Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Wild Oats at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle.. on Zoom (part 2)

The internet has been a marvellous tool in this time of coronavirus, bringing people together in shared interests even as they are separated into different houses and scattered throughout the country. At least it is when it works. There were a few wobbles with technology at the beginning of this session but after a few prayers to St Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet, things straightened out. Leaving us solely in the tangle that is the plot.

With only 20 pages to go, there would have to be some rapid about-faces to untangle the current knot, a feat that O’Keefe surprisingly pulls off with ease. Lady Amaranth quickly discovered Ephraim Smooth, the man charged with keeping her on the straight-and-narrow, in a compromising position, something she could use to gain her independence. Sir George Thunder was attacked by ruffians and was saved by Rover, who runs back into Banks’s house where he saves Banks’s (newly introduced) sister from the indignity of a bailiff. 

Arrested under the ruffians false witness, he is taken to Lady Amaranth’s house and put on trial before Sir George thunder. The needs of the trial serves to straighten out each character’s identity. Of particular note, that Rover was a baby taken from a loving mother who was jilted by a sea captain and raised abroad before coming back as a wandering actor. His unknown mother happens to be Banks’s sister, his father to be George Thunder and the fake priest Banks himself, yet he was actually a real priest, making Rover the legitimate heir to Sir George. Newly rich and honoured, Rover feels he can marry Lady Amaranth, who suggests that her own fortune is enough for them both, so why not let the freshly disinherited Harry Thunder have it?

And so all they all live happily ever after. Probably.

I had quite a few lines in this final instalment and my notes aren’t as useful as they may have been. There’s a scene between Lady Amaranth and Amelia, Banks’s sister (and secret mother to Rover) where they seem to be trying to outdo each other in noble romance heroine sentiments, with Lady Amaranth declaring that, “Duplicity, even with good intent, is ill”, blissfully unaware of the duplicities that surround her. When she hears Amelia’s tale of woe, she says that,“My pity can do thee no good, yet I pity thee.” Which is sometimes all that can be said.

Sir George Thunder and John Dory again prove themselves to be a brilliant comic pairing in the scene where the ruffians threaten to kill them. Rover rushes to the man’s defence, with Sir George Thunder being keen to get on the action. He’s detained by John Dory, who carries him off, walking  a ‘noble crab walk’ - which took some imagining.

Another great scene of comic violence was Rover against the bailiff distressing Amelia. In all the scenes were Rover has to face someone down, he does it with a wonderfully out of place sense of politeness. He bows with great ceremony to the bailiff and declares himself a ‘humble, obedient servant’ before asking him if he’s ever been astonished. When the bailiff asks why, Rover replies that he intends to astonish him, before hitting him on the head and declaring him astonished. After inflicting a few more astonishments, it’s his suggestion to amaze the bailiff next that has him running from the room.

Other highlights include the phonetic spelling of ‘A-bo-min-a-tion’ that Ephraim declares the play, echoed back to him by Jane, who exposes his hypocrisy. There’s Sir George’s appellation of Rover as ‘Puppy Unknown’, who also gets to call Ephraim, ‘Squintibus’.

All in all, Wild Oats was a very enjoyable and successful play, and John O’Keefe an under-noted author. Born in Ireland to a family who’d lost their land through supporting the Stuarts, he worked in theatres in Dublin and London. Primarily he wrote afterpieces, funny little plays that took place after the main performance. It was possible to get cheaper tickets to slip in during the fourth act of a play just to watch the afterpiece. He wrote Wild Oats late in his career, having become blind in that time. One story tells of him standing in the wings, listening to the rough reception of a play and having to go outside, before his daughter came and pulled him back in to hear the audiences laugh hysterically. 

He’s also a tax-cheat - sort of. During the 1977 run of the play, a letter arrived at the theatre from Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue and Customs. They’d noticed the success of the play and had also noticed that this Mr John O’Keefe had very few tax-records, so they demanded he sort his tax situation out, not easy for a man who had died 150 years before.

Our next performance will be of Henry Fielding’s The Modern Husband. Anyone interested in signing up, make themselves known on the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle facebook page or contact Jane Darcy. Hopefully, Fielding can entertain us as much as O’Keefe did.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Wild Oats at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle.. on Zoom (part 2)

‘I say unto thee, a playhouse is a school for the old dragon and a playbook a primer for Beelzebub.’

On Tuesday, Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle pulled out their primers for evil and got down to their wicked work on the next batch of scenes from John O’Keefe’s Wild Oats

The last time we were with our characters, Sir George Thunder was scheming to marry his son Harry to his distant relative, Lady Amaranth, who is forced into being a Quaker by a dictatorial Will. The conditions of this Will are enforced with glee by Ephraim Smooth, the character with the dim view of theatre. Meanwhile, Rover, a character with a very positive view of the theatre, has helped out the kindly Mr Banks against the ungenerous Farmer Gammon and had been seen doing this kind act by Lady Amaranth and the two have a connection.

It was in this week’s instalment that things grew complicated (spoilers, but I plan to try and explain this plot, more as a feat of derring-do than anything else.)

Rover was taken to Lady Amaranth’s by Sir George Thunder’s valet de chambre, a man called John Dory, under the confused identity of being Harry, Sir George’s son. Rover decides to play along as it gives him time to spend with Lady Amaranth and he helps out Lamp, the theatre impresario by persuading Lady Amaranth to stage a play at her house. The play is to be As You Like It but Ephraim certainly does not, dismayed at Rover’s training all the staff in the art of theatre.

Rover is then told that as Harry Thunder, he is expected to marry Lady Amaranth. As much as he is keen on this idea, he feels it would be immoral for her to marry him, a lowly player, under an assumed identity. He is prepared to tell her everything when his friend Dick Buckskin turns up, saying that he has concocted a scheme to marry Lady Amaranth and has hired an actor with the wonderful name of Mr Abrawang to play Harry Thunder’s father, Sir George Thunder.
However, Dick Buckskin is the genuine Harry Thunder and the man he’s called Abrawang is the real Sir George Thunder. Harry is expecting Rover to play along, but smitten by his love for Lady Amaranth, immediately blows ‘Abrawang’s’ cover, much to the confusion of the old man, who insists he really is Sir George Thunder (because he is).

So, now we have Rover pretending to be Harry Thunder who loves Lady Amaranth and believes that his friend Dick Buckskin was intending to play Harry Thunder but has relinquished the role to him out of kindness, not knowing that Dick Buckskin really is Harry Thunder and the old man, Abrawang, who he thought was playing Sir George Thunder is actually Sir George Thunder, although Rover is ignorant of that fact. Simple really.

Actually, it wasn’t all that difficult to follow in real time and there were so many good jokes, it didn’t matter much either way. Every character has one or two corking lines and I couldn’t tell which were my favourite.

I did love Ephraim Smooth and his Malvolio spirit, and hope he gets a kinder ending than that character. Aside from anything else, he gets to dismiss a play as, ‘prelude, interlude, all lewd’ and his description of someone playing of the violin: ‘The man of sin rubbeth the hair of the horse to the bowels of a cat.’ 

Rover is a character so engrossed in theatre that he can only express himself in theatrical quotes and, when left to his own words, finds himself extremely tongue-tied. That said, his incessant need to quote isn’t always the clearest way of communicating. Shakespeare references are all well and good, but the modern cast weren’t up on all the eighteenth century quotation he flings about - including the plot-vital reference to Mr Thunder from the play The Rehearsal. It’s not only the modern audience, half the characters in the play aren’t sure what he’s saying either, marvelling at being compared to bulls and larks and suchlike. Luckily, he can speak plainly when it’s important. He reminds me a great deal of characters in a comedy like Spaced or Clerks, an early example of a character who can only represent himself through pop-culture references. I also enjoyed that, despite being an actor, he is really very bad at pretending to be someone else.

Even Lady Amaranth, who could have been a very bland character, has a spirited defence of theatre, using similar defences to the ones that Jane Austen had of the novel: ‘A good play, is taking the wholesome draught of precept in a golden cup.’ There’s also something very fun about the strait-laced character giving in to her secret desires to unwind and making some very stretched excuses to do it.

Though, out of all the characters, my favourites are probably the characters of Sir George Thunder and his man, John Dory. Sir George is a big, blustering Squire Western-type figure, hollering and bellowing, much like Lord Wellington in Blackadder. He is extravagantly happy and extravagantly angry and he is accompanied by the deadpan stoicism of Dory. When given good news, Thunder orders Dory to create a punch big enough for ‘a jolly boat to sail on’, including such quantities as a ‘hogshead of sugar’ and ‘an orchard of oranges’, watered down with a ‘fishpond’ of water. However, when the news turns out not to be as good as it seemed, Dory is castigated as ‘a thirsty old grumpus.’ Rover, in the belief that Sir George is really Abrawang the actor, applauds his apparently simulated anger: ‘That’s right! Strut about on your little pegs’. 

The biggest laugh of the night came when John Dory was giving Sir George the steamy details of (the man Dory believes to be) Harry’s courtship of Lady Amaranth. At two, he will be walking with her in the garden, at half past they plan to rest in the flowers, at three they shall get up again, at four they are ‘picking a bit of crammed fowl’ but if it’s half past… ‘they’re cracking walnuts.’ The phrase ‘cracking walnuts’ cropped up a few times later in the play and I shall never see the activity in the same way.

At the end of this session, the characters were tied deep in notes with only a few scenes left to straighten everything out. This Tuesday, we shall see if everything ever runs smooth or if anyone ever gets their walnuts cracked.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Wild Oats at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle.. on Zoom (part 1)


Directed from an ironing board in Ealing, the Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle Players presented John O’Keeffe’s 1791 comedy, Wild Oats.

Pre-warned that the plot was fiendishly complicated, we’d read up a little on the play, aided by scans of the programme for the very well-reviewed RSC production of Stratford (1976) and the Aldwych (1977). We were in the unique position of having the ASM of that production to play Lady Amaranth in ours. Her previous credits include Corpse in Arsenic and Old Lace (Theatre Royal Windsor).

Immediately the play showed itself to contain more gags than The Clandestine Marriage with a scene between Sir George Thunder and his former boatswain, John Dory, a man named after a fish. Both speak in naval slang, complaining that having arrived at Lady Amaranth’s, they have not been offered refreshments. Unaware that the new owner is a lady and a Quaker to boot, Dory hopes ‘the governor of this here fort’ can ‘victual us a few’. Sir George, meanwhile, needs a drink, having ridden ‘at the rate of ten knots an hour, over fallow and stubble’ and being ‘as dry as a powder match’. They drop some pretty clear expositional points, telling the audience that Sir George had years before sown his wild oats by since tricking a young woman, Miss Amelia, into marriage, posing as Captain Seymour and employing a fake clergyman, before setting off to sea. He had subsequently been forced into marriage in his turn, his father insisting he marry an heiress. 

Lady Amaranth, it turns out, can only keep her fortune if she acts in a Quaker manner – dropping her title and answering to ‘Mary’. There’s a man whose job is to make sure she behaves, the suitably entitled Ephraim Smooth who lards his conversations with ‘thees’ and ‘thous’. Thunder takes against him and his ‘sanctified poop’ and decides his son should marry Lady Amaranth. Just as he decides this, he is told his son has run away from Portsmouth with an acting troupe.

In the next scene we meet his son, Harry Thunder, who is disguising his true identity from all but his servant Muz. To the others he is Dick Buskin. But he admits his ‘rage for a little action’ has worn off and he plans to return to ‘the gay old fellow’ his father. He is joined by Rover, a motor-mouthed actor who has ‘an abominable habit of quotation’, who describes young Thunder as like his ‘own brother, had I one’ (see where this is going yet?). They part ways and Rover finds himself alone, little knowing that Harry has put a wodge of money into his pocket.

Now we meet a farmer called Gammon – his is in fact very much what even today people today would call a gammon – red-faced and small-minded. He is about to evict a good man called Banks but along comes Rover with an accidental fistful of money. Enter Lady Amaranth who admires the generosity of this young stranger. 

At the same moment, Rover falls in love with her, but little suspects he has a chance of successfully winning her. His habit of proclaiming ‘I am the bold Thunder’, a line from The Rehearsal, means he is mistaken by John Dory for Sir George Thunder’s missing son … shenanigans will ensue in the next instalment. 

One of the issues that quickly became apparent as we read is that there are apparently several editions of Wild Oats, with some quite substantial textual variants. There were frequent substitutions of one word for another: ‘here’s a fine body’ was rendered elsewhere as ‘here’s a fine lady’; ‘beat’ is substituted for ‘licked’.  But the real chaos came – amidst much laughter – to long chunks of text being cut – or appearing in another place. 

So far the characters we have met are great fun. Ephraim Smooth is wonderfully pious and oil; Gammon is a really nasty, blaming his thoroughly decent children, Jane and Sim, for whatever they do; the sailors are bumptious and Rover seems to treat life as a play and is a shade away from realizing he is in one. Like the characters in so many eighteenth-century novels and plays we’re read, the characters seem to run around the landscape, bumping into each other in various combinations with different effects. 

There’s an energy and joy in this play so far and everything is set up for a lot of fun in the scenes to come. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

The Revenge of the Return of Leon Garfield (Part Two)

Here it is... the second part of my huge Leon Garfield review-fest.. four books this time.

The Boy and the Monkey

The Boy and the Monkey would certainly appear to be a Garfield book for younger children. As a chapter book, it only has two. However, this is still Leon Garfield and he’s not even writing in his Fair’s Fair younger children’s style, he makes a joke about the young protagonist not being a foundling but a lostling.

The main character is Tim and his monkey is called Pistol, they are the main characters in a trilogy of books (and I’ve managed to get the first and last of them). Tim is eleven and has a single ability, looking sad. He uses this skill to sell Pistol to people and Pistol, having “seen much of the world and none of it wonderfully honest” returns to Tim, having stolen something from the house.

This goes fine until Pistol returns with an astonishingly expensive wedding ring and the two of them are arrested, taken to Newgate and await trial. The tension is built up brilliantly, especially considering how short the book is. The Foreman of the jury is a tough man who encourages them to be utterly prepared to kill people and the judge is a tough man in a large wig which makes him look like a ‘villainous old sheep’. The Judge and Jury immediately start a battle of wills which leads to that most peculiar of things, a fair trial.
   “Gentlemen were convicted and beggars were freed, with no regard to anything but the evidence.”

The ending is a surprise and what I like is that it uses a genuine historical quirk to solve its problem. 

The Captain’s Watch

The second in the trilogy of Boy and Monkey books. I can’t find a copy of this for less than thirty pounds, which is more than I wish to pay for it. (Not to be confused with the title The Stolen Watch which is another name for Blewcoat Boy).

Lucifer Wilikins

The last in the Boy and Monkey trilogy, this short novel for younger children. My copy of The Monkey and the Boy comes from what seems to be a print-on-demand selection of Leon Garfield’s work, which sadly doesn’t include the illustrations, my Lucifer Wilikins is a first edition which does. It also reveals that the trilogy was commissioned for the ‘Long Ago Children’ series of books which aim to be ‘stories for younger readers about children in different periods in an authentic historical setting’. I can see why they went to Leon Garfield.

In the first book Tim was transported, what I can make of the second, it’s about an incident on the passage to America, this third one is set on a plantation and here we run into some problems. We meet Tim slacking off work and hiding under a cool tree for shade. He’s doing this because the main weapon in his arsenal is his pale and miserable-looking face and if he goes out into the sunshine he’d go “as black as them n_____ slaves” and lose his advantage - also losing the modern reader on the first page. It’s the only time the word appears in the book and it fits into the time period but having such a word at the beginning of a 46 page children’s book with colourful illustrations seems terribly out of step. (Though, the Black and White Minstrel Show was still on telly when this book came out, and would for another five years more.

What’s more, the use of the n-word at the beginning but not later could be a conscious choice to show Tim’s change in attitude, because as an indentured servant for seven years, he doesn’t really see any problem with plantation life and he wonders at why the Black slave, Lucifer Willikins is so unreasonably angered by the whole thing. As far as he’s concerned, all he needs to do is dodge work for seven years and then he’s home free, this being especially easy because their mutual master is “a saintly soul who uses his slaves and bond-servants better than most of his neighbours treated their wives.” As the book goes on, he begins to understand the slave’s distress.

Unfortunately, the means through which Tim changes his mind and grows is by reflecting on his monkey, Pistol. Not only are Lucifer’s main traits (often repeated) his bigness and his blackness, he is frequently compared to the little monkey. The two of them share a wild spirit and a longing for freedom and are put in a category of ‘wild animals’ together far too often. Again, I can see how this is Garfield’s intention to create an ‘authentic historical setting’, as the series aimed to do, drawing on eighteenth century notions of black people as ‘natural’ in ways ‘civilised’ white people were not but in the context of a very short book for eight year olds, it feels very questionable.

Lucifer, Tim and Pistol find themselves in Brazil, where Pistol goes back to his monkey home but is repulsed by his monkey family, going back to Tim who has now formed a family like bond with Lucifer. This means that as the trilogy ends, three lost souls have found each other and are facing the world as a unit, though I don’t feel their chances are very good.

Blewcoat Boy

This book has been published under the alternate titles, The Stolen Watch and Nick and Jubilee but Blewcoat Boy was the original title, having been commissioned by the National Trust for a series of books inspired by their holdings, in this case, the Blewcoat School. 

Not that this book takes much inspiration from the school, except that the two protagonists, orphan brother and sister, Nick and Jubilee, become pupils of the school during the course of the book. They begin the novel as vagabonds, living in bushes in St James Park. Nick lies awake worrying about Jubilee’s marriage prospects, while Jubilee wishes she were six inches taller. She has curly black hair and thin gold earrings and they both have a foxy look - I mention this because the book does, many times. The book tries to be child-friendly by repeating certain phrases, especially those which impact the plot.

The two children search for a stolen watch which they hope to get a reward for, they find the thief and through shenanigans find themselves posing as his children. He’s another in Garfield’s gallery of loveable rogues, being an inveterate criminal but also a man with a beautiful voice and a warm heart. In posing as the children’s dad, he starts busking, finding himself with a real talent for it and learning how to be a dad.

It’s a sweet enough book but the repetitive nature of the prose and the lack of experiment or risk make it a pretty flat endeavour.

Child O’ War

This is another Leon Garfield book that is set at the end of the eighteenth, beginning of the nineteenth century. It deals of a young man of slim means who finds his way in the world with the help and hinderance of various father figures. That aside, this is completely different to any of Leon Garfield’s other work and almost uncategorisable as a work in general.

Within the archives of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich are the privately printed memoirs of Sir John Theophilus Lee (who got people to call him Sir T Lee). He became a midshipman at the age of five, finding himself the youngest officer at the battles of Cape St Vincent and the Nile. This book takes extracts from those memoirs and places them into an imagining of Sir T dictating them to one daughter as two other daughters work on his portrait. Leon Garfield’s job in this instance is to create that frame story and to summarise the parts when the original memoir would be too lengthy or dull for an intended audience of children - sort of like a real version of the Princess Bride ‘good parts’. But the book spends the whole time sabotaging itself.

For a start, Sir T Lee’s story is not the Boy’s Own adventure that a reader would expect from this sort of book. Yes, he was a midshipman during was was probably Nelson’s finest victory, at the Battle of the Nile. He was even on the Swiftsure, the ship that blew up the French flagship L’Orient. His main task during the battle was fetching some officers ginger beer. Similarly, his action during the Battle of Cape St Vincent was fetching wine and water to officers. It’s true that he saw some things a child should never have to see (and I’ll come to those later) but his role on board seems to be more of cute mascot than anything else.

He came back to Greenwich and passed the Lieutenant’s exam but instead of getting a commission at sea, he got a job in the admiralty where he organised provisioning, most notably in finding a better deal for the Navy’s lemon juice. As he grew older, he meddled in politics a little and collects the handshakes of titled people.

Ultimately, the book spends most of its time taking the piss out of Sir T Lee. The preface calls him a ‘pygmy’ who ‘crawls on the edges of history’, the characters in the fictitious parts are his children and they all regard their father with a sort of fond disdain, his wife feels sorry for him and the book becomes a point and snigger at this pompous ass who thinks he has a place in history. Throughout the frame story, two of his daughters are trying to sketch his right arm and are failing, as the text goes on, various implements are put into this hand. Eventually, they draw it tucked into his coat, in classic Napoleon fashion. He is the ridiculous Napoleon of the little house.

What’s more, when the book isn’t picking out parts of the memoirs to make Sir T Lee look petty, nor creating fictitious situations to show how no one respects him, the narrator is making some very full throated and sardonic anti-war commentary. Whether it’s dead sailors saluting each other with ‘fish-nibbled’ fingers, or the running gag about great men writing history in other people’s blood - it’s the complete opposite way I would have expected a story like this to have been told. Not only is there no glory in this (diametrically opposite to your Hornblowers or Jack Auberys) but any notion of glory is a bad joke. Even the notion that a French invasion would have been a bad thing is ridiculed by the lines like, “bewildered listeners actually came to believe that chains stamped ‘foreign made’ were of a more constricting fit than those that were forged at home.”

I’m not saying I disagree with the sentiments particularly, but to self-sabotage a story quite this much seems like such a strange move. The cover and marketing suggest an exciting romp with a child midshipman at the Royal Navy’s most storied period - and it cuts the legs out from under itself in every way. It’s hard to know who this would be for, it’s too marketed at children to be for adults who would be mostly put off by the layers of fiction included, but also far too sour and mocking to please a kid wanting a high seas adventure.

I think the intention of the book can be discerned though, through the reaction of the different family members as they hear the story. They are charmed by the little boy with shining eyes and miniature naval uniform going off to see the world and unlike Sir T Lee himself, they see the damage that his early naval life has done to him. 

He tells a story of an incident during the Spithead Mutiny (though in the fleet out in the Mediterranean not Spithead.) The man asked the young boy, as an office, for a third cup of water and the little T Lee agreed. When the person giving out the water said no, the man became aggressive and  was hanged from the yard arm for that aggression. The older Sir T does not reflect on this as his fault, nor on the harshness of the punishment but reflects on the way that a couple such hangings effectively staved off the mutiny in their fleet. 

Each family member has a fondness for the young child and feels sorry for the adult that he became. Some of them are sorry that he was in these legendary places, dancing with Emma Hamilton, chatting with Nelson but was no hero himself. Others regret that he became a man who instead of living his life, has used it to ‘collect’ the handshakes of the great and good who have lived theirs. We are left with the feeling that being a child o’war is no thing to be indeed, and that is the main thrust of the book, it wasn’t a memoir or a sea story, it was a call against child soldiers and for humanity. 

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

The Revenge of the Return of Leon Garfield (Part One)

A few years ago, I discovered Leon Garfield and since then, have been working through his work. The pattern is the same, I pick one up, enjoy it immensely and before I know it, I've read five or six of them. Having lots of time on my hand due to coronavirus lockdown and being drawn towards shorter books, I got through rather a lot of Leon Garfield - thirteen of them. Here are the first batch of reviews...

Prisoners of September (aka Revolution)

As much as a love Leon Garfield, he does have a formula. The Prisoners of September steers us away from it a little and aims for something a little different. Instead of one young boy about to make his way in a difficult world, sometimes with the aid of a kind mentor, we have two young men and no mentors as such - no effective ones anyway.

The book is set during the early days of the French Revolution and our two young men are Lewis Boston, the flashy son of a nouveux riche wine salesman and Richard Mortimer, the brooding son on an old, wealthy, family. The two boys are friends but very different, Boston wanting to enjoy the fruits of the world and Mortimer wanting to change it.

The book begins when Boston saves a woman from a carriage who happens to be a French countess but also the possessor of secrets. Strangely, although this character is important to the beginning of the book, she dies off-page and doesn’t have much to do with the narrative and seems like a loose thread in a book that isn’t as tight as I expect with Garfield.

The climax of the book happens when both boys during the September massacres in Paris. Boston has gone on his first trading mission and Mortimer has been living there and aiding rebellion. The scene of the two of them outside Le Force prison is full of energy and emotion, the clear tent-pole that supports the rest of the book, the rest of it dealing with the fall-out of that moment for the two characters.

All of this makes me seem slightly disparaging of a book which was well written (as always) and kept my attention at a time when my attention has been prone to wander. There was a fine comic character in the soldier Bouvet and his longing to go to England and see ‘Umpshire. I also very much enjoyed the spymaster with his fine white gloves and corrupted skin, though he wasn’t as well developed a baddy as some other Leon Garfield books, (I’m thinking of Creaker in December Rose, in particular).

The best character was Henrietta, Lewis Boston’s plain but intelligent sister. She’s the sharpest character, moaning about how Tuesdays only exist to stop Mondays and Wednesdays crashing, describing a dress as “leaving nothing to the imagination but why.” She’s also a daydreamer who reads too much and declares that even ditchwater is more interesting than Tuesdays, as ditchwater could be a place where the body of a beautiful woman is found, thus sparking a mystery. 

She’s also one of the characters in which the main theme of the story is played out, idealism vs reality. Each of the main characters in the book has their idealism tested in some way and the characters that come out best are the ones who are prepared to be be flexible with their ideals and take the world a little more as it is. Sometimes a depressing moral for a book, but not an unfair one I feel.

The Drummer Boy

Charlie Sampson is the drummer in his regiment. He is young, attractive and serves as a source of pride and encouragement for his regiment, whom he thinks of as his ‘scarlet men’. One day, they go into battle on a hillside, a number of well placed artillery shots split the units apart, French soldiers come out of the trees and all is chaos. A little later, Charlie wakes up to find almost everybody dead. Those left behind are skulking about, robbing from the dead, the sort of lowlives he had joined the army to escape. Out of necessity, he becomes one of them.

The main ones are James Digby, who played dead to survive the battle and longs to be back with is fiancee; Corporal Finch, who likes to try and use French words and has a limp, and Shaw, who is the best character in the book. He’s one of those Leon Garfield slightly dodgy father figures in the tradition of Long John Silver. He is a surgeon, and a very good one at that. He’s going about the battleground pulling teeth to sell, the clattering bag of gnashers he then has with him at all times. He’s described as being as odds with himself, fat and awkward, longing for a life as positive as he is but condemned to battlefields and junk piles. He sticks to Charlie throughout, helping and hindering but with a vague, if not trustworthy, goodness.

Also, with a character called Corporal Finch, add another to Garfield’s bird names.

In the course of escaping France, James Digby dies an ignominious death and his ghost follows Charlie around, telling him to tell his fiancee he died well so Charlie and Shaw go to London to do so. There they meet the fiancee, Sophia, who is dying of something nondescript, and her father, the general in charge of the operation that had all the men killed. Charlie falls head over heels for the sickly Sophia and impressed by the general, though as the book goes on, we realise there is more to them than first appear and they take on something of a underworld form themselves.

There were some structures in this that seem almost Homeric. Just as Homer uses stock phrases such as ‘rosy-fingered dawn’ and ‘fleet-footed Achilles’, so this book talks about ‘the scarlet men’ and ‘the golden child.’ Charlie Samson also has a slightly Orpheus quality, he goes to the underworld and communes with lost souls, Sophia Lawrence falls behind like Eurydice and the drum has almost mystical qualities like Orpheus’ lyre. I was not surprised to find this book came out the same year as The God Beneath the Sea

This book is more slippery than other Leon Garfield works, partly it’s the links to the Orpheus tale (which seem more obvious the more I think about them) but it’s also partly to the ideas in the book are not fully developed. For this reason, characters introduced as villainous slide into being friends and friends into antagonists, the ghost part isn’t properly integrated into the whole and Charlie’s eventual romantic conclusion comes from nowhere.

Not that it harmed the book, it was nominated for the Carnegie award the same year The God Beneath the Sea won the Guardian’s children’s book award.

Sabre-Tooth Sandwich

A complete departure from the usual run of things and, I feel, something of a commission. It’s also a book written for younger children and rather short, there are a couple of interesting things about it though.

It’s set in rather nebulous ‘stone-age times’ and features a family of five children, a brutish father, a mother and her queer-coded brother. The brother is a bachelor, very neat, tidy, worries about his appearance with a refined quiet voice. He also has a sharp, slightly bitchy tongue and is awful at the manly pursuit hunting. In this book he invents theatre.

Despite this being little more than a short story, the family dynamics were interesting and the threat of starvation was pretty genuinely felt given the light-ish tone and the colourful illustrations. It’s definitely a book that I’d use with children were we ‘doing’ the stone age as I reckon it would engage them, as it did me.

The Empty Sleeve

Young man from a poor background - check.
Late eighteenth, early nineteenth century - check.
Older male character who takes protagonist under his wings but may have more to him (either for the better or worse) - check.
Main characters indulges in a little light criminality which we don’t hate them for but establishes them as being in the precarious side of the law - check.
Slightly peculiar ghostly goings on - check.
Themes and characters that should probably not be in a book marketed for children - check.
People with the names of birds - check. (Including: Gannet, Shoveller, Woodcock, Kite, Jay and Crane - also, two main characters being called Peter and Paul, like the dickie birds in the rhyme).
Really striking writing that is far better than many other modern authors - check.

It’s clear that this is, to a certain extent, a by-the-numbers Garfield romp. 

There are a few differences to give the book spice though. This book introduces twins, who are of very different temperaments, our hero is a few minutes older and a more burly, physical protagonist than we often find in this sort of book. Garfield’s also very good at finding interesting occupations to explore and this one is that of locksmith and key-maker. There are some interesting notions that because the locksmith has a copy of everybody’s keys (so her can make spares if need be) he has to be a person of strict integrity, although there were those like Deacon Brodie in Edinburgh who didn’t quite live up to this. There’s also the idea that people in charge of such secrets must themselves be very locked up - and it’s the secrets of the locksmith that cause the main tragedy in the book.

There’s the addition of otherworldly elements in the book. The protagonist, Paul is a  ‘chime-child’, a kid born at midnight who will see ghosts and meet the devil, as much as Garfield was compared to Dickens, that feels more like an Harrison-Ainsworth conceit, especially the character of Mr Bagley, the retired old sea-dog who introduces it. He gives the boys a ship in a bottle each, which have a mystic connection to the boys and represent their soul. Then there’s a wall where old workers at the locksmiths put their hands and the handprints turn into ghosts - except for the one with the empty sleeve. 

Although The Empty Sleeve might not be much more than a pretty typical Leon Garfield adventure, that is recommendation in itself. Where else would the location be an alleyway where one side is called the sin because of a little wooden devil and the other the God, because of the Christian propagation centre? 

Wednesday, 10 June 2020

Review: The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Britain: 21st Century.
There are rumours of a faraway plague. It doesn’t worry most people though as the locations of the plague may as well be on the moon. As the plague creeps closer, some people start to talk about it, others even begin to make plans but most view those plans as a waste of time, we are protected by water and it won’t come here. Anyway, the people who make decisions in Britain are far more important with sweeping political changes. The epidemic finally arrives in Britain but, “the grand question was still unsettled of how this epidemic was generated and increased.” Then things get bad but the leader, elected for his big political ideas is ‘incapable of meeting these evils by any comprehensive system.” 

Not that we need to imagine it. 

One of the effects of plague on the characters in this book is they start reading plague fiction and the coronavirus pandemic has done the same with us. Having already read Journal of the Plague Year, I decided to read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. The plague hits almost exactly halfway through the book, so we have a very even split between before-plague and after-plague. It’s a clever decision, spend half the book setting up a world with expectations, victories and conflicts which is torn down in the second half of the book - everything that seemed to matter is now gone. 

It may also explain how old fashioned the book seems. The first half, with its improbable love matches, frolics in the forests and brushes with royalty all seem like they come from a book written far before 1826. It has an early eighteenth century quality to it, like the romances of Haywood and Mary Davys. It almost seems that Mary Shelley is evoking those older novels, which may have had a nostalgic and cosy atmosphere to the modern 1820s reader, in order to create a warm Arcadian life which is destroyed in the second half of the book. The Last Human doesn’t use its futuristic, twenty-first setting in the way a modern sci-fi author would, she’s rather using it the way an early eighteenth-century author would use Turkey or Persia, a way of smudging details and creating a gauzy otherness to the setting. She foresees steam ships and dirigibles and the British political system is an oligarchy rather than a monarchy - but otherwise it would seem the world has not moved on since her time.

Our narrator is Lionel, he is the son of a disgraced court jester and he lives in Cumbria with his sister, Perdita. Adrian is former prince and heir to the throne but his father stopped a civil war by renouncing all claim to the throne. He finds Lionel and his sister and civilises them. They also meet his sister, Idris and later meet the ambitious Raymond. After a little shuffling they fall into couples, Perdita and Raymond and Idris and Lionel with Adrian functioning somewhat as spare wheel and spiritual advisor. It’s well known that this book reflects on Mary Shelley’s time with her husband Percy and their friend Byron, with Adrian being the first and Raymond being the second. They live in a bliss of fun and frolics around Windsor Forest;
    “Jealousy and disquiet were unknown among us; nor did a fear or hope of change ever disquiet our tranquility. Others said, we might be happy - We said - We are.”

This is broken by Raymond’s urge to be important, he becomes Lord Protector and then, when his term is up, goes to Greece to fight against the Turks. When he is captured the others all decamp to Greece also. There are victories and tragedies - and this whole part of the story don’t really have much purpose because now the plague is coming…

The second half of the book is definitely better than the first. The creeping dread of the plague, the way some areas of society collapse but others stay surprisingly strong, the human ability to hope, love and find joy even as it is doomed. We start getting more of the modern day narrator comparing the horrors he is describing with the horrors to come and we know that everything is going to fall apart, that Lionel will become the last man. 

The very best sequence of the book has Lionel in London, wondering the streets as the plague has had everything in its grip. He wanders into a pub but it is too noisy and gaudy and the smiles are plastered on by drink so he goes to a theatre. There, they are playing Macbeth but the highly strung mood of the audience mean that the weeps and wails keep coming in and strange times. Lionel goes to a church where there is the beautiful sound of a choir, it feels him up with calm but just as it does, one of the choirboys drops dead of plague and is hurriedly pushes into an open crypt. Then he steps outside and finds the peace he was searching for in the beauty of the stars and heavens.

Mary Shelley is very good at describing the depression that leads to suicide as, “monotonous, lethargic sense of unchanging misery” rather than anything magic. She is also very good at finding moments of beauty, in music and the natural world which give the characters respite from the tragedy around them - though it’s not long till Lionel reflects that it is nature or God who has determined that the human race die. It’s a book full of interesting ideas about the salve of imagination and its limitations, the pleasure and pain of nature, and the way human relationships are both what makes us strongest and what weakens us most of all.

So many interesting ideas, formulated as so many engaging story moments, expressed in such dull, plodding prose. It’s not that the book is old, I’ve read many old books but they were not as stilted as this. There are similes piles on eight high, where the last seven tell you no more than the first. Nothing is referred to directly, a plant is called the, “divine infoliations of the spirit of beauty”. The chapters are so very long.

What’s more, for writing that is so wordy, it isn’t lush but seems slapdash if anything. Raymond returns to Greece where he is a hero and mothers train their children to “lisp his name”. Aside the notion of cute lisping children being a cliché by this time, Raymond is a pretty hard word to lisp. I suppose they could have weak ‘r’ and say ‘Waymond’, is that a lisp? If it’s not then it’s impossible.  This chapter must have annoyed me because I also wrote down a phrase describing a small boat crossing, “the vexed Pacific”. I know the Pacific is the name of the ocean and if it’s choppy it may well be called ‘vexed’ but pacific also means calm so a ‘vexed Pacific’ sounds almost contradictory. 

There were a lot of moments like this in the book. A child remained three for five years of the story, I suppose she always pictured him as such despite the moving timeframe of the book. As the plague parts continue, people dying are often described as being ‘asleep’ but this did mean that when two important characters fell asleep, I briefly thought they had died. 

It’s a shame, because this book is full of great ideas but it has to wrestle with such stodgy prose that the book is not what it could have been.