Thursday, 10 December 2009

In which our narrator spends rather a lot of time in bookshops

It's now a fortnight (three weeks?) since Borders went into administration, and the Oxford branch is rapidly losing stock. It was always a bit bright and brash to be a British bookshop, but I'm going to miss it all the same. I used to love it particularly as an undergraduate, when at about half past nine I could think 'oh dear, I don't have anything to read in bed', nip out and spend a happy twenty minutes browsing the shelves. It lost some charm over the course of the last decade, as the closing time reduced to nine, then to eight. Although, of course, until two years ago I was living in a little rural town, rather than a massive city, so had no access to it whatever the time of night.

The thing is, bookshops make me happy. Whenever I'm feeling a bit down, I go bookshopping. I don't even have to buy anything, although often I do. I just feel at home there.

Today I have been to practically every bookshop in Oxford. I went to Borders, but felt that it was virtually impossible to find anything except by complete chance, and also that strangely many things were more expensive than previously... I went to Waterstones, in a passing through kind of a way, and to Blackwell's where I bought one book as a Christmas present but it was in a three for two so I bought two more that I wanted, restrained myself from buying another couple that I thought looked good, and which turned out to be the same price on Amazon, so I may have to go back. I dropped into Oxfam Books on Turl Street, where I didn't buy anything, but then I did buy three books from Oxfam Books on St Giles on Tuesday.

Then I came home and went by car into Headington, one of Oxford's satellite residential areas, home of the Headington Shark, and also home to about a hundred charity shops, including not one but two Cancer Research shops, one on each side of the road... From various places here I acquired a handful of Christopher Isherwood books, some PG Wodehouse, and a couple of other things. I came home to find an Amazon delivery (Christmas presents) had been chucked over the back fence, but since it hadn't rained, the books were undamaged despite their dissolved packaging. I may have rather gone overboard on the book buying today. But, to paraphrase, if it makes me happy, it can't be that ba-a-aa-ad. And between the three for two and the charity shops, it wasn't that expensive either. So here's to time in bookshops, and the calming whispers of a million books :)

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Kings of Style

So, you may have noticed very little action on this blog recently: my other life seems to have been crammed to bursting with work, work and more work. And very recently, some rugby as some people have noticed. But things are beginning to calm down a little, and an incident yesterday made me think 'if only I had a blog vaguely related to reading and writing where I could talk about this. Oh!' So here I am.

One of the things I have been doing over the past couple of months is 'digitising' core readings for the Masters courses at the department where I study. This involves photocopying chapters of books, scanning them in and putting them through text recognition software and then proofreading them, for the highly amusing bloopers it can create. It has taught me a great deal about how many mistakes are actually in place in the printed texts! As well as exposing me to many, many examples of sociological research related to sex, because they pick the salacious ones to get your attention.

But this is all in the way of introduction: one of the best things about this job is in fact getting to hang out on the main library/ reception desk - for many reasons. One of them is the banter of the two male librarians, who are both quite snappy dressers - and one of whom considers himself to be 'the most stylish man in Oxford' (I'm not disagreeing, or reporting this sarcastically - I'm just quoting). Yesterday they were discussing style icons: the most stylish men about. They had me in hysterics. As far as I'm concerned, there's only ever been one male style icon: Beau Brummel (and if you don't know whom I'm talking about, go read some Georgette Heyer!).

And then they challenged me. 'Go on then Velda,' they said. 'Whose style do you admire?'

And there, they had me. As far as I ever think about my 'style', I tend to aim for 'inoffensive, with a bit of emphasis on exciting boots.' I couldn't think of a single person. But then, I went off to the photocopier, which is good for mindnumbing activity freeing the mind to think, and some names started to float in on the aether.

Neil Gaiman
A.S. Byatt
Diana Wynne Jones
Simon Armitage

But I wasn't thinking about their dress sense (to be fair, they all do look smart in person (Byatt and Armitage) or in photos (Gaiman (stylish rather than smart - his hair is famous in its own right!) and Jones). I was thinking about their writing. For me, style is in the turn of a phrase, the mot juste, or the patterning of language. This leads me into delightful digressory thoughts about what exactly a winklepicker would look like in the form of literary device, or what the equivalent of a red leather glove is (a yellow suede one would be Byronic excess).

I didn't go back and tell them that. I stuck with my first answer 'I've really never thought about it'. I did try to think of people whose fashion sense I admired, but I really can't bring anyone to mind. There's good outfits and poor outfits and that's about it. But writing style, now that's something that sticks with you. And for that 'inoffensive, but with occasionally exciting boots' doesn't really kick it.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Fiction to sink your teeth into

There's a bit of a trend happening in Young Adult literature at the moment and, frankly, I've had enough. It seems to me that about ninety per cent of the books in the teens section of Borders, Waterstones, Blackwell's and elsewhere have black covers, dramatic titles and some variation on the Gothic palely interesting girl/ ominously thorny rose/ big dark castle/ moon theme of cover illustration. They're all about vampires.

Now don't get me wrong - I loved Twilight as much as the next girl - and possibly more than she did. I've read them all several times. But I pick up these books and everything inside me goes "meh." Vamps have just become too damn safe. It didn't used to be like that.

In the original European legends, Nosferatu is violent scavenger, more animal than man, with no higher intelligence, certainly no appeal for his victims, merely seeking the blood it requires to survive. More modern werewolf than vampire.

The sophisticated, attractive vampire is a reinvention when the myth hits the English language, but the credit for it does not belong to Stoker. Instead we must trace the origins of the English vampire back to that near-legendary night in the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary and Byron’s personal physician John Polidori took shelter from a thunder storm and challenged eachother to create the best ghost story. Ironically this challenge, supposed to be a showdown between the two famous poets, threw up Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the original English vampire story: John Polidori’s The Vampyre.

The ‘vampyre’ was Lord Ruthven, and he was a very different creature from any predecessors. He is a tall, pale, attractive aristocrat at whom ladies throw themselves from all sides. Many believe that Polidori took for a model his employer Lord Byron, who was not known for nothing as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’. As a result the English vampire is often known as the ‘Byronic vampire’: the model which was taken by many subsequent writers including Stoker. ‘The Vampyre’ begins like this:

It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman more remarkable for his singularities than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the light laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate, and at one glance to pierce through to the inward workings of the heart; but fell upon the cheek with a leaden ray that weighed upon the skin it could not pass. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house; all wished to see him.

He's already got that sexy bad boy vibe going, and it's only the beginning of the nineteenth century. Leaving aside Dracula, and all that goes with him, we really have Anne Rice to blame for the current crop of vampire fiction. She turned the genre on its head by giving us a vamp's eye view in her Interview with a Vampire and left the field wide open for the moodily interesting vampire victim, the unwilling biter bit by destiny and trying to resist his inner nature. A bad boy who wants to change, but who is always going to look good in black.

But they've lost their edge. The vampires have gone domestic, and it's not doing the sense of narrative danger any good. Get rid of all these Twilight clones, people. Start thinking some new storylines and definitely some new cover designs. Let's get back to books that bite.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Adapting to circumstances

Today I did something I've been dreading. Something I've put off and put off, contemplated and pondered over. Should I, shouldn't I? In the end I did and I survived. I watched The Secret of Moonacre, which claimed to be the film of the Elizabeth Goudge novel The Little White Horse.

The Little White Horse is a book that every child should read. It's an integral part of my psyche, and one of my favourite books (and incidently, one of J.K. Rowling's, which is why it has been re-published). And I was frankly afraid it was going to be murdered. In the last few years I have deliberately avoided watching The Dark is Rising adaptation, mostly on the basis that Lovejoy as Merriman Lyon was likely to end in tears. I just couldn't face it, and the reviews told me I was right.

Getting the film adaptation of books right is very difficult, especially books which are well loved. Films are different from books: they are structured differently, you can't afford as long to set up characters or plot, and you often can't include the details which make it loved. The Harry Potter films (and I haven't seen the latest one yet) have a particularly fine line to tread. It's more common than not to watch a film of a book you've loved and come away disappointed. I'm thinking of Anthony Horowitz's Stormbreaker (book I liked, rather than loved), or The Ninth Gate which was nowhere near as good as the original novel, The Dumas Club, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

There are exceptions to this. The BBC Pride and Prejudice for example, but then that had six hours of screen time and stuck almost word for word to the novel. The film of Louis Sachar's Holes is different from the book to an extent, but brilliant with it. But then the screenplay for that was written by the author himself. Stardust's screenplay wasn't written by Neil Gaiman, and it introduced a whole new character, but it stuck to the spirit of the novel, and mostly to the words too. Plus the casting was perfect. But in general, the ground is a bit shaky.

Being this dubious of adaptations, how come I wanted to watch this one? A couple of factors. Tim Curry's presence as the villainous Coeur du Noir wasn't hurting, and what stills I'd seen suggested that the aesthetic of the film was at least in the right ball park. Which it turned out to be, just about.

So how was The Secret of Moonacre? Well, it wasn't terrible. As a film, that is. It wasn't much of an adaptation of The Little White Horse. Characters were changed, omitted, the plot was mucked about with, almost beyond recognition, the main boy character was made to switch sides and his mother became his sister and there were some generally unnecessary magical overlays (because aside from the hundreds of years old lion and the unicorn, this isn't really a story which relys on magic). Plus for some reason they switched from having a hare to having a 'magical Moonacre rabbit', although with hindsight the reason for that was probably the lack of available stunt hares. It was okay, as a film, to fill a boring Sunday afternoon with little else in it.

But it wasn't the film it could have been. It wasn't the scenes that play inside my head every single time I read the book. So you can watch it if you want, and even if you love the book, it won't make you shout and throw things at the tv. But you'd be better off sticking to the words on the page.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Only really very loosely related to English

But it made me chuckle.

Fabulous fantasy author Neil Gaiman (Stardust, American Gods, Good Omens (with legend Terry Pratchett)) was interviewed in today's Sunday Telegraph on his loves and hates. One of his loves was Katherine Briggs's Encyclopedia of Fairies. Which is entirely reasonable. Looking for it on the internet, I could only find the second hand copy on which the title will send you off to look at.

And then I scrolled down to the product description which proudly tells us that the book:

"Also covers Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and other Supernatural Creatures. "

Good to know.

Friday, 26 June 2009

How many words do you know?

The average oral vocabulary that an average 18 year old has access to and uses on a day to day basis, is about 20,000 words. They will have a much larger latent vocabulary that they understand but do not use.

The average university graduate has a working vocabulary of 50,000.

The average academic/ specialist has one of 100,000.

By the end of school the average person has read 600,000 paragraphs.

You are explicitly taught 300-400 new words a year at school, most of which you will already know.

Just a few interesting facts, courtesy of Tom Landauer, who is an American academic, and a pioneer of Latent Semantic Analysis, a technique which allows a computer to learn to read what you write, and work out if it's grammatical and sensible. Scary huh?

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Post script:: a Narnian turtle

Presumably turned into tree root by some relative of the White Witch (she preferred stone...)

An Inspector Calls

You know that feeling: the one where you've spent weeks working yourself up about an event - Christmas, say, or your birthday party, or the first date with the boy of your dreams - you've been waiting for ages, perhaps even months, or years for this very special, particular event, and yet you know, deep down, that it can never live up to your expectations, and you're a little worried that come the day it's just going to be too disappointing and that it's all going to end in tears?

I've read An Inspector Calls a dozen times, taught it four or five, and watched with longing the Channel 4 Schools documentary that featured snippets of film of Stephen Daldry's iconic 90s production, lamenting I would never see it. Then I learned that there was a new revival tour. And that it was coming to town. I ordered tickets, months in advance, to avoid the disappointment of a sell-out. And last night, I finally did.

And you know what? It was even better than I'd hoped. I thought I was innoculated against Inspector Calls: certainly enough exposure that I shoud have been. And yet it hit me like a tonne of bricks. It's simply brilliant.

This is the production which has a whole house on stage. On stilts. In the middle of the first scene the house opens up to reveal the Birling family, and gradually as the Inspector questions them, they move down, out of the house onto the stage, coming down to equality, and then eventually destroyed, they crawl in the gutter as the house comes crashing down above them - quite literally, they must go through hundreds and thousands of plates.

There were elements I wasn't sure about - the Inspector's sing-song intonation, for example, with its odd stresses of volume in places, was a little unsettling at first, until I realised that it was designed to do so, and later saw the poetry of his speeches brought out by it.

I sat enthralled, spellbound by something I already know back to front and inside out. My first reaction on leaving the theatre? I wanted to go see it all over again. Unfortunately the national tour has only a week to go, and that in Leicester, but there will be a West End production in September, at the Novello, and if I can scrape together the cash, I think I might try and go. If you can, you should too.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Afternoon sun and A.S. Byatt


This afternoon, courtesy of the Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, I sat in the shade in her lovely garden, overlooked by the Sheldonian and the Museum of the History of Science, with a group of other Exonians, listening to A.S. Byatt answering our questions.

A.S. Byatt is one of my favourite novelists. I devour her books, with a passion. But there are two things which have always niggled at me. Well, to be accurate one thing which has always niggled and one thing which niggled when I read her new book, which has been out all of a month. They are the same niggle, essentially. In The Shadow of The Sun the main character is a girl, the daughter of a famous novelist, in the D.H. Lawrence mode, who cannot really decide what to do with her life. In trying to free herself from his shadow, she goes to study at Cambridge, tries to write, starts an affair with the man who tutored her, who is also her father's greatest admirer and explicator. As is the way of things, she becomes pregnant, and the book ends with her decision, which is to have the baby and enter into domestic un-bliss with this rather unsympathetic older man. Her decision was the bit that niggled.

In her most recent book, The Children's Book, one of the main characters - of whom there are many - commits suicide. It's a character to whom I had become somewhat attached - of them all, that character had appeared to be the 'mainest' at the beginning, and the most sympathetic. I was cross about this too.

But when I asked about The Shadow of the Sun earlier today, A.S. Byatt's reply made me think. She talked of historical imagination, and said that it was a novel very much of the 1950s and 60s: one that in effect could have had no other end. The character, as she pointed out, was not as strong as she was herself, a rather battered girl, who took the only way open to her. I think that this is what makes A.S. Byatt a great novelist, rather than merely good: she takes hard decisions on behalf of her characters, that are true to who they are, rather than bowing to sentiment or desire for the world to be other than as it is. It rather fits The Children's Book niggle too - even before the suicide, when reading I had wondered how on earth this character could escape the corner into which their (used as an impersonal pronoun to avoid revealing the gender) personality had driven them.

So, hang it all, I think she's done for both those niggles. Byatt is a brilliant and intelligent writer. I cannot recommend her work highly enough.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Just a passing thought...

I don't know how many of you heard the interview with the Tory MP Anthony Steen, but you can certainly find it on the internet if you didn't. He claimed that the public interest in the fact that he had claimed £18,000 of expenses to spend on tree pruning on his estate was 'jealousy' because he had a big house that 'looks like Balmoral'... He also said the Freedom of Information Act should never have been passed and that the public had no right to interfere in his private life. Steen also claimed David Cameron had been 'surprised' when he said he would be retiring at the next election, and that he thought Cameron had been a little disappointed.

The cynic in me suspects that it was this bit that really annoyed Cameron, leading to his response when being interviewed for Radio 4, saying that 'another squeak' from Steen would lead to him being 'out on his (2) hoof.' Anyone else think that's a slightly odd expression? The pause shows that he's stopped what he was originally going to say, to substitute a different word. Now, to my mind, the phrase is to be 'out on your ear.' Which isn't offensive enough to swallow on Radio 4. So I suspect that the Right Honourable Mr Cameron was in fact going to say 'out on his arse.' Sometimes English Language study gives you that little bit of insight...

And a small postscript to my earlier rant. I got final approval on the review after about seven or eight rewrites, from the senior editor, describing it as a 'fantastic peace [sic].' Vindicated, moi?

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Reviewing Rant - Just getting it off my chest!

This is a rant, and unashamedly so. I’ve been doing quite a lot of reviewing lately, and while some of it has been a delightful experience, one particular publication has made it difficult beyond belief. It is, naturally, the one run by amateurs, graduate students at my university, who are taking the opportunity afforded to be as dictatorial as possible, demanding multiple rewrites and frankly abusing the already frustrating Microsoft Word Track Changes. Bearing in mind that I have an editorial job on another publication myself, I know what thereof I speak. Of course, I would dislike them – they didn’t like my review! In fact, I accept that the editors have the right to ask me to change my writing – they are in effect the people who commissioned it. But I have a few specific ‘niggles’ to use their phrase:

1) People who have not read the book rewriting my sentences to be more to their stylistic taste and thus making them factually inaccurate.

2) People who bring up grammatical ‘niggles’ which they are wrong about (‘their is not a gender neutral third person pronoun yet’ (well, yes it is – it isn’t singular, it’s true, but I was using it to refer to a group of people some of whom were female and some of whom were male)) , and then changing my correct relative pronoun ‘which’ for the incorrect/ American, but preferred by Word, ‘that’. (I refused to bow to that one. Just call me a rebel.)

3) The same people reviewing my review and making directly opposite comments on the two drafts – eg, I like this sentence/ paragraph in the first draft, and then saying they don’t like it and it’s unnecessary in the second draft….

There, I feel better now. And it’s better to get it off my chest here, than to send it in an email to them!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Reading Between the Lines

I had intended to blog today about the wonderful fact that Carol Ann Duffy is our new Poet Laureate. It's a poignant joy given that U.A. Fanthorpe died earlier this week, but I think she's probably smiling right now, anyway.

Instead, I'm very very cross. The reason is this BBC News article which is naturally based 'on figures published by the Conservatives.' It's all about dropping numbers taking English Literature GCSE. The fact that 37% of those on Free School Meals (used as a proxy variable for socio-economic status in education research) do not take the subject, compared to 28% overall, is seen as 'evidence' that the 'poorer pupils' are missing out on 'our country's cultural heritage.' I imagine that the Daily Mail will be reporting this story with the tag question 'has the world gone mad?'

The answer is no, it hasn't. Nor are those pupils who do not take English Literature GCSE missing out on Shakespeare and other great literature. Near the bottom of the article, in a quiet sort of way, the BBC does manage to put in Schools' Minister Jim Knight, who rightly points out that English GCSE contains elements of both English Language and English Literature study. (Incidently this is the reason why anyone who claims to have a GCSE in English Language is lying. There is no such thing.)

Lots of people don't take English Literature for good reasons. Such as the fact that they are struggling with English in the first place and need the time to make sure they get a good grade in the subject which is going to be an essential qualification for them to get a job, get into sixth form, get 'five good GCSEs.' Most schools teach English and English Literature in the same space of time that Maths gets to do one GCSE. It's a squash and forcing everyone to do English Literature will in fact have the effect of disadvantaging, not advantaging some pupils.

Then there's the fact that some pupils do Media Studies instead. (Cue shouts: Has the world gone mad?) Actually, studies have shown that for some pupils doing Media Studies instead of English Literature boosts their English result. Studying something that is both of interest to them and ties in with their strengths makes them better learners of allied subjects.

It might seem an odd stance for an English teacher to take, but honestly, the Conservatives are just being lazy in declaring this 'shocking.' They're looking for cheap shots, but like the good critical reader and media student that I am, I can read between the lines to tell you... don't believe everything you read!

Sunday, 5 April 2009

March's Poet: Leontia Flynn

So, as promised, slightly out of the month, the first poet, who is 35 and Irish, and certainly female. Leontia Flynn's Drives is her second book, and the title encapsulates many of her themes. There are poems about literal drives, journeys taken at home and abroad, and about the personal ambitions and needs which drive us on, interspersed with poems about the driven - authors and artists explored through the first person voice.

I liked this book, liked the poems in it, but I didn't love it, or any of them. There's no individual poem which leapt out and grabbed me, demanding to be revisited when needed. My favourite, and the one which came closest, was a poem on Rome:

Rome wasn't built in a day. 'Rome?
We will take the lot in one short afternoon.'

There were others that came close too. 'Song' which can be found online here and an ironic poem about parodies of country songs which ends with the abandoned narrator quoting 'if the phone doesn't ring, baby you'll know it's me...' For me, the strongest images were the ones from her own life - the domestic heartbreak of a father suffering from dementia, or the aftermath of his death, and the glorious triumph of the poem addressed to her unborn child, a note of hope on which the book ends (rather like Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife). The sonnets about Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf all resonate too.

And, I have to say, there are moments when you really like her. The idea of a 'pastoral' being a Sunday morning with the papers, cds and coffee; Ozymandias mixed with the White House, and a Christmas poem that likens Christmas to cholera. Reading the book again, to write about it, I find myself warming to the poems anew, and thinking maybe I've been too damning with faint praise. Perhaps these are drives which need to be familiar journeys before you can really see the details of the countryside as it whizzes past.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

A post which takes longer than expected to get to the point

About a month ago, I came up with a new New Year's Resolution. A bit late you may argue, so maybe I should just call it a March Resolution.

I was browsing on, as I do from time to time, when a blog article caught my eye, entitled 'Why we need a female poet laureate'. It all seemed eminently reasonable. And there are a nice selection of eminent women from whom to choose. But not as many as there are men. So naturally I started looking around, and I found that in general male poets are more likely to be celebrated. The Guardian's own 'great poets' series included only one woman: Sylvia Plath. Their critic Frances Leviston, who is also a poet herself, wrote to justify this.

Now, I'm definitely a proponent of people succeeding on the basis of merit, but I thought about the poets that I read, and specifically the poetry books that I own. A good half of them are dead, and of them all but Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop are men. I do better with established poets: Jo Shapcott, Carol Ann Duffy and Wendy Cope are three of my favourites, along with Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney (or 'Famous Seamus' as Mrs Greenwood would say in her broadest 'Norren Irish' accent), Benjamin Zephaniah, John Agard etc etc. The list goes on. Unsurprisingly my collection shows a bias towards poets who have appeared in the AQA Anthology, although I'd like to plead that Armitage and Duffy were on my favourites list before that anthology existed, and that nothing on this earth would persuade me to buy a book by Gillian Clarke.

But when we get to emergent poets - people who you won't necessarily have heard of, or of whom I hadn't really heard, people just starting out, most of those kind of poets are men. Michael Symmons Roberts, for example, whom I heard reading jointly with Simon Armitage and loved. The books of poetry sent to me when I was a member of the Poetry Books Society were all by men. I do own a book by Lucy Newlyn, called Ginnel, which my mother bought me, because it's about a childhood spent in the same places we grew up, but I'm afraid although it's a first collection, Lucy Newlyn herself is an established academic, a good few years older than my imagination painted her on reading her poems.

The thing is, it's quite hard to get ahead in poetry. You need to have had plenty of poems published in journals and magazines, and ideally to have won a few competitions. There's only a few outlets for poetry publishing in this country, although Bloodaxe Books are doing a marvellous job (and in the North too!) and I urge you to support them. But without support, these young poets aren't going to get anywhere. They're going to give up and stick to the day job, or spend fifty years writing their first collection.

So this was my new New Year's Resolution. To buy and read one book of poetry per month written by a woman under forty. How to find books by women under forty turned out to be a whole new challenge. I had intended to use this post to review the first one, but it turned out that the introductory justification was much longer than I'd intended. So I'll leave you for now with the suggestion that you think about whether you want a world with poetry in it, and that if you do, you're going to need to support something which is not so much an industry, and more a service to the community.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

An Inkling of another world

This morning I went to Narnia. Sort of.

C. S. Lewis bought a house in 1930, jointly with his brother and the mother of one his friends who was killed in the First World War, with whom he had lived ever since. The house in question was 'The Kilns', in Risinghurst, a suburb of Oxford which now stands immediately outside the ringroad, about ten minutes' drive from where I now live. The house then stood at one end of an 8-acre garden, which included a large pond or lake, which was a water filled clay-pit, with a number of brick kilns scattered around it, and a wooded headland. Five acres of this garden are now the C.S. Lewis Nature Reserve, administered by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, and open to the public to wander around at will.

Local lore* has it that this woodland is the inspiration for the Narnia books, written after Lewis moved to the Kilns. This morning it was quiet and empty, despite the sun. A couple of coots were making desultory circles on the lake, although a few ducks emerged later on. The trees were ankle-deep in dead leaves, and there were more than a few muddy holes, some of which were bridged, some not. Behind the lake the hillside rises steeply and there is a slightly clearer patch of woodland, with seats. It's only here that you really escape the feeling of being in a town - albeit at the edge, because you are away from the lower edges which abut people's gardens and are overlooked by the roofs of houses.

I didn't feel that it was Narnia, for that very reason. It was too close to this world to be in another. And to be fair, I suspect I may have had too high expectations of the place. I expected to walk in and suddenly recognise the places where the Pevensies met the Beavers, or where the Marshwiggles pitched their tents. And that was never going to happen. Narnia is not a real place, or not one on this planet: it exists more in a kind ur-imagination to which we all have access, but which we perhaps see in slightly different ways, complicated further by the television and film versions, which took our minds' eyes to Scotland and New Zealand, both a far cry from Oxford.

But when I'd released that wish to see 'the real Narnia', leaving myself open to just enjoying the woodland, things began to fall into place. This woodland isn't Narnia; it's the Wood Between the Worlds. It's the place from which you can get to other worlds - the place that Lewis leapt off from. And here and there I began to see where Narnia had crept in. In the clearing at the top I saw the place where Caspian encounters the mythic inhabitants of the forest dancing and vows to restore their country to them. Around the place lie round sandstone boulders, covered with lichen and mushrooms, known as 'doggers': a board tells of the legend that they were used as marbles by the giants who used to live in the mediaeval forests of England. The Silver Chair sprang to mind, and stayed there as I saw a series of stone pillars, diminishing in size, which looked like they had once supported a crossing over a stream, or the ravine that Eustace and Jill cross with Puddleglum, in the eye of my imagination.

And the best thing about it being the Wood Between the Worlds? It's not just Narnia you can get to from there. There's a forest full of other worlds just waiting to be discovered. I'll be going back to find them.

* I have to point out that it is only local lore, no matter how bandied about on the internet. It seems more likely that the inspiration for Narnia was the Mourne Mountains, located in Northern Ireland, near where C S Lewis grew up, at least when he wasn't away at school.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Happy World Book Day!

Today is the day dedicated to books: the day that it's okay to bunk off work and bury your nose in a book*, the day that is specifically designed for you to go to a bookshop or website and buy a book - any book, the day that you should spend asking other people what they've read recently and enjoyed, and telling them what you've read recently and enjoyed. Change your facebook status to tell everyone you know the title that changed your life. Spot a stranger reading a book and ask them about it. See someone in Waterstone's looking at a book you hated and tell them that: then recommend a better one.

I love reading. I love bookshops. I may have mentioned this before. When I'm feeling low, visiting a bookshop is practically therapy. I don't have to buy anything - in fact I frequently don't - instead, I just browse and let all the pages and covers calm me slowly, tell me of the thousands of other worlds I could enter if I chose. That's the best thing about books: inside any one could be the portal to another world, a parallel dimension, an ideal place.

The books that keep me coming back for re-read after re-read are always those ones which do capture me and transport me bodily. I'm not just talking about the books which I can fall into and switch off completely from the outside world - I'm pretty talented at that. Easy to stop up your ears when your inner ear and eye is so completely concentrated on the object in your hand. I'm talking about the books which are a perfect mix of big ideas and tiny details, that contain characters I can identify with, that recreate that sense of magic I got from my first hit of fiction all those years ago. It's like heroin only without the fatal side effects or fall off from the intensity. I can re-read books like these instantly - have been known to - and still get the magic.

Books like this usually fall into one of two categories for me: children's fantasy (The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce, practically anthing by Diana Wynne Jones, to name but a few) or books about books (I'm talking things like The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, things which Middeke and Huber call 'biofictions' that create their own intertextuality). I know not everyone likes the same things, and not all the books I go back to time after time are like this, but a good proportion are. (To my shame, the other major category is Dick Francis novels. I re-read all thirty odd of them every year or so. But then that only takes about a fortnight!)

I find that I have this strong emotional reaction to books less often nowadays though. When I was six or seven I saw my mother putting aside some books to take to Oxfam. "Didn't you like them, Mummy?" I asked. "Yes," she said, puzzled. "But then why don't you want to read them again?" I couldn't conceive of the idea of liking a book but not wanting to go back to it. Now I know there are so many books out there that I won't have time to read, that it's sometimes not worth going back to them. I'm trying desperately to reduce my holdings of books at the moment: I don't have room to store all of them on bookshelves as it is, and I'm expecting to have to move to a smaller place in the summer, and to have fewer shelves still. I've got a shelf which contains only books which I haven't read yet but which I expect to get rid of when I do. So far only two out of seven have escaped the cull: Q&A, the novel which Slumdog Millionaire is based on, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, even if it made me cry. I regret a little letting The 19th Wife go, but since it was a free book anyway it probably won't kill me.

So the only question is: do I celebrate World Book Day by buying a new book? Or by reading one I've already got? There's just so much choice!

*subject to terms and conditions: namely your boss's attitude...

Monday, 2 March 2009

To bleed or not to bleed, that is the question...

So this year I've already seen three Shakespeare plays - a total I'm extremely pleased with, especially since two of them were ones I'd never seen before, and one of them I'd never even read (Hadn't read King Lear, hadn't seen Othello, and I've read and seen Hamlet at least twice before.). Two of them have been in London, and one, as I may have mentioned before, is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. One had realistic but restrained amounts of blood (Hamlet), one had no blood at all, despite quite a number of fatal stabbings (Othello) and one had copious amounts of blood and a scene where someone bit out someone else's eyeball, rolled it around in her mouth and then spat it out into a trough at the front of the stage (Lear).

So which makes for a better production? I honestly don't know. The audience was revolted and horrified by the gore in Lear, although the eyeball almost provoked a laugh of disgust. There was no question that the violence in Othello was highly believable. Lack of blood didn't wake us from the suspension of disbelief. Strangely, these two, representing two extremes, were also the two set in venues where the stage and seating are intimately collocated, so that you are very very close to the actors. Sitting in the front row of the WYP, I had to uncross my legs at one point to bring my feet in for fear of kicking the actors dragging off the body of Roderigo.

You could argue that the difference lies in the plays. Lear is a play which revels in its violence, as the country descends into a bloody mess. But then, Othello can equally be seen as doing so, creating a sea of blood surrounding the central murder - the symbolic smothering of Desdemona, whose husband is deaf to her voice. The point is, you don't need the prop. The theatre is essentially a place of artifice, as someone much more knowledgeable than me says, and it is not realistic. Yet if we can believe that the same basic set is several different castles, or in different countries, if we can accept that the same actor can play several roles in the same play, and yet see the characters not the actor, why would we need realistic blood? Lear went one step further with a real rain storm on the 'blasted heath' (yes, I know, that's from Macbeth) which was spectacular, and fun, but fundamentally unneccesary. Maybe that's the answer: you don't need the blood, but sometimes a ketchup-splattered stage is just plain fun.

P.S. On another but related matter, I wrote an article for The Oxford Student earlier this term wondering about the current trend for celebrities taking on Shakespearean roles. I excluded David Tennant and Patrick Stewart because they were well-known Shakespearean actors before they became famous on television, but did mention Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear and Lenny Henry as Othello. Luckily, they both came through, with Lenny Henry in particular proving that he is indeed capable of acting his socks off. Pete Postlethwaite was slightly hampered by a production that only worked in places (blood being one of them). However, I have to admit, I'm not going to rush to see Jude Law as Hamlet...

Sunday, 1 March 2009

"The world is broad and wide"

If you've had even half an ear on arts news recently you will know that Lenny Henry has been making his Shakespearean debut as Othello at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. What you may not have known is that he is doing so under the auspices of a company called Northern Broadsides, whose USP is the just that - they perform Shakespeare's plays, and occasionally those of other people, in broad northern accents. This is not just regionalism. It makes more sense than that. The poet Jackie Kay talking about this production for Front Row, the Radio 4 arts programme, was most taken not by the transformation of Henry from comedian to tragic hero, but by the sheer accessibility of Shakespeare when uttered with a northern twang.

I could at this point attempt a long and linguistic explanation of how the vowels of the northern accent are phonologically closer to those of the sixteenth century and how the Great Vowel Shift created a problem for us, but frankly it would all be rubbish. I suspect that it has more to do with the cadences of the accent, and also that the stressed syllables of Shakespeare's lines are closer to the natural stresses of the north than they are to the south, or rather, to RP, which is what Shakespeare tends to be performed in. With the exception of the comedic characters of course. They get regional accents because regional accents are 'funny'.

I've been to see quite a few Northern Broadsides productions since we first saw them in my teens. They're always excellent productions, clear and mostly quite traditional. The Wars of the Roses plays make much more sense done in Lancastrian and Yorkshire accents... it's easier to tell who's siding with who. Pity the two middle aged ladies on the row in front of me during Richard III (my first Broadside); one turned to the other in the interval and said, without a trace of irony, in the most posh accent you can imagine "It's very good, but I do wish they'd speak properly. I can't understand a word they're saying." I think she'd missed the point.

So if you get the chance, go see Othello. It's a very good production, with almost nothing out of place. And Iago was BRILLIANT....

Sunday, 1 February 2009

How many have you read?

During January The Guardian published a series of booklets under the title 'One thousand books to read before you die'. The idea, explained in this introduction is that if you read one book every four weeks, beginning when you're 8, and finishing aged 85, you'll manage to pack in a whopping 1,000 novels (providing you don't read any twice!). The definitive list can be found here.

Well, this of course presented something of a challenge: I am nothing if not list-oriented. So, combing through, I came up with a grand total of 126/ 1000. Which is not too bad (especially if you consider that some of these 'individuals' were Terry Pratchett's Discworld series (circa 30 books); the Narnia books (7) and the Lord of the Rings (3). So really, that's 163/1037. But who's counting?

The more worrying thing was that many of those hundred books were ones that I could remember only vaguely, or knew I hadn't liked that much. Some of the ones I hadn't read were ones I have made conscious decisions not to. The Guardian sensibly didn't stick to the classics - there was an astonishing range of books represented, although I was surprised not to see a section of children's fiction - especially in a list we're supposed to start on at age 8. Which is where putting my achievement into context comes in: twenty years at 13 books a year, and I should have read at least 260 off the list. Aargh - I only have another sixty years to read them all. Luckily, as you will have read below, I reckon I pack in a few more than one every four weeks. Although possibly not off this list.

Sunday, 4 January 2009


A typo in an email was all it took to rechristen the first month of the year: Ja-n-uary becomes Ja-m-uary, and there will be jam related fun for all. So, wondering what exciting jam related activities I could undertake this month, apart from making and eating the stuff, I googled 'jam related activities'... An amazing 271,000 entries popped up. [At this point my mother said, 'you really don't have enough to do. Would you like to make lunch?] Who knew there was so much Jam in the world. There is for example, the minaret at Jam in Thailand. Or jamming with jazz musicians. Or jam as an abbreviation for 'jamboree'. Or 'JAM'NASTICS' which is presumably some form of gym related activity for toddlers. Jamming the printer. Preventing the enemy from jamming your communications (anti-jam, which sounds like it should be something you take away from a picnic, or possibly a brand name for peanut butter).

These are of course homonyms: words which have the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings usually because they come from different origins. Unfortunately the origins of the word jam do not appear to be easy to define. The main guess seems to be that the meaning of jam 'to press together or squeeze tightly' is the original one, which led to the name being applied to crushed fruit. The jazz noun is tenuously suggested to be a metaphor from jam being 'something sweet'.

So a little jam to begin the year. Jam as many jam-related activities as possible into the month. Happy New Year.

Got to go. Have to make lunch :)