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?

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Week 90: I Could Have Danced All Night (well, I could have watched)

untitled (34)The highlight of my week was not a dreary night hypnotised in front of the election results as they rolled onto the television screen. Those are hours of missed beauty sleep from which I might never recover. No, the best moments were watching other people dance. On Tuesday, my aunt (more of whom in a moment in her role as Key Influence) and I went to our local cinema – the community-owned and utterly splendid Forum in Hexham – to see the streamed live performance from Covent Garden of the Royal Ballet’s La Fille Mal Gardée. And on Saturday I watched the first BBC Young Dancer of the Year award go to Connor Scott, a young man from Blyth in Northumberland who will probably live quite comfortably with the inevitable ‘real-life Billy Elliot’ tag as he storms the world of contemporary dance.

There is a real possibility that I was the only person at the Forum – or even at the nearly one thousand cinemas across the world participating in the live streaming – who had never previously seen La Fille Mal Gardée. If you had a similarly restricted childhood, or have been living on Mars since birth, it is a completely gorgeous rom-com complete with a pantomime Dame, clog-dancing, dancing chickens and choreography so breath-taking that I’m still not entirely sure that what I witnessed is physically possible. And it was half-way through the evening that I realised that I did have some sort of pre-knowledge, because, securely lodged at the back of the brain-filing-cabinet, are the pictures of the production that featured in the Princess Ballet Book No 2. When I was prg63babout seven, someone gave me that book – my only exposure to ballet until I was all grown up – and I was sitting next to that someone. Yup, my lovely aunt, demonstrating at least two principles in life: (1) always give a present that you would quite fancy yourself; and (2) always allow hope to triumph over experience. Despite my disappointing failure to transmogrify into a ballerina on receipt of the book, it did sow the first seeds of enough interest in dance to emerge as an adequate companion for going to the ballet all these years later. It also, of course, demonstrates the power of books: I’m no dancer, but I was and am a reader, and I remember every page of that blessed book (and am off to Barter Books tomorrow to try to find a copy).

Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes is a classic because you do not have to be a small girl in a pink wrap-over cardigan (what is it with the pink cardi and why are little girls’ dance classes unthinkable without them?) to enjoy the sharp and funny tale of the Fossil family. Even Belle of the Ballet, a staple of Girl comics for about a thousand years, was belle-of-the-ballet-i-by-stanley-houghton-girl-annual-19611sufficiently full of righting wrongs and being indignant about unfairness for the bits of ballet to engage the non-dancing section of the readership. (And right up there with the pink cardi, it occurs to me, is the hair-scraped-back-so-you-look-like-a-weasel as modelled by Belle and her chums). Belle, incidentally, was written and drawn by George Beardmore and Stanley Houghton, names so resolutely Roy of the Rovers I do just wonder if they were noms de plume.

I think I will be unchallenged if I assert that the most famous dancing rodent in the world is Angelina Ballerina. I was about to explain to you that this no-doubt lovely series, by Katharine Holabird and Helen Craig, passed me by (or I it) because it wasn’t around when KatePonders was small, but I have just discovered (research skills not wasted, you see) that they first saw the light of day in 1983, which is considerably earlier than KatePonders did; so I am forced to conclude that she never had the books because of her terrible, non-dancing, mother. Sorry, sweetheart. We might both have loved them. We certainly enjoyed the Royal Ballet film, Tales of Beatrix Potter, and you, aged two, were transfixed by the sight of Peter Rabbit performing a grand jeté.

But what of other dance forms? The great novel featuring a tap dancer has yet to be written (and I instantly yearn for a crime series featuring Fred Astaire, as master-criminal or as a nifty-footed detective), but the ball has been crucial to plots since Shakespeare invented the gate-crasher when Romeo infiltrates the Capulet house-party. Precious few of Jane Austen’s heroines would have found her man without squaring up to him across a crowded ballroom. On the Continent, if we are to believe novelists, women were more inclined to find someone else’s man: Becky Sharp in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, for instance, unkindly flirting with her friend’s husband on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. And War and Peace would, quite apart from anything else, be a much, much shorter book were it not for the grand ball at which Prince Andrei is first smitten by Natasha.

One of the great blessings of having been born in the second half of the twentieth century, along with antibiotics, good dentistry and the dishwasher, is that I am too young (a phrase I find myself using less and less often) to have endured the rigours of ballroom dancing lessons. Gwen Raverat’s memories were still vivid when she recollected them for Period Piece – tell me you’ve read it, or if not, set to without further delay – and there is a note of quiet desperation in William Brown’s encounters with dancing classes that suggests that Richmal Crompton may have been writing from bitter personal experience. Gwynedd Rae’s feisty young heroine, Mary Plain, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed her dance classes. Ah, if only I could have gone to school with ‘an unusual first-class bear from the bear-pits at Berne’, perhaps I would have learned to dance.untitled (33)

Week 87: Difficult Books

author-writing-writerThe reason, since you ask, why it has taken me until Thursday to write to you this week is that I had a splendid idea for a topic and spent days – and days … trying to get to grips with it. Born with a stubborn streak, it has taken until this evening for me to realise that it’s just not something I can squeeze a thousand words out of (hadn’t you noticed? Each week is more or less a thousand words: which means, if you have been kind enough to read me from the beginning, that we have shared a novel together, in length if not in meaning). Hitting a writerly brick wall has made me think about the books that, for various reasons, have presented the North Face of the Eiger to me: scalable, yes, but not by me.

I have read and enjoyed most of Ian McEwan, but his 1987 novel, The Child in Time, was too painful. I started to read it when my daughter, the lovely KatePonders, was a baby, and the opening chapter, in which a small daughter called Kate is kidnapped, harrowed me so unutterably that to this day I have never been able to return to it. My visceral abandonment of objectivity is my loss, as the book is thought of by many as McEwan’s masterpiece. Should you not have a daughter called Kate, or indeed should you not be at that vulnerable stage of life which revolves around the fragile wonder that is your child, do please read it and get back to me.

While I’m confessing to personal and illogical taboos, the pictures of the Weasel’s House in Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit books have haunted my dreams since I first came across them when I was about four. And I have told you before about the terrors of Struwwelpeter, my really rather odd grandfather’s preferred choice of reading to his small descendants. Kateponders expressed a profound aversion to Axel Scheffler’s illustrations for Jon Blake’s untitled (18)You’re a Hero, Daley B! and could be reduced to sobs by well-meaning would-be readers-aloud inadvertently retrieving it from the very back of the bookshelf where she had hidden it (actually destroying a book being unthinkable to her even when three: the mixed blessing of an academic household). Should you, or the very little people in your life, be made of slightly sterner stuff, the book – and indeed the illustrations – are delightful and capable of being an enormous hit in your household.

Some books and authors are of course difficult for other reasons. I freely admit that tremendous length is not at first sight a recommendation to me (which is of course precisely why my enthusiasm for a handful of Really Long Books is so striking and worth taking me up on: good God, if I of all people urge you to read Nostromo, say, or Bleak House, there must be something in them). It is worth remembering that many of the weightier Victorian novels first appeared in instalments in periodicals. Perhaps returning to that approach and taking them in regular but well-spaced bite-size chunks will open up a vaster range of fiction for those wary of the long haul. And we should not lose sight of the fact that some authors are just plain hard work. That is by no means a bad thing – think how boring life would be if everything came in condescendingly platitudinous soundbites (an eternal pre-election, for example): but you do have to be in the mood for grappling. TS Eliot and Ezra Pound should both keep you intellectually pinned down for a while if you’re looking for that sort of challenge. James Joyce’s Ulysses and (even more so) Finnegan’s Wake, Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, even Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban; one of the layers of difficulty lies in the language. Reading them makes us read slowly, taking each word as it comes. This deliberate barrier to glib understanding draws our attention to our everyday habit of impatiently skimming through everything we read. How much do we miss?

And then there are the books that just aren’t for us. Too many of us had teachers – it’s usually teachers, I’m afraid – who got it into our heads that a book, once begun, must be persevered with to the bitter, bitter end. Sadly true if it’s a set text (see, if you feel so inclined, Week 86 for what I think about our exam-ridden education system), but otherwise, arrant nonsense. You cannot know if any particular book is the sort of thing you might like without giving it a whirl (which is why first lines and pages are so important: see Week 20 for details), but only a fool, or, I suppose, someone trapped on a desert island with only one book for company, would carry on reading once it has been clearly established that book and reader have nothing to say to each other. So, dearest reader, if you have been trudging through War and Peace, Moby Dick or Paradise Lost since time began, cast off your dreadful sense of obligation and consign the loathsome volume to Oxfam, where your particular poison will turn out to be someone else’s food for the mind and the soul.

But, should the mood take you, there are times when we really quite fancy something difficult, or at least something different and out of our comfort zone. So here are three that you might possibly not have read: James Kelman’s Not Not While the Giro; Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, and Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. And if they turn out not to be your cup of tea, fear not. Let them drop from your hand and reach for another. Don’t forget Yeats’s wise words:

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart.

That’s telling us. Happy reading.Reynolds_BoyReading (2)

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 68: Chairs

house that jack builtIt’s a bit like The House that Jack Built. Only – blessed relief – without the sinister dog and the insipid young man of the Caldecott book that slightly haunted my childhood. But today we have bought the fabric to cover the chair that we bid for at auction to sit by the table that can come into the room instead of the piano. Because realisation that we are never going to learn to play the piano has dawned, and it has gone to a splendid young woman who is not only doing so, but enjoying it. The result of all this furniture moving has been a fixation on identifying the perfect chair. As I’m sure you have experienced for yourself, anything thought about too long becomes completely surreal and improbable. I can report to you that this holds true for chairs. Stare at enough of the wretched things and they start to look very unlikely indeed. Squat and sitting on their haunches, most of them, like a rather stout gentleman with his hands on his knees, just about to stand up and launch into loud conversation. Not what we want in the corner of the sitting room. Or there are horrid little spindly things that will obviously cringe if anyone of normal proportions so much as looks at them. At the point at which my dreams are full of chairs, swirling through the air and looking as if they might start staging their own Disney film, a hasty retreat into the world of books is called for.

In this mood, the most noticeable thing about Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair is that three children can sit in it comfortably. Its tendency to swoosh about from place to place disqualifies it from serious sitting-room consideration, however, and when you add the wings… there is a fine line to be drawn between eccentric and Just Plain Weird, and chairs that sprout wings have picked which side they are on. CS Lewis’s The Silver Chair will not do either. Not only is the plot so convoluted that it requires a notebook and pencil as well as exam-level knowledge of the previous Narnia novels, but the whole thing strays dangerously into Hobbit territory for this Tolkien-allergic household, which maintains that if you want truly terrific questing stories (and who doesn’t?) stick to Gawain and the Green Knight, especially in Simon Armitage’s translation into modern English. And whatever chair I was seeking, it was certainly not one to which I have to be bound at night so that I don’t start rampaging about eating people and turning into a worm. No, I am not making this up, and this indeed is the nub of my argument that CS Lewis, though no doubt a good egg (and I loved the film of Shadowlands with wonderful Anthony Hopkins as Lewis), is the last author on earth that children, or indeed anyone of a nervous or morbid disposition, should have dealings with. Oh, for heaven’s sake, go and read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf instead: all the blood-tingling horror with none of the tinge of voyeuristic sado-masochism that makes Lewis quite an odd hero of children’s literature.

TS Eliot’s chair in The Waste Land starts more promisingly, perhaps:

‘The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne’

Mmm, sounds good. But wait! Just as the line is a distortion of Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra, ‘The barge she sat in, Like a burnished throne’ – and remember what happens to her – Eliot’s chair starts slipping in and out of focus, a hallucinogenic ingredient in a cloyingly rich and disturbing inner landscape. And all I wanted was comfortable. ‘The chair he or she sat in’ holds a strange allure for curators and collectors, and many which are known, or at least thought, to have supported the frame of a famous author as she or he toiled over their work have become icons, heavy-freighted with significance. The Museum of London and the Charles Dickens’ Museum in Broadstairs both have His Chair: not quite as unreasonable as, say, the myriad foreskins of Christ which have been cherished and venerated in shrines across the world, given that it is extremely likely that Dickens, over a long life and the production of umpteen novels and short stories, sat in any number of places to knock out a few hundred words a day. No-one lays claim to having one of the Austen family’s dining chairs, as far as I know (but you should still have a visit to Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire, on your To Do list – and they do have her writing-table). And if anyone tries to sell you Shakespeare’s chair, call the Fraud Squad. Tolstoy – and why are we not surprised? – shaw's deskseems to have sat on The World’s Most Uncomfortable Chair to write what, in that context, really do look like extremely long novels. And George Bernard Shaw (bother! A shoo-in for our cogitations on middle names ) had a captain’s chair. All I can tell you is that I have one just like it, and I love it, because it was my great-great-grandfather’s, and it has been – well, part of the furniture -all my life. But I would not willingly sit in it for hours at a time.

Pooh visits OwlThe secret to choosing the right chair is, I suspect, that it is right for you. Owl’s chair, for example, is clearly perfect for him, allowing good perching-room (not a consideration in the NorthernReader household). For reading, there must be room to curl up, a light peeping over your shoulder, and a table nearby for coffee and cake or a glass of wine (if it has become impossible to sit through a film without major calorific intake, I’m damned if I’m stinting myself when lost in a good book). And, should I fleetingly miss academic life, I can always pretend my new acquisition is not just a chair, but a Chair.

Week 28: Books for Vladimir Putin

bank-bridge-in-st-petersburgI have never been to Russia.  I cannot read Russian.  I do not even know any Russian people.  I am, therefore, completely unqualified to pronounce upon what seems to be a pretty sorry state of affairs at the top there. But we readers form a gloriously democratic community that knows no boundaries and is not disheartened by what it does not yet know.  Books, we readers believe, can enlighten the darkest minds and lift the most troubled hearts.  Here, then, is my gift to you, Lt Col Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, a man I do not know: a small library of books you might like to read.

I would love it if you would read John Le Carré’s The Complete Smiley and let me know how they strike you from the other side of Checkpoint Charlie. The television version was terrific, if you haven’t time to read all eight books, what with running several countries and all the other calls on your time: or – even better – you could listen to the completely wonderful BBC radio version starring Simon Russell Beale, even though I suspect he isn’t your sort of chap.  And of course I’d be interested to hear your views on Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six and Alan Bennett’s plays about the Cambridge lot: An Englishman Abroad and A Question of Attribution.  We’ve developed a tendency here over the last twenty or thirty years to romanticise Philby and his chums, but, quite apart from the sheer bloody boys’-games pointlessness of it all, they did directly contribute to an awful lot of deaths, didn’t they?  Of course, you would know, from your time in the KGB, exactly how many: although, as my grandfather said to my mother when she expressed horror at the sheer number of people who died in the concentration camps (before your time but the point holds), ‘How many would have been alright?’

Lucky you, President Putin (you are president at the moment, aren’t you? Again?): you can read Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and – best of all – Chekhov without the need for translations.  If you have a spare moment, I would love to hear which is your favourite: Uncle Vanya, perhaps.  Do you see Serebryakov selling his late wife’s estate as progress or treachery?

HvorostovskyI only know your home town, St Petersburg, from books and films.  I suspect that novels set in the Siege of Leningrad – even one as good as Gillian Slovo’s The Ice Road – may seem downright impertinent to you, as your family were there and suffered terribly.  Crime and Punishment is set there, of course, and so is the compellingly wonderful Eugene Onegin.  If you haven’t time to re-read Pushkin, listen to Tchaikovsky’s marvellous opera, especially with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and the lovely Nuccia Focile as Tatiana.  You’re not going to let the fact that Tchaikovsky was gay stop you from celebrating his music, are you?

It is just possible that you may have Ukraine much on your mind at present.  Have you read Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin?  It’s set in Kiev and Misha the penguin is a give-away from the zoo there (at least he didn’t get eaten by the President).  Do read it.  From what I have read about you, Mr Putin, you do not tend to empathise with people who are unhappy or being caused distress.  Perhaps you might find empathising with a penguin a good starting-point on your journey towards kindness.

vladimir-putin-riding-bearWould it be asking too much to suggest that you read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich? Only – just in case you haven’t come across it before – please don’t treat it as a checklist for your prisons.  The idea is that you should read it and weep.  Because I do want you to weep, Mr Putin.  It would be good to have a world leader who was unafraid of compassion and did not think that posing naked to the waist down while dismantling either a Kalashnikov or a bear was manly.  Can I add Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom to your list?  Oh, and some Oscar Wilde as well.  He was the chap who said, ‘Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.’  But to be honest I’d just like to see you curled up in a corner of the Kremlin reading An Ideal Husband.

The latest in our imortant series of non-gratuitous illustrations

The latest in our important series of non-gratuitous illustrations

You do seem to be a bit troubled by homosexuality, don’t you?  Perhaps reading Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain will at least make you realise you have more in common with America than you thought.  Red-neck Mid-West America, anyway.  Oh, go on, watch the film.  You know you want to (and you can get in some more weeping practice at the loss of the luminous screen presence that was Heath Ledger).  But wouldn’t you – and your fantastic country – be happier if you spent more time worrying about world peace?  So here are some suggestions for books that encourage us to know the human heart rather than discount or despise it.

First – and first on any bookshelf of English books about Russia – Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring.  Set in Moscow in 1913, this deft, dryly humorous, sometimes shocking and always perfect short novel captures a world that is shifting, thawing, changing.  Next, the Russophile Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales: you might enjoy Ransome’s own account of the Russian Revolution in his Autobiography as well.  You will know, Mr Putin, that Ransome married Evgenia Shelepina, Trotsky’s secretary.  When you are at a loose end, come and visit their grave in the tranquil churchyard at Rusland in his beloved Lake District, and celebrate a truly happy Anglo-Russian union.  Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!  Richard Feynman’s family originated in Russia, so you could proudly claim him as one of your own.  He was wise –Nobel-Prize-winningly so – breath-takingly clever and, even more rarely, funny.  He worked with Hans Bethe on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.  Feynman had the brilliance to help develop the atomic bomb, the judgment to agree to work on it to forestall Germany getting there first, and the magnificence of soul to re-evaluate his decision and conclude that he had been wrong.

Aah, changing your mind and your actions: the hallmark of greatness. My final gift to you, Vladimir, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.   спокойной ночи и удачи (good night, and good luck).

We are all together on such a small place, after all

We are all together on such a small place, after all

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!’