Literary Goodies

July 26, 2015

I’m not one to usually go along with all the hype, when a new bestselling book is published, or film is released. (I’m uncomfortable joining in, as part of a mob, I think, and generally make a conscious effort not to be gripped by fads and the sensations surrounding them. Despite this, I was keenly anticipating last week’s release of Harper Lee’s new book ‘Go Set a Watchman’, sequel of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and so bought it a day or two after it came out. I’d tried my best to avoid all reviews of the book before purchasing, so that any secrets and surprises to be sprung would occur as the author intended.

But with ‘Go Set a Watchman’, it was impossible to avoid the news that Atticus Finch, father to Scout and an all round ‘good nut’ in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, has turned out in this new publication, not to be all he was cracked up to be. (Sorry, for the nutty pun!)

Atticus Finch. The ultimate literary hero. A man who is all at once honest, wise, intelligent, knowledgeable, bold, empathetic, genuine, caring, beautiful, successful and (crucially) moral. In other words, everything you want in a hero. Or rather, everything you want in a ‘good’ character, as most heroes, for the sake not just authenticity, but also human interest, must necessarily have some personal weaknesses or frailties to overcome, or endure. But not Atticus. In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, he has not a single flaw. And it is interesting to read ‘Go Set a Watchman’ with that in mind. (I won’t go on about it here, in a bid not to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t yet read it, but I will say I’m very pleased it has finally been published.)

Once, a few years ago, after having read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ I wondered if there was anyone else in literature who could compare with Atticus, in terms of goodness, and  so began compiling a Top 10 list of ‘goodies’ I had encountered in fiction. (Just for fun!)

Joe Granger, the blacksmith in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ was on the list. Brother-in-law (and father figure) to Pip, there can be no doubt he was conceived by Dickens to represent a good man; kind, honest, trusting and loyal to the core, even when horribly wronged. But, I reckoned, he couldn’t quite match up to Atticus, because he certainly has his weaknesses. For one thing, he allows himself to be mistreated, hen-pecked (and possibly even cuckolded) by his wife. He buries his feelings deep within himself and in doing so fails to stand up for himself or for Pip, the child in his care.

But I’m sure when Dickens wrote of Joe, he was trying in every way to come up with the best possible character he could think of. Joe’s repression would have been considered dignified restraint to Dickens’ original, Victorian audience, and therefore a virtue. And this raises a problem. What standards are we to use when we judge characters (fictional or otherwise) from a bygone era? Are we to judge them by today’s standards? Or do we need to consider them according to the moralities and social norms of the age in which they belong? In the case of Joe, he was a common, uneducated blacksmith in Victorian England. Could he have behaved any better?

There is another problem we encounter when judging the actions of fictional characters, especially when what we learn about them is told to us in first person narratives, such as ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Although the protagonists do tend to be present whenever anything noteworthy occurs, there are still necessarily lots of interactions between the characters that the narrator would not have seen. Especially when the narrator is recounting their childhood memories. We can’t know, for instance, what Joe says to his wife when Pip is out of earshot. He could have been discretely supportive (or rampantly sadistic)m but we can’t know for sure.

The creation of a top ten list of ‘good’ people, raises the much more juicy and more complex question of who are the best (or worst) literary antiheroes? The question is more complex because, to be wicked, a person must also possess a range of ‘positive’ qualities, strengths or charms, which give them the power to behave immorally. And complex too because we must ask what motivates a person in the first place to act reprehensibly.

There are also far more bad (or flawed) characters in literature than good. Can we say that one is worse than any of the others? Also, what about characters who change their ways in the end or have been misunderstood the whole way through. At what point of their lives are we to judge them? If they live a short life, is that not so bad? And what events or genetic coding has shaped their characters? And again, can someone who acts in cruelly in a Shakespeare play, be judged by the same criterion we would use for a contemporary character?

Nice to live in a world of Atticuses and Joes, but much more intriguing if you throw in a Perchorin (from A Hero of Our Time), or a de Valmont (from Les Liaisons dangereuses).

Stepping Out

November 8, 2012

I begin this article with an extract from Laurie Lee’s ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’, perhaps my favourite book. He is telling of his journey on foot from his hometown of Slad (near Stroud) to Southampton, which took him a week:

‘I was lucky, I know, to have been setting out at that time, in a landscape not yet bulldozed for speed. Many of the old roads still followed their original tracks, drawn by packhorse or lumbering cartwheel, hugging the curve of a valley or yielding to a promontory like the wandering line of a stream. It was not, after all, so very long ago, but no one could make that journey today. Most of the old roads have gone, and the motor car, since then, has begun to cut the landscape to pieces, through which the hunched-up traveller races at gutter height, seeing less than a dog in a ditch…’

Laurie Lee (1914–1997), writing in 1969


Every generation, when its members reach a certain age, looks nostalgically at the social, technological and environmental changes that have occurred since its younger years, and then tells the generations that follow of all the things they will never experience. These experiences are often hardships, sometimes pleasures, sometimes simply recollections of the way things used to be, but the pace of change is such that every few years the commonplace becomes novel, before it disappears or transforms into something else, and a new generation can claim to be the ‘last’ to experience a certain something that has subsequently altered forever. For Laurie Lee, as he explains in the extact reproduced above, it was the pleasure of journeying along old roads before the landscape was transformed by the arrival of the motorway. For thousands of years our ancestors had ambled along those tracks, and we can now only imagine what it was like to travel along old English roads sans tarmac, sans motor fumes, sans the droll tones of a jet engine high above.

In his 1887 novel The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy describes the countryside as literally teaming with wildlife. Birds are almost implausibly abundant; every rooftop is a perch; every bough is a place to roost (or ‘a-croupy’ as they say in the book). And his descriptions, written before motorised transport arrived to decimate our wild bird population, are probably not inaccurate representations of what it was like in rural England at the time. The village in which my Grandmother lives is – like Hardy’s fictional setting – completely enveloped by a forest, and on fine spring mornings the dawn chorus is so loud and splendourous, one can only wonder at how intense the experience would’ve been in 1887.

For my generation, there are a few things that we were the ‘last’ to do. One of them is I think, is this; If you met someone in those days, in a world devoid of mobile technology and social-networking, you’d have to get their telephone number, and then (after waiting an obligatory three days), if you were determined enough, you’d call them at their parents’ house. A family member would answer, and you’d say “Is (so-and-so) there?“. … Sometimes, if the dad answered, they might want to ‘have a chat’. For anyone born before, say, 1985 this is unremarkable, but for teenagers today, I assume the idea of calling up and speaking to someone else’s parents must be utterly unthinkable. It was pretty excruciating back then too.

Another thing that my generation was the ‘last’ to experience is ‘playing out’, by which I mean, as children, pretty much everyone was allowed (or even required) to spend all of their free time outside, riding bicycles, playing games and exploring, until it got dark. Now, it’s very different. Just like the birds in Thomas Hardy’s novel, children are not so much seen or heard in our streets. And it is more dangerous than it was, because motorists don’t now expect to find children in the middle of the road. But it’s a shame. Most streets in English towns and cities were built many years before the invention of the motor car, and while they have been adapted to accomodate cars, I think motorists often forget that the pedestrian actually has right of way. (Great Britain is one of the few developed countries that has no such thing as jaywalking in the statute book; the Highway Code states that pedestrians crossing the road at unmarked junctions should always recieve priority, as a matter of common law.) I make a point of stepping out whenever I can.

Beefy Policemen

March 15, 2012

Ha! I was right:

British police officers must prove their fitness in annual tests or have their pay docked after a survey found that 53 percent were overweight and one in 100 was morbidly obese, a review concluded on Thursday.

Read more:

The Emerald City

January 14, 2012

In late 2011 I travelled from New York City to London, and spent the entirety of New Year’s Day jetlagged, and hungover watching a glut of old films with friends. The first film we watched was The Wizard of Oz (1939), a melodramatic wash of technicolor, and in my drowsiness I suddenly realised (or grew convinced) that the story was a very explicit celebration of America (or the American Dream). Perhaps this is a very commonly held theory, but not one I was previously aware of, and it seemed all the more pertinent to me – having just returned from three months trying to make my way there – that the Emerald City of the 1939 film is an unmistakeable New York City.

The journey that Dorothy and her raggedy companions take to the Emerald City (in search of a home, a heart, a brain, the nerve) is reminiscent of the journey that tens of millions of emigrants and refugees have made to America from overseas in the hope of finding a new home, romance, intellectual stimulation, and general betterment (and a huge number of these new arrivals entered America through New York City). This was especially the case when the film was released in 1939, with Europe at war and America a very powerful symbol of democratic (and economic) freedom (and of course ‘green’ is the traditional colour of both Liberty and money).

The characters in Oz mostly achieve the things they want through earning them, rather than being given them, and they never actually need the Wizard – who might represent a politician, or an ad man, or the mainstream media, benevolently pumping hope and fear into the hearts of its citizens. But the Wizard is important in that he inspired the journey in the first place, and in striving to reach him, each character endures great hardship and proves her/himself to be worthy of their desires. And that is the American way.

Just like I pictured it!

Just like I pictured it!: Dorothy and her companions skip towards the big green apple

The Naming of Places

November 25, 2011

“I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,

Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,

I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,”

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Mannahatta


As a child, I lived in a village which included a ‘Rattle Road’, a ‘Gallows Lane’ and a ‘Peelings Lane’. I can still recall as an eleven year old, the dark glee of learning what each name meant, and how they had informed the composition of the village in which I lived. ‘Rattle Road’ was the thoroughfare along which fettered villains would be led to their executions, ‘Gallows Lane’ where they would be hanged, and ‘Peelings Lane’ – an eerie, shadowy ditch-lined road on the outskirts of the village – where their bodies would be slung, and left to rot. I spent a lot of time cycling to those different places, my head filled with the grim consequences of villainy. And I took a new pride in my village.

Nowadays, when a new public place (such as a cul de sac, a residential street or a shopping centre) is constructed, all too often the original (organic) name of that location is disregarded and replaced with something new, which relates only superficially to the geographical features of the location, while avoiding its historical makeup and the former societal character of the place. The new name is typically a prosaic construction of compounded syllables which communicates a particular vision that the namers of the place wish to promote.

Thus, care homes, university campuses, housing estates and the like are given pseudo-idyllic names like ‘Shinewater’, ‘Sunnydale’ and ‘Parkside’, in an attempt to make them sound fresh and clean and friendly and welcoming. In fact it is a deliberate attempt to disconnect the new place from its location. (Think of the shopping centres ‘Bluewater’ and ‘Lakeside’.) For this reason, the new place will often possess a rootlessly temporary air; a certain detachment from the intricate patten of words (or toponyms) which surround it, and from the people living there.

In a place like New York City – in which Native American words sit alongside (and within) Dutch, French, English, Italian, Polish toponyms and acronyms (like Tribeca – ‘Triangle below Canal Street’) and alongside numbers and single letters – this lingustic mix is exciting and fluid and (to paraphrase Walt Whitman) the perfect way to anatomize the city.

While it may appear unfair to compare – in terms of cultural richness – areas of suburban England to New York City, I don’t believe that any part of the United Kingdom is not potentially rich, expressive, lyrical, unusual, if only the people naming the places were to explore the complexities of its geographical and dialectical pasts and presents. Architectural features, historical connections and the popular issues of the day might also be considered as starting points for a name, as might ‘newisms’ introduced by immigrant communities.

I like the way you can have tautological place names (names that repeat themselves), like ‘Torpenhow Hill’ in Cumbria which is supposedly ‘Hill-hill-hill Hill’ in four languages (Old English, Welsh, Danish and Modern English respectively). The name encapsulates the numerous histories and cultures which have shaped the place.

I’m not sure if it’s worse or not when a place is named (or renamed) for commercial reasons, as with the recent trend of naming football stadiums after global brands (for instance Newcastle United’s ‘St James’ Park’ becoming the ‘Sports Direct Arena’ in November 2011). Ugly as it is, however, I don’t think this trend is enduring. I am sure that the irrepressible force of language – that is people calling places by their commonsense names – will outlast the superficiality of commercial and insincere topographical choices. In the end, people generally say what they see.

Old Flappers

November 14, 2011

I have ever been fascinated by the generation born around 1900; the people who ‘grew up’ during the First World War and were young adults in the 1920s. When I was a child (in the 1980s), these were the very oldest people you could ever hope to meet, and I was able to meet many.

The men I met were mostly Chelsea Pensioners, veterans of the First World War. Each year, a troupe of them in red three-quarter-length coats and small-peaked chapeaux, would arrive at my grandparents’ retirement village in Surrey, to watch the annual amateur dramatics. They would enter the hall, some with sticks, others on wheels of soft rubber grey, their temples speckled, their lips often wet, and pick or roll their ways from a side-door, across the lowly-lit assembly hall, to the front-row seats reserved for them. Their medals hanging from old loops of deck-chair silk, clinking in the dark. They were always treated with a certain reverence by the younger generations. And after the performance I would be taken to speak with them, like meeting the Queen. Over the years their numbers decreased, and decreased, until (probably around 1990) there were none.

The ladies I met were mostly widows or spinsters. They often didn’t have their hair permed, like the grandmas I knew. They wore it long, or in buns. There was in them all at once an elegant respectability and yet – I’m sure I detected it then – a certain lonely wildness. Whether this wildness came from their senility, or their experiences of being young in the 20s, I am unsure.

Two of these ladies in particular – Ann and Winifred – lived opposite us. They had lived together, I think, all their adult lives. We were made to visit in our ‘best’ (or ‘itchiest’) clothes, and airless room with a three-bar fire, we would be encouraged to sift through the old velvet-lined trinket boxes and the rusty chocolate tins which contained the truths of their lives. Foreign boxes of old objects, both repulsive and alluring. Sometimes Ann would drive us in her great saloon car to the village hall to see a show.

This generation – the post-Edwardians? – those that entered adulthood at the end of the First World War, are no longer of this world, but they lived in interesting times. A time of fast cars, jazz, futurism. How incredibly exciting. And I’m pleased to have known some of them for myself.

The above text has been partially reworked from a memoir I started to write in 2008. And from conversations and thoughts I have had in the past. I was inspired to include it as an entry on this blog after visiting Brooklyn Museum and seeing the show Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties (28 October 2011 – 29 January 2012).

New York

November 14, 2011

Brighton / New York City

I have switched the leafy streets of Brighton for those of New York.

You Really Got A Hold On Me

July 24, 2011

Lennon and Harrison

A favourite song of mine is ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ – written by Smoky Robinson and recorded by the Beatles in 1963.

I particularly like the vocal arrangement of the Beatles version, which sees John Lennon singing the (high) lead part, and George Harrison singing the (lower) harmony, while Paul McCartney provides only backing vocals. Both Lennon and Harrison attack the song with gusto, and in certain live recordings* Harrison’s voice is so prominent that the song virtually becomes a Lennon / Harrison duet, making it something of a rarity among Beatles’ recordings. Without the sweetening influence of McCartney’s highly melodic voice, ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ possesses a ‘bite’ that many of their other tracks from the time do not have.

Three years later The Beatles recorded Lennon’s most acidic song to date ‘She Said She Said’, which is sung entirely by Lennon, until the fade out, when Harrison echos Lennon’s lines. McCartney does not feature as a vocalist. This is considered ‘odd’ by Beatles biographer Ian McDonald, but I cannot help think that the decision to have Harrison, rather than McCartney as the backing singer, was an attempt by the group to capture in vocal tone, the aggressively satirical content of the lyric.

It is interesting to note that during the ill-fated Let it Be sessions, while the band waited with barely disguised insouciance to record McCartney’s ‘The Long And Winding Road’, Harrison suddenly plays the opening riff of ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ and the band slips into a rather ragged rendition of the track. As this is Lennon and Harrison’s song (and considering the tense environment of the Let It Be project), I read this as a sort of ‘bugger off’ to Paul McCartney.

* ie Stockholm, October 1963, which features on Anthology 1.

**’Revolution In The Head’

Shakespeare’s starts

July 20, 2010

I was ever baffled at Shakespeare’s unwillingness to begin his theatrical works with punchy – attention grabbing – opening lines, or scenes. Why – I would think to myself – must all his plays start with minor characters shuffling about, making puns, and labouriously setting the scene? I think particularly of ‘Hamlet’, which begins with the guardsmen Barnardo and Francisco on the battlements, and ‘Romeo & Juliet’ which starts with Sampson and Gregory in the market square, but the same may be said of (I would suggest) of ‘Macbeth’, ‘King Lear’ and ‘Othello’, all of which fail to introduce the primary characters at the very outset, and begin with dreadfully inconsequential opening lines.* Why – I would think – can’t they get straight to the point?

This was my experience of reading Shakespeare, of watching the films, and seeing the plays in conventional theatres. Not until I ventured to Shakespeare’s Globe did it become clear – as the crowd ponderously milled into the auditorium – that an inconsequential opening scene is in fact essential when presenting a theatrical work in such conditions. It allows several minutes for the audience to find its place and become fully engrossed, before a main character is introduced, and the story line explored.

This form of audiencecraft was employed by a number of film directors in the twentieth century; most expressly by George Lucas in 1977’s ‘Star Wars’, which commences with the droids ‘C3PO’ and ‘R2D2’, bumbling around a besieged starship as a prelude to the entrance of ‘Darth Vader’. Lucas was evidently aware that his audience of excitable young cinema-goers – like Shakespeare’s – would take some moments to get into the picture.

Lucas’s inspiration did not come directly from Shakespeare, but from his hero Akira Kurisawa. (The storyline of the first ‘Star Wars’ is based on Kurisawa’s 1958 motion picture ‘Hidden Fortress’). Kurisawa himself was a great admirer of Shakespeare, as evident from ‘Throne of Blood’; his 1957 remake of ‘Macbeth’ with the antihero recast as an ambitious Samurai Warrior. Many of Kurisawa’s films – when translated into their Hollywood remakes – retained these kind of opening scenes – ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (a remake of ‘Seven Samurai’) begins in this fashion, with a substantial amount of action occurring before any of the main characters turn up, while ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (a remake of ‘Yojimbo’) has Clint Eastwood in the role as an observer (or audience member), as the action of the opening scene takes place before him.

I can think of only one of Shakespeare’s major plays which begins with the primary character uttering a punchy opening line. This is ‘Richard III’. It might be that (as one of his earliest plays), Richard III had been written before Shakespeare perfected his playwriting skills, and so did not compensate for the audience behavior, or it could be that his audiences were still relatively small when it was written, and therefore did not need to be managed in that way. But I rather suspect there is another reason why this play in particular exists as an exception to the rule. In the 1590s (when ‘Richard III’ was written) the actual ‘Richard III’ had been dead for over a century, yet he continued to be remembered as the most publicly hated figure in all of England (a reputation he would soon relinquish to Guy Fawkes).* His outrageously over-egged caricature – a hunchbacked wheezily half-monster in nobleman’s clothing – would have been instantly recognisable to Shakespeare’s original audience of Elizabethan Londoners. Perhaps as recognised (and as loathed) as ‘Adolf Hitler’ would be by a contemporary audience. As such, he required no introduction. No inconsequential prelude. His mere appearance onstage would have had the crowd howling with derision. The player would  have no doubt hammed it up, goading the audience with pantomimic limps and grimaces before eventually delivering his infamous opening line: “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York…

 *For example, King Lear begins with the Earl of Kent saying to the Earl of Gloucester ‘”I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

**The preface to the original quarto edition sums up his reputation; “The tragedy of Richard III. Containing, His treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his innocent nephews: his tyrannicall vsurpation: with the whole course of his detested life, and most desrued death.

Fritzl in the Mouth

April 14, 2010

Josef Fritzl – family rapist / kidnapper – for all his crimes, whenever I saw him quoted – I always felt he had a curiously poetic way of structuring his sentences. There was something subtly archaic (or perhaps gently rustic) in his phrasing – the words often seemed to be not quite the right way around – and it was possibly this that gave them a poetic quality.

For instance, when asked to respond to the coverage of his crimes in the media – he quoth;

“I am not the beast the media make me to be”

I enjoy the rhythm and the pace of those words when spoken together (in English – I presume the words were originally spoken in the Austrian German dialect). Whether this poeticism was down to his particular choice of phrasing, the sytax of Austrian German (in that area of Lower Austria), or whether it has more to do with the manner of its translation, I cannot say. (And nor do I suppose I will look into the matter much further.)