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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Top Books of the Year (pt1) 2018

I really enjoyed my books this year and have probably read more than any year since I was a child. Due to the free book shelf, plentifully stocked charity shops and a willingness to explore, I’ve also read quite a variety of books. Anyone wanting to see the full list, check out my list-challenge here.

I will count down the top ten, split into two groups of five. 

With no ado…

The Little World of Don Camillo

I picked this book up for free and instead of carrying on with the book I was planning to read, I sat on the train and started to read the first chapters. 

They were a strange mix of whimsical and violent, telling stories of his father’s forcing a priest to pray for his sick son at gunpoint and flooding a field with sewage to impede government planners. Then there was a little story about a ghost woman. It was peculiar but enticing and strangely, nothing to do with the bulk of the book.

The main story is about a small Italian town just after the second world war, where the priest, Don Camillo and the communist mayor, Peponne constantly try to one-up each other.  The book proceeds in small, mostly self-contained chapters, each detailing some area in which the two characters plot and scheme to either put themselves on top or undermine the other. However, they respect each other as opponents (and have a background together as guerrillas against the nazis) and come together when things have gone to far or something from the outside threatens their town. 

In many ways the set up is like a sitcom. Although the story doesn’t exactly reset each chapter, events are carried through, most chapters begin with something for the two characters to tussle over and end with a form of equilibrium. Often this is reached by the characters coming to their senses or the outside world forcing them to.

Peponne is aided by his communist friends, a ragtag band of ex-guerillas who serve as his functionaries though sometimes go too far. Don Camillio is aided by the Jesus on his crucifix, who speaks to him and gives him advice. The book leans in favour of the church and had a huge impact on getting the Christian Democrats into power in 1948 but the character of Christ in the books focusses on forgiveness and tolerance (as a Christ should) often tempering the fiery Don Camillo.

The book is a masterpiece of tone. The writing is simple, with an almost childlike and sweet nature, such as when a gymnasium is described ‘as full as an egg’ but the actions are often very violent. The mayor has an almost unlimited supply of tommy-guns, which are frequently stolen (and carried) by the priest. The priest also has a revolver and a German SS mortar. People are frequently beaten, the priest has the best punch but the mayor has the second. There’s a strange sort of fairness to the violence summed up as, “If we are to beat up anybody we should do it with justice and democratically.” The love between the antagonists is at least as strong as the hatred, if not more.

Things grow to have more consequences as the book progresses and sometimes trip into nasty but the last challenges pull it back again. There are more of these books around and I would love to read them.

The African Queen

I love the film of ‘The African Queen’ and was keen to read the book and see what it was like - and it’s fascinating because the two are very alike, even slavishly alike but for two huge changes.

First the similarities. Rose, an uptight missionary’s sister with a dull life in German Imperial Africa looks at the devastation of her village brought about by the German army coming to conscript all the villagers for army or other duties. She watches her brother die of a disease and is unsure what to do when Charlie Allnutt comes along in his boat The African Queen.

Deciding to strike a blow for the British Empire, she concocts a plan to get the boat down unknown rapids and ram it into the Königin Luise, which controls the lake from which the British are most likely to enter the region. Allnutt is not keen on the idea but with a combination of sulking and pouring his gin in the river (why’s the gin gone?) he goes along with the plan. As the two shoot the rapids, avoid gunfire at a local fort and wrestle the boat through narrow reeds, they fall in love and catch malaria. Then they make torpedoes, mount them onto The African Queen and drive out into the lake in a storm where it sinks.

Here comes our first change. In the film, they are captured by the Germans and almost hanged. They beg to be wed first and just as the ceremony ends the Königin Luise runs into the submerged African Queen and sinks, leaving our heroes to successfully swim to safety and off to a new life, their goal accomplished.

In the book, they are captured by Germans, who exchange them with the British. The British keep them under close confinement while they easily destroy the Königin Luise with the boats they brought with them. Our heroes are shipped away to be married and live a new life, their goal accomplished by other people and their efforts rendered pointless.

I can see why the film-makers changed the ending, it’s a complete downer, a rapid descent into bathos that lived with me strongly as a reader but not in any triumphant way.

The other big change was Charlie Allnutt. They cast Humphrey Bogart. Allnutt, besides being short, scrawny and painfully cockney is defined best by his weakness. He is weak in soul, spirit, mind and body - he is liberated by doing as Rose tells him. Humphrey Bogart does not portray weak. This changes the dynamic utterly. In the film, they are equals who gradually become as one mind, in the book Allnutt is dominated by Rose and likes it. Both interpretations I like for their different reasons.

I learnt a lot reading this. I feel I could drive a rickety old steamboat down some rapids, rig up my own torpedoes and I even know that malaria comes in regular attacks - all useful stuff.

Forrester writes with a mixture of exciting, fast-paced description and an eye for the nitty-gritty involved in the terrific feats in the book. He does have a habit of adding clunky details that show off his research, however.

For those of a sensitive disposition, this is a book from 1935 with decidedly out-of-date views and values. Forrester’s assumptions on what consists manliness and womanliness are interesting and flexible (the woman is the action hero in this after all) but are expressed in some decidedly ‘creaky’ ways. The ’N’ word pops up a few times and it is assumed that we all know that Germans are hateful, rigid types who deserve exploding.

One assumption of Forrester’s also makes the biggest flaw in the book. Why bother risking their life on an almost impossible suicide mission against a small German warship? Patriotic fervour is regarded as enough of an explanation and I am not convinced it would be any more.

These flaws notwithstanding, it is an engaging, thrilling book that grips the reader, pulls them into the sweltering heat and traps them there.  

The Mystery of Edwin Drood

I’ve talked elsewhere about this collaboration between Dickens and Garfield. I very much enjoyed it for what it was but enjoyed it all the more for the questions it raises.

The War of the Worlds

I bought and read ‘The War of the Worlds’ because I wanted to discuss parts of it with an in-depth reading group at the school I work in. The book took later to arrive than I expected so I read two sections of ‘Pandaemonium’ (a book about the industrial revolution) before reading it. What then struck me was the similarity of true accounts of the coming of the steam/mechanical age to the fictional end of it in the novel. It increased the alien-ness of the machines when I went back to ‘Pandaemonium’ but also made the alien threat more rational and real.

The tone of ‘The War of the Worlds’ is masterfully controlled. Using an educated, assumedly enlightenment author (who may be Wells himself) as the narrator meant that the book could wade around the chaos and panic of the experience on the ground but also at moments pull back and see a bigger picture. These moments of thought, reflection and a wider, less Earthbound view contrasted beautifully with the grim mess that the narrator frequently must wade through. 

This control of text also allowed for a wonderfully subversive view of humanity (and the British Empire in particular). Humanity is constantly compared to animals; bees, ants, rats, cows and frogs. Compared to the Martians, we are simply pests to be exterminated - and later a food source, and possibly even pets. It was not a titanic battle of the forces of Earth against Mars like it is in ‘Independence Day’ or films like it. The human race was simply there to be crushed. The Sun may never set on the British Empire, but a handful of Martians can crush it’s chief city in less than a month. On the other hand, the cold rationality of the Martians, their simple and unemotional need for food and resources and their attitude to the people they have to kill to do it are explicitly compared to the human builders of that same empire.

I love how weak and vulnerable the Martians are in themselves. Like us, they are physically useless, especially with their slurping around in Earth’s heavier gravity but their use of technology makes them near unbeatable. It’s strange to me that subsequent alien invasions have used something of the heat ray but never use the black smoke - a far more successful element of pest control.

It is a masterful stroke to have the aliens land in Woking and to have most of the action deal with the commuter towns and suburbs at the edge of London. It’s far more effective to have a strange and deadly force smash through the quiet streets of Putney then any grandstanding smashing of national monuments and icons.

There is also a wonderful control of light. The first alien actions are glimpsed in the dark, the second in a lightning storm and others in fogs and mists and or at rising and setting of the Sun. Large action scenes are confused, chiaroscuro affairs, written almost as a modern action film would be filmed.

It is a grim book though. The destruction seems remarkably real. The selfish hurry of the exodus from London is deeply unpleasant with the people being crushed and run over by the people behind them. Most people the narrator meets are mad with grief and anxiety. He lodges in a dark hole with a curate who proceeds to lose his mind in unpleasant proximity. Then he spends time with an artilleryman who sets out the darkest vision of humanity’s future I have read in some time, where people have to accept their place as vermin and live accordingly.

The twist ending is seeded a number of times throughout the novel and the scene where the narrator realises how things have played out plays out with emotion.

My only criticism, is that the narrator has to get close enough to the deadly Martians to create shenanigans but has to survive to write the book. This means that he has a few too many lucky escapes, though these escapes leave enough marks on him to not fully strain the reality.


‘Titus Groan’ was a book I admired more than enjoyed. The world of Gormenghast was a full and exciting one, far more real and realised than Middle Earth. Although the characters seemed merely puppets for the story to play out, that fit with the over-arching themes of being strangled by tradition and they were interesting, eccentric and large enough to stand out in their oversized backdrop. It took me a few years to be ready to take on the sequel, ’Gormenghast’.

This is a far shaggier beast than ‘Titus Groan’ but maybe a more majestic one. What most stood out to me was that this is not a novel as would ever be written by a novelist. This is a book by a visual artist and where a picture may paint a thousand words, it frequently uses a thousand words to paint a picture. The description even threads into the parts of the book where the characters do things, making much of the book seem like it was progressing in slow motion.

At first my reaction to ‘Gormenghast’ was much as I remembered from the first book, an appreciation without much emotional engagement but as the book went on I began to realise that I had really grown to enjoy myself and was happy to follow the book through whatever twisted highways and byways it wanted to show me.

Essentially both books are about entropy. The castle of Gormenghast is a closed system, locked in constricting ritual and unaffected by influences of evolution from inside or outside. In the first book Steerpike arises as an agent of chaos and his actions to fulfil personal goals rather than being a cog in the castle’s clockwork upset the balance. The second book carries on this story of Steerpike but adds to it the greater chaos represented by Titus and his pursuit of freedom and a life outside the castle.

A ‘proper’ novel would have cut out most of the teacher stuff. The characters were amusing but didn’t really have much to do with the actual story. Titus’s itch to be his own person and not the lynchpin of castle ritual were more driven by his pursuit of ‘the Thing’, a wild girl, then boredom with his school. Most of the first part of the novel involves politics in the staffroom, a teacher who doesn’t believe in pain having his beard burnt off and the accidental death of Headmaster Deadyawn. The next quarter of the book follows Irma Prunesquallor’s wish for a husband, the teachers’ awkward preparation for her party and the party itself. We don’t even see Steerpike for much of this first half. But it didn’t matter because I was having fun.

Was Mervyn Peake ever a teacher? He certainly gets what it’s like. His description of the lightness of the teachers once school is over was exactly right, as he depicted each teacher going back to their little apartments with a spring in their step. All this teacher stuff also had me grow to love Bellgrove. The small scene where Titus has been locked up for running away and he goes to play marbles with him was so touching that it made all the seemingly pointless flim-flam of the teacher stuff worth it.

The scenes at Irma’s party where both she and the teachers try their best to be romantic leads was also a great deal of fun, like a mutated Austen. If anything, they were worth it for this description of Irma Prunesquallor’s best smile;
   “Every muscle in her face was pulling its weight. Not all of them knew which direction to pull, but their common enthusiasm was formidable.”
As well of all this non-essential stuff about teachers and parties, we are also treated to short chapters that simply describe a room in the castle, usually an abandoned one, just so we can get a flash of ‘the Thing’ moving through it. Although she is important to the story, representing the freedom the castle’s dead weight denies, they are more visual moments transposed into words than actual noveling. (My favourite room being the forgotten ball-room full of estuary birds).

That’s not to say the writing is bad, it’s frequently very good but its not writing the way a ‘writer’ would do it. The frequent similes are over-the-top in a way no one but Dickens could get away with, such as this description of Doctor Prunesquallor’s mouth and teeth;
    “It was a brand-new graveyard. But oh! how anonymous it was. Not a headstone chiselled with the owners name.” - a description that goes on for another four sentences. In many ways the character description reminded me of Dickens in all its effulgence, the description of Barquentine was as good as Dickens’s description of Scrooge. Peake is also a dab hand at alliteration, sprinkling it liberally through the book.

As for the plot itself, Steerpike’s descent from controlled planner to cackling evil monster was both interesting and plausible, as was the desire for Titus to break free from his life whilst feeling a pull to his heritage and responsibilities. The extended set-piece of the flooding castle, with the Countess finding her own mental abilities, the huge anonymous work of saving the castle's stuff, the Bright Carvers segueing into the shipbuilding industry and everyone on the hunt for Steerpike- was engrossing, engaging and wonderful. The fight in the ivy between Steerpike and Titus used that slow-motion quality of Peake’s writing to dizzying effect and the climax was worth the buildup.

Most of all I loved the world of Gormenghast. I am not a fan of fantasy lands and you can throw as many songs and con-langs as you want into the mix, it doesn’t make it real to me. Gormenghast does feel real, it is mired in its own history and tradition, has a general worldview shaped by that history and yet still has room for individual expressions of it. Prunesquallor, for all his wit and flippancy is as rooted in the Gormenghast worldview as Flay, rather than cookie cutter Elves and such. What’s more, I loved the glimpses of the rituals. There was one that involved pouring wine over a tower, another that involved throwing a necklace into a particular window that was reflected in the moat. The rituals are baffling but they suggest a history and stories that came before in subtle and interesting ways.

I only hope nobody decides to ride a Gormenghast bandwagon (if there is one) and write prequels a la ‘The Song of Ice and Fire’, as much as the rituals suggest a history, the point in Gormenghast is that they have always been there… and may always be.

As much as this was not a conventional novel, barely even a ‘proper’ one, I love it for the commitment to the ideas, the (surprisingly) human characters and the beautifully realised world.