Peterloo. Director Mike Leigh Rebellion theme park style

Unlike Mike Leigh, I was taught about the Peterloo massacre in school. This doubtless shows how old I am or how young he is.  Leigh is on record as saying that Peterloo is a story that needs to be told because it is no longer taught in schools.  It is true that all dark episodes in British history – of which there are many –  need to have lights shone on them, but this film feels more like the school lesson Mike Leigh feels he missed out on, rather than a serious piece of dramatic art.

Set in the year 1819 only twenty years (we hesitate to remind you, dear reader) after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette across the channel.  In France Robespierre rose and fell; there were executions, the terror.  It was to be understood the ruling classes in Britain were much on edge.  We constantly see them being very much on edge! No-one (depending where you were in the pecking order)  wanted the same thing to happen in Britain.

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Thus in the film we see that the words ‘parliamentary reform’ or ‘one person, one vote’ are enough to send the already apopleptic constables and magistrates into full hanging mode, liberally encouraged by an irate home secretary and the fat and indolent Prince Regent.

It is fertile ground for rebellion.    But many and varied are the gatherings and lectures that the poor working folk have to attend in order to have these things explained to them in laborious detail; in order that the viewer may also have them explained in equally laborious detail.   At one women’s meeting, one of the characters, a lady at the back of the room who can’t afford to feed her children and who has been forced to listen to what feels like twenty minutes of inflamed rhetoric, stands up to complain that she hasn’t understood a word.  I sympathise.

To add to the difficulties, the corn laws  prohibited the imports of cheap grain from Europe in order to protect prices for British land owners (who were also  self-elected parliamentarians ) and these restrictions operated to push up the price of bread beyond affordability for the northern mill workers.  Thus by the time orator Henry Hunt made his way from London to address a meeting on parliamentary reform – the meeting to be held on St. Peter’s fields just outside Manchester  –  there were a lot of angry people due to attend.    Nevertheless this was to be a peaceful demonstration – a gathering merely, complete with women and children carrying branches of peace, ‘like a day out’ one of the characters says.

Rather as Tiananmen Square was a day out.

Mark Kermode liked this film a lot better than I did.  Every scene I felt was weighed down with exposition.      You may know nothing whatsoever of British history but still get to the mid point of Peterloo and wave a white flag, saying its ok, I get it.  Bring on the cavalry, I understand. Honest.

There is simply too much ‘speechifying’ and shouting about appalling conditions and liberty for the people.  Too many stereotypes.  The worthy young rebel with the light of freedom in his eyes; the evil magistrate who sentences a man to hang for stealing a coat or a woman to be whipped and then imprisoned for drinking a bottle of her employer’s wine.  Yes these things happened,  but as a viewer I didn’t need to spend two and a half hours being beaten round the head with them in order to understand the final scene when the  protesters are run down by militia.

No doubt the costumes were accurate down to the last ripped jerkin but instead of making the characters look authentic they looked like they had just stepped out of a museum.  And the backdrops?  Far too neat, too clean.  This was rebellion theme park style.    As for the northern accents – don’t even get me started.

If Peterloo was intended to be a history lesson in aspic, then so be it.  If it was intended to have contemporary relevance it would have been better to do the thing in modern dress. It’s  worked for Shakespeare.   Why not set it on some deprived northern estate?  In May’s Britain surely there are no lack of them too choose from.

 

 

 

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by [Towles, Amor]

Set in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and during the Stalin era, Count Rostov is an aristocrat who more by luck than judgement has managed to survive the revolution, being saved from execution but ordered by a tribunal to permanent house arrest inside the Hotel Metropol.

  “And who knew,” says Rostov’s friend Mishka, a poet who would later be claimed along with millions others by the terror, “that the day you were sentenced to life inside a hotel was the day you became the luckiest man in Russia.”

His daughter is a pianist but inexplicably is reluctant to take up an offer to travel to Paris with the Moscow Youth orchestra.  The Count who has not left the Hotel Metropole (except once for a medical emergency) in over twenty years is at dinner trying to persuade Sofia to take up this wonderful opportunity.  How can she not wish to go?

“I fear I have done you a great disservice, “ he tells his daughter.   “From the time you were a child, I have lured you into a life that is principally circumscribed by the  four walls of this building…. .   But your mother was perfectly right.  One does not fulfil one’s potential by listening to Sheherezade in a gilded hall, or by reading the Odyssey in one’s den.”

And:

…” what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

As a philosophy this can’t be beaten.  Nor, as a literary character,

can the handsome, educated and aristocratic Count Rostov – with a talent for formal seating plans and a worthy but unfulfilled desire to read the essays of Montaigne – be beaten.   In the days when it would be taken for granted that barbers were artists and conversationalists; in the days when the Chassagne Montrachet could not be served at other than the exact temperature, we know that somewhere there would always be a Rostov.

Life in the Metropole – even under its oleaginous party functionary new manager – continues to have pre-revolutionary echoes because its principal character has pre-revolutionary echoes, as to his lifelong friends the maitre d’ of the famous Boyarsky restaurant and Emile the chef, wielding his chopper in order to enforce a particular point in the conversation.

Nevertheless,  a prison is a prison whether gilded or not.   There is a poignant reference to feeling Spring in the air on the one occasion he has to leave to take his daughter to hospital.  What must it be like to spend so many years of your life indoors?   Does a compelling narrative require the characters to be allowed to range far and wide?  Apparently not.      The Count is only able to traverse from bar to dining room to hall to rooms and back again (he does on one occasion make it to the roof)   yet his story  is highly readable.  He becomes resigned but not accepting of his situation – what else is available to him?   To be sure adventures seem to come to him, sometimes in a way that a less forgiving reader might question as likely.

This book is a complete joy.  I hear that Sir Kenneth Branagh is to play the part.   A more perfect piece of casting is hard to imagine.

Ring of Bright Water, An epitaph

It has taken me a long time to read Gavin Maxwell’s  Ring of Bright Water.  I remember the book coming out.  I even remember the film with Virginia McKenna and the infernal song! Now that I’ve read it the thing that fascinates me most – more than the story about otters more even than its Walden-esque attempt to hold back the tide of modernity –  is the poetry of the writing.  I have read a lot of poetry and a lot of the new nature writing but Maxwell’s writing feels different.   As if he writes from the inside out, rather than from outside looking in as most do.

I didn’t even know that the title of the work is from one of Kathleen Raine’s poems.  Ignorant? Probably.  I thought I could dispel my ignorance by reading a biography.    There is only one that I could find -that by Douglas Botting – read that I told myself and all will be revealed.    Well, no.  What is revealed is that Maxwell was an aristocrat – a scion of the House of Northumberland; a wartime instructor in the  Special Operations Executive, Guards Officer, adventurer, traveller and fully paid up member of the hero club (albeit of confused sexual identity so perhaps not the model for Bond) there is no shortage of material here. The  authorised biography  is by Douglas Botting who explains that other would-be biographers of Maxwell came up against the twin obstacles of family and literary estate,  but that his own application was granted because he had known Maxwell personally during the last years of the author’s life. 20060630-Hampton Court -DSC_0337

It is clear both from Maxwell’s own work and from Botting’s biography,  that this fully paid up member of the hero club was essentially lonely and could be a difficult person to be around, often suffering from ill health and never happier than when alone and freezing on some moorland somewhere with his beloved plants and animals.  These aspects of his life being more acutely realised in the work than human relationships at which he generally appears to have been unsuccessful.  At least that is what the biography leads us to believe. And yet Maxwell seems never short of a friend to stay with when a bed in a castle is required or a companion for a trip or adventure – there usually seems to be the odd old Stoic, pal from Oxford, or Guards Officer around.

What is not revealed because of course no-one knows is where the writing comes from.    Ironic also that the overwhelming success of Maxwell’s book and its two sequels, The Rocks Remain, and Raven Seek Thy Brother contributed to the mass tourism which has placed so much stress on the once lonely Scottish landscapes he so loved.

It is almost as if the difficulties of the life he chose in remote Camusfeàrna – with no made up road no electricity one mile from the nearest house and five from the nearest shop – were a metaphor for his own life struggles.  These books were an elegy for a way of life which was vanishing even mid-20th century during the author’s lifetime; but in view of the disastrous habitat destruction which has taken place,  they now feel like an epitaph for a failed conservation movement.

 

 

A demographic timebomb

I was once asked at an interview what I thought were the causes of crime.  While I rummaged in my mind for my completely non-existent degree in criminology, another answer popped up.  Buddhism has its own answers away from studies of criminology for the underlying causes of crime which will be one of three things:  greed, anger and foolishness.   Whatever is the latest horror reported in the papers, it will have as its base one of those lifestates.

We live in an increasingly fragmented and complex age but sometimes things are not as complex as we would like to imagine them.  If we believe that everything is too specialist;  every thought requires an ‘expert’ opinion, every action requires a full risk assessment.    That way of thinking  can lead to  a form of lethargy and paralysis which affects the mind, the willingness to engage with problems imbuing everything with a sense of hopelessness.

Hopelessness is becoming pervasive and driven on by a cynical media obsessed with the most shallow issues.  While it is worrying to consider the many and conflicting problems that adults in society face, even more worryingly statistics are that these damaging mindsets are now affecting children.

Buddhist Philosopher Daisaku Ikeda has published a dialogue with Professor of Philosophy Lou Marinoff. (The Inner Philosopher Dialogue Path Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2012))

In a discussion about health and in particular the health of children Marinoff states:

Overexposure to visual media coupled with institutionalised inattention to the written tradition have produced a generation of cognitively impaired children, millions of whom are drugged daily with stimulants.

American Psychiatrist Bessel Van der Kolk in his book on trauma The Body Keeps the Score (Penguin 2014) confirms the statistics coming out of the US.

The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma

 

The number of people under the age of 20 receiving Medicaid funded prescriptions for antipsychotic drugs tripled between 1999 and 2008…   Half a million children in the US currently take antipsychotic drugs.   The percentage of children, the author states, receiving antipsychotics increases to 12.4% of children in foster care, compared with 1.4% of Medicaid eligible children generally.  This implies that foster children are being given drugs to make them more manageable.

I do not know what the statistics are for the UK but the word ‘malleable’ seems appropriate to describe what our education system is doing to our kids.  Churning them out to fit the needs of some tech firm somewhere –  a tech firm which may have gone under by the time todays youngster graduates with his/her £40,000 debt.

Some of us use the expression ‘first world problem’ if the washing machine needs fixing or we have mislaid our cinema tickets,  but in fact the first world is facing the most significant and desperate problems – a demographic timebomb –  a whole generation of traumatised children.

Ikeda quotes Arnold Toynbee:  Human dignity cannot be achieved in the field of technology in which human beings are so expert.  It can be achieved only in the field of ethics … and ethical achievement is measured by the degree in which our actions are governed by compassion and love, not by greed and aggressiveness.

Our spiritual development has not kept pace with the dramatic progress of science and technology.  Look no further further for the causes of crime.

 

 

 

 

 

“Our Girl”: addictive nonsense peopled by an army of models

I have to confess to an addiction.  No drug, alcohol or gambling related issues are the root cause of my suffering, but the BBC’s military drama ‘Our Girl’, more particularly Ben Aldridge’s soulful brown eyes which the camera spends hours staring dreamily into –  also completely fine by me.

This is compulsive nonsense peopled by an army of models rather than a model army.  I think the scripts must have been prepared by a cheese grater they are so full of holes.     The basis of the story is a military section (‘2 Section’) having various adventures under the command of Captain James (Ben Aldridge) with a female medic on tour in Afghan, Kenya and other hot spots.   The female medic, Molly Dawes  (Lacey Turner) engages in a somewhat against regulation relationship with Captain James, her CO, by the end of series one.  Captain James gets shot and says he is going to resign his commission. He recovers and doesn’t.

Molly Dawes gets written out of the story in series two and replaced by another female medic called Georgie Lane (Michelle Keegan), who is a bit prettier but nothing like as interesting, and who spends not an inconsiderable amount of time getting jilted or jilting others. I mean how many unused wedding gowns can a girl store away in the average sized wardrobe?

The scriptwriters faced with the problem of what to do with the now no longer extant Molly decide to have Captain James say that she has gone back for another tour in Afghan.   He later implies that they are married.

Fast forward to the current series the writers are desperately trying to extricate Captain James from this off screen ‘marriage’ because they now want the poor exhausted guy to have a relationship with the new medic who actually does exist, Georgie, she of the many redundant wedding gowns.  So why marry him off in the first place?     It’s a wonder he has any energy to spare to actually do his job.

I read somewhere that the army (the real one) is struggling to deal with a backlog of applications.  I hope these applications are not from viewers expecting the Captains to look like Ben Aldridge and Luke Pasqualino.   I fear they may be sadly disappointed.

 

 

A ring in tissue paper and a thousand broken promises

C.G. Menon. Subjunctive Moods. Dahlia Publishing Limited

Catherine
C.G. Menon

The Oxford Dictionary defines subjunctive as a specific verb form. It usually expresses something that you wish for, or a hypothetical rather than actual situation. Eg.  If only I were ten years younger.

Life is full of ‘if only’ moments.      If only I had a different job, partner, life… .   The Art of Losing isn’t hard to master said Elizabeth Bishop –  a sentiment with which the characters in Menon’s stories would no doubt agree as they lose husbands, wives, partners, youth, memories, identity, life.

Menon, not unlike Loveday reviewed above, skewers the  claustrophobia and anxiety of modern life, its obsession with media constructs of ‘happiness’ and the chasm that exists between those pictures in the red tops and  glossies and what passes for reality in most people’s lives.   In particular the stories offer a cross cultural examination of the lives of women when we learn, unsurprisingly, that white or Asian, pink or yellow or green, the burdens are the same, and of course the joys.

Yet underneath the bare light bulbs and cheap plastic chairs that inhabit these stories more ancient voices call,  of dragons,  seascapes,  jackfruit flowers.   Both Menon and Loveday are part of a new generation of writers who are not settling for the fake news they’ve been sold by decades of cynical neoliberalism.  While these are not new ideas and there is much literature out there dealing with the same topics, it is the writer’s job to create unique characters with believable individual lives, to give us a moment’s insight and empathy into someone else’s reality which is, remarkably, not unlike our own.   These stories achieve that.

Many of the characters are caught at moments of great change or even crisis in their lives; the heartbreak of a single mother who has her child taken away by Social Services (‘Foxgloves’); the intolerable pressures of the modern workplace (‘So long, so long’). The settings of the stories stretch from Kerala to Kuala Lumpur to Northumberland but the ‘who am I?’ and ‘what am I doing here?’  problems remain.

Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch that the cage door had opened but no-one flew out.  It feels that many of the female characters of Menon’s stories are sitting there with the door open, afraid.

For example,    In ‘For you are Julia’ a telephone call from a long ago lover leads to an interior examination of boredom and inadequacy.

Tom sees nothing but joy as the hymn puts it.  He squints into the sun  and sees another woman, and he never dreams it’s only me; only Julia tricked out with sunbeams and cataracts.

In a moment of pure Angela Carter,   a bride is:

  ‘veiled in lace and trussed up in silk, and her feet are squeezed in blood red shoes. The church is silent in a bright, bitter pause and outside the summer day is ending.’

Or this from one of my favourite stories in the collection:  ‘I see you in triplicate’ Caroline’s husband collecting his belongings from what was the family home, goes off with her Spanish class enrolment form (thinking it was a mortgage document).  He then realises ‘the least of his mistakes’ and pushes the form back through the letterbox.

In the kitchen meanwhile Caroline is gnawing at the shining rind of a granny smith and drinking gin from a jar that once held home-made chutney.

I loved that jar of chutney for it represents the very pinnacle of the earth mother dream, turned to gin soaked nightmare.

In “So long So long” , a junior surgeon faces the failure of his consultant’s examinations for the second time much exacerbated by his wife’s derision.  When he complains that he has a long list of bypasses to perform that day she snaps back:

‘Everything bypasses your heart.’

Densely written in descriptive and imagistic prose these stories are as I imagine might be a visit to Bombay (I’ve never been!)  –  the images tumbling over one another, the sights and sounds and smells.   I could have wished occasionally for a little more breathing space in the sentences around the adjective-laden imagery,  but this is an excellent first collection of stories from this prizewinning author and rising star.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running backwards, passing the baton to no-one: A Review of Three Men on the Edge

 

Three Men on the Edge, Michael Loveday V. Press

This debut novella of poet Michael Loveday is filled with questions such as  ‘Where are the fragranced pillows, where are the flying horses?’   The answers unsurprisingly, are not always forthcoming.  Temporarily and sadly, the flying horses are not to be found no more the Spitfire key rings or the tiger print purses as protagonist Denholm rummaging through boxes in a old storeroom is an opportunity too good to pass up,  and we are soon drifting back through layers of time to coin box skulls and footballing pigs and remembrance of hated games of blind man’s buff.

This book is an investigation of the mindsets of its three protagonists, threaded through with evocations of the settings of Rickmansworth/Chorleywood/Hertfordshire ‘on the edge’ of London.  Such geographical placements – as is the case with many settings in literature and poetry –  are both physical and metaphorical,   for it is part of the human condition to feel on the edge of things, to experience this acute ‘edgeness’  as being alone.

But beyond the metaphor of the protagonists psyches, the landscape fulfils another role, that of a character in its own right. Second protagonist Gus seeks out the shadows and forms of the natural world which lap at the edges of our space:

‘there’s a veil between him and the world that will not lift and to tear it down seems like a betrayal.  Why is it still not consolation – witnessing these swans, these shadows, this sky?’

Amid the minutiae of everyday life including the afternoon TV show Homes under the Hammer and a visit to Watford’s ‘antiseptic shopping mall’,  Loveday renders this acute (even surgical) inspection of the lonely confusion of being 21st century human.  The landscape functions to remind us what we are losing, that we are the only animal on the planet that destroys its own habitat.

The author mocks the meaningless nonsense which modern culture forces on us in the interests of the safety elves and some insurance company somewhere.  For example,  ‘the small print’  consists of fourteen lines of  horrendous sounding symptoms, obviously taken from some prescription medication,  ending in a pinnacle of silliness:    ‘pins and needles, psoriasis, diarrhoea,  impotence, mental disturbance  … and (rarely) temporary thinning of the hair.

In the section entitled ‘Martyn – chewing glass’ I particularly like the way the author pinpoints the co-dependence of sexual relationships:

In Anja … he’s found the companion men surely crave; a guardian god of his secrets, magnifying mirror to his better self, and match for his lost mother’s perfections,’.

and,  the increasingly extravagant media-fed fantasies upon which we rely for a sense of identity;

To join the London Olympics as proxy hero, Martyn intends to complete two thousand and twelve laps of Bury Lake.  He’s not running for charity – it’s a piece of performance art, and he’ll be running backwards with a paintbrush as a baton that he’ll pass to nobody.

Another fantastic question:  What is a gateway but a history of exits?  How many have passed this way before?  What lives did they lead?

This book is a rummage through the storerooms of the human heart with all its fears, its passions, its yearnings, its failures, its betrayals.   Part of me suspects that  Three Men on the Edge is a series of prose poems with an interlinking narrative structure. But that is merely a quibble of naming.   That the prose is a feast of poesy is no accident, Loveday being a fine poet as well as, now, a fiction writer.

 

 

 

Stone. Bread. Salt: Poems by Norbert Hirschhorn (Holland Park Press)

 

I have owned so many identities – or had them given to me since day 1 on this planet: child, girl, girlchild, schoolgirl,  daughter, Jew,  niece,  adolescent, woman, female,  administrator, wife, mother, writer, poet, storyteller,  sister, oldie, second generation survivor.     What did I survive – I who have never been nearer to a concentration camp than peering at piles of hair and spectacles at Yad Vashem?

To be Jewish was something to be feared, the cause of the perpetration of nameless horrors upon my father and his family members most of whom were not around to explain and the ones that were, didn’t.   I was subscribed automatically upon birth to this club of suffering which could never be left, for to leave it would mean profoundly disrespecting the lives (and more importantly the deaths) of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents.  A disease of belonging for which there is no cure even beyond the grave.

The poet Norbert Hirschhorn writes in the preface to his latest collection Stone. Bread. Salt. (Holland Park Press, 2018):

“In Judaism, the Hebrew word tshuva is a vital concept.  It means return but also repentance.  It is said that God first created repentance, then the universe.  Over the past decade I have made my own return, a journey to rediscover my Jewishness.”

Thus when I first picked up this volume of poems, when I shared a reading with Hirschorn at the Poetry Café in London, I thought I would have no vocabulary with which to offer a review; reviewing after all requires context. In the end that was only partially true.  The book has made me think about my own  relationship with an impossible status.

Some stages from my list of life’s identities were here:  ‘layette, baby clothes, bike, treadmill, bloodpressure cuff, wheelchair, shroud …’ . (Life Course Department Store)

My parents prayed I’d learn what it meant to be Jewish

The Rabbi discerned I lacked the mien to be Jewish

I hated shul, longed for pork

(Self-Portrait)

This I understood.   No Rabbi ever discerned that I lacked the mien to be Jewish because I was a female and so that was the be all and end all of my mien.  I wasn’t required to do much during any service except sit on a balcony and stare down at my patriarchal elders and betters.  I think I was about 8 years old when the Jewish faith and I parted company and the rest is, if not history, a history of guilt.   Whether or not I subscribe to the tenets of the Jewish faith – and I don’t – the essence of Jewishness was scorched into my psyche, so much so, that newly married I recall bursting into floods of tears at the sight of a printed row of numbers on the cork of a winebottle my poor bewildered husband had opened.  Although I realise now that I confused being Jewish with being tormented for being Jewish.  In my own mind, and probably in the minds of many others, the two have become inseparable.

I was in my 50s when a Rabbi refused to shake my hand at my mother’s funeral.  I should have known of course, should never have proffered the offending hand.  But I had forgotten so much during the intervening years, had forgotten my place.

A Rebbe and his young disciple were on pilgrimage … when they came across a stream in spate.  Near them was a young woman in long dress and head scarf afraid to cross. The Rebbe lifted her gently onto his back, strode into the stream and crossed …. The men walked silently for a while on the other side.  Thenthe disciple said Master pardon me but you shouldn’t have touched that woman. The Rebbe thought a moment and replied, I put her down some time ago.  Why are you still carrying her?

Stone, Bread, Salt, p.76

If I am Jewish, have always been Jewish,  what need is there to go looking for the substance of that Jewishness?  And if I am not Jewish,   what would be the point?  The very fact of my existence – I who was never intended to live – and the existence of my children who were never intended to be born –  this is the victory.

In Hirschhorn’s poem ‘Self-Portrait’ the narrator goes to a wise woman to ask what does it mean to be Jewish.  We’re a people with history. We’re your passport to the past.

Where to unlock a people’s history, other than through its cultural soul and where else to find that soul except in language, stories,  poetry, songs, music.  In Hirschorn’s last collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days he returned to Yiddish folksongs, the language of his grandparents and great grandparents.   Ah, the passport to the past.   And yet …

The past is not necessarily any kind of a passport.   Even if we could arrive there- at that other country where they do things differently – what would it avail us?   Being Jewish raises questions that our very history, condition, status, ideology – call it what you will –  renders unanswerable;   being Jewish is a condition impossible to describe without reference to shattered glass and yellow stars,  ergo it is impossible to describe.    I once wrote a poem (or tried to) about the Golem of Old Prague which had holocaust references in it.  I was gently reproved by a learned academic friend who read my piece – the holocaust was neither born nor thought of in 16th century Prague.  Maybe.   The golem was a creation metaphor, another insoluble problem.

Although I believe completely in holocaust education in the interests of it never happening again, I also believe too many of us are still wearing our yellow stars.  It is time to lay them down.  As Hirschorn says:

‘I trace my own ancestors to the earliest time of life on earth, and before that to the stars.  For this I stand in awe.’

That sense of shared humanity is a good starting point.  A good point of return.  So although this has not strictly been a book review, it is a statement of gratitude for making me think.  Perhaps that is the best review of all.

 

 

 

Literary separations – children with vanishing mothers

La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman (Penguin, Random House)

Sal, Mick Kitson (Canongate)

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden (DelRey)

How to write for, of and about children and young people in an increasingly dysfunctional world? Finding a balance between an adult sounding narrative voice (and character arc) to make a book of interest to as wide a readership as possible  and yet maintain a sufficiently age appropriate voice is a difficult task. Then too how to write parents? Our world of parenting is becoming savagely complex like some sort of demented computer game with so many traps  one wonders who would ever want to start playing. Many writers with child protagonists in their stories avoid parents altogether by using orphans, or they turn parents or other carers into wicked stepmother style clichés in order to exaggerate a malign influence.  I have just polished off three books which in their different ways grapple with these issues.

The Book of Dust, Volume One. La Belle Sauvage. Philip Pullman

This first volume is intended as a prequel by Pullman to the His Dark Materials trilogy but I found I couldn’t live it or believe in it the same way as the original books.  The plot is based around unprecedented rains which have caused the Thames to burst its banks.    This saga which picks up the story 10 years before the beginning of Northern Lights concerns the trials and tribulations of one Malcolm Polstead as he attempts a journey by boat – through the inundated landscape which was once Oxford towards London – to protect baby Lyra from the forces of the scary sounding Consistory Court of Discipline and other baddies who are chasing them.

Against this post-apocalyptic background, sinister forces gather and only poor Malcolm is there to sort it all out. Like some sort of Blyton-esque adventure on steroids, he and his friend Alice get into increasingly surreal scrapes and escapes from witch haunted islands, a graveyard, a masque in a grand house where the intrepid heroes go to beg food but find themselves utterly invisible to the assembled gathering. A good metaphor at least for how young people are treated in 21st century society.

But here was the problem for me.  That Malcolm at the age of 11 (or it may be 12) comes across as an insufferable know it all who never puts a foot wrong.  Fortunately for him, his friend Alice gets taken along on the journey so he doesn’t actually get to change Lyra’s nappies himself.  Heroes don’t change nappies, do they?

The second book is Sal – the debut novel of Mick Kitson. Sal (short for Salmarina) is a 13 year child from a highly abusive and dysfunctional family background. She finds herself on the run with her ten year old sister, Peppa, and the two are forced to live wild in a forest in Galloway, at least for as long as it is feasible to do such things in the 21st century where every bus ticket is a digital footprint and every visit to town an occasion for surveillance.

Sal is much influenced by, and no mean interpreter of, the SAS survival handbook, building shelters, fires, trapping rabbits and generally, well, surviving.   Both this novel and Pullman’s use the trope of taking the child/adult heroes and heroines outside of the real world – or at least a recognisable everyday version of it – and casting them into situation where they must survive by their own wits and largely without assistance from outside sources.

This is nothing new in literature, for children who must constantly refer back to some adult for instructions don’t make very interesting protagonists.  But author Jenni Fagan points out in her review of the Kitson book[i] that there is another angle to this separation of children from the adult world and one that does not relate to narrative convenience. That is children or young adults are finding ways to separate themselves from a world that neither understands nor seeks to protect them. Fagan notes too that 4.1 million children live in poverty in the UK.[ii]  That’s 30% or 9 out of every class of 30. Child poverty is a form of abuse is it not? Even if it is a systemic one rather than a familial.

Fictional representations of mothers are not faring well in these particular novels.  Malcolm Polstead’s mother is a homemaker, a bringer of ample puddings and comfort.  Sal’s mother on the other hand is a drunk, a bringer of random men home at odd times of the day and night, one of whom turns out to be an abuser.  Both women exist at either end of the cliché spectrum and neither is a fully developed character.  Women are not stereotypes guys. It really is time for authors to give up reaching for the lazy allusion shelf of puddings and vodka bottles when writing mothers.

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden

has an intrepid young heroine called Vasya who has been cast out of her home and is alone or almost alone. As this is Russian folktale territory, there is no SAS survival handbook.   Instead Vasya has the assistance of a frost demon who can make fires from snow and diamond like ice combs and knives and who brings food when she runs out.  Such a demon we should all have.  She also has a talking horse called Solovey with a weakness for porridge laced with honey, all so exquisitely drawn that it really doesn’t seem like cheating.   In order to survive her chosen life of travel, Vasya has to pretend to be a man.  Plus ça change. But this is a great story with lyrical descriptions of a frozen, semi-mythical Russian forest, perhaps long since eradicated.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/14/sal-mick-kitson-debut-review-sisters-children-runaways Accessed May 2018

[ii] http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/child-poverty-facts-and-figures

Eleanor Oliphant is completely magic realist

Gail Honeyman. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Harper Collins 2018

This deceptively simple narrative charts the rise and rise of a thirty year old woman from somewhere she didn’t know she was, to somewhere she didn’t know she needed to be. I’m trying not to give the plot away but the book primarily concerns itself with skewering our 21st century culture of not giving a damn.

The Eleanor in question is a thirty year old office worker who appears out of step with the modern world to a startling degree. She doesn’t even own a mobile phone at the beginning (although, phew! she does by the end). The book sections are divided into ‘Good Days’ and ‘Bad Days’ and ‘Better Days’. It is slowly revealed throughout the course of the narrative just how bad the bad days were for our poor heroine and why she behaves somewhat oddly. There is a distressing backstory which slowly reveals itself, but this is not at all a distressing or depressing book. Upbeat rather with its message that even if you are falling apart from loneliness you can still be fixed.

Within the pages of this fixing there is a degree of magic realism. Eleanor makes a friend along the way who appears well cut out for Sainthood. Influenced and quoting from Olivia Laing’s fast-becoming-iconic study of loneliness The Lonely City

‘…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents.

Surprisingly this is a page turner – with a twist at the end which I half saw coming. I finished it over two days of rain and snow in a half–empty hotel near Caernarvon, waiting to attend the harp festival.

This is a book to curl up with and if you are feeling a tiny bit sorry for yourself it will magic you better. Indeed you cannot help but compare yourself with Eleanor and feel better – unless your backstory is even worse than hers. In which case dear reader you are much to be pitied.