Posts from 7th December 2004

Dec 04

Time to update your bookmarks: Nate is

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 1,030 views

Time to update your bookmarks: Nate is BACK.

Hard-working words

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 281 views

Hard-working words

I saw in Smiths last night that Stephen Donaldson had written one last Thomas Covenant book. Imagine my delight! Not at the existence of the book, you understand – more tedious leprosy shenanigans I expect – but at Donaldson’s dusting off an all-time classic of the pull-quoter’s art –

“Comparable to Tolkien at his best”

This used to be on every Covenant paperback. It worked, too – as a Lord Of The Rings fan I borrowed one of them from the library. Too late I learned just how much work the word “comparable” was doing. Oh yes indeed you could compare them. Compare them all you like, in fact – the result will be the same. As a reader I was disgusted. As a marketer I doff a belated cap.

The Advent Calendar Of Comics: Dec 7

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The Advent Calendar Of Comics: Dec 7

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is that relatively rare thing:

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 475 views

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is that relatively rare thing: a book that most people agree is surpassed by its film adaptation(s). I agree too, but crikey, some of his other books are GREAT.

I am very fond of The Sicilian, which takes the true-ish story of peasant outlaw and popular hero Salvatore Guiliano and sticks it onto Michael Corleone’s lost years in Sicily. It’s a fantastic, action-packed, romantic adventure with great psychological depth, and I was rather disappointed to discover that the film version stars the rubbish Christopher Lambert.

I’m now reading The Fortunate Pilgrim, Puzo’s second novel. It’s an impressively understated account of a poor first generation immigrant, Lucia Santa, and her struggles to bring up her family with little money, great misfortune and the conflicting values of Italy and America. In a sense it can be read as a preface to The Godfather, showing us the origins of that book’s world and the values of its characters. The drama is on a smaller scale than in the Corleone books, essentially grim social realism built around the wonderfully believable portrayal of Lucia Santa. Believable perhaps because she is based on Puzo’s own mother, who was to be given an equally powerful male incarnation in Don Corleone.

If I was a good blogger with my finger on the pulse of current literary developments, I could now discuss The Godfather: the Lost Years by Mark Winegardner, which has just been published. But I haven’t read it.

“In my box are such delights…”

The Brown WedgePost a comment • 172 views

“In my box are such delights…” 2 of 3. (following this)

It’s easy to forget that the cosy children’s classics the BBC adapted in the 1980s had, when written, acute psychological relevance to their audience. OK that audience was a well-off one, but the situations and fears these fantasies dramatise were genuine. In the Narnia books, the Box of Delights, and most E Nesbit novels the action hinges on English children being removed en masse from their families and sent to live with Guardians, or to strange schools, or to old houses for the holidays – and that’s before the magical stuff gets going.

The sundering of children and parents was the device to get the narrative going – it rarely formed part of the narrative itself, the kids weren’t usually working to be reunited with their families. But it was a credible device in a world where the pressures of war, Empire and school made the concept of ‘home’ for middle-class children more fluid than it might be today. By the 1970s and 1980s, when I read the stories, these set-ups seemed contrived. I accepted them as part of the furniture of children’s books, but the more they pushed in on the story the less I enjoyed it.

The fantasy books being written in the 60s and 70s had to take a different line. Books by John Christopher, Peter Dickinson, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner all located the fantastic within the English landscape or folklore. Shades of Kipling’s Puck – but the fantastic elements in the 60s/70s classics weren’t confined to the safe past. They had the power to threaten, warp or overturn the modern England they were pushing into. In Dickinson’s Changes and Christopher’s Prince In Waiting, the near-future England has already been altered when the story starts – the device of opening with a scene-setting rupture remains but the possibility of returning to ‘normal’ is considerably more remote.

These stories are all responses to rapid social and technological change – to me as a reader they made a lot of sense and their power came from how close to home they could strike. Garner’s Elidor opens in standard Narnia fashion with kids travelling to the other world – but now the traffic is two-way, and suburban Manchester and the childrens’ families are threatened by the children’s actions.

It’s interesting to me that these books haven’t such a history of high-profile TV and film adaptations. The Changes trilogy and Elidor made it to the screen, but not so far to a reissue, and the recent revival in kidlit film talk has left these stories untouched. But maybe their assumptions – essentially nuclear families, a core of ‘Englishness’ to be defended – would translate as poorly now as plus-fours and picnic hampers did in the 80s.

(The third post in this series will appear later in Blog 7)

“In my box are such delights…”

Do You SeePost a comment • 247 views

“In my box are such delights…”: 1 of 3.

The Box Of Delights DVD does itself no favours by opening with a montage of adverts for other BBC “children’s classics” – The Chronicles Of Narnia, The Borrowers, Five Children And It. This puts the show firmly in a genre, and not a very flattering genre at that.

These serials were a dovetail of two cosy styles – televisual teatime costume drama and old-school children’s fantasy literature. The former was always a comfort zone for the BBC – I’ve written before how actors on Dr.Who would visibly relax when the historical dressing-up box came out – but has largely vanished now. The latter has been revived via Rowling, of course, but modernised too: Harry and co may still be broadly middle-class, but at least they’re recognisable as modern kids, bar the curious lack of swearing.

The children in the Narnia books were more like aliens – pre-pop, pre-TV kids who spent their days climbing trees, scoffing buttered eggs and staunchly standing up to beastliness. As characters, they – and the BoD’s Kay Harker, and most Nesbit children – were cyphers: any personalities they had arose from awful flaws which would be sorted out by story’s end. From a reader’s point of view this was irrelevant, the wonders they encountered were more important. From a television adaptor’s point of view these living, breathing cosy kids must have been a nightmare.

The people in charge of the BBC adaptations could have made concessions to the 80s. But they didn’t. The children stayed period piece characters – posh, colourless and cloying (quite how they found even a stage school child as infuriating as Narnia’s Lucy mystifies me). The problem was that the contrast between the ordinary kids and the extraordinary magic they met was lost: to a modern viewer a child in tweed plus-fours is quite as strange as a talking beaver.

You don’t have to be Robin Carmody to notice that these productions surfaced as Thatcherite wolves were running in hard pursuit of the BBC – it’s hard not to see their conservative style as a sop to notions of wholesome entertainment and perhaps even “Victorian values”. But by the 80s the foundations of these children’s stories had become thoroughly undermined and adapting them for the screen exposed this in the most brutal fashion.

(To be continued in the Brown Wedge and Blog 7)


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B-b-but that’s not about Christmas, participants whinged. You better believe it is. As a nipper “We’re Off To See The Wizard” was more of a carol to me than “Silent Night”. Dorothy’s ruby slippers conjured up Christmas more than Santa’s red suit. Flying reindeer? Flying monkeys more like.

Not originally of course. The Wizard Of Oz was 1939’s big summer movie. But a few years later, it became stapled to Christmas first on Broadway, then on the West End and finally on the BBC. One of the first screen musicals to be adapted to the stage, it worked as half-pantomime half-adventure story. And there is nothing more magical than the black and white of school turning into the technicolour of the Christmas season (with lights et al). I even used to think that Judy Garland was pretending to still be a kid just so she could get more presents. Of course it’s a Christmas film.

Pub Science Experiment #1 Pub 5: The Railway Tavern, Crouch End Hill, N8

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Pub Science Experiment #1

Pub 5: The Railway Tavern, Crouch End Hill, N8

Category: Railway

First things first: this Railway is not near a railway. There was a railway around here once, but it’s long gone.

The next thing I should say is that I don’t like it around here. I have many dear friends who have freely chosen to live in this area, so it can’t be all bad, but it never fails to annoy or upset me somehow. My sense of Crouch End’s unjustifiable pleased-with-itself-ness was close to boiling over when, while waiting for my companions to turn up, I simultaneously saw the pile of smug little N8 magazines at the end of the bar and heard a braying berk going on about how he had the misfortune to go to the same party as “some South London yobbo.”

So perhaps my view of this Railway was coloured unfairly. It seems OK, the beer was alright and the staff friendly enough, especially the fellow who proves that Ted Bovis lives. The space is divided into three semi-separate rooms and, with the odd hint of half-timbering and wood panelling, this feels like nothing more than a pub in a Hertfordshire suburb / commuter town which, unawares, has had London creep up and surround it. And I suppose that’s just what it is.

It’s OK, then, it gets right most of the things required to be a decent functioning pub. But there are some very clear wrongs, too:

– WRONG! The place is uncomfortably warm. It’s a chilly night but it’s nasty just standing in here, and the heat exacerbates the smokiness of the place.
– WRONG! The top room has been sacrificed to the pool table, creating an awkward space which is tricky to use.
– WRONG! There’s seating around the edges of each of the rooms, arranged to allow everyone a view of one of the several screens showing the football. Unfortunately the middles of the two non-pool rooms have yawning spaces in which it’s uncomfortable to stand. And if you do decide to stand you’re very conscious that you’re standing in someone else’s sightlines.
– WRONG! The football’s on, it’s half-full of Spurs fans (WRONG in and of itself, you might say, but we’ll let that pass) and Spurs are winning. Still this pub seems almost uniquely mirthless and that’s made worse by the standard-issue Xmas decorations which are hanging about doing their best to festoon. Ultimately, you don’t get the sense that this is a place for having fun.

Look, this is a perfectly sensible and safe pub to visit for a beer, and it’s one I won’t be returning to in a hurry.

Overall mark: (out of 10): 4

Christmas! Nudity! Pop! Dwarves!

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Christmas! Nudity! Pop! Dwarves! This one has it all!

Test Match – The Best Christmas Present Ever

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Test Match – The Best Christmas Present Ever

Or at least, the most pleasure I ever got from an old skool (non-computer) game.

There was a Subbuteo forerunner to Test Match. In typical Subbuteo style, it came with loads of static extras; nice looking stands and advertising on the boundary hoardings. Of course, playability was totally overlooked. Test Match dispensed with the add-ons and worked like a dream.

The grace of the batsman’s swing and the joy of finding the six boundary, the way the ball stuck between the fielder’s feet. Out! The knack lay in watching your opponent’s ‘style’ and rearranging the field to get him caught (and it was always a him – my sister & mum didn’t care for Test match) or veering the chute as the ball rolled from the bowler’s arm. A skill that either bamboozled the batsman or went for four byes. On an overcast day, you could even engineer reverse swing.

There was something about the felt pitch that attracted my cat. She would wander over and sit near the mid-off boundary. It took a few decent strokes down the wicket to dislodge her. She would give me a dirty look, kick some fielders over and find a place where she could sleep without constant ball-bearings in the face.

Test Match survived in the Gregory household for many years. It rode the storm through hundreds of contentious LBW decisions and some fielders endured horrendous kneeling injuries. I think we finally ditched it after the cat died. It just wasn’t the same.