Harry Potter and the Dramatic Present

Does anyone else listen to ‘In Our Time’ on Radio 4?


It’s a programme about historical figures who have had an effect on our own times, and although I find Melvyn Bragg as irritating as the next person, sometimes the topics are interesting so I keep the radio on after ‘Today’ has finished.  And yet all too often I end up turning it off in sheer irritation.  Why?  One reason only – and that is, because his guests will insist on using the dramatic present.

And what is the dramatic present? I hear you cry.  Well, it’s the use of the present tense to make a story seem more immediate and compelling – as though it’s happening now, rather than in the past.  A good writer – or storyteller – can use this to great effect.  Shakespeare does it in a number of places, such as here where Ophelia is describing Hamlet’s madness, shifting between past and present as she sinks into the story and pulls herself out again:

“He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go . . ..”
(Ophelia in Act One, scene 1 of Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

That is what I call a good use of the dramatic present.  Not that it is necessary to use it in order to involve the reader in a story: I may be wrong, but in the entire HP series I don’t think J K Rowling once uses the dramatic present – and yet nothing could be more thrilling, more tense and more involving than these novels.  (Although I suppose you could say Harry does get some dramatic presents: the sword of Griffyndor, the cursed locket, the snitch with writing on it, the invisibility cloak…)  But whether it’s Harry Potter in the past or Ophelia in the present, these are worth a million academics going on about how Paracelsus is born in such and such, grows up in such a place and does this, that and the other.  All that does is to dull the mind; it’s like jargon, a knee-jerk use of language as a kind of shorthand for actually bothering to describe something effectively.  I wish they’d stop it.

A lot of historical programmes are annoying, now I come to think of it.  I find Simon Schama very irritating, and as for that woman who does the stuff about the Tudors, Lucy Worsley, I find her simpering, smirking flirtation with the camera utterly unbearable to watch – which is a pity because I suspect that without it, the programmes might be quite interesting…


Kirk out

I’ve Lost a Home in Ambridge

Over the last few weeks I’ve come to feel as if I’ve lost a home.  I used to laugh at people for listening to the Archers, then I started listening too and got hooked – so when Mark and I got together and I found he was an Archers fan, then Ambridge became a part of our daily schedule.  If we didn’t hear it at 7.05 * then we’d listen at two the next afternoon; or failing that, there was always the Sunday morning catch-up.  Of course, nowadays with iplayer you don’t even need the repeats; but it was the lynch-pin of our listening schedule.  Our radio 4 day begins when we wake with bits of the ‘Today’ programme, then sometimes continues after nine, depending on what’s on (we like ‘Start the Week’ and ‘In our Time’).  then at lunchtime there’s ‘The World at One’ and in the evening, ‘PM’.  And then the serious listening begins, with the six-thirty comedy slot followed by ‘The Archers’ followed by ‘Front Row’ – a whole slew of programmes to take us deep into the evening, with Brookfield at its heart.  But recently I can’t listen to a single episode: the plot has gone completely round the twist and the programmers have driven a major road right through the heart of Ambridge like the one scheduled to cleave Brookfield in two.  I can’t be bothered listing all the ridiculous plot-points, the contrived melodramas, the engineered catastrophes that this misguided team of producers has fashioned: whenever I turn it on and listen for a minute or two I hardly know who anyone is or what’s happened to them.  Even the actors don’t sound convinced by the lines they’re expected to deliver.
Ambridge and its characters were a part of our lives.  I don’t want to sound pompous but there was a kind of unspoken contract between listener and programme maker, and they’ve broken it.  Well, not so much broken as driven a bulldozer right through the middle.  I will not be listening until someone can prove to me that the Archers has gone back to a state of nature – something which will probably take several years of lying fallow.
Kirk out
*this is of course the time God intended, not this ‘two-minutes-past-seven-after-the-news’ nonsense

Oh, No! I Can’t Face It!

Once upon a time Mark was having an off-day in the kitchen.  Everything seemed to go wrong, and the final straw came when he dropped a plate on the floor.  He went into total drama-queen mode (never far away at the best of times) and screeched: ‘Oh, no!  I can’t face it!’  Everyone laughed their socks off, and now whenever someone (usually Mark, let’s be honest) has a hissy fit over something trivial we all chorus ‘Oh, no!  I can’t face it!’

But that wasn’t what I was going to write about.  Saturday is International Women’s Day and I shall be heading down to the Donkey for an afternoon of fun, feminism and flatulence (well, after a few pints anyway.)  I have no idea whether there will be a moment to read it but I have written a poem about ageing.  It’s called A Sorry State and in it a woman apologises to her male date for not being love’s young dream before realising that he is even older than her.  It’s a sort of companion-piece to the Lewis Carroll parody ‘To the Looking-Glass’, I guess.  And this is much on my mind at the moment; every day I am assaulted by the contrast between the picture of myself I have in my head (and on Facebook, to be honest) and the one I see in the mirror.  And not in a good way.  In the mirror I look older and – oh, horror – jowlier than I do in my head.  And that is not a happy experience.

So – back inside my head it is then… and onwards into Lent.  Today is the first day of that festival and, having had an epic failure with the vegan pancakes (gloopy and with too much baking powder) I am launching into forty days and nights without Bad News; ie without Facebook, theToday programme, newspapers etc.  So far so good; I’m listening to Radio 4 extra and reading Ian Rankin.

I’ll keep you posted.

And don’t forget – if you want to comment you’ll have to do it here and not on Facebook.

Kirk out

Head on a Stick?

Gosh, I’m so conflicted this morning – there’s just so much I want to talk about.  First off, I want to pay tribute to a local man, Dr Muhammad Taufiq Al Sattar.  He’s the man who returned from Dublin to Leicester a couple of weeks ago to find his whole family dead in a fire.  For that to happen by accident is bad enough; but it was almost certainly murder.  Worse still, it’s thought to have been a revenge attack.  And yet more appallingly, it was a case of mistaken identity, so they say.  I find it utterly chilling and horrifying that someone could so casually set a fire and kill an entire family without even checking that they had the right house.  Voldemort himself could not have done worse.

And yet – when interviewed on Today this morning, Dr Al Sattar was incredible.  Full of compassionate remembrance of his family; full of admiration for his wife and love for his children; full of sadness and regret that he couldn’t yet hold a funeral – he spoke for fifteen minutes, and yet in spite of his pain not one word escaped him of bitterness or anger or recrimination.  He spoke about the perpetrator not at all – and I was so full of admiration for him that I just had to share it with you.


That’s the programme site, though the interview won’t be up till later.  It was broadcast about 8.10.

So before I heard that I was going to tell you about a man with his head on a stick.  But first I shall do what I should have done yesterday and talk about what I saw on i-player this week.  There were four really noteworthy things:

1.  Heavenly Creatures.  I’ve seen this film before, the first big thing Kate Winslet ever did.  It’s the true story of a couple of girls in New Zealand who have a vivid life of the imagination, develop an obsessively close and lesbian relationship and end up killing the mother of one of them.  It’s a compelling and chilling film and worth watching for the New Zealand scenery alone:


2.  Rev.  Rev was on Netflix, though it is sometimes on i-player; it’s an utterly brilliant series and much truer to life than The Vicar of Dibley: I found out the other night at the PCC social that the character is actually an amalgam of two real vicars who work in London:


3.  I can’t find this now, but there was a fascinating programme about the Sagas which exploded my ideas about these stories: chiefly that a) they were all about men and that b) women were treated horribly in all of them.  The Icelandic language is fascinating; and apparently one in ten Icelanders is a published author.

Maybe I should go there!

4.  Citizen Kane

Well!  What can I say about this that hasn’t been said already?  Nothing, I suspect, but I did succeed in the end in getting Daniel to watch some of it, and he pronounced what he saw ‘awesome.’  What struck me on this viewing was not only the dramatic use of light and shade to underpin the moral nature of the tale; but the inhuman scale of the architecture.  Apart from the newspaper office, nothing is on a human scale; the people are dwarfed by the buildings, especially the large mansion Kane builds to contain his wife, which becomes an echoing mausoleum full of statues.  So on the off-chance that you haven’t seen this – or haven’t watched it recently, do so immediately:


And finally, the man with his head on a stick.  Well, in days of yore when I was a youth, there used to be a column in the newspapers called ‘Lonely Hearts’ which mostly consisted of people looking for potential partners.  In those days, there being no email, people would either write or else phone a number and dictate their ads to a telephonist.  Typical ads would read something like this:

‘Man, ’40’s, outgoing, fun-loving, into boats and swimming, seeks woman similar age for fun and possible relationship.’

Or else: ‘woman, 30’s, divorced no children, seeks warm, caring man for walks in the park and watching films.’

Apparently, though, some telephonists were less literate than others; for when a man phoned through with this wording:

‘Man, 30’s, outgoing, hedonistic….’

this is what he got:

‘Man, 30’s, outgoing, head on a stick…’

I laughed for days at that one.

Kirk out