Thursday, 28 February 2013

Sunshine, with occasional poetry

Today, at my workstation in the market research centre, I paused for the briefest instant between 'phone calls (praying to whatever deity regulates the fates of survey-takers that my supervisor would be oblivious to my momentary inattention and that her formidable incentive instrument would not speak its harsh language to my person) to notice that it was sunny.  Furthermore, a dim recollection pierced my work-fogged brain that it had been un-raining, in a sunny sort of manner, all day.

This, of course, led me to consider my favourite poem about sunlight, by the under-celebrated Louis MacNeice, which runs thus:

The Sunlight on the Garden

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden

I won't go all close-reading on you; well, perhaps just a little. To say, for example, how the anodyne, almost twee first line is shocked out of its complacency by the bitter second.  The very concept of light 'hardening' is brilliant and (in the older sense) terrible, both a superb metaphor to describe the ossification of pleasant, innocent memories and an indication that the sunlight under discussion is, infact, remembered rather than literally present. Then there is the broadening out of this idea into a vision that we cannot stay the hand of time or judgement - we cannot 'beg for pardon.' Not to mention the simple but daring and unusual device of rhyming the terminal and original words of the first two pairs of lines in each verse, and the elegantly seamless reference to Antony and Cleopatra. Nor the ending of the poem, which balances the bleak discussion of mortality and impermanence with a human and humanistic glimpse of redemption.

It's quite good, isn't it?

Louis MacNeice, as the hooded youths of modern urban environs would have it, he the man.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Musical differences

I had the absorbing experience last Thursday of connecting a book with a community, namely Women Make Noise: Girl bands from Motown to the modern and an audience at Blackwell's Charing Cross Road who were deeply involved with the issues around how women had contributed to, and been marginalised in, popular music.  A discussion on the subjects raised by the book was initiated by a panel of three contributors and taken up eagerly by the sizeable and highly engaged audience.  Julie Downes (Editor), Victoria Yeulet (Female Pioneers in Old-Time and Country Music) and Bryony Beynon (Feminism in DIY Hardcore) each talked about their own perspectives and experiences before questions were invited from the floor.  I am working on this and other books from the publisher on a freelance basis at the moment, and it was a powerful experience to see the themes I'd been reading about come alive in the shape of some of the writers and the audience.

Julia began by airing three 'myths' or 'antagonisms' that particularly irked her, namely that 'there had been no good girl bands', that 'girls don't get along with each other' in such bands and that  women musicians and singers were too often presented as sex objects or novelties with no musical value.  Julia cited a key book which helped begin to redress the bias in the reporting and recognition of women in music: Sophie Drinker's Music and Women, and went on to make some observations around the threads of how music is created, who is encouraged to make it, what its content is and how is it packaged, marketed and measured.

Bryony Beynon borrowed a phrase from John Peel to discuss the 'atom-splitting moment' the Punk movement provided, namely the realisation for many women that they could be autonomous participants in all aspects of the music industry, not least as performers.  Bryony linked this to women and girls discovering a hidden legacy of female groups, comparing this process to Virginia Woolf's concept of 'thinking back through our mothers'.   Bryony also acknowledged that alongside the empowerment and enfranchisement of Punk, there persisted a culture of sexism that was at odds with the genre's liberating effects.

Victoria Yeulet fervently championed the significance of women's music, especially that of neglected but fundamental figures such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Barbara Dane, both of whom shaped popular music in ways which allowed male artists (not least Bob Dylan) to occupy their much more conspicuous positions in the musical pantheon. Victoria's research into and knowledge of old-time and roots/country music, especially in America, inform the fascinating first chapter of this book.

A wide-ranging discussion followed, prompted by a series of questions from an audience in an atmosphere of affirmation and inspiration which will have many who were there rushing to Youtube, Google and their ilk to discover the above-named and other performers that official music history has obscured.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Wheel writes

It is, of course, at this time of year that people's fancies turn back to thoughts of cycling.  In my wild and car-free youth, there was never any such return, as I cycled all year round in order to get to work and (more often than not) back.  In these, my years of increased girth and diminished leisure time, however, I swap pedals for Saucony Jazz running shoes in the winter, until things get a little lighter and less frigid.  My first two velocipedal peregrinations - apart from asking very difficult questions (in Latin) of my lungs, legs and some apparently new parts of my body which have been introduced  simply to notify me that I have spent too long out of the saddle - have led me to ponder (no, that's not a Hertfordshire village) on some verbal and literary cycling associations.

In the former camp I have revisited the contrast between attitudes to the machine and the activity across opposite sides of The Channel.  Our Gallic cousins, for example, grace the device with the phrase la petite reine while, until relatively recently, riding a pushbike seriously in this country was regarded by anyone not of the fraternity as a somewhat risible activity.  Similarly, the act of rising from the saddle to exert greater pressure on the pedals starts in Calais as en danseuse and disembarks at Dover as honking (no, honestly).

The terminal point of such literary bicycle mapping is always, however, The Third Policeman by (really, you had to ask?) Flann O'Brien. One of the innumerably superior qualities of this, the finest novel that will ever be written in English (it's no use jumping up and down in that undignified manner - I refer you to page 37 of The Book Of Stuff That Just Is) is its insistence on interrogating itself as to its content. 'Is it about a bicycle' is the enquiry tumbling forth constantly from the mouth of the strange (but not Third) policeman Sergeant Pluck. In the context of the plot, it is a reasonable question, as he makes it his business, in direct contradistinction to what passes for the normal operating procedures for the constabulary, to temporarily steal and hide his constituents' bicycles, on the grounds that:

the Atomic Theory is at work in this parish

and that therefore, obviously:

iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms .

producing weird, hybrid creatures which are neither fully human nor bicycular.

So the novel is, of course, about a bicycle, or many bicycles, but also, as Puck's purloining proclivities illustrate, the insistence of human beings on expending vast amounts of energy and concern on issues and projects which are either enormously misguided or trivial.  Hence the narrator's obsession with a maverick 'scientist', de Selby, who attributes what most people call 'night' to a daily accretion of dirty air and launches an attempt to dilute water. Nesting a further example within this one, the book's descriptions of de Selby and of his commentators gradually become engulfed by their own footnotes, which grow monstrously out of proportion to overwhelm the main text.  The same determined misguidance is at work in the policemen's pedestrian handling of 'Omnium' a secret substance they have discovered which can lend more than god-like powers to its wielders, or in their case, not.

Bicycles, mad scientists, the meaning of life - why are you reading this and not rushing to your nearest 24-hour bookstore and purchasing a copy? Not to mention the delicious style, moral satire, comic dialogue, playfulness with registers and did I mention the bicycles?

On a much more trivial but nonetheless very worthy note, see The Wheels of Chance by HG Wells, which exemplifies how the bicycle helped to liberate the working classes and was a (literal) vehicle for (literal) social mobility.  Be careful, also, not to overlook Three Men on the Bummel, which is not only funnier than its aquatic partner but contains a description of inept home-made bicycle maintenance that is entirely sublime.

Or why not try these not entirely unimaginary pieces:

Pumphrey Clinker
As you Lycra it
Novel on Velo Paper


Happy pedalling.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Hair apparent

I've been somewhat obsessively listening to The Songs of Leonard Cohen on my MP3 player recently.  I am, by the way, true to the principles of the Perverse Adopter in this respect, in that neither this, nor any other device I possess, is marked with the sign of the Apple.  Anyway -  pressing on - a number of the songs on this undeniably accurately-named album (the working title was apparently The Wardrobes of Alan Jenkins) describe hair, using ornate images which, as sometimes happens even within the lyrical realms of Anglophone popular music's only true genius, place at least the smallest toe of one foot over the border-line of pretentiousness.

We go from the elegantly understated, folk-like repetition of:

I met a woman long ago
her hair the black that black can go,
Are you a teacher of the heart?
Soft she answered no. 

I met a girl across the sea,
her hair the gold that gold can be,
Are you a teacher of the heart?
Yes, but not for thee.

via the slightly more purple:

She used to wear her hair like you
except when she was sleeping,
and then she'd weave it on a loom
of smoke and gold and breathing.

into the bizarre simile:

your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm.

I have deliberately omitted to specify from which songs these lines come because (a) you darn well ought to know and (b) if you don't, it will do you an enormous amount of good to visit the official web site and brush up on your Cohen.

This is not, lest so ye think, in any way a complaint; these threads of subject and imagery are one of the many phenomena that make Cohen's albums fascinating and able to bear repeated and close attention.  Fire crops up quite a bit, as does dance and (blushes slightly) oral sex.  This semi-apologetic paragraph will not, I suspect, preserve me from being ambushed, cornered and pointed at witheringly by the local cadre of the Leonard Cohen militia.  Yes, they are everywhere.

Your homework is to describe the top thatch of your loved one in as vivid and original a way as possible. The best work will be displayed on the walls for parents' evening.

Monday, 18 February 2013

Ride all about it

This evening, as my colleagues and I at the market research centre were exchanging farewells and plans for the week ahead, it transpired that one of said colleagues was bound for Harry Potter World, (or words to that effect).  Speculating about the nature of this phenomenon led me to consider whether there exists a yawning gap in the culture market, namely adventure park scenarios based on the works of other popular artistes in the literary sphere.  I hereby waggle my digital tendrils in the direction of any well-financed visionary who could support me in launching such facilities, including:


Recreate the feeling of implacable Fate driving you and your hopes to a tragic conclusion! 

On entering The Journey, you will be presented with, and ignore, a series of symbolic but reasonably transparent warnings regarding the awfulness that is to come. After a few bucolic interludes, during which highly convincing encounters with our team of Enactors lead you to lament the erosion of rural pastimes and values, you will be ushered towards a dire and irrevocable demise.  A small additional tariff enables you to compose and leave a pithily-worded note for those who survive you.

Note to investors: some Health and Safety issues to be firmed up here.


Thrill to the literal highs and lows of the Victorian virtuoso tugger of heartstrings!

A unique, linked series of rides, in each of which you are accompanied by an entirely convincing Boznian. The first character you encounter will, while feigning friendliness and goodwill towards you, denude you of all your wealth and possessions.  The next few sections see you accompanied by members of an unfeasibly large and charmingly impoverished family, who will cause you to learn that the indomitable human spirit is worth more than gold can purchase. The climactic section brings you into surprising contact with the formerly unknown twin brother of the first character, who also happens to be, simultaneously, your third cousin and your mother's former wet-nurse, now risen to wealth and prominence.  Our customised and unique Incredulity Dampeners (patent pending) will allow you to regard the entire episode as not only plausible but practically inevitable.  Your wealth and position restored, you march off into a glowing future, blissfully discarding all that guff about the nobility of honest poverty.

Note to investors: if genuine wealth is deployed, may not be an entirely cost-effective business model


Dare you attempt to solve the secret code?

In our most enigmatic Literature Experience, you stand before an awesome labyrinth, whose complexity dwarfs that of any similar construction ever devised by the fiendish wit of humankind.  At the tantalisingly inaccessible core of this device there may lie a secret so dark and festering that its exposure will wreak catastrophic emotional damage. Fortunately, the instructions for entering the Maze are written in such a tangle of page-long sub-sub-ordinate clauses that you surrender the attempt and return home.

Note to investors: may not attract a high revisit rate.

I await the call of dragons.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Nagging concern in the book trade

It was with considerable distress that the book industry learned of the surprising intrusion of the horse-meat scandal into the world of literature.  On being informed that horse-related elements had been discovered in books apparently innocent of equine content, the Booksellers' and Publishers' Associations despatched  a combined team of crack investigative operatives, whose first sweep of bookshops shelves has led to the delivery of suspect product for analysis, with the result that the following affected works have been exposed:

The Remembrance of Things Pasture

Bridleshead Revisited

Groom at the Top

Withering Heights

Whinny the Pooh

The Neigh of the Peaceful Warrior

Love on the Foal

Kane and Stable

The Trotter's Club

Blackberry Equine

The Mount of Monte Cristo

'Tis Pity she's a Horse.

The teams involved in this work fear that these findings only represent the tip of the iceberg.  Booksellers and all other relevant workers in this area are asked to remain vigilant and report any further suspected cases immediately. It behooves us all to do so.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Reading the Love Metre

It has probably not entirely escaped your detective faculties that - on this day -  love, as they say, is in the air.  Similarly, when Prince William's most intimate courtiers observed his reaction to Kate Middleton, they muttered to themselves that love was in The Heir.  But enough of that.

In our household this morning, we honoured the blessed Mr. Valentine in the traditional  manner by exchanging greetings cards.  In addition, and in flagrant contravention of ratified marital policy, my wife, knowing my predilection for writing which fails to reach the right-hand edge of the page, presented me with a copy of Salt's Best British Poetry, 2012.  
I haven't opened this book yet, but I am issuing British Poetry with a stern warning that, if I fail to discover a plenitude of form and structure within its ranks, there will be a strongly-worded sestina coming its way.

For my part, I embellished my offering with a hand-made, rhyming acrostic in iambic pentameter (for the most part - a small dactyl crept in through the metre-flap at the beginning). I have, of course, taken the precaution of marrying a person with an even number of letters in her name, and so have been able to produce several versions of this form for her in a manner that has been pleasingly challenging on each occasion.

Which brings me to my point.  Being ever-vigilant for the slightest pretext for proselytizing the pluralistic pieces of Mervyn Peake (apologies if your browsing device just showered you with saliva), I wanted today to share one of my favourite love poems, which nestles quietly in a shady arbour within the Peake canon.  It was written for his wife, and runs thus:

To Maeve

You walk unaware
Of the slender gazelle
That moves as you move
And is one with the limbs
That you have.

You live unaware
Of the faint, the unearthly
Echo of hooves
That within your white streams
Of clear clay that I love

Are in flight as you turn,
As you stand, as you move,
As you sleep, for the slender
Gazelle never rests
In your ivory grove.

This is vintage Peake, with arcane words such as 'clay' and 'grove' perfectly suiting the romantic theme, and the rhythm beautifully evoking the animal movement and stillness being described.

By the way, there are only 364 shopping days to Valentine's Day, so I am obliged to remind you that I can offer a range of poetic products to enchant your inamorata/o.  Contact me for a full tariff; (sonnet sequences comprising twenty or more elements are charged at a premium rate, but bulk discounts may be negotiable).

Monday, 11 February 2013

Maid in China

Given the precise, highly nuanced and specialised way in which language is used in poetry (see several previous posts, including this and that one), I am very dubious about translated verse being able to reflect meaningfully the original work.  My apologies are tendered to those whose entire professional  raison d'être I have just blithely dismissed.  As Twitter, however, was chirruping brightly with Chinese New Year greetings yesterday, and as I cannot claim entirely to shun poetry from other tongues, I thought I'd offer up this elegant piece from Helen Waddell's Lyrics from the Chinese:


Written B.C. 650.

' Other things,' says the 'Little Preface' solemnly, 'more difficult to overcome than Distance, may keep one from a Place.'

It is the yearning of a young wife for the home to which it was an indecorum that she should return.

HOW say they that the Ho is wide,
When I could ford it if I tried?
How say they Sung is far away,
When I can see it every day?

Yet must indeed the Ho be deep,
When I have never dared the leap;
And since I am content to stay,
Sung must indeed be far away.

And, to demonstrate further my lack of proper restraint, I leave you with a few choice literary titles appropriate to this theme:

The Dim Sum of All Fears
Sampan of Green Gables
Jade the Obscure
The Maoists of Avalon
The Manchu knew too much
Long Wok to Freedom.


Sunday, 10 February 2013

Words' worth

It is with understandable frequency that discussions nowadays develop between friends and acquaintances and myself about the economics of the book industry. To name the two most obvious stimuli to these interchanges: the emergence of e-books has thrown a very inquisitive spanner into the works of traditional pricing models, and the dominance of on-line retailing, combined with aggressive price promotion in general, has contributed to the demise of many physical bookshops.  I take a wistful pleasure in reminding or informing those of my  acquaintance who have been less intimate with the book trade, that there once was a land in which almost all books were obliged to be, by statute, sold at the recommended retail price and that this land was Britain between 1900 and 1997.  One of the arguments advanced by advocates of the Net Book Agreement, especially before the Internet had been handed out so widely, was that there was a social and cultural benefit to bookshops existing in communities and that, deprived of an easy and accessible route to literature, entire towns and villages would experience a decay in sensibility which would lead to a gradual dissolution of shared values, lower intellectual capacities, gangs of semi-literate feral children roaming the streets and eventually X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent.

This argument - that books are important, or even essential to society - has reasserted itself in the apparently blatant contradiction that e-books are subject to VAT whereas their fleshier counterparts skip gaily around the faery circle of exemption.  It would be interesting to construct a justification for this anomaly.  I would suggest arguing that paper books are more vital to the social fabric because - through their presence on bookshelves - they provide vital clues to the character, culture and psychology of those people into whose homes one is for the first time setting foot.  Without these signposts, relationships, would be more difficult to build, networking would suffer and the impact on business could be catastrophic. On the other hand, immediately detecting a few yards of decent literary fiction, a sprinkling of classics, some poetry and recent credible works of popular science, would signal that their owners are well-rounded, intelligent and sensitive people, and enable one to circumvent much of the usual ice-breaking and cultural probing that is required to reach this conclusion. The time thus saved, I have estimated by use of Squibble's Divergent Oscillating algorithm, would enable two major hospitals or four and a half international manufacturing contracts to be constructed.

There is also, of course, the counter-argument that reading is simply a form of entertainment which has been varnished with an illegitimate lustre of significance and worth by an oppressive, elitist stratum of society that, while it rails against The Only way is Essex, actually owns all the boxed sets and watches them while pretending to be enjoying existential European films.  I exaggerate this position a teeny bit for effect.  This being the case, books should be treated, in terms of social status, tax and economics, as are Cd's, DVDs or their downloaded equivalents.  The one remaining exception ought to be educational texts, for obvious reasons. We could then have enormous fun with readers claiming VAT rebates by filling in wildly complicated forms  in an attempt to establish that, for example, reading Kafka's novels taught them that life is a puzzling and painful existential riddle, attempting to answer which only makes it more intractable.  HMRC inspectors could then visit and interrogate the claimants to establish whether such works had, indeed, properly imparted such lessons to them, or whether they had only read the 'Meaning and Significance' sections in Coles' Notes.

I shall leave you with the words of the saintly Kurt Vonnegut on this subject, although you must run them through your own irony filters as you see fit:

'Do writers have a right to strike?'

I just can't help thinking what a real shake up it would give people if, all of a sudden, there were no new books, new plays, new histories, new poems...'

'And how proud would you be when people started dying like flies?' I demanded.

'They'd die more like mad dogs, I think--snarling & snapping at each other & biting their own tails.'

I turned to Castle the elder. 'Sir, how does a man die when he's deprived of the consolation of literature?.

'In one of two ways,' he said, 'petrescence of the heart or atrophy of the nervous system.'

'Neither one very pleasant, I expect.' I suggested.

'No,' said Castle the elder. 'For the love of God, both of you, please keep writing!'

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Scaling the heights with dragons

One of the many advantages conferred upon readers by library membership is that frisson which is added to the literary experience by having to read a book before a certain time.  In most cases this is a frisson of minimal proportions, as one is able to renew one's lendings, with laughable ease, via the twinkling magic of the internet.  This marvellous facility is offered, I am sure, by most library services today, and is certainly available in Hertfordshire, to pick at random the county in which I live.  In rare instances, however, one's book will have been reserved by another library user, and the race between reading time and the return deadline is very much on.

This is one of the reasons why I'm reading Seraphina as quickly as possible; the other being that it is the best Science Fantasy book I have read in a good long while (since the Passing of The Second Age and the Fall, (or was it Awkward Stumble) of Folizar The Lilac, in fact).  Seraphina, recently published in paperback as a Young Adult novel (but equally suitable for the Wizened and all other varieties of Adult), is a book about dragons. I have flown over many lands and through countless ages with these beasts, from Tolkien's Smaug (which we now know is Elvish for Benedict Cumberbatch), via the doughty dragon-riders of Pern to the sublime mysticism of Earthsea.  They are, in short, an SF staple, and highly dangerous in the wrong hands for that very reason.  Rachel Hartman handles this trope with such assurance and skill that it is difficult to believe this is her first fantasy novel.  

The book is narrated by the titular young woman who is the product of an illegal and unusual inter-species relationship (although the female dragon was in the human form which these creatures can assume) and Hartman uses Seraphina's perspective to draw a world in which the two species are about to celebrate the anniversary of an uneasy truce, and in which suspicion, hostility and prejudice vie with the desire for peace, reconciliation and tolerance.  Hartman's attention to detail, sense of humour, deft characterisation and sheer writing ability all combine to make this scenario not only credible but utterly absorbing and moving, with the allegorical and moral overtones never being overplayed.  One of the enriching threads is the role and significance of emotion and music to both cultures, with the dragons possessing a Vulcanesque aversion to the former and providing many of the book's excellent comic moments in doing so.  When a priest stomps angrily away from Seraphina's father, her uncle (also a dragon in human form) asks:

'Did he leave because you convinced him his religion is a sham? Or was he ......what's that one called? Offended?'

Religion is another very well-played card, with the human belief system - based around a pantheon of colourfully-named saints - described well at both the higher and populist levels. It was, in fact, a very early baptism scene in the book featuring a psalter in which a heretical saint had not been concealed, which made me feel I was going to enter a world of rich imagination and excellent writing.  Mind you, any novel which starts as well as this one:

'I remember being born.

In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart's staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion.'

has already gone a long way to engaging my attention.  Not only does the imagery prefigure the profound importance of music in the book, but the deliberate bathos of 'indigestion' reveals a writer who makes most authors in this genre sound like they're using writing by numbers kits.

This book is so good that I may (especially if I haven't finished it before the Library Bell tolleth) even confer upon it the ultimate honour of buying a copy. Mercifully, the paperback cover, unlike the hardback, does not suggest that a fantasy novel has had a nasty collision with Mills and Boon.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Alfa art thou, Romeo

So, thanks to the unerring forensic probings of modern archaeology, we now know that 
Richard III was actually a hatch-back.  My guess is that Will knew this all along, and was betrayed by a smudge of sack in the Second Folio (truly, my friends, which one of us hasn't been?).

Yes, it's a slow news day here at the Blogbook Editorial complex (an eerie, uncountably-levelled glass, steel and bicycle structure co-designed by Gaudi and Frank-Lloyd Wright, which is situated in an upmarket yet bohemian district of my mind), so what better pretext than to wheel out (Boom-tish!) some alternative Shakespearean characters who ought to have been found in car parks. I hope they provide a diversion (see previous sound effect).




Pericles (Prince of Tyre)

Parking Lear, (or Richard or John, etc...)

Henry Two-door

and, if we were to extend this already flimsy concept to titles and lines from the Bardic quill:

Gas You Like it

Out, blind spot

'Is this a Jaguar I see before me....'

'.....Come, let me clutch thee.'

I'll try and grow up before the next post.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

White is wronged

The recent transition from snow to heavy rain has precipitated memories of a book I enjoyed many years ago which remains scandalously out of print.  T.H. White's scabrously satirical The Elephant and the Kangaroo, first published in 1947, reprises the Noah story, replacing the Biblical patriarch with a rural Irish couple with whom  a certain Mr. White is lodging.  What begins as an apparently straightforward critique, delivered through the English lodger, of a particular brand of Irish Catholicism which is fuelled by fear, ignorance and an aversion to independent thought, is deliciously complicated when, not only does the Archangel Michael descend through the chimney to announce the second deluge, but it proves to be Mr. White himself who is the most inspired by and able to respond to the practical and technical challenges of constructing the new ark.  The book was banned shortly after publication because of the volleys of offence it was perceived to be firing in the general direction of the Irish, religion and the church, which to say the least was an insufficiently nuanced response.  The Elephant and the Kangaroo is vintage White, with all his hallmark wit, humour, erudition and vibrant compassion for the human spirit.  How is it, asks your blogger, in tones of near-hysterical incredulity, that literate and intelligent editors in publishing houses can still be churning out books about vapid celebrities, alleged musicians and even golf, while allowing this and other books by such a superb and important English writer to remain unenshrined in print.  

(Sounds of slightly apologetic dismounting from soapbox).

I am particularly fond, by the way, of the genre (which may need naming - can there be a competition - with rosettes?) which reworks or recontextualises Biblical stories.  The Flood was of course used by Jeanette Winterson in Boating for Beginners, and there have been numerous other examples, many featuring the life and death of Jesus, my favourite being Jim Crace's Quarantine.  In general, there should be more rosettes.

While we wait for a flurry of embarrassed publishers to rush out handsome new editions of this book, let us consider a reading list for the wetter weather:

Shower Man in Havana

The Woman in Mac

Water Drips Down

Anything by H.G. Wellies
(e.g. The History of Mr. Brolly)

or Samuel Bucket

The Drenched Lieutenant's Woman.


And don't even get me started on the perniciousness of umbrellas.

Friday, 1 February 2013

They played with their boots off

One of the many positive consequences of my recently-acquired freelance role with Aurora Metro is that, in order to familiarise myself with their titles, I have been nudged out of my reading comfort zone. I have tended to shy away from books which revolve around significant contemporary issues. Although it pleases me to believe that this is because  I am mining some more subtle and esoteric seam of literature, which yields ideas and resonances that rise above temporary, topical reference points, I suspect it's more to do with my reality allergy.

It was with surprised pleasure, then, that I read the young adult novel Themba, which deals with the rise to football stardom of a young black boy - the titular character - from an impoverished, rural background in post-apartheid South Africa.  The author skilfully uses this setting to discuss the plight of these communities and the more general and pressing issue of AIDS in South Africa.  The characters and environments are well-drawn and engaging, and the author - Lutz van Dijk - succeeds admirably in offering what seems like a faithful rendition of some very challenging circumstances without his book ever becoming gratuitously grim.  Neither, equally, does the story, including the characters' struggles against some formidable physical and emotional obstacles, ever stray into the region of sentimentality.  The book handles its light and shade with a deft sense of balance, meaning that a healthy compound of pathos and humour makes reading Themba a very rich and fulfilling experience.  My favourite lighter moment occurs during an inter-club tournament, the participants in which are all from similar backgrounds to Themba's team.  When one team is found to contain three players who have somehow managed to acquire football boots, the referee instructs that this footwear be removed, so as to prevent an unfair advantage accruing to that team.  It's a far cry from Premiership football, 'Arry.

Themba is also fittingly educative and informative, and in fact, towards the book's climax, veers somewhat off the narrative rails into didacticism, but without seriously impairing the book's overall positive impact.  Coupling together the glamour and excitement of a rags to riches football story with a description of a family's struggle against poverty, prejudice and domestic abuse is a clever and successful strategy to produce an important, worthy but highly readable novel.

Having also recently read an (old adult) novel which examined the issues surrounding Islam and feminism in Afghanistan (the excellent Freshta), I'm beginning to think that, in order to reward and entice reluctant readers of Books About Important Stuff, such as myself, said books ought to include a sticker (perhaps in the shape of the country or region in which the Important Stuff is active) which could then be applied to a specially-produced world map. When complete, the map could be sent away and returned with an achievement badge which could be sewn onto the reader's sleeve, bearing the legend 'Issue-gatherer' or similar.

I offer this innovation to publishers free of charge.