Archive for September, 2011

September 27, 2011

Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie

When I saw Jamrach’s Menagerie on the Booker longlist I was intrigued. By the time I’d read and reviewed it, it had made it to the shortlist. Not having read all of the other shortlisted books I can’t give it my unqualified support, but I’d be quite pleased if it won.

This review originally published at GlobalComment, here.



Jaffy Brown has lived all of his short life among the streets and sewers of London. Everything changes one day when he encounters a tiger in the street. Ignorant of what the beast is and compelled to touch it (“Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose”) he finds himself picked up in its mouth and dragged away, before he is rescued, unharmed.

The tiger’s (very apologetic) owner is Charles Jamrach – and so far, this is a true story. Jamrach did own a menagerie in Victorian London; in 1857 one of his tigers did escape and carry off a young boy and the boy did live to tell the tale. A statue in Wapping commemorates the incident.

Jaffy goes to work with Jamrach where he discovers a talent for looking after animals. This brings him into an often-antagonistic friendship with a co-worker, Tim Linver. An incident early in the book, where Tim locks Jaffy inside Jamrach’s shop for the night, is the means of introducing Jaffy to Tim’s family – including a sister, Ishbel, with whom Jaffy immediately falls in love.


This first part of this Booker-shortlisted book has been described in almost every review as ‘Dickensian’. It is accomplished, clearly the work of an extremely talented writer, but they are also in many ways (and in defiance of the title) the least interesting part of the book. The real story begins when Dan Rymer, who supplies Jamrach with his animals, receives a commission to hunt for a dragon that is rumoured to exist in the islands of Indonesia. Rymer, along with Jaffy and Tim, joins the crew of a whaling ship bound for the region. And it is the sea-bound sections of Birch’s book that raise the novel from check-the-boxes Victoriana into brilliance.

Jamrach’s Menagerie
 is very clear about its sources. At more than one point in the story characters refer to the Essex, the sunken whaling ship that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick.

Certain things I remember. The fo’c’s’le, Gabriel saying: “There’s an evil spot out there, they do say.”
Sam smiling. “Don’t frighten the little ones,” he said.
“Everybody knows about it.”
“I don’t,” I said.
Gabriel looked at me. “No? The place where things happen. Where the Essex was lost, and more since. A cursed spot upon the ocean.”
Everyone knows about the Essex, and all the others. It’s legend on the whale ships. It’s something of a joke.

Specific reference is made to Owen Coffin, a teenaged boy aboard the Essex who was sacrificed and eaten by the remaining crew after the shipwreck. “’I knew a man knew Owen Coffin as a lad,’ said Gabriel. ‘Sailed with his father, he did. Said Owen was a nice boy, and a good sailor like his dad.’” Like Melville, Birch draws on these stories for her own, and the references work to foreshadow events to come.
The whaling sections are brutal; the chase almost a seduction and the killing and harvesting utterly grotesque. It’s a relief to learn that all this is nearly at an end.

My clothes had dried upon me and become a second skin, and the bones and organs of the whale floated alongside the ship in a great snapping of sharks and a feasting of seabirds. I stood with Gabriel looking down. Morning had come.
“Take it all in, son,” he said. “Doubt you’ll get the chance again.”
“Why so?”
“The whaling’s done for,” he said, and grinned.
“No call for the oil no more. It’s all this new stuff now. They’ll always need the bone for the ladies’ stays, but they won’t be wanting all this oil no more.”
“What new stuff?”
“Oil under the ground,” he said.

This is not the only indication that the book is set at the end of an era. The quest for the dragon reminds one of the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here Marlow, the narrator, describes his childhood fascination with maps.

I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off.

As a child, Jaffy’s lack of knowledge made of the tiger “a mythical beast”.Jamrach’s Menagerie is set at what seems like one of the last moments when it is possible to discover dragons. There are still spaces in the world that are largely unknown., The sort of knowledge with which Rymer and his companions approach the capture of the dragon (just a rumour of a rumour of a tale told by a sailor) is the most the characters have to go on. Yet this will change. At the beginning of the book Jaffy is dreaming of dragons. By its end (in a reference that would otherwise be another predictable nod to the Victorian setting) he is reading Darwin.
But for the book the dragon occupies a strange in-betweenness, halfway between the mythical creature of Jaffy’s imaginings and the scientific truth. The ‘dragon’ or ‘Ora’ is, of course, a Komodo dragon and nothing like the dragons of Jaffy’s fancy (“It’s not a dragon,” I said. “It’s like he always said. A big crocodile”). But the harsh reality of science does not entirely take us out of the world of fantasy. The ‘dragon’ may not have wings or breathe fire, but there is something supernatural about it. “How was it we became so afraid of the dragon? Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more”. The “something more” that is attributed to the dragon (which seems to blight the fortunes of everyone on the ship. After its capture the ship slips into an alternate state, a nightmarish sense of stasis that seems a tribute to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. “Time changed”, as the narrator puts it:

And on and on in that dream—seven dark days and nights that had begun to feel eternal. The superstition of sailors is no more than the lone howling of millions of miles between you and dry land and home, making you know you are a thing that can die. Superstition, dark, spiky, high stepping, stalked with cloven foot upon our decks. And when superstition high-steps on a lone sea deck, far and far from every strand, as the old songs say—then, oh then …

Not just when sleeping, not just half asleep on my feet at the masthead, not just tipsy-drifting with a head full of gummy warmth, but always, every conscious second I was beautifully, startlingly afraid, with a fear crisp and invisible as the honed edge of a fine blade.

The quiet horror builds up over chapters in which nothing much actually happens – then climaxes as something does. But the sense of unreality that sets in in these chapters continues for most of the book.
A series of tragedies follows. The nature of these tragedies has been evident throughout the book – if the multiple references to the Essex had not been enough, conversations about cannibalism in the islands (and an unpleasant scene where komodo dragons feed off a dead member of their species) and the conviction that the ship is cursed would make it all obvious. But through the bleakness, the dark humour as the number of survivors in the captain’s prayer decreases day by day, there’s a dreamlike quality to everything. And of course we always know that our narrator will survive.

Jaffy is an odd narrator. Birch has his voice shift constantly between those of a child and of an educated adult looking back. Were this a particularly plot-driven book, this would be a complete giveaway of the ending. Jaffy is also entirely too good, which is a little disappointing; this may be a subjective retelling, but nothing about the plot suggests that its narrator is ever anything but blameless. The only thing that keeps him interesting despite this is the fellow feeling for the animals he encounters the whale, the tiger, Jamrach’s various creatures. Even the dragon – he is repulsed, afraid, and sometimes refers to it as a demon, yet Jaffy is able sometimes to identify with it.

A line from the Book of Job is quoted twice in the book; I am a brother to dragons and a companion of owls. By the end it seems to typify Jaffy, who is by this point running his own aviary. The final sections of the book, chronicling Jaffy’s return to London and his later life are rather perfunctory and disappointing. There are awkward encounters with families and an (in the circumstances) improbable recommencement of a romance. There is more Victoriana: a reference to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a client of Jamrach’s; Birch resists the temptation to namecheck another client, the far more colourful P.T. Barnum). It’s never bad – at her worst Birch is still an accomplished writer. But it lacks the magic of the seafaring chapters of the book.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is on this year’s Man Booker shortlist and it thoroughly deserves to be there. But if it wins it will be on the (considerable) strength of that central section alone.



 I spent a good chunk of that review wanting to make a connection to this book, which I read last year. There are the obvious connections – undiscovered creatures; shipwreck; cannibalism; heightened, feverish shipboard imaginings – but I suppose these are in enough ship-related stories to be quite normal. Certainly I can find no evidence that Birch has read this particular Poe work. Still, it would be nice to be proved right.
September 24, 2011

I am completely half afraid to think.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that I read or reread much of Flann O’Brien’s work this year – as is obvious I’ve been hopelessly behind when it comes to actually writing about what I’ve read. But the first thing I reread was also the first book by him I’d ever read: The Third Policeman.

The story- at the beginning of the book our nameless narrator gets into a creepy, hostile, co-dependent relationship with a man named John Diveney. He allows Diveney to convince him to conspire to kill a rich man and steal his wealth. But only much later does Diveney to reveal (or so the narrator thinks) the location of the loot- in the house of the man they’d killed. When our narrator goes to collect it, strange things begin to happen. He encounters the ghost of his victim, develops a conscience (called “Joe” for convenience) and is led in mysterious ways to a police station where everyone is obsessed with bicycles. A series of strange events follows.

The narrator is also a scholar of the works of the (fictional) scientist/philosopher de Selby. The book is full of references and footnotes about de Selby’s crackpot theories – for example that nighttime is the result of accumulated black air from volcanic pollution, or that sleep does not exist – instead we go through a series of fits caused by said black air. Other theories of de Selby concern his conviction that by reflecting oneself in a series of mirrors it is possible to see one’s own childhood self, and his insistence that he had mastered time travel.

This benign property of his prose is not, one hopes, to be attributed to the reason noticed by the eccentric du Garbandier, who said ‘the beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest’.

The de Selby sections are the best, the most absurd, and the funniest in the book. And though de Selby has no real relevance to the plot (in this book nothing does, so it hardly matters) his interpretations of science and philosophy work well within the logic of the world the narrator enters. This is, after all, a world in which a policeman spends his time making a series of otherwise identical boxes that fit into each other, even now that the more recent boxes are so small as to be invisible. A world in which the movement of atoms means that people who ride their bicycles too frequently become, in time, part-bicycle themselves.

The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles…when a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.

This leads to all sorts of complications. When such a man dies, do you bury his human form or his bicycle? What degree of perversion is inherent in riding someone else’s bicycle (or fooling them into riding your own)? And since shunning the bicycle and walking means turning to clay, what is the safest method of transport?

All these very serious issues are discussed in some of the most elaborate, high-flown dialogue you could hope to encounter. It’s glorious – particularly when (this made my second encounter with the book even more joyous than the first) you’re hearing it all in Irish accents.

The end of The Third Policeman explains away the silly science logic of the previous pages with an equivalent of an “it was all a dream!” ending that has ruined so many other books. It doesn’t spoil this (though I remember being disappointed by it when I read it some years ago). I’m not sure why this is, but I think it may be because a book can’t betray its own internal logic when it has none. Or something. Or maybe the rest of it is so incredible that nothing could spoil it? Either way it’s magnificent.

September 24, 2011

Shailaja Bajpai, Three Parts Desire

In last week’s TSG. I’m rarely this entirely negative about a book but I didn’t get along with this one at all. On the paper’s website here, or slightly edited below:



Is it possible to write a successful novel in which the main characters have no names? (Yes). Is it possible to write a successful novel in which practically all of the characters are unpleasant? (Yes). Is it possible to do both of these things while writing a saas-bahu saga? At this point it all breaks down.

Shailaja Bajpai’s Three Parts Desire is a multi-generational saga about the life of “Didi” (her only name, given to her by her maid and lifelong companion Sita), the daughter of “Mem”. As a young girl Didi travels to America, where she tastes freedom (in the form of friends, movies and champagne) and has a brief affair with an American boy before returning to India to be forced into an arranged marriage. Confessing her carnal experience to her new husband Purushottam, or Purush (literally “man”; even he cannot be given a real name) turns out to be a bad idea. By the time Didi’s daughter “Baby” has been born, the marriage has fallen apart.

When the story opens, Didi has been separated from her husband for some years, and is living with Sita in a small house on a hill station. Skipping back and forth in time the novel moves between Didi’s disastrous marriage and (the now adult) Baby’s attempts to understand the events leading up to the point where her mother left the family home. There is no great mystery involved here; knowing what we do of Didi’s past life, at least part of the story is obvious.

Simultaneously the novel explores Baby’s relationship with Karthik, whom she meets at university. Karthik is almost unique in the book in having a name of his own. He is also probably the closest this novel comes to a sympathetic character, and he is almost excruciatingly worthy. Baby is perpetually angry, Sita’s narrow-minded moralising is grating rather than endearing, Purush is repulsive and Didi and Som Devi, both complex characters, are frustratingly under-explored.

Characters talk like no one on earth. Didi is curious about how Karthik “[met] that beautiful but self-willed daughter of mine”. She describes her own sindoor as her “red signpost […] it tells everyone who I am”. The difficulty of creating an authentic sounding speech in English literature for characters who are clearly speaking a different language has produced some howlers in the past, and it does so here again. Som Devi’s speech is peppered with “I am telling”, and Mem insists that her husband must be “here-there” before calling the domestic help “an ulloo, Hari Prasadji, bilkul ulloo!”

Matters aren’t helped by Bajpai’s apparent fondness for the most jarring of similes. Karthik’s life “had been abruptly disconnected like a telephone line with an unpaid bill”. Later, when his hand is injured, “the blood was smeared ketchup on finger chips”. Baby goes one up (and again we have the awkward switch from one language to another) when she licks his bleeding knuckles. “’Karela,’ she observed, ‘your blood tastes of bitter gourd’”.

Then there are the overwrought bits of symbolism (for example, a long paragraph in which Baby watches a bird dithering between security and freedom before it chooses to commit suicide by flying into a tree trunk).

And there are turns of phrase from the narrative itself that are bizarre. On the very first page of the book we meet a shop assistant with “a charcoal smudge moustache and an Adam’s apple straining out of his neck”.

An un-likeable character is not necessarily a bad one and there are good stories to be told here. We are told little of Baby’s time in America, but the little we do know makes her character far more complex. Karthik’s difficulties with his family and his desire to do the right thing could make for a good character arc. Didi and Som Devi, as I mention above, are grey characters deserving of a lot more insight. And insight is what this book lacks the most – there are characters and relationships that may seem inconsequential on the surface, but are worthy of exploring; yet the book seems uninterested in doing this. It’s hard to tell exactly what it is that the novel and its author are interested in doing. The choice to give these characters universal names might imply a deliberate movement away from focusing on their individual personalities, but why? Three Parts Desire meanders through the lives of these unlikeable people, telling us next to nothing about them. For a novel that is quite long (over four hundred pages) it has very little to say.


*Do I need a glossary for this? Briefly:
“Didi” – older sister; “Purush” – male; “sindoor” – this; “bilkul ullu” – literally a complete owl, but she just means he’s an idiot; “karela” – bitter gourd; “saas-bahu” – mother-in-law–daughter-in-law dynamics, but no glossary is enough to really explain this.
September 21, 2011

On garlic

And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy. - William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember my “Practically Marzipan” column – it ran in the New Indian Express’ Zeitgeist from 2008 to the beginning of this year.
One of the (many) columns I never reposted to the blog was written in 2008 and it was about garlic. And various other things (like sex), but mostly garlic. A conversation on twitter today led me to seek it out.
(This is an unedited version – the published version appears to have disappeared from their website)


The consumption of onions and garlic (and others among the delicious consolations that make human life worth living) was just one of the many things a large number of my ancestors seem to have been against.

In India, a number of religious groups disapprove of onions and garlic. These are supposed to be Rajasic foods, clouding the mind with passion and making it harder to concentrate on spiritual matters. A related explanation I’ve seen used in various quarters is that these foods enhance the libido. I find this baffling – surely onion-y, garlicky breath is a turn off? – but supposing it to be true, the hostility is understandable. Few people would meditate when there were enhanced libidos to be taken care of.

The writers of scripture (and more recently, well known dieticians) express themselves even more strongly on the subjects of meat and alcohol. Had America been discovered at the time when these scriptures were written, doubtless potatoes and chocolate would have been found to be objectionable too.

Of course, this idea that you are what you eat is not limited to the subcontinent alone. In 1800s America, similar beliefs led to two major culinary revolutions. An early campaigner for diet reform was one Sylvester Graham. Like all great reformers, Graham seems to have taken an active interest in the private lives of his fellow men; particularly their sex lives. Being of the belief that any form of excitement was unhealthy and that animal-based products created lust, Graham advocated vegetarianism, sexual abstinence (he believed that masturbation led to blindness and insanity) and (his one good idea) frequent bathing. He also invented the Graham cracker, the most boring biscuit in existence and thus a stalwart foot soldier in the war against sexual gratification.

But as influential as Graham crackers were to become, Sylvester Graham was only preparing the way for a greater man who would one day overshadow him. That man was John Harvey Kellogg.

Like Graham, Kellogg was a fan of vegetarianism and abstinence, and against exciting food and sex. He even wrote a book, titled Plain Facts About Sexual Life (the title was later changed to Plain Facts for Old and Young) to support his views. He and his wife occupied separate bedrooms for the forty years of their marriage. Clearly he practiced what he preached.

What Kellogg is really known for is the invention of the cornflake along with his brother W.K (Will Keith) Kellogg. The cornflake at the time was a healthy, whole grain product that was unlikely to encourage any unwanted desires. In later years the humble cornflake would take on new and startling forms and a number of exotic flavours, but the Kellogg brothers actually argued in 1906 over the necessity of adding sugar to the basic recipe – presumably John thought it would be too exciting for the consumers. A century later, there’s certainly sugar in most breakfast cereals, so it seems that W.K had the right idea.

Religious scripture remains silent on the subject of cornflakes, while continuing to shake its head disapprovingly at onions and garlic. So for now I think my breakfast, however sugared, is safe.



Srividya Natarajan’s 2006 novel No Onions Nor Garlic plays with the Shakespeare quote above – it’s a satire about TamBrahms staging a more Hindu Midsummer Night’s Dream in Madras. It is excellent.
Also I’d like to think my ability to write 500 word columns has improved over the last few years.
September 19, 2011

Totally serious non-frivolous blog-usage


Apparently there is now a play titled Ganesh vs the Third Reich, premiering later this month. Unsurprisingly Rajan Zed is outraged. All this is irrelevant, except to link you to this Hindustan Times article about it, in the comments of which may be found this gem (copied here because some people are claiming it’s disappeared from the newspaper’s site):

DILIP 48 minutes ago
Well it is a well documneted historical fact that doctrine of the Third Reich, did steal prsitine divine inspiration from the vedas, Ramayna and Mahabharata. The space technology, misslies and the atomic weapon concept was pilfered staright out of Mahabharat and other vedas.Hitler converted to vegetarian having convinced himself of its virtues and scientific benefits after reading the vedas.Intellectual Germans did drive many inspirations and ideas that enable at one stage in the 20th Century, the Greatest military and economic power, in this context we must assess the attributes, virtues and strength of hinduism and very advanced knowledge based science and technology. WE must not get distracted by some stupid namby pambies, of lefty fanatic persusaion trying to push their grotesque agenda.
September 19, 2011

Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra, The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl


A version of this short review appeared in Mint Lounge this weekend, here.



The goodness of the good Indian girl is a badge of sorts. Or, as the cover of Annie Zaidi and Smriti Ravindra’s The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl suggests, a rather tacky sparkly medallion. As the authors emphasise in their introduction, ‘good’ here “does not mean the opposite of bad”; merely the set of behaviours considered desirable in an Indian girl.

What Zaidi and Ravindra explore in this collection of loosely connected (several characters and names appear in more than one) stories is not the oppressive nature of this set of desirable qualities, but the ways in which women can transgress them and still retain the Good Indian Girl (or GIG) tag. The result is a book of surprisingly subversive tales in which girls interact with men, climb down rope ladders(“BIG Girls”) , flirt and draw back (“Strangers”), cut themselves (“Out of Here”) are nervous and afraid around men but simultaneously willing to play along (“Finger Play”), manipulate their perceived goodness to their own ends (“Daddy’s Girls”). They are less about emphasising the restrictions placed on Indian women than they are about how women use and test them. The “GIG”s in these stories have agency, and they use it.

The stories are interspersed with short segments addressed directly to the reader. These are something of a weak point – they are rather arch in tone, and often attempt to ‘explain’ the previous story or to draw a connection with the next one. It’s unnecessary and intrusive; we don’t need to be told that Gaurangini (“Panty Lines”) suffered, but lightly, or that the next story will require us to think about what happens when we confront a girl with her own lust. Sometimes these sections are merely trying too hard: “Seems far out? Can’t believe it? Think we’re exaggerating? Trust us: it happened!” Thankfully, as the book progresses these sections become less self-conscious and more like chatty asides.

The inter-connectedness of the stories ties the book together. When done well the related chapters are delightful read against one another, with the same situation reflected in many perspectives. Occasionally it is done clumsily (as with the paired stories “Tiger Balm” and “Stop Press”). Sometimes it is brilliant, as with the lovely “Rain” and its sequel-of-sorts, “Words”. However, a consequence of these recurring characters is also to highlight the fact that these characters are a specific subset of Indian girls. It’s possible that Good Indian Girl-hood is so universal as to make no difference, but the authors themselves admit towards the end that “[g]eneration to generation, state to state, notions of GIGdom vary”. Yet besides this one acknowledgement, there’s no exploration of this idea at all.

The title of the book is a mystery– what “bad boys” have to do with anything is beyond me. But though The Bad Boy’s Guide to the Good Indian Girl feels rather less than the sum of its parts (the excellence of some individual stories is rather let down by their sameness) it manages to be a likeable, if one-note collection. 


September 18, 2011

Dick Beresford, The Uncensored Boy’s Own: Spiffing Tales of Plucky Deeds and Unspeakable Beastliness

Last week’s Left of Cool piece. A word of apology (to those of you who know enough to need it). Cramming the entire history of the school story into a couple hundred words for context was a very difficult thing to do – particularly since my M.Phil thesis dealt with the subject and I knew enough to know whenever I was making a gross oversimplification.

Also, a shout out to the wonderful Sridala Swami who discovered this book somewhere in Scotland and sent it to me. (She also sent me my first ever Jilly Cooper book, which I look forward to writing about on this blog)



In the second half of the nineteenth century, newspapers and magazines for girls and boys really took off. The most prominent of these (at least among boys) was The Boy’s Own Paper, first published in 1879. The trend continued well into the twentieth century – The Boy’s Own Paper continued in one form or the other well into the 1960s. A major feature of these magazines were serialised adventure stories and school stories – for example Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter stories, published in The Magnet. The school story was famous in book form too, though many Indians are most familiar with Enid Blyton’s (comparatively late for the genre) Malory Towers books. P.G Wodehouse wrote school stories for magazines at the beginning of his career, centring them around the fictional schools Wrykyn and St Austin’s.

A genre as popular as the serialised school story was bound to have its parodists – and often these were the writers themselves. Wodehouse often mocked the genre even as he wrote within it. Kipling was rather more biting with his Stalky & Co. The greatest of the modern school story parodies (I will not accept that this is subjective opinion) is Geoffrey Willans’ Molesworth series; a record of life at St Custard’s school told in the voice (and spelling) of one Nigel Molesworth (“Skool according to headmaster’s pi-jaw is like Life chiz* if that is the case wot is the use of going on?”)

An unusual take on the school story parody is Dick Beresford’s The Uncensored Boy’s Own: Spiffing Tales of Plucky Deeds and Unspeakable Beastliness. The title’s exaggerated use of the language associated with the genre makes its satirical intent clear. Yet the illustrations look surprisingly authentic-almost as if they had been drawn at the height of The Boy’s Own Paper’s popularity. It turns out that this is exactly what they are. Beresford (a pseudonym of the incredibly prolific Russell Ash) has taken original art from works published from 1925-35 and added his own captions to create a strange and sordid history of life at “St. Fred’s”.

Most of the humour comes from the selection of illustrations, which create the impression that St. Fred’s is a very strange school indeed. One spends a great deal of time wondering what sort of original stories required pictures of boys hiding onions up chimneys, being attacked by minotaurs, being led into dark rooms wearing sunglasses or watching films with a Mark Twain lookalike. One chapter expresses bewilderment at the behaviour of some members of staff (“I heard they belonged to an exclusive gentlemen-only rumba club, from which they often had to be collected in an advanced state of intoxication”).

Another chapter addresses the painful subject of “beastliness” or homosexuality within the school – rather aggravated at St. Fred’s by the strange custom of making the boys share beds. Eventually the young men find out about girls (“Matron tried to help out by showing us some interesting photographs). Once the narrator comes across a copy of Kraft-Ebing’s Psycopathia Sexualis, things get even more interesting, if slightly confusing (“at first they didn’t believe a word, especially all that stuff about the gerbils and the butter”).

There are also a series of gags about boy scouts, school camping trips, odd traditions and cricket matches. The Uncensored Boy’s Own relies upon a certain level of knowledge from the reader – as with any parody you have to be familiar enough with the original to know what is being mocked. This is also what makes it predictable – the overblown language, the violent schoolgirls, the sinister foreigners. The incongruity of pictures and words is funny, but not sustainably so – in the end the book is too lightweight to work. The Uncensored Boy’s Own is extremely silly and so beautifully produced as to look quite authentic, but other than as a curiosity or a collector’s piece (for those of us who find the school story endlessly fascinating) it’s hard to know why anyone would bother.

*”a chiz is a swiz or a swindle, as any fule kno.”


(Thanks to my own anarchic tagging, only a few of my many posts about the school story are viewable here - for more you’d have to hunt through the whole of the blog. And wouldn’t that be awful?)
September 18, 2011

Maeve Gilmore, Titus Awakes

Technically Maeve Gilmore and Mervyn Peake, but only the fragment at the very beginning is Peake’s, and most of what I’ll be discussing is therefore his wife’s.

The situation as I understand it is as follows: Peake died in 1968 leaving only a fragment and notes for the intended fourth book in the Titus series, Titus Awakes. In the years following his death his wife Maeve Gilmore, with whom he had discussed the book, worked on a manuscript of her own based on these scraps of Titus Awakes titled Search Without End. According to Brian Sibley’s introduction to this book Gilmore did not initially plan to publish the book (though there’s no indication that she was against it). The manuscript was lost for some time but resurfaced early last year and was published in time for Peake’s centenary.

The result is a very strange book, and a very uncomfortable read.

To start with, Titus Awakes is closer in feel to Titus Alone than to the two books set in Gormenghast. Titus Groan and Gormenghast are both deeply strange books in many ways, but the world in which they are set is a self-contained one, and there’s a general sense of knowing where things ought to be (this is something that informs the plot to a great extent as well). Titus Alone represents a massive change stylistically – suddenly we’re in a world that Gormenghast hadn’t prepared us for, but that exists in the same universe. Suddenly we have cars and pretentious literary partygoers and surveillance technology. You don’t know where this world will lead you.

Titus Alone has Titus wandering, and trying to come to terms with a sense of self that isn’t centred around Gormenghast. Titus Awakes has, in some ways, more of the same, but many of the places Titus visits seem to make reference to Peake’s own life – particularly his World War II experiences. There is a meeting with an artist (Maeve herself?), some time spent in a hospital, and at the end of the book Titus travels to Sark (where the Peake family lived for some years) and appears to meet Peake himself. Gilmore sometimes captures the weird, dreamlike quality of much of Peake’s writing. Attempts to write like Peake (if that ever was the intent) fail – often Gilmore has her characters speaking with more like the narrator of the Gormenghast books than actual people.

Sibley states in the introduction that while the book “begun as an act of homage” it evolved into “a highly personal quest to understand her husband’s tragic descent into illness in terms of his artistic and literary brilliance”. This is the real problem – it is intensely personal. I suspect that the writing of it may have been cathartic, but it’s so uncomfortably tied up in Gilmore’s own relationship with Peake that for me, at least, it was hard to separate the two. I felt like an intruder all the time.

Gilmore has written another book about her life with Peake – the autobiographical A World Away. In terms of style and coherence that book is probably a lot better than this one. But what I took from Titus Awakes that I could not see in A World Away was a stronger sense of Peake and Gilmore as both being artists with a great sense of respect and understanding for each other’s work.But this, once again, is less about the book than the Peakes – however hard I try I find myself judging Titus Awakes on what it tells me about the relationship between  the authors rather than on its own merits. And that doesn’t feel right at all.

September 12, 2011

L.T. Meade, A Modern Tomboy

I cheated a bit over this month’s Kindle Magazine column. The book I discuss in it is one I’ve mentioned on this blog before – but while the last post (which was more quote than commentary) focused on the incredible levels of homoeroticism in the book, this one looks at a couple of other aspects of this very odd book.



It is startling sometimes to realise suddenly how far removed the cultural values of old books are from your own. It’s even more startling to realise how far removed they can be from the cultural values of their own times.

On the surface of it, L.T Meade’s  A Modern Tomboy is a conventional story for girls. Mrs Merriman decides to start a school for girls in order to support her husband, who is a scholar working on a Great Work. Daughter Lucy is jealous, particularly since one of the new girls, Rosamund, is attractive as well as being a born leader. Rosamund befriends Irene Ashleigh, a rich girl who is so spoiled that she is uncontrollable. Rosamund’s influence and the advent of a saintly younger girl play major roles in Irene’s reform.

Thus far we have the school, the pretty, headstrong but basically nice school girl who is the heroine and the wild, antisocial girl who must be taught to fit into society. All seems to be proceeding as you’d expect it to.

But A Modern Tomboy is neither a traditional school story nor a moral tale. As far as I can tell, it appears to be about how charisma is the most important thing in the world, and how those who have it will always get their own way. That, and romance among young girls.

The school story has something of a history with homoeroticism. In part this is a natural result of any stories about people of one sex all cooped up together (rumours about monasteries and nunneries exist for similar reasons), but early authors in the genre did not exactly help things (Angela Brazil infamously – and apparently innocently – called one of her schoolgirl characters Lesbia). The first half of this book is filled with romantic declarations; people breaking into other people’s rooms to get into bed with them, and claiming that they cannot live without them.

But it is the second part of the book that is particularly baffling.

If this book has a heroine it is probably Rosamund. Meade makes sure that we know this character is bossy and used to getting her own way, but she is forgiven much for how attractive she is. Irene is even more beautiful and charismatic, and so characters she has physically injured or threatened with death find it easy to forgive her. Her beauty also causes the infatuation of Agnes Frost, the younger sister of Iren e’s governess. Miss Frost can only watch in alarm as her sister is seduced away, and as her own complicity in the whole thing is bought off with the promise of the good education for her siblings. The text tells us that “[i]t is a curious fact that there are some weak but loving people who are not loved in return”, stating this as obvious fact rather than as a problem that needs fixing.

And this, I think, is what makes A Modern Tomboy so unusual – where most children’s stories of the period moralise, it takes for granted the unfairness of the world, treating it as something so obvious that it needn’t even be commented upon. 


All this, plus everyone in the book being kind of terrible. Were I looking for this sort of cynical realism in fiction I wouldn’t have expected to find it in an early-twentieth century school story writer, but there you go. A Modern Tomboy is available on Project Gutenberg here.
September 4, 2011

Mike Brown, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

Here is last week’s Left of Cool piece. I was either very clever or very tedious and titled the version in the paper “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nomenclature”. The original version is below.



When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet, a number of people were understandably very upset. They’d grown up with the information that there were nine planets in the solar system and these were their names: the addition of a tenth planet might have felt like an exciting new adventure, but to have their number reduced seemed a genuine loss.

Strangely enough, it is because a tenth “planet” had been discovered that Pluto was thus demoted. Mike Brown, the discoverer of this new celestial body, therefore became indirectly the architect of Pluto’s downfall. The question of whether or not “Xena” (now known as “Eris”) was a planet meant that the International Astronomical Union had to arrive at a single definition of what a planet was. The definition, when it was made, excluded both Eris and Pluto, and people scrambled to find new mnemonics to remember the names of the planets; one suggested mnemonic being “Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature”.

In How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, Brown describes the events leading up to this momentous decision. Interspersed with the story of the various things Brown and his team discovered are sections about his personal life; his relationship with his wife Diane, and the birth of their daughter Lilah. Brown is funny and moving about his family and his personal foibles and these sections of the book are excellent. A scene in which Brown and Diane sit around calmly waiting for her contractions to become sufficiently frequent is particularly memorable.

Brown has the tendency (though presumably with the noble goal of being accessible) to address himself to readers who are expected to know almost nothing about the universe. We can’t all be astronomers, or even scientists, but if you were the sort of child who thought space was amazing, it’s a bit jarring to have someone kindly explain to you things you knew in primary school, such as the existence of the Kuiper belt. Luckily he is an engaging enough narrator that the painstaking explanations of everything are not as annoying as they might have been. Most of the time it’s easy to be swept away by the enthusiasm that permeates the book.

This is unfortunately not the case in the chapters where he discusses a couple of controversial moments in his career. These are the naming of “Sedna” and the discovery of “Haumea”, both dwarf planets. Brown certainly makes a strong case for his own righteousness, but in doing so he also somehow makes himself less sympathetic. To leave out any discussion of these issues would have looked suspicious or weak, but it’s a pity that they should have had to sour the book in this fashion.

It is on the issue of language that I find myself least in sympathy with Brown. The question of the status of Pluto is as much one of naming as it is one of science; to what extent must words have fixed, single definitions? How far are we comfortable with instability of meaning, and is it even possible to force a sudden change in the way a word is popularly used? In one section the author bemoans the varied and unscientific ways in which the word “continent” is used- his bewildered indignation is funny, yet as a literature student I found myself wanting to shout “that’s not how language works!” Brown does come around a little and pays lip-service to the idea that how a word is used might matter a little. Yet he when he refers to this as “emotional” or “sentimental” it seems unlikely that he really gets it.

I have in the past been indifferent to Pluto’s status. Yet framed by an argument about language and the naming of things, suddenly it seems like campaigning for its reinstatement might be a good idea. I’m quite sure this is not the reaction the author intended, yet How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is still an enormously entertaining book.