious North-East – no doubt a tribute to the low crime rates in this part of the world).  By the twentieth century, a really avid reader might well start to feel a trifle uneasy about hopping onto a train lest the worst befall her.  The most pessimistic about your chances of getting through a journey unscathed is of course Agatha Christie.  What with The 4.50 from Paddington, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Murder on the Orient Express, it’s a wonder we don’t all catch the bus.  But think what interestingly deranged people we would miss out on meeting: surely no-one is immune to reading Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train without murmuring ‘what fun’?  And there is always the chance of romance, although do not be bamboozled by the truly splendid Hitchcock film of The Thirty Nine Steps to expect love to blossom on the Flying Scotsman: Richard Hannay is indeed at least as much a man-on-a-train as a man-on-the-run, but he is never diverted by mere females from single-handedly saving Britain’s secrets in 1914.

trainTalking of desperate heroes fleeing their pursuers, all this talk of trains lets us realise that Kenneth Grahame got there first: Mr Toad, among his many achievements, must figure as one of the very earliest men – well, alright, toads, but you know what I mean – on the run in literature, even if his disguise as a washer-woman is somewhat less suave than Hannay’s.  Children’s books abound with trains and we should probably acknowledge the Reverend Awdry’s  Thomas the Tank Engine, although for me they were always a bit too trainspotty (in the sense of appealing to the inner anorak rather than the inner heroin-user from Leith).  No, let’s end by celebrating that power of the railway to offer new hope.  Michael Bond – another Reverend – did a gentle interest in trains supersede the botany and palaeontology of their Victorian precursors? – recognised that a railway station might be a very possible place for different worlds to collide, and so a small bear from darkest Peru became Paddington and lived happily ever after.  And, greatest of all (and I defy you to watch Jenny Agutter at the end of the perfectly lovely film without sobbing your socks off), who can forget Bobbie, running down the station platform with the heart-breaking cry, ‘Daddy! My Daddy!’