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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twelve Angry Men

As an afterthought, to my post about CP Snow’s The Affair, into which I brought this play, I think it is worth mentioning something about the maleness of both. Females are involved in none of the overt process of decision making in either work. But nonetheless, there is a striking difference between them. Twelve Angry Men is just that. But The Affair has a strong female presence. The men who have wives are highly influenced by them. It is the women who impel the men to action and it is the women who want justice at any cost. Behind the throne, yes, but more or less in control of it. It would be nice to think that this reflected well upon male academics, but I somehow doubt it’s the case.

I guess Twelve Angry Men had to be called that. Twelve Angry People or An Angry Gender-balanced Jury or An Angry Jury of people representing the entire spectrum of sexuality doesn’t really work – I hope I’m not just being old-fashioned in saying that. Please don’t ban me from your university.

Still, I don’t think I really noticed the maleness of Twelve Angry Men despite the way it was blatantly put forward to me in the title before I’d even bought the tickets, until I watched Amy Schumer’s take on it. These are just two excepts from it and really worth watching. Wonderful cast led by Jeff Goldblum.

and

The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk

Several years ago a neighbour gave me a bag of books, all of which I immediately discarded except this. It sat on my to read shelf for a year or so, until a long haul voyage, even worse, a long haul voyage with flu, was about to happen. Wondering what was possessing me, I put this in my bag. Now or never. Worst case it would find a new home in Australia. Best….

Well, best, it turned out, was amazing. Despite having the flu, despite seats right next to the toilet (really disgusting, just don’t do it), I couldn’t put down this book. It is a fascinating account of Istanbul in the fifties through seventies and worth reading just for that. A small, but topical aside, is the reminder that Islamic terrorism against Westernisation has always existed. It is part of the backdrop of this story. It means physical danger, it means for women, harassment as they try to shake off oppression. It is about the divide that people on social media would have you think is new: urban vs rural, when it has always been there. How could one think otherwise?

There is graphic detail here of simple things like how it was going to the cinema – Pamuk is willing to lavish any number of words to paint his pictures. Minimalist he is not. But extravagantly sitting over all this is the story. The story of how a sexist wealthy Turk in the normal course of affairs thinking that he could have a wife on the one hand and his love on the other, discovers that he can’t. He is split asunder and suffers such pain when he realises his terrible mistake that he is willing to surrender the rest of his life to trying to fix the situation, turn back the clock, and pick his mistress for his wife. She, meanwhile, has married lovelessly, the whole thing is senseless pain and anguish and a knot in your stomach for God knows, hundreds and hundreds of pages.

Our protagonist spends years haunting the life of his true love. He quickly rejects all normal life, the casually wealthy life he had known before. He spends his time curled up, consumed by what he has done, what he remembers of happiness, how to get that back. He will never be careless with life again. He collects things to make his museum of innocence. Little pieces of his love. A strand of hair might be an exhibit. A used teabag, her teabag. I guess to some people this will just sound creepy but to others it won’t. If you have your own museum of innocence, you will slip into his place and feel every bit of his anguish. I have one – not that I knew what it was  until I read the book. But I have a glasses case which has such an exhibit in it. Occasionally I pick it up to put my glasses in it and there it is, forgotten for a while, but with the power to move some part of you inside so that it feels like it could break.

I will not go into the incredible detail of how he inveigles his way into the lives of his true love, her husband, her parents. His patience, his attempts to manipulate things to his advantage, the promises he isn’t going to keep that will turn her just a little his way.

Arrgghhhhhhh. I know this all sounds awful!!! It is awful! But it is also deeply moving and entirely believable and I dare you not to be on his side, barracking for him all the way.

I did give the book away to a friend in Australia, but only because I decided I loved it so much I had to buy a hard cover copy of it. It sits on the shelf and somehow The Museum of Innocence has become a museum of innocence for me.

Five stars.

 

 

 

 

The Affair by CP Snow

Whitaker put up the challenge here recently (comment 7):

Hands up those of you that have allowed a deeply held and cherished viewpoint to be changed by someone whose views are opposed to your own. Hands up those of you who have publicly contradicted someone whose political views closely align to your own on most occasions and did not end up paying a price for that. Ultimately, the majority of us are tribal.

It could scarcely have been more apposite to find myself at the time reading my first CP Snow The Affair which deals in a small closed world with just this situation. A scientist disliked by all in his Cambridge college is accused of and found guilty of fraud by the internal mechanisms of the college. Next, one of the very people who had first investigated the claims comes upon a piece of evidence that indicates there must be serious doubts as to the guilty verdict. To make it worse, not only would the College Seniors have to accept that they had been wrong, but overturning the verdict would by implication incriminate a now deceased scientist of impeccable credentials.

The book describes in minute detail the machinations that ensured, the motivations of the various players, the belief structures, both religious and political that inevitably have some sway, not to mention the notion of tradition and even what one thinks of so and so’s wife.

It is sort of like Twelve Angry Men but whereas that was a jury, and a diverse collection of individuals all strangers to one another, The Affair is a situation where everybody goes way back and the differences between people are much smaller, though they loom large in the story.

Both have at their heart data which looks one way to begin with, but which can be interpreted in quite another as the stories transpire. Both look at the efforts by some to change the minds of others. Some of those ‘others’ are good people who do see that they must change their minds, others are not. I went to see Twelve Angry Men last year and as we went into the theatre we were each given a number, that of one of the jurors. The idea was simply that you followed the play from that person’s point of view. Got under his skin. I enthusiastically took on that challenge, only to become increasingly uneasy as I discovered Ed, Juror 10, was a straightforward bigot. It wasn’t an altogether untimely exercise, as he seemed to be the sort of character we at least stereotype as the one who got Trump in.

There was no way Ed was going to change who I am. But – no, not even any buts. He just didn’t. Somebody, however, got under his skin. He hung out til almost the end, but despite his abhorrent, aggressively held opinions, he ungraciously conceded at some point.

The story is pretty much the same in The Affair but instead of a dowdy jurors’ room with no aircon on a sweaty sort of a day, here the scene is the fusty elegance of a Cambridge college, no matter that it is a made-up place, it is entirely to the point. No doubt that makes for some of the attraction of Snow’s novel. You know that every bit of it is true, the way the characters think and act, the importance of ritual and status. In the best scientific tradition, one of those who originally was certain of the culprit’s guilt, discovers new evidence and has no question at any point but that the original decision must be overturned. Not for one moment does his personal distaste for that man affect his conviction, nor the impact it will have on his relationships, already tenuous, with his colleagues. Others are not so high-minded. The consequence is a fascinating refined argy bargy with an ending leaving nobody happy.

It’s my first Snow, acquired by chance, and likely to be followed by more should I happen upon them. I’m curious to know if his use of French expressions reflects upon him as a writer – or his social class of writer, as I imagine he is part of one – or whether it is part of the makeup of his characters. It seemed to me to be old-fashioned, but then again, I picked up a Julian Barnes, as it happened, shortly thereafter and he is similarly afflicted. I would love opinions about this!

Confabulations by John Berger

Supposing writers and painters have their different ways of arriving at their understandings, in Berger we have both. One can expect a breadth and depth in his observations of the world, whether picture or text. He wrote this near the end of his long life and yet it is full of the artist’s curiosity and thoughtfulness about life. He is is a philosopher, but totally committed to being a politicised one. It is impossible to imagine otherwise with Berger. Politicised and energetic, oh to be as connected with the world at that age. It’s a slight work, but there should be more of those. It says a lot and enough.

He takes small things, the shape of a flower, deaf people signing on a train, and turns these into reflections of a grand scale, but most simply stated, about the world and our part in it. How we listen and act, use language, relate to music and God. And overarching all this, always there, the glue that connects everything in his understanding of the world, our position of slaves, the position of our masters.

So, he may write of the song:

A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience. When it is being sung it fills the present. Stories do the same. But songs have another dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song while filling the present hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, further and further.

But at the same time, he has this limitless capacity to combine such observation of the world with political commentary which is ever strident, even though it can be elegant and moving as well.

…today, the ever expanding human poverty and the ongoing pillaging of the planet are justified in the name of a utopia to be guaranteed by Market Forces, when they are unregulated and allowed to operate freely, a utopia in which, in Milton Friedman’s words, ‘each man can vote for the colour of the tie he wants.’

In any utopian vision happiness is obligatory. This means that in reality it’s unobtainable. Within their utopian logic compassion is a weakness. Utopias despise the present. Utopias substitute Dogma for Hope. Dogmas are engraved; hopes flicker, by contrast, like the flame of a candle.

Immediately I wonder if this should inform my reading of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. To read any Berger is to be given new armoury with which to set out into the world, new measures against which to weigh the words of those who claim to be the makers of our fortune.

History is important. Yes, Berger, thank you for insisting upon that, and for explaining that much we think is new now and disconnected to the past, is not.

All this comes together  in his concluding piece called ‘How to Resist a State of Forgetfulness.’ It reads in part:

During the last week I’ve been drawing, mostly flowers, motivated by a curiosity which has little to do with either botany or aesthetics. I have been asking myself whether natural forms – a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower – can be looked at and perceived as messages. Messages – it goes without saying – which can never be verbalised, and are not particularly addressed to us. Is it possible to ‘read’ natural appearances as texts?

For me there is nothing mystical in this exercise. It is a gestural exercise, whose aim is to respond to different rhythms and forms of energy, which I like to imagine as texts from a language that has not been given to us to read. Yet as I trace the text I physically identify with the thing I’m drawing and with the limitless, unknown mother tongue in which it is written.

In the totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism under which we are living, the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting our attention from what is true, essential and urgent.

Much of the information is about what was once called politics, but politics have been superseded by the global dictatorship of speculative capitalism with its traders and banking lobbies.

Politicians, of both Left and Right, continue to debate, to vote, to pass resolutions, as if this were not the case. And, as a result, their discourse refers to nothing and is inconsequential. The words and terms they repeatedly use – such as terrorism, democracy, flexibility – have been emptied of any meaning….

Another chapter of the information which which we are bombarded concentrates on the spectacular: on shocking, violent events wherever they occur across the world. Robberies, earthquakes, capsized boats, insurrections, massacres. Once shown, one spectacle is replaced by another, deprived of context, in numbing succession. They come as shocks not stories. They are reminders of the unpredictability of what can happen. They demonstrate the risk factors in life.

Add to this the language used by the media to present and classify the world. It is very close to the jargon and logic of management experts. It quantifies everything and seldom refers to substance or quality. It deals with percentages, shifts in opinion-polls, unemployment figures, growth rates, mounting debts, estimates of carbon dioxide, et cetera, et cetera. It is a voice at home with digits but not with living or suffering bodies. It does not speak of regrets or hopes.

And so what is being publicly said and the way it is being said promotes a kind of civic and historic amnesia. Experience is being wiped out. The horizons of past and future are being blurred. We are being conditioned to live an endless and uncertain present, reduced to being citizens in a state of forgetfulness.

Meanwhile, around us, the planet is over-heating. The wealth of the planet is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands; the majority are underfed, junk-fed or starving. More and more millions of people are being forced to emigrate with the slimmest hopes of survival. Working conditions are becoming more and more inhuman.

Those who are reading to protest against, and resist, what is happening today are legion, but the political means for doing so are for the moment unclear or absent. They need time to develop. So we have to wait. But how to wait in such circumstances? How to wait in this state of forgetfulness?

Let us recall that time, as Einstein and other physicists have explained, is not linear but circular. Our lives are not points on a line – a line which is today being amputated by the Instant Greed of the unprecedented global capitalist order. We are not points on a line; rather, we are the centre of circles.

The circles surround us with testaments addressed to us by our predecessors since the Stone Age, and by texts which are not addressed to us but which can be witnessed by us. Texts from nature, from the universe, and they remind us that symmetry co-exists with chaos, that ingenuities outflank fatalities, that what is desired is more reassuring than what is promised.

Then, sustained by what we have inherited from the past and what we witness, we will have the courage to resist and continue resisting in as yet unimaginable circumstances. We will learn how to wait in solidarity.

Just as we will continue indefinitely to praise, to swear and to curse in every language we know.

I hope he is right and that the circularity of the centre of a rose will save us, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to visualise. We have let evil men take over the world, in the large main the politicians of all types get fed enough scraps by their Masters to make them happy to be compliant. These evil men already own the natural resources of the world, we have even let them buy most of the world’s water. When Google and the rest of them have finished developing AI to an appropriate level, which must be just around the corner, most of us will be entirely redundant. A small number might exist as  the provider of organs for harvesting.

Are there enough good smart young people to work against the Dark Side? Does Google get them all? Do none of them have enough of a sense of morality to go another way?

I find it hard to believe that twenty years ago this would have been science fiction, but now it is just the version of the present we are most likely heading towards. Do we have time? I so hope that Berger is right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Walking along the beach one day, my friend Paul told me that he’d saved a young man trying to kill himself there not so long ago. Upon engaging the distraught would be suicider, he discovered that the reason for his unhappiness with the world, or with himself, was his extreme beauty. It prevented normal relations with people, with the world.

This is a story of such a person – I imagine it’s impossible to understand unless one is in that position. We have no conception, after all, that one could be too beautiful. Too ugly maybe, too tall, too intelligent, but never too beautiful. Difficult as it may be to grasp to see the burden of it, to empathise with it, Lively delivers. She also manages to create a host of utterly ghastly characters without that being alienating. A neat trick. And the characters were all utterly clear to me in my mind’s eye, exactly the opposite of the Penelope Fitzgerald book I just finished. Checking her biography, it comes as no surprise that she is married to an academic – she knows the type too well. Memory, how we remember, and the impact that has upon the subjects of our memories as well as upon ourselves are of import to her and are the substance of the book. Of necessity this means the structure of the book consists of individual perspective, first one person’s and then another. It works well.

I’m embarrassed to say, having picked this up at breakfast, a few pages into it, I couldn’t put it down, it consumed my day, good intentions not so much set, as swept, aside. Highly recommend it.

 

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This is a sort of book that perplexes me, a gentle English style which I just can’t take to, and I don’t understand why. And so, despite the high regard in which it is held, it seems awfully written to me in every respect. As far as structure goes, I genuinely thought, when I turned the page at the end, that I was into part two, but it turned out that it was finished and that ‘part two’ was an entirely different  novel. It just stops in a way which makes the end of Alice Munro stories seem polished and careful. ‘Enough of this novel, be gone with you’!

I couldn’t believe the characters. Outstandingly Tilda, of course, who is six but has the vocabulary, context and maturity of a forty year old. I should be able to believe in that. I was charmed when my niece’s son at the age of two, said to me ‘Thank you, they were absolutely delicious’ big smile on his face. I wished I’d been there when, still aged two, he said to his grandmother who was running late ‘Shake your arse, grandma.’ At that age he would follow adult dinner conversation intently and ask you to slow down if he wasn’t quite with it. I watched my nephew besotted with Tom Lehrer at about six years old and at the same age reading The Odyssey (adult version) and clearly following every word as he regaled people with the story in great detail.

But I still don’t believe in Tilda or any of those around her. In my mind’s eye I can’t summon up the slightest hint of a picture of Richard. Or Nenna. Or her husband.

As I read it, I felt like it was written by someone who knew a lot about boats and living on the Thames. It turns out that’s because Fitzgerald did. And she had a life she could bring into this story, the kids are based on her own, the fictional (ex?)-husband has issues which came from her own marriage. The poverty and the damp and the lack of schooling for her kids. All true. How could it all leave me so unmoved then when turned into a story?

Well, I don’t know. I haven’t done with Penelope for good, I’m starting another right now. But it’s by Lively not Fitzgerald. And I’m afraid that my lovely Everyman Library copy of Offshore combined with another copy of small novels of hers, is on the pile for the English book stand at the market.