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 86: Education, education …

imagesWhen did we start counting everything, and discounting things that can’t be counted? It may be, dearest reader, that you live in a country where education rolls merrily along on the principles that fired up the Enlightenment: exploration, discovery and wonder. Here in Britain – and I know we are not alone – playgroups, nurseries, primary and secondary schools, universities and colleges, have all fallen victim to the glittery-eyed phalanxes of lackeys of the State armed with clipboards. What I have learned this week is that OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills – and I defy you to come up with a more meaningless job title than that) costs about £168 million a year. If I had that sort of money to spend on education, my first thought would not be to stagger about making other people’s lives a burden to them and ensuring that school is a stressful and miserable environment for teachers and children alike. In the dreary midst of an interminable election campaign, I’m not sure whether to be glad or sorry that education is not attracting too much fatuous attention from the power-hungry. If only they’d read some good books and dare to think differently.

Most of the education industry at present – oh, yes, it is an industry these days, did no-one tell you? They marched it into the parade ground about twenty years ago, snipped all its professional buttons off and reduced it to the ranks of having to obey orders from people who despise it – most of it seems to be proudly modelling itself on Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. The thing is, OFSTED, that Dickens conjured him up as a savage satire on the repellent regimentation of education. When he made Gradgrind say, ‘Now, what I want is, Facts,’ we were supposed to fall about in appalled laughter, not sit up and take admiring notes. If you haven’t yet, do read Hard Times. It is Dickens at his fiercest and finest (and you can read it for pleasure and not because it is a set text).

How could education be better? Well, I’d be very happy if the way Gerald Durrell was taught could be more of a blueprint. In the sublime My Family and Other Animals, Durrell gives a magical sense of how a gifted tutor guided him into seeing the world as endlessly fascinating and worthy of lifelong enquiry. The ‘Theodore’ of the book was in real life Dr Theodore Stephanides, a Greek poet, scientist, biologist and doctor. He taught young Gerry not by getting out the books and turning relentlessly to Page 6, but by finding out what his pupil was interested in – beetles, mostly, in Durrell’s case – and using that enthusiasm to introduce all the stuff that we need to know in life. For Stephanides and his lucky, lucky, student, there was no such thing as Pure Maths or Pure anything: everything was applied. If I sound envious, it’s because I was taught algebra by someone who, frankly, was terrifying enough to make me let ‘x’ be whatever it wanted to be – but I never knew why. For Durrell, on the other hand, algebra cropped up naturally as a way of working out how long it might take those ants to move all those eggs from a dangerous site to a safe one. Those same ants could be the focus of every subject in the curriculum. Oh yes they could. If you happen to be at a loose end for a few minutes, draw up a curriculum for yourself. The only rules are: pick something, anything, that really interests you; and think of ways you could use that as a focus for every subject you ever did, or are doing, at school. See?

Osbert Sitwell declared that his education happened in the holidays from Eton. He seems to have had much in common with the protagonists of children’s literature. In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons sagas, school, as we have noticed in other weeks, is an unfortunate interruption to the real business of learning useful stuff, as it is for Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Even in school stories, from Angela Brazil to the Schoolfriend Annual (cherishable for the adventures of the Silent Three, who all have sensible names like Peggy and BettySilent_three and are awfully good sorts), lessons are little more than a plot device, a hiatus in our hero or heroine’s independent activity. Lessons only get interesting to us, the readers, when the school is for witches (Jill Murphy’s lovely Worst Witch stories) or wizards (HP). We hear little of the lessons at Lowood, the school to which Jane Eyre is packed off, although Charlotte Brontë does give us the satisfactory scene in which the School Inspector, the vile Mr Brocklehurst, is brought to heel by – oh, the irony – another layer of management. Ah, now I see where successive governments have found their whizzo ideas.

Do things get better if you manage to survive school and go to university? We thought about this many months ago (as long ago as Week 2). Alas, I have to break it to you that student life has changed a bit since Brideshead Revisited, even if today’s students do show equally little interest in their academic endeavours. On the bright side, things, especially for women, have improved a bit since Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man. But universities, like schools, are now plagued with endless league tables, ratings and petty competitiveness. Oh for a return to the quietly scholarly world Dorothy L Sayers portrays in Gaudy Night. Well, yes, the college is riven with unholy goings-on, but, if we acknowledge that the jealousies and rivalries between academics that she reveals are pretty true to life, can we cling on to the picture of the joys of tranquil research that she also shows?

All is not lost. If you share any of my feelings – sorrow, disappointment, rage – about the education factories we seem to have created, have a look at Slow Education. You never know, you might learn something.

Definitely non-gratuitous

Definitely non-gratuitous

Week 80: Books for Journalists

Journalism-is4-e1373668581362As one of a dazzlingly-rare series of posts which follow on from each other, I thought I might carry on where I left off last week and think about journalists in books. This is not least because I rather yearn for those dear dead days when all a writer had to contend with was a pen or a typewriter: not a laptop which, as the more obsessionally observant among you will have noticed, takes the vows of matrimony very seriously indeed and posted a comment from Mr NorthernReader on last week’s blog as if it came from me, on the grounds that our computers as well as our hearts and minds turn out to be inextricably linked.   I am glad to report that he was right– as always, of course (just call me Katerina and go and enjoy The Taming of the Shrew) – to celebrate Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (whose journalist hero, William Boot, even gave us a blog title way back in Week 6), Wodehouse’s sublime Psmith, Journalist and Andrew Marr’s absorbing My Trade. No aspiring journalist should take another step without getting these three under the belt. And then what?

Well, fewer people have a copy of Michael Ignatieff’s Charlie Johnson in the Flames on their shelves, which I think is a pity. Ignatieff, an historian, philosopher and more recently a liberal politician in his native Canada, lived in the United Kingdom in the 1990s and was a frequent thoughtful contributor to television discussion programmes (this was in the now far-distant days when television did not solely cater to our inner spoilt and fretful six-year-old and occasionally treated us as sentient adults who could cope with the odd moment or two of serious debate). He is a fiercely articulate champion for human rights and especially the right not to feel frightened and threatened. Subtle and nuanced, his writing on international politics continues to adapt and respond as the world mood darkens. I urge you to read Warrior’s Honour: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience: informed by his experiences in the Balkans and Kosovo, but also encompassing the horrors of Rwanda, it goes behind the particular to the essential moral questions. Put it on your shelf next to Adam Nicolson’s fabulous The Mighty Dead and consider the antiquity and perseverance of violence.

Ignatieff currently holds the Edward R Murrow Chair of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. That’s quite some job title – I can only imagine his office door (possibly with a fold-out flap to accommodate it all) – but any reminder of Murrow is good enough for me. If you haven’t, settle down to watch Goodnight, and Good Luck, a film which explores the troubled relationship between press freedom and the state. Sounds a bit

This is entirely non-gratuitous

This is entirely non-gratuitous

worthy? Let me try again. Watch Goodnight, and Good Luck. It was written and directed by George Clooney who also stars in it (as Murrow’s co-producer: David Strathairn plays Murrow and jolly good he is too). Murrow was a seriously good thing in a naughty world. A passionate believer in the power and the responsibility of broadcast journalism, he became famous for his radio news broadcasts during World War II before moving into television, where he was at the forefront of the struggle to overcome Senator Joseph McCarthy and his deranged and destructive works. Murrow was a byword for honesty and integrity and a good candidate for patron saint of journalists. If you happen to be a journalist, print or broadcast, and your owners are requiring you to tell what you know not to be the truth or you consider not to be the best that you could do to inform and empower your audience, pause a moment and ask yourself, ‘what would Ed Morrow have done?’

Fearless, determined and questing for truth (although very rarely doing any actual reporting), the best-known journalist in fiction is probably Tintin. Together with his deeply adorable little dog (Milou originally, but Snowy in English-language versions), our young hero sent his first despatches from The Land of the Soviets in 1929. His creator, Georges Prosper Remi – known, of course, as Hergé – very properly tried to make Tintin the medium, not the message, and deliberately drew him as near to a blank as was possible, suggesting that the good journalist is without personality, biography or, indeed, personal interest to his reader: what matters, or what should matter, is the story he has to tell.

Anna_Politkovskaja_im_Gespräch_mit_Christhard_LäppleOr, of course, she. While in what we laughingly call real life some of the very greatest journalists have been women – Martha Gellhorn, Victoria Guerin, Anna Politkovskaya – fiction has served us less well. Lois Lane, anyone? Or Carrie-whatever-her-name-is in the deeply demeaning Sex and the City? (and if anyone ever told you that that little lot was somehow empowering and a bastion of feminism; darling, they were putting you down with their sniggering voyeuristic point of view). I’d rather re-read Monica Dickens’ My Turn to Make the Tea, not least for its chronicling of a vanished world of typewriters and local reporters.

Three more. The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins reminds us what a useful profession investigative journalism can be for the hero of your crime novel. On the Booker Prize shortlist in 2000, it’s a cracking read. And no journalists’ bookshelf should be without Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning, even if only as a reminder of the sheer mind-numbing boredom of what you thought would be a glamorous profession. It says much that the book was published in America as Against Entropy. But today of all days, as we stand back and watch Vladimir Putin throw up his little hands in horror and wonder aloud how it could possibly be that Boris Nemtsov, the man who dared to speak out against him, has been gunned down; today is the day to read David Hare and Howard Brenton’s play, Pravda. It means ‘truth’, and is therefore, of course, a savage and despairing satire. Goodnight, and good luck, indeed.549213

Week 71: Books for Parties

muppetschristmasWell, that was fun. A period of intense research has produced definitive answers to the important questions, ‘How many people can we squeeze round the table while still leaving room for them to be able to move their arms enough to eat and drink?’; ‘what is the correct thing to do with an excess of tree decorations?’ (no, I didn’t think such a thing as ‘too many tree decorations’ was possible either, but it turns out that it is); and ‘could this become the sort of family that plays board games without gnawing off our own arms with boredom?’ The answers, incidentally, are twelve – and a jolly festive affair it was too; set up a second tree for the dogs (duh); and yes! Yes we could! Provided one of is lucky enough to be given the Great Penguin Book Chase for Christmas (and I’m looking thoughtfully at an ad for Ex Libris, which claims to be a game of first lines and last words and sounds as if it might have been designed specifically for the NorthernReader household). But opportunities for fireside sloth are still pretty thin on the ground as we hop cheerfully from party to party (see Week 69 for the strain this can put on pleasingly meagre wardrobes, unless of course you are a chap, in which case the rule set out in Week 70 still applies). Just time for a quick browse to see how our social whirl compares with parties in books.

No family get-together can completely avoid a faint sense of the Starkadder Re-enactment Society, it seems to me: re-read Cold Comfort Farm as you prepare for your multi-generational gathering and do not let anyone hear you call your party a Counting. But take comfort, cold or otherwise, from the fact that pretty much all parties in books for grown-ups (I hesitate to call it ‘adult fiction’ because the phrase sounds so queasily Fifty Shades-ish – and imagine my surprise when I discovered that that wasn’t a Farrow and Ball hommage after all) – all parties have their steel core of social anxiety, awkwardness or downright misery. Hurray! One of life’s sparkling little lessons safely under the belt: you are not there to enjoy yourself, you are there to circulate. Stiff upper lip and remember that Darcy hated it too. Getting ready for a party can be fraught, as well: remember the Little Women sisters, Meg and, to a markedly lesser degree, Jo, scurrying around before the New Year’s Eve party to which they have been invited. Jo burns Meg’s hair (so much for straighteners) and finds a splendid iron-burn on her own frock and gloves too stained to be worn, while Meg adds to the fun with too-tight shoes (and haven’t we all done that) and a crushing certainty that her sister will behave badly and show them up. And after all that, well, what do you know, they have a perfectly splendid time after all. Hope springs eternal.

SUCH fun!

SUCH fun!

New Year’s parties are set a high standard to live up to, not only by the wonderful Old Year’s Night celebrations in our own Village Hall here in NorthernReader-land, but also and more anciently by King Arthur’s jolly get-together at Camelot as chronicled in Gawain and the Green Knight. When I tell you that this particular knees-up is gate-crashed by a green giant who proposes a friendly Christmas game involving AN AXE, you will see that, put like that, the parties you go to are not nearly as hair-raising as you thought they were. You will also, of course, make an immediate resolution to get no more than a couple of days into the new year without avidly reading Simon Armitage’s translation of the story (translation because the original manuscript we have is from the late fourteenth century and is written in Middle English, which is related to what we speak today but not so that you can read it without limbering up first).

I don’t know whether either of our current Beloved Leaders is planning to go and pluck the gowans fine this New Year’s Eve, but Prime Ministers in fiction have had their partying moments. Alan Hollinghurst deftly captures the horror of the whole decade in his image of Mrs Thatcher, dressed in some sort of Ruritanian outfit, gliding across the dance-floor with the cocaine-sozzled hero of The Line of Beauty. The Prime Minister who attends the party that is the climax of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, un-named in the book but presumably Stanley Baldwin, pays the price, whether he is aware of it or not, of mixing with colleagues and –even worse – voters, when other party-goers take one look and think, ‘One couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits.’ Ah. I feel I should point out that, yes, she was a crashing snob, over-burdened with a full and distasteful armoury of bigotries and prejudices, but nevertheless you might well enjoy reading Virginia Woolf. Probably our greatest Modernist, so it would be a shame to miss out. And she does have the distinction of making Evelyn Waugh seem positively kindly – not an easy manoeuvre – by comparison: in Vile Bodies, Waugh contents himself with merely calling his Prime Minister ‘Mr Outrage’ and then feeling sorry for him for being ‘just a Prime Minister, nothing more.’ R & JOuch.

And of course, if you are hosting a party, keep a weather eye out for gate-crashers. Especially if you are called Capulet and you have a teenage daughter.

Anyway, glad-rags on and out you go. If you are very, very lucky, you might find, as we do, that you are among friends and that you are really, truly, enjoying yourself hugely. So have a lovely time and remember that you have the pleasure of a good book to come home to. Happy New Year. (This picture is of the Tar Bar’l Ceremony in Allendale and I think you’re going to love listening to this song from the lovely Unthank sisters)

allendale

Week 69: ‘Tis The Season To Be Jolly

Kate GreenawayOne of the many delights of living in the North East of England is that people here have far better things to do than start fossicking about Christmas immediately after the summer holidays have ended. But, with less than a fortnight to go, even we are beginning to hum ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like …’ as we go about the daily round. And yesterday, we had our first snow of the season. The Farmers’ Market is joined by the Christmas Market this weekend and there is a distinct air of mulled wine and cheerful expectancy: which is exactly what Advent ought to mean (the expectancy rather than the wine, especially if you are under eighteen). This is not, I suspect, the neck of the woods at which all those dreary advertisements imploring us to buy sofas and rather horrid dining tables in time for Christmas are aimed. Not for us the articles in magazines promoting geegaws and fripperies as – and I quote – ‘ideal stocking fillers under £100’: what planet do these people think we inhabit? There is a splendid amount of knitting, sewing, and sweet-and preserve-making going on around here and pleasingly little belief that friendship and love can be Kipper's Christmasmeasured by the amount carelessly spent at the till. ‘Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith’, as the King James Bible firmly decrees, and how right it is. No, this is the season when the long retreat into a wintry hibernation snaps out of itself and is transformed into warmth, friendship and good neighbourliness by parties. They began a few days ago, a little trickle of invitations to lunch, or tea, or drinks with friends, and now they stretch as an unbroken shining path of gentle pleasures, all the way to Christmas and beyond, to Old Year’s Night and Twelfth Night.

So, as hostess or as guest, where can I find my role models? Children’s books are full of parties, usually featuring as joyful occasions, flying in the face of most children’s experiences. If you are small and living in dread of the next birthday party, take comfort from the fact that you at least do not have to suffer the indignities and limitations imposed upon previous generations by a dress code that involved ties for boys and sticky-out dresses for girls. Photographs from my own childhood confirm that a blue net dress with a sash did not transform me into a sparkly fairy: a glum-looking cross-patch in a flowery frock is more like it. Dorothy Edwards’ lovable My Naughty Little Sister captures the real world of children’s parties, especially when our heroine and her best friend, Bad Harry, wander off from the games that the nice boys and girls are playing and find the party food

I've been to a MARVELLOUS party

I’ve been to a MARVELLOUS party

unguarded. Their business-like demolition job on the trifle would draw praise from the Weasels at Toad Hall, and makes me wonder whether adults’ parties would go with more of a swing if trifle was more heavily involved.

We can at least make every effort to avoid the sort of parties that Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things find themselves drawn to. Read Vile Bodies and be grateful that you do not get invited to that sort of thing (of course, it may be that you do: in which case, read it to the end, take heed and amend your ways). And while we’re on the look-out for Parties to Avoid, Ian McEwan’s haunting Atonement, Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway provide some useful guidelines. But if we are lucky we might find ourselves going to the sort of magical and dreamlike party that Augustin stumbles across in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Or how about Dick Hawk-Monitor’s 21st birthday party as chronicled in Stella Gibbon’s completely essential Cold Comfort Farm ? It sounds as if it was an enjoyable enough occasion even before the birthday boy livened it up no end by throwing a marriage proposal into the works.

Time for some less hectic gatherings, perhaps. In these days of seemingly endless bling, when we are exhorted to spend a fortune at Christmas decking ourselves out as gaudily as any Christmas tree, it is good to spend a few moments with Miss Fogarty (in the Thrush Green books by Miss Read), who worries whether her seed pearl necklace might be too showy for a village drinks party. All the Miss Read characters could walk into any social occasion in our part of the world with no questions asked, and it is their mastery of clothes that qualifies them. Like us, they cheerfully recognise each other’s party outfits as they clock up considerable mileage. What more robust and sensible judgment of clothes can there be than ‘there’s years of use in that yet’? Since moving here, I have come to realise Ballthat my two pairs of heels will see me out, as there is not much call for them when even an evening out involves hopping across a field or a farmyard: and I couldn’t be more thankful if I tried. There is no rural festivity that a silk shirt and a thermal vest cannot rise to. A far cry, indeed, from Kitty’s outfit for a ball in Anna Karenina: ravishing white net over pink silk, with little pink slippers to match – utterly darling, of course, but a tad impractical, one would have thought.

No, as friends come here to supper, or we go to drinks with neighbours, and a quiet excitement starts to hum, our build-up to Christmas will be modelling itself on Ratty, Mole and Badger, good country-dwellers all, who knew the importance at all times of year of living in great joy and contentment.

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

KatePonders and friend in years gone by

PS If you were to ask me for suggestions for books as presents this Christmas, my absolutely unhesitating first choice would be Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead. You will not look at anything, ever, in the same way once you have read it.

Week 64: Gunpowder, Treasons and Plots

fireworksFirework displays now being a public event best held on a weekend evening (no school tomorrow) as well as on November 5th itself, it is possible to dodge about in your local area and go to three or four to satisfy your cravings for loud bangs and sparkly lights. In the NorthernReader household it is a widely-held, but incorrect, belief that the nation leaps into this paroxysm of fiery festivity to celebrate our wedding anniversary – yes, Reader, I married him on November 5th, thus extinguishing any possibility of getting away with forgetting the date. The lovely KatePonders has also now discovered for herself that Germany does not mark the occasion, whether of the NorthernReader nuptials or of the foiled attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

It is quite odd, as of course so many things are should we actually stop for a moment to think about them, that we cheerfully celebrate what, whichever way you look at it, was quite a nasty incident. Had Catesby and his chums succeeded, pretty much the entire ruling class in England would have been wiped out – and before you mutter, ‘no loss’ and start toying with radical sympathies, it is probably worth spending a moment or two considering the pain, suffering and death the project would have inflicted. Even the most unpleasant governments are made up of real live human beings, and causing them gratuitous suffering should be no part of our plans. Which noble thought brings us to what did actually happen, which was the harrowing torture and execution of the failed plotters. In amongst the dates we mark in this country, it would perhaps be good to include 13th August 1964. Not familiar with it? It is the date on which the last death sentences in the United Kingdom were carried out.

Gunpowder_Plot_conspiratorsSo a thoroughly grisly bookshelf seems to be in order this week. Let’s start with Antonia Fraser, who has written extensively on the Gunpowder Plot. She is a terrific guide to historical events because she brings to her narratives the instincts of a thriller-writer (which she also is). Admittedly it would take a heart of stone not to find the unfolding details of the 1605 plot utterly absorbing, but I suspect that Fraser could make the Repeal of the Corn Laws into a page-turner. She contributed one of the very best chapters to the compelling Gunpowder Plots, a collection of highly enjoyable essays by experts in their various fields – the history of explosives, early Stuart Britain, the politics of monarchy – published in 2005, the four-hundredth anniversary of the failed coup attempt.

Bearing in mind the extremely sensible observation of Sir John Harrington, ‘Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason’, we might limit the treacherous stretches of our bookshelf to a couple of must-reads: Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. If you haven’t seen Hitchcock’s film, incidentally, do so: but read the book as well. And I think we should have Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands while we’re about it. Hugely influential as more or less the founding text of the spy novel genre, the novel – which remains gripping to this day – was widely credited with forcing a change in British military and naval policy in preparing for possible invasion. Childers’ life was almost unfeasibly dramatic and, ultimately, tragic : there are biographies, of which Leonard Piper’s Dangerous Waters: the Life and Death of Erskine Childers is a fine example, and it seems strange that as yet there has been no film.

We have talked before (Week 28) about our regrettable tendency to glamorise spying and treachery. It is sobering to read of some of the Cold War conspiracies – A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre, Michael Holzman’s Guy Burgess (although you must promise to see Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, with Alan Bates as Burgess and Coral Browne as herself). We should remember, too, that the Armada was not some jolly boating party serendipitously fended off by Francis Drake in between games of bowls. The Spanish were attempting to slip up the English Channel to land in the Low Countries, pick up their army, a byword for terror, and invade England. The plan was more Pol Pot than the costumes let on. If you want to know what people who bruegel_kindermoord_detail_grthad a taste of them thought of the Spanish army, look, long, hard and thoughtfully, as Bruegel’s painting, The Massacre of the Innocents. Notice how it isn’t set in first-century Palestine? See the storm-trooper gear the soldiers are wearing?

My point, dearest reader, is that enforced change is rarely an awfully good thing: and that the merchants of change are so depressingly often better at the enforcing than the changing. Non-fiction – history, biography – tells us this, but fiction makes us know it in our hearts. Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory will give us plenty to contemplate. Quick: let us draw comfort from John Donne. Who but Donne could take the age-old fear of treachery and betrayal in love and turn it to sublime triumph?

Here upon earth, we’re Kings, and none but we

Can be such Kings, nor of such subjects be.

Who is so safe as we? Where none can do

Treason to us, except one of us two.

Written while that same James who was the target of the Gunpowder Plot still sat upon his throne, Donne’s poem, ‘The Anniversarie’, shelters us from paranoia and a world where we are told to be afraid all the time. Find love, he says, and you can know what it is to trust. It’s worth setting off a few fireworks to celebrate.fireworks-newcastle-5JPG

Week 56: Books for Broken Hearts

My great-great grandparents saw eight of their ten children set out from their Aberdeenshire home to every corner of the earth, never to return: and I don’t know how they did it. The lovely KatePonders left yesterday for a year, and, should you be wondering, this is how it feels:aztecs40(it does just cross my mind that the Aztecs were perhaps sweeties who worked with metaphor and were, as so often happens, completely misunderstood by their less imaginative conquerors). Anyway this week’s bookshelf needs either to console or to encourage wallowing. All you parents whose chicks are off to school/university/the other side of the world/another planet for the first time, take heed, and heart. And there is hope, too, for the dumped, the jilted, the just-come-to-my-senses-and-realised-everyone-was-right-about-him. Broken hearts mend of their own accord, but books help.

We could start with Boethius and The Consolations of Philosophy, not least because it serves as a useful reminder that, if he could come up with such warm, gentle acceptance of life’s little tribulations while awaiting execution, we could probably get a grip and find some sort of perspective. We are, to be sure, living in a time of turmoil, when rubbing along together on this one shared earth seems to be slipping out of reach. Now is exactly the moment, therefore, to be reading Boethius, who firmly maintains that people are essentially good, that evil is a choice, and that no-one and nothing can take away from us our ability to be good. I think that by ‘good’ I usually mean ‘kind’, and I promise to vote for the political party that promises – without crossing its fingers – to be kind at all times. Alain de Botton, by the way, has borrowed Boethius’s title for his own Consolations of Philosophy, a well-meaning if a bit facile introduction to a history of philosophy.

Three children’s books that have to be on everyone’s comfort-bookshelf. The full version of this blog’s strapline could well be ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get reading The Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children and The House at Pooh Corner.’ Kenneth Grahame because animals come and go, and set out on great adventures, but they come home safely to eat their suppers in great joy and contentment before retiring to rest between clean sheets: as fine a prescription for a good life as you are ever likely to find. Edith Nesbit is there, of course, because at the end, Father comes home, the family is reunited, Bobbie gets to cry out, ‘Oh! my Daddy! my Daddy!’ before she tells her mother that ‘the sorrow and the struggle and the parting are over and done’. And we cannot be without Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh, who remind us, just when we most need to be reminded, that ‘wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way’ ….. oh, you know the rest: I’ve made myself all teary.winnie

So perhaps my best course is to indulge in the miseries of others. How about some Graham Greene? I’m not sure he was ever exactly a laugh-a-minute, but the all-out crushing unhappiness of The End of the Affair might be just the thing today. Strangely cheering, other people’s heart-ache, don’t you find (please don’t tell me it’s just me)? And there is little in literature more guaranteed to make you pull yourself together, I have found, than the faint suspicion that others might compare you to Cathy Earnshaw, so a long soak in all the shenanigans of Wuthering Heights might be just the ticket. We could revel in the sheer nastiness of most of Evelyn Waugh’s blighted and benighted lovers – whoever you’ve idiotically lost your heart to, he or she is probably not as bad as that – and recognise every aching moment of longing that Cassandra experiences in Dodie Smith’s gorgeous I Capture the Castle.

But enough. I must comfort myself with the hope that KatePonders does not feel about her doting mother as Selima Hill does about hers, if her wonderful poem ‘The Fowlers of the Marshes’ is to be believed:

Three thousand years ago
they were fowling in the marshes
around Thebes – men in knotted skirts
and tiered faïence collars,
who avoided the brown crocodile,
and loved the ibis, which they stalked
with long striped cats on strings,
under the eye of Nut, the goddess of the sky.

My mother’s hushed peculiar world’s the same:
she haunts it like the fowlers of the marshes,
tiptoeing gaily into history, sustained by gods
as strange to me as Lady Nut, and Anubis,
the oracular, the jackal-masked.
When I meet her at the station, I say
Hello, Mum! and think Hello, Thoth,
This is the Weighing of the Heart.

Don’t you love that ‘hushed peculiar world’? So much more dignified than the noisy scrabble I more usually achieve. For the time being, at least, KatePonders and her parents will be exchanging ideas and thoughts and have-you-reads by email and Skype, and our hearts will lighten.

OMG!  They're reading Stuwwelpeter!  Another blighted childhood ...

OMG! They’re reading Stuwwelpeter! Another blighted childhood …

PS  Scotland, this is not the week to break my heart even further.  Please don’t go.