The Calvin and Hobbes 10th anniversary book, or: Bill Watterson’s adieu.

A few years ago I thought having a cartoon book sitting by my bed at night would be the best way of going to sleep. For a  long time now it’s been this Calvin and Hobbes collection, but today I binged on it, finishing it with a cup of tea after breakfast.

The publication is a treat, not only because it consists of the choices of the author along with his commentary, but also for his account of the industry as a whole. In retrospective, it shouldn’t surprise, reading this book, to see that he was about to throw in the towel. Like many comics and cartoonists, he is an utterly earnest type, but poignantly so here, energy bypassing the creative process to fuel his constant fights with big corporations. One can only admire his utterly moral stand throughout on all these issues. Not everybody is motivated by money – easy to feel like that when it isn’t in front of you, but he had it waved at his nose and still turned it down. Good to know that every time you see a Calvin and Hobbes ‘product’ it’s a piece of thievery which should be given a wide berth. One can also admire his resolve to give up while he was ahead.

I wish cartoonists weren’t so sad – at least my favourites, the others being Schultz and Leunig – but I guess that’s what makes them funny and wise and makes  us laugh and become wiser.

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seven Years Solitary by Edith Bone

I have a friend who’s a rellie of Edith Bone and as a consequence discovered her story which is truly astonishing, every bit of it that we know and no doubt the parts that will continue to unfold as classified documents from MI5 and Soviet counterparts are made more available.

But for now, looking at only her period of isolated imprisonment, I offer this from wiki:

In 1949, Bone was acting as a freelance correspondent in Budapest, affiliated with the London Daily Worker. She was accused of spying for the British government when leaving Hungary, arrested by the State Protection Authority (AVH) and detained in solitary confinement without trial or a prisoner identification number for seven years. During her detention, Bone managed to avoid the mental instability or insanity that typically accompanies isolation. She developed a series of mental exercises, including reviews of geometry, the several languages she knew and vocabulary. She mentally reconstructed the plots of all of the books she had read, made a comprehensive list of all of the characters in Shakespeare she could remember, and made letters out of the dense black bread she was fed; out of these she composed poetry. Perhaps most stunning was the weeks-long effort she put into to removing a very large nail from the iron-hard oak door of her cell. To accomplish this, she slowly removed single threads from towels and wove them into a solid rope with which to work the nail. After weeks of straining effort to get the nail to begin to wiggle and then loosen, she finally got the nail out. She then sharpened it on the concrete floor and used at as a drill to create a small peephole in her cell door so she could finally see out of her cell. She used these projects to keep her mind stimulated, to fill her time with goal-oriented actions, and to keep her sanity during her long period of extreme isolation.

Bone was freed during the last days of the revolutionary Nagy Government in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. A student group had seized control of the Budapest political prison where Bone was held, and processed political prisoners for release.

I’m sure it’s true that the Hungarians intended her to die as a result of her privations. Apparently they couldn’t actually kill her directly as it was known she had disappeared, though the British did precious little to get her out. Why doesn’t that surprise me.

There will be more of her incredible life to come. I will end by noting that Aung San Suu Kyi gained her inspiration to survive from reading her book as a teenager.

Edith Bone wrote her own epitaph:

Edith Bone (1889-1975)
On Myself

Here lies the body of Edith Bone.
All her life she lived alone,
Until Death added the final S
And put an end to her loneliness.

Chabon and Mistry short stories

A paired look at Rohinton Mistry Tales from Firozsha Baag and Michael Chabon Werewolves in Their Youth.

I chanced upon these back to back, both short story collections, both by writers in their working youth – Mistry’s first book and an early one for Chabon. Both as much as anything nostalgic, bittersweet recollections of childhood, the middle class childhoods of their own existences.

Chabon: laugh out loud funny – you know…so that it gets almost irritating for those who are suffering through your pleasure. They start sounding snarky when they say they must read it too. The guy’s brilliant, this collection is splendid.

Mistry: the blurb says ‘extremely funny’. But the only good thing about the shit of his world – and I mean that literally, the shit on the street, the upstairs lavatory that leaks onto your head as you sit on the toilet, the filth, the water supply turned off at 6am because the city is without again, the monsoonal water running down the inside of your house – the good thing about it is that this is all happening to middle class educated people, the same ones who, had they lived in Chabon’s childhood, would have been clean and without want. This life he writes of is the relatively privileged existence one can have in India, that’s what I mean by ‘good’. I mean, there is a worse life. I couldn’t imagine anything less hilarious. I could not imagine anything, if it comes to that, less ‘compassionate’ – another promise of the blurb. I don’t know that Mistry is ever the victim of that sentiment, but certainly not in this book. He is without mercy, I would say, as he describes the degraded condition of the middle-class, to be juxtaposed against those that bitterly resent them for being – if not ‘haves’, then not as ‘have not’ as they are – those below these middle-classes, treated by these middle-classes as scum, servants to be abused from morning to night, day after year after decade. He is without mercy in his examination of himself, too, in the last story very nicely describing his safe-in-Canada life as he writes about the life he once had. ‘Joyful’ – another word from the blurb.

Mistry’s great skill is at depicting the India he has evidently decided is his mission in life to put down on paper. Probably even if he had the ability to write as Chabon does, it would be entirely inappropriate for the subject matter. Chabon, on the other hand, is not only a master story teller, but he is also a wonderful technician. It is perfectly clear that Chabon is a man who loves words, he loves the smallest units of writing, he loves the next largest, he loves what he does. Mistry works hard. Chabon works bloody hard but we don’t know that he does.

In the end, I can’t imagine Mistry ever breaking out of what he does, living in Canada with a toilet that works, whilst writing somewhat guiltily about the life he so wisely left behind to that end. Chabon, on the other hand, has no fetters. He does what he wants, not what he has to. He can do anything – and, to be fair, he does.

A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest

This took me right back to the 1970s when I read most of my sci-fi. Thoughtful political and social background to a story set in the near future (early 1980s) with projections to a further future. The decay of the environment, scarcity, the division of the world into not surprising blocks all rang true. The world is largely composed of an Islamic bloc including North America and a Soviet bloc including the UK where the story is set. Australia, I’m pleased to report, is one of the few independent countries.

Character development doesn’t stand comparison with Shakespeare, but it compares favourably with the run of the mill science fiction I’ve read so much of. Priest is a polished writer, which makes him easy to read. The basic premise was believable, it’s nice not to have to be convinced to suspend disbelief.

I confess I hadn’t heard of him before, despite being well regarded, most notably these days for having written the book that later became the Nolan movie The Prestige. I could read more. It struck me as rather PK Dick without the drugs.

Trots off to look up that idea online. Spots this:

« Je me sens très différent de Philip K. Dick car ses problèmes avec la réalité sont liés avec la drogue. Tandis que moi, cela a plus à voir avec la psychologie, les croyances, etc.”

My French is pretty lousy, but I take that to be a quote from Priest. I’d rather read a Dick than a Priest and I think that the things Priest does okay, Dick does fabulously.

Interestingly, even though both writers are so concerned with the mind and the nature of reality, there is the same sense for both writers that their books would make great movies. I don’t know why more of Priest’s haven’t been. The thing that is nice about this is that although one feels they would make good movie material, that is quite independent of the books being good. These days there are too many books which have as their only reason for existence the hope that they will be turned into movies.

I guess Priest is a writer not in fashion. I don’t even have a GR friend who has admitted to reading this. Pity!

 

 

 

 

Farnham’s Freehold by Robert A. Heinlein

There aren’t many better recommendations for a book than ‘Sick as a dog but couldn’t put it down’. This is one of those.

It works for survivalists, bridge players, parallel worldists, philosophers, post-catastrophists, cannibals looking for new recipes and anybody with Woody Allen’s tastes.

It’s gotta be a fav of his. Those naked young things in the bunker with the middle-aged unattractive but pizazzy leader, one his daughter. Although his daughter confesses of the three breeding partners available, he’s the only one that does it for her, he is gentlemanly enough to settle for his daughter’s friend Barbara, who has also had the hots for him since forever. Woody Allen heaven, though maybe mid-twenties is too old for him to look at.

To be frank, our intrepid leader is probably being pragmatic in going for Barbara. She plays bridge better and isn’t (quite) as irritating, whereas the daughter Karen is such a dick. This book does full on Electra AND Oedipus, so add that to the list: good for complexists.

Oh yeah. Good for linguists too. Manny is such a gentleman. To think he knew all he had to do to set me on the road to French was imprison me for a few weeks, eighteen hours of teaching a day, and a kind of taser on a low dose, a mild encouragement to get your memory working if need be. Note to self: maybe he’d forgotten that part. Make sure he doesn’t reread it.

Postscript re the bridge: I thought it read fairly convincingly, like he was either at least a low level player or got good advice, keeping in mind that it was published early sixties, so out of date now, but of the moment, for example, he refers to the Italian style of bidding. I thought that showed quite detailed knowledge or research. There is enough action at the bridge table to keep a reasonable player with an eye for science fiction entertained.