How Did He Die? Alas, He Died of Plot

Since I’ve been reading both Hilary Mantel and Heresy, the book given away with it, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction. Until Mantel came along this was not a genre I’d read much, not since going through a Georgette Heyer phase in my teens at least. But along came Wolf Hall and of course I had to read that, and then its sequels. I don’t think it’ll start me reading other historical fiction, though you never know; when I struck out into the unknown terrain of Rebus’s Edinburgh I had no idea that it would lead me to Peter May, Nicci French and Peter James. So we’ll see.

The thing about historical fiction is that unlike crime fiction (unless you choose to write about an actual crime) the plot is already there. History is already written and unless you play about on the borders of fantasy you can’t have Henry VIII sticking with Katharine of Aragon or Elizabeth I marrying Francis Bacon. Historical fiction sticks to the facts and plays around them; so with Thomas Cromwell Mantel takes the known facts and from them constructs a character utterly unknown to us until that point. The plot is there but the characters are all to play for.

Not so S J Parris. Yes, she takes a world where Protestantism is still struggling to establish itself, where Catholics are being weeded out and brutally murdered; and centres in this world the character of Giordano Bruno, himself a Catholic visiting Oxford to give a lecture on the Copernican view of the universe. Yet where Mantel entirely enters her world, lives in it, inhabits her characters and thus allows us to live there too for a span, Parris’s characters are little more than ciphers awaiting the dispensations of the plot. There is no reason why any of them should die, apart from reasons of plot. Why did so-and-so die? He died of plot. Two characters have already died of plot and I suspect there are many more to come. Basically this is Agatha Christie in Elizabethan Oxford, and the research is front and centre: whereas Mantel’s historical details are seamlessly woven into the narrative, Parris gives us great wodges of exposition until like a tormented Catholic we cry ‘enough! No more!’

There are difficulties at times with Mantel’s style – it can be a little convoluted but it is never, ever clunky. She knows the effect she wants to achieve and like an artist applies layer upon layer to build up a complex and subtle effect. Parris, on the other hand, tells without showing and her dialogue is lengthy and at times much too modern.

I’ve been perhaps a little hard on Heresy. After all, I’m still reading it, so it has passed at least the first test of any book. And why am I still reading it? Because I want to know what happens; in other words, because of Plot. (And it is only fair to point out that others have enjoyed the books – there’s a series, apparently – much more than I.)

Kirk out

Things Fall Apart

My next read, Chinua Achebe‘s Things Fall Apart, fell through the letterbox on Saturday and I spent the morning getting through an alarming number of pages. At this rate I thought, it’ll only last me a day. I’d better ration it – and so I put it away and took out Heresy by S J Parris. This work of historical fiction (the initials perhaps a wish to disguise gender since studies have shown that male or gender-neutral names do better with publishers) was given away by Waterstones with each copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, and I’m not sure it entirely did it a service since it almost looks like how to do historical fiction alongside how not to do it. I find it inexplicable how writers are often praised who have an unbearably clunky style, who tell instead of showing and who have characters conveniently calling each other by their full names so that we know exactly who they are (‘Ah, Sir Phillip Sidney! How goes the poetry?’ ‘Ah, Giordano Bruno, as I live and breathe! So you have come to speak about Copernicus’ theory that the Earth goes round the sun?’) OK so that’s not an exact quote, but it’s not far off. Still, in spite of all that it’s a reasonably good read – and I may come back to the question of how to and how not to do historical fiction. Not that I’ve attempted it myself; far too much research for my liking.

So what else did I do with my weekend? Saturday involved a lot of sitting in the garden, but by Sunday I could no longer ignore the rampant convolvulus and (gnashes teeth) horsetail and so I did enter the shed, gird myself with gloves and wellies, arm myself with the strimmer and sally forth to do battle with the bastards. I have driven them back but have no doubt they will advance again – are even now preparing an advance – and we shall have to do battle many more times ere the summer is done. Which at this rate will be November.

Weeds aside, there has been a Nigerian theme to this weekend. It is a frequent rallying cry of OH that men cannot be feminists because they cannot truly understand the female experience; OH therefore had a big problem with Chimamanda Ngozie Achidie’s talk ‘We Should All Be Feminists.’ (I had not so long ago read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun about the brief history of Biafra.) The Nigerian author delivered this TED talk to an audience of mostly black women (and some men) and there was a great deal of delighted laughter when she spoke about attitudes in Nigeria which, from what she said, seem to be parallel to attitudes here in the ‘fifties (I don’t say that to be disparaging, it’s just an observation.) Much of what she said was therefore familiar to a Western audience; but her insistence that men should be feminists also and that they have nothing to lose by so doing, was an important one, and something I feel we have yet to learn. It remains a source of regret to me that feminism in the West came of age concurrently with global capitalism and so has become imbued with the spirit of individualism and competition that Thatcher so vividly personified. We need to rediscover cooperation – and perhaps now is the time to do it.

Speaking of which I rounded off the day with this documentary on Dominic Cummings. I haven’t finished it yet but if I ever wondered whether people were caricaturing him unfairly, I wonder no longer. It’s a horror story. More of this anon when I’ve finished watching it but for now, tatty-bye and have a good week.

Urg. Now I’ve gone and reminded myself of Ken Dodd.

Kirk out

Girl, Woman, Other. Racist, Moi?

I’ve finished Bernadine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning portrait of black womanhood in contemporary Britain, and what do I think? I think it’s highly readable, engaging, pluralistic and refreshingly free of the kind of shaming that cripples the liberal white reader with guilt. I find novels like Beloved so hard to read not because they are not good – Beloved was stunning – but because I feel so horribly guilty. Even though I wasn’t there and (probably – I hope) wouldn’t have done it if I was, I feel guilty by association. But Girl, Woman, Other is correct – but the best kind of correct; not politically correct but sincerely open, not just to the brave new world of identity but to the old-fashioned, the unreconstructed, the anti-feminist.

There aren’t really any main characters as such; the novel moves from one scene to another, one narrator to another with characters who at first seem disconnected but who all join up in the end like dots to make a picture. Nor does she seem to say that this is a definitive picture, merely a snapshot, a view from one writer at one time. There are lesbians and non-binary people, successful theatre directors and cleaners; but the most impressive thing is that unlike most writers, Evaristo does not assume that diversity excludes the conventional.

Nevertheless, wonderful and inclusive as the book is, it leads me to examine once again my own attitudes to race. I’ve just read this article which made a big stir in 2014 when first published on Reni Eddo-Lodge’s blog – and I ask myself, am I guilty of the things she describes? Do I think that unless the n-word has been uttered or some racially-aggravated assault taken place, that there is no racism? I usually try to look at these things in terms of sexism; to translate it into men treating me in a certain way and think, how would I feel about that? To be honest I recognise a lot of what she describes (they don’t want to hear you but don’t get angry or you’ll be stereotyped; they shut down when you talk about your experience) but maybe it’s not the same. I don’t know. But I do know that I have a lot of unconscious prejudice inside me – and whilst I’m not necessarily responsible for how it came there I am responsible for it still being there.

Aside from that, in spite of Boris Johnson’s optimistic ramblings I am staying locked down until the middle of June at the very earliest. But then I’m fortunate in being able to work from home.

Kirk out

Spiders in the Night…

What is it about spiders? Is it that the ‘elbows’ go above the body? Is it the number of legs? Is it the sheer speed of their movement? Or is it the terrible beady eyes? Whatever it may be, a spider is a scary thing. But whereas there are some truly terrifying spiders in some parts of the world: the Mexican jumping spider which is horrific to behold (are they Mexican? Or have I mixed that up with beans?) and the funnel web spider, so deadly that the joke used to be that it was called a fff, because once it bit you all you could say was ‘I’ve been bitten by a ffff…’ in this country there’s no need to be afraid of spiders. Yet still they remain a potent symbol of threat.

I’ve managed to teach myself to be around arachnids, thanks in part to OH who thinks they’re awesome and sweet; also thanks to the application of yoga philosophy, yet on occasion they will haunt my dreams. This morning I woke at five from a vivid dream involving pale brown spiders that could fly. They weren’t terribly big and didn’t actually bite me but just flew around being generally menacing like Hell’s Angels circling a pub on a Saturday night.

So I awoke feeling strange and wobbly, in that place where I know psychosis is lurking ready to pull the ground from under me. At such times it is important to reconnect with reality; to feel your feet on the ground and the air in your lungs; to tell yourself ‘I am here.’ But at five in the morning it’s hard to tell dreams from reality. Am I a writer living in the Midlands, England who dreamed of spiders from Mars? Or am I a Martian spider dreaming of living in the Midlands?

In other news, my long-awaited book came yesterday and I dived right in. Girl, Woman, Other is so far pretty good and vastly different from what I’ve been reading lately. I’ll post a review when I’m done.

That’s all folks. Stay safe out there – the virus isn’t done with us yet,,..

Kirk out

It’s Nearly All Greek to Me

I’ve just finished my daily dose of Hellenic hell. I jest, I’m actually really enjoying learning Ancient Greek (why else would I bother? It’s not like I have a Tardis) but some days have a steeper learning curve than others. Recently I’ve learned several new verbs, one of which changes its stem vowel half-way through which is not playing fair at all. To give you an idea, imagine the verb ‘to read’ going ‘I read, you read, she reads’, then changing to ‘we road, you road’ and finally going off on one with ‘they roaiaroud.’ It’s just not playing fair and I’m going to protest.

But mostly it’s fine, even if the sentences you translate end up a bit like a Janet and John book: I am reading. You are listening. Are they hearing? And then, since this is a book designed for philosophy students wanting to read Plato, you suddenly get ‘Socrates is corrupting the youth of the city.’ It’s all terrific fun…

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a Tardis, though, and go back to Ancient Greece? Except that knowing my luck instead of meeting Plato or sitting at the foot of Socrates I’d end up in a cheese shop in some bizarre Pythonesque situation trying to buy cheese with a vocabulary geared to classical philosophy. I’d stretch my hand towards the street and say ‘hoi polloi’ and that would be that.

Mind you, I’d have to change gender in order to do anything at all since life was pretty horrible for women in Ancient Greece. These heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey treated women and slaves abysmally; read The Silence of the Girls and weep: I did. It wasn’t much better in Rome but at least you could go out of the house; Greek women were only allowed out to go to the shops, otherwise they had to stay at home. I can’t imagine what that would be like…

Kirk out

Life in Lockdown

After six weeks, lockdown is beginning to get to me a little. I was fine for a month or so; enjoying it really, relishing not having to organise anything or remember appointments, not needing to bother about rotas and timetables, just having time to myself to be introspective and of course to learn Ancient Greek.

The Greek’s going pretty well actually – it seems to reach parts of the brain modern languages can’t reach. I’m against elitism in learning but it has to be said that learning a classical language does something to your grey matter. I can feel bits of it sparking up and making connections I haven’t made since I was at school and laughing at Miss Kettlewell. But enough of that later…

Alas in the seventh week the time is starting to hang heavy and I’m going a little stir-crazy. There are only so many videos you can watch or courses you can do or Zoom meetings you can attend without some kind of burnout and basically when it comes down to it there’s no substitute for full-on human contact. I’m a mixture of introvert and extravert and whilst I enjoy company I also need from time to time to hibernate. My usual periods for doing this are Christmas and summer; at Christmas I take a couple of weeks and in the summer I go for a month. It’s very wholesome but at the end of it I’m glad to go out and see people again.

I’m lucky of course not to be living alone. I don’t know what I’d do if I were in that situation or else stuck in a flat with small children pinging off the walls. Then again they say that this period without frenetic activity has helped children to focus more – and as we found when doing Home Education, when children say they’re bored if you leave them to find something to do they usually will.

On the TV I’m continuing with Doctor Foster, a positively Greek drama with everything you could want in a modern tale of betrayal and vengeance. The eponymous doctor is basically Medea; a calm and supportive woman who, when she finds out her husband has been cheating on her for years, stops at nothing to destroy him. It’s appalling and highly compelling in about equal measure.

Reading-wise I’m between books at the moment: I’ve finished Beloved and The House of the Spirits and I tried Annie Proulx’s Barkskins again

but I just can’t get into it. The latest edition of Granta arrived on Saturday and I launched into it with such fervour that I’ve read nearly all the stories and articles. I have ordered the Booker prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other which should arrive in the next few days, so till then I am resigned to having spaces in the day with nothing to read but Facebook or the Guardian app. Ah well.

The trouble is, when a book arrives that I really want to read, I devour it within days and then I have nothing to read any more.

Back to Miss Kettlewell. I’ve mentioned her before but just in case you don’t remember, she was our Latin teacher at school. Red-faced and plump, looking rather like a German sausage in an ill-fitting crimplene dress, she cut a ridiculous figure to our 14-year-old eyes. She not only taught Classics, she spoke English in a Latinate way like a female Doctor Johnson, giving equal weight to each syllable and pronouncing every letter clearly. One day as the lesson started, her eye lit on a vase of dead flowers on the windowsill (how they got there no-one knew.) She screwed up her face, pointed a trembling finger at them and in a sonorous tone said, to no-one in particular, ‘Take those flowers away – I dislike them intensely!’

Poor Miss Kettlewell. She’s probably been dead thirty years and we’re still laughing at her.

Kirk out

Larkin About

Sometimes you come across books in the most bizarre of circumstances. In this time of lockdown with libraries and bookshops being closed, people have taken to putting books out in the street for others to take, and a couple of weeks back I happened to pass a local craft shop where the owner had done just that. On her windowsill sat a bunch of books all thoughtfully wrapped in plastic and just waiting to be taken home and read. Aha! I thought. I’ve never read The Darling Buds of May; I’ll take that one.

Darling Buds of May by Bates H E - AbeBooks

Not only had I never read the book, I’d not watched the TV series either, though it was very popular at the time. It starred David Jason and now that I’ve finished reading, I can see exactly why. Though it was published in 1952, it could have been written for him; every time Pop Larkin speaks I hear David Jason’s voice.

Ma and Pop Larkin inhabit an idyllic rural world where without anyone doing too much work there is a superabundance of food and drink. This is lavishly described, as are the prodigious dimensions of Ma Larkin, reminding us that 1952 was still a time of rationing. Into this bucolic world enters Mr Charlton, a hapless tax collector sent by the Inland Revenue to persuade Pop Larkin to cough up what he owes. But Charlton is completely swept away by the overwhelming hospitality of the Larkins and despite his protests ends up staying the night – and the weekend – and, having fallen in love with Mariette, the rest of his life with the Larkins.

So similar is Pop Larkin to Del-Boy Trotter that I can’t help wondering whether the one was based on the other. Both series deal with the rise of the working class; in Buds of May, the Larkins are generally better off than their aristocratic neighbours whereas Del-Boy merely aspires to be so. There’s also a gentle and open-minded attitude to sex which must have been deeply refreshing in the buttoned-up ’50’s; when at the beginning of the book Mariette announces that she’s pregnant, rather than reacting with righteous fury Pop Larkin says ‘Oh? Well, that don’t matter. Perfick. Jolly good.’

It’s all great fun and a far cry from poor old Philip who was writing at the same time, sexually frustrated, pent-up in lodgings and miserable to the core. Nevertheless he was a great poet and here, specially for Beetley Pete, is his poem Days:

Days Poem by Philip Larkin - Poem Hunter

Kirk out