Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

February 19, 2013

A Clever Pun About Leaving

The January issue of The National Geographic Traveller contained the last of my Paper Trails columns; for the immediate future, at least. Here it is, feat. Georgette Heyer, Tolkien, Douglas Adams and Jerome K. Jerome.



Packing for trips I’m always envious of the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s historical romance novels. Heyer’s characters (most of them superlatively rich) never pack for themselves. There are servants for that, and the need to be well-dressed at all times trumps the need for keeping your luggage light and easily transported. Your valet will fret if you don’t carry a dozen spare cravats, and you can always hire an extra carriage or two to take the excess baggage. The hero of These Old Shades is happy to send his long-suffering valet back and forth between England and France for any small thing he has forgotten. In Devil’s Cub a character finds a few dozen bottles of good wine in a French inn and immediately arranges to hire a coach or a boat to transport it home to England.

For most of us, packing to go travelling is a little more difficult. Without a retinue of servants and with the added tyranny, if flying, of luggage restrictions, we’re obliged to somehow fit everything we need into the smallest, lightest possible bag. Magazines in their summer issues offer tips for doing this, none of which seem in the least bit practical. Before us all is dangled the mystical figure of the seasoned, sophisticated traveller who is somehow able to dress appropriately for every occasion and meet every travel emergency with the contents of a small, stylish backpack. If we were sophisticated, seasoned travellers too, is the implication, we wouldn’t be lugging around these overloaded suitcases and heavy laptop bags. And so (because rushing around airports and train stations and hauling baggage wasn’t stressful or unpleasant enough) we have to worry about looking stupid as well.

It’s at times like this that I turn gratefully to the various fictional characters who are even worse at this packing thing than I am. Perhaps the classic example is the group of incompetents who make up the title of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The early chapters of Jerome’s book are taken up with planning and preparations for the trip, and at first they seem to have things well in hand. The three men manage the arduous tasks of making lists and gathering the items on them, and all that is left is to put them into the bags. Naturally, things go horribly wrong. Whole suitcases have to be unpacked and repacked, and many of their food supplies are inedible by the end of it. It’s particularly comforting to know that the narrator of Three Men in a Boat is the sort of person for whom the mere packing of a toothbrush is a challenge:

I dream that I haven’t packed it, and wake up in a cold perspiration, and get out of bed and hunt for it.  And, in the morning, I pack it before I have used it, and have to unpack again to get it, and it is always the last thing I turn out of the bag; and then I repack and forget it, and have to rush upstairs for it at the last moment and carry it to the railway station, wrapped up in my pocket-handkerchief.

I’ve been there.

I’ve also had nightmares about oversleeping on the morning of a journey. The three men (and dog) do just this, and start hours after they’d planned to. Another traveller who oversleeps is Bilbo Baggins, title character of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Waking up mere minutes before he is due to meet the dwarves who are his fellow travellers (they, incidentally, have woken up on time) at a nearby inn, poor Bilbo rushes out of the house and is well on his way before he realises that he hasn’t even packed a handkerchief and isn’t sure he wants to go on this adventure in the first place.

But then, Bilbo’s bad luck with luggage is unparalleled. He and his travelling companions have their supplies refurbished at multiple points during the journey – and each time, some catastrophe befalls them. After a visit to the friendly half-Elf lord Elrond, both their bags and their mounts are stolen by goblins. Beorn, a strange man who can turn into a bear, offers them supplies to sustain them as they travel through the forest of Mirkwood, but the food soon runs out and they are forced instead to carry an unconscious (and very heavy) friend around. And finally, when the people of the town of Dale provide them with food and ponies on their journey up the Lonely Mountain, they are forced to abandon most of their luggage and their ponies are eaten by a dragon. It’s unsurprising that by the end of all of his adventures Bilbo (though substantially richer) seems less concerned with material possessions – he’s used to losing them in pressing circumstances.

I suppose there’s a lesson to be learnt from all of this, unpleasant as it may be. Those of us who can’t be as superlatively rich as Georgette Heyer characters will just have to learn to travel as light as possible. The characters in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy manage interstellar travel equipped with only a towel; surely the rest of us can at least aspire to a well-organised backpack?


February 11, 2013

Two Owls and a Goat.

I’m never looking for anything in particular at the Delhi Bookfair, which is why my purchases always feel (to me) so unexpectedly entertaining. Among those I picked up this year were three Indian children’s books the covers of which featured, respectively, an owl, an owl and a goat. I like owls and goats.

The first was The Magic Feather by Roma Singh, published by Tulika Books. The owl on the cover is slightly misleading — though it plays an important role in the book it has very little screentime and no speaking lines. A little girl is looking for her friends. She tucks a fallen owl feather into her hair, and from then on, whatever she places in her hair leads her to a wonderful land. Eventually she reaches the land of books, where she finds her friends and they all read things.

What makes this is the art, which is a mixture of papercraft and simple, drawn-on colours, which makes for a sense of overlapping textures leaping off the page. The little girl’s hair is made of long strips of curling print, and birds, clouds, leaves are varieties of patterned paper. Some of the paper still bears text,  so that on the owl’s wings or the belly of a frog it is possible to read part of an article about construction work. It is so very pretty.

Owl Ball by Francesca Xotta was published by the National Book Trust and was not half as attractive as (though a fraction of the price of) The Magic Feather. The NBT can be frustrating if you like children’s books– there’s so much potential for greatness wasted for lack of funds and perhaps lack of care. I’d work for them (part-time only) for free if it meant better-edited books.

So, Owl Ball. It’s about an owl who lives in a park where children regularly dump junk food. Our protagonist eats these unhealthy things and grows fat. This causes the other animals in the park to bully him and call him names, including “kumbhakarna” and “football”; it becomes clear that in calling him “Owl Ball” the book is doing something similar. Owl Ball is too weak to defend himself from the bullies until he meets a little girl. She tells him he must become physically strong in order to stand up for himself. A strict programme of exercise follows but this is not enough. She must “turn Owl Ball into a normal owl … his behaviour also needs reformation”.

Now that he is strong, does Owl Ball defend himself from the bullies? Well, no, because they are impressed by his newfound slim handsomeness and do not taunt him anymore. Instead they all become friends. What Owl Ball has learnt is that his new friends are really a bunch of bullies to whose ideas he was forced to conform “excess of everything is bad”. Owl Ball  is a story about how children can protect themselves from being bullied by getting rid of whatever traits about them the bullies fixate upon — and that these bullies make desirable friends. And that being fat is the worst thing in the world. It was published in 2009.

The last of the three books was The Bravest Goat in the World, a story (incredibly) by former president Dr. Zakir Husain, translated by Samina Mishra and with illustrations by Pooja Pottenkulam. It’s published by Young Zubaan, and I bought it mainly for the combination of the title and this illustration, reproduced on the cover:

(Note: the goat in question does not have seven legs. That is merely her coat, though various people on twitter suggested that they might be udders).

Chandni is a goat, owned by a lonely man named Abbu Khan who keeps goats for company. All his previous goats have escaped and run to the mountains, as mountain goats cannot abide being chained; Chandni yearns to do the same. Eventually she breaks free, lives the life of a real goat, falls in love, and (spoiler warning!) … is killed by a wolf.

Which is the point at which in many books we’d learn that Chandni shouldn’t have left her nice safe home. Instead, The Bravest Goat in the World actively validates her choice. We’re told that she had lived “like a mountain goat”, that in fact “it was Chandni who had won in the end”. What we have is a book that upholds an idea of personal integrity as more important than anything else– certainly more important than safety; as far as morals in children’s books go this is one we really don’t see enough of. Our former president. There’s rather too much text on each page to make for perfection, but between the unusual, gory morality of the story and Pooja Pottenkulam’s adorably silly illustrations, I was completely charmed.

January 25, 2013

A neat little dinner

For Fëanor‘s collection of food-quotes, though I suspect he has this one already. From Georgette Heyer’s False Colours; noted epicure Sir Bonamy Ripple explains his plans for a small dinner party.

‘They have a way of cooking semelles of carp which is better than anything my Alphonse can do,’ he said impressively. [...] I thought I would have it removed with a fillet of veal. We must have quails: that goes without saying – and ducklings; and nothing beside except a few larded sweetbreads, and a raised pie. And for the second course just a green goose, with cauliflowers and French beans and peas, for I know you don’t care for large dinners. So I shall add only a dressed lobster, and some asparagus, and a few jellies and creams, and a basket of pastries for you to nibble at. That,’ he said, beaming upon his prospective guests, ‘is my notion of a neat little dinner.’

‘It sounds delightful, sir,’ agreed Kit. ‘The only thing is –’

‘Yes, yes, I know what you’re going to say, my boy!’ Sir Bonamy interrupted. ‘It wouldn’t do for a large party! But I mean only to invite three other persons, so that we shall sit down no more than six to table. And there will be side-dishes: a haunch of venison, and a braised ham, possibly. Or a dish of lamb cutlets: I must consider what would be most suitable.’ A note of discontent entered his voice. ‘I do not consider this the season for dinners of real excellence,’ he said gravely. ‘To be sure, few things are so good as freshly cut asparagus, to say nothing of a basket of strawberries, which I promise you, my pretty, you shall have! But only think how superior it would be if we could have some plump partridges, and a couple of braised pheasants!’


December 12, 2012


I have a (much delayed, this is entirely my own fault) review of Nick Jackson’s The Secret Life of the Panda over at The Future Fire. I’ll admit I asked for the book mainly on the strength of that unusual cover – which you can also see, along with a blog post by the artist, here. Chomu Press have brought out some beautifully designed books and this may be my favourite out of those I’ve seen.

Jackson’s stories are good too, though occasionally in a rather gruesome way (it is possible that I am squeamish) – dark and controlled. More details at the Future Fire website, but if you’re too lazy to read the whole thing, know that I approved of this book.

December 11, 2012

On the body of Howard Mollison

A few years ago, J. K. Rowling wrote a blog post in which she ranted about the use of “fat” as an insult. Naturally, this being the internet, lots of people gushed at how wonderful this sentiment was- while others pointed out that Rowling’s treatment of fat in her own books was far from ideal.

I’ve been trying to make a list of fat people in the Harry Potter books, and these are the ones I’ve come up with so far:

  • Vernon and Dudley Dursley (and I think Vernon’s sister Maude). These characters are unpleasant. They’re also portrayed as greedy, particularly in Dudley’s case. Dudley’s parents are blamed for spoiling him by allowing him to indulge in unfettered greed. At one point the character is physically turned into a pig.
  • Crabbe and Goyle. Big, and also greedy. To the point that, in a castle filled with strange potions and mischievous poltergeists, it is easy to drug them with inexplicable chocolate cake. With that level of self-preservation I’m impressed they manage to survive till the last book.
  • Moaning Myrtle. At least, she claims to have been teased for being fat, and the text describes her as “squat”.
  • Hagrid and Madame Maxime. Both these characters are described as large; understandably, since they’re half-giant. Neither is “fat”.
  • Neville Longbottom. Has a round/plump face, to the best of my recollection. He either loses the puppy fat or Rowling chooses not to mention it as he becomes a stronger character.
  • Horace Slughorn. Fat, greedy, cowardly. Weak.
  • Molly Weasley. Plump, maternal, more concerned with her family than with her appearance.


So it’s not that (or not entirely that) the good characters are never overweight in these books, though they generally aren’t. It’s that when they differ from body norms, as they sometimes do, there are ‘good’ reasons. Hagrid cannot help being half-giant, and Molly Weasley’s plumpness both emphasises her difference from someone like Petunia Weasley and places her in a tradition of comfortable maternal figures (Lily Potter can be beautiful and ethereal, because she’s dead). But if you’re Dudley Dursley, or Horace Slughorn, or Crabbe or Goyle, your fatness is linked explicitly to your food habits and what they say about you. You can’t just be fat without its being a character trait; you can’t have thyroid-related issues (which St. Mungo’s could probably just magic away), or because you have a disability that means you can’t exercise, or because of genetics unless one of your parents was literally of another species. No one’s suggesting that Rowling interrupt the story and have Madame Pomfrey lecture the class about, say, PCOS. But she could treat fat as just another physical marker—like glasses or hair and eye colour, and not as an indication of a fundamental inability to avoid cake. She does not.

The Casual Vacancy’s Howard Mollison is a bit of a slughorn—if the world of Harry Potter had room for sexually creepy men. He’s a social climber, he’s smarmy, and he really loves food. He runs a delicatessen. Rowling’s first action is to inform us that he and his wife don’t share a bed, and that:

A great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it, how he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed.

(n.b. this has never been my first thought upon seeing a fat person and I can’t imagine I’m alone in this)

Here are some reasons to dislike Mollison:

  1. He’s a bigot.
  2. He’s a snob.
  3. He pervs on schoolgirls.
  4. He cheats on his wife.
  5. He pays his daughter negligible sums of money to keep his cheating on his wife a secret.
  6. He thinks drug addicts should just go cold turkey and why are they choosing to do drugs anyway?

Parminder, Howard’s doctor, is convinced that his various health problems are a direct consequence of his weight, which could be fixed with “a few lifestyle changes”. Parminder does not share Howard’s views with regard to the continued access of people from the Fields to healthcare and social services. These people need state-provided medical care, she argues. You know who’s a real drain on resources? Fatties.

‘Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behaviour?’ said Parminder.

‘In a nutshell, yes.’

‘Before they cost the state any more money.’


‘And you,’ said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her, ‘do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?’

A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard’s neck into his cheeks.

‘Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital? And the doctor’s appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?’

As Parminder’s voice became a scream, other councillors began to protest on Howard’s behalf; Shirley was on her feet; Parminder was still shouting, clawing together the papers that had somehow been scattered as she gesticulated.

‘What about patient confidentiality?’ shouted Shirley. ‘Outrageous! Absolutely outrageous!’

Parminder was at the door of the hall and striding through it, and she heard, over her own furious sobs, Betty calling for her immediate expulsion from the council; she was half running away from the hall, and she knew that she had done something cataclysmic, and she wanted nothing more than to be swallowed up by the darkness and to disappear for ever.


This whole scene turned my stomach (which, theoretically, could stop me eating and make me thin again; thanks, Rowling!) Because at no point is it even a possibility that Howard’s weight might be the result of anything other than a fondness for cheese. Other people have legitimate problems that Howard is dismissing (and he is, he’s a piece of shit), but Parminder’s not arguing that Howard is failing to understand the complexities of addiction in the same way as others might fail to understand the complexities of weight. She’s arguing that he’s a fat, selfish parasite who is taking up resources he wouldn’t need if he would just eat less. The text doesn’t wholly endorse Parminder at all times (she is, for example, a terrible parent) but at no point does it seem to go against the content of this argument. Instead, towards the end of the book it mawkishly contrasts Howard’s time in hospital with that of a small boy.

In the theatre upstairs, Howard Mollison’s body overflowed the edges of the operating table. His chest was wide open, revealing the ruins of Vikram Jawanda’s handiwork. Nineteen people laboured to repair the damage, while the machines to which Howard was connected made soft implacable noises, confirming that he continued to live.

And far below, in the bowels of the hospital, Robbie Weedon’s body lay frozen and white in the morgue. Nobody had accompanied him to the hospital, and nobody had visited him in his metal drawer

Robbie is a small child and a victim of circumstances. Howard is alive, receiving decent medical care, and somehow this is a travesty because Howard’s illness is his own fault.

August 16, 2012

July Reading

I read some books in July:


Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, The Silver on the Tree: It’s been a few years since my last read of this series, and I’m so glad I found the time to do it this month. Last month I talked about how well the first book in the series works as a standalone. For obvious reasons this is untrue of the rest; with the second book in the series the sunlit feeling of the first is gone. Of all the series Greenwitch and The Grey King were the ones I remembered best before this reread. Having finished it I think they’re still my favourites. Both are imbued with this tremendous sense of melancholy and remoteness. It’s another matter that my reread of the series clarified for me what I’m going to be doing with my life for the next couple of years.

Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad: Another reread, mostly because I had a free afternoon and wanted to spend it in bed with a book. Is it sacrilegious to complain that Pratchett is a little too preoccupied with the power of stories? I don’t think there’s been a Discworld book that wasn’t about this in years – though Witches Abroad certainly does it well.

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November: I embarked upon a reread of the Moomin books a few months ago. Moominvalley in November does not actually contain any Moomins; it’s about the valley in their absence. Lovely, quiet, melancholy. Not my favourite of the series (that’s Moominland Midwinter) but then, all of the books are wonderful.

Jan Morris, Last Letters from Hav, Hav of the Myrmidons: I’d read the first of these before, and thought the placing of the city in our own history was brilliant. Rereading it I was struck this time by how cleverly it works as a travelogue. In part I think this impression is enhanced by Hav of the Myrmidons, in which “Jan” is forced to engage politically with the city and its history in ways that could be avoided in the earlier book. Together I think the two work brilliantly.

Christopher Priest, The Islanders: Like the Hav books, The Islanders is a travelogue-of-sorts of places that doesn’t exist. It’s in that capacity that I’ve written about the two of them together (those of you who read the Indian edition of The National Geographic Traveller will be hearing all about this in September). But The Islanders is crying out for other readings as well, and I’m itching to go back to it and explore other angles. It’s non-linear, has multiple layers of unreliable narrators, is part murder investigation part love story, has a horror story right there in the middle; it’s a joy to think about..

T.H. White, Mistress Masham’s Repose: I wrote about this here.

Karen Lord, Redemption in Indigo: I wrote about this here.

Carolyn Mackler, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things: Mackler’s protagonist is a teenaged girl who is overweight. I’d heard a lot about this book and how it deals with the issues around fat, and on the whole I think it does a better job than mot things. A strong, cleverly done coming of age narrative, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.

Lorna Hill, Dancing Peel: Somehow, during the course of an otherwise quite ordinary childhood reading, I managed to miss all of the Sadler’s Wells books. As a result this was my first Lorna Hill book. Presumably the Sadler’s Wells books would be more to my taste (I hear intriguing things of this character Sebastian?) but Dancing Peel did nothing for me.

Georgette Heyer, The Unknown Ajax: In which Heyer talks a bit about class and has a character be deliberately gauche in the face of high society snobbery. But then it turns out he’s rich and went to Harrow, so there’s really no conflict after all. Not likely to cause a revolution then, but funny enough that I’ll forgive it that.

Rahul Roy, A Little Book on Men: I wrote about this here.

Grace Burrowes, Lady Sophie’s Christmas Wish: I’ve probably said everything there is to say about Burrowes over the last few months. Though I find myself wishing we could have one romance heroine who doesn’t really really really want to have children. That’s not so much to ask, is it?

Eloisa James, When Beauty Tamed the Beast: I’ve been enjoying James’ series of fairytale reinterpretations (I think The Ugly Duchess is out this month). This isn’t my favourite in the series, but as its inspirations include House and Malory Towers and there’ a manservant called Prufrock, there’s enough in there to keep me entertained. Other literary/popcultural references include one to the Sarah Gorely books which are so important a part of Julia Quinn’s fictional Regency London. And there’s a scene near the end when the Beauty (not the Beast) has to have all her skin sloughed off that reminded me of an Angela Carter short story (“The Tiger’s Bride”, I think).

Willem Elsschot, Cheese: I wrote about this here.

John Mortimer, Rumpole and the Primrose Path: There are days when Rumpole is necessary. This is the last Rumpole book, and I was occasionally a bit disoriented by how recent it felt with its references to things like ipods (I feel like I’ve said this about one of the other late Rumpole books before). But still, deeply comforting and great fun to read.

July 29, 2012

Where do girl orphans go?

Or, On the Absent Girl Child at the Heart of The Dark Knight Rises.  (or perhaps not).


This post will a) contain many spoilers for the most recent Batman movie and b) be of little or no interest to anyone who has not seen this movie.


At the end of The Dark Knight Rises my biggest question was not about, for example, Bruce Wayne’s ability to travel from Jodhpur to occupied Gotham without money, visas or any form of identification , or any of the other seeming plotholes that I’m sure are being discussed, dissected or retconned into making sense elsewhere. My question (and it’s one I posed to twitter as well) was – what happens to Gotham’s female orphans? I am making the assumption here that they don’t all become professional cat burglars.

In the movie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Blake spends a great deal of his time at a home for orphaned boys. We later learn that he himself was a resident of this institution, and that it is partially funded by Bruce Wayne – to the extent that, when Wayne’s funding stops, some of the older boys are forced to leave.

So far as this goes, if it’s a bit Victorian-sounding it is also vaguely canonical. But St. Swithin’s is a home for “orphan boys”, not “orphans”. It’s possible that there are other orphanages in the city, funded by Wayne or others, and this just happens to be the one that’s relevant to the plot (except that Gotham isn’t a real city, and the bits of it that aren’t on the screen don’t exist). Wayne was orphaned as a boy as well, and the movie makes much of the connection that this gives him to other boys in this position – it’s a connection that helps young Blake to identify Wayne as Batman.

This group of boys is one of the early signs that Blake is the movie’s moral centre – almost the first thing we learn about him is that he volunteers at an orphanage. Towards the end he risks his life in an attempt to save them from the doomed city.

There’s at least one other prominent boy child in the film, and he is singing the national anthem before a football match in a scene that seems at least partly parodic (with overt patriotism I’m never quite sure).

The most important child in the film is its villain. In the mysterious foreign prison where he struggles to recover from his broken back and watches his city burn on the news, Wayne learns that only one other person has ever escaped from the pit – a child. It is partly because this story dovetails with rumours about Bane’s origins that we’ve already heard, partly because Bane has been set up as the antagonist of the film, that Wayne (with presumably most of the audience) does not stop to consider that “child” is a gender-neutral term and that no pronouns have been used.

I want to return for a moment to those orphans. I haven’t been able to find exact statistics on the sex-ratio of orphaned children in foster or group homes in America. I do remember a few years ago a spate of news stories in my own country that indicated that young boys were more likely to be adopted quickly than young girls. In an institution for “orphans” rather than “orphan boys”, it’s quite possible that the majority would be girls. (I suspect the racial distribution would also not map very well onto the sample of children that the film offers us).

I mentioned earlier that Blake is established as a kind of moral centre to the film. A running theme is his tussle with the ways in which the legal system works – quite understandable in a state where the draconian-sounding Harvey Dent Act is in play. Blake ranges himself in solidarity with other policemen during Bane’s uprising but there are moments, such as when he discovers the truth of Commissioner Gordon’s lie, when his faith is shaken. Gordon excuses himself by explaining that the rules and regulations which govern the police force feel like “shackles” (it can’t surprise anyone that the Batverse will generally fall on the side of vigilante justice, even when it examines* the massive potential flaws of such a system). At the end of the film, Blake throws his badge into the river. But what provokes this – was it the policeman whose ‘following orders’ prevented him from getting the orphaned boys out of the city, or was it the fact that Wayne appeared to have died largely unacknowledged by the city for which he had given his life? Asked about it shortly afterwards, Blake invokes Gordon’s “shackles” complaint. I’d suggest that both incidents had to do with it because they’re both largely inextricable – the unfairness of the justice system as experienced by Blake has been signalled earlier in the film by the police force’s misjudgement in targeting Batman during a police chase.

Although half the internet has already written about the politics of this film, I think it’s telling that we’re given to understand that the system is flawed by its unfair treatment of the genius legacy billionaire white guy. And so of course it’s important to make the most of his ‘similarity’ (apart from the obvious there really is none) with the boys of St. Swithin’s**; they are underdogs in this city and he is just like them.

But there’s something else going on here.

When Cotillard’s Miranda Tate stabs Wayne and reveals that she was the child who escaped the pit, it’s a revelation because nothing up to this point in the film has suggested that female children even exist (Selina Kyle has a canonical history with orphanages as well-the film chooses to omit any references to her character’s childhood).

At the end of the film, Wayne’s family home has been given over to an institution for orphaned children. Perhaps the Batman has learned that girls can be children too?



*I don’t think this film does.

**Potential school story title?

July 9, 2012

Georgette Heyer, Venetia

There’s a school of thought (and it’s not one I agree with, but it’s also not one I feel able to entirely dismiss) that suggests that one reason Twilight isn’t entirely a failure on the feminist front is that it respects Bella’s choices. On the face of it, from any reasonable point of view, these choices are extremely stupid – we’re told that this character is intelligent, that she has any number of choices before her, and as a teenager she still has time to decide what she wants to do with her future. Instead, she chooses to tie her fate to this vampire. She goes into an almost catatonic state when he leaves her, ignores the multiple people who care for and worry about her, and abandons plans of college in favour of marrying him and becoming envampired as soon as possible. And yet.

I’m a bit uncomfortable with how close to this my argument for Venetia as a potentially feminist text comes. I think the big difference, though (apart from the fact that Venetia is an adult woman) is in Heyer’s focus on the fact that her protagonists are friends – that we’re able to see substance and lasting value in that relationship. It’s also the case, of course, that there’s a difference between something set in the 1800s (and written in the 1950s) and something set and written in the early 2000s.

I’m sure all of this sounds like shameless justification. It probably is. Anyway, below is my column from last Sunday.



The Russian author Boris Akunin claims, according to a friend who saw him speak at a bookshop last year, that he can sort people into sixteen ‘types’ based on which of his Erast Fandorin books they like most and least. I’ve often wondered if one could make a similar claim for the works of Georgette Heyer, but this throws up an immediate problem. Not one of my acquaintance has ever managed to satisfactorily choose a Heyer novel to be their permanent favourite.

My own favourite Heyer novel is a constantly shifting entity. Does The Grand Sophy win the spot for its wonderful heroine, or does the unpleasant thread of anti-semitism taint all the rest? Which is better, These Old Shades or its sequel-of-sorts The Devil’s Cub? A Civil Contract is realistic and touching but does not always make me happy. Friday’s Child is a failure when I’m in the mood for romance, but I adore its Wodehousean side characters. I am all but alone in my love of the delicate, gendered play that is the focus of Powder and Patch. And what about Cotillion, with its subversion of the romantic tropes of the genre that Heyer herself helped to create?

Then a few months ago I reread Venetia and decided that perhaps this was Heyer’s best. Since then, unprecedentedly, my opinion has not wavered, though I’ve had to rethink what I mean by “best” a few times.

Venetia is simple enough. A young woman who has been stuck in the wilds of Yorkshire all her life meets the rake next door. Lord Damerel has a long and varied history (starting with his elopement with an older woman in his extreme youth); in typical romantic hero fashion he’s less to blame than he seems. He makes no secret of his attraction towards his beautiful neighbour but this is far less important than what happens next; the two become friends.

A friendship between the protagonists is not unusual in a romance novel, but the importance that the book places on that friendship is. Knowing that she has found a friend, that someone shares her sense of humour and recognises her literary references, is far more important to Venetia than sexual attraction. This is not to say that the attraction isn’t there – and unlike most of Heyer’s heroines Venetia, blessed with a brother who is obsessed with Greek classics, has the vocabulary to talk about it, and about her intended’s past. Venetia probably contains more iterations of the word “orgy” than the rest of Heyer’s works put together.

Naturally, no one thinks that a relationship between a hardened rake and a sheltered young woman is a good idea – particularly when, as we eventually learn, the young woman in question has been so sheltered in order to protect her from unsavoury facts about her family. Societal disapproval is a staple of fictional romance – except here, Damerel is as dubious and as overprotective as the rest.

What makes Venetia special, then, is that it’s not a case of lovers against the world, but one of Venetia herself fighting alone to claim her own choices. She will reclaim her own family history, and decide for herself what her relationship with her parents and brother is to be. She will choose her own partner even if he is foolish enough to let her go. I find it particularly wonderful that there’s no insecurity over Damerel’s reaction to any of this; it’s clear that she trusts him to love her.

I love Venetia for its likeable, flawed characters and the banter between them, and for the presence of multiple Classics geeks. But more than any of this, I love it because it centres its heroine’s desire and agency. I’m sure Heyer didn’t set out to write a feminist manifesto (and considering that Venetia’s goal is domestic bliss with a titled gentleman …) but something rather special is going on here.



July 3, 2012

Constance Myburgh, “Hunter Emmanuel”


The last of the Caine Prize stories. I’ve fallen hopelessly behind on this project, and the winner of the prize was to be announced today. I’m not sure why it took me so long to start writing about what was probably my favourite of the shortlisted stories (pdf here). This is an opinion that I don’t think most commentors on the prize share – and I suspect the difference is that I come to it as at least partly a genre reader. Because Hunter Emmanuel, Myburgh’s titular character, has read his noir.

The story begins when Emmanuel and his colleagues find a human leg hanging from a tree. Emmanuel is a former policeman who now works as a lumberjack, though we’re told nothing of the circumstances that led to this shift in career. When the mysterious leg shows up, Emmanuel is seized with a need to discover the truth. To do this he draws on his own training and contacts, but also on the crime fiction he’s evidently fond of reading.

Hunter Emmanuel’s debt to fiction is hard to miss. He’s constantly narrativising events as he experiences them, and the syntax of the story changes whenever this happens. An idle thought about the weather turns into “Either way, he knew the wind would howl tonight”; he needs the drama of story.

This concern with narrativising himself extends to the women in the story – Emmanuel is hideously sexist. Ugly women have no place in the story he’s writing for himself – he refers to the policewoman Sgt Williams as having failed in her duty somehow simply by not being attractive enough. When the leg is traced to a young prostitute named Zara Swert (“a one-legged whore. Friday nights didn’t get better than this”), Emmanuel’s attitude towards her is just creepy. He enters her hospital room under false pretenses, touches her face while she sleeps, and expects her to be someone he can confide in. “she looked like someone, someone he could talk to”. As for her physical appearance, “She looked washed-out, but after what she’d been through who wouldn’t be? Also, she was, he thought, probably prettier that way.” Later;

The world seemed suddenly very unpleasant, and Emmanuel had to imagine Zara Swart’s face and also her bandages from many different angles before it began to feel like a place he could deal with.

Zara asks Emmanuel why he is so interested in her case and his answer, I think, is central to this story.

He leaned closer to her, he couldn’t help ut.

‘I was there. I found your leg. That shit is traumatizing. I need closure.’

He loved those words. They made sense, even when they didn’t.


And so Emmanuel will pursue this mystery, not out of concern for the victim but out of a simple desire for narrative closure that is entirely focused on the mechanics of the case rather than on the people involved. But Myburgh will not give him that closure. The people responsible for hanging the leg up the tree are found; but their action was seemingly random. The people responsible for cutting off the leg are found – but Emmanuel does not learn what they wanted with it, or why they should have subsequently abandoned it in a forest. We know that the shadowy villains of this story are covered with Vaseline so that one cannot get a grip on them – this, apart from feeling utterly random (unless my reading of crime fiction is a lot narrower than I realise) could equally apply to the facts of the case. Emmanuel realises that “how” isn’t enough knowledge for him; he wants “why” as well, and it turns out that human motivations simply will not fit into the story-shaped spaces he has left for them. There’s a point to be made here about the arrogance of the detective story’s desire to know the world and to place it into ordered sequences of motive and method. And about its inevitable failure to do so.

And I think the story does its best to make the world seem alien and unknowable from the beginning. A couple of paragraphs into what seems a work of basic crime fiction we have the phrase “a hundred-year-old alien crashed to the ground” and we’re left hanging for a few further paragraphs before it becomes clear that we’re talking about alien pine trees.

It’s tempting to quote the whole of the final section of this story (please just read it and make it easier on us both); Emmanuel begs Zara for a reason, but she only connects his need for answers with a seeming masculine need to “save us” and walks away leaving Emmanuel to reflect on how differently this all should have gone.

Why was he here? He was so sure this would all end back in the forest, that whatever trail of blood he’d find would lead back to the shadows there. And yet here he was. On a fokkin street corner on Main Road. No, it was as he feared. The shadow was everywhere.

[ ... ]

If it wasn’t for the fact that I can’t even solve my own fokkin life, thought Hunter Emmanuel, I could make a best ever, real-life private investigator.


Here are some other people who wrote about “Hunter Emmanuel”:

The Reading Life
Black Balloon
Backslash Scott
The Mumpsimus



Earlier today, after rereading the story, I decided that my own favourites for the Caine Prize were this story and Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic”. I think, based on the reactions of the people who blogged this award with me, that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s  “La Salle de Départ” was the favourite, and while I admired the story very much I’ll always pick messy and ambitious over well-executed and familiar. I stand by my seemingly unconventional reading of Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial”, but the very fact that it was so unconventional means that perhaps it didn’t do as good a job of conveying what I thought it was as I thought it had (read back through that sentence, weep for the English language).  Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” pulled me in just with the sheer goodness of its writing but what is more important is, of all the stories on this shortlist, Kahora’s is the one that most strongly invoked in me the feeling that talking about and judging ‘African writing’ should be a complex thing, worthy of as much self-doubt as we can muster up.

The winner of the prize has now been announced on twitter, and it’s a choice I’m very pleased with. But I’d recommend going through all the stories on this year’s shortlist – it’s an exciting collection and I’m glad to have read it.

April 22, 2012

Concerning pineapples

Today has been a day filled with pineapple-related delights. There were pineapples and papaya for lunch. There was (via Felix Gilman, whose books you should read) this amazing piece about the effects of pineapples and Pinkwater when applied to standardised tests.  And then.

I’m working on something that has necessitated my reading Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson. I say Wyss, but it’s more complex than that – see here for an account of the various additions and deletions that accompanied the text’s translation into English. I read this version on Project Gutenberg, which I think is largely based on the W.H. Kingston translation from 1849 – the foreword is worded in a way that makes this a bit confusing. This is a pity because my favourite thing about reading this book have been the occasional interpolations by the editor, whoever s/he may be. At one point the narrator of the book chastises his son for lying, even in jest (the son has pretended to have an unsuccessful hunt in order to give his family a surprise). When the narrator does something similar later, the editor complains, ” He has forgotten his dictum about truth even in jest”. But far better than this is our editor’s increasing frustration over the book’s misrepresentation of pineapples.

In chapter 4:

We forced our way through with difficulty, so thick and tangled were the reeds. Beyond this, the landscape was most lovely. Rich tropical vegetation flourished on every side: the tall stately palms, surrounded by luxuriant ferns; brilliant flowers and graceful creepers; the prickly cactus, shooting up amidst them; aloe, jasmine and sweet-scented vanilla; the Indian pea and, above all, the regal pineapple*, loaded the breath of the evening breeze with their rich perfume. The boys were delighted with the pineapple, and so eagerly did they fall to, that my wife had to caution them that there were no doctors on our territory, and that if they became ill, they would have to cure themselves as best they might.

* At this point the author seems to assume that pineapples grow on trees. They do not.

And in chapter 6:

`The ground is light and easy to dig hereabouts,’ she replied. `I have planted potatoes, and cassava-roots, there is space for sugar-canes, and the young fruit trees, and I shall want you to contrive to irrigate them, by leading water from the cascades in hollow bamboos. Up by the sheltering rocks I mean to have pineapples* and melons, they will look splendid when they spread there. To shelter the beds of European vegetables from the heat of the sun, I have planted seeds of maize round them. The shadow of the tall plants will afford protection from the burning rays. Do you think that is a good plan?’

* The author now thinks pineapples grow on vines. They do not.


Pineapples are only mentioned once more in the book and they’re on a plate, so we cannot know if the narrator would have eventually turned them into roots, and if this would have caused the editor to give up in despair.