“People say I have a period face” (Tom Hiddleston)

Judge for yourselves, ladies and gents:

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I would say 1920s myself, although I bet he gives good late-18th century too (dedicated to my friend M, who has never quite recovered from the fact that both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jamie Parker insist on being married to women who aren’t her).

This week I received my dissertation results. It was much sooner than I expected, as frankly, I’m still in recovery from the whole thing. I’d love to claim I’ve learnt loads about ritualistic bloodshed on the late Jacobean stage, but in reality what I’ve learnt is that you should never, ever, never under any circumstances attempt to undertake a full-time MA while also working full-time (even if your results are good 😉 ).

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Now that I have  some spare time the main thing I’ve been doing is… nothing at all. Bliss. I am vegging out to my bursting-at-the-seams digibox and of course, reading for pleasure.  Hence this week I thought I’d look at books that have been adapted for the small screen (sadly neither feature Tom Hiddleston).  I should say from the off that I won’t be looking at the behemoth of literary adaptations which currently dominates popular culture in almost all its forms:

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Sorry ‘bout that.

The BBC normally saves its big literary adaptations for the autumn season, but there were two broadcast over the summer to whet the appetite of us bookish types, which I had to delay watching. Now I have handed in my millstone I’ve finally been able to watch them both (but as this is a book blog I’ll be concentrating on the paper versions).

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Firstly, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. This was adapted into an impressive  (and pretty expensive-looking) seven-part series, featuring two fine actors who I’ll watch in anything, Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel:

It’s fair to say I am not the target audience for this novel.  Magicians, meh. However, the fact that I made it through this close to 800 page tome is a ringing endorsement. Clarke has written a very readable alternative history of England during the Napoleonic wars, whereby Wellington employs magician Jonathan Strange to help him beat Napoleon:

“In the early summer of 1813 Strange again performed a sort of magic the like of which had not had not been done since the days of the Raven King: he moved a river. It happened like this. The war that summer was going well and everything Lord Wellington did was crowned with success. However it so happened that one particular morning in June the French found themselves in a more advantageous position than had been the case for some time. …His lordship was in really excellent spirits that summer and he greeted Strange almost affectionately. ‘Ah Merlin! There you are! Here is our problem! We are on one side of the river and the French are on the other side and it would suit me much better if the positions were reversed.”

Strange of course obliges. Back home, his scholarly mentor Mr Norrell disapproves, thinking English magic belongs in books, to be rarely practiced by himself first and foremost, and secondly by Strange “yet within Mr Norrell’s dry little heart there was [a] lively ambition to bring magic back to England”.

The two men are entirely different – dashing, ironic, friend-of-Byron Strange, and small, anti-social Norrell “the dullest man in Yorkshire”. Of course, they are entirely similar too, and of course they quarrel horribly. While there is war abroad, there are tensions at home, and not all of them between England’s foremost magicians. An evil faery, with the entirely excellent appellation of The Gentleman With Thistle-Down Hair is going round enchanting people to his evil ends:

“’Yet we ought to kill someone,’ said the gentleman, immediately reverting to his former subject. “I have been quite put out of temper this morning and someone ought to die for it. What do you say to the old magician? –Oh, but wait! That would oblige the younger one, which I do not want to do! What about Lady Pole’s husband? He is tall and arrogant and treats you like a servant!’

‘But I am a servant, sir.’

‘Or the King of England! Yes, that is an excellent plan! Let you and I go immediately to the King of England.’”

Will the Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair be stopped? Will Strange and Norrell reconcile? Will the Raven King return to claim his place as Lord of English Magic? The only spoiler you’ll get from me is… England wins the Napoleonic Wars.

I’ve mentioned before that I love Marc Warren as a baddie, and so special mention must be made to his performance in the BBC adaptation as the Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair – another great performance, another great outfit:

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Secondly, The Outcast by Sadie Jones, which was adapted into a two-part drama:

Damn, this was hard-going. Not because of Jones’ writing, I hasten to add, but because the injustice of the treatment towards a nine year-old boy who loses his mother is infuriating, and the hypocrisy that surrounds him is absolutely sickening. Lewis Aldridge grows up in 1950s Surrey, in a village built on things unsaid.  When his sparkling, vivacious, alcoholic mother drowns with Lewis the only witness, he and his father spiral into separate pits of despair, unable to reach out to one another:

“he saw the moment between the not knowing and the knowing, as he woke, and he  recognised it, because it was how he felt on waking too.  He wanted to obliterate it. He wanted to take his son’s head in his hands and crush the feeling from it. He wanted to hold him hard and kiss him and make Lizzie come back to them through loving him badly enough. He wanted to hide his face and never think of it again.”

Jones is very good at this, capturing the messy, conflicting, contradictory emotions housed within one person, behind a still façade. Lewis becomes an expert at this outer calm, learning to bury all that he lacks the words to express:

“He didn’t feel sad anymore, it just went away and he felt hard as anything, hard as a diamond…

‘Lewis? Do come back in. Please.’

What could he do? He went.”

Lewis’ unnatural calm disturbs people; they find him uncomfortable and so they isolate him.  He is unable to join in with the social niceties layered upon the secrets and lies of post-war British society and so this innocent, damaged boy is excluded, while a wife-and-child-beating sadist is welcomed as the powerhouse of village society.  The Outcast is a novel that had me outraged at the injustice of it all, and at the cruelty of the refusal to acknowledge another’s pain “the world had exploded, but Sunday lunch would go ahead as usual.”

Lewis’ behaviour becomes violent as his desperation emerges in uncontrolled outbursts. The locals refuse to see their own complicity in what happens to him, and only Kit Carmichael, a fellow outsider, sees the village and Lewis for what they are. She loves him, but are they both too damaged to find their way to each other?

The Outsider is psychologically acute, well-paced, and unflinching in its portrayal of the damage human beings can do each other:

“It was an odd feeling, a looking-glass feeling, that he had, that all his life he had been on one side of the glass with everybody else on the other and now the glass had broken and the thick, broken pieces were at all of their feet.”

When I was cemented to my chair for 14 hours a day giving myself RSI through poor typing technique in a desperate attempt to meet the dissertation deadline, I would time my short breaks to the length of a Tim Minchin video. They broke the monotony, made me laugh, and stopped a short break spiralling into half a day.  Here he is singing about not being cool which, now my MA is in, is the obvious topic choice for my doctorate as I have a lifetime of research behind me (contains strong language):

“I’m leaving because the weather is too good. I hate London when it’s not raining.” (Groucho Marx)

As a companion piece to my last blog post where I looked at the London Underground in novels, this time I’m looking at alternative portrayals of the London Underground.  Those of you who know the London Underground may feel its alternative enough in itself – I certainly think the experience of using it is most accurately represented by David Shrigley’s map:

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Fantasy is sometimes the best way to capture reality, and certainly the two novels I’m going to look at capture the same  experience as Shrigley’s map. Firstly, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I am soooo late to the party on this one.  Neil Gaiman is a hugely popular writer who is adored by his readers.  I knew he was wise and engaging because I’d watched this:

but I’d never read his novels because I thought I didn’t like fantasy. Neverwhere appealed due to the London setting and now I’m a total convert. I now know what Gaiman’s legions of fans know: that he is a wonderful writer, funny and perceptive, with something to say. Richard Mayhew moves from Scotland to London – a perfectly recogniseable, ordinary London:

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces…a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them and despised them…a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind”

However , when Richard helps a slumped figure on the pavement in front of him, he finds himself in the alternate universe of London Below:

“Understand this: there are two Londons. There’s London Above – that’s where you lived – and then there’s London Below – the Underside – inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world. Now you’re one of them.”

The idea of ‘people who fell through the cracks’ is the most pervasive idea in Neverwhere. These people are ignored and marginalised in London Above, barely recognised and overlooked by the inhabitants they come into contact with. London Below is a warped reflection of London Above, a violent place where the warning to ‘Mind the Gap’ on the Underground is ignored at your peril, for the gap will drag you under:

“It erupted over the side of the platform. It was diaphanous, dream-like, a ghost-thing, the colour of black smoke, and it welled up like silk under water, and, moving astonishingly fast while still seeming to drift almost in slow motion, it wrapped itself tightly around Richard’s ankle.”

Gaiman has great fun with this, taking the everyday in London Above and twisting it slightly, like the random empty carriages you sometimes see: “from time to time Richard had noticed carriages like this, locked and shadowy on Tube trains, and had wondered what purpose they served”; in this instance the carriages hold Earl’s Court (other characters include the Angel Islington and the Black Friars), a medieval court complete with log fires, bugle players and  jester.

Richard offers to help the Lady Door, a young woman who can open any door to any place, and whose family have all been murdered, while she tries to evade capture. His learning curve is steep, as London Below is filled with the familiar, and the deeply disconcerting:

“there are little bubbles of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber…there’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere – it doesn’t all get used up at once”

Smog, fogs, alley ways, cobbled streets…all fall between the cracks and end up Below.  Probably the most terrifying characters are the hitmen for hire who track Richard and the Lady Door through London Below:

“there are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar apart: first, Mr Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr Croup; second, Mr Croup has eyes of a faded, china blue, while Mr Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr Vandemar fashions the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr Croup had no obvious jewellery; fourth, Mr Croup likes words, while Mr Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing alike.”

There are some utterly beguiling characters too, and the Marquis de Carabas may have succeeded in usurping Will Ladislaw as my literary-crush- of-choice.  He’s brave, loyal, charming, self-serving, untrustworthy and a master of ironic detachment.

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(Rufus Sewell as Ladislaw and Patterson Joseph as the Marquis in the BBC adaptations of Middlemarch and Neverwhere. Yep, it’s safe to say I have a bit of a type, which I like to call Byronic kitsch.)

Neverwhere is perfectly paced, emotionally affecting and politically engaged without being didactic. Highly recommended.

Secondly, Whispers Underground by Peter Aaronvitch (tagline: “Using the Underground is a killer…”). This is the third in Aaronvitch’s Peter Grant series, about a detective constable seconded to the Folly, the division of the Met which deals with supernatural occurrences.  Grant isn’t the most accomplished apprentice wizard:

“I barely knew four and a half spells and you couldn’t have got me to give it up and that’s despite close brushes with death by vampire, hanging, malignant spirit, riot, tiger-man and the ever-present risk of overdoing the magic and getting a brain aneurysm”

His mentor Nightingale despairs, but Grant is a good police officer and by following vestigium “a pocket of residual magical effect” he is able to recognise crime scenes that may have a slightly broader cause-and-effect than usual.  The novels are essentially police procedural, but with an extra dimension:

“Nightingale can put a fireball through ten centimetres of steel armour and I can singe my way through a paper target nine times out of ten but really, in the interests of community policing, it’s better to have something a bit less lethal in your armoury”

So it’s not magic galore – Grant identifies suspects, follows up leads, takes part in stakeouts, it’s just that these activities might lead him into weirder circumstances than his Met peers. In this instance, the murder of a young American with a piece of magical pottery leads him deep below London, into the abandoned tube network and sewers:

“In a film you would be able to open the door by pushing a false brick. I picked a brick at convenient waist height and pushed it, just to get that stupid notion out of the way. The brick slid smoothly in, there was a click, and the door cracked open.”

Whispers Underground is a light, easy read, well-paced and with much humour derived from the intersection between magical phenomena and the demands of modern policing:

“Six whole days on the Murder Team and I’d only managed to fulfil about two and a half actions. Not only was it not going to look good on any performance review, but I also doubted that being engaged in a supernatural sewer battle with an underground Earthbender was going to serve as much of an explanation.”

To end, the song which gave the title to my previous post.  Well, it is a classic, and I’m terminally unimaginative:

“Let the little fairy in you fly!” (Rufus Wainwright)

December is a month of magic – at least, that’s how I choose to see it, rather than a month of biting winds, zero natural light, and weeping over the expanding credit card bills and waistlines that mark the holiday season.  No, it is a time of magic – fairies sit on top of trees, reindeer fly and morbidly obese geriatrics shoot down chimneys and creep into kids bedrooms without being put on a register.  In honour of this time I thought I’d look at literature around fairies.

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When I was growing up I loved the delicate drawings of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies; the Poppy Fairy was my favourite because she looked a bit naughty.  I’m not sure what that says about me as a child….

Firstly, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan (Salt Publishing, 2014).  I picked this up after reading Naomi’s review on her The Writes of Women blog. It was every bit as good as Naomi suggested. The twenty stories in this volume are united by fairytale themes, but also explorations of sexuality, gender, love and desire that demonstrate how the extraordinary can promote new ways of understanding the everyday.

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(Image from: http://www.saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773754)

Logan plays with animating the inanimate and mechanising the organic to destabilise notions of identity.  So The Rental Heart sees a woman protect herself from heart-break, leasing mechanised versions of the muscle which she renews as needed. In Origami Rebecca constructs herself a paper lover; in Coin Operated Boys, Elodie rejects “Imperfect. Awkward. Repulsive…” human suitors for the titular machines, responding to their “calm, clean angles”, cool touch, and eyes “flat as a pond in summer”. In this way Logan shows how desire is manifold and defies easy categorisation, while exploring how we seek to control desire, and how denial of our humanity can lead to detachment from ourselves and others.

Extraordinarily, Logan’s startling use of images throughout her stories did not cause me to detach, but rather reveals new ways of perceiving that truly resonate. Choosing any page at random would give me a quote for this post, Logan is truly that good.

From Bibliophagy: “Standing pigeon-toed and bruise-kneed in the light from the fridge, his neck finally stops twitching. The words are waiting, cold as milk….He turns away so the moon is hidden behind next door’s chimney.  He lifts the words.  He shudders to think how smooth the vowels will feel along his oesophagus.  He swallows.”

From The Gracekeeper: “The widow thanked me afterwards with her damp swollen hands too tight on my wrists, speaking in fummels and haffs as if she could not get enough breath.  Her wedding ring dug into her finger, making the flesh bulge out at either side, and I wondered whether she would wear it until it engulfed: her own secret totem”

In stories such as Witch, Logan challenges the heteronormativity and misogyny inherent in so many fairytales, when the young woman wandering in the forest decides to stay put:

“She was honey on my tongue. She was the poison apple, the kiss that would wake me.  When she finally slid inside me, I knew the end of my story.  I never wanted to leave my bitch goddess warrior queen.  I knew what happily ever after was, and I wanted to be a wicked witch too.”

I’m so excited about Kirsty Logan after reading this collection, and eagerly await her first novel, published next year.

Secondly, it’s impossible to write a post about fairytales without mentioning Angela Carter.  She edited two volumes of the Virago Press’ books of fairytales, as well as writing her own short story collection along this theme, The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz,1979).  Carter’s stories are creepy and unsettling re-tellings of well-known tales, pulling the dark undercurrents of the fables to the fore.  Snow White is rewritten in The Snow Child as an incestuous tale of necrophilia, played out between a battling couple:

“Then the girl began to melt. Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather a bird might have dropped; a bloodstain, like the trace of a fox’s kill on the snow; and the rose she had pulled off the bush.”

In The Werewolf Little Red Riding Hood is far from helpless victim: “The child had a scabby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife and turned on the beast.

It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.

The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem.”

The Bloody Chamber prompts a reconsideration of familiar tales that we imbue from childhood.  Carter is an intellectual force, funny and challenging; I was left thinking about these stories long after I’d read them.

To end, a modern fairytale, and the greatest Christmas song ever (but not the greatest Christmas video ever, which is Wham’s Last Christmas, obvs):

“The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader.” (Paulo Coelho)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the film version of a book is never as good as the original text.  Except I don’t think that’s true.  This week I’m going to look at two books where I think the film was better, but the novels are still worth reading.  Slightly odd tack for a book blog to take, and I may end up regretting this, but let’s crash ever onwards!

Firstly, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (1987).  Here’s the trailer for the 1991 film, with a brilliant script by the author, in collaboration with the long-term writing partnership of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

The Commitments is Roddy Doyle’s first novel, detailing how a group of white, working class Dubliners set up a soul band together.  I think in this novel Doyle is really learning his craft, and his writing gets progressively stronger as he goes along.  The Commitments is a far from terrible book, but it’s a bit slight, and filled with so much dialogue it reads more like a script than a novel for much of it.  Still, if you’re going to have a novel filled with dialogue it may as well be written by Roddy Doyle, who has a great ear for how people speak and seems to take real joy in capturing it on the page:

“-Grow a pair o’ tits, pal, an’ then yeh can sing with them, said Billy.

– Are you startin’ somethin’?

-Don’t annoy me.

– Here! Said Jimmy. –None o’ tha’.

The time was right for a bit of laying down the law.

-No rows or scraps, righ’.

-Well said, Jim.

– An’ annyway, said Jimmy. –The girls are the best lookin’ part o’ the group.

– Dirty bastard, said Natalie.

-Thanks very much, Jimmy, said Imelda.

-No sweat ‘melda, said Jimmy.

-What’ll we sing? Bernie asked Joey The Lips.

-You know Walking in the Rain?

-Lovely.

– I WANT HIM, Imelda sang.

– It doesn’t exactly have a strong feminist lyric, does it? said James.

– Soul isn’t words, Brother, said Joey The Lips. – Soul is feeling. Soul is getting out of yourself.”

You can see that this is writing really stripped back: minimal punctuation, not always clear who is speaking.  The style suits the tale of a bunch of people with very little creating music with only their voices and few instruments.  It makes The Commitments a quick read, and the characters are evoked with warmth through minimal authorial intervention. By writing in such a sparse way, Doyle allows the characters to speak for themselves. At other times he uses scant detail, rarely embellished with imagery, to portray the lives of the band:

“’Joey The Lips got one of his dress suits dry-cleaned. Dean crawled in under his bed and found the one he’d flung under there. He soaked the jacket till the muck was nearly all gone. Then he brought it down to the cleaners.

Black shoes were polished or bought or borrowed.”

The Commitments is a well-observed story, evocative and humorous. However, a novel about music will always have much to gain from being filmed; hearing the talented cast of the film give their voice to soul classics brings the characters into being in a way that is nearly impossible in print.

Secondly, The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973).  Here’s the trailer for the 1987 film adaptation, screenplay by the author:

One of my favourite films from childhood that I still love to watch today – a definite winner on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Again, it’s not that the book is bad (the film is scripted by Goldman after all so you wouldn’t expect a great deal of difference) but the film is better.  It takes all the best bits of the book and distils them into a fast-paced, funny narrative; the book can be a bit flabby at times by comparison.  The film also offers some of the best cameos ever: Billy Crystal as Miracle Max, Mel Smith as the albino torturer, comic genius Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman, as well as a perfectly cast set of main characters.  But if you like the film, you’ll like the book.  The same dry, silly humour runs through it, and who wouldn’t love a tale of: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”

The tale is one of Princess Buttercup, who falls in love with the stable boy Westley.  He goes off to seek his fortune, and is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who famously leaves no survivors.  Believing her One True Love to be dead, Buttercup agrees to marry the hunting-obsessed Prince Humperdink.  Before they can marry she is kidnapped by a gang comprising the cunning Vizzini (“never start a land war in Asia, [… and] never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line”), the giant Fezzik , and genius-swordsman-with-a-vendetta Montoya (“my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”) They are followed by the mysterious Man in Black, who seeks to foil their plans… Will goodness triumph? Will true love conquer all? Yes, of course, to both.  This is a lovely escapist fantasy, but at the same time it is a  satire on established rule and its abuses, which gives the story a more serious dimension. Prince Humperdink has arranged the kidnap of Buttercup in order to blame a neighbouring country and start a war.  (Fill in your own contemporary analogy here.)  He tells his henchmen to seek the “villains” in the thieves quarter:

““My men are not always too happy at the thought of entering the Thieves Quarter.  Many of the thieves resist change.”

“Root them out. Form a brute squad.  But get it done.”

“It takes at least a week to get a decent brute squad going,” Yellin said. “But that is time enough.

[…]

The conquest of the Thieves Quarter began immediately.  Yellin worked long and hard each day […] Most of the criminals had been through illegal roundups before, so they offered little resistance.””

Goldman is also able to extend his humour in the novel towards the processes around writing, which he couldn’t do in the film; for example his editor querying his translation of the “original” story by S. Morgenstern:

“this chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses.  The copy editor at Harcourt kept filling the margins of the galley proofs with questions: […] “I am going crazy. What am I to make of these parentheses? When does this book take place? I don’t understand anything. Hellllppppp!!!” Denise, the copy editor, has done all my books since Boys and Girls and she had never been as emotional in the margins with me before.”

So there we go: two film recommendations as well as two book recommendations in the same post – call it a late Hogmany present from me to you, dear reader. Enjoy!

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