“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” (Sir Edward Grey)

Last week commemorated the centenary of the start of World War I, and all year events are taking place to mark the 100 years.  For me, one of the most beautiful and impactful images is the moat of ceramic poppies created by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London.

Tower-of-Poppies-Blood-Flowing

(Image from: http://modernnotion.com/poppies-flow-like-blood-at-tower-of-london-to-commerate-the-fallen-of-wwi/)

When you realise each of those poppies represents a lost life, the scale of the devastation really hits home.

I thought this week I would look at two poems about the First World War, one written at the time, one just a few years ago; both capture the fallout but in very different ways.

Firstly, what I think is one of the greatest poems ever written, Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (1917). You can read the whole poem here. Wilfred Owen sent a copy of this poem home to his mother with a simple note “here is a gas poem”.  It’s a huge understatement; while the poem does describe vividly the effect of a chlorine gas attack on a soldier, Owen use the event to launch an attack of his own, on unthinking jingoism and contemporary British attitudes to The Great War.

He begins by describing the physical state of a group of soldiers:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

[…]

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue;

The total degradation of the soldiers is so vivid in these lines – young men, reduced to a walking death, defeated by the conditions of war if not the bullets.  This somnambulant atmosphere maximises the impact of the second stanza, whereby Owen shifts the focus dramatically, beginning with a shout, signalling the immediacy of a movement from “we” to the “I” that is haunted by the soldier’s death:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

 In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

That pause after “lime…” is just devastating.  He forces the reader to fully consider exactly what it means – the pain, the terror, the torturous reality of this slow death – to be “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…”.

I’m going to quote the final stanza in full, because it is completely shattering, as Owen places the reader directly in the trenches, unable to turn their face away from the horror:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Owen was a hugely learned poet, his writing shows how to use fixed forms (iambic pentameter, sonnet form, rhyme schemes) to create something original and new.  When he breaks the rhythm of the poem so completely in the final line you know he has good reason.  By breaking the rhythm but keeping to the rhyme scheme, the mori/death of the soldiers, and death of the poem, seems simultaneously shocking, yet inevitable. His anger at the glorification of war is palpable, the poem’s power undiminished by the passing of time.

Secondly, The Last Post by Carol Ann Duffy (2009), which I won’t go into with nearly such detail in case you’re starting to feel drunk with fatigue as you limp on through this blog post. This was written to commemorate the deaths of the last surviving British World War I veterans, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham.  You can read the whole poem here, or if you prefer here is the very talented (and beautiful, damn her) Vicky McClure reading it:

It shows the lasting impact of Owen’s poem that ninety years later, Duffy frames her own poem around it. Within this poetic legacy, she simultaneously shows how war poetry cannot offer false hope, but it can offer solace:

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin

that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud …

but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood

run upwards from the slime into its wounds;

see lines and lines of British boys rewind

back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home -

This is such a twenty-first century image, one Owen could never have used.  We are so used to seeing film spool backwards, the dead springing back to life in front of our eyes:

Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.

You walk away.

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)

like all your mates do too -

Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert -

and light a cigarette.

There’s coffee in the square,

warm French bread

and all those thousands dead

are shaking dried mud from their hair

and queuing up for home.

This premise captures how our knowledge of war is for most, gained through images rather than experience. At the same time, the use of personal names, the knowledge that these images as they run backwards are false, captures the desperation of real lives – family members and loved ones – irrevocably lost.

Like Owen, Duffy uses the impact of a short final line to dramatise fully the message of the poetry:

If poetry could truly tell it backwards,

then it would.

To end, a bit of light relief to help you recover and a reminder that not everyone likes war poetry, from Blackadder Goes Forth which managed to satirise the absurdities of war while driving home the immense human tragedy of it all.  Here’s a quote from the inimitable Lord Flashhart (Rik Mayall):

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“Just because I can give multiple orgasms to the furniture just by sitting on it doesn’t mean I’m not sick of this damn war.  The blood…the noise…the endless poetry”

“Hot in the city, hot in the city tonight” (Billy Idol)

It’s been a peculiar time in old London town recently.  The temperatures haven’t been excessively high, but the heat has been sooooooo oppressive.  Everyone’s in a constant state of exhaustion, muttering on about how they feel vaguely ill but don’t know why.  My colleague and I share an office that is 2mx3m max, and we have 4 fans blasting all day (what’s that you say? Air-con?  How you jest, sir!  This is Britain, we don’t plan for weather conditions in advance…) yet we still spend our time looking like this:

hot

Then I travel home with psychotic commuters, too fatigued to reach their usual levels aggression, but absolutely furious at sharing sweltering carriages filled to capacity.  This being London, none of this is expressed verbally, we just look like this:

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So this week I thought I’d look at novels set around summer/heat, if only because it gives me the opportunity to quote Sir William of Idol (a life-long love) at the beginning.  Firstly, the obvious choice of Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press, 2013).  The drought of 1976, (laughably short-lived for those who live in countries with serious drought conditions) has passed into legend in the UK:

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(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/may/17/water.ethicalliving)

This time is the setting for O’Farrell’s study of a family on the brink of total disintegration.

“Strange weather brings out strange behaviour. As a Bunsen burner applied to a crucible will bring about an exchange of electrons, the division of some compounds and the unification of others, so a heatwave will act upon people. It lays them bare, wears down their guard. They start behaving not unusually but unguardedly. They act not so much out of character but deep within it.”

Robert Riordan goes out to buy a newspaper and doesn’t return.  His disappearance calls his three grown-up children home to support their erratic, stubborn mother Gretta.  Michael Francis’ marriage is falling apart, as is his sister Monica’s.  Their younger sister Aoife returns from New York where she has been trying to build a new life, but like her siblings she finds the past still has power, its grip tightening the more you struggle against it.

“The house is full of ghosts for Gretta. If she looks quickly into the garden, she is sure she can see the ribcage of the old wooden climbing frame that Michael Francis fell off and broke his front tooth.  She could go downstairs now and see the pegs in the hall full of school satchels, gym bags […] The air, for Gretta, still rings with their cries, their squabbles, their triumphs, their small griefs. She cannot believe that time of life is over.  For her, it is still happening and will happen forever.  The very bricks, mortar and plaster of this house are saturated with the lives of her three children. She cannot believe they have gone. And that they are back.”

This is O’Farrell’s great strength: she captures and expresses the meaning of ordinary lives with such insight and sensitivity.  She exposes the dramas going on behind the front door of a London terrace house and shows just how extraordinary the everyday can be.  In Instructions for a Heatwave, the family members are fully realised as individuals, and how they interact and form a unit is entirely believable.  They are as flawed and infuriating, as loveable and loving as families generally are. O’Farrell is a hugely gifted writer, able to make the commonplace compelling. I highly recommend Instructions for a Heatwave, as I do all her novels.

Secondly, the wonderfully titled Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma by Kerry Hudson (Vintage 2012). OK, so I’m cheating.  This book is nothing to do with summer, but it has ice-cream in the title so I’ve decided the fit is good enough. I began reading this novel with some trepidation; as the narrator is born into a fug of cigarette smoke and swearing,  I wondered if this was going to be a case of class tourism – let’s all laugh at/feel smugly superior to/be shocked by those on the breadline and their crazy, foul-mouthed, substance-abusing ways.   However, my concerns were ill-founded, as what emerges is a finely observed portrait of Janie, her relationship with Ma, and their endurance of poverty, domestic violence, and loss.  If this sounds bleak, it isn’t, because Janie just tells it like it is, without sentimentality, and at times this includes pitch-black humour.  For example, as they make their escape after Ma has been beaten up by the titular Tony yet again:

“ ‘Frankie, do yeh think I could tell people this is a nose job?’

He turned his head. ‘Not with the nose on you, sis. Sorry, but not a chance.’”

But Hudson doesn’t let the humour obscure the prices the characters pay for their life decisions:

“That first promise of silence shattered inside of me like the twist of a kaleidoscope; to be joined by so many more jagged secrets, pushed into a little body for safe keeping until they threatened to cut their way out”

Janie eventually begins to glimpse a way out of the cycle, using the stubbornness she has inherited from Ma to refuse to repeat family mistakes, or settle for what is expected for her:

 “When I opened the books, and I could open as many as I liked because it cost us nothing, the pictures lay on my eyes like oil on water and the dancing letters settled on my tongue with the smell and taste of black jack sweeties. While Ma bit at her lips, ripped at her cuticles and read old magazines, I was learning how stories could make me feel safe.”

Hudson has something meaningful to say, about how members of society can be demonised and demoralised by the total lack of wider concern for their lives, but ultimately what makes this book so affecting is the brilliant characterisation, whereby you’re left totally rooting for the:

“Ryan women, with filthy tempers, filthy mouths and big bruised muscles for hearts.”

Kerry Hudson blogs on WordPress here.

To end, it has to be Billy, offering a masterclass in lip-curling:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” (W. C. Fields)

For those of you that have put up with my posts over the last few months where I’ve banged on and on and on about finals, I promise this is the last time I’ll mention them.  I’ve received my results and I feel like this:

kerm

Hooray! So I thought this week I’d look at times when authors may have felt a similar way: two debut prize-winning novels.

Firstly, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press, 2013) which won the Goldsmiths Prize last year, and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliot Prize, both this year.  If you have any interest in books, you’d have to have been living under a rock not to have heard of this novel.  Aside from all the breathless reviews, I’ve seen buses trundling along with huge posters commanding us to “Read it and be changed” (from Eleanor Catton’s review). Written in about 6 months when the author was 27, she struggled to find a publisher due to its inventive style and uncompromising subject matter.  She shoved it in a drawer, but 10 years later sent it to a small independent publisher.  Galley Beggar Press published the novel, and plaudits galore followed. I hope this signals a less conservative approach by publishers, but I’m sceptical…  Still, at least as far as AGIAHFT goes, they got there in the end (Faber and Faber have partnered with Galley Beggar Press to publish it on a much wider scale).

McBride is a huge fan of Joyce, and the novel is written as a stream of consciousness.  However, while most people find Ulysses unreadable, AGIAHFT is only 200 pages long, and much more approachable.  It is, however, a tough read, both in style and content.  It details the narrator’s relationship with her brother, who is partly disabled from an operation on his brain as a child.

“I sneak. I snuck. I listened at the door. I heard them. I pondered you should send him to a special school.  Those marks aren’t fit for a boy that age.  Oh such clucking and glucking. Snob and preen herself. I hear my two are off to the convent.  Not a ladder in their tights or a pain in their heart. Such brilliance.  Unearthly. I snoot them. Aunt and uncle. Chintz for brains I hiss and think.  Listening listening.

Life is hard, and although her brother’s scars are visible to all, the narrator has scars of her own.  The stream of consciousness gives her experience an immediacy, unmediated by considered use of language, which places the reader right alongside her, and that is not an easy place to be.  She decides to use sex to get her classmates to leave her brother alone; she is raped by an uncle; she has a fractured relationship with her mother; and through it all is her tender but ambivalent relationship with her brother.

We were moving off now. From each other. As cannot be. Helped.  I didn’t help it from that time on.  You know. All that. When you said sit with me on the school bus. I said no.  That inside world had caught alight and what I wanted.  To be left alone.  To look at it.  To swing the torch into every corner of what he’d we’d done….Who are you?  You and me were never this. This boy and girl that do not speak. But somehow I’ve left you behind and you’re just looking on.”

AGIAHFT is as unique and extraordinary as all the hype would have you believe.

Secondly, Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (Faber & Faber, 2003) which won the Booker, the Whitbread First Novel Award and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award for Comic Writing, all in 2003. Let’s get my wholly unoriginal but unavoidable observation out of the way first: this novel really reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye.  High praise indeed. Vernon Little is a teenager disgusted by the hypocrisy of the society he sees around him “I sense a learning: that much dumber people than you end up in charge”. He is desperately looking for a place to belong, but it’s not the barbeque sauce capital of Texas where he lives. His best friend Jesus has shot dead their classmates and taken his own life. Vernon is left to take the blame, as the society of the small town look for answers without listening to anything Vernon has to say.

His overbearing mother and her friends are all fat and obsessed with diets, “Leona’s an almost pretty blonde with a honeysuckle voice you just know got it’s polish from rubbing on her last husband’s wallet.”; his psychologist is corrupt and abusive “the shrink’s building sits way out of town; a bubble of clinical smells in the dust.  A receptionist with spiky teeth and a voicebox made from bees trapped in tracing paper, sits behind a desk”; there’s a manipulative journalist unconcerned with truth, setting himself up as puppet-master.  Vernon God Little is scathing in its treatment of contemporary society: its focus on the easily discarded, the scandal-mongering and superficiality of the media, the ineptitude of those in power to exercise it with any integrity.  All this is bound up with a great deal of humour and truly inventive use of language.  As I hope the quotes so far demonstrate, the images throughout the novel are startling and evocative. Pierre uses the adolescence of his narrator to demonstrate how versatile language can be and how it can be reformed for individual expression.  One of my favourite lines was this:

“I get waves of sadness, not for me but for them, all mangled and devastated. I’d give anything for them to be vastated again.”

Funny, sad, original and thought-provoking: the entire novel of Vernon God Little held in a single sentence.

I know I said I wouldn’t mention finals again, but permit me, if you will, just one final milking of it:

dink

Happy weekend everyone!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #49)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The great thing about this reading challenge, and the very reason I set myself to do it, is that it means I read books I wouldn’t have normally. Usually this is because I hadn’t heard of them, but in the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, it was because I thought I didn’t like Agatha Christie. I spent a summer when I was about 14 reading a Poirot omnibus, and I thought it was poorly written, with thin plots, shallow characterisation and an annoying central protagonist (I believe Christie shared this opinion of Poirot!) Despite a general love of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I haven’t picked up a Christie since. So I owe Le Monde (and the attractive bookseller who assured me it was the best of the Poirot novels – how I miss you, Blackwells) a great deal of thanks, because I really enjoyed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

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(Image from: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/249316529344895760/)

The story is narrated by Dr James Sheppard, the village GP who lives with his nosy sister, the character of whom was a prototype of Miss Marple.

“Our village. King’s Abbot, is, I imagine, very much like any other village. Our big town is Cranchester, nine miles away. We have a large railway station, a small post office, and two rival ‘General Stores.’ Able-bodied men are apt to leave the place early in life, but we are rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers. Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word, ‘gossip.’”

Within this inter-war bucolic tranquility, Sheppard is called to the suicide of Mrs Ferrars, a wealthy widow who was engaged to the eponymous victim. She sent Ackroyd a letter explaining she was being blackmailed over the poisoning of her first husband, but Ackroyd is murdered before he finds out who the blackmailer was. Enter a certain Belgian detective to solve the crime. He is Sheppard’s new neighbour, and they meet when Poirot hurls a vegetable marrow over the garden fence:

“’I demand of you a thousand pardons, monsieur. I am without defence. For some months now I cultivate the marrows. This morning suddenly I enrage myself with these marrows. I send them to promenade themselves – alas! not only mentally but physically. I seize the biggest. I hurl him over the wall. Monsieur, I am ashamed. I prostrate myself.’

Before such profuse apologies, my anger was forced to melt. After all, the wretched vegetable hadn’t hit me. But I sincerely hoped that throwing large vegetables over walls was not our new friend’s hobby.”

From this unpromising beginning, the two team up to catch the murderer. It’s difficult to say any more without spoilers, but I thought the novel was good fun (as the marrow scene shows), well-paced (only 235 pages in my edition) and confidently knowing:

“’The essence of a detective story,’ I said, ‘is to have a rare poison – if possible something from South America, that nobody has ever heard of- something that one obscure tribe … use to poison their arrows with. Death is instantaneous, and Western science is powerless to detect it.Is that the kind of thing you mean?’

‘Yes. Is there really such a thing?’

I shook my head regretfully.”

Amongst this levity however, there is a dark undertone – someone has been murdered, after all. And although Christie’s novels are not brutal and bloody (this was published in 1926) she does not let reader forget the inhumanity people are capable of displaying toward each other. The ending of the novel was really quite dark, and I thought it all rather wonderful.

One of Christie’s great achievements in the novel is how she distinctive she makes the voice of Poirot; it captures his unique personality perfectly. Here, David Suchet, who has filmed all the Poirot novels for television, explains how he achieves Poirot’s voice:

“True friends stab you in the front.” (Oscar Wilde)

This week’s post is about friendship, as  I’ve returned home from uni and had a great time catching up with friends I haven’t seen for a while.  When I was thinking of title quotes for this theme, the phrase that immediately sprang to mind was too long.  However, it’s lovely, so here it is:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
 (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)

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(Image from http://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-blogs/the-artists-magazine-blog/pooh-and-piglet-illustration-auctioned-for-194000)

If that doesn’t make you go “aww..” you are a cold, cold person.

Firstly, Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, my copy Penguin 2001 trans. Carol Brown Janeway).  Embers is a deceptively simple novel, set over one evening, running to only 250 pages in my edition.   An elderly general lives in a castle, in melancholy stasis:

“The castle was a closed world…it also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses”

He prepares for a supper with his childhood friend, Konrad, who he hasn’t seen in 41 years.  Over the course of the evening, the betrayal that tore them apart will be voiced and answers sought.  Within this simple framework Marai explores the complexity of human relationships, with great delicacy:

“Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all emotions that will last a lifetime”

“Their friendship, fragile and complex in the way of all significant relationships between people”

With a lesser writer the novel would be heavy-handed, clichéd, sentimental.  But Marai avoids these pitfalls by refusing to make things – feelings, events, motivations – simple or captured in reductive explanations.

 “The magical time of childhood was over, and two grown men stood there in their place, enmeshed in a complicated and enigmatic relationship commonly covered by the word ‘friendship’”

I can’t really say much more without giving away spoilers, but Embers is a beautifully written, intelligent book about the complications of the loves we have in our lives.  Marai never wastes a single word. I highly recommend it.

Secondly, Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (4th Estate, 2005). Danny is living in London, doing a job he hates to pay for a flat he’s ambivalent about.  He has physically moved away from Northern Ireland, but his childhood follows him in the form of his oldest friend:

“Geordie Wilson was standing on the step.  His small frame was silhouetted against the London evening sky.  He looked charred, a little cinder of a man […] He could have been Death’s apprentice.”

Geordie’s in trouble, and seeks refuge with Danny. Their lives easily become as intertwined as when they were kids, despite the years apart, and as they infuriate each other they never really consider leaving the other one to cope alone. The notion of loyalty as a choice, and yet one that is rarely questioned, is given a further resonance by the fact that Danny and Geordie grew up through the Troubles.  Now both have left Belfast, but Utterly Monkey queries how much we ever leave our childhoods behind, and how feelings can remain inexplicable but powerful motivators for the action we take.

It’s a touching story, and I actually felt the over-arching plot was unnecessary, the carefully drawn characters would be enough to carry the story along.  However, this isn’t to suggest the plot is clumsy, and Laird uses his considerable skill as a poet to write effective prose, finding surprising and evocative images in the everyday:

“Outside the pub a tattered newspaper was lying against the kerb and the wind was freeing it sheet by sheet.  Some pages blew about restlessly further up the pavement.  One had managed to wrap itself around a lamppost and was flapping gently like a drunkard trying to hail a taxi.”

Laird is also funny (“He was an East Londoner, and appeared to suffer from the East London disorder of considering accidental eye contact an act of overt aggression.”) and this stops a tale that could be full of bitterness and regret from ever becoming recriminatory.  In fact, it makes it more realistic – there are friends who drive you mad, who make you wonder why the friendship continues, but the ties that bind somehow endure and stop life becoming too predictable.

To end, the trailer for one of my favourite films, The Station Agent (2003), which charts the beginnings of friendship between 3 people.  Peter Dinklage is now uber-famous as Tyrion Lannister, but here he is many years before, giving a very different, equally wonderful performance:

Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #12)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

I have to start a post about a work by Samuel Beckett with a picture of the author, as he has the most incredible face:

Samuel Beckett 1976

(Image from: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/jun/09/samuel-beckett-manuscript-first-novel-on-display )

Who wouldn’t want to read a work written by that face?  Well, as it turns out, a lot of people.  I remember years ago listening to radio phone in programme that was nothing to do with Waiting for Godot, yet somehow it came into the conversation, and it seemed that every listener, and the DJ,  had been tortured with the text by their English teachers.  They all hated it.  And yet Le Monde’s readers have voted it the 12th greatest book of the century. It’s also remained a perennial favourite on the stage, a recent production with real-life friends Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart was an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic:

I think Godot is just one of those plays that divides people.  It is baffling, incomprehensible, hugely funny and relentlessly serious, tragic, absurd and profound.  It features two rough sleepers, Vladimir and Estragon.  The stage is almost bare, the only set being a tree and a mound.  This is the only scene in both acts.  As the characters wait for Godot, they have conversations that are oblique, filled with non-sequiturs, verge on nonsense, and yet address issues about existence, human nature, the meaning of it all.  Famously, very little happens, Godot never arrives. Vivian Mercier, theatre critic for the Irish Times in the 1950s, summed it up: “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” This is theatre at its most basic and its most complex, its most theatrical and its determinedly least dramatic.

Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.

He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again.

As before.

Enter Vladimir.

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.

VLADIMIR: (advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart). I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle. (He broods, musing on the struggle. Turning to Estragon.) So there you are again.

ESTRAGON: Am I?

VLADIMIR: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.

ESTRAGON: Me too.

I think this is why it’s so beloved of English teachers and potentially so despised by students.  It can simultaneously seem to contain everything, and nothing.  Try to pin it down and it will slip away from you.  This is why there are so many interpretations as to its meaning.  When I discussed Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello (#53) I suggested that if you liked it, you might like Godot.  There are many similarities, mainly the absurdist quality, but whereas Six Characters was theatre about theatre, Godot is how theatre as a visual medium can represent the internal, the rarely articulated:

ESTRAGON: Let’s hang ourselves immediately!

VLADIMIR: From a bough? (They go towards the tree.) I wouldn’t trust it.

ESTRAGON: We can always try.

VLADIMIR: Go ahead.

ESTRAGON: After you.

VLADIMIR: No no, you first.

ESTRAGON: Why me?

VLADIMIR: You’re lighter than I am.

ESTRAGON: Just so!

VLADIMIR: I don’t understand.

ESTRAGON: Use your intelligence, can’t you?

Vladimir uses his intelligence.

VLADIMIR: (finally). I remain in the dark.

And this is where the audience remains, literally and figuratively.  If you like your plays plot-driven and tied up neatly at the end, avoid this play at all costs. But if you want to be made to think about questions to which there are no easy answers, and entertained along the way, you might find Waiting for Godot not as torturous as generations of schoolkids have come to believe.

Sadly, Rik Mayall died this week, at the age of 56.  In 1991 he and comedy partner Ade Edmonson took on the roles of Vladimir and Estragon:

10 Most Influential Books – Part 2

This is the second half of a challenge looking at the 10 Most Influential Books in your life. It was started by Leah at The Perks of Being a Bookworm  and I was tagged by Emma over at A Wordless Blogger. Do check out their blogs and the other people taking part, it’s a fascinating challenge!

An Evil Cradling – Brian Keenan

Where to begin explaining this book?  I’m going to sound like a tosser, but I can’t think how else to say it:  this is one of the most moving, deeply profound books I’ve ever read, and it’s about what it is to be human.  I’m sorry to sound so hyperbolic, but it really is that extraordinary.  I wept throughout the whole thing.  Brian Keenan was kidnapped in Beirut and held hostage for just under 5 years, some of it with John McCarthy.  This book is an exploration of what he went through, and it’s just incredible.  It’s not a journalistic, factual account, although Keenan grounds the story in this type of detail.  It is much more a study of a human being in extremis.  If I had to quote from this book I’d never stop, so instead I googled and chose what seemed to be the most popular:

“Hostage is a man hanging by his fingernails over the edge of chaos, feeling his fingers slowly straightening. Hostage is the humiliating stripping away of every sense and fibre of body and mind and spirit that make us what we are. Hostage is a mutant creation filled with fear, self-loathing, guilt and death-wishing. But he is a man, a rare, unique and beautiful creation of which these things are no part.”

The Keenan/McCarthy story was filmed as Blind Flight.  The film isn’t a patch on An Evil Cradling, but it features superb performances from Ian Hart as Brian Keenan and Linus Roache as John McCarthy:

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler – Gene Kemp

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(Image from: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/k/gene-kemp/turbulent-term-of-tyke-tiler.htm)

When I was seven, I’d read all the books in our classroom, and so my teacher sent me to another class to borrow books from there.  I was intimidated, the kids in that class were bigger than me, and the teacher was strict.  She was also kind and fair, and did she know her children’s literature.  She gave me loads of great books to read, and used to ask me what I thought about them.  This was one of the first she gave me, and I think it stands out because it was when I started to read children’s books that were written primarily not to teach you to read, but for the joy of reading. It’s aimed at late junior school age, and tells the story of Tyke and Danny, in their final year of Cricklepit School.  Tyke and Danny aren’t exactly naughty, but neither do they fit the teachers’ ideals of how pupils should behave.  It’s a touching story of friendship, following your own beliefs, and not always obeying all the rules. Worthwhile lessons, it seems to me.

 “That child has always appeared to me to be on the brink of wrecking this school, and as far as I can see, has, at last, succeeded.”

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_Garden)

This book followed me throughout childhood.  I had the Ladybird version, and then when I was old enough my mother bought me the full-length original.  As a child I found the story of spoilt Mary Lennox discovering a locked garden and turning it into a paradise again with the help of her friends really magical, but throughout my adult life I’ve noticed this book has a far reaching influence. On a very basic level, I love gardening, and when I picture my perfect garden it’s always walled; my horticultural ideal carried from this novel.  But more than that, I think an interest in Victorian literature (although this book is strictly speaking Edwardian) and the Gothic can be traced back to this book.  Big house, mysterious noises, servants denying all knowledge, death a constant threat, time spent roaming around on moors – sound familiar?  If you want your child to embrace the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Mary Shelley… start them off on The Secret Garden.  But mostly I think this novel influenced my choice of career. I became an occupational therapist.  The Secret Garden features a young boy, Colin, who is depressed, and constantly ill and weak.  He meets his cousin Mary, they work together in the garden (what we in the trade call meaningful occupation) and Colin’s mental health improves alongside his physical health.  So there you go: The Secret Garden is really all about the holistic health benefits of an individually tailored rehab programme.

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” 

The Temple – George Herbert

This collection of poems is a lesson to me to keep an open mind.  It’s resolutely religious, and I am not.  You’d think I’d get nothing out of it, but George Herbert has become one of my favourite poets.  I discovered him in a Renaissance literature class.  We’d just had 2 weeks of John Donne: sexy, naughty, clever, complicated Donne.  Now it was time for George Herbert.  Not sexy, not naughty.  Hugely clever, but written in a very simple style.  I loved his gentle tone, his worry of not being good enough and his search for peace and solace. Herbert showed me that while beliefs are different, a common ground of experience and feeling can always be found.  And maybe he’s sexier than he first appears: my tutor is convinced the penultimate line of this poem is a blow-job joke.  It’s always the quiet ones….

Love III

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexing_the_Cherry)

If I had to recommend a Jeanette Winterson novel, I’d most likely choose Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is probably why I’ve blogged on it in the pastOranges is her most accessible novel, her most famous, and it is brilliantly written.  The Passion I believe to be her best novel.  However, I’ve chosen Sexing the Cherry as more influential on me, as it was my first foray into magic realism (although Jeanette Winterson rejects that term) and opened my eyes to what fiction can do.  If it wasn’t for Sexing the Cherry, maybe I wouldn’t have discovered Angela Carter, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Set mainly in the seventeenth century, it tells the story of Jordan, orphaned and found floating in the Thames, and his companion, Dog Woman, a gross figure in both adjectival senses, as they journey together around London and across time.  Sexing the Cherry challenges notions of outsider status, showing that there are few fixities by which to claim any sort of norm.

“Language always betrays us, tells the truth when we want to lie, and dissolves into formlessness when we would most like to be precise.” 

So there it is, the 10 books that have most influenced me….so far.  Here’s to discovering new influences and making time to revisit the old ones!

I’m not tagging anyone, or I’m tagging everyone, depending on how you look at it.  If you’d like to take part please consider yourself tagged, and don’t forget to refer back to Leah’s blog when you write your post.