Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Review: Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre


It may come as a surprise, but I am a big musical fan. It’s not something I get to discuss on this blog very often as so few musicals have even a tangential link to the eighteenth-century but generally, if I’m going to the theatre, I’m seeing a musical. This is especially true at the beginning of the year, something to do with the dark nights, tickets received for Christmas and the availability of reduced tickets in winter, but the first few months of the year are full of musicals. Over the last fortnight I’ve seen three and one of them was the hot ticket of the moment, ‘Hamilton’.

It was a present from my sister, who hogged the phone-lines from March till July to get me tickets in January. ‘Hamilton’ really intrigued me as it had an eighteenth century connection, was so very hard to get hold of and has been lauded by everyone I’ve heard. I was still a little unsure though, the notion of a hip-hop musical about the man who set up the American Reserve Bank seemed an odd choice for flavour of the year, I couldn’t wait to see how that rather weak premise had been turned into a smash hit.

We sat in a box, with plenty of leg room and no people to distract us and took a deep breath as the lights went down. The first half of the play deals with Hamilton as a smart but down-on-his-luck immigrant into New York. He finds a group of friends and is sucked in the American Revolution, largely dealing with logistics but finally getting a command of his own. He also got married to the sister of someone who loved him more. The second half dealt with his essaying career, his establishment of a bank as Secretary of the Treasury, his run-in with Thomas Jefferson, his ruin through a sex scandal, his son’s death by duel and later his own.

The whole play was full of energy with no dialogue scenes. Each scene was a song of its own, with the emotional heart of it sung, the exposition dealt in quick scenes of patter (I won’t call it rap) and a little dialogue in the middle of the songs. Many of the songs had extremely catchy hooks (I can’t get the phrase ‘room where it happens’ out of my head) and the cast threw themselves into everything with verve. When the lights came up after the show had ended, I felt a little… flat. I still couldn’t see where the hype was coming from and now I had seen it, I couldn’t really see the point. That would have been the end of my engagement (or relative lack thereof) if I hadn’t seen a few other musicals shortly after.


Six days after ‘Hamilton’, my sister and I went to see ‘Six’. In many ways it is a completely different beast to ‘Hamilton’, performed in a far smaller theatre, with a far smaller cast and no costume or set changes. In another way it was very similar, retelling history using modern musical tropes. The scenario for ‘Six’ is that Henry VIII’s wives have formed a girl-group and are having a song competition to establish who got the worst deal and deserves to be lead singer. It’s a pretty naff idea but it came together beautifully.

I had experienced problems with the history in ‘Hamilton’. I’ve visited Disney, I’ve seen the Hall of Presidents, I have a strong stomach for ‘Merican Yeah! sentiments. I already knew I’d have trouble with the revolution sections as I don’t really see the War of Independence as some great fight for freedom so much as a struggle for tax-dodging. I honestly don’t think the British government was unfair for trying to get the colonies to pay one tax for the upkeep of the navy that had protected them during the Seven Year’s War. I thought this was especially fair as the home country was paying a myriad of taxes including window tax and brick tax - I think one for tea isn’t excessive. Of course, according to the musical, Britain taxed them 'relentlessly'... one tax...one.

There was also the fact that ‘Hamilton’ seemed to expect that we were American. George Washington was introduced as “the father of our nation” and New York was described as “the greatest city in the World.” Aside from the fact I was sitting in London (obviously the greatest city in the World, we have Speaker’s Corner) but at the time the play was set, New York wasn’t even the greatest city in America compared to places like Philadelphia. 

‘Six’, as unsubtle and brash as it was, revealed two faults with ‘Hamilton’s’ approach to its history, it didn’t have fun with it and it didn’t question it.

Each of the wives in ‘Six’ had a song where they got to expand their character beyond the ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ cliché. Each one was a pastiche of a musical style designed to fit with the gist of the woman’s story. Catherine of Aragon got an Beyoncé-esque ‘angry woman scorned’ song, Anne Boleyn had a ditzy Katy Perry number, Jane Seymour had an Adele torch ballad.. &c. Not only did the musical have fun matching musical style with character, but they bantered and bickered, the beheaded wives ganging up on the non-beheaded ones. The only humour in ‘Hamilton’ was the song (and reprises) of George III, singing sarcastic love songs to his former colonies - which, incidentally were the best parts of the show.

What’s more, ‘Six’ wasn’t content to tell history, it questioned it. Catherine Howard’s song started as a boy-crazy number which devolved into the story of a woman forced into a relationship with the king before being murdered, whilst the final wife, Catherine Parr, questioned the whole set-up in the first place. After she argued that the only reason we imagined the women together was because they had happened to be married to the same man, they joined together in a final number. This number emphasised how each of the women was a person in their own right, with their own desires and lives and it was lazy historiography to lump them together. (Incidentally it reminded me of the new book ‘The Five’ by Hallie Rubenhold, which focusses on the women killed by Jack the Ripper, as opposed to the killer himself.) At no point did ‘Hamilton’ questioned its founding myths of the United States, not even slightly.


Two days after we saw ‘Six’, my sister and I went to see ‘Come From Away’. In subject matter, it’s nothing like the other two musicals, telling a modern story of some events to the side of 9/11. In terms of staging, the two have much in common. The cast play multiple roles (as some did in ‘Hamilton’) but more similarly, there wasn’t a split between dialogue and song, each scene was a song with dialogue seeded through it.

What ‘Come From Away’ showed was how awkward the choreography of Hamilton was. ‘Come From Away’ had an extremely tight ensemble cast who worked as a cohesive unit throughout. A bunch of mismatched chairs became a cafe, a school, a bar, a cliff-face, a plane and a bus through the seamless movement of the actors and a few well places lights. With the exception of ‘The Room Where it Happens’, where characters walk into and out of small rooms of boxed light, the play was so cluttered and unfocused visually. The stage was full of extras, sometimes sliding across the floor but mainly strutting one way or the other. Most choreography in the piece involved people walking in hurried directions across the stage and occasionally picking up a chair and waving it in slow-motion - for some reason.

Finally, the big blow to ‘Hamilton’ was that when I walked away from ‘Six’ and when I walked away from ‘Come From Away’ I had an emotion. I had been cheered and buzzed, a teensy bit moved but ultimately uplifted by those two experiences, whereas ‘Hamilton’ left me feeling rather empty. The story was too baggy, the characters where mostly bland (except Burr, I liked him) and the storytelling linear and plain. It does have some catchy ear-worms though.


I can see the point of ‘Hamilton’ in the Us, the last song is about ‘telling his story’. It was clear that Lin-Manuel Miranda had read a biography of the man, thought he was too interesting to languish in obscurity and decided to publicise ‘our’ least known Founding Father. Fair enough, but as a British person in the UK, his story does not have much significance beyond being being one of many interesting historical figures - why don’t the others get a chance? I want to write the punk rock William McGonagall musical, now that will be epic.


Wednesday, 6 February 2019

If I Could 'Fix' Language: Three Words I Hate

When Samuel Johnson was commissioned to write the English Dictionary, he had some big ideas about what he might do.

“This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary; a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.”

His idea was powerful, to ‘fix’ the English language. This was not to fix in the sense of something broken, but to fix in its place, to glue the language into a solid and unchanging state. He knew this was a difficult, almost impossible task and compared it to the task before Julius Cæsar who tried and failed to conquer the unruly British Isles.  

“When I survey the Plan which I have laid before you, I cannot, my Lord, but confess, that I am frighted at its extent, and, like the soldiers of Cæsar, look on Britain as a new world, which it is almost madness to invade.”

When he got to the end of his project, nine pain-filled years later, he realised that the idea of ‘fixing’ the language was impossible. His preface to the dictionary explains how difficult it is to pin any idea of language at all, and how language change is a force impossible to resist.

“If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity?”

Since then, English Lexicography has taken the inevitable notion of language change as the joy of language. For a modern lexicographer in English, language exists in transaction, words are not objects to be pinned but tokens to be exchanged. The Oxford English Dictionary, begun as a continuation of Johnson’s dictionary, is founded on the notion of watching and recording language rather than controlling it.




However, if I could change language, here are three words I would eliminate.


Awareness

The other week it was #penguinawarenessday. The fact is that I am aware of penguins. They are short dudes in black and white who waddle around in the snow and weave beautifully in the water. There is no-one above the age of three who are not aware of penguins. There are loads of children’s books about penguins - I particularly like Oliver Jeffers books like ‘Lost and Found’.

Awareness is the wrong word. What is trying to be raised far more than ‘awareness’ is money. Awareness is politer.


Homo/Trans Phobia

The trouble with this phrase is that ‘phobia’ sounds sort of sweet - that such people may see the sight of a rainbow flag above a pub or a masculine face above a dress, and run away terrified and screaming. 

It’s simple. These people aren’t scared, they’re bigoted.

Privileged

I was introduced to this word by the phrase, ‘check your privilege,’ every word in the phrase is wrong.

This is not to say that I disagree with the intention of the phrase. The fact is that I am a white male, I have only been stopped by police twice in my life and when I go on a trip, the tour guide frequently comes to me as ‘person in the know’ than the teacher I am assisting. I am completely in agreement that I have perks simply in being what I appear to be. But every aspect of that three word phrase irks me.

The first is the word ‘check’. It is the verb of the sentence and as such is the most important one there. It is the job of the verb to make plain what it is I am required to do. Unfortunately, I can think of at least three readings of the word ‘check’ that are plausible readings. The first is that I must check my privilege as I would check for keys, that I should merely note and acknowledge it. The second is that I must check my privilege as I would check in a coat in a cloakroom, divest myself of said privilege so I can communicate at an equal footing. The third is that I must hold my privilege in check, like a dog on a short lead, that I might not be able to divest myself of it but must keep it under control. As each version could be the one meant by the phrase, it makes the whole thing fuzzy and indistinct as it’s not obvious. 'Check' is clearly the wrong verb to use.

The second word I have a problem with is ‘your’. It turns the phrase into an accusatory, finger-pointing activity, Everybody is telling everybody else to check their privilege. No wonder the idea has met resistance. If the phrase used the word ‘my’ it would be much better. An encouragement for each person to take notice of the little benefits they receive from their perceived identities is far healthier than the nagging, pestering use of ‘your’.

The last word, and the one I think most pernicious, is ‘privilege’.

The fact is, that a privilege is something extra that we give someone. In my case, not being repeatedly stopped by police or being dismissed by tour guides is something given to me extra than normal human cordiality. The fact is, that these things ought not be privilege at all. They are not extras, they should be the standard by which we treat each other.

Worse still, privileges are earned. they are the reward granted for something. To use the word ‘privilege’ is to imply that I deserve not to be checked by police for the merit of being white, or that I deserve not to be ignored for the merit of being male. To say such beneficial treatments are privilege is to say that they are deserved, which is surely against the whole ideology of the notion.

As such, the phrase ‘check your privilege’ manages to be (in three words) indistinct, needlessly confrontational and secretly undermining the equality sought. It’s a shittily produced phrase.


The fact is, privileged or not, I don’t have the power to keep the English language in check. So I have to live with the words that don’t quite say what I think they should, and hope people understand what I actually mean.

P.S


For a long time ‘enthusiasm’ would have been on this list, but luckily even employers are beginning to realise that an emotion as genuine as enthusiasm can’t be faked.


Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Review: The Journals and Letters of Francis Burney


This is one of those books I was excited to get but half-expected to leave on my shelf. It wasn’t until I had to read it for the Dr Johnson’s House Reading Circle that I actually picked it up and read it. I was expecting to find Frances Burney to be affected and a little irritating, having read a biography of her and come across in many places since. 

I was worried at first. Frances is young, names her journal ‘nobody’ as she has nobody to tell her secrets. She complains about being dragged to meet boring strangers (which was worse with her crippling shyness.) There’s another entry where she talks about how she wants to love without being loved back. It’s all very gauche. 

How surprised was I, that I was utterly on her side in a few pages.

Things pick up as she starts writing ‘Evelina’. The novel was written in secret as she was terrified of being exposed as a boastful ‘scribbler’ and paranoid about her father’s disapproval. She claimed she had it published on a whim (something I don’t believe for a second) but she was genuinely surprised when it became the talk of the literary world. Her father was a music historian who was a member of The Club, a group of polymaths surrounding Samuel Johnson and she was often with him as his secretary. She thrilled at hearing these huge names talking about her little book, though mortified when it was eventually pinned to her.

From then on she moved in those circles in her own right, becoming a virtual pet to Hester Thrale. The journals/letters are full of little pen portraits of great eighteenth century figures. Two of my favourites were poor, pathetic Kit Smart after being released from the madhouse, Davey Garrick sweeping into the house and charming the pants off everyone. Some of these are wonderfully niche, her brother travelled Cook’s last two voyages and so she became loose friends with Omai, a traveller from Tahiti.

So many of these sketches are vivd and wonderful because she has an almost pitch-perfect ear for how people spoke. While her visual and behavioural descriptions of people follow some pretty ordinary 18th century phrasings and forms, her ability to create a real voice is astounding. Whether it is King George III’s little tag phrases (“what, what”), Paoli’s peculiar manipulation of English (“I was a baby to him”) or an Irish peer’s odd, scattered chat (“boys here, boys there, boys all over”).  She manages to bring the people into the room. Interestingly, she also has Johnson starting many of his utterances with a barked ‘sir’, so it wasn’t just Boswell’s affectation. (Incidentally, she avoids Boswell because of his own listening ear and ready notebook).

Following the success of ‘Evelina’ she was invited into the court of Queen Caroline. She was there for five years and appeared to have hated most of it. For someone who was overly (even sensitively) keen on propriety, she has an inner streak of independence that won’t be contained by court life. As usual, her snippets of court personalities are full of vigour- George III is full of energy and life, perhaps even more so during one his ‘mad’ periods where he chases her around the gardens of Windsor.

Released from court, she finished the book ‘Cecilia’. I loved hearing her friends discussing it, how one managed to read it four times whilst Sir Joshua Reynold’s was still on the first volume. The best part was when she met Mrs Delaney and the Duchess of Portland. They gossip about the characters as if they are friends and (thrillingly for me) describe Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ as long and boring. 

Then she fell in love with Alexandre D’Arblay, a penniless emigre from the French Revolution. Using her court pension and the sales of her third novel, ‘Camilla’, she lived in a little cottage where she had a son. In the lull between Anglo-French wars, the three of them went to visit family in France and were subsequently trapped in Napoleon’s France for ten years. She suffered a mastectomy without anaesthesia, reported on the effect of Waterloo from Brussels and moved back to England.

As she grew older she lost family members (including her father, husband and son), sorted through her father’s next to useless memoirs, wrote another novel and got trapped in a cave filling with sea-water. Then she died, aged 87.

As keenly as she views other people, she seems a little oblivious about herself. From youth to old age, she is always painting herself as a trembling, shy, physcially delicate person. This is the same woman who wrote sharp depictions of all those around her, survived a hideously painful operation and the rigours of the Napoleonic wars as a British woman in France. She almost lived to her nineties - she was no delicate flower, she had a will of steel. I wish she could see herself with the same clarity she saw everyone else.

One of the strangest things about reading Frances Burney’s journals and private letters is knowing how mortified she would be that I was reading them.

This is a book I would highly recommend, there are so many small and incidental details that were fascinating. We get to really hear Johnson at his most frighteningly vitriolic and his most tender. We are trapped in the stuffy court where she spends the long evenings looking at coffee because she doesn’t like to drink it. We get gossip about people with big noses, Corsican generals meeting Irish Giants and Tahitian adventurers eying up beautiful women in Hyde Park… and so much more.



Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Review: Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg


When I heard there was a queer/trans retelling of the Jack Sheppard story doing the rounds, I knew I had to check it out. 

Last year there was ‘The Fatal Tree’ which tried to be a psychologically plausible retelling of the story in thieve’s cant and this year I read Ainsworth’s 1839 fantasia on the story, so I was interested in another take on the character. Before reading, I had an expectation that the central idea of the book would be that Jack’s ability to escape prison would be an analogue to the trans/queer ability to escape (or cross-over) society’s pre-set gender roles. There was some of this, but a whole lot more.

The first part of the book I looked at was the author’s acknowledgements and bibliography. He starts the bibliography with a short paragraph explaining his approach to the book and when he said that ‘London was not a white city’, I have to admit that I first thought he was talking about the buildings. 

I’m not exactly tuned into the worlds of identity politics and decolonialisation theory, neither do I have a conception of eighteenth century London to be anything other than the ethnically diverse stew it has always been, it doesn’t take much reading to find all sorts of varied voices and I didn’t find the statement that ‘London was not (ethnically) white’ to be as radical as I think it was supposed to be. I was also surprised to find that the bibliography contained as many works on modern American race theory, trans theory, gender theory and such as they did works on the eighteenth century. I was ready to tackle a book with some very different interests and priorities to my own.

The book purports to be the secret true confessions of Jack Sheppard, an eighteenth century trans-man born under a name beginning with P, I imagined it as Prudence or Patience - one of those cloying virtue names. The text is annotated throughout by Dr Voth, himself a trans-man and lecturer in 18th century studies. (That the author, Jordy Rosenberg is also both these things make me wonder how much we are supposed to identify Voth with him). 

There are incidences of 18th century criminal slang, especially early in the book. This is mainly to set up the joke that pretty much every colourful epithet we are introduced to can be translated as ‘pussy’. I liked the joke and I liked the tone. The gleeful quim-carousing tone of the beginning of the book, together with the gnomic glossing in the footnotes put me at ease and allowed me to relax that the book would try to be as entertaining as the bibliography suggested it would be polemical.

Although the Jack Sheppard in this is apprenticed to Kneebone the carpenter, does occasionally have a stutter and does break out of a couple of prisons - this is definitely the Ainsworth fantasia route than any retelling of Sheppard’s life. Jack in this is too busy detecting conspiracies, conducting piracy on the Thames and avoiding the closing net of a police state to really get into any of his traditional scrapes. As the book reaches a final twist, it’s clear that Sheppard and Bess exist in the main text as symbols of noble struggle and their actions have to fit the symbolism of the text more than the recorded actions of history. I didn’t really have any problem with this as it is pretty much what all writers on Sheppard have done and it was done with verve, panache and humour.

I heard a description that this book is written in an eighteenth century style, that’s nonsense, it isn’t and it doesn’t really try. The dialogue, structure and pacing are all definitely modern and Jack Sheppard says he has done something ‘on accident’, something so glaringly American that were I supposed to read it in an eighteenth century vernacular, it would have thrown me right out. The book does use ‘flash’, the thieve’s argot but it handles it very well. The language is used (as such language really is) as spice and also as a symbol of belonging. At several points in the book, flash is used as a password and a way of checking allegiance and identity. 

I was also very into the story in the footnotes, of Voth, his previous relationships and his life in a dystopian hellish university where his work is being co-opted by P-quad (Pequod?) a corporation of a thousand heads. There aren’t many books where a person tells an anecdote of a girl dry-humping a toy shark, or when the editor/rival protagonist admits that he hasn’t seen his penis in ages and thinks it’s under the bed. 

Most of my initial concerns about forcefully viewing eighteenth century lives through twenty-first century theories of understanding were swept away. Rosenberg is too artful, playful and confident with his material to make it as simple as reading it like that. Someone with less finesse could have made this an awkward, ranting, embarrassment of a story but the layers of fiction, metafiction and knowingness slip through the dangers and create a book which entertains and provokes.

I did have a couple of areas where I didn’t feel comfortable though. One was how much of the Jack Sheppard story could have been used but wasn’t. For a book in which Jack Sheppard is a trans-man, set free by his love for Bess and a new pleasure at his masculine identity - there could have been a lot of material in the prison escape which involved him dressing up as a woman. For the real (presumably male) Jack, there’s a certain larkiness about sneaking under a prison guard dressed as a woman, a larkiness that has been used in fiction from Mr Toad on. For a trans Jack Sheppard, there’s could be a certain regression or pain in sneaking out as a girl, a feeling of too many layers of identity. As well as this, there is the fact that Jack was a famously flashy dresser. In this book he rejects silks and flouncy things as feminine but he was living in an age where flamboyance was far more allowable in the masculine sphere and the historic Jack enjoyed his fair share of it. I’d liked to have seen a little more of that in here too.

My second gripe was the sub-plot about the police state. Throughout the course of the book, a rumoured plague gives the (extremely shadowy) authorities an excuse to flood the streets and waterways with ‘centinels’. These bully boys smash through characters houses, stop them in the street, arrest them for paltry reasons and generally show how the cis/white/privileged world police those who are not one of them. 

This is a completely false depiction of early eighteenth century London and the only real case where the polemical/modern wishes of the novel go too far. The fact is that there were no police at this time. None at all. What’s more, there wouldn’t be an official police service for a hundred years because the people thought the notion to be against British freedoms. Jonathan Wild, Thief-taker General and villain of this piece, could only operate in an un-policed state and the coming of a proper police force would mean there was no space for such people. What’s more, the footnotes on policing talk about Stonewall riots and American prison surgery, London’s police were introduced in civilian uniforms with purposefully restricted firepower. When early London police got into a shoot-out in Sidney Street in 1911, they had to call the army for back-up. The reason those figures are called ‘centinels’ in this, is because there is no word to call them because they never existed.

My final problem with the book is that it actively tells me that it is not written for me. A number of times the footnotes appeal to an ‘us’ who will get the work. At another point it is explicitly says that as well as being a book for queers, it’s only for those queers who have suffered and lost all. Now, I have something of a queer identity but the queerness of this identity lies more in how little weight I give to gender and sexuality within myself, those are not the muscles that pump my inner heart. This book is explicitly for those who put those two notions front and centre, so I felt a little left out at times. It reminded me of how exclusive these inclusive identities often are. I was also a little upset by the notion that ‘all white people look like serial killers’ until I thought about the assumptions people have made (and some still make) about ‘all black people’. Then my jolt of dismay got me thinking (and feeling) so was probably the point. 



All in all, I thought this book was both a compelling novel in itself and also an interesting look through some different lenses. The different elements are mixed in well and Rosenberg pulls off a difficult task. Still prefer Ainsworth’s version though.




Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Video: 'The Favourite' vs 'Queen Anne'

Here’s a little video comparing what I thought about ‘The Favourite’ to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s ‘Queen Anne’.



Mini-review (ish) of ‘The Favourite’

Recently, Yorgos Lanthimos’s film, ‘The Favourite’ has been picking up awards and pleasing critics. Not much of a critic myself, I was given cinema vouchers for Christmas that meant I could go and see it without paying the ludicrous ticket prices. 

The cinema was packed and there was a hushed silence as the film began. There were a few laughs and titters as the film progressed. I enjoyed myself very much for most of the runtime. At one point it felt that the film was gearing up to a big final act, it seemed a bit late in but I was ready for some sort of climax… then it finished. Most of the other patrons of the cinema looked as confused and let-down as I felt.

This is not to say that the performers weren’t very good and the script entertaining, they certainly were. I thought Olivia Coleman managed to be both grotesque and appealing in equal measure (much as she did as Sophie in ‘Peep Show’). Rachel Weisz was all hard-bitten pragmatism but also an undercurrent of deep and gentle love, while Emma Stone seemed a lost innocent until she rapidly wasn’t.

The film stuck with me more than films usually do, I revisited scenes and moments in my head. The ludicrous dance scene got funnier, the sense of loss and ‘wrong-ness’ at the end grew larger and after a few days, the story which had existed as pieces came together. 


Ultimately, it’s a good film but I’m not sure I’ll revisit it the way I did ‘Lady Susan’, which had a similar (though lighter) tone.


Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Top Ten Books of the Year (pt2) 2018

Happy New Year!

First post of 2019, the best books of 2018. Let’s get cracking.





5
The Tombs of Atuan

I had been intrigued by Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books and I managed to pick up the first four from my favourite book-swap. When she died, I was very keen to try out the series.

While this is the stand-in for the series as a whole, my favourite of the four books was ‘The Tombs of Atuan’.

I had a problem with the first book as the whole, wide world of Earthsea felt made up. Focussing this book on the very small location of ‘The Place’, a temple complex in the island of Atuan, grounded the book far more for me than the travels of earlier.

I preferred the character of Tenar, protagonist of this book, to that of Ged, protagonist of the last. Tenar wasn’t a stupendously gifted, arrogantly independent young character who needed to learn about her own dark sides and weaknesses. She was a person trapped, told from a young age that her she was not her own self but the continuation of one person’s rebirth and that her soul had been eaten by the Nameless Gods. Whereas Ged’s story was about confronting, claiming and overcoming his ego - Tenar’s was about finding and maintaining a sense of self though all the world denies it. I found this a far more interesting psycho-social drama.

I also believed in the closed in world of the tombs far more than the broader sweep of the first book. Which is not to say it’s realistic as such - but there was more weight to everything. It reminded me of Gormenghast, where the long, heavy drudge of tradition overcame the vitality and life which it fed on. It I’ve seen this, I’ve lived in Coventry.

I also preferred Ged in this. He’s older, wiser and (most importantly) we see him through Tenar’s eyes. Having spent a book with him, we know there are more angsty things going on in his mind but he comes across as someone with experience, knowledge and confidence in his outcome. I even retrospectively liked him more in ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’.

Though this should be read in conjunction with the other books, this was certainly the highlight for me.

4
Don Quixote

I’ve talked in length about ‘Don Quixote’. It may seem striking that I have given three other books a higher place. That doesn’t mean the following books are necessarily better, only that they connected closer with me.If this were a list of the ten most objectively great books, it would probably look very different.  Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy ‘Don Quixote’. I had a wonderful time with this book, genuinely laughed out loud a few times and felt a little teary at others. It’s a wonder that a novel so early in the form’s history can still be so touching.

For anyone wishing to read this book, I recommend the modern Edith Grossman translation. I definitely reading both the first one and its sequel, as the second book probably stands as one of the all time great sequels, both complimenting and challenging the original work.


3
Jack Sheppard

Of course William Harrison Ainsworth would appear somewhere on this list, he is one of my new favourite authors. I read two of his this year, ‘Jack Sheppard’ and ‘Auriol: or The Elixir of Life’. The latter was a crazy, peculiar adventure but unfinished and a little rushed. ‘Jack Sheppard’ was Ainsworth in his golden period, outselling ‘Oliver Twist’ and giving Dickens a few ideas for the future.

What makes it so enjoyable is the improbably incident and the wonderfully pantomime-esque villainy of Jonathan Wild. I spoke about the book here if you wish to find out more.

In a couple of weeks I am going to post a review of ‘Confessions of the Fox’, a very recent take on the Jack Sheppard story that casts him as a trans man (and is really very good.)



2
The Hopkins Manuscript

Standing for a long time as my favourite book of the year, I’m not sure if ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ is a really, really great book or if it just happens to be a book I really, really like. 

I would sum this book up by describing it as ‘Mr Pooter verses the apocalypse’, it’s a glorious tightrope walk which hovers over narrow-minded absurdity but it manages not to fall into it by surprisingly astute psychological understanding.

Mr Hopkins is a small, fussy man, full of his own self-importance. His big interests are poultry breeding and discussing lunar science in a smart club. Having accidentally promised to pay for an observatory for the Lunar club, he is justifiably worried when called to an emergency meeting of the club. So worried is he about this financial observation, that he is relieved when told that the moon is going to crash into the earth. When this sinks in, his main observation is that not as many cream eclairs have been eaten as usual, because that’s the kind of cake you can only eat with a calm and steady hand.

The members of the club have been pledged to secrecy about the approaching collision, so that governments can make preparations to deal with panic. Although he does occasionally think about the awfulness of apocalypse, he mainly wonders around feeling smug that he has a really great secret, and feels huge urge to tell everyone. The introduction describes Hopkins as irritating but I find something endearing in his clinging to the rules of the poultry society (and buying the vicar a book on poultry ‘to make him more interesting’) just as the world is ending. As he says, the end of the world is too big to apply ‘normal common sense’.

Eventually, the rest of the world find out about the impending disaster and Hopkins’ main feeling is disappointment that people aren’t as impressed with him as he hoped. This disappointment comes out in bitchy arguments about the quality of snowdrops in the garden.

The government sets towns and villages the challenge of creating ‘moon-proof’ bunkers, mainly as something to keep people busy but also on the outside chance that they might work. Hopkins begins to join in and enjoys the camaraderie. That said, he daren’t let anyone call him by his first name, just in case the moon didn’t crash and they wouldn’t call him sir afterwards. 

When the moon eventually crashes, most of the village go in the moon-bunker but Hopkins stays in his house. It’s evocatively described, strange and psychedelic. The rush of the moon that brings a dusty whirlwind and even the Atlantic Ocean spreading out into the Hampshire valleys. He emerges and is (mostly) a new man. The need to rebuild the world gives Hopkins more to live for, he even fulfils his dreams and becomes an important man.

These are my favourite chapters, I love the feeling of rebuilding a new world from the ashes of the new. Hopkins is so into this new egalitarian mood that he can talk to a plumber ‘as if he was an equal’. Of course, all things end and this period of new growth is crushed by politics. I wasn’t surprised, the author was a WWI veteran writing in 1939 - what else could it be.

This book is historically interesting in seeing how a man in 1939 imagines how Britain will bear under a cataclysm. He imagines London not to have strong enough communal ties but that the countryside will be able to keep going - he was to be proved wrong by London’s ‘blitz spirit’, which despite a massive rise in crime stands in the city’s memory as being the time of greatest community.

Other than that, the book is funny, full of excitement, mystery and the intricacies of poultry-fancying.


1
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They

A charity shop find, I picked up the book beacuse I’d heard the title before and found it funny. It’s not funny at all. The phrase, far from being a comic fear of strangers as I thought (along the lines of, ‘these people are odd, they shoot horses, don’t they?’) it was a plea for euthanisia.

I took the book home and, as I was putting it on the shelf I started reading the first chapter. I had to force myself to put it down and go to bed. Throughout the day at work I snuck sneaky glances at it, ignoring friends during my break - managing to read about 30 pages throughout the day. As work ended I took it to the cafe in the park, ordered a halloumi wrap and a can of elderflower before sitting in the sun to read.

I devoured the wrap voraciously but I devoured the book more. When I reached the end, I put the book back in my bag, dazed after an emotional ride. I looked at my watch. I’d only been in the park an hour and a half.

So, a short book, but one as satisfying as one much longer. The central concept of the marathon dance was something I had heard of but I’d never really considered the full horror. Months locked in a dancehall without proper sleep, listening to constant music, seeing the same people and being on show the whole time. When the contest added the truly cruel twist of the derby, I was reaching ‘Handmaiden’s Tale’ level of appalled fascination.

It’s a wonderfully structured little book. Technically, the whole thing only lasts the time the judge can pass sentence on poor Robert, the rest of it consists of flashbacks and reflections of the events that have led him to this sentencing. 

Another excellent idea in the book is to give narrating duties to Robert. He is imaginative in quite a childish, wish-fulfilling way, he is naive, thinks the best of people and he is an unshakeable optimist. Not only does this make him the perfect foil to bitter, nihilistic Gloria, it makes him the perfect describer of the rank, seedy and exploitative world of the marathon dance.

From using six ‘lovely’s to describe a sunset because his vocabulary isn’t big enough, to his insistence that his lucky moment may arrive any moment - he is the perfect person to tell such a gloomy story. Firstly, because it creates a distance between the reader and the gloom, secondly because this distance develops into a strange tension where the reader is aware of far more than the character, and thirdly, because his tone becomes at complete odds to the events, making the whole thing either ironically tragic or tragically ironic.

I completely recommend this book to pretty much anyone, it’s an easy read, an engrossing read and an unforgettable one.



Over the course of the year, I read a great many great books and if you want a peek I have a listchallenge here.

Next week if a video comparison of ‘The Favourite’ and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s play ‘Queen Anne’ to see how they both handled the story of Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill.


Till then, all yours