Tag Archives: Literature

Seeing the whale before it dives

 

The credits of the film Venus Peter, directed by Ian Sellar in 1989, say that it was based on Christopher Rush’s book A Twelvemonth and a Day, which was published in 1985. I haven’t read that book, but it must be heavily drawn from Rush’s own experience, because his memoir Hellfire and Herring, published in 2007, bears many similarities to the events and characters of the film of eighteen years earlier. However, whereas the tone of the film is gentle, lyrical, dream-like, much of the memoir has a mood of exorcism, reliving pain and unhappiness in order to assuage it.

Venus Peter depicts episodes in the childhood of a boy named Peter in an unidentified fishing village in Scotland at some time during the 1950s or 1960s. Its credits say that it was “shot entirely on location on the Orkney Islands” and that many of its extras are the adults and children of Stromness. In fact Rush actually grew up in St Monans in Fife. One of the film’s key settings is a church which is situated beside the sea and which has a large sailing ship hanging from its nave and I believe this location is not in Orkney but is the medieval parish church of St Monans.

 

The exterior and interior of the parish church of St Monans, photographed in 1992.

 

The narrative surrounds Peter with many colourful characters, and Rush’s memoir allows you to identify their real-life equivalents. Epp, the forbidding grandmother figure, was actually his mother’s great-aunt and their landlady. Leebie seems like an aunt, but, as Rush writes in his book, “nobody had ever worked out who exactly Leebie was (and even) Leebie herself didn’t know, or pretended not to.” His young mother, Christina, was certainly close in age to her sisters Jenny and Georgina but Uncle Billy was actually still at school rather than a young adult sailing on the fishing boat Venus.

Scenes of sadism by teachers and parents are often de rigeur in films of childhood as adults expel their long-ago nightmares. Hellfire and Herring does spend a number of pages on the middle-aged and fiendish teacher Miss Sangster and a few about the beautiful and lovable Miss Balsilbie. Sellar’s film gives more prominence to Miss Balsilbie, and places her as a later consolation in Peter’s schooldays rather than in her real-life earlier place. This presents the two teachers as uncannily similar to Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey in the film of Matilda – even though this is a total coincidence, since Dahl only published his novel in the late 1980s and Danny De Vito’s film was made nearly ten years after that. But Miss Balsilbie’s similarity in looks and manner to Jean Brodie in Ronald Neame’s film is probably a direct borrow.

The St Monans of his childhood was “like growing up in a Bosch boneyard, ” says Rush, because, partly due to decades of inbreeding, it was full of people whose looks and behaviour were strange and frightening. Bowfter Sandy went around on all fours trying to bite people’s legs and Kate the Kist visited the boat-builders’ every day to ask to be measured for a coffin. Three others are included in the film. The Blind Man is a classic child’s fear figure out of Treasure Island or Kidnapped, especially as he reacted aggressively to the boys’ teasing. The sailor Gowans who recited meaningless rhyming phrases is made much younger. The genteel but lost Honeybunch, who made outlines of ships with stones on the beach and who had to be washed by the sexton on his workbench because she never bothered to wash herself, becomes Princess Paloma.

Rush’s real-life father was a young Royal Navy sailor from Middlesborough who was briefly posted to Fife during the war, met and married Christina and then returned two years later in 1945, to meet his infant son Christopher. Rush’s memoir recalls him as drunk, disturbed, violent and cruel, and he feels it necessary to describe several horrible scenes, even as he is brave enough to recount how he came to understand his father later when an adult. In Venus Peter, the father is not horrific but certainly flawed, who left his home town to go to sea because he was fearful of responsibility and whose attempts to make amends later are seen as insincere and materialistic.

The fisherman grandfather, master of the Venus, is the prominent adult in the film. In the book he is a little more mysterious, hidden within the larger cast of characters, but in both he is kind, protective, physically impressive and wise.

Religion is presented as an oppressive and threatening and reactionary force in both film and book. St Monans and the adjacent towns in the East Neuk of Fife were called “The Holy City”, says Rush, because of their diverse groups of Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Brethren, Pilgrims, Baptists and Evangelists. The Presbyterian church stands for all religion in the film, and the one authority figure who is more intimidating in the film than in the book is the Reverend Kinnear, although David Hayman is allowed to show him as also sympathetic and supportive.

Nevertheless, religious faith is part of the grandfather’s allegory of creation which ends both book and film. As is the sea. In Venus Peter, Peter says, “the sea is everything”. In Hellfire and Herring, Rush says the sea “(was) my first language, my first university, my alma mater”. Grandfather’s maritime story goes like this: once there was a whale which gave birth to the ship which was the earth…and the whale swam up to heaven…leaving us all alone on the ship. And sometimes, when you look carefully, you can still see the whale… there, before it dives.

 

Reference :   Rush, Christopher (2007)   Hellfire and Herring: a Childhood Remembered   London:Profile

 

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Family loss and international literature

 

I heard Seamus Heaney give a public reading at the Third Eye Centre  in Glasgow in 1984. He described how he had treated the subject of the Ulster Troubles during the first years of his writing. He tended to use symbolism and allegory, such as in “Punishment”, where a medieval woman crushed to death for adultery is compared to girls tarred and feathered by the IRA for similar “betrayal”. That changed, he said, when his relation Colum McCartney was killed. Then he chose to deal with the subject directly, in a poem called “The Strand at Lough Beg”.

“The Strand at Lough Beg” begins with a quote from Dante and mentions “a high bare pilgrim’s track” and the medieval Sweeney, but does quickly add modern images of “a faked road block”, “sudden brakes” and “the cold-nosed gun”.
Its initial focus is on the landscape and its history and then moves to a farming family and to this deceased individual. Its closing image appears to link the present-day death back to the Christianity of the past: “I plait green scapulars to wear over your shroud”.

Another Heaney poem about the contemporary violence in Northern Ireland is “Casualty”, from the same collection, Field Work, in 1979. According to US based writer Sean Lynch, the unnamed victim personified in this poem was another relation of Heaney, Louis O’ Neill.

I was first drawn to “Casualty” for its distinctive rhythm and shape, with its short lines and stanzas of 10 lines or so; the same trimeter structure as Yeats’ “Easter 1916” and Auden’s “September 1 1939”   used to evoke a serious reflective tone. And to the way that the soft rhythm and the sympathetic observation of village life and of this one individual man shifts dramatically at the end of the first section to “a curfew…after they shot dead the thirteen men in Derry. PARAS THIRTEEN…BOGSIDE NIL.” I was fascinated by serious artists addressing present-day political issues and this was a striking example.

In its second and third sections, “Casualty” regains its gentle rhythm and sounds, feminine endings and assonance, and presents a series of vivid images: of a funeral, of a small local pub, of a boat out fishing. “Wind-blown surplice and soutane”, “like blossoms on slow water”, “swimming towards the lure of warm lit-up places”, “quiet walkers and sideways talkers shoaling out of the lane”, “the respectable purring of the hearse”, “the screw purling, turning”, “dawn-sniffing revenant”.

The title of “Casualty” gives prominence to the victim of an act of violence, but the narrator’s closing emotion is puzzlement rather than anger. The title of “The Strand at Lough Beg” suggests that the quiet landscape remains untarnished. While both poems describe modern violence intervening suddenly and brutally into the settled community, Heaney’s classic poetic eloquence seems to show that long-established cultural values have held fast.

 

Some of the Northern Ireland landscapes written about by Seamus Heaney as his fame grew in the 1970s and 1980s. The Bogside area of Derry as seen from the old walled city, and the Derry Guildhall , both photographed in 1995, and a village street in County Armagh, photographed in 2008.

 

Heaney was already being celebrated as a great poet in a great tradition when I first came across his name in the mid- 1970s. His Nobel Prize for Literature was forecast long before he actually received it in 1995. His readings and media appearances were enjoyed and admired up to his death in 2013. However, some, like his fellow Ulster poet and academic Kevin Kiely and the younger Irish writer Mary O’Regan feel that he has been praised too effusively for work which is artistically conservative.

Northern Ireland has enjoyed relative peace since the Good Friday agreement in 1998 but its future relationship within the UK is being discussed with a new scrutiny due to the latter’s departure from the European Union. Perhaps that will mean too that Seamus Heaney and his writing will not be seen in future in the same old-fashioned way.

 

References :
Heaney, Seamus (1979)   Field Work    London: Faber
Heaney, Seamus (1980)    Selected Poems 1965-1975    London: Faber

 

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And after the “one small step”?

 

I’m old enough to have been watching television at the time of the Apollo space programme. I do remember watching part of the Apollo 11 moon landing on television – although I have a clearer memory of a newspaper headline  : the Daily Express’ straightforwardly factual, and therefore dramatic, “Man on the Moon.”

As has often been repeated, there was a widely shared opinion in that era that this would be the first stage in a continuous journey of space exploration, which would have benefits in commerce and culture as well as in science.

Although never much drawn to science fiction in print or on screen, I did once read a novel called 2001 (which may have been Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 book or a post-film cash-in)) and I have kept a strong memory of the particular tone of this section.  “No matter how many times you left Earth, Dr. Heywood Floyd told himself, the excitement never really palled. He had been to Mars once, to the moon three times and to the various space stations more often than he could remember…”

The world of the early 21st century as imagined forty years earlier. Confident and optimistic certainly, but perhaps even presumptious?

 

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An earlier People’s Poet

 

Once upon a time, long before Carol Ann Duffy became Poet Laureate or Kate Tempest earned nominations for the Mercury Prize, Liz Lochhead was a young and modern and successful female poet. Her career progressed to the point where, to date, she has published nine volumes of poetry and many other writings, and was appointed as the second Scottish makar or national poet in 2011. She was always more part of a literary tradition than a performer tradition, so that may be why she has sometimes been an overlooked part of her country’s cultural life.

Her first volume Memo for Spring in 1972 introduced many of the characteristics of Lochhead poems which have remained fairly constant. A conversational, free verse style, using word play, alliteration and assonance, but only an occasional use of rhyme. Also a keen eye for the details of behaviour and relationships and fashion and place. As shown in the primary-school-age farmyard terror of “Revelation”, the more grown-up perspective of “For my Grandmother Knitting”; in “Box Room” , dealing with your boyfriend’s family, and “How Have I Been?”, coping with the break-up. If you were looking for influences from earlier poets, you might detect hints of T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Allan Ginsberg, Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.

The Grimm Sisters in 1981 introduced a new creative line, a feminist revision of fairy-tales and legends, nearly 20 years before Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. For example, in “The Storyteller”, “Three Twists” about Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast and several poems about “hags” and “furies”; the narrative of “Tam Lin’s Lady” and the Scots language of “The Beltane Bride” looked forward to how she might combine both in the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off.

Lochhead wrote about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein in her first theatre play Blood and Ice. This was explored further in the next poetry collection Dreaming Frankenstein, with the title poem and “What the Creature Said”. “The Legend of the Sword & the Stone” draws on Arthurian imagery to depict sexual relations. “Fetch on the First of January” uses the Scots language again in a ghost story which recalls Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”.

Dreaming Frankenstein also includes some poems about North America. For example, “Fourth of July Fireworks” hints at “The Waste Land” and The Great Gatsby. “Hafiz on Danforth Avenue” – subtle and engaging observation about life in the Greek area of Toronto – is set during December so vividly reminds me of my own winter work stay in the city around the same time.

Lochhead came to prominence at a time when arts organisations were keen to enlarge the audience for poetry through readings and book festivals. She was always a regular public reader, often alongside other central Scotland writers like Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Agnes Owens and Alan Spence. After I heard her read aloud, her poetry on the page always retained that distinctive tone and pace and rhythm.

She ventured from readings into revue and early versions of what we later called “rap” – anticipating Kate Tempest, who nowadays enjoys a status in both literature and popular music. “Vymura: the Shade Card Poem” and “The Suzanne Valadon Story” draw on Lochhead’s visual arts background, while she produced a number of broader feminist satires like “Men Talk” and “Page Three Dollies”.

One work whose future reputation seems most secure is the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off, first produced in 1987. It is studied currently in Scottish schools, was one of the few older plays to be revived by the National Theatre of Scotland and is accessible and engaging as well as literary and continually relevant.

Much of the richness of Lochhead’s ideas and writing seems to stem from her awareness of her identity as a middle-class educated metropolitan child of working-class parents, and from a wish to blend always these two parts of her life together. One example is the undogmatic and affectionate homage she pays to her family background and early schooling in what she once described as “a wee bilingual poem”: “Kidspoem/Bairnsang”.

The present-day media gives a lot of attention to individuals whom they perceive as cultural and political role models for women and for people from ethnic minorities or from unprivileged backgrounds – often applying the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see ”. To Liz Lochhead’s generation of Scots, even if we’re not female: a large part of our life is documented here.

 

References :      Lochhead, Liz  (1984)   Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems    Edinburgh: Polygon
Lochhead, Liz  (2003 ed)  True Confessions and New Clichés      Edinburgh: Polygon

 

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The ancestors of the Sex Pistols

 

I was slow to start record buying in my teens in the 1970s and most people I knew had larger record collections than I had. Nevertheless, by the time I was in my mid-30s, I was comfortable that, through the rigorous process of listening, buying, borrowing, reading and talking, I was as knowledgeable about the contemporary music culture as the next person. Except on one aspect. I hadn’t yet read the book which everyone agreed was the major piece of critical writing on the subject between hard covers: Mystery Train by Greil Marcus, published in 1975.

Three more decades further on, that gap remains; I still haven’t read Mystery Train. Now at least, though, I have read another of Marcus’ books, Lipstick Traces, first published in 1989. A fascination with both low culture (pop/rock music) and high (literature, visual arts) and an ability to combine the two within the same piece of analysis has always been Marcus’ stock-in-trade. As fellow journalist Kitty Empire put it, Marcus is “probably the rock and roll era’s most lateral thinker”.

Unlike many US journalists of his era, Marcus was just as impressed with UK punk music of the late 1970s as he had been earlier by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan or Sly Stone. It is that era of music which formed the foundation of Lipstick Traces – although only the foundation. As Tony Wilson says at the start of the 1989 TV interview with Marcus about the book, “It’s got a picture of Johnny (Rotten/Lydon) on the front, but it’s about much, much, much, much, much more.” In that interview, Marcus summarises the book as an investigation into a long “heretical tradition”, which first took form in continental Europe as far back as the 16th and 17th centuries and then developed into the 20th century, especially around World War One in Dadaism and then again in the 1950s and 1960s in Situationism. Sometimes this tradition took form in political manifestos, sometimes in individual subversive actions, sometimes in works of avant-garde art, and one of its most visible later incarnations was the short career of the Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren.

 

A San Francisco street, photographed in 2000. The Sex Pistols’ final concert in 1978 was at the now demolished Winterland Ballroom, a few blocks west of here, and is the starting point of  “Lipstick Traces”.

 

Marcus’ long narrative is not always easy to read. As he explained in another interview with Simon Reynolds in 2012, “I realised that I didn’t have a talent for extended narrative…I had to write (the book) in short fragments, maybe a page, maybe six pages. The book would proceed in these almost arbitrary sections, and that relieved me from having to write a transitional sentence. And in fact there pretty much isn’t one in the entire book; there are no phrases like ‘as we have seen’ or ‘and now’.  Every time I would start a new section I would title it after the first one two three words of the first paragraph.” However, you might well consider this individual literary style, plus a highly varied selection of illustrations, as perfectly appropriate for a book which spends a lot of time in the world of avant-garde artists and political anarchists.

 

The main façade of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, photographed in 2005. “Lipstick Traces” describes the incident on Easter Sunday 1950 when, during Mass at Notre Dame, four men, one dressed as a monk, walked onto the altar and read a sermon announcing “God is dead” and accusing the Catholic Church of “swindling (and) infecting the world (and) being the running sore on the decomposed body of the West.”

 

Some of Marcus’ musical favourites from the late 1970s and early 1980s were the less well known from the era, like X-Ray Spex, the Raincoats, the Gang of Four, Essential Logic; music which often included brass and jazz rhythms as well as guitars, drums and  vocals. This pushed me towards several more of the maverick outfits from the period whose names I knew better than their sound, like Rip Rig and Panic, the Pop Group, Shriekback, Durutti Column, Young Marble Giants, A Certain Ratio, Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. Some of the music relevant to the book is included within the frankly breath-taking Ubu anthology of avant-garde material compiled by one Kenneth Goldsmith. But, of course, in the wonderful modern world of the internet, audio and video files are also available on You Tube or elsewhere!

Marcus saw Lipstick Traces as his anti-Reagan book. Elsewhere in his interview with Simon Reynolds he describes the “depression” which he felt during that time in US public life and how he viewed the writing of the book as an “act of cowardice or betrayal” when he should have been joining in political activism.

Lipstick Traces certainly brought back many memories of my own 1980s. That was a time of the fresh popularity of Brecht  and Weill, the profusion of small touring theatre companies, writing about eastern Europe and the Middle East championed by Granta, the popular battleground of protests against Thatcherism and nuclear weapons, the politically engaged Mayfest arts festival in Glasgow, the contemporary art presented by the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow and the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, the New Musical Express  with its mix of new music, old music, politics and wider culture.

It may be that such periods of political and cultural ferment belong to particular circumstances of the past. However, Marcus says that creative and valuable voices of protest come around often in forms you don’t expect. Perhaps I just have to look more closely.

 

Reference : Marcus, Greil (1989) Lipstick Traces : a Secret History of the Twentieth Century   London: Secker and Warburg

 

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The influence of Katherine

 

The name of James Hilton is rather forgotten now, his having died in 1954, but novels like Lost Horizon and Random Harvest were popular enough to be transferred quickly by Hollywood into films which were regularly on TV screens during my youth. The Hilton novel which has held its reputation longer than others is possibly Goodbye Mr Chips. Its 1939 film version, directed by Sam Wood, earned six Oscar nominations and a Best Actor prize for Robert Donat. Stuart Orme’s British television version, first screened in 2002, is still regularly shown, at least partly due to the continuing popularity of its lead actor, Martin Clunes.

Hilton’s novel tells the story of the 60-year long career of a schoolteacher named Chipping at a boys’ boarding school called Brookfield. This is another one of those narratives through which the events of World War One cast a long shadow. A startling scene towards the end has Brookfield attacked by enemy aircraft and describes Chipping’s courage and humour in the face of this. It is sobering to realise that, just a few months after the first screening of Sam Wood’s film, and even before Robert Donat had received his Oscar statuette, its audience was facing, in real life, a second war.

More significant even than the 1914-18 war for the lead character is the period of two years during the 1890s. During this time, Chipping, by now in his mid-40s, meets on holiday a young woman called Katherine Bridges. They marry and enjoy a life together which is happy but tragically short.

While Chipping, or Chips, the nickname given by Katherine, is present throughout the whole narrative, Katherine’s own presence is brief. The allegorical significance of her surname is never openly commented on, but it seems likely that Hilton wants the reader to see Katherine as the force which directs and guides the middle-aged Chips to the second, more rewarding, part of his life.

In the novel Chips is trying to save Katherine from a mountain ledge but he hurts himself in the process: “Thus he found himself the rescued instead the rescuer”. In the 1939 film director Sam Wood shrouds Chips in mists on the mountain and it is Katherine’s voice which guides him to a safe place.

 

A scene from the Lake District photographed in 1996. Chips meets Katherine while on holiday there. “He went up… with Rowden, a colleague; they walked and climbed for a week, until Rowden had to leave suddenly on some family business. Chips stayed alone at Wasdale Head, where he boarded in a small farmhouse. One day, climbing on Great Gable, he noticed a girl … ”

 

Chips has always been shy of women, and Katherine is more intimidating than most. She is an example of “that monstrous creature… the New Woman of the nineties”. She is a political radical who believes women should have the vote, an admirer of Shaw and Ibsen and William Morris, who enjoys cycling and is unafraid to visit a single older man alone in his lodgings. However she also believes that teaching is a noble and important profession and is attracted to Chips’ gentle manner and to his opinions which, although old-fashioned, are held honestly. To the modern reader it still seems an unlikely match. The 2002 TV version felt it necessary to add a scene where she leaves Chips a book by Shaw as a farewell gift, which encourages him to cycle after her in a classically bold romantic gesture. Her fatherly group leader cautions, “I hope you are not going to forget yourself, my dear”, to which she calmly replies “I believe I already have”.

Married and at Brookfield, Katherine is popular with other teachers and all the pupils. Hilton says she is also popular with other teachers’ wives – but both TV and film versions felt it too complicated to introduce such characters. The novel mentions the school concerts and the prize-giving garden party, the TV version shows afternoon tea and picnics. She organises a football match between Brookfield and a mission school in working-class Poplar in east London, which is remembered years later by one of the Poplar boys when an adult. (The TV producers perhaps felt there had been enough scenes of sport already when it was decided to change the latter social inclusion initiative into a dance with a nearby girls’ school).

Hilton says that Katherine often asks Chips to be lenient in dealing with pupil misbehavior – because she understands that the boys had often been sent to boarding school against their will and that living together with others was “an unnatural arrangement” – but she is described as shrewd enough to realise that leniency is not appropriate in every situation. The TV version shows her use the Aesop’s fable of the sun and the north wind in her argument against “uncivilized” bullying to the shocked Brookfield headmaster, which the latter recalls when he compliments her later at the mixed gender dance.

Katherine’s death in childbirth is dealt with briskly by Hilton and in both adaptations. Chips refuses to take any time off after the tragedy and returns immediately to his class. Because it is 1 April, the pupils have already organized an April Fool’s joke which he tolerates. Hilton adds that Chips “nearly” says “ ‘you can go to blazes for all I care. My wife is dead and my child is dead and I wish I were dead myself’ ” –  but he is held back by social formality and professional dedication.

The story is still only half-way through, and Hilton makes clear that Chips’ continuing popularity and status and success within the school is due to the influence of the deceased Katherine. So although one theme of the story could be said to be tradition or service or the English class system, another could certainly be the positive influence which one person can exercise in unlikely circumstances when will and effort are applied.

For me, Hilton’s most insightful description is that Katherine’s “radical-socialist… idealism” has combined with Chips’ more conservative “maturity” to produce “an amalgam gentle and wise”. With the new century, despite the pain of his bereavement, Chips gains “a mellowness (and) harmony” and becomes “supremely and confidently himself”.

 

Reference:  Hilton, James (1980)   Goodbye Mr Chips    London: Coronet

 

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Outsiders

 

Happy New 2019!

You often read or hear journalists or actors or others in the public eye choosing their own favourite hero or heroine from literature or drama. A recent example was the journalist Rebecca Nicholson, who discussed her attachment as a young reader to Roald Dahl’s Matilda. A perfectly reasonable choice. Although I was a bit puzzled and sad that she felt obliged to apologise for not choosing the media’s standard example of Harry Potter. “It may well be a generational thing – I came to Harry Potter too late,” she explained.

J.K. Rowling’s hero is actually not unusual for being an orphan or an outsider. Children’s literature (or, to be specific, literature we often read first when we are children) is full of orphans and other isolated and lonely and bullied and neglected children – even in older and less fashionable books. For instance, David Balfour in Kidnapped, Tom Sawyer, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, Carrie and her brother Nick in Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, Billy Casper in Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave. And there are plenty of longer lists elsewhere on the internet.

It is because these characters are alone or neglected that they often display the courage and independence which we as young readers warm to.

Nicholson added, “When books for children are at their very best, they give power to those who feel different and strength to those who might, for reasons they do not know yet, feel like outsiders.” I was struck by her use of the word “might” and the subsequent phrase “for reasons they do not know yet”. In the current public concern about the mental health of young people, there has been a lot of discussion about children who feel neglected or misunderstood or outsiders. This has sometimes even led some adults to encourage such anxious young people that they will be happier if they change the gender which they were born into.

My view is that all people at some time in their childhood feel like outsiders. No matter how happy or comfortable their childhood, no matter how many friends or siblings they have, no matter how wealthy or caring their parents. It’s a natural part of growing up. That feeling may last for weeks or for years, at one particular occasion in your life, or regularly and for some time. But it will happen.

Obviously the more often such feelings of loneliness or isolation or anxiety or confusion occur and the longer they continue the more likely this should be considered a specific problem which a caring adult should do something to solve. But it may be that the adult has only to wait – and encourage the child to develop those qualities of courage and resilience and independence displayed by all of those loved literary characters.

 

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Alpha at different times

 

 

     

 

In art wolves may be dangerous predators to be feared or symbols of personal strength and power. Angela Carter employs both motifs in three stories in The Bloody Chamber.

In “The Company of Wolves”, the wolves are terrifying. They have eyes “like wraiths”, their howl is “an aria of fear made audible”. They are “grey as famine, as unkind as plague”. Children have to carry sharp knives to defend themselves. A confident young girl sets out like Red Riding Hood to visit her grandmother. Later, she undresses in front of the handsome young werewolf, and, unconcerned about the gory death her grandmother has just endured, ends the story happily being in bed with him.

In “The Werewolf”, another child is visiting her sick grandmother through a dangerous neighbourhood. She too carries a knife, and, when a wolf attacks, she retaliates and cuts off the animal’s right forepaw. This time the grandmother is not innocent. The wolf’s paw has changed into a human hand and her grandmother is ill with fever because her hand has been cut off. She is a witch and the child unsentimentally leads her execution by the villagers.

“Wolf-Alice” is different: the main character is a girl who was adopted by a wolf as a baby and later rescued by humans. She has responded to human kindness but her wolf qualities are seen as signs of strength: she has “spiky canines” and “bold nakedness”, she is “wild, impatient of restraint “ and “sleeps in the soft warm ashes of the hearth”. The story describes her growing up and developing a maturity which is still animal as much as human. She lives in the castle of a duke who is an actual werewolf whom she tries to help when he is shot.

The idea of humans adopted by wolves possibly originates from the legend of Romulus and Remus and spread through later fictional inventions like The Jungle Book. Caitlin Moran clearly saw it as a heroic and exciting image when she chose Raised by Wolves as the title of the TV series based on her own unconventional childhood, part of a large family sharing infrequent school attendance.

Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves places a similar unusual childhood within a spartan American habitat. Her teenage lead character, Linda, lives in rural Minnesota, in a landscape not dissimilar from “The Company of Wolves”; sparsely populated, full of lakes and forests and a few cabins, many hours’ drive from the nearest big town of Duluth, short of material comfort and entertainment, enduring a harsh winter. She feels isolated from her parents who once lived as part of a commune and spends a lot of time baby-sitting for (and with) a young mother whose older husband is often away from home. A brief but significant meeting is with a teacher Mr Grierson. He encourages her to take part in an inter-school History Odyssey at which she chooses the topic of a History of Wolves. Linda’s story is not a Carter-esque fantasy but is certainly presented as taking place in an isolated and eerie and unusual world.

 

   

 

Lupine characters of a less ferocious kind featured in the early work of two other Scottish arts practitioners. The Wolves in the Walls was one of the first shows staged by the National Theatre of Scotland which also toured to England and the USA. These wolves, created by Neil Gaiman, are hidden within the house walls of the ordinary (if usually preoccupied) suburban family of Lucy.

Wolves was the title of the first album of the band My Latest Novel which featured a song called “When We Were Wolves”. Its lines both hint at a conventional domestic setting, and also detail an escape from it : “When we were wolves… we ran…and we hide in lightless rooms and we banged on our pianos”.

A final wolf in this artistic pack is Company of Wolves, a small Glasgow-based theatre group. Their work certainly tends to be physical and non-verbal. “Raw” and “uncivilised” are two other qualities which they say they aim to create. However I was somewhat disappointed to be told directly by the group’s co-founder Ewan Downie at a post-performance discussion that the name of the group is unconnected to Angela Carter and is simply a phrase which suggests strength and mystery.

Wolves. Although extinct in most countries over recent centuries, still a powerful motif. Often protective rather than savage and aggressive and predatory. As Angela Carter writes in “Wolf- Alice”, “ (they inhabit) only the present tense…a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair”. As Linda says in her History of Wolves project, “alpha only at certain times and for a specific reason.” And she adds, “Those words” – which are taken from a real-life book called Of Wolves and Men by one Barry Lopez – “always made me feel I was drinking something cool and sweet, something forbidden.”
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References : Carter, Angela (1984)  The Bloody Chamber    Harmondsworth: Penguin
Fridlund, Emily (2017)  History of Wolves    London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson

 

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The art in history

 

For the past four years the organisation 14-18 NOW  has been commissioning arts projects around the UK to mark the centenary of World War One. Certainly not all have been afforded equal attention – the national media have given most publicity to the ceramic poppies installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Tom Piper and Paul Cummins and the film They Shall Not Grow Old by Peter Jackson – but many of us tend to see any increased public and private funding of the arts as, in general, a good thing.

It was therefore quite stimulating to hear one serious dissenting voice, that of journalist and author Simon Jenkins. Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron allocated £50 million to the work of 14-18 NOW to commemorate World War One, he observed acerbically, while at the same time as he was encouraging the country to join a present-day war in Syria. “125 artists rallied to the cause,” he said – his use of the vocabulary of military recruitment almost certainly not accidental. Jenkins’ main argument on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze was that large government-sanctioned arts and cultural events to mark historical anniversaries were becoming too common and were “synthetic” and even “slightly obscene”. Historians rather than artistes were more skilled in the delicate tasks of remembering and forgetting which constituted the true process of recording history. Of course, Jenkins’ position is a generalisation: not all writers of history books are equally rigorous and incisive and analytical, while many creative artistes certainly display those qualities. Governments are usually most comfortable with artistes who seem to fit a familiar stereotype.

Danny Boyle is certainly a well-known and successful film director, and already establishment-approved for his 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony show. He was the leader of the most recent 14-18 NOW project, Pages of the Sea, in which faces of war veterans were drawn on the sand of many UK beaches.

One of the beaches selected was at Ayr on the west coast of Scotland. Here are some photographs of the Ayr event, co-directed by the National Theatre of Scotland. The principal “official” sand drawing was of one Walter Tull, but members of the public were encouraged to draw and identify their own family members.

 

 

 

The incoming tide eventually erased the pictures as people gathered to read in unison a new Carol Ann Duffy poem “The Wound in Time”.

 

As the Poet Laureate during the past nine years, Carol Ann Duffy is also an establishment figure but one who has displayed a wide range of literary and other skills. “The Wound in Time” is her second World War One commemoration poem, after “Last Post” in 2009.

Both borrow gently from Wilfred Owen in creating powerful new ideas. “Last Post”, which has the more straightforward structure and so reads more crisply and clearly, yearns for the power to erase the gas attack which Owen described so vividly in “Dulce et Decorum Est”, and to return its soldiers to the pre-war life of health, home, work and happiness. In the denser “The Wound in Time”, the repetition of the sounds of the present participle “-ing” and the sibilant “s” simulate waves on the beach: not only do they fail to clean the horrible bloody events from history, they serve as a reminder that human beings’ violent warlike behaviour continues incessantly.

 

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The best book about World War One?

 

 

Some graves of unidentified British soldiers on the Western Front.

Visitors to the British trenches near Ypres.

 

It was many years ago, possibly as many as 30, when I heard Paul Fussell’s 1975 book The Great War and Modern Memory praised on a radio programme as the best book ever written about World War One. If I had been older then, I perhaps would have been more sceptical about the grandiose claim. Instead, it fixed an ambition to read it which I finally achieved within the last year.

Fussell’s book still held plenty of delights for this jaundiced older reader. It is not a conventional history in that it does not provide a summary of battles and does not deal with military strategy. It concentrates more on the writings of those who took part, whether published and famous, or informal and unknown. His original preface said the book was about “the British experience on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918 and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalised and mythologised”.

As in any good work of non-fiction, different information and arguments will appeal to different readers. For me one of the most remarkable is that the trenches in Flanders were only 70 miles from the safety and comfort of middle-class London – a “ridiculous” and “farcical” proximity. People on the south coast could hear the sound of shells yet they were totally separate from the horrible experiences of their soldier menfolk. London vehicles were used in the trenches and letters and parcels from home took only four days to arrive at the front line. That journey from home to front was a vastly different experience depending on whether you were a senior (upper-class) officer or of a lower rank and Fussell suggests this difference could be seen as an early sign of the divisions of the 1926 General Strike and the 1945 General Election.

The authorities set up an exhibition trench in Kensington Gardens to educate the civilians, but it of course bore no resemblance to the real ones – which were always wet, smelly, full of lice and rats. But not all trenches were the same : German trenches were apparently better built and even comfortable.

Another startling Fussell insight is that all the soldiers of World War One period had an “unparalleled literariness” – since the war took place at a time when people believed strongly in the enriching and educational powers of literature and working people were becoming more educated especially through reading. 18th century literature was particularly popular because “it offered an oasis of reasonableness and normality”.

 

The chapel in the British army club of Talbot House in Poperinge, Belgium.

View of street in Poperinge from Talbot House.

 

Fussell deals in detail with the famous World War One soldier writers Siegfried Sassoon, David Jones, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Wilfred Owen, but equally with other unknown letter writers and diarists. He also refers to later wars and later literature such as Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

Many writers who served in World War Two or grew up after it were profoundly influenced by World War One and the writings about it – “the paradigm of that contempt for life, individuality and privacy, and that facile recourse to violence that have characterised experience in the twentieth century.”

 

The grave of Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler, one of the very few women to be buried on the Western Front.

Sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz in German cemetery.

 

Sculpture by Frederick Chapman Clemesha in cemetery to the Canadian war dead.

 

One small but important way in which the World War One has continued to influence daily life in the 21st century is the abundance of unexploded bombs and shells which litter the former battlefields.

 

Reference :  Fussell, Paul (2013 revised ed)  The Great War and Modern Memory  New York: Oxford University Press

 

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