William the Fourth by Richmal Crompton

Early last year I came upon the dregs of the library of a very wealth Swiss family. The dispersal of the expensive chattels of the estate, including the better books, was undertaken by one of those auction houses that specialises in the disposal of rich history. But the dregs of the books, as well as other very minor bits ended up in the stock of one of the sellers I frequent at the open air book markets in Geneva. A few of the items, though valueless, had the emblem of the house upon them, which is why I could tell what they were.

Rich or not, this was a family which had loved reading over hundreds of years and here were items from the 1920s to 1970s or thereabouts, reflecting their interest in English literature for young and old. Some of it I bought out of sheer curiosity, authors like Barbara Pym I’d never read, but perhaps I should. William I bought because I adored these books as a kid and haven’t read them since the 1960s.

They had aged well then – this early one was first published in 1924 – and fifty years later again they are still standing up as fresh, fun and elegantly written. Apparently an attempt is being made to rehabilitate Crompton as a writer for adults. I must dip into that: if they are anything like as good as her books for children, they’ll be a pleasure to snort over, taking care not to spill one’s cup of tea while doing that.

Most of the stories are strong – I see one or two complaints on GR that they are repetitive from book to book, but children want that. If they are going to reread the same book over and over, why not stories that are the same but different?

I particularly love the one where a big company opens a sweet shop in the village, undercutting Mr Moss with whom they have always shopped. Come Saturday they take their money to the new shop, get served by a girl who doesn’t care and thinks having to sell to them in h’penny lots is ridiculous. As they walk along chomping on their lollies, they pass Mr Moss’s shop. He is very sad, quite unlike his usual jolly self. He can’t put his prices any lower, but, just like Amazon, the new shop has the financial power to sacrifice short term profits for the long term gains of putting Mr Moss out of business with the cooperation of the locals. He stresses to the boys that they are doing the right thing, of course they have to go to the cheaper shop, but vague ideas appear in the minds of the boys.

William and his gang start realising that it isn’t necessarily good to buy cheapest. They want Mr Moss to be happy. They talk about how when they buy from Mr Moss he cares, he is always interested in what they buy. He welcomes their purchasing a h’penny worth at a time. They are sure, now that they think about it, that his sweets taste better too. But what to do? Start a campaign to make people buy from Mr Moss, but how can they, they have no weight, why would anybody notice?

Ah, but William, as usual has a plan. And as usual, no matter how many plans go awry, his followers fall into the next without a moment’s hesitation. The Duke is going to be in town to open a Sale of Work. When he appears on stage to do that, unbeknownst to him, he has a big sign on his back advertising Mr Moss’s shop. As he wanders around the Sale, the locals summon the Vicar to tell the Duke what’s on his back, a large crowd following him around due to the unlikely sight. Just as the Vicar explains and takes the sign off to show the Duke, William and his cohorts appear, each wearing placards with creative spelling announcing the various benefits of Mr Moss’s sweets.

The Duke can recognise a ringleader when he sees one. He asks for William to be brought to him. William in his tripping over his tongue enthusiastic way explains about Mr Moss and the Amazon-like attempt to close him down and how much they want to help and that nobody would notice them unless, he thought, they could put their sign on an important person who would be decent enough to care.

Well, the Duke’s been to more Sales of Work than he cares to think about and this is the first bright moment he’s had for many an appearance. He tells William and the others that they must discuss this further over ices. The eager captive audience of lads listens to his tales of adventure like big game hunting and together they discuss Red Indians and pirates. Then the Duke, with boys in hand, goes to visit Mr Moss. He buys a pound of sweets for each boy and he makes a standing order for himself of cokernuts. Instantly Mr Moss is known as supplier of  cokernuts to Royalty. The Amazon shop closes down, Mr Moss is reinstated as the place to go to.

And of William?

It was Miss Spence who voiced the prevailing sentiment about William. She did not say it out of affection for William. She had no affection for William.

William chased her cat and her hens, disturbed her rest with his unearthly songs and whistles, broke her windows with his cricket ball, and threw stones over the hedge into her garden pond.

But one day, as she watched William progress along the ditch – William never walked on the road if he could walk in the ditch – dragging his toes in the mud, his hands in his pockets, his head poking forward, his brows frowning, his freckled face stern and determined, his mouth pucked up to make his devastating whistle, his train of boy followers behind him, she said slowly: ‘There’s something about that boy –

In some ways it’s a mystery I’d like these books so much, books about a boy who doesn’t like to read (except the worst books), likes to fight and get dirty and climb trees, all of which I’m happy if I never do in my whole life. But the thing is that William is above all for fairness. Admittedly his attempts in the first story of this book to introduce Bolshevism into his family fail, but his mates are all share and share alike. He loves the life that poor children live around him, he hates the comfort of his bourgeois existence. All this is at some gut feeling level, it isn’t an intellectual pose. But how can one not admire it. Then there is his ingenuity, his inspiring leadership, his creativity and imagination. He’s splendid.

Lately I’ve been trying my hand at Little Nicolas, who is a sort of French equivalent, entertaining, but not a patch on William. Now that I’ve refreshed my memory of this series, I think maybe part of the reason is that William has an additional layer in it. Little Nicolas has small children and adults. William also has his older brother and sister who are substantially his senior, dating and so on. It will not be a surprise to hear that his siblings’ interest in the opposite sex is rather disgusting to him. He simply cannot understand what young men see in his sister Ethel when he knows the truth of how awful she is. Big sisters. Uggh. He could tell them a thing or two.

This reminds me of the time in my life I really feel like William was my model. I went to a large school in Adelaide in my primary years which had an area out the back where boys would park their cars and girls would join them to pash. I doubt it went much further than that, late sixties. My siblings and I, who being oldest was the leader, occasionally had to hang out at school waiting for my mother, a teacher. We would sometimes go out to the back and dance around the cars like a bunch of Red Indians maybe, saying ‘No spooning here’. ‘Kissing banned’. ‘Stop pashing’. And such like. We were highly amused by ourselves and thought we were terribly clever, though I’m not sure we even knew what ‘spooning’ meant. Probably the kids in cars didn’t either, it was already an anachronistic word. The teenagers must have been ropeable, restrained, no doubt, by the knowledge that anything they did to us was to the kids of a senior teacher. We were probably untouchable, luckily for us.

Come to think of it, I wonder if every occasion I was bad as a kid was because of William? I’d never thought of blaming him at the time, but I did find it hard to separate my reading from life, so who knows? Just hoping now that I don’t regress. I wonder how many of them I’ll have to read before that happens?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pouf le chaton bleu – Pouf, the blue kitten – by Pierre Probst

Moral tales are so much easier to swallow with cute pictures and Probst’s are as cute as they come.

Pouf

He is like so many children’s writers: he sold 30M+ books around the world in his career, but is more or less forgotten. It rather mystifies me that we treat children’s books from a historical perspective with such disdain when they play such a part in the moulding of the young. Look at any adult person and partly what you see is what they read as a kid. When adult authors go out of fashion, this is neither here nor there. When children’s authors go out of fashion, we still see them in the adults they helped to inspire. And yet we can so quickly forget, that there is a complete disconnect between the two, the author and his audience.

As an illustrator and cartoonist, Probst was responsible for some of the Enid Blyton illustrations, in case he looks familiar. As a writer, most famous is his Caroline series. He refused pressure brought to bear by his publisher to make his central character a boy. Instead he insisted on a girl, a girl who dressed in pants and had adventures more likely to be found in ‘boy’s’ books of the period. Probst was willing to anthropromorphise anything – cats, mice, birds, heck, even girls. If you would like to read famous people talking about his impact on their lives, including Catherine of Monaco, the writer Anna Gavalda, the musician Bertrand Burgalat, go here.

Thanks to S-L for giving me this. Sorry it took so long to read!

A Crown of Feathers by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I’m just not a magic person. Unless ‘wand’ has an obvious coarse connotation, I don’t want one in my book. I don’t want devils, demons or invisible crowns of feathers in pillows. I don’t care if the spell is portrayed in an elegant way by Singer or a basic way for children by Rowling. I hereby give up on Singer, this is my second stab at him and I’m not finishing this one. This despite the fact that it isn’t all magic driven. The second story ‘A Day in Coney Island’ avoids all that – and I know, the magic realist clique are going to jump all over that statement and claim this story for themselves too. Well, I don’t think coins coming out of slots counts as magic. So there.

Not only do I neither like nor understand magic propelled books, but when I think about it, in general I don’t share any reading tastes with those in the queue for Harry Potter. I don’t mean by that I don’t share reading tastes with eight year olds for whom the books were written, but that I don’t share them with adults. Apparently the whole marketing strategy of ‘Young Adult’ has been created to capture the market of adults who can’t really cope with reading books for adults, they need smaller concepts, shorter sentences, words with less syllables. They wouldn’t read a book they thought was for children, but put ‘adult’ in the title and it’s okay, even though these are still books for children. The capacity of human beings for self-deception knows no bounds.

Of course, I still say ‘Star so light, star so bright’ whenever I can, but that’s just sensible isn’t it? Hedging my bets.

Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Doubtless all that can be said about this charming collection has been. I don’t understand why it is called a novel – it’s prose, it’s longer than a short story, therefore it’s a novel? In fact this is 22 small pieces contained and constrained by setting and character. Everybody will have the points in this book that stand out for them in some way. My bookmark has stayed here:

Here you come, headlong into a tight little group of people who have always lived together, who have the habit of moving around each other on land they know and own and understand, and every threat to what they’re used to only makes them still more compact and self-assured. An island can be dreadful for someone from outside. Everything is complete, and everyone has his obstinate, sure and self-sufficient place. Within their shores, everything functions according to rituals that are as hard as rock from repetition, and at the same time they amble through their days as whimsically and casually as if the world ended at the horizon.

For a book like this to come to be available to a person like me, Englishly and stubbornly mono-lingual, requires some work. When the re-issue I read referred to the ‘flawless’ translation by Thomas Teal, I wondered who he is. An online search won’t exactly bombard you with details. He is an American who has a degree in Scandinavian literature and languages and lived/worked in various parts of Scandinavia for some years. Translation is what he does for love, not money, a familiar tune, no doubt. He has a particular association with Jansson’s work.

I also wondered about the publisher of my edition. ‘Sort of‘ books is a small UK publisher, the kind of organisation one hopes survives the trashing of the publishing middleman going on right now. They certainly seem to have an eye for what to go with. There is an acceptance speech of an award for the translation of True Deceivers by Teal, in which he tells a great story about Sort of books and the part they play in his standing there. You can see it here – fast forward to the 7 minute mark.

The Lost thing by Shaun Tan

So you buy the hard cover and one of the things you get is the dust-jacket and then you are one up on the people who only got the soft cover and – SHAUN TAN what ARE you doing to my theory?

I already have the hard cover of this, and bought a soft cover version for a friend for Christmas (yeah, yeah, call me cheap), only to discover that whilst the hard cover doesn’t have a jacket – and hence no jacket flap, the soft cover one DOES have a flap. And it’s a really good flap, so I’m writing the content down here just so I can read it next time before I read my hard cover (again).

I guess you want to know
what this book is about,
just by reading this
cover flap. Fair enough
too; time is short, lives
are busy, and most smart,
thinking people have
better things to do than
stand around looking at
picture books about some
big red thing being lost
in a strange city. You
should be going to work,
or going to school, or
if it’s a holiday,
collecting bottle tops at
the beach. Will reading
this book make you better
at any of those things?
I don’t think so.
Already this cover flap
is proving to be quite
useless, uninformative
and a waste of time. The
postcard on the back
is not much help either. The
publisher should just say
what happens in the story.
I mean, how else can you
know if it is any good?

What a clever way to answer the question.

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury

All communities like goodreads start off the same way: people who genuinely love that thing – reading in this case – make a site what it is. They choose to make a site ‘the one’, they build it up with love and vast amount of unpaid labour and then the people who kick it off lose sight of what it is – or it was never more to them than a way to make money out of other people’s good nature. One way or another they become huge, filled with people who aren’t actually interested, but make up the all important numbers and before you know it Amazon has become the owner of it, you, your writings, your community.

Back before this happened, I wrote this, instigated by Paul Bryant one of the genuinely talented people who work as slave labour for Amazon.

Well, it got you a lot of votes, Paul Bryant. That weary cynical review of this book. The one you ended:

It was a bad idea, rereading a book which so knocked me out all those years ago. I’ll give it 5 stars for the love I used to have for it, but I don’t really recommend it to anyone now. The world has changed and no longer has the stomach for Ray Bradbury’s 1950s goldenhued renderings of his own 1920s childhood. So goodbye, then, to Dandelion Wine, another one I loved.

What I learned from this book is that Memory Lane has been mined. You walk down that street at your peril.

But it was bullshit.

The world hasn’t changed. You have. Or you were never the person you thought you were. Dashes back to check. Fuck. I voted for your review. I can’t believe I did that. I’m so impartial it makes me sick.

Ray Bradbury is a man who believe that life should be lived thus: “Jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” He has never stopped believing that, never stopped living that. Maybe you have, Paul. Or maybe it’s a mask for votes and you aren’t really like that at all. But IF you have, not everybody has!!!

It is all very well, one might argue, for a writer to say that. He isn’t going to fall very far, is he? But imagine. Please, just imagine. Imagine deciding to become a writer. Imagine, further, deciding to become a writer in a new genre which is scorned in its infancy, if not perhaps now too. What a wild thing to do. Wild, crazy, dangerous, insane thing to do. If that isn’t jumping off a cliff while figuring out how to build your wings on the way down, I don’t know what is.

And never, not for one moment, has Ray Bradbury lost what it is that makes him this amazing person, who is what he writes, whose writing is what he is. Can I put ‘amazing’ in 40 pt font there? And if he still believes, utterly, completely, in what he is, in his craft, in what he has to say, in the effect it has, why should we not? I haven’t stop believing in it for one second and I couldn’t imagine a more proper way to live than by his advice.

Why do children admire sportsman? Because they fuck supermodels? George Clooney says, ‘no, that’s why grownups admire them. Children admire them because they live their dreams.’ You can live your dreams. Ray Bradbury is lots of things. Exquisite writer, fabulous ideas man, a fighter for things that matter. But above all he had a dream as a kid and he has lived that dream every day of his life, EVERY day, and never lost sight of what it is he has done.

I keep wanting to yell ‘amazing’. I don’t know what else to say. He helped make me as a kid and I, for one, won’t ever back off from that.

—————-

Update, 5 Feb 2011: It has arrived. Something Wicked for Paul. I’m going to start it today.

————————————-

Update, 13 February 2011:

By the pricking of my thumbs
Something wicked this way comes.

He is the ghost of goodreads, stalking authors, turning their books into false memories, making ordinary folk on goodreads afeared of their memories, not trusting them. He is a gummity ghost, large of girth, which he claims is his love of food, but his food isn’t ordinary folks’ food, he feeds on the fears he creates in others. Boys aren’t like that. Boys weren’t like that. I thought I was like that but I wasn’t.

Oh but you were, gummity Paul Bryant. You were. That’s the whole point. You couldn’t write that review unless you were exactly the boy that Bradbury preserves. Boys were like that. Boys are probably still like that despite the best efforts of political correctness to make them non-boys.

Then there are the tired, old parents who can’t stand the idea that this is true.

Then there are obstinate people, I hope, who will fight you to the death on this point. You have done me a great favour, making me reread this book. I’d forgotten how I measure books. I’d forgotten that thing you do, glance at the page, not taking in a word and yet what is there calls you in, it pulls you to it. Hauntingly beautiful patterns. I got such a shock when it did that to me the other day, suddenly remembering how I used to do this with all books and how most of them fail.

You may diminish this to the level of overcooked eggs, but it isn’t. It is prose poetry that says things long and says things short too. Will and Jim are sent to bed without their dinner.

The boys threw themselves on their separate beds in their separate houses, probed mattresses for chocolate chunks put away against the lean years, and ate moodily.

This made me laugh out loud at the doctor yesterday. Boys, summed in a couple of dozen words, frozen in the ice of them, as Bradbury might have it.

And:

Boys have never be known to go straight up to houses to ring bells to summon forth friends. They prefer to chunk dirt at clapboards, hurl acorns down roof shingles, or leave mysterious notes flapping from kits stranded on attic window sills.

True words. Now, it could be that they will never be true again. Maybe turning boys into non-boys, maybe the internet, mobile phones, the trappings of technology will mean boys are never boys again. (Surely not.) But that doesn’t make what Bradbury writes here false.

I’m guessing this is you, Paul Bryant, Will’s father in the dead of night:

Three in the morning, thought Charles Halloway, seated on the edge of his bed. Why did the train come at that hour?

For, he though, it’s a special hour. Women never wake then, do they? They sleep the sleep of babes and children. But men in middle age? They know that hour well. Oh, God, midnight’s not bad, you wake and go back to sleep, one or two’s not bad, you toss but sleep again. Five or six in the morning, there’s hope, for dawn’s just under the horizon. But three, now, Christ, three A.M.! Doctors say the body’s at low tide then. The soul is out. The blood moves slow. You’ve the nearest to dead  you’ll ever be save dying. Sleep is a patch of death, but three in the morn, full wide-eyed staring, is living death! You dream with your eyes open. God, if you had strength to rouse up, you’d slaughter your half-dreams with buckshot! But no, you lie pinned to a deep well-bottoom that’s burned dry. The moon rolls by to look at you down there, with its idiot face. It’s a long way back to sunset, a far way on to dawn, so you summon all the fool things of your life, the stupid lovely things down with people known so very well who are now so very dead – And wasn’t it true, had he read it somewhere, more people in hospitals die at 3 A.M. than any other time…?

‘Stop!’ he cried silently.

When you first read this, Paul Bryant, you were boys in this book. Given the chance you would have done everything they did. In your own way in your own life you probably were doing that. Either doing it or reading it, doesn’t matter. Now you are the man sleepless at 3am. I know you are that man and I know what it is like. You are still in the book, Paul. Charles haunts the library, you haunt goodreads. You’ve changed character but you can’t escape the story.

So, it is fantasy. We do have to suspend disbelief. Okay. I can do that, I had no issue whatsoever doing that this time around as I read most of this yesterday, pretty much unable to put it down, as I did first time, fourteen year old, girl not boy, so only watching, not doing those things. Glad, to be straightforwardly honest, that I don’t have to do those things.

So it is poetry in prose. Reading poetry now is an unfashionable activity to say the least. It doesn’t sit easily with cynicism. But actually, we don’t have to be cynics. It may be fashionable, but it isn’t compulsory.

So it DOES say this. That laughter beats wickedness. Is this a romantic notion? I hardly think so. I couldn’t imagine a more practical way of fighting that fight.

This is not to say that the story here is anything other than romantic. Of course it is. Is THAT bad? Elsewhere here I’ve quoted this, from an interview with Bradbury, but it is SO important:

By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. All the technologists read Burroughs. I was once at Caltech with a whole bunch of scientists and they all admitted it. Two leading astronomers—one from Cornell, the other from Caltech—came out and said, Yeah, that’s why we became astronomers. We wanted to see Mars more closely.

I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.

Paul. It isn’t Bradbury’s fault, your review. It isn’t even the world’s fault. It’s yours. You don’t have to be the person who wrote that review. And I rather suspect that you aren’t.