Posts from 4th October 2004

Oct 04

A sixteen year old me would have loved Three Men In A Boat.

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 156 views

A sixteen year old me would have loved Three Men In A Boat. The thirty one year old is less taken by its rambling travelogue. I still found it funny, and its constant digressions entertained, but it pales in comparison to what followed it. Clearly Jerome K Jerome’s book and style was immensely influential on PG Wodehouse. In Jerome’s own character as presented there is more than a dollop of Bertie Wooster, and the occasional appearance of a banjo seems like more than a coincidence too. So Three Men In A Boat feels to me like Wodehouse without the intricate plots: entertaining but lacking the killer punch of farce. All of which is thorough unfair to Jerome K Jerome.

Reading it as a travelogue, history book or as a guide to Jerome’s period is much more instructive. Around his gags are rather sweet evocations of the Thames which does fill the reader with a hankering to see if it all still exists. From a pubgoing point of view the appearance of a Blue Posts in the early London scenes rooted its geography perfectly for me. I know a few of the places on route, and while they have changed since JKJ’s day, the atmosphere remains in places like Sonning. But if a travel book is supposed to give the reader a desire to see the places described then for me it worked perfectly. I suppose my big question that hangs over me is why it took me so long to read it?

My basic critical position on ‘mainstream’ comics

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My basic critical position on ‘mainstream’ comics (superhero comics, for the purposes of this post) is that they are awful and getting worse. This was based on a) my experiences reading them during the 90s and b) prejudice. Somewhat annoying, then, to find that most of the recent comics I’ve been recommended have been rather good. This post, incidentally, contains spoilers.

I actually did have a sound theoretical basis for my dislike – or at least I’d made one up. The continual shrinkage of the comics audience has resulted in an industry that knows exactly who is reading and how their buttons are pressed. In other words writers would either pander to the fanboys, or try to shock them – neither a recipe for good storytelling.

For an example of what I assumed modern superhero comics were like, check out this roundtable on the latest Amazing Spider-Man. The gist of this issue is that Peter Parker’s first, chaste, long-dead girlfriend was at it with the Green Goblin behind his back. Predictable response: outrage. This is indeed a shabby ploy that contradicts years of character development, spoils a classic story, etc. It’s also very clever – though I suspect it goes a little too far for its long-term commercial good. Spider-Man has always been about geek fear: Peter Parker’s life full of disappointments and petty humiliations at the hands of the more socially well-adjusted. Being cuckolded is a pretty primal example of such and the visceral reaction to the issue reflects this (note the way several of the reviewers say that the plot would have worked better if the girlfriend had been raped!).

Even if the writer knows what he’s doing, it’s doubtless still a rotten comic, purely reliant on fan-baiting for its effects. But like I say they aren’t all like that: some of them do their best to ignore Marvel or DC continuity and tell a good yarn, even (in a clumsy, endearing way) trying to get new readers into comics. I spent part of the weekend reading Runaways, also from Marvel and recently cancelled – though its return is promised. The comic’s hook is marvellously simple – 6 kids discover that their parents are super-villains and run away. This could have been a bit dour but even though tensions are high the comic stays upbeat and fast-moving. The motivations of the parents are ludicrous, in fact most of the action is ludicrous, but it all makes some kind of internal sense, it’s well-paced and the dialogue is clever. Plus every issue ended on a cliffhanger, which will always get the thumbs up from me. I am not sure any of the kids it was aimed at would go near it, but I liked it a lot. Grudgingly I admit that there’s life in the old Marvel dog yet.

Cheat’s Culinary Companion #3: More Mole Vicar?

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Cheat’s Culinary Companion #3: More Mole Vicar?

“Trench arrived to find that his house, still known today as Dean’s Yard, was – according to a grumble from his wife Mary – filled with ‘dead things’ bones’.

“The previous Dean had been William Buckland, later to be the first professor of geology at Oxford, and an insanely eager paeleontologist. Buckland was notorious also for trying to eat specimens of every living thing, in his later years declaring mole to be the nastiest, followed by bluebottle.”

(from Simon Winchester “The Meaning Of Everything: The Story Of The Oxford English Dictionary” paperback edition 2004 – page 49, footnote. This book concerns the history of the Oxford English Dictionary and ‘Trench’ is Richard Chevenix Trench, Dean of Westminster, who was instrumental in the birth of the OED. Apparently.)

Red Lights had been billed as a taut French psychological thriller.

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Red Lights had been billed as a taut French psychological thriller. That says to me that plenty of things could go wrong, but the reviews tempted me in. As it happened the film was not bad, but it was not a taut psychological thriller. Based on a George Simenon story it is a neat little piece of writing, a fair piece of narrative slight of hand but you do end up saying so what.

The plot, since this is all about plot and not much else. Husband feels like getting drunk, but he and wife have to drive to the south of France. He stops on the way in a few bars anyway, which pisses her off (however nowhere in this film is the general ill-advisedness of drink driving ever broached). She leaves him to travel by train, he gets remorse, tries to catch her up at the next station. Fails. Picks up an escaped convict (oh, did I mention the escaped convict?) He gets lairy and our drunkard has to do something about it.

This is the first half of the story and it is unclear where they are going to get a second half from. And there is one scene which is worth the admission, of our hungover (anti-)hero using the house phone in a bar. Having been told to use it for local calls only, he proceeds to make obvious long distance call after long distance call, in a desperate attempt to find his wife. The barmaid is very helpful in the end, but this five minute sequence is masterful in its compression of detective work, and the inherent tension built by the mystery. It is a pity that what follows seems so pointless. Yes the dénouement is a surprising twist, but is nothing more than neat synchronicity of storytelling: the film fails to capitalise on the potential psychological aspects of the coincidence. Entertaining, but empty.