Week 67: Into the Dark

aurora borealisFirst, the good news. Here in the far north of England, our summer time stretches like silk across the sky. We are almost in White Nights territory and can read outside until nearly midnight (see Week 47). It follows, however, that at this time of year what passes for daylight blinks by like a moth’s eyelash. For the last few days, befuddled and bemused by the lack of melatonin, we have taken to standing under the kitchen lights, faces turned upwards in the middle of the day. To no avail: we are creatures of the dark, and feel drugged and stupefied with perpetual night-time. Like Hamlet’s dodgy uncle, we want to shout ‘Give me some light: away!’

Because we humans are not built for nocturnal life. At some deep level of the soul we have always known this, and made our gods as creatures of the sun. Apollo Phoebus, Ra: the heavens are teeming with gods laying claim to being the sun-giver. GK Chesterton’s Father Brown story, ‘The Eye of Apollo’, which you will find in The Innocence of Father Brown, shows what happens, both physically and spiritually, to sun worshippers: nothing good, in short. Better Chesterton’s Priest of Apollo, a thoroughly bad hat, however, than the really rather embarrassing sun-lovers in DH Lawrence’s short story, ‘Sun’ (better by far, incidentally, if you are in the mood for short stories, to read Lawrence’s ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ and ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’). Even Agatha Christie’s outstandingly dull Evil Under the Sun plays along with what seems to be a theme, that sunlight is bad for us and we’re better off under our quiet English clouds. This is of course nonsense, as the good folk of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries knew. You will have noticed that all the most romping Renaissance tragedies take place in Hot Countries. Yes, yes, I know that their heroes and heroines do not live happily ever after, and that we are actually supposed to be appalled at the goings-on in the languorously Mediterranean countries in which they are set – Spain (Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling, which, if you happen to be unfamiliar with it, is an absolute treat, full-to-bursting with horror and mayhem) and Italy (Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, Webster’s fabulously bizarre Duchess of Malfi). The point these English playwrights were ostensibly making was, in essence, my dear, murder and treachery, what else would you expect from Catholic countries? But actually of course they make Spain and Italy sound a lot more zizzy – all that sex, apart from anything else – than dreary old Puritan London in the drizzle

But can I find any heroes for this long darkness? My hat is off to polar explorers, who voluntarily put up with this sort of thing for months at a stretch (the contemplation of which should put my whining at a few shorter-than-average daylight hours into some sort of perspective). There are good solid biographies of Scott, Shackleton and Nansen out there, and Shackleton’s own gripping South: The Endurance Expedition: but my favourite approach to the whole subject of Arctic exploration is Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday. Ransome, as I’m sure you know, was thoroughly acquainted with the very frozen north, not just in his beloved Lake District but also trotting across the battlefields of revolutionary Russia in his capacity as War Correspondent for the Daily News and The Manchester Guardian. The children in Winter Holiday put the NorthernReader household to shame (not a difficult task even at the best of times) as they buckle cheerfully down to stumbling around in the dark outdoors or making rabbit-skin mittens by lamplight.

Wallander - Series 3The lessening of the light is even more marked in Scandinavia than it is here, and the seemingly perpetual twilight provides the perfect sinister backdrop for a clutch of Swedish and Danish thriller writers. Henning Markell’s Wallander novels are atmospheric, bleak and disturbing: but if that’s your sort of thing, you must read the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. In ten novels, written at the kitchen table after the couple’s children had gone to bed, the modern crime novel is born. Calmly, meticulously, they create the genre of the police-procedural and use it to construct devastating critiques of contemporary society.

On second thoughts, perhaps gritty realism and gruesome murders are not my cup of tea at the moment. I’m having to keep the lights on all day as it is, just to get from room to room without bumping into the furniture: think of the reckless extravagance if I have to keep the lights on all night having frightened myself half to death. No, I shall be like Badger, who, you will recall, puts off even the urgent task of reforming Toad with the honest admission, ‘of course you know I can’t do anything now?’. And no sensible animal would question his wisdom. As Kenneth Grahame so rightly points out, ‘no animal […] is ever expected to do anything strenuous, or heroic, or even moderately active during the off-season of winter’ So that’s all right, then. If retiring to the study and putting a red spotted handkerchief over one’s face is good enough for the great Mr Badger at this time of year, it’s certainly good enough for me.badger


Week 62: Ghost Stories

Not too scary

Not too scary

All Hallows’ Eve. All Saints’ Eve. Hallowe’en. Or, with the directness for which the North East is rightly famous, Spook Night. With the clocks going back, this is the beginning of the dark months. In times gone by, our ancestors lit fires and celebrated Samhain, which like so many Celtic words, is not pronounced as it looks and is probably nothing to do with the rather earnest festivities laid on by modern-day pagans (as mostly harmless people from Brighton with time on their hands like to be called). The fire and the fireworks have shifted a few days to mark Guy Fawkes’ Day in England, and Hallowe’en has on the whole become another shopping opportunity based on ill-understood American customs and, I’m afraid, greed. But as we start to draw the curtains at tea-time, light the wood-burner and settle down for cosy winter evenings in, what could be more cheering than some properly flesh-creeping horror?

No self-respecting bookshelf should be without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Forget Lon Chaney and staggering around with a bolt through the neck. Among the very many pleasures of reading the book is the sisterly knowledge that it is said to be the product of Mary listening quietly to Percy B and his chum Lord Byron drone on about how marvellously they would write such a story: she then popped upstairs and, unlike the chaps, sat down and wrote the definitive myth-creating novel that defines the Gothic. That showed them. It really is an extraordinary book, poised on the brink of a new age of science and deeply concerned with how we use our new-found understanding. The questions it explores remain piercingly relevant and we would do well to insist that every scientist, and certainly every politician (the ones that can read, anyway), study it very carefully indeed.

Oh, go on then, let’s have Dracula as well. Bram Stoker has much to answer for, not least bequeathing us – and especially the good citizens of Whitby – generations of whey-faced young people drooping around in black clothes and uncomfortable piercings. But the book itself has more merit than that, not least in perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of 1897, the year in which it was published, when Sigmund Freud began his self-analysis, and our sub-conscious minds were hauled out of the shadows and the way back was barred (you freudwill recall Anita Loos’s wonderful Lorelei Lee – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a must-read – being encouraged by Dr Froyd to develop some inhibitions).

Only a year after Dracula first saw – well, ‘the light of day’ might not be the happiest phrase in this context – Henry James played with our minds and undermined our certainties in his compelling novella, The Turn of the Screw. It is fabulously unsettling because it refuses ever to let us decide on a single fixed meaning for it. It gives us joyful literary theorists great pleasure, enabling us to chant our battle cry, ‘meanings are not fixed, or singular, and they can be ambiguous and even contradictory’. And Benjamin Britten’s opera is thrilling, chilling and eerie: like James’s book, it perfectly captures Freud’s idea of unheimlich, the uncanny, the ruling passion of this time of ghouls and ghosts.

The Goths spent a thousand years or so, from perhaps the third to the tenth century and beyond, happily pottering around huge swathes of Europe developing their undoubted talent for laying waste and fighting. At various times, they had a crack at the Roman Empire, the Huns, the Franks and the Moors. As the Geats of Scandinavia, they can register a claim to be the people of Beowulf, and thus enable us to indulge in the joys of re-reading Seamus Heaney’s great translation. But they are not otherwise hugely well-known for their literary bent, which makes it perhaps mildly surprising that, from Horace Walpole onwards, we have appropriated the term ‘Gothic’ to mean melodramatically romantic. This, of course, is where we came in, with Mr and Mrs Shelley and the boys in the Romantic band. Time, then, to add Jane Austen’s delicious Northanger Abbey to this week’s shelf as a helpful antidote to sensational excess. Her heroine, Catherine Morland, is a poppet, and only seventeen, making her longing for the squalid discomforts of mediaeval living almost forgiveable. We can perhaps take Austen’s cheerful practicality with us to temper the marvellous horrors of Angela Carter’s darkly gothic tales in The Bloody Chamber.

completely non-gratuitous

completely non-gratuitous

Will you be lighting the new darkness with a Jack o’Lantern? I have it on good authority that the carving of vegetables to put a candle inside them and make sinister flickering faces is an English tradition, and originally involved turnips and swedes. This is yet another awe-inspiring example of the hardiness and fortitude of the English, because, trust me, turnip-whittling is jolly hard work. How our lives have been improved, in this and in one or two other instances, by the adoption of American habits. Pumpkins are a cinch to hack away at, and a delicious conserve can be made with the resulting pile of golden flesh (think sugar, fresh ginger and lemons). Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, unites ghosts, pumpkins and headless horsemen in a highly satisfactory way.

But tonight the wind is wuthering around the house and the candles are flickering. Was that a creak upon the stair? Put away Elizabeth Taylor’s haunting story, ‘Poor Girl’: leave Hamlet, The Spanish Tragedy, Macbeth and Richard III – so many ghosts!- for now: turn away, even, from the Border Ballads – yes, even Kate Rusby singing ‘The Unquiet Grave’. Snuggle up in bed with PG Wodehouse’s ghost story, ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have learned that Wittgenstein rated it as the funniest thing he’d ever read. Any fears of things that go bump in the night are at once vanquished by picturing the great, but not necessarily uproarious, philosopher, laughing his socks off.