Archive for November, 2011

November 27, 2011

Lemony Snicket, The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming

Between us, Aadisht and I wrote only about children’s books in this month’s Left of Cool. This was a complete coincidence for the first three weekends, after which we just went with it. Children’s Day in India is in the middle of November, so it was all quite appropriate. And a McSweeney’s book because they are occasionally gorgeous, and a winter book because it is the loveliest time of the year.

(At the paper’s website, here)



Living in one of the few cities in the country to have real winter has its advantages. Delhi is not quite cold enough yet, but at least we can be reasonably sure it will get there eventually. At around this point every year I start to seek out winter-themed books, for reading under a quilt with mugs of tea or soup within reach.

Many of these books, for obvious reasons, are centred around Christmas. The book that is the subject of this column, is a Christmas story in some ways; it is even subtitled “A Christmas Story”. Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming looks like an typical children’s picture book; the sort that has not much text and a (usually quite harmless) moral. In some ways it is all of these things. And yet this is a book by the author of the Series of Unfortunate Events, and moreover, one that is published by McSweeney’s. It is unlikely to be a typical anything.

In a tiny village “more or less covered by snow”, one particular house is looked upon with suspicion because of its lack of Christmas decorations. It is in this house that a latke is made.

The latke is a traditional part of Hanukah. It is made (Lisa Brown’s illustrations depict the process in tantalising detail) of grated potato, onion, salt and beaten egg, and fried in olive oil until it becomes crisp. This particular latke, on being put into the hot oil, begins to scream. As the narrator reminds us, “nearly everything in this world is born screaming”.

The latke jumps out of the pan, out of the house, and runs through the town, still screaming. As it passes, it has short conversations with a number of objects. The first is a string of flashing lights, anxious to know why the latke is, with its screaming, overshadowing their cheerful glow. The latke explains that it was put into boiling oil, and goes on to explain the significance of the oil within the Jewish tradition. Yet the lights dismiss it as a kind of hash brown, possibly to be served alongside a Christmas ham. A candy cane, trying to disperse its peppermint smell through the night air, resents the latke’s delicious aroma and compares its story of persecution to that of Mary and Joseph. A Christmas tree sees no reason the latke should not blend traditions and become part of Christmas – it itself is an originally pagan symbol.

What we have here (if it is your traditional picture-book-with-a-moral) is a story about resisting having your identity subsumed by the majority, and by people who presume to dismiss with your statement of who you are. It’s something most children will face on a regular basis (“it’s just a phase”, “you’ll feel different when you’re older”), as will many adults – readers who have chosen not to have children, for example, will know this all too well. Snicket imitates the tone of a children’s book perfectly: “It is very frustrating not to be understood in this world. If you say one thing and keep being told that you mean something else, it can make you want to scream”. Snicket’s latke is the most inspiring potato-based foodstuff in all my experience of children’s literature.

Of course Snicket can’t allow us something so unqualifiedly inspirational. The latke is discovered by a family who do appreciate its worth, and they take it back home. But this heart-warming tale ends with the latke being eaten, a final scream cut short as it enters someone’s mouth.

But is this a Christmas story or not? The red, green and gold cover says so, and the narrator excuses the story’s unreality by claiming that “this is a Christmas story, in which things tend to happen that would never occur in real life”. So is it a story about not being a Christmas story, since such a story would naturally foreground the idea of Christmas? It’s a little of all of these, and it is rather good.

[I'm also thinking about the status of those of us in India who would prefer not to use the label "Hindu". As an atheist, I find it irritating that I am considered Hindu by default, and that I can't legally un-link myself from the religion without joining another one (and Christianity and Islam are, I think, my only choices). But even among people who do adhere to some form of faith, a number of smaller religions that historically separated themselves from Hinduism are now considered under the larger 'Hindu' umbrella. I imagine that if I belonged to one of these groups I would be seriously annoyed.]
November 27, 2011

End of Term (AF 4)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)

My first Forest book, as I mentioned in the introduction linked to above. It is also the best school story ever written.

In terms of plot, very little happens in End of Term, and most of it is linked to the school play at the end of the year. Nicola befriends a new girl, falls foul of the sports prefect and unwittingly finds herself cast in the role that Lawrie wants in the play. Lawrie is educated about Christianity and calls on higher powers to do her will. Sprog the comically inept merlin kills a sparrow. But plot is unimportant here.

End of Term is the book that introduces the theme of religion to the series, and it remains there (though as less of a main subject) in the later books. People talk about religious belief throughout. So we know that Ann Marlow believes strongly enough to find her sisters’ joking about the hymns upsetting; that Rowan sometimes believes and sometimes not; that Lawrie is amazed to discover that anyone believes at all. We discover that Miranda is Jewish but not particularly so, and that a minor character comes from a more orthodox Jewish family and is therefore unable to watch the Christmas play. The Merrick family are revealed to be Catholic, and while Nicola Marlow doesn’t seem to quite know what she believes yet, there are the first stirrings of her attraction to the idea of Catholicism. In Nicola’s interest in the Catholic church, in Miranda’s fascination with the Christmas play, and her half-told stories of discrimination and being outside the cultural mainstream, Forest is also portraying religion as a thing that functions socially, that exists in the world, as separate from religious belief. And belief or lack thereof isn’t seen as relevant to the basic decency (or lack of it) in any character.

By the standards of girls school stories, all this is rather astonishing. End of Term was published in 1959, rather later than most of the genre, but this needn’t mean anything. Consider Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books (the school stories I’m most familiar with)which continued until 1970. In this series, the entire range of human belief is represented by the fact that some students are protestant and others catholic – and the only implication this difference has is that they have to take prayers separately. In 1958 (the year before End of Term was published), Brent-Dyer’s Trials for the Chalet School came out. It featured a character who did not believe in god -but still blamed him for all her woes- and her very existence shocked the other characters. The book contains the immortal line “As for not being baptized, Mary-Lou had never met an unbaptized person before”.

Forest herself was from a Jewish family and converted to Catholicism. Which may explain away the presentation of those two faiths – it does not do so for the entirely sensible treatment of atheists and agnostics.

I’ve only read Forest’s work as an agnostic or an atheist. Yet despite the flippancy of the characters when it comes to discussing Things That Matter, she comes closer than most, for me, to getting at the intangible aspects of faith. Nicola is the lead soloist in the play and “Nick makes me feel like cold water down my back” (later, “a little shudder of pleasure shivered like cold water down Patrick’s spine”). And

The organ stopped, which was her cue. She looked ahead to the West Door, past the watching eyes, and took a long breath, as if she were about to dive (which was rather how she felt). ‘Try to sing it with regret,’ Dr. Herrick had said. ‘”Once in Royal David’s City.”‘ Not now, you see. Now we have only been pretending. But once, long ago, if only we’d had the luck to be there, once, just once, this thing really happened.’
She had never been able to do it to his entire satisfaction, rehearsing at school, but at this moment, with the storied centuries of the Minster about her, and the play, complete and entire behind her, she thought, suddenly, she might manage it.


I mention above the flippancy with which the characters choose to treat big issues, and their discomfort with discussing religion (which they end up doing anyway) comes in part out of this. There’s a moment where Nicola gets into theological debate with the choirmaster at the local cathedral:

…for surely in the Middle Ages, when people believed properly,they’d have brought their hawks into the Minister with them -

She said something of this, in a rather muddled way, to Dr Herrick, who looked first taken aback, and then amused, and then said that though Nicola might find it hard to believe, there were people who now believed ‘properly’, as she put it, though perhaps a better way of putting it would be ‘without reservation’: didn’t Nicola think so?

and this acknowledgement of self-consciousness/awareness that what one says is mediated by the world around one and not a form of spontaneous expression, is one of the things that so attracted me to the books as a child. I’m reminded of this quote of Umberto Eco’s , though I’m not sure how Forest would feel if I called her a postmodernist writer. Patrick thinks “only the older carols…managed to mean what they said without being embarrassing”. After Nicola, Patrick is the character given the most interiority in this book, and he seems both aware of how he edits his own words, and how others do the same in their heads. “He would – no, he would not tease her about it, come the holidays: it would be fatuous and obvious, quite apart from being unkind; and though, like anyone else, he could be unkind on occasion, he did not care to be fatuous.” and (with regard to Lois Sanger) “How queer. I wonder how she thinks about it?…Well – what does she tell herself? I mean – how does she make it alright for herself? Or doesn’t she? Does she think she’s a heel too?”

Since this post has mostly dealt with Forest’s treatment of belief systems, at this point it seems appropriate to talk about Lawrie. Lawrie does not believe in the Christian religion as it is presented to her, shocking her family with her amazement that people treat it as if it happened rather than as they would treat, say, Norse gods. But she does believe in something, as we learn when she pretends to be Nicola in order to let her twin play in an important netball match.

There were three things she was thinking. The first, the easy one, was what fun it would be for Nick to play, and how nice of Lawrie to let her. The second, less disinterested , one was, that if she let Nick play, Someone would arrange, as a reward, that Somehow, when it came to the performance, Lawrie would play the Shepherd Boy.

And later, “‘I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy -’ [...] ‘Except for one thing, Lawrence. With whom did you make this bargain?’ ‘Who with?’ Lawrie looked surprised and waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling. ‘Well – you know – Them.’”

I find myself wondering if, in the absence of a religion to believe in, what Lawrie is putting her faith in is what Terry Pratchett would call Narrativium – the force that has events go the way they ought to in a story. It would certainly tie into Forest’s genre-awareness (see the Autumn Term post for more on this). And it seems entirely fitting for these books that a character should make bizarre, Faustian bargains with the book itself.



[The next Forest post will be a while coming. It’s on Peter’s Room, a book that stems from the Brontes’ stories of Angria and Gondal. So I’m hoping to read this book simultaneously, and with that and work deadlines I suspect writing about the book will have to wait a week or so.]

November 22, 2011

Hanan Al-Shaykh, One Thousand and One Nights

So pretty!As I understand it, Hanan Al-Shaykh’s new translation of the Alf layla wa layla (and alarmingly, I cannot say that title without hearing the old Doordarshan “Alif Laila” theme song in my head) has its roots in a stage adaptation, on which Al-Shaykh worked with Tim Supple. This book re-imagines nineteen of the stories. It also has one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen in a long time.


I don’t have a particularly deep childhood association with the Thousand and One Nights – like most people, I’m familiar with the framing device and with the more famous stories. As I’m sure anyone reading this knows, the base for the narrative is the story of King Shahrayar and his wife Shahrazad. Shahrayar has grown disillusioned with the fickleness of women after his first wife was unfaithful to him. He kills her, and vows from then on to marry a virgin each night and have her killed the next day. Eventually he marries his Vizier’s daughter, Shahrazad, who is a skilled storyteller and so entrances the king with her stories, left tantalisingly unfinished each night, that he keeps postponing her death so that he can learn what happens next. A thousand and one nights later he realises he doesn’t want to kill her anymore and they presumably live happily ever after. It is the stories that Shahrazad tells that make up the bulk of the Alf layla wa layla.


Like many people I have in the past made the mistake of thinking the framing device was the thing most worthy of interest here. Because though we all ought to be used to the idea by now, the concept of stories within stories is still fascinating. Al-Shaykh shows telling stories to be part of our natural language even before Shahrazad has started, when the Vizier, angered by his daughter’s stubbornness, explains to her an extended metaphor (not being an Arabic speaker myself I don’t know if the language when spoken is this rich in metaphor). Telling stories is a part of the culture of the people whose lives Shahrazad tells – groups of strangers, brought together by unusual circumstances, sit down and share their stories and the stories they have heard. The resulting Russian doll effect is spectacular. The book takes advantage of the constant shifts in the level of narrative by introducing tiny graphic elements around the page numbers; each picture signifies which story (or sub-story, or sub-sub-story) we are on. But Al-Shaykh doesn’t do what the framing narrative traditionally does, which is to wrap things up neatly. She leaves the stories open ended (after all, there are only nineteen stories here), and so we never get to the point when Shahrazad finishes speaking. Were this all, it would merely be an incomplete version of the traditional structure. One Thousand and One Nights does more. Haroun al-Rashid, the Caliph who is a character in Shahrazad’s stories begins to tell a story of his own – that of King Shahrayar, to whom Shahrazad is supposedly telling all of these tales. Later, a character refers to “an ancestor years ago in the faraway lands of India and Indochina at the time of King Shahrayar and the brave and brilliant Shahrazad”.This is no longer nesting-box storytelling; the layers of narrative have been completely interwoven.


Yet One Thousand and One Nights reminds you that the stories themselves are of as much worth as the ways in which they are told. It feels rather predictable to invoke Angela Carter every time traditional tales are rewritten intelligently – but these stories are funny, colloquial, sexy, feminist. Men and women flirt, play, have sex. Men have nicknames for their penises, women refer to their husbands’ “useless sperm like farting soap bubbles”, characters “nearly shat myself”. Al-Shaykh chooses a number of the lesser known stories (Sindbad, for example, only appears in a couple of pages towards the end) and focuses on the tales told in a houseful of sisters who live together without men, and on the specifically gendered debates among them and their guests.


In versions of the stories I’d read before, the Vizier offers his daughter to Shahrayar only when there are no other young women left to offer – she is clever and resourceful, but to save herself from a position she had no choice in. In Al-Shaykh’s version, Shahrazad chooses to be married to Shahrayar (involving her little sister in the plan – and the bedroom – as well) in order to save other women from death. Yet despite the playfulness and the strong female characters the power differences in this world are clear -women are bought and sold, or brutally murdered when they are perceived to have strayed. Even Haroun al-Rashid himself is depicted treating women unfairly or outright badly. And serving maids are “white”, and male servants who have sex with their mistresses are “black”.


What comes across more than anything, for me, is the sheer range of the stories. We know, of course, that there is no single original version of this group of stories; that the folktales themselves come from a number of sources across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. But when we are confronted with stories that move rapidly from Samarkand to India, with Jinni from Persia and silk imported from China, it’s hard to ignore the sheer vastness of this tradition. When, towards the end, a character exults that in the space of one night he has “visited Basra, China, India and Persia – all without a ship!” you know just what he means.

November 19, 2011

Falconer’s Lure (AF3)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)


Of all the Marlow books this is the one I feel least acquainted with. This is because while I was allowed to take the others out of the college library a couple of years ago, this one was stuck in Early Printed Books (accessed through a set of underground corridors reminiscent of science fiction movies) and could only be read in the short periods of time I was willing to spend there being very very quiet.

Falconer’s Lure is “The Story of a Summer Holiday” and was (that introduction to Falconer’s Lure again!) originally intended to be a pony book. I love how openly Forest admits these are all about popular genres: “the only reason I had for writing a pony book was that everyone else was writing pony books just then”. Faber asked her to at least find a different animal, and so naturally she decided to write a book on falconry. The Marlow family are visiting Trennels, the farm + estate owned by Marlows for generations (since before William the Conqueror). Till now the Marlows have seemed the default upper-middle-class family that appears in most early-mid twentieth century children’s fiction. They can afford reasonably good schools, and we know that the father is in the navy. We now learn that they have this massive, 600-acre property behind them (Captain Marlow will inherit in the course of the book when his cousin Jon dies). The financial woes of the Marlows will occasionally surface in the later books in hilarious ways – Mrs Marlow will sell a tiara in order to buy her daughter Ginty a pony, and in The Cricket Term will write Nicola a letter explaining that the family cannot afford to keep so many people at the school and they have decided that Nicola is the one who will have to be removed.

Falconer’s Lure introduces Patrick, the boy next door (or on the next estate, at any rate) who becomes a part of all subsequent Marlow stories. He is interested in hawking and has three birds; Regina, Jael, and the unsatisfactory Sprog. By the end of the holidays he has none. Peter, hunting rabbits, shoots Jael. Regina first escapes then is let go. Nicola buys Sprog, since Patrick can’t take him to school.

Jael’s is the second death in the book – the first is that of Jon Marlow, the cousin from whom Trennels is inherited. Jon’s death in a plane crash is never as spectacular as the situation suggests; instead we have quietness. And then, as she stood up, it felt as if she had walked into a wall. For a moment, the landscape seemed to quiver. And then it was still again and she could move. And a couple of pages later:

Nicola, sauntering back to Trennels beside the slow stream and the dancing midges, met Peter at the plank bridge which crossed the stream just below the pool. He looked, she thought, rather odd. And he sounded odd, asking if Patrick had been stopped in time or was he anywhere around. The sun came down in slanting lines through the trees and made a fishnet of light on the bed of the stream. It was doing that when Nicola and Peter first met. It was still doing so, five minutes later. But by then Peter had managed to tell her that Cousin Jon had been killed when the plane crashed, and that made everything look quite different.

 Later, Nicola decides to sing Shakespeare’s “Fear No More” for a music competition. Her singing it in practice reminds her mother of Jon; later, during the competition she is forced to stop midway because it suddenly comes to signify Jael. Jael, who had hated to be pegged out in the full sun, and couldn’t be flown in a winter gale in case she were swept away on the storm [...] if she couldn’t stop thinking of Jael, noisy and furious, swinging from her jesses in the middle of the oak, she must just sing the beastly song in spite of it. Literature for Forest’s characters continues to be vital and real, something through which they experience their own emotions.

Yet authenticity matters still, as is evinced by the disgust shown when Ginty tries to romanticise the moment. And “We don’t wallow,” said Ginty, her face flaming, and knowing suddenly what Amy March meant when she described herself as mortified. Books again.

And words. Lawrie* asking her sister not to “be so cranious”. Yet she can be quelled when she’s being annoying by her father reciting Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

Her father fixed her with a terrible eye and said:

“‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

Lawrie sucked in her lips. She had grown very pink.

“Beware the Jabberwock my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch.”

Lawrie shut her eyes, screwed up, tight.

“He took his vorpal sword in hand: - 

“No!” shouted Lawrie, clapping her hands over her ears. “No, not that bit! I’ll unsay! Honest! Only stop now!”

“Well,” said Jonm an interested spectator as Captain Marlow sat back to relight his pipe, “whadda y’know? What’s so terrifying about the Jabberwock?

“All those words,” said Lawrie wriggling. “Ugh!”





* Nicola may be the heroine of the series, but  it’s Lawrie who gets all the best lines; her mourning for their old furniture which is to be sold is one of the high points of this book.

November 16, 2011

The Marlows and the Traitor (AF 2)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)


Not a school story this time; The Marlows and the Traitor is an adventure story. In the introduction to the GGBP edition of Falconer’s Lure (this piece is proving very useful for contextualising the books), Forest explains that it was written in 1953. “[T]he Nuremberg Trials were in full cry, and Rebecca West was writing her daily accounts of the proceedings,” and so “I thought it would be  interesting to write about a traitor – for children, of course”. That “of course” is something I kept coming back to as I reread the book.

In The Marlows and the Traitor the four younger Marlow siblings (Ginty, Peter, Nicola and Lawrie) are spending a part of the holidays in a hotel with their mother – reasonable explanations are given for the absence of the rest of the family. Peter (a cadet at Dartmouth) and Nicola, while on a walk see someone Peter knows from the Navy- a Lieutenant Foley. Foley sees and clearly recognises Peter but chooses not to acknowledge his greeting. Later the two children find a secluded empty house and break in to discover that it has a lighthouse of its own. They learn that it belongs to the Foley family though none of them live there any longer. When they return to the house bringing the other two children, the four discover documents that suggest that Foley is a spy. They are discovered – Lawrie escapes and has an adventure of her own, but the other three are forced to spend some days with the man they now know to be a traitor.

As with all the Forest books, to describe the plot here feels entirely inadequate.  Autumn Term only really took us into Nicola’s head; here we really get to know Peter, Ginty and Lawrie as well. Peter’s feelings for Foley (hero-worship, distrust, self-doubt), and his discomfort with his chosen career – one he seems willing to continue with anyway. Ginty’s fear of underground spaces, Lawrie’s complex relationship with fiction and performance.

Foley is the book’s best creation. He is not ideologically on the side of the people he works for – whether this makes him ‘better’ or ‘worse’ is debatable – just a romantic daredevil. And he’s not particularly noble underneath. The text occasionally teases us with that possibility; he is occasionally genuinely concerned about the children and is cordial to them throughout. But when it comes down to it, he’s quite willing to let them die.

And trial and imprisonment was something he would not face; the children’s safety could not weigh against that. Foley shrugged and did not debate the matter. He had always told himself that he would prefer death at the hands of the people he had served to the justice of those he had betrayed; and now, always supposing the worst did come to the worst, he found, rather to his surprise, that it was still true.

Autumn Term had Nicola Marlow trying to negotiate the differences between how things are in books and in real life. With The Marlows and the Traitor she faces something similar: she must reconcile the image of this extremely attractive character with that of a traitor and spy. And of course, this being Forest, Foley knows what sorts of narratives she could construct to make it easier, and he pre-emptively teases her to make them impossible.

“A traitor? Suppose I told you I wasn’t? Suppose I told you I was playing a lone hand to confound the enemies of this realm? Suppose I told you I’d been patiently setting a trap and that now it was baited and ready to be sprung? What would you say to that?”

Nicola looked at him. His eyes, impish, teasing, looked back at her. She said slowly: “I don’t think I’d believe you.”

“And you’d be right.”

She felt sick with disappointment. She had hoped desperately that he would insist that that was the truth and – and show her papers to prove it.

Nicola and Foley’s interaction also allows for one of my favourite exchanges in the book:

Behind her, Foley began to whistle under his breath; she felt his fingers dig into her shoulder as he twisted her round to face him. “Now tell me,” he said. “You turned her round on purpose, didn’t you?”

Nicola’s heart thumped. Foley had queer, rather nice, eyes; not quite grey as she had thought, but greenish, with darker flecks in them; she stared at them, while she said: “Yes, I did.”

“I thought so. And what happened to the engine?”

Nicola’s throat felt dry. Foley whistled softly between his teeth. “Come on. What happened?” And then his fingers tightened on her shoulder. “We know the same songs, don’t we? ‘Injuns on the railroad’. Isn’t that what you were whistling when you came out?”

Nicola’s cheeks flamed. “Y-yes.”

“‘Sugar in the petrol’,” said Foley softly, staring at her. “Well, I’ll be damned. Of course. You said you knew Rob Anquetil, didn’t you?”


Foley took his hand away. He said conversationally: “Now, I’ll tell you something rather comic. I made up that song when Rob and I were kids. It commemorated a trick I played on a very unpleasant and influential relative. You know Hamlet, I suppose?”

“N-no,” said Nicola, a little puzzled by what seemed an abrupt change of subject. “We don’t do Shakespeare till next year. Lower Fourth, you know.”

“So if I tell you that ’tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard, it won’t be such a cliché to you as it might to someone better informed?”

Nicola flushed again. She looked at him, but he didn’t seem particularly angry, so she asked curiously: “What is a petard?”

Here we have among other things (the looking at people and finding them attractive, wanting to know things, the casual, stiff-upper-lipness of people in terrifying positions) the casual references to literature that make the series so much fun for readers who themselves love books. Because (however unrealistic this may seem when applied to people we know in the real world) almost all of Forest’s characters see literature and music and film as things that actually affect their lives; they describe their own feelings to themselves in terms of characters in books they’ve read, they quote casually, as if those iconic words have just naturally become part of their vocabulary.

And most of all, in a series so concerned with literature, the relationship between fiction and reality and the importance of narrative, Forest’s characters read themselves. There’s a concern about how their actions look – not a ‘what will the neighbours say?’ anxiety, but a sense of oneself as having a part in a larger story.

She looked at Ginty, wondering if she was feeling better too. But Ginty, though she was drinking her cocoa, was still crying. All the same, though she couldn’t think what had made Ginty start one of her crying fits, which always made Nicola feel squirmy inside even when they happened at home, she had to own that it couldn’t, if you looked at it in one way, have come at a better time. Foley was bound to think it was because of Peter being drowned, and so there was no need for Nicola herself to do anything but be rather silent and miserable and – what was it she’d heard someone say in a bus when they were talking about a funeral? “Dazed with the shock, my dear. Couldn’t seem to take it in at all.”

All the same, in spite of being scared, Lawrie, in an odd way, was rather enjoying herself. She kept thinking: “This is how it feels – this is how my feet go – when I’m in films I must remember this.”


This sort of self-reflection is seen within the series as something quite different to slotting ones perception of oneself into an already existing narrative – I’ll be forced to talk more about this when I come to Peter’s Room but it’s visible here as well; lightheartedly, from a minor character named David.

“One thing I’m not going to do,” said David firmly, “is open Bill up with a penknife, while you stand by with a hurricane lamp. I know it’s the best way to get our pictures in the papers, but I just don’t happen to fancy it, somehow.”


And so I find myself coming back to Forest’s “for children, of course”. A traitor who has no redeeming qualities other than his own personal attractiveness. An Admiralty that is willing, if necessary, to consider a group of (upper-middle-class at the very least!) children “expendable”. For children, of course.

November 14, 2011

R.M. Ballantyne, The Coral Island

In writing about The Coral Island and two books that use it as a starting point I have revealed myself to have read Chris Kent’s Coral Island Boys (or the gay porn version). Which is rather a strange book in general but descends into the truly bizarre at the point when Jamie (‘Peterkin Gay’ in the original; one cannot accuse Ballantyne of making things difficult for his parodists) kills a pig. This is an incident that occurs in both books: the other boys return from their unsuccessful hunting expedition to find the youngest triumphant. But in Kent’s version (which I thought it best to leave out of the official column) the narrator notices that Jamie has used the animal for purposes other than food. Then we get this: “My heart went out to the little pig. Not only slain but right royally rogered into the bargain. I hoped Jamie had used the animal before it had given up the ghost. I did not fancy having a pervert in our midst!” (Emphasis mine)


Below, a version of last week’s Left of Cool column in which I discuss Ballantyne’s book and mention Golding’s and Kent’s.


For the third time this year I am going to draw attention to a birth centenary. This time it is that of the author Willian Golding. Golding is best known for Lord of the Flies, a book in which a group of young boys are stranded after a plane crash on an uninhabited island. At first they band together to survive, but power struggles and paranoia take over, they descend into savagery, and a child is killed.

But this column is not about Golding’s book, but about a book that inspired it.

R.M. Ballantyne’s 1857 book The Coral Island has three British boys shipwrecked upon a beautiful Polynesian island. The three find it easy to survive on the island – there are fruits, fish and wild pigs to eat – but though they manage to build a small boat they have little hope of getting home. Yet for a deserted island it seems quite busy, as they are visited first by cannibals, and then by pirates. The three boys heroically save a beautiful young island girl from the cannibals. Ralph, the narrator, is kidnapped by the pirates; one of them, Bloody Bill, he befriends and causes him to repent of his evil deeds. Later the three boys are held prisoner by “savages”, but they are saved by the timely intervention of a missionary; the native islanders are converted to Christianity, heathen gods are burnt, and the boys can finally leave for home. They will reappear in The Gorilla Hunters, where they travel to Africa and are (unsurprisingly, on the evidence of this book) hilariously racist.

It’s possible that at the time, or even for many years afterwards, one could read The Coral Island unironically. But the sheer, one-note goodness of the boys, the muscular Christianity (religious activism alongside a preoccupation with sports and physical fitness) and insistence on the superiority of the English make it seem almost a parody of itself. It doesn’t help that the narrator will occasionally digress into meditations upon such subjects as the moral benefits of cold baths:

The feelings of freshness, of cleanliness, of vigour, and extreme hilarity, that always followed my bathes in the sea, and even, when in England, my ablutions in the wash-tub, were so delightful, that I would sooner have gone without my breakfast than without my bathe in cold water.

Golding’s contention is simple: would a group of teenaged and pre-teen boys really be this saintly, cut off from all forms of social control? With Lord of the Flies he suggests that they would not; and with the multiple references to classic boy’s adventure stories (The Coral Island is mentioned a couple of times and Stevenson’s Treasure Island at least once) he draws attention to the unrealistic aspect of these as well.

But would boys in this situation really only fight? Lord of the Flies is not the only book to be based on The Coral Island. Chris Kent, in his parody Coral Island Boys, takes a different approach – surely, he suggests, a group of young boys in this situation would be tempted into sexual experimentation? Kent’s book is an uncomfortable read, being as it is a work of pornography featuring characters, many of whom are children or teenagers. But I am forced to wonder to what extent my discomfort is hypocritical – while reading Ballantyne’s book I certainly giggled at some rather homoerotic moments. Kent’s parody only recognises and magnifies things that are already in the text.

An aspect of The Coral Island that is rarely touched on is the baffling appearance of a flock of penguins. There is no explanation of why penguins should spend so much time on an island whose climate is more conducive to growing coconut trees. It will remain one of life’s great mysteries.

Having said all of which, The Coral Island remains rather charming. Robinson Crusoe-style shipwreck-survival stories are always fun, and Ballantyne’s descriptions of the island are about as good as anything you’re likely to see in classic children’s literature.

November 12, 2011

Autumn Term (AF 1)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)

Autumn Term is the first of the Marlow books, and one of Forest’s school stories. It was published in 1948 and in some ways follows the traditional school story plot: girls go to school for the first time, they meet their future classmates on the train (cf Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and all the St. Clares books among others), they get into trouble in various ways, they triumph at the end. However.

My copy of Falconer’s Lure (the third Marlow book) has a foreword by Forest in which she describes some of how Autumn Term was conceived.

So I decided on a school story, which, while not being dead dull, would have some contact with real life. No tomboys, no midnight feasts, no life-and-death adventures, no marvellously popular young headmistress, no wise and over-responsible head girl, “beloved of the juniors,” on whom the Headmistress relied. In short, it would be much more like school as I remembered it.

This is an interesting statement to keep in mind as one reads. Because despite Autumn Term‘s adherance to the structure of many other school stories it does feel truer to life. The authorities are fallible, the main characters are flawed, justice is not always done. But far more interesting to me is the undercurrent of self-reflexivity about the genre that runs through the book and (to a lesser extent, perhaps?) Forest’s other books set in Kingscote. It’s not unusual for characters in school stories to talk about the difference between ‘real life’ and ‘school stories’ – in this genre the characters are often readers of books within the genre. But the constant shifting of register between “if this were a school story, X would happen” and the world that the characters live in is, I think, unusual. Take this moment when Nicola, new to the school, encounters Unsporting Behaviour of the sort that would be condemned in many school stories.

It didn’t matter so fearfully, thought Nicola, arguing with herself all down the flights of stairs. Sometimes if you were asked unexpectedly you couldn’t be absolutely truthful; and over a thing like this it would sound so silly to say, Oh, I forgot, actually I picked them in Aunt Edith’s garden. Besides, it wasn’t as though someone were being Falsely Accused… Because of course, if it should become important to know who had picked the pears…then, of course, thought Nicola in relief, then of course Tim would get up and say: I did it. Feeling positively light-hearted Nicola skipped down the rest of the stairs.

Nicola reacts by recasting Tim’s lie in terms that would be acceptable in a traditional school story. Only once she has done this is she able to feel okay about it. Tim herself is dismissive of the school story – of her father’s friendship with Mr Todd she says that “One fagged for the other, or they blacked each other’s eyes or something equally touching”.

And then there’s Lois Sanger (who would be the villain of the piece except that her thought processes as depicted by Forest are so believable) who casts herself within the school story narrative and manages to believe the stories she tells.

‘Before every match, she jumps the last three steps and pretends to sprain her ankle. Then if she plays badly she can say she wasn’t feeling up to it, and we’re all expected to say: Awfully sportin’ of you, old girl, to make the effort.’

(Author’s note: I also have a dodgy ankle, and in the past if I’ve tripped or stumbled embarrassingly I’ve blamed it on the ankle to save face. Not quite the same thing, but once you admit that an acknowledged injury can get you out of awkward situations…)

Then there’s the joy of characters who read. I’ll be talking about this more in the later books, but I love that even Lawrie (the rather ditzy, self-absorbed Marlow sister) is a reader – it’s she who suggests that their guide patrol should be called The Scarlet Pimpernels. Tim quotes Macbeth as if this were the sort of thing that people normally did, though we know the Marlow twins have not read it (“Nicola and Lawrie were vague on this point but they looked as intelligent as possible”).

Then there’s the fact that Forest sees it as quite acceptable to slip Latin into things. “The day itself. ‘Dies ipse,’ thought Tim, hoping it might sound less ominous in Latin, but finding that it only sounded uncomfortably like ‘dies irae,’ so…” I suspect in 1948 this was a bit less alien than it is now – though learning Latin at school would, I assume, be a marker of class? I did not learn Latin at school and I think when I came across it in books as a child I just skipped over it.

One last thing about Autumn Term; an exchange between Lois and Tim towards the end. Tim has asked Lois (who is a senior) to be the narrator for a play the Third Remove are doing; in the course of the conversation she reveals that she thinks the involvement of a senior will keep the staff from interfering. Lois “thought, with a faintly uneasy twitch of nerves, that Tim’s mental processes and her own were not unalike. And it was disconcerting and not too pleasant to hear it done aloud.” My reaction to this is purely personal – and perhaps Forest would think I was a young criminal – but I’ve always felt rather pleased to hear it done aloud.



November 12, 2011

Reading (and rereading) Antonia Forest


I don’t remember how old I was (eight or nine, judging from memories of where I read it) when I first found a copy of Antonia Forest’s End of Term. It was secondhand, and the last few pages were missing but it was one of those big childhood literary milestones. Because with Forest I was exposed to a sort of interiority of thought that I’d never seen before – it was a sudden understanding (obviously one already knew this on an intellectual level) of the realness of the insides of other people’s heads. And there were a couple of scenes that I remembered long afterward, when I’d forgotten the title and the author.  My copy of the book disappeared when we moved to India and I would not read it again for many years.

I’d read quite a few of Forest’s books out of libraries but the next time I owned one was in 2009 and it was End of Term again. A friend in Dublin discovered it in a pile of free books. I had to give up a lovely old copy of The Big Sleep in exchange, but it was worth it. A few months afterwards I used my M.Phil as an excuse to buy Autumn Term. Last year my then boyfriend decided to hunt down the books I did not have for my birthday – quite possibly the best present I will ever receive. I now own all of her books except the historicals:

The book which seems to be emitting light of its own accord is _Run Away Home_

(A very fuzzy picture of my Forest books)

Most of Forest’s books (all of those pictured above except for The Thursday Kidnapping) are about the Marlows, a large family composed of mostly girls. The most well-known of these are the four school stories, set at the girls’ school Kingscote. But ten Marlow books has never felt like enough, and while fanfiction has provided some excellent additions to the story, Forest isn’t that widely known an author. So I am both nervous and excited by the publication (by Girls Gone By press, without whom I would never have found affordable copies of some of these books) of Antonia Forest’s Kingscote: Spring Term by Sally Hayward. My copy has just shipped, and I’m taking this opportunity to do something I’ve never done before: in the coming weeks I’ll be reading and writing about all of the Marlow books in order. I hope this will be fun even for those of you who have never read Forest’s work.

I’ll also be linking to the posts here as they are written:

Autumn Term
The Marlows and the Traitor
Falconer’s Lure
End of Term
Peter’s Room
The Thuggery Affair
November 9, 2011

Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, The Inheritors

My monthly Kindle Magazine column focuses on out of copyright books. For the October issue I wrote about the product of a collaboration between two great authors. It’s not, however, a particularly good book.


I’ll never understand how it is possible for two writers to collaborate on one work of fiction without creating a disjointed mess, but it evidently is. My favourite example of this is Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens; a wonderful, heart-warming account of the apocalypse and the end times. But Good Omens, for all its excellence, wasn’t too far from the sort of thing for which Pratchett and Gaiman were already known. What would be far stranger would be for two literary novelists were to get together and work on something completely alien to their genres.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Joseph Conrad and Forx Madox Ford collaborated on a set of novels – The Nature of a Crime, Romance and The Inheritors – covering a variety of genres. Of these, The Inheritors is perhaps the best known.

What makes The Inheritors surprising is that it is in part a science-fiction novel. There exists a Fourth Dimension inhabited by creatures that seem human. Except that they are “a race clear-sighted, eminently practical, incredible; with no ideals, prejudices, or remorse; with no feeling for art and no reverence for life; free from any ethical tradition; callous to pain, weakness, suffering and death, as if they had been invulnerable and immortal.” And they are going to take over the world.

At the beginning of the book Arthur, the narrator, meets one of these Fourth Dimensionists; she appears in the form of a beautiful woman. Pressed to tell him more about herself she reveals her identity and even performs some alarming magic to convince him (in the process she renders the nearby town, and significantly its cathedral, ‘contemptible’). Her willingness to share her evil plan with him seems at first the sort of terrible decision supervillains make, allowing the hero to thwart them. But there will be no thwarting from Arthur, who is contemptible himself. Filled with vaguely-formed high ideals about great art but also a strong desire to be important, Arthur is the perfect pawn. He soon finds himself drawn into Fourth Dimensionist power politics. While the mysterious woman (who is now posing as Arthur’s sister) manipulates him on the one hand, he also finds himself encountering two other Fourth Dimensionists – one of whom claims to be creating a Utopia in Greenland. He does make a few half-hearted attempts to thwart our eventual masters but, being incompetent, he fails miserably.

The Inheritors starts out as disjointed and abrupt – the opening scenes in which the narrator learns of the Fourth Dimension are dreadful. Yet as the power games between these terrifying beings set in, as the secondary characters become more rounded out it begins to be rather good.

And beneath the rather gloomy subject of our demise as a species (and its subtext of the decline of the human race) there is, oddly enough, a ray of hope. At the beginning the woman suggests that our ancestors too came from the Fourth Dimension, and “caught” weaknesses: “beliefs, traditions; fears; ideas of pity … of love”. By the end of the book, it seems that she may have caught some of these diseases as well. Humanity, it seems to suggest, will always be arrived at somehow, even if the humans themselves (ourselves?) are no longer around.

November 7, 2011

Further thoughts on Snuff

[For a far more lucid account of many of the things that bothered me about this book, see Abigail Nussbaum’s piece here.]

I posted a review here a few days ago, but it had a limited word count and was for a general audience. But there were other aspects of Pratchett’s new book that I wanted to discuss. Obviously there will be many, many spoilers. I’m dividing things into subheadings to keep it all coherent.



There’s a thing quite a lot of SFF has done – discuss race relations using actual different races (dwarves, trolls,etc) as opposed to merely people with different coloured skin. One of the problems with this way of talking about race is that it has tended to make the various other races represent people of colour (or any other group that is non-mainstream, as ridiculous as it seems to talk of nonwhite people being non-mainstream when they surely make up most of the world’s population) whereas the ‘humans’ have tended to represent white westerners. A recent example of this for me was China Miéville’s Embassytown, which I read as partly based on British colonialism in Asia.

In the Discworld no race is an obvious stand in for a real world community – there are obvious similarities, but the roles which particular races assume may shift with each plot, and (sometimes) with whichever classic fantasy trope Pratchett is currently playing with. And there are sympathetic, real characters from most races. Yet I think there’s still a tendency to centre the human. Human characters on the Disc can be marginalised (see werewolves, vampires, zombies) but in a generalised manner that shows the dynamics of the process more than it references any realworld racial group. In Snuff, the victims of the slave trade are goblins, the people doing the trading humans. But also in Snuff, I think there are signs that Pratchett is acknowledging this. The quoted bit below is from a section in which Carrot and Angua interview an elderly goblin lady.

[Angua] waited with Billy Slick while Carrot went on the errand, and for something to say, she said, ‘Billy Slick doesn’t sound much like a goblin name?’ Billy made a face. ‘Too right! Granny calls me Of the Wind Regretfully Blown. What kind of name is that, I ask you? Who’s going to take you seriously with a name like that? This is modern times, right?’ He looked at her defiantly, and she thought: and so one at a time we all become human – human werewolves, human dwarfs, human trolls … the melting pot melts in one direction only, and so we make progress.


Edit: I’m now wondering how it would be to Unseen Academicals in the light of this book. With UA’s focus on racism in other books (the main character is an orc) rather than – if such a distinction can be made at all – real-world racism.



I’ve touched on this in my official review: the Discworld books may deal with some very serious subject matter, but they generally end nicely. Sometimes characters have died and the ending is bittersweet, but it’s never entirely bitter. On my twitter feed a couple of weeks ago Alex Keller said  he was in the mood for Pratchett because he needed a “human decency boost” and I felt that was an apt description of how I feel reading these books.

So how do you fit the history of slavery into that framework? On the front inner flap of Snuff (I have the HB) we have “They say that in the end all sins are forgiven. But not quite all…” But how far can you approach something as vast and awful as the slave trade and tie it up neatly into a happy ending?

One of the things I think the text does to deal with this is to have a comparatively minor character discover what is happening. It’s not nice – there are piles of bones of corpses and tortured goblins on the verge of death. But Wee Mad Arthur has never been given a point of view in the earlier books – we don’t know what the inside of his head looks like and we don’t learn much about it here. As a result we’re distanced in ways we would not have been had a character with more depth – Angua or Cheery, or even Colon – seen what Wee Mad Arthur sees.

There’s also the fact that this book is comparatively muted, and that is despite the poo jokes. Of the characters that tend to provide the comic relief, Nobby is barely present until the end and Colon is (for a major chunk of the plot) unconscious. There are even less footnotes than usual.

But at the end the book seems completely at a loss. You have one evil instigator (who is offstage throughout) transported to Australia. The others involved get away all but completely – which may be an accurate depiction of history. But there’s an incredibly ill-judged moment when Colonel Makepeace, whose wife is one of the major figures behind the crime, pleads for her to be treated leniently because while he fully agrees that the slave trade was wrong and needed to be stopped, his wife “is a rather foolish woman”, “I do love her” and “I’m very sorry you’ve been troubled”. And this is framed in terms that suggest the reader is intended to feel sorry for him.


Children’s Books and Evidence

Snuff came out a few days after my birthday. One of the presents I received this year was this Dutch edition of The Story Of The Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business - for those unfamiliar with the book, a mole discovers that someone has defaecated on his head and sets out to find the animal responsible.

Yes there is a reason I have the Dutch edition. No, I don't speak the language.

In Snuff, Vimes’ son Sam is immersed in the works of Miss Felicity Beedle, an author of children’s books whose most recent work is titled The World of Poo (Miss Beedle had previously written Wee). Inspired, young Sam begins to collect samples of the different sorts of poo available (since the Ramkin country estate comes attached to a farm there is much variety) and to observe and record the differences between them.

Reading these two books within the same week brought home for me how forensic in nature many books for very young children are. In Thud!, young Sam’s favourite book had been Where’s My Cow? In this the narrator (who had lost his cow) walks around wondering if various animals are the eponymous cow and eliminates them from suspicion on the evidence of the sounds they make. (“Where is my cow? Is that my cow? It goes “Hruuugh!” It is a hippopotamus. That’s not my cow!”)    The urban equivalent made up by Vimes follows the same principle. The little mole in the book above visits each of his suspects, eliminating them only when they prove their innocence by showing that their faeces is completely different from the sort he has found. (Eventually he calls in the experts – flies – and finds that the dog is the culprit). There’s nothing particularly exciting or revolutionary about the revelation that gathering evidence and learning to make deductions about things are one of the major ways in which we learn about the world. Or that it makes sense that they should therefore be a big part of children’s books. But it pleased me anyway; particularly coming within the context of a detective novel.


The Summoning Dark/Landscapes of the mind

One of the major principles upon which the Discworld functions is the power of story – Narrativium. Most books in the series deal with this idea to some extent. Naturally, then, the insides of people’s heads are quite potent. Of late this has had one slightly annoying consequence, which is that every other story now ends with the protagonist playing out his or her mental battles on a literalised metaphorical landscape.

Thud! had something of this sort. In the course of his investigation Vimes becomes possessed? infected? by The Summoning Dark, a powerful, ancient entity from Dwarf lore. This leads to multiple mini-scenes in which the inside of Vimes’ mind is a city, the Summoning Dark is trying to get into the houses and a watchman (because Vimes is the sort of man who will keep a watch on the inside of his own head) follows it through the streets and prevents it from doing so.

Vimes and The Summoning Dark end Thud! on terms of mutual respect, and there’s an understanding that the thing will never completely leave. In Snuff, Vimes seems to have completely made peace with the presence of a demonic entity in his brain, and The Summoning Dark is now being used to give him superpowers – night vision and new linguistic skills. It’s a bit silly. But it also means that the internal/supernatural aspects of the book are more integrated within the action in the physical world. I’ll be interested to see whether Pratchett will find ways to avoid these mental landscape scenes in future books as well.



Vimes’ wife’s characterisation is a bit patchy through the series. We know that she’s rich and aristocratic (“as highly bred as a hilltop bakery”) and kind. We also know that upon their marriage she signs all her property over to her husband. She’s a play on the (often “horsy”) upper-class woman who breeds dogs – or in this case dragons – and is forceful, hearty, not physically very attractive. She is big, fat, has a large chest, is rather pushy. In Guards! Guards! there’s a sense that Vimes has been swept into their relationship by her sheer momentum. In later books we do see comfortable domestic scenes and can assume (from her pregnancy and the birth of their son) that they have sex. There’s als0 an occasional return to the henpecked husband joke – notably Sybil’s attempts to improve Vimes’ diet.

Which is why I am on the whole delighted by her character in Snuff. We have the assertion that Sam ‘worships’ his wife, we have (Pratchett doesn’t do graphic sex scenes but still) bathtub sex. We have respectable flaws – Sybil’s heritage allows her to be less unsure about her identity than her husband, but her privilege blinds her to things as well. And her real involvement in the goblin cause is triggered by discovering that they can make great music – it’s the sort of petty, selfish, human thing that the text doesn’t draw attention to, but it’s there.