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It’s hard to know what to say about Nick Drake’s life without sounding trite or sentimental. Yes, I know this is a review of an album, and not a biography, but like most fans, I find his life fascinating, if depressing, and I think it’s necessary to know a bit about him to understand the Nick Drake ‘phenomenon’, for want of a better word. Nick was an English singer-songwriter born in 1948. He released three exceptional albums during his life, which were received by the public with great indifference, partly because of his refusal (or inability, due to intense shyness) to tour and promote his work. He became more and more alienated, lost faith in his own talent, and eventually withdrew almost completely from the world around him. On November 25th, 1974, Nick died from an overdose (seemingly more accidental, or desperate, than pre-meditated) of the anti-depressants he had been prescribed. And that was more or less that, as far as his career went, until 1979, when his record company released a box set of his albums, and discovered that the power of Nick’s songs had not diminished with time. Over the next two decades, many musicians acknowledged the influence of Nick Drake on their own work. It seemed to become almost compulsory at one point for young ‘sensitive’ musicians to name-drop him. A tribute album was released; people began making pilgrimages to Tanworth-in-Arden, the village where Nick grew up and died; the cult of Nick Drake was established. In 1994, the compilation album ‘Way to Blue’ was released, and this is when I finally saw the light and became a Disciple of Nick. I’d heard of him before, vaguely, and was cornered once by a girl at a party who knew my musical tastes and decided I was ripe for conversion, but I hadn’t really paid much attention. All of a sudden, I kept seeing posters and ads for the album everywhere – this extremely attractive image kept cat ching my eye, and that was just the gorgeous forest he was standing in. The young man in the photo looked about 14, but was disturbingly beautiful, even more so when I made the connection and realised I was leching over someone who’d died 20 years previously in extremely unhappy circumstances. He seemed to be wearing an insane hippie jumper. I read avidly that he had suffered from depression, died young, and was unappreciated during his life, and that only now did everyone realise his true genius. I could relate to that. Sold to the rather pretentious young woman with the delusions of grandeur and the suicidal fantasies. Yes, you madam, at the back, with the saliva on your insane hippie jumper. My cider clock is telling me it’s time to get on with reviewing the album itself (well, the Chinese people had a water clock, didn’t they? I’ve got a cider clock. By checking how far down I’ve got in the bottle, I can tell what stage I should have got to in my review.) Ok, so I’ve admitted that I came to discover Nick Drake for all the wrong reasons. A morbid admiration for the idea of a doomed youth, destined to be misunderstood until it was too late, not forgetting a healthy portion of good old-fashioned lechery. But the reason I came to love Nick Drake, or rather his work, is to be found in the little silver disc found under the enticing picture. The music. The lyrics. His voice. My God, his voice. ‘Way to Blue’ is a perfect introduction to all the wonders of this artist. It’s such a well-chosen compilation that I would probably go for it as my Nick Drake desert-island disc. There’s the innocence and yearning from the album ‘Five Leaves Left’, the jazzy lyrical cleverness of ‘Bryter Layter’, and the dark moodiness of ‘Pink Moon’. I’ll go through it track by track, but concentrate on the ones I really like. Don’t be put off by the length of the fi rst one – there are some concise ones later on. Cello Song (from Five Leaves Left) The first Nick Drake song I ever heard, and still my favourite. I suppose no piece of music can be perfect, but if there’s anything that comes closer to it than this, I’d like to know about it. I love the way it builds up in layers – first the acoustic guitar, intricate and clever and uplifting, joined by something that sounds like bongos (or another sort of drum that you hit with your hands, sorry, know very little about percussion), like the backbone of the song, then the cello itself, rich and sweet, warm and mournful at the same time, if that’s possible. The resulting sound almost hurts to listen to, it’s that good, and that’s before he’s even opened his mouth. “Strange face, with your eyes so pale and sincere…” I want to hug myself with glee when I hear him sing this opening line. It could have been such a let-down – I had no idea what he sounded like – but his voice complements the arrangement so well (maybe that should be the other way around, but that’s the order that you hear it in), I think I knew at that moment this was The Real Thing. True Love, in a musical appreciation-type way. His voice is incredibly intimate, as if he was singing softly to you and you alone, but powerful, too. His enunciation is unashamedly English, slightly upper middle-class, which is refreshingly truthful, as that’s what he was. I think it’s a shame more singers don’t have the confidence or honesty to retain their own accents, and not assume some kind of Mockney or trans-atlantic pronunciation. Nick Drake was not the greatest singer in the world technically, but he was certainly competent, and for me, the immediacy and emotion that his voice conveys put him up there amongst my favourite singers. He sounds vulnerable, rather shy, but determined to commun icate the message of what he’s written. “So forget this cruel world where I belong I’ll just sit here and wait and sing my song. But if one day you should see me in the crowd Lend a hand and lift me to your place in the cloud.” In black and white it’s in danger of sounding melodramatic or maudlin, but it’s neither. Promise. Hazey Jane I (from Bryter Layter) This is not a favourite of mine. I admire the way that the strings, drums and bass interact to create a certain mood, but it feels over-produced compared to other, sparer tracks. This is a problem I have with much of ‘Bryter Layter’ – a lot of the heart seems to have been taken from the songs with the producer’s intention to make it more marketable. The lyrics of this one are wonderful: “Do you like what you’re doing? Would you do it some more? Or will you stop once and wonder what you’re doing it for?” but the message is muddied by the sound. It’s lost the highly personal feel of his earlier work. Way to Blue (from Five Leaves Left) The title track, obviously, and it’s a good one, although I wouldn’t have picked it myself for the album title. It’s just Nick’s voice to a background of string instruments; his singing seems to be particularly suited to a string accompaniment, with all the associations that the sound brings: mellow, moving, sad, spiritual. His enunciation sounds particularly proper on this one, with the sort of perfection and delivery that could be labelled effeminate. Me, I love his vowel sounds – I won’t try to reproduce them in print, but they are so obviously his own natural way of speaking, I think they’re wonderful. Sorry to bring this up again; I haven’t got a thing about ‘posh’ voices, at all, quite the opposite in fact. I just love the fact t hat despite what he felt about himself, in the end, he was never afraid to sing out in his true voice. I also love the line from this song “We will wait at your gate, hoping like the blind”. Like many of his lyrics, it evokes such a complicated but recognisable image in a few words. Things Behind the Sun (from Pink Moon) Just Nick and an acoustic guitar again, lovely. But oh, it’s from Pink Moon, and the effect is much darker. The song’s message is at first both cynical and warning: “Please beware of them that stare They’ll only smile to see you while your time away. And once you’ve seen what they have been The earth just won’t seem worth your night or your day.” The lyrics change to being optimistic and hopeful, but it’s not totally convincing, and the song ends on a bleak note. It’s easy to say in retrospect, but I feel that many songs taken from this album, however personal, maintain a distance from the listener which shuts us out, and so are not at all the same as hearing ‘Five Leaves Left’. Nick is still saying the same type of thing, but he’s not including us, anymore. He’s on his own, and you’ll be left with a feeling that you are, too, if you identify with some of the songs taken from this album. River Man (from Five Leaves Left) A flowing acoustic guitar, then those ubiquitous strings again. Very laid back, mimicking a boat bobbing along lazily. Wistful vocals and equivocating lyrics : ‘Betty said she prayed today For the sky to blow away Or maybe stay She wasn’t sure.’ Poor Boy (from Bryter Layter) This track makes me screw my face up, actually. I don’t like it, in fact it irritates me. It’s just a charming ditty about someone down on their luck, but the producer has decided to give it the full work s, with all sorts of jazzy noodlings on piano and sax, and not one, but two backing singers crooning all over the shop. At 6 minutes 30, it’s by far the longest song on the album, too (many others are under 3 minutes, which leaves you gagging for more in the best way). Grr. Press the skip button, please. Time of No Reply (from the posthumous out-takes album, Time of No reply) A deceptively simple sounding acoustic guitar melody – I say deceptive because apparently, Nick tuned his guitar in an extraordinarily eccentric way, to the extent that later musicians have been flummoxed when attempting to reproduce his music. The vocals on this are not particularly inspiring, but the lyrics are, as usual, intriguing and poetic. ‘Time goes by from year to year And no one asks why I am standing here But I have my answer as I look to the sky This is the time of no reply.’ From the Morning (from Pink Moon) Acoustic guitar and vocals stand alone, again, romantic and dreamy this time. Nick uses the higher end of his register for much of the song, and he sounds frail and other-wordly. Again it’s a retrospective view, but this song gives me the sense of someone drifting out of reach. ‘So look see the days The endless coloured ways And go play the game that you learnt From the morning.’ One of These Things First (from Bryter Layter) Hooray, a track from Bryter Layter that I really like! I was starting to feel a bit disloyal there for a while. As with ‘Cello Song’, the instrumental parts are magical, with piano, bass, and drums looping together in a gorgeous, soaring dance. I think these are some of the finest lyrics on the album, or maybe they just paricularly appeal to me. The singer is considering the choices he has made in life, perhaps regretting missed opportunities. At first he uses careers as an example: ‘I could ha ve been a sailor, could have been a cook’ but quickly becomes more whimsical, imagining himself as a book, a clock, or a kettle. My favourite is ‘Could have been a boot.’ It sounds so satisfying somehow, I always think “yeah, being a boot would be cool.” It’s a perfect example of how his writing takes you to strange and inexplicable places, if you let it. Some time later, of course, I think, “being a boot? What on earth was I on about?”, but while the spell lasts, I just enjoy it. There’s a childlike wonder and imagination at work here, and we could all use a bit more of that in our lives. Northern Sky (from Bryter Layter) This has been described as ‘the greatest English love-song of all time.’ I’m glad it’s not just me who’s prone to overstatement when It comes to this man’s work. The words are achingly lyrical, but the music comes to within a whisker of drowning it in sentimental cheese. You know that keyboard effect called ‘Dewdrop’, or something equally naff? They’ve put something sounding very like it on here. It’s totally unnecessary, with the sincerity of Nick’s voice, and the poetry of the lyrics, to have heartstring pulling Yamaha-type noises in the background. John Cale, of all people, was responsible, too (well, for pressing the keys, at least; I don’t expect it was actually his idea.) You can’t curdle pure genius with half an ounce of slush, though. Hold your loved one tight and listen to this one, preferably gazing into each others’ eyes, having been for a long walk on a chilly day. ‘I never felt magic as crazy as this I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea I never held emotion in the palm of my hand Or felt sweet breezes in the top of the tree But now you’re here Brighten my northern sky.’ Which Will (from Pink Moon) < br> The singer asks the object of his desire which lover he or she will choose. Sorry about the awkwardness of having to use ‘he or she’, but Drake never specifies, you see, in his songs, and that’s part of the beauty of it. Love-struck young men and women, of whatever sexuality, can sing along with equal abandon. There’s been a lot of debate over the years along the lines of ‘was he? wasn’t he?’ gay, and some interesting analysis of his work from a gay perspective. Whatever he was or wasn’t, it doesn’t seem that he ever had a serious or lasting love relationship with anyone, which is a crying shame, and of course adds to the mystique. My own view that he would have been white-hot in the sack is probably best kept to myself. Oops. Anyway, the song. Pure and simple, guitars and vocals, you know it by now if you’ve read this far. He doesn’t sound at all convinced that he will be the preferred one, though. ‘Which do you dance for Which makes you shine Which will you choose now If you won't choose mine?’ He sounds the tiniest bit scornful of the person that’s not appreciating him, or maybe that’s my imagination. I hope he was, though. It’s so hard to tell with that perfect diction of his. Hazey Jane II (from Bryter Layter) Right, sorry, but I’m going to have yet another rant about the album that this track is taken from. This is a superbly-crafted song, with some classic lyrics (I especially like ‘the weasel with the teeth that bite so sharp when you’re not looking in the evening’), but again, it’s been mucked around with so much that his voice flounders and appears to struggle to keep up with the pace of the backing, which is mediocre. I imagine that after his first album, some very well-meaning people in the music business said “Listen. You’re wonderful, you should be a star, and we’re going to make you one. All we have to do is pep your songs up a bit, make them more commercial, and bingo – we’ll all be in the money.” Shame no-one stopped to realise that his stuff shines out all by itself if left well alone. ‘What will happen in the morning When the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out your window in the morning?’ Time Has Told Me (from Five Leaves Left) A good contrasting pace to the last track, with piano, electric guitar and bass (by Richard and Danny Thompson, if you’re interested), meandering along while the vocals sound confident and resonant. It’s another love song, questioning conventional ways of living, and the song that seems to me to add the most weight to the ‘Nick was gay’ theories. ‘Your tears they tell me To stay by my side To keep on trying 'til there's no more to hide. So leave the ways that are making you be What you really don't want to be Leave the ways that are making you love What you really don't want to love.’ It’s a powerful piece beneath the mellow sound, expressing something that was fiercely important to him. Pink Moon (from Pink Moon) This is the darkest song yet, and is probably as close as Nick got to ever railing against the shallowness of life. The trouble is, he still sounds so ruddy polite. He’s obviously deeply resentful, but he can’t quite let go and spit it all out in a torrent of venom. I heard this done in a punk version once, with the singer literally screaming the words out, and it was absolutely brilliant, if a little scary. I sometimes go off by myself when things are bad and try to emulate it (and usually end up in fits of laughter, so it does the trick). ‘I saw it written and I saw it say Pink moon is on its way And none of you stand s o tall Pink moon gonna get you all It's a pink moon It's a pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon.’ A pink moon was apparently seen as the harbinger of doom in the middle ages. It’s such a wonderful, bizarre threat to make. Try it next time you get hassled down the pub. Watch it, 'cause pink moon gonna get you all. Black-eyed Dog (from Time of No Reply) I guess Churchill’s depression is pretty well-known as having been described as “my black dog”. Somehow, a black-eyed dog sounds much more sinister and fitting, though. This is a real bluesy number – Nick adored blues and privately recorded a lot of his own, and others’, blues songs (I’ve got the bootleg, nyah, nyah). I love the contrast of the brooding music with his rather fey voice. On this track, however, he does at last let go, and sounds like he’s going to start howling at the moon. Depression certainly dogged Nick’s life, and ultimately ended it. This is a frightening and moving song, full of despair and rage. ‘A black-eyed dog he called at my door The black-eyed dog he called for more A black-eyed dog he knew my name… I'm growing old and I wanna go home I'm growing old and I don't wanna know I'm growing old and I wanna go home. A black-eyed dog he called at my door A black-eyed dog he called for more.’ Fruit Tree (from Five Leaves Left) And this is the end. Has to be, really, on a Nick Drake compilation, despite being one of the first songs he ever released. It features all the best bits of all his work – clever, driving guitar melody, grief-filled strings, yearning, sensitive vocals, angst-filled, dreamy lyrics. But what makes this the song that people remember above all others, is, of course, the subject matter. ‘Fruit tree, fruit tree No-one knows you but the rain and the air. D on't you worry They'll stand and stare when you're gone.’ Using the metaphor of a tree, which doesn’t really produce anything lasting until its fruits have rotted in the earth to create new trees, Nick muses about the nature of fame, and why so many people’s life work is never lauded until after their death. This was always going to be a song to send pleasurable shivers down the spine, but naturally, Nick’s lack of prestige during his life, and the feverish interest in him now, nearly 30 years after his death, lends another aspect to it. It’s all too easy to see him as a precognitive genius, of course. It was probably more of a self-fulfilling prophecy – anyone who wrote a song like that and then died young, was bound to attract the attention of the romantic and sometimes miserable – and there are hordes of us out here. But if you catch me weeping while listening to this song, and dare to suggest that I’m being maudlin, then be careful. 'Cause pink moon gonna get you all. Last word to Nick. ‘Fruit tree, fruit tree Open your eyes to another year They’ll all know that you were here When you’re gone.’
This film seduced me a long, long time ago, and the affair isn’t anywhere near being over yet. ‘The Graduate’ was filmed in 1967, and is one of those classic stories that doesn’t seem to date. Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) is fresh out of college and unsure about what direction he wants his life to go in. When a friend of his parents, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), makes him an offer he can’t refuse, he finds things slipping pleasurably out of his control. Ben feels utterly alienated from the suburban world of his parents, with their cocktail parties and their luxurious house and pool. He doesn’t seem to have any friends his own age, or none that he wants to keep in touch with after college. He’s returned home, having won a prestigious scholarship, and quickly finds himself being used as a trophy by his parents, and expected to play the part of the golden boy to all their friends. Hoffman plays these scenes with total detachment – I would use the word ‘stunned’, but that would imply some type of emotion. He looks like a man in shock, barely able to function. In one scene he struggles to express his feelings to his father: Ben : I’m just… Mr. Braddock : …worried? Ben : Well… Mr. Braddock : About what? Ben : I guess about my future. Mr. Braddock : What about it? Ben : I don’t know. I want it to be… Mr. Braddock : …to be what? Ben : …Different. Poor Ben, this is as close as he gets to actually communicating with anyone for most of the film. His isolation is also shown beautifully by some clever imagery – most notably the scene where his parents have bought him a set of scuba gear, and coerced him into giving a display for all their friends. We experience the scene from his viewpoint, inside the scuba mask. All around are smiling faces, his paren ts encouraging him, people cracking jokes and laughing, but their mouths move noiselessly, and the only sound we hear is Ben’s breathing within the mask. He jumps into the pool, swims to the bottom and stays there, standing alone in a ludicrous outfit, completely submerged, listening to the total silence. Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson promises to at least bring some sort of human contact into his life. “Would you like me to seduce you?” What a line. She’s perched on a stool, with her leg raised, head slightly tilted and a feline smile on her face. Who could resist? Bancroft is absolutely superb in this role – beautiful, sexy, predatory, scheming, utterly composed – yet also managing to show a vulnerabilty which allows us to sympathise with her. The scenes between her and Hoffman are the best and most convincing of all, and anchor the film in reality, allowing later, more unbelievable events to still feel ‘right’ - despite Bancroft being only five years older than Hoffman in real life (he was 30 – I know, 30! but he seems to remember only too well what it was like to be 21, and was lucky enough to still look it). I’m sure you can see the two of them trying not to laugh during some of the funnier dialogue, and apparently one of the film’s most memorable scenes, where Ben grabs the breast of a totally disinterested Mrs. Robinson, was improvised, and the reason Hoffman goes off and bangs his head against the wall was because he was trying to stop laughing. I bet they had a hoot making this. Actually, I’ve not mentioned yet, how very, very funny ‘The Graduate’ is. I think it’s because when I think of it, about 10 other aspects of the film pop into my head at the same time : the music, the bits that make me cry, the editing effects, the acting, the ending. All of which I want to tell you about. But most of all, it’s a deeply funny f ilm, with a wonderfully witty script. Try this : Mrs. Robinson : Do you find me undesirable? Ben : Oh, no, Mrs. Robinson. I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends. I mean that. Or this : Mr. Mc Guire : (very emphatically and seriously) I just want to say one word to you – just one word. Ben: (completely deadpan throughout) Yes sir. Mr. McGuire: Are you listening? Ben: Yes I am. Mr. McGuire: 'Plastics.' Ben: Exactly how do you mean? Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it? Ben: Yes I will. Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That's a deal. Anyway, Ben spends his summer meeting Mrs. Robinson (we never learn her first name, and he never calls her anything but Mrs. Robinson, even when they’re in bed together) for sex in a hotel at night, and drifting around in his parents house drinking beer in the daytime. The passing of months is portrayed by a deliberately disorientating montage of shots, with a soundtrack of two Simon and Garfunkel songs. If I had to pick, I think this would have to be my favourite part of the film. Scenes of Ben lying in a hotel bed watching TV while Mrs. R. gets dressed and leaves, are cut with scenes of Ben watching TV at home with his mother lurking anxiously. A clip of Ben hoisting himself up out of the pool onto a lilo is cut with a clip of him slumping post-climactically onto Mrs. Robinson. As he lies there panting, we hear his father’s voice: “Ben, what are you doing?”, and he’s back on the lilo again. It’s very clever, very unsettling, and sums up the transitory, empty life he is leading. Something’s got to give, and the catalyst for Ben’s next big change is the return of the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine, just back from high school (and played by Katharine Ross, who is about the only actress I’ve seen who can do that mix of innocence and desirability without you wanting to slap her). His parents think it would be just great if he and Elaine Robinson got together, and keep pushing, and pushing. I’m going to stop with the plot description very soon, promise, but Ben finds himself unable to avoid taking Elaine out on a date, despite Mrs. Robinson’s scary and aggressive veto of it, and, guess what, finds she is the first person that he can actually talk to and be himself with. Ooops. Mrs. R. doesn’t mind shagging Ben herself, but is damned if she’s going to let the filthy corrupted boy anywhere near her beautiful pure daughter. Big big trouble ensues, naturally, and the plot thickens in a way I wish my gravy would. Ben and Elaine embark on a twisty-turny, slightly silly but gorgeous adventure, to see if they can escape from their parents’ conventional morality, or whether it and society is too strong for them in the end. I first saw this film when I was about 15, and it instantly shot to the top of my top 10 films list. Trouble is, nearly 15 years later, I think it’s still there. I’m not sure if it’s because I haven’t matured at all, or because ‘The Graduate’ has done so so beautifully. Last time I saw it, I kept thinking about ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, and ‘Generation X’. Sometimes when Ben spoke, I thought ‘that’s just so Holden Caulfield-ish’, and sometimes I was convinced that Douglas Coupland must have had a hand in the script. The point I’m trying to make is that, although ‘The Graduate’ was very much a film of its time, dealing with young adults becoming disillusioned and disgusted and confused by the hypocritical and materialistic values of their parents’ generation, this seems to be a lasting theme, one that was relevant long before this film was made, and one that is still vali d today. I think the things that set this film above other films, for me, are the extremely confident direction, and the way that the music is such an integral part of the action. Mike Nichols, the director, has the utmost faith that his script, and his actors, will keep you interested, all by themselves, and in the meantime he can do what he likes. He’s right, too. He can give us five minute sequences where there’s no dialogue at all. He can give us long, long reaction shots of someone’s face, that are fascinating and don’t need any narrative, because their changing expression says more than any clever techniques could. He can give us footage of the ‘hero’ running down a road, or driving a car, that go on and on, because he trusts us to understand that we’ll know what he was getting at, and feel it too, and we do. I miss this sort of film. The music, of course, is by Simon and Garfunkel. You either like their music or you don’t, obviously, but the way that the music varies from being the narrative, to background, to a little tune that Ben is apparently whistling (very clever, with his mouth open), and back to the being the driving narrative force, is unique in a film as far as I know. I’m going to talk about the ending a little bit now – sorry, and all that, but I need to. I think most people know how the film ends, even if they haven’t actually seen it. It’s been spoofed several times, in Wayne’s World 2, and in the Vic ‘n’ Bob car advert, and other places, and it even features in the original trailer for the film, for goodness sakes, but if you really don’t want to know, then look away now and don’t read any more. I think the ending is what makes me give the film my everlasting respect. I love happy endings, wow, how I love them – as long as they’re believable. And here we have the potentially perfect example R 11; Ben and Elaine manage to escape, and jump onto a bus, fizzing with passion and excitement, ready to live happily ever after. But…they get on the bus…they’re all fired up….they look at each other and laugh…and then…their faces fall into repose. And we watch them, as they sit there, not looking at each other, both staring off into the distance. And I wonder.
Take three wasters who love their food, and a drop to drink, much more than any kind of effort; who are hypochondriacs, mischief-makers, and inveterate liars (er, sorry, story-tellers). Make sure that they like to show off, philosophise, bicker, and pontificate, while being largely incompetent. Put them in a small boat with an angelic-looking but evil-minded dog, give them frying pans, tents, kettles full of butter, lemons, but absolutely no cheese (that's very important, and I'll explain later), and send them off down the Thames for a week. Sound like fun so far? I think I'd rather walk over hot coals than actually be stuck in the boat with them, but reading about their 'holiday' is one of my favourite activities. I love this book and it never, ever fails to make me laugh. There are passages in it that I've read so many times that I must know them off by heart, but just the thought of them makes me want to curl up and giggle. It's mostly observational and situational comedy, I suppose, about why kettles never boil when you're watching, and how silly and pompous people can be, and how generally unfair life is, which is nothing terribly original. But there are also great dollops of surreal humour ladled all over the pages, and the narrator has a wonderful sly innocence which works perfectly. It's not wham-bam punchline stuff, but cumulatively funny, which I think I prefer. I'll try to give an example. In this passage, George, Harris, and the narrator, J, are having a picnic by the river. "We had just commenced the third course – the bread and jam – when a gentleman in shirt sleeves and a short pipe came along, and wanted to know if we knew that we were trespassing. We said we hadn't given the matter sufficient consideration as yet to enable us to arrive at a definite conclusion on that point, but that, if he assured us on his word as a gentleman that we *were* trespassing, we would, witho ut further hesitation, believe it. He gave us the required assurance, and we thanked him, but he still hung about, and seemed to be dissatisfied, so we asked him if there was anything further that we could do for him; and Harris, who is of a chummy disposition, offered him a bit of bread and jam. I fancy he must have belonged to some society sworn to abstain from bread and jam; for he declined it quite gruffly, as if he were vexed at being tempted with it, and he added that it was his duty to turn us off." They start to feel rather cross, after this, about people who put up 'Keep Out' signs, and so on, and J starts to fantasise about what he would like to do to them. "I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them far worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going a bit far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered : 'Not a bit of it. Serve 'em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.' " This leads to an account of how appalling Harris is at singing comic songs, and what an inhumane punishment it would be, and then to an anecdote about the time they heard a famous tragic German singer, under the misapprehension that he was trying to be amusing...and so on and so on. I'm sorry to quote and paraphrase so much, but one or two lines from the book don't really illustrate why it is so funny. On its own, no one paragraph makes for a big belly laugh, but the bizarre situations and the knowing humour build up relentlessly, until you do, honestly, laugh helplessly. A bit like watching Eddie Izzard, maybe? Parts of it are almost Pythonesque – there's a scene where they stop off for Harris to go and see a tomb he's heard about ("Mrs. Thomas's tomb. 'Who is Mrs. Thomas?' I asked. 'How should I know?' replied Harris. 'She's a lady that's got a funny tomb, and I want to see it.' "), and J, whos not interested in that sort of thing, ends up fleeing the churchyard with a doddery old churchwarden in pursuit, calling hoarsely after him : "Oh, come and see the skulls; come back and see the skulls!" You've probably noticed by now, that not much of the action takes place on the boat itself. The book reads like the longest shaggy dog story in the world, in a way, and meanders about through the characters' recollections and reflections. My all-time favourite part is the story that leads them all to agree to having absolutely "no cheese" on the boat. It goes on for five pages, so much as I'd love to quote it in full, I'll restrain myself; basically a friend of J's once bought some cheeses in Liverpool, and entrusted them to J to take safely back to London. J departs on a truly epic trip, with the cheeses as company, and once read, it is never forgotten. The cheeses are described variously as "ripe and mellow", or as having "a scent that could knock a man over at two hundred yards", and the train journey becomes rather interesting. On bringing them safely to the friend's house, his wife "smelt round for an instant. Then she said : 'What is it? Tell me the worst.' I said : 'It's cheeses. Tom bought them in Liverpool, and asked me to bring them up with me.' And I added that I hoped she understood that it had nothing to do with me; and she said that she was sure of that, but that she would speak to Tom about it when he came back." Tom's wife mutinies pretty quickly, and takes the children to stay in a hotel, until the cheese is eaten. The infamous cheeses are left in care of their charwoman, "who, wh en taken close to the cheese and told to sniff hard, said she could detect a faint odour of melons. It was argued from this that little injury could result to the woman from the atmosphere." It gets even more surreal after that, but I'll leave you to discover it for yourself. I won't mention at all (oops) the story about the tin of pineapple, which is my other favourite bit. It's even better read aloud; in fact the whole book is perfect for reading aloud, and much much funnier when shared this way. The most surprising thing, for me, is the fact that this book was written over a hundred years ago. The language seems fairly modern, or at least, you don’t notice the parts where it isn't, after a few pages, and the characters and incidents are all too familiar. I suppose any book that accurately satirises human nature, will always seem fresh and relevant. People will always be lazy, bossy, vain, pretentious, and sentimental. The situations don't seem to have changed too much either : "We got to Waterloo at eleven, and asked where the eleven-five started from. Of course nobody knew; nobody at Waterloo ever does know where a train is going to start from, or where a train when it does start is going to, or anything about it." People still tell urban legends and swear blind that they are true; people still leaf through medical encyclopaedias and realise, to their horror, that they suffer from every ailment described. "I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being 'a general disinclination to work of any kind'. What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it...They did not know, however, that it was my liver. Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness." People still long for mustard when they can't get any, and still find it impossible to get away fr om lovers while trying not to intrude on them, and still boast that they can make the best scrambled eggs in the world, only to produce a centimetre of burnt sludge, after half an hour of frantic activity. And I bet they always will. The loveliest thing about the book is that it makes you feel it's ok to be human, and useless, and make a fool of yourself – that this has been going on for centuries, and is unlikely to change; but that we're not entirely hopeless, as a species, because we have the capacity to laugh at ourselves. After I've finished laughing, it makes me feel all warm inside, because Jerome K. Jerome, or 'J', obviously loves people to bits, no matter how much fun he pokes at them. One last quote, and yes, I am biased because it's about muffins. "It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says, 'Work!' After beefsteak and porter, it says 'Sleep!' After a cup of tea (two spoonfuls for each cup, and don't let it stand for more than three minutes), it says to the brain, 'Now, rise, and show your strength. Be eloquent, and deep, and tender; see, with your clear eye, into Nature and into life...' After hot muffins, it says, 'Be dull and soulless, like a beast of the field – a brainless animal with listless eye, unlit by any ray of fancy, or of hope, or fear, or love, or life.' And after brandy, taken in sufficient quantity, it says, 'Now, come, fool, grin and tumble, that your fellow-men may laugh – drivel in folly, and splutter in senseless sounds, and show what a helpless ninny is the poor man whose wit and will are drowned, like kittens, side by side, in half an inch of alcohol.' " Sounds about right to me :-) (You can read this book, for free, on th e internet, at http://www.classicbookshelf.com/library/readingroom/?code=208&book=three+men+i n+a+boat or at the Internet Public Library: http://www.ipl.org/reading/books but it's only a pound, for a paper copy, too, from Penguin Classics.)
Erm, I don't really play computer games. Not the most promising start to an op, is it? Sorry. I don't, though. Not the proper sort. I once had a go on Doom, and it was all icky and violent, and there was scary music and stuff. My character basically cowered in a corner while my friends shouted "Come on! Get up! Shoot that thing! Run round that corner fast and shoot that other thing! Quickly! You’re not meant to run away yet! STOP COWERING!" When they stopped shouting, and made me a cup of tea instead, and I'd stopped shaking and whimpering, they found me a nice game to play on instead. A fluffy person's game. The computer game equivalent of ten minutes yoga, and a cup of camomile tea. I still like to play this game when I'm stressed out, and it hasn't failed me yet. It’s called Kyodai Mahjongg, and you can download it for free, at http://kyodai.com. You’ve probably heard of the game Mahjongg Solitaire, or played it yourself, but if not, here's a brief explanation. The object of the game is to remove all the tiles from a board, by matching them in pairs. There are usually 142 tiles, of 42 different types,arranged in a symmetrical but irregular pattern, with some tiles hidden underneath others. You basically click on a pair of tiles to remove them, but both tiles must be 'free' for you to do this, i.e. not lying underneath another tile, and not lying directly next to another tile on at least one side, either left or right. I've confused myself with that explanation, but hopefully it makes some sense. There will come a time when you have either cleared the board (hooray!), or when you can no longer make any legal moves, because the tiles you need to make matching pairs, are under or next to others (boo). Then you either sulk, and try again, or cheer, and try to do it again, but faster. It's a nice little game, and quite addictive, but not terribly thrilling. Kyodai Mahjon gg, however, is something rather special. The designer, Rene-Gilles Deberdt, created it because he couldn't find a version of Mahjongg with all the features he was looking for. The first version was released in 1997, but Deberdt has been working on it ever since, constantly improving it, and releasing new versions – and wow, it shows. This is a labour of love. The basic solitaire game is now playable with 9 different tilesets, 19 backgrounds, 18 layouts, 6 skins, and 17 pieces of music. You can play a two-player version, or one of 5 other games that he has devised, or adapted, to use with the tiles. You can have 3D tiles, choose your tile borders, have tile shadows, tile animation, tilt the board, have something called environment mapping, and about a million other things I don't entirely understand. I have been playing around with the game and all the different options for about a month or so, and am nowhere near exhausting all the possibilities. All the options are on nice clear dropdown menus at the top of the screen, so you can fiddle and twiddle to your heart's content during a game. It's staggeringly customisable, in other words, and I know I'm a self-confessed games-know-nothing-fool, but People Who Know agree with me and are similarly impressed. You can even upload your own background, or music, or whatever, and there's plenty of new downloads available on the website. I know games reviews are meant to have lots of facts and figures, and bullet points, and I'm doing my best. I did count some of the option thingies off the drop down menus, earlier, at least, because I know some people like to know. I'm not going to attempt to list them all, because dooyoo would explode before I was done, but here are a few of my favourite options, to give you an idea. At the end, I'll try to convince you as to how it all comes together to be totally groovy. ~Tilesets~ Out of the 9, my fa vourite is definitely 'Dreaming' (everything has cute names, you see, not just "number 7" or whatever). The pictures on the tiles are quite arty, and tribal, or that's what they look like to me, anyway. Some are quite abstract. I would say they're based on Native American or Aboriginal art, something like that? There's snakes, and beads, and fish, and arrow-heads, and I could look at them for hours. Some of them look like Kandinsky or Klimt paintings (sorry, did an op on art the other day, must snap out of it). You could also choose from traditional Japanese or Chinese tiles, with mystifying pictograms; wood, or stone or 'real' effects, or even big bold numbers if you want to make it easy on yourself. ~Backgrounds~ This is the picture lying underneath the tiles, which is steadily revealed as the game progresses. There's some computer generated pictures of New Age type scenes, or a picture of the designer's cat, or you could choose Stonehenge, or a rather beautiful Japanese garden, or an eclipse. My favourite is the Seashore one, which is stereotypical waves lapping on a stereotypical beach, with a stereotypical sunset. It's fab, though. You can't beat a good old-fashioned bit of beauty. ~Layouts~ This is the pattern in which the tiles are placed. I know I said earlier that there were 18 different ones, but I've checked just now, and that's actually just how many there are on the favourites menu. There are, in fact over 100 different layouts, ranging from the traditional to the downright weird. There's a spaceship, and a yin/yang, and a cat which appears to have swallowed a mouse, and they mostly do look like the things that they're meant to. I'm boring. I stick with the Traditional layout, because I think the others are just him playing around to amuse himself. I think they’re clever, but they don’t add anything to the game, for me. ~Music~ I normally turn background music off after about 2 minutes, as it tends to annoy me to bits. Most of the tunes on here would fall into that category for me, even though they're cute enough, I suppose – a bit New Age, a bit plinky-plonky, a little bit lift-musicy. But I have found one I really, really like. It's still a little bit New Agey, and 'please hold the line while we try to connect you', and that sort of thing, but it's relaxing, and quite pretty, and if BT played it to you while you were on hold for 3 hours waiting to speak to them, I bet they'd have a lot fewer complaints. It's called 'Sad Song', but it isn't. It's nice. ~The games~ Well, there's traditional Solitaire, which I've explained, along with a two-player version. There's 'Rivers', which is match the pairs again, but with different rules (I'm not going to attempt to explain, as the designer himself fails abysmally, and admits you have to play it to 'get' it). There's Memory, as in the card game Pelmanism, where all the tiles are face down and you have to remember where they are in order to match them. There's Clicks, which is clicking on groups of adjacent, similarly coloured tiles to make them vanish, and drop down new tiles, and Hashira, which is a bit like Tetris and a bit like Magical Drop, if you know that one. Finally, there's Sliders, which I can't make head or tail of. If there's a drawback to Kyodai, it's the fact that Deberdt is a bit rubbish at explaining how to actually play the games. I'm useless at that sort of thing myself, so I'm not trying to be mean, but maybe he could get a friend with teaching-type skills to deal with that part of the package. I tend to stick to the traditional Solitaire game, again, because that's what works for me. If you've not played it, or if you generally like fast-paced games that get your adrenalin pumping, you may be wondering what on earth clicking on little tiles on a pretty background could possibly do for you. The creator decribes Kyodai as a meditation aid, and I would have laughed if I hadn’t already tried it for myself, but you know, I think he's got something there. I used to meditate (yeah, I know, if the Games section was a chat room, I might be in danger of being booted by now), and while I'm in no way recommending it as a substitute for the real thing, I do find that half an hour of Kyodai takes me somewhere not too far away from the chilled-outness of meditative activities. Why? Well, to begin with, there's some soft and mellow music playing. There's a picture of a wild and beautiful scene to look at. Then there's all these little bitty tiles – could be distracting – but actually the pictures on them are rather wonderful, too. Oops, the game's started, meant to be doing something here. Ack, there's a timer (though I bet you guessed that you can turn it off). Better hurry. Ok, that one goes with that one, that one goes with that one – ooh, look at that, they sort of drift off slowly and fly away when I've matched a pair. I've got the Seashore background selected, so they literally disappear into the sunset. Hmm. That one goes with that one. I really like that one, looks like peacock feathers or something. That one looks like...seaweed? Or DNA perhaps? Can't see one to match that one. Nice music. Mmmmm. Ooh – there's a pair. There they go... I never noticed that one looked like a bat before. Maybe should look for another pair. Mmmmm. *** Twenty minutes later, I might have finished a game, I might not, but I'll definitely be a lot more relaxed and possibly more mentally alert than when I started. I must have the most pathetic time scores ever. Stil l, as Deberdt says, it's a meditation aid, and he's not interested in receiving people's times or high scores at all, because that's not what it's about. He then blows it slightly, by giving us his – but only "for information", he stresses. It's shareware, without the nasty "30 days to register" bit. He does urge you to register, thereby removing the pop-up reminders, and making sure you receive the latest updates, and so on, and giving him some reward for this wonderful piece of software. Ooh, I nearly forgot the Manga girls! If you want, you can have lovely little Manga girls watching your game, from the side of the screen. Personally, I don't feel the need, but they're there for you, if you want them. Along with umpteen million other options. Go and have a little play around. Unwind a bit. Why not? It's free, and it comes with a guarantee from me– "No zombies died during the making of this game." Promise. Games peeps – if any of you are still reading – thanks for having me in your section, for a while. It was a bit scary coming in here, but sort of fun, and if anyone knows the way back to the books section, then I'll get me coat.
Art used to leave me cold. I didn't know a thing about it, beyond the fact that Dali was the one with the dripping clocks, who every student in the world seemed to have on their bedroom wall, and that it was probably Rembrandt who painted the man in the gold hat. My parents had that one in their dining room, and I had to sit and look at his ruddy face and his ruddy hat every meal time for about 12 years, till they changed it for – guess what – a Dali. As I got older, Art started to intimidate me. I realised that as a reasonably intelligent person, I was meant to understand it, and know a bit more than the fact that the best way to spot a closet hippie is to look for dripping clocks in their house. (This never fails, by the way. Find a Dali, find a hippie. One that took naughty drugs, or wanted to. Even if they are your Dad, and deny it.) I met people who Understood Art, and they all talked a foreign language as far as I was concerned. I was terrified of expressing an opinion in case I said the wrong thing, and praised a painting that was worthless because the artist didn't have sincere tactile values, or something. And Modern Art – what was all that about? It looked like a load of old cobblers to me, but I didn't dare say so, and risk exposure as an Art Ignoramus. I decided to leave Art to Those Who Knew, and tried to nod politely and intelligently if the subject came up, probably looking like a rabbit caught in headlights in the process. A friend of mine saved me, in the end, and I'm eternally grateful. He was living in London at the time, and dragged me up there for my birthday, promising a mystery day of treats. We went to a lovely pub for lunch, and I had a definite spring in my step as we set out for the next stop – which turned out to be the National Gallery. Aaaargh. Potentially at least two hours of doing the frightened rabbit act, as my knowledgeable friend (he had loads of Art History boo ks, I knew) said all sorts of cerebral things, and ON MY BIRTHDAY, too! Another pint with lunch and I probably would have protested, "what kind of a cockamamie treat is THIS?" I possibly would have done a stupid accent as I said it, too. But, being the polite person that I am sometimes, I kept quiet. For the first 5 minutes. During which I slowly came to the realisation that my friend wasn't talking about tactile values at all. He was saying things like "Wow!" and "eeurk", and "look at that lovely arse." Oh, actually, that last one was because an Italian student had just walked past, but he did say it again, later, about one of the paintings. I got up enough confidence to say something, at last. We were standing in front of a painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, called 'Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan'. It was apparently commissioned by Henry VIII on a wife-hunt. "What do you think of that?" I asked. He thought seriously for a minute, stroked his chin, then said "I think she looks like George Dawes." That was it, for me. Firstly, I had to leave the room because I was being frowned at sternly for laughing, by one of the gallery staff who was trying to have a snooze, and secondly, Art had lost its capital A forever. I realised that art is just another, er, art-form, like music and books and films. Something to be enjoyed, criticised, hated, loved and interacted with as you wish. I certainly never felt scared about saying that I didn't enjoy a certain film, or loved a particular book, or whatever, so I have no idea, now, why I got so uptight about art, but I think an awful lot of people feel the same way. I still know next to nothing about art, but I love looking at it, and talking about it, and thinking and wondering and guessing and opining about it. It's just paint on a canvas (or sheep in a tank, sometimes), and I'm allowed to have an opinion regarding it, and my opinion is just as good as the next person's. And so is yours. What has this got to do with the National Gallery, so far? Not an awful lot. There are some superb and detailed reviews of the National on dooyoo already, including a corker by MykReeve, if you want the factual stuff, and some proper art history knowledge. Here are the basics, though, so I don't get too many NUs, and then it's on to some more ramblings. The National Gallery is situated in Trafalgar Square, in London. The collection spans about 700 years of Western European art, and contains over 2000 pieces. Entrance is free, although donations are encouraged (and if you have money to spare, please spare it – it's one of the few London galleries and museums that still don't charge, and it would be terribly sad if they were forced to start doing so. Mind you, the special exhibition costs are usually prohibitive. They should let people on benefits in for free, not for £6, I reckon. Then I wouldn't mind so much when I have to pay £8, for instance, for the current Vermeer exhibition. How much can I write in brackets before I realise I should have started a new paragraph instead? Ooh, a bit more than this.) The gallery is open from 10 am until 6pm (with a later closing time on a Wednesday, at 9pm), 360 days a year, which is sort of wonderful and happy-making, considering it's free. There is also an excellent website, www.nationalgallery.org.uk, where you can take a look around the collection, buy art prints, and get details on all the latest exhibitions. Most importantly, you can have a look at the pictures I'm about to spout about below. There. Now I’m going to do the fun bit (for me, that is). ***My Favourite Paintings, and a Charcoal Drawing, in the National Gallery*** 'The Virgin and Child with SS. Anne and John the Baptist' - Leonardo da Vinci, c.1500 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/WebMed ia/Images/63/NG6337/eNG6337.jpg This is kept in a special darkened room, presumably as light would fade, or otherwise damage it. It's a charcoal sketch, probably made as a preparatory drawing for a painting. It's hard to explain what looking at this picture does to me in real life: what I would really like to do is take a picnic and a big cushion, and sit there all day in front of it. It is the most incredible drawing I have ever seen – it just vibrates with warmth and life. The women's faces are extraordinarily beautiful, and the intimacy between them and the two boys seems to envelop the whole room when you are there in front of it. Thank goodness, the boys actually look like real infants, as opposed to some of the seriously scary paintings by artists who had presumably never seen a baby or toddler in their lives (or were just a bit rubbish, maybe?). There are a lot of macabre Madonna and Child pictures out there, where the baby's body proportions correspond to those of an adult, making Jesus look like an alien. I also love the way he has put so much detail and lushness into the textures of their skin and clothing where it interested him, but couldn't be bothered with some bits, like their feet. I like to think of him spending a hard day on Mary's legs, then thinking "Oh sod it, just draw something vaguely resembling feet." Do, do, go and see it, if you possibly can. A picture on the net, or in a book, doesn’t begin to do it justice. In real life it positively glows. I'll be the one with the sandwiches and the spiritual expression. 'The Annunciation with S. Emidius' – Carlo Crivelli, 1486 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/WebMedia/Images/73/NG739/eNG739.jpg (I hope you're checking these urls out, by the way, even though you have to cut and paste them. I'm sorry that I can't do html-y things on here so you can just click back and forth.) Another painting inspired by a religious theme. I'm not a Christian myself, but am absolutely fascinated by Christian imagery in art, probably because I like a picture that tells a story, and let's face it, the devil may have all the best tunes, but the Bible has a lot of the best stories. In my fantasy art collection, there is a whole room devoted to pictures of the Annunciation: that is, the moment when the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she's pregnant with the Son of God. Beat that for something to write home about, and European artists seem to have excelled themselves on the subject. This painting is extremely rich in detail, but also has a striking clarity. Oops, nearly got a bit art-criticy there. I mean, it jumps off the wall, or page, or screen, depending on where you’re looking at it, but there's loads and loads of stuff in it. Oh poo, I've just looked at the NG link I've given you and it doesn't jump off the screen, it's a bit muddy in fact, so it sort of limps off the screen, but I'm going to write about it anyway, sorry. The absolute bestest bit about this picture is the little hole that the architect of the building has thoughtfully provided, just above the ceiling of the ground floor, so that anyone having an immaculate conception within, can be easily accessible by the holy spirit when necessary. The second bestest bit is St. Emidius himself, the patron saint of the town of Ascoli, for which Crivelli painted the picture. I know nothing else whatsoever about St. Emidius, and I bet not many other people do either. The great thing is that he has pre-empted any queries on the part of Gabriel, who may have legitimately wondered who on earth St. Emidius was, and what he was doing there, by bringing a scale model of the town with him, and gesturing to it. "Look, I know you don’t really know me, but this is where I'm from. Is it ok if I sit here while you're i nforming Mary of the latest important development in Christianity, please? I won’t get in the way much." The myriad other bestest bits include a little chubby-faced girl peeping round the parapet of the building over the road, some bloke gazing up into the sky in true 'catalogue man' style, obviously thinking "blow me, if that isn't the holy spirit descending on our Mary,", the fact that the people living above Mary seem to have just washed their rug and hung it out to dry, and the gherkin. Yes, I did say gherkin. There's a gherkin in the foreground, right at the front in fact, and it's a large one. It has been suggested by the National that it's actually a gourd, and therefore a symbol of fertility (eh?), but I know a gherkin when I see one. 'Venus and Mars' – Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/WebMedia/Images/91/NG915/eNG915.jpg Some Greek mythology for a change. I think Botticelli could probably paint a hole in the ground and make it look beautiful, so when he gets going on the Goddess of Love and the God of War, it's going to be pretty special. Apart from being gorgeous to look at, I like the whole idea behind the painting: it's a good joke that Mars is so sleepy after whatever he and Venus have been doing, that he doesn’t notice the little satyr-creatures romping around with his armour and, his, er, lance. There's something rather sexy about the most powerful man in mythology showing his weakness. The expressions and postures of the little satyrs are brilliant; they look like real children having a cheeky game. Both Venus and Mars' bodies look very real and desirable, although perhaps Mars should have skipped that last visit to the waxing salon, and had a hair re-think instead. I think Botticelli had a thing about women’s feet – they always look so yummy in his paintings. We're left to imagine, of course, what the two of them were up to, to make Mars so dozy, and the joke is very definitely on him. The National describe the meaning of the picture as "love conquers war, or love conquers all." They probably know best, but look at Venus' face. She looks a bit disillusioned, wouldn't you say? To me, it's about the triumph of woman over man, but also the emptiness of that feeling. Venus has got Mars exactly where she wants him, but now feels disappointed and let down. It was maybe a bit too easy. Of course, that's just what I think. I don’t think paintings have one true meaning, any more than any other art-form. It's what you take from them, and what feelings and associations they stir up in you. It's a two-way thing. Painting to eye to brain to painting, or something. I like imagining all the zillions of people who must have gazed at any one picture, and wondering what they were thinking when they saw it. What they felt. What it reminded them of. Whether it made them wistful, or turned-on, or reflective, or joyful, or spiritually moved, or whether they just thought "Aaaaargh! That ruddy man in the gold hat again!" But don't worry. Whatever else you will find there, you won't find him at the National.
This is one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read – made all the more striking by the fact that every word of it is true. In 1985, a teacher from Belfast named Brian Keenan was bundled into a car as he left for work one morning. Belfast is a notoriously troubled place; but this wasn’t Ireland, this was Beirut, and Keenan had been taken hostage by the Islamic Jihad, a fundamentalist Shi’ite group. He remained their captive for the next four and a half years. During that time he had no contact with the outside world, and often saw no-one other than his kidnappers. On release, both he and fellow hostage John McCarthy wrote about their imprisonment. This is Brian Keenan’s story. I often shy away from books like this – I know it’s the sort of thing one should know about, maybe even force oneself to read, but I’m a bit of a wimp when all is said and done, and don’t always want to look the dark side of humanity straight in the eye. I was scared that the hostages’ experiences would disturb me – haunt me – be unbearable. However, something drew me to this book, maybe the cover (an illustration of a naked man, sitting in the dark, resting his head on his knees and shielding his face with his arms), or the title, and I felt I had to read it. It did disturb me. It does haunt me. It isn’t unbearable, however; in fact the book as a whole is actually uplifting. Does that sound strange? Or corny? I can’t help using that word, though. Uplifting, as in something that carries you higher, above, beyond... This is what I can’t quite take in about this book. The situations and events depicted are some of the grimmest and most harrowing that anybody has survived. The surroundings of the hostages are stomach-turningly filthy and wretched. And yet I lost track of the number of times that I laughed or grinned while reading it. Hard to believe, I know, but as well as being moving, sickening and frightening, it’s a wonderfully funny book. You might wince as you’re laughing, but you laugh. Through Keenan’s eyes, the sting of much of the horror is taken away by the utter surrealism and stupidity of what occurs. For him, this was the only way to bear the unbearable. This is from his account of being ‘taken’. He’s just been pushed into the back seat of a car by four men with Kalashnikovs. First of all he causes some confusion by refusing to go down on the floor of the car, instead resting his head on one of the gunmen’s knees. This is his first conversation with his captors, as he half-lies in the lap of a fundamentalist terrorist: " ‘You know where you go?’ Of course I told them I didn’t know where I was going. It seemed a lunatic question. ‘You English?’ At this point I sat up quite determined: ‘No…I am not English, I am Irish…Irlandais.’ They looked shocked and puzzled. The passenger in the front seat said something quickly to the driver. The driver looked at me, looked at his compatriot, and there was a moment’s silence again. ‘You like Thatcher?’ was the next question. I could quite honestly say with a smile on my face ‘No, I don’t like Thatcher. I’m Irish,’ foolishly thinking that these men might understand how impossible it was for any Irish person with an ounce of imagination to even consider liking Thatcher." Keenan is taken, blindfolded, to a six-foot cell containing only a mattress. There’s a terrible irony for the reader as he manages to cope only by reassuring himself he’ll be there for perhaps two weeks at most, before being released. He is interrogated, fed, and allowed to use the rudimentary bathroom daily. The description of the bathroom, predictably, gave me the first real horrors. It has not been cleaned for years, and Keenan comes to realise that the jailors would never clean such a place under any circumstances, their religious beliefs making them shrink from contact with their ‘unclean’ captives, especially contact with a place which had been tainted with their ablutions and excretions. The room is swarming with cockroaches, which nest in the pit of the toilet hole. The shower space is ‘a cubicle of filth’. However squalid the surroundings, the mental aspects of incarceration quickly become the most difficult aspect to deal with. Keenan hears other prisoners being viciously beaten. When allowed into another room for exercise, he finds bloodstains on the floor, and a pair of pliers lying nearby. He makes a couple of abortive attempts at escape, but gradually hopelessness, fear and a dragging boredom begin to overcome him. Hostages are forbidden to look at their captors, and must cover their faces with a towel when being given food or taken to the bathroom, so for weeks and months Keenan is denied even the sight of another human being. The food is always the same bland offerings: bread, cheese, jam. The cell is windowless and bare; for ten hours or so every day it is in total darkness. He dare not light the few scant candles given to him, as, perversely, fear of the dark makes him hoard them for the future. At night he sweats under a stinking blanket to try to shield himself from the mosquitoes which leave him looking like a pox sufferer by morning. He panics, rages, weeps and falls into exhaustion and a sense of nothingness, of non-existence. As his mind ricochets from one state to another, he realises that this is the beginning of madness. This is what I dreaded when I began the book; this is what I felt I could not face. The vivid description of a mind cracking, of despair without hope, of torture without end. You may have decided to stop reading this review at this point. All I can say is that the book gives the reader much, much more than it ta kes. Keenan is moved from one location to another, half-mummified in the boots of cars or back of vans, many times during his incarceration. On one of these moves he feels another hostage touch his foot, seeking or giving reassurance. He clumsily reaches for the other man’s hand, patting it. This is the first real human contact he has experienced since he was ‘taken’, and the small gesture seems very significant. On being taken to his new cell, blindfolded as usual, he becomes aware of another person’s presence in the room, after the guards have left. After peeping at each other fearfully, their eyes meet from under the blindfolds. "The confirmation that we were both prisoners was a relief to each of us. Both blindfolds were quickly removed and for a split second we just gazed at one another. Who could this person be? My companion sitting on the floor and staring up at me suddenly broke the silence and in the most eloquent English he said ‘Fuck me, it’s Ben Gunn.’ " (Keenan’s hair and beard have grown so long and unkempt by this point that he resembles the shipwrecked sailor of ‘Treasure Island’, however Keenan has little awareness of this, and not surprisingly, can’t think for the life of him who Ben Gunn is!) The stranger continues, " ‘Hello, my name is John McCarthy, I am a journalist...You must be Brian Keenan... I came here to make a film about you. It was the worst mistake I ever made in my life.’ " McCarthy had come to Beirut to film a news feature about Keenan’s kidnapping, but was ‘taken’ himself by the same group who held Keenan. Being in my early teens at the time, and far too wrapped up in my own ‘problems’ – hah! – to follow the international news, I don’t remember much about the situation, but I do recall Jill Morrell, McCarthy’s girlfriend, vigorously cam paigning for the hostages’ release. I’ve read the book that she and John wrote together, and would recommend it, too, if you’re interested. Anyway, Keenan and McCarthy, total strangers at this point, spent the better part of four years incarcerated together, in tiny cells. I don’t know if it’s unbelievable luck, or a testament to the characters of both men, that their forced proximity created a means to survive and, at times, to escape at least mentally from the hellish situation. Their partnership (‘friendship’ seems too weak a word) as a weapon against the guards, as a defence against their own vulnerabilities, is utterly life-affirming to read about. They see each other through times that could break the strongest person, if alone, and come out the stronger for it, together. Their different personalities and backgrounds and how they make the situation work, despite these gulfs, are fascinating and honestly described, often to Keenan’s discredit. His stubbornness in sticking to his beliefs often puts not only himself but McCarthy in extreme danger. I mentioned humour earlier and that I was surprised that a book on this subject could be so funny. Yet laughter and a sense of the ridiculous is at times the only thing that keeps them going. They take to trying to out-do each other in baroque insults, or surreal crudeness, for the relief and freedom of it. It’s cruel and hilarious and it reads like a hymn to their affection and love for each other: "The rich elaborations that we slung at one another endlessly with childish competitiveness intoxicated us. It was heady, monstrous, and foul. But it was gloriously imaginative and unfettered. We hurled this abuse with such pretended vehemence and at other times with such calm perverse eloquence that the force of it and the laughter pushed back the crushing agony of the tiny space. ‘John-boy, if I get out of here before you I am goin g to go and see your mum. I’m going to tell the truth.’ I paused. John looked, screwing up one eye as if to say; what are you at, Keenan? I continued ‘I’m going to tell her that your language is appalling. You swear like a trooper and your imagination belongs in a dung-heap of a camel overcome with diarrhoea.’ John answered ‘My dear fellow, if you do I’ll tell you what she will say.’ He paused. ‘ "You are a fucking lying Irish bastard, now buggah off," that’s what she will say,’ he concluded. And again we were off laughing uncontrollably and the laughter of each affecting the other." As usual, there is so much more I want to tell you about this book, but I see already that this review is far too long. The two men are beaten, victimised, separated, starved, reunited, and finally parted (in Beirut, at least) with Keenan’s release. At least I don’t have to worry about revealing the ending this time, as it’s non-fiction: Brian Keenan was released after four and a half years, as mentioned earlier. John McCarthy spent a further 18 months in captivity. There’s just one more quote I really want you to hear, to convince you that this book really is a wonderful and uplifting read, and not just masochism for bleeding-heart liberals. It’s from when Keenan was still in virtual solitary confinement, before McCarthy arrived, and he has been losing his grip on reality and his will to live for some time. "Another day. The Shuffling Acolyte (Keenan’s nickname for one of the guards) and I take part in our daily ritual, that long short walk to the toilet. That same walk back and I am home again. I don’t look any more at the food, knowing its monotony will not change, not even its place on my filthy floor. The door closes, the padlock rattling, and it’s over again for another day. With calm, disinterested deliberation I pull m y head from the filthy towel that blinds me, and slowly turn to go like a dog well-trained to its corner, to sit again, and wait and wait, forever waiting. I look at this food I know to be the same as it has always been. "But wait. My eyes are almost burned by what I see. There’s a bowl in front of me that wasn’t there before. A brown button bowl and in it some apricots, some small oranges, some nuts, cherries, a banana. The fruits, the colours, mesmerise me in a quiet rapture that spins through my head. I am entranced by colour. I lift an orange into the flat filthy palm of my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange. Before me is a feast of colour. I feel myself begin to dance, slowly. I am intoxicated by colour. I feel the colour in a quiet somnambulist rage. Such wonder, such absolute wonder in such an insignificant fruit." He never eats the fruit, but gazes, holds and smells it in a kind of mystical ecstasy for days, till it rots. The guards try to take it away, but he defends it fiercely, knowing he is unable to explain what it means to him. I know, reading these passages, that his euphoria at the fruit is just another sign of how badly his mind has been affected, but I can’t help it making me want to dance with him. It captures the essence of what made me keep reading and reading, through all the terrors and evil the book describes: the fact that one man can find joy and wonder in such a thing, and use it to rise above his physical and mental torments in the face of the monstrous things done to him in the name of religion or politics – and dance. I’ve never looked at an orange the same way since.
"Have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time – beautiful?" I love that. The tentative, romantic sentiment struggling to emerge from beneath the propriety and the prissiness. It sums up 'A Room with a View', really. I have no idea what Forster was hoping to say when he first started writing this book in 1902, and nor did he, apparently; his earliest notes for it end, after a list of the characters, with the wonderfully endearing question, 'Doing What?' It took him the best part of six years to answer that. What they end up doing, is embodying certain types and classes of that time, with humour, and wicked satire, but ultimately great sympathy. What Forster ends up saying, is...well, I'll try and work it out as I go along. The first part of the book is set in Florence, where Lucy Honeychurch, a young middle-class girl, is travelling with her spinster cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, as chaperone. The book opens with Charlotte - oops, sorry, Miss Bartlett - complaining about the lack of view in the rooms they have been assigned at their pension. Two men overhearing the conversation (and I hope this doesn't shock you too much), actually take the liberty of offering them their rooms as a replacement. Imagine it! They have never been introduced, for a start, and the whole suggestion has an air of ill-breeding and almost indecency about it. Happily for all concerned, the situation is dealt with by Mr. Beebe, a clergyman from Tunbridge Wells, who just happens to be staying at the same pension, and knows all the parties concerned. The ladies get their view, without loss of propriety, and... Can I stop writing like that now? It’s doing my head in, and I'm making a mess of it anyway. It probably sounds absolutely dire, but in fact it's utterly, tremendously wonderful. I'm not making it up, either. It's full of reverends and spin sters, and people called Miss Bartlett and Mr. Beebe, and he really does come from Tunbridge Wells. And they really are all terribly, terribly concerned about what one should say, and what people might think, and how awful it would be if...oh my goodness! but no, they'll just brush that under the carpet, thank you very much, or at least save it to gossip about, in whispers, later. Thank heavens for Mr. Emerson and his son George, those rude rude people who dared to offer up their rooms to make two strangers happy. It's Mr. Emerson that the earlier quote refers to, by the way. He's a widower who has tried to bring George up free from the taint of religion, as it was then, with its overbearing morality and the concept of sin. He hasn't much time for the social etiquette of the day; all he wants is for people to be happy, and he speaks his mind. No wonder he and George are semi-outcasts among the English in Florence, and at home. "The son, who took every little contretemps as if it were a tragedy, was listening also. 'My father has that effect on nearly everyone,' he informed her. 'He will try to be kind.' 'I hope we all try,' said she (Lucy), smiling nervously. 'Because we think it improves our characters. But he is kind to people because he loves them; and they find him out, and are offended, or frightened.' " But enough about the Emersons for now. Let's concentrate on Lucy, as she is the heroine after all. She's young, travelling in Europe for the first time, fairly naïve, but just starting to find that conventional morality doesn't always fit every occasion. She’s vacillating between the frightening and exciting feelings which her new experiences in Italy stir up, and the safe, socially-approved world of her chaperone, which is so much easier to retreat to, if things get a bit too 'real' or 'true'. In fact she's &q uot;in a bit of a muddle", to steal a phrase which Forster keeps using. Lucy has two catalytic experiences in Florence, both of which she tries immediately to repress. Walking alone in the city, she witnesses a stabbing in the city square, faints, and is 'rescued' and carried to safety by George Emerson. Later in their stay, on a drive out to the hills with other guests from the pension, she is again separated from Miss Bartlett, wanders accidentally into a field where George is standing, and is firmly and memorably kissed. Yes, kissed! By now you are so caught up the ethos of the book, or of the times, that it actually does seem very shocking, or at least extremely daring (and very sensual, exciting, and passionate – or was that just me?). If one kiss seems an awful lot to make a big fuss about (and there’s a big big fuss made, make no mistake), then consider this conversation about an awfully embarrassing part of the body, which no decent person would ever mention. It’s conducted in whispers, of course. " 'Stomach. He warned Miss Pole of her stomach – acidity, he called it – and he may have meant to be kind. I must say I forgot myself and laughed; it was so sudden. As Teresa truly said, it was no laughing-matter…I tell things so badly, but you see what a tangle we were in by this time, all on account of S. having been mentioned in the first place.' " Right. Back to England, for the second part of the book. Suddenly, Lucy is back home, and being proposed to by Cecil Vyse (who? Well, that's how the reader feels too), with her mother and brother peeping out of the window. Cecil is the type of bloke you want to kick, unless perhaps you are the type of bloke that Cecil is, and probably even then, actually. He announces their engagement by coming in to tell her family in Italian 'I promessi sposi', and not surprisingly, they all just stare at him. No, he& #39;s not Italian. Yes, he is a twonk. Yes, her family are less than thrilled, but go along with it. Poor Cecil. The first time he kisses Lucy, he feels he has to ask permission in a very long-winded and pretentious manner. And then his glasses fall off as he's attempting to do it. He would be ok if he wasn’t so insufferably smug, and a snob with it – "As you well remarked this morning, 'There are some fellows who are no good for anything but books'; I plead guilty to being such a chap, and will not inflict myself on you." Compare that to George, here: "Choose a place where you won't do harm – yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine." Phwooar. Don't you like that? I want to stand in a place for all I am worth, facing the sunshine. I rarely achieve it, but it sounds like a good enough aim in life to me. So, people, it's up to you. Cecil, or George? George, or Cecil? Actually, it's not up to you at all, of course, it's up to Lucy and Mr. Forster, who finally found what he wanted to say after six years, describing it in the interim as 'bright and merry', 'toshy, but one trusts inoffensive', and finally, when it was completed, 'bilge – though I remind myself that I've a feverish cold'. Poor Mr. Forster. I think it's his best book; well, I don't know if it's his best book or not – it's the one I like the best, though, without doubt. I think it's about the conflict between what is proper and what is right. About what we think we ought to want and what we do, actually want. About the 'muddle' almost everyone has, trying to live their lives on different levels and trying to please different people. They're all muddled. They're all playing the game of "I'm not who I think I am, I'm no t who you think I am, I'm who I think you think I am." (that's from A Very Clever Sociologist, Who I Can’t Remember, But Someone Will Know). Except the Emersons, of course. I'm dying to get back to Mr. Emerson. All the characters are gorgeous, but he’s my favourite. When I say the others are gorgeous – well, they're not, always, or even often, in what they do; but just as you start to loathe one of them, their glasses fall off, or you learn something, or suspect something about them, which makes them all-too-human, and you can’t really dislike them altogether - in fact you start to warm to them. Take Charlotte Bartlett, for instance. Prudish, manipulative, small-minded, gossipy and martyrish. But you can't really read a chapter entitled 'How Miss Bartlett's Boiler was so Tiresome', and still bear her a grudge. I realise that Mr. Emerson's character is almost certainly written in the same style of part-condemnation and part-approval, but I’ve never noticed the condemnatory bit, personally. He starts the novel off, with his crude but well-meaning offer of rooms, and for me, he finishes it. This is from him, again, and it makes my hair stand on end. " 'Now it is all dark. Now Beauty and Passion seem never to have existed. I know. But remember the mountains over Florence and the view...You have to go out cold into a battle that needs warmth, out into the muddle that you have made yourself...Am I justified? Yes. For we fight for more than Love or Pleasure: there is Truth. Truth counts, Truth does count.' 'You kiss me,' said the girl. 'You kiss me. I will try.' He gave her a sense of deities reconciled, a feeling that, in gaining the man she loved, she would gain something for the whole world...He had robbed the body of it's taint, the world's taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire. She 'never e xactly understood,' she would say in after years, 'how he managed to strengthen her. It was as if he had made her see the whole of everything at once.' Last words - this is one of the very few – no, make that the only, until I think of another – book that I love that has been made into a film which I thought did it proud. More than proud, conceited in fact. Appallingly big-headed. As I think E. M. Forster should have felt after writing 'A Room with a View'. But didn't.
You may have noticed that I'm not exactly the most prolific opinion writer on here. I would love to write more frequently, but find it very hard to find the inspiration and lose the self-consciousness enough to put my thoughts into words. Today, for instance, I woke up determined not to let another week go by before I inflicted more of my obsessions on you lovely people. In the morning, I sat around in my pyjamas, musing gently on what I wanted to review. In the afternoon, I browsed through categories and read a few ops, getting that familiar sinking feeling that maybe I was just going to have to put it off till another day. Evening approached and found me pacing up and down, sniping at the poor soul that has to live with me, and generally making a total nuisance of myself. "Just write something and get it out of your system, for heaven's sake," he said eventually, only slightly less politely. "I caaa-aan't," I whined. "Look, I'm going to get you some cider. That normally does the trick. When I get back from the shop you'd better have made your mind up what you're going to write about." (Door slams.) Hmm. He's right. Cider should relax me a bit and help me get going. They ought to rename it 'Writing Juice'. While I'm waiting for him to get back with the business, I'll think about my op. What's important to me in life? What experiences do I want to share with other people? What makes me happy? What gives me a wide and varied range of emotions, in fact, as happiness gets so samey after a while, doesn't it? Oops, he's back. Quick, think of something. He glowers at me and pours a glass of the golden stuff. Glug, glug, glug, fizz... "Good, you've started, I see. What's it about?" Quick nervous sip. Mmm, lovely. Have a longer sip. Mmmm...this really is gorgeous stuff. AHA! Inspiration! It's obvious. Ci der is the answer. To everything, probably. And my problems are over, while yours have only just begun... ~First pint~ (Clears throat) Right, well, cider. It's an alcoholic drink traditionally made from fermented apple juice. 'Natural cider' relies on the wild yeast present in the apples, and has no added ingredients. The mass-produced ciders have a yeast culture added, and are usually made with apple concentrate at best (I wouldn't be surprised if some of them had never seen an apple, to be honest). The mass-produced ciders also have sugar and sweeteners added, to give that bland, safe taste that the customer loves. Natural ciders are more likely to be still, while mass-produced brands are usually carbonated. Natural ciders go through a wonderfully archaic-sounding process involving things called 'pomace', 'cheese' (not that sort, it's the term for the apple pulp once wrapped in nylon – or straw, if they’re really being traditional about it - ready for pressing), and 'must'. It takes around three months to make. The mass produced cider-makers are keeping fairly quiet about how they make their product, which is probably a good thing. I drink enough of the stuff; I bet I don't want to know what is in it. I wish I was drinking the real thing, to be honest, but they don't tend to sell it in your local Spar. More on 'real' ciders later. ~Second pint~ Cider has quite an interesting history, for an alcoholic drink. In 55 BC, when the Romans invaded Britain, they found the locals in Kent drinking a cider-style beverage. Apparently it didn't take them long to appreciate its wonderful qualities, and Julius Caesar is said to have been a bit of a cider-head. Which just makes me wonder how they built all their roads so straight. During mediaeval times, cider-making became an important industry, and by the middle of the seventeenth century, almost every f arm had its own cider orchard and press. Aah, those must have been the days. I can just see myself dressed in one of those cute milkmaid outfits, feeding the pigs and quaffing the odd glass fresh from the vat. Industrialisation changed all this, of course, but these days cider is making a bit of a comeback, and gaining in popularity amongst both purist Real Ale style drinkers, and lads in clubs. ~Third pint~ Well, that's quite enough sensible cider history, I think. I’m not a cider anorak or anything, and did most of my research on the site www.history-of-cider.com. Ooh - I've just noticed, on that site it says an English poet called J.Philips wrote an epic poem in 1708, in two volumes, entitled simply 'Cyder'. Hee hee! Sounds like my kind of bloke. Bet he'd be a good laugh down the pub. Which gets me thinking of other literary cider references. You’ve probably heard of John Irving's novel 'The Cider House Rules', or perhaps the film which won an Oscar for best screenplay, also by John Irving. I know that he'd be a good laugh down the pub, because I've met him. I have, honest. He’s lovely. Sigh...really lovely...(pulls self together hurriedly) and also nothing much to do with cider, sorry about that. Ermm...ooh – 'Cider With Rosie' – there's another one. Hah! Bet you thought I couldn't think of any more! Well, actually I can't. There are no more literary cider references. Nope. This section's a bit short, now. Hmm. I know, haha, I'll tell you a story. Another reason that I tend to stick to shop-bought or big brand cider these days is that the real thing tends to send me a bit funny. There's this stuff called 'Thatchers' and it's about 9%. Only me and an ex-boyfriend didn't know that when we started drinking it on a terribly grown-up and civilised, let's-prove-we-can-still-be-friends-type of lunchtime drink we had. After one pint, I was having a really fun time. After two pints, I started to wonder why we’d ever split up – I mean, what a funny, nice guy he was! Brilliant! I noticed the bar staff smirking as I ordered the third. After that one, we realised something was badly wrong and managed to focus enough to work out that what we had just done, was to drink three pints of something nearly as strong as wine, as if it were lemonade. We made our excuses and left, dribbling at, and on, each other. He came in for a coffee, and something very silly could have happened, if it wasn't for the fact that we both fell asleep for 6 hours, on the floor, before drinking any coffee, and felt far too bad when we woke up, to do more than grunt. Bad one. Of course, you don’t get that with this weak stuff I'm drinking now. It's only about...(looks at bottle)...ah, well it's six percent actually, so a bit more than I thought. But it's fine. It's just apples, you see? Healthy and natural. Quite good for you, really, I expect. ~Pint the fourth~ Ooh – I just made a joke. It's like 'the Hunting of the Snark', d'you see? 'Pint the fourth' – hahaahahaaa. Oooh, I love this. Sitting together having a chat. You're such a good listener, you know. Did I ever tell you about the time when I met John Irving? Oh, sorry, course I did. Did you know, when you smile, your eyes have these lovely little creases at the corners? It's really nice, actually. Do it again. Wish I could think of a cider-related song. There must be one. How about the Levellers? They must drink cider...ooh, I know, (sings loudly) "Fancy a drink? Just the one, to clear your head, we won’t be long...The rest is blank, and that's the worst, an empty head for an empty purse, you had a laugh, or so you think, but in the morning you just stink"...they're so funny, aren't they? Oh, a re you going to the toilet? Get us some cigarettes while you're there, eh? Yes, I know had a full packet earlier, I just seem to have smoked them all, ok? And get us some of those little scampi things, too. And while you're at the bar, get another round in, I've nearly finished this one. Well of course I'd remembered we're not actually in a pub. Do you think I’m stupid? It was a figure of speech. I just need my drink topping up, is all. Forget the scampi things, then. Where's those cute little wiggly things I was using earlier for the section headings? Can't see them on the keyboard. Poo. Oh well, try these instead: #Fifth pint# Well, anyway, I've said a few things about how great cider is, and how it makes you lose your inhibitions, and helps you relax, and stuff. You see, I've always felt a bit shy around people – no, really, I have. Well, everyone says that, I don't *seem* like a shy person, but, y'know, with you I can be the real me. And you see, all my life, I've felt, well, that I wasn't good enough. In fact, I've had quite a sad life, atcherly. Oops, sorry, didn't mean to get snot on your shirt. It's just that, nobody really understands me...except you. You're my best friend, y'know. Can I have a hug? Pleeease? Yes, ok, I'll blow my nose first, then. Sorry. I'm really sorry. I'm so crap. Yes, of course I know that drinking to give yourelf confidence is the first sign of being an alcoholic. D'you think I don't know that? What? Don't I feel guilty for writing an op about something that makes so many people's lives a misery, and breaks up up homes, and ruins people's health, and plays a large factor in the crime rates, and costs the NHS millions of pounds every year? Ermm...naaaaah. Julius Ceesar liked it, didn't he? Hah. Nevverdid him any harm. Look, I don't like the tone you're takign with me. Yes, I di d spell that wrong on prupose. No, I am not gettnig shirty. Your a tossser, anyway. Gettuz a drink and shtuup. Sisth pint and sod those wigglty things, they were crap awynay. Look, cider is great, rihgt? Izfekkin great. I luvvit, me. Hleps me write op thingys. 'Wrtinig jiuce' – hah – that wzfunny. Lauggh, you gits.
You know how there are some books that make you want to go and tell all your friends about it, the minute you finish reading it? You know how there are some books you go out and buy copies of, to give to people, to make sure that they actually sit down and read it too? Well, 'Pobby and Dingan' is not that sort of book. It's better than that. It makes you want to go up to strangers on the street and tell them about it. It made a friend of mine, who I successfully converted to the cult, seriously consider bulk-buying a load of copies and posting them at random through people's letterboxes. It makes you want to fly an aeroplane over your hometown, with a banner streaming out behind it, proclaiming "POBBY AND DINGAN ARE MAYBE-DEAD! DOESN’T ANYBODY CARE???" This is a strong claim to make about a book, I know, and I am not altogether confident that I will be able to back it up in this op. It’s a first novel, by a youngish (well, younger than me – he's 28) British author, and it's only 90 pages long. It's also only available in hardback at the moment, although the paperback is due out in October, But at the moment, it costs 10p per page to read this, which sounds awfully expensive. All I can say is, if you had the option of reading only one page, it would probably be the best 10p you’ve ever spent. Ashmol Williamson, the narrator of the book, lives in Lightning Ridge, New South Wales, with his parents and younger sister Kellyanne. Lightning Ridge is an opal-mining town, and Ashmol's dad has moved the family out there to pursue his dream of striking it rich. Ashmol loves his family, although they drive him crazy at times, especially Kellyanne and her odd imaginary friends, Pobby and Dingan. Kellyanne spends most of her time playing and talking to these two, and the worst thing is that almost everyone is happy to indulge her in her fantasies. His mum even puts out food for them at dinner tim e, and when Ashmol complains, says that they are quieter and better behaved than him, and "deserve the grub". Lightning Ridge is "full of flaming crackpots", according to Ashmol, who give Kellyanne extra lollies at the store, to share with her friends, and even award Dingan third place in the Opal Princess competition. "Everybody knew everybody in Lightning Ridge. And some people even knew nobody as well, it seemed." Thank goodness for Dad, thinks Ashmol. His father, Rex, is a more realistic kind of guy – isn't he? - who likes to have a few beers (maybe a few too many) after spending the day chasing his beloved opal, and get all excited because he just knows tomorrow will be his lucky day, and they'll be millionaires. Ashmol believes in his dad, and his dad seems to be the one other person who doesn't believe in Pobby and Dingan. This all changes, however, one day when the two of them pick on Kellyanne's eccentricity ("She's a fruit-loop,") one time too many for Ashmol's mum. She explodes, and points out that none of them have seen a sniff of opal for two years, yet that never stops Rex from dreaming about it and talking about it morning, noon and night. As far as she’s concerned, Pobby and Dingan are as real, if not more so, than his imaginary opal strike. This obviously hits home with Rex, and to his son's disgust, he begins to show a little more respect for other people's dreams, and humours Kellyanne, along with the rest of the town. So much so, that he offers to take her friends to the claim (his piece of land, used for opal mining) with him one day. When he returns home, Ashmol sees straight away that his dad has had one too many, and that his little pretence has slipped his mind. In fact, he's 'forgotten' to bring Pobby and Dingan home with him at all. Ashmol sits back to watch the fun. He knows Kellyanne will go mad, and reckons his dad deserves it for 'turning into a poof' by playing along in the first place. They end up having to drive back out to the claim, to look for the missing pair. At first, Rex and Ashmol assume that Kellyanne will 'find' them after a few minutes. But as it starts to get late, and dark, and the boys just want to get it over with and get home, a frantic search ensues, culminating in Rex crossing over the boundary of his neighbour's claim, and rooting around on his hands and knees in the dirt there. Cue that sinking feeling. Of course, he gets caught in this very compromising position, and charged with 'ratting', or searching on another's territory for opal. As Ashmol explains, ratting "is the same thing as murder in Lightning Ridge – only a bit worse." That night both children, and their mother, with Rex in police custody, lie awake. "And that night at around twelve was when Kellyanne crawled into my bedroom through the Dodge door which I got Dad to fix up to make going to bed more interesting. And my sister looked at me all pale and fuzzy-faced and said, 'Ashmol! Pobby and Dingan are maybe-dead.' And she just sat there in her pyjamas all nervous and hurt. But I was half-thinking of Dad and if he was in prison and how the whole thing was Pobby and Dingan's fault. And then I tried to get my head round how it could be their fault if they didn't even exist." Interesting dilemma, isn't it? The family's explanation of Rex's actions doesn't hold much water with the hard-boiled miners, as you can imagine, and the family are ostracised and persecuted as Rex awaits his trial. Ashmol is absolutely livid with two non-existent people, for ruining the family's good name. Kellyanne, meanwhile, hasn't got out of bed since her friends went missing. She says she just needs to know if they are dead or not. She won't eat, the doctor says she has a nervous illness and begins to talk about hospitalisation. But Ashmol has been doing some more thinking. "I figured this was the end of the world because we were all going crazy. Pobby and Dingan were messing up my family and they weren't even here. And also they weren't even anywhere....I knew flaming well that the answers to all these problems lay with Pobby and Dingan themselves. And then I figured out something else. I didn't like to admit it, but it seemed to me the only way to make Kellyanne better would be to find Pobby and Dingan. But how do you go looking for imaginary friends? I stayed awake all the bastard-night trying to get my head around the problem....I also knew darn well that there was quite a few people in the Ridge who loved Kellyanne to bits even though they were a bit unsure about the rest of us Williamsons, and there were some who almost believed in Pobby and Dingan or who were real nice and understanding about it. And I had it in the back of my mind that if those people believed in imaginary friends and all that shit, or if they knew how real those friends were for Kellyanne, then they'd believe that my dad really had been looking for them out at the mine and not ratting Old Sid's claim." So Ashmol sets out on his rusty old Chopper to tell the town that they have to help him find Pobby and Dingan, because Kellyanne is sick and won't get better till she knows where her friends are. I'm looking back over what I've written so far, and wincing a little at the length. I certainly didn't intend this op to be a long and detailed synopsis of the plot, nor to spoil anyone's enjoyment by giving too much away. But I don't know how else to convey the extraordinary situation that first Ashmol, then the reader, and ultimately the whole town of Lightning Ridge, find themselves entering into. My problem is, I wanted to set the scene – so that you hopefully felt something of wha t I felt at the beginning of this strange and marvellous book – and the fact is, this is the plot synopsis up to *page 25* of the book. Which staggers me a little. Ben Rice's writing is so spare, so condensed, so evocative, that I've struggled to say half as much as I would like about the first 25 pages, for goodness sakes, and still keep it under 1500 words (and that's just so far). There'll be no further plot summary from me, you'll be pleased to know. Only that the town's reaction to Ashmol’s call for help is surprising, it is funny, and it is moving. And little by little – maybe, just a bit – Ashmol starts to believe in Pobby and Dingan too. If you’re wondering if Ashmol must turn into a 'fruit-loop', or a 'poof' (his word, not mine), too, then maybe I should tell you a little bit about what he discovers about P and D, (sorry, getting lazy now) and the people in the town, before you make a decision. "I met this kid who knew as much about Pobby and Dingan as I did. He said he didn’t like Kellyanne too much but he thought Pobby and Dingan were all right. He said he had a much better imaginary friend than Kellyanne. It was a giant green ninja platypus called Eric. He didn't talk to it, but." At first, having paid no attention to their personalities in the past, Ashmol has to put up notices around town giving P and D's description as "Imaginary. Quiet." But according to Kellyanne, P and D in fact speak English (as opposed to Australian) quietly. And they like to whistle. Dingan is very pretty, and clever, with a lovely opal which she wears in her bellybutton. She likes reading books over people's shoulders. Pobby has a limp in his right leg, but it doesn't stop him from going out to dance in lightning storms. They both like to eat Violet Crumbles and Cherry Ripes. And they're pacifists. Do you believe in Pobby and Dingan? Do you think you could maybe start to – just a little bit? A friend pointed out to me that it was a bit like 'Peter Pan' – if you don’t believe in fairies, then Tinkerbelle (Kellyanne) will die. But don't do it for Kellyanne – do it for yourself. If more people believed in Pobby and Dingan, then the world would be a better place. If you've ever believed in something which was hard to see, or hard to find, then read this book. If you've ever gone along with something that you didn't truly believe, or found it hard to believe, because you thought that it was worth fighting for someone else's right to believe in it, because it was beautiful, and true, and meant something to them, then read this book. If you find it much easier to believe in Pobby and Dingan than to believe that some of the hateful, inexplicable, insane things that happen in this world are really happening, then read this book, but please do be aware that it will make you cry. Actually, it'll make you all cry. Or have a 'little thoughtful moment', or something, if you're big and hard. But I hope it makes you all cry, not because I'm a sadist or anything, but simply because if this book doesn't move you in some way, then you're the fruit-loop – not Ashmol. And certainly not me, of course :-)
As some of you already know, people pay me to mess around with their children. Hold on, sit back down there – I mean, I work as a nanny. And the messing about bit is the part I love best. Mucking about is brilliant. It's what kids like best, too. And it's free (or at least very, very cheap). If you end up paying large amounts of money for your children to fool about, it's Just Not Proper Messing Around. For the purposes of this op, I'll define it as anything which is lots and lots of fun, but virtually free. I apologise if anything slightly educational creeps in by accident. I'm sure you and your family have your favourite ways to do it already, but here are some of the ways me and 'my' kids like the best. When We Were Very Young… (age 2 – 5) 1) Cornflour. Get a packet of cornflour, put it in a bowl, and add a little bit of water very slowly, stirring as you go. Drop by drop, in fact, because you don't want to go too far and ruin it. You'll know when you’ve got it right, because very odd things start to happen. You get a sort of alien substance which defies the laws of physics, seeming to be solid and liquid at the same time. It forms a sort of chalky lump, but when you pick it up it drips in a terribly fascinating way. I'm not making this up, honest. Small children are very interested in it, and adults (if they're the sort of people who like that sort of thing) are usually enraptured. You have to try it to appreciate its charm. It's nice and messy and sticky and odd and it washes off very easily. 2) Feely Trays. In nurseries these are called 'sensory tables' and quite probably do all sorts of things for the child’s development. In my book they are called 'feely trays' and quite definitely make a lot of mess. But it's summer. Do it in the garden and forget about clearing up. Basically, get one big container such as a washing up bowl or a bucket, and put some stuff in it. Choose one of the following : water with some food colouring in, pasta, oats, rice (you can buy a 'sack' of this type of food for a couple of quid from a supermarket and re-use it just for playing), sand, bubbles (made by squirting washing-up liquid in your sink with the plug in, turning the taps on hard and scooping the bubbles out with your hands), stale cornflakes, shredded paper; anything you can think of, or have to hand, that feels interesting. Then get some smaller containers (margarine tubs, jam jars etc.) and any spoons, ladles or jugs you can find, and introduce one or more small children to the feely tray. Stand well back, because it won't be pretty, but they will spoon, pour, ladle, throw, measure, spill, feel and mess to their heart's content. Cooked spaghetti is a wonderful thing to use for the 'uurk!' factor when they first touch it. It helps if the child understands the stuff is for playing with, not eating, and I'm sure I don't need to say this, really, but always assume that they will take a taste or two, whatever it is and don't use raw kidney beans or anything else harmful. And if you need half an hour on your own… 3) Dens. DENS. *DENNNNNS!* Oh come on, you remember what it was like. Dens can be made from all sorts of things, but I suggest chairs, tables and blankets or similar to start with. Older children will make their own dens, but at this age, a bit of help is necessary. However, once the den is assembled to their satisfaction, I always assume there is a 'Keep Out' sign over the door. This can work to your advantage. Small rucksacks to take in, filled with apples (or whatever your child likes) and toys, will keep them happy for a long time, hidden away from all those mean old grown-ups. Go and have a cup of tea. They won't be out for ages. If you’re invited in at any point, treat it as the honour it is, and take m ore apples. Now We Are Six (age 6 - 11) 4) Sleeping Lions. I'm sure you all know this game, but I wanted to include it anyway, because it is such a massive favourite with the older children who are sad enough to let me play with them. I like to think they have taken a fairly prosaic game and turned it into something rich and strange. The basic premise is that everybody has to lie still – very still, no twitching (breathing is allowed, just about) – while the Master of Ceremonies (you take it in turns, obviously) tries to get everyone out by making them move. I don't know what the standard rules are, but when I play, there’s no touching allowed, mostly because I’m hideously ticklish and don't like losing. Other than that, anything goes. The way they interpret this is usually to start riffing in a comedy stylee. Or say rude and crude or very surreal things until someone laughs (usually me, after about 10 seconds, so I lose anyway, but hey! I didn’t get my feet tickled). It gives them all a chance to show off and find out what makes people laugh out loud against their will. 5) Reading Aloud. This may seem an obvious way to amuse children, but I think it’s easily neglected when they get to the age when they can read happily for hours by themselves. I have always seen sharing books with a child as a big treat for both of us, and I hope this is paying off now as they get older. There are usually five of us after school, and as part of my job (and that lovely 'home/school agreement'), I listen to the two youngest read for about ten or fifteen minutes. Well, we used to do that, anyway. We used to go off into a room by ourselves and ask the others to play quietly so it didn't disturb the reader (who wanted to be out with the others, of course). But after a while, the older children would creep in more and more often, to just sit quietly listening, or to silently read their own b ook. Nowadays, anyone who wants to can come in the front room, at about half past four, as long as they want books. We all take turns to read bits from our own books if we feel like it (including me, if I'm reading something that I think will interest them), or read quietly, and we chat about what we’re reading, and I know it doesn’t sound much like fun or messing about, but it usually ends up in a lot of giggles and silliness and we have to go off and watch Blue Peter to get a grip on things. And don't be like me and underestimate what they can take in. When Emily was 5, I read a bit of 'The Wizard of Oz' aloud to her every day. Too complex a book for a child that age to get everything, I thought, but she'll enjoy the story even if she doesn’t understand every word. Her sister Sarah who was 3, played happily in the corner with her dolls. Two years later, Sarah saw the film and said "It’s all wrong – that didn't happen in the book…" And if you need half an hour on your own…: 6) Make Up a Dance. Send them off to their bedroom with a tape or CD player and their favourite music. Tell them you will watch their performance when they have rehearsed it and got it perfect. They can mime and dance to a song (just like their heroes, hmm), or even sing and perform the whole thing. Let them do themselves up in whatever way is fashionable this fortnight. This takes ages. Have a cup of tea. Just don't let them get you to join in, no matter how tempted you are, because someone *will* knock on the door, and you *will* have to answer it wearing glitter eyeshadow and a scarf wrapped around you in lieu of a boob tube. Trust me. I hope this has been helpful. I would love to be able to tell you what to do with them once they get beyond 11, but I don't think anyone knows. At this stage, they can almost certainly mess around all by, and with, themselves for quite a while. My suggestion would be, lock them in their room with a Britney Spears CD and the complete works of Shakespeare. Lose the key for 4 or 5 years. At the end of it, they’ll find both of them boring, but they might have learnt something. :-)
"Jesus Christ what a f***ing wreck I am, my face looks a hundred years old, people would scream if I went out on the streets, my hair's all falling out, there's a woman from the Milk Marketing Board trying to kill me. She learns my address, that's it, I'm dead." Ermm…sorry about that. I was going to introduce you properly: I'd like you to meet a friend of mine, well, more of an acquaintance really - his name's Alby Starvation, and I think you might find him…well, 'interesting' to know. But he's butted in and started ranting on as usual; well, that's Alby, that's what he's like. He doesn't mince words, he doesn't often think about anyone but himself, and he uses the f-word far too much for a family site like this. I've a feeling he's going to interrupt this op rather a lot, so I apologise in advance. Give him a chance, though. He's got a lot of problems. Obviously he's not 100% in the mental health stakes. He's been feeling pretty ropey recently too – not surprising really, as he hardly ever seems to have any food in the house other than lettuce, which he hates, and the most exercise he ever gets is walking across Brixton to sell amphetamines to his friends Fran and Julie. Oh, and going to the doctor, of course. Poor old Alby's convinced that the reason his doctor won’t help him, is not that he recognises a classic case of hypochondria when he sees it, but that he's in fact secretly waiting for him to die so that he can steal his valuable comic collection. You have to feel sorry for someone who suffers with paranoia that badly. You're probably wondering why I wanted you to meet such a loser. Well, the oddest thing is – the Milk Marketing Board really *are* trying to kill him. It's best if I explain from the start. He'd had health problems for ages (or so he says). "'But doctor,' I' d croak, my insides are fighting to get out and my skin looks like an old newspaper and my left eye has completely closed up and there's blood seeping out of the right one and I haven’t been able to keep down food for four days and I feel sick even when I get better.'" Well, thanks for that, Alby. I think we get the picture. His friend Stacey was so fed up with listening to stuff like this that he suggested Alby went on a fast. Clear out his system, work out those hidden allergies. So Alby tried it. Felt much better, and by introducing one food at a time, discovered that he's not allergic to brown rice, carrots or lettuce. Then he tried milk. All his hideous symptoms came back (no, thanks, Alby, we don’t need you to elaborate at this point), but they passed soon enough, and he’d got the problem sorted. "Milk? Who needs it?" Well, quite. The problem is, he just couldn't let it go at that. He had to tell everyone he met, and they all told their friends, and before you knew it, the local paper got interested. People started writing in to express their gratitude at being cured by the fasting method. It all went to his head of course… "From there things seem to snowball somehow. It would still have been all right if it hadn’t turned out that so many people were allergic to milk." Too late now, Alby, they were, and that's that. You should have known that the Milk Marketing Board would never stand for it. Their April sales figures were down, and when people started protesting outside dairies with banners saying 'STOP POISONING OUR CHILDREN', they had to take action. "Is there some bit of this missed out? I mean, are you clear on everything so far?" Oh, be quiet for a minute, will you, I'm telling this my way. I didn't actually know all this was going on at the time, but a bloke called Martin Millar, who knows A lby very well indeed, told me everything he knew about it. There was an awful lot of weird stuff going on in Brixton, and elsewhere in London, at the time. Apart from our friend and his problems, there was an immense rivalry between two Chinese arcade-game players, that seemed to reach epic proportions as they and their fans battled it out to see who could "Kill Another One" with more skill. Some professor was searching for an ancient crown in a very underhand way, after finding an old document about it hidden in a Beano annual. The manager of the local supermarket was cracking down hard on shoplifters, including Alby's friend Julie, as he needed to prove himself in some way after his cat died, when no-one would take him seriously any more. "How could we promote a man whose cat died of cancer? If he couldn’t look after a cat properly what would he do with a major branch of Big Value?" Martin Millar also knew the contract killer hired to 'deal with' Alby. She seemed like a very smart woman. She knew a lot about philosophy and plants. I was glad to hear, however, that "she does not talk to them because in her experience it does not make any difference." On the whole, I feel for Alby, and I think you might do too, when you get to know him. "One time I lost a toy robot in a biscuit barrel on a bus. My heart is rended. They are both presents, it is a brilliant robot and I am hurrying home to play with it. I nip into the biscuit shop to put some new biscuits in my new biscuit barrel and get on a bus, I plan to spend the day eating biscuits and playing with the robot. But I leave it on the bus. It is a dreadful experience and I am really upset to think of this robot being kidnapped and taken home by some stranger. I go next day to the London Transport lost property office but they deny all knowledge of the affair. I expect that some of their staff are in on it. When I go in asking for a toy robot in a biscuit barrel some people around actually start laughing. Bastards." Alby also loves reggae, and he’s good to his hamster. He buys it Maltesers and everything. I like him a lot actually, I really do. I recognise far too much of myself in him to do otherwise. I enjoyed hearing about him when I was 19 and had purple hair and thought I was a little bit on the edge. I enjoy hearing about him now that I'm 29 and fairly boring, and still like to read books that take you into a corner, wherever you are, and say 'let me tell you a story…' I think Alby is a superb tragi-comic hero, and if you don’t agree, then the purple-haired skinhead in me says 'Up yours, grandad!'. Anyway, if you want to hear more about Alby and how it all turned out for him, or lots of other weird and wonderful characters, why not look up Martin Millar sometime? You'll usually find him hanging around at www.martinmillar.com. You can't miss him, he's the sexy-in-a-dishevelled-way one with the tattoos. He might even tell you a story in his gorgeous Scottish accent. He doesn't mind strangers coming to introduce themselves at all, as you'll discover if you e-mail him. Just don't get him started on Buffy. "After all these terrible experiences I hurry home to hide and sulk." I thought you'd gone a bit quiet. Sulking, were you? Look, I'm willing to admit you’ve had a hard time in a lot of ways. But can’t you lighten up a bit? People on dooyoo aren't going to want to read about a paranoid depressive addict, even if you are funny and surreal and often very, very true. Make an effort for the nice people, please... "There's a hired killer out to shoot me! There's a Chinese gangster after me! I'm getting old and I'm always ill! It’s great! It's fun time down here in sweltering sun-drenched Brixton, no more complaints from me!" Ok, Alby, you win.
Be gentle with me. Before I start, I just hope that 'Suggestions' means that you can write under this heading about a site that isn't yet listed by dooyoo. If I've got it wrong, I'm very sorry. But I've got a confession to make about an unhealthy obsession of mine, and that sort of thing just can't wait. Alexandria Digital Literature (AlexLit for short, found at www.alexlit.com) is essentially an online bookshop, but with two main differences. Firstly, it only sells stories digitally, to be read on your computer (or to print out if you find the rustle of paper essential to your reading pleasure). Secondly, it has the cheek to try to tell you what you would like to read next. I'll deal with the second aspect of the site first, as it’s the one I found most interesting (and dangerous). To get reading recommendations, you must first register as a member – quick, painless, and the first step on a slippery slope. Now it's time to own up to which books you have enjoyed in the past. After clicking on the 'Rate Stories' link, (by stories they mean novels, children’s books, short stories, plays, poems and even comics), you are given a random list of titles, to be rated by selecting from a drop-down menu ranging from 'Fabulous!' to 'Dreadful'. Sounds slightly familiar, perhaps. Unlike dooyoo, however, you can rate 20 titles on one page before you have to click on that annoying 'submit' button. You can get through this part quite quickly and you might even enjoy it (but hopefully not as much as I did). If you haven’t read a particular work, you can just leave it as 'Unread'. Now the fun begins. When you have rated 40 or more stories (not including your ‘Unread’ ratings), click on 'Recommend' to get personal suggestions. My initial recommendations included an old favourite of mine. "Oooh, so it does work..." I thought, then , "...oh, hang on, I just told it I liked that author, this is hardly Sherlock Holmes stuff." The rest were a mix of some interesting-sounding books, plus quite a few that mystified me, which I couldn’t honestly see myself ever wanting to read. Many people would have given up at this point, but knowing when to stop has never been one of my strong points. Also, I can’t help it - I find it oddly satisfying to click boxes which ask me what I think of something (to see the full sad story, check the number of ops I have read in the few weeks since being a dooyoo member). I decided to abandon their lists of books to rate, and instead use the search facility to find authors I really liked. After a while I noticed three things. 1) I had lost several hours from my life, possibly due to alien abduction. 2) My carpal tunnels were screaming for mercy. 3) The recommendations were getting more interesting, and including more books I had already read and enjoyed. I think it was at this point I started getting obsessive. "If I could rate every book I've ever read," I mused, "the recommendations would get scarily accurate...and oh wow! I'd have, like, a really cool list of all my books and what I thought of them. Hmmm..." (click, click, click...). Unfortunately for potential book anoraks like me, you see, you can view your rated books at any time, by author, rating or date. I am sad enough to have considered keeping some sort of index system, on those little card things, of all my books. Luckily I am far too lazy and disorganised to have done anything other than thought about it, but that’s enough to worry me. It's the sort of thing you read about in the papers : "We would never have thought he was hiding all those horrors under the floorboards. He was always very quiet, and he kept his books in a lovely order and rated them all on those little card things." I never dreamt a we bsite would tempt me into such a sinister scenario. You can also get statistics such as bar charts showing how many books you rated on each visit to the site. If any of this sounds remotely appealing, I urge you to do the sane thing and stay well away. You may be wondering how this recommendation device actually works. AlexLit refers to it (or her, I suppose) as Hypatia, named after the first major female mathematician, and she does have a personality of sorts. Hypatia basically checks your ratings against those of others who have rated on the site, and tries to correlate them. So if you loved "War and Peace", for instance, and all the other people who rated it as 'Fabulous!' also liked "The Cat in the Hat", then Hypatia will recommend that you read that next. She'll also give you an indication of how certain she is that you'll like a particular book, ranging from 'Almost Positive' to 'Pure Speculation'. You can fiddle about in all sorts of fun ways, such as asking her to be 'Daring', or even 'Reckless' and recommend things that she hasn’t a clue if you'll like, but thinks you may find superb. As in life, I found this method often got the best results. The site has 75,000 titles stored, and if you don't find the title you want, you can add it yourself for you and others to rate. Apparently site members, as a whole, have clicked those little boxes 1.8 million times (I am responsible for, erm, let’s say, a number of those), and I'd imagine as this number grows, so will Hypatia's accuracy. She is certainly not perfect, as people’s reading tastes can be so eclectic anyway, but that seems to be an impressive database to draw on. The main drawback for me was the site’s focus on fantasy, s/f, mystery and horror. I dabble in those sorts of books but they’re not my favourite. A lot of the stories you will be asked to rate, and many of the recommendations at first, are from those genres. I know for a lot of dooyooers that will be a plus, however, and for those who prefer other sorts of fiction, the site has enough general titles to still make it worthwhile. The type of books you choose to rate will be reflected in the recommendations if you stick with it. You may remember at the start of this op, I mentioned AlexLit is a bookshop site. Hypatia is really just a nice little gimmick to get you on there. If however you are a fantasy or s/f fan, you will be in heaven in the e-book section. They sell mostly short stories, or collections of stories, from both well-known writers and new hopefuls. The prices start from about 30c (prices are all American, sadly) for a 500 word story. The larger collections cost about $10 for 10 best-selling longer stories. I haven’t bought anything (yet), so I can't give much of an opinion, but it looks like an interesting and easy way to buy genre fiction. They accept Visa and Mastercard, and of course there are no postage and packing charges. The stories just pop up magically somehow on your PC. Don't ask me how. Ask them. There is a very good information section on this. The thing I found most impressive was that despite their primary aim of getting your money, stories which they sell hardly ever appear on Hypatia's suggestions (unless you specifically ask her to recommend stories from their catalogue). They do have a link with Powell's if you want to buy other types of books. And as their revenue comes from sales, there are absolutely no banner ads, pop-ups or other nasty distractions to mar the experience of getting your clicking fix. Let me see...Hypatia's recommending I should read Shakespeare's 'Sonnet 116'. She's pretty certain I'll think its 'Excellent'. Hmm...let’s see...I’ve got it here somewhere... "Love is not love / Which alters when it alteratio n finds" Naaah, don't like that. We all have to rerate sometimes. Click, click, click...
I do read adult books, honest. I just don’t seem to feel brave enough to write about them on dooyoo. Besides, the very best children’s books can mean as much, if not more, than an adult novel. The following are probably the most dog-eared, dilapidated, laughed and cried-over in my collection. Because sometimes I want to come home to some old friends, to sink into a book like a sofa, and the latest Iain Banks or Margaret Atwood just won’t do. And because when you get down to it, most things not capable of being understood by a bright child probably aren’t worth knowing. In no order at all: 1) The Once and Future King / T.H.White I’m cheating already. This is actually a collection of four books, the first and most well-known being ‘The Sword in the Stone’ (yes, it’s also a Disney film, which, despite not being terribly faithful to the book, does convey a lot of the fun and magic). Book 1 is the story of King Arthur from his boyhood up to the fateful moment that he pulls Excalibur from the stone and becomes king. T.H.White gives himself free rein in this one and embellishes the legend however he likes (I guess Mallory et al never wrote much about Arthur as a child, and White uses this omission to plant himself squarely in the frame as an Arthurian chronicler). As part of his education, courtesy of tutor Merlyn, Arthur metamorphosises into several animal forms, and learns much about the nature of government from his experiences as a fish, bird, ant etc. This understanding of diverse types of society (and corresponding human-types) is what ultimately fits him to rule Britain. He also has lots of adventures of the ‘ripping’ variety, and we get a lot of laughs out of the buffoonish kings and knights. My Dad read this book aloud to me when I was about 8, and I loved it, though much of it mystified me. The language is archaic (both mediaeval and 1940’s) and I would n’t expect anyone under 12 to get a lot out of it by themselves. The next 3 books are another matter altogether. Taking Arthur right up to his death, they deal with complex moral and emotional themes, touching on adultery, homosexuality, romantic love, fascism and incest. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not inappropriate or shocking, but I doubt many young readers would be interested enough. 2) My Friend Mr.Leakey / J.B.S. Haldane Six assorted eccentric stories, three about the eponymous Mr. Leakey and the extraordinary days that the narrator spent with him. Mr. Leakey is a magician (not a conjuror, a real magician) who lives in a flat in 1930’s London with his dragon Pompey and the jinn (or genie) Abdu’l Makkar. He has flying carpet adventures, punishes unsavoury types, such as money-lenders and burglars, very originally and satisfactorily, and hosts a fancy dress party where everyone turns up as themselves, waiting for Mr. Leakey to transform them into their desired form (imagine a fire-engine, a giant lobster, Shakespeare, a comet and a yak all dancing together). Pompey is a rather naughty young dragon who has to wear asbestos boots to stop him burning the carpet. Abdu’l Makkar is a very dignified jinn, who is likely to turn up if you are losing at cricket to say “Shall I slay thine enemy, O Defender of the Stumps?”. The narrator is a nice-but-dull bachelor type, who gets to know Mr. Leakey after pulling him back onto a traffic island to prevent a car from running him down. The mixture of the prosaic and the fabulous is an absolutely winning combination, and very very funny. I feel guilty. This is a pointless review because this book is out of print. But, who knows? I found a 1970’s copy second-hand a year ago (and selfishly bought it for 20p so I could actually read it without my 1940’s copy falling apart even more). And I bet some lovely dooyoo-er has got some pull somewhe re in a publishing company. Get it back in print! It’s priceless. 3) White Boots / Noel Streatfeild This has all the usual ingredients of Streatfeild’s wonderful stories. Plucky, ambitious, yet poor children who achieve success against the odds, rather daft grown-ups who don’t really understand, and a wonderfully traditional Nanny who says things like “Rusks indeed! I’ve never starved my children yet and I’m not starting now. The moment I see Lalla looking peaky, it’s hot dripping toast for her tea and plenty of it.” In this case it’s Harriet, who has been prescribed ice-skating to build her up after a long illness, that finds herself longing for stardom. Streatfeild’s characters are always recognisable, if sometimes slightly stereotyped, and she writes perceptively about the thoughts and dreams of young girls. The book is set in the comforting middle-class world of the 1950’s where (almost) everybody is a nice, decent sort, and those that aren’t receive swift retribution. The blurb on my 1960’s copy states, rather endearingly, “This is a gay and exciting story which will keep you reading furiously”! 4) Charmed Life / Diana Wynne-Jones Thank goodness, this is back in print now or I’d be left with another ‘My Friend Mr. Leakey’ situation in recommending it to you. Reseurrected hot on the heels of the Harry Potter phenomenon, this story introduces orphan Cat Chant, a young boy who lives in a parallel world where magic is commonplace, where you can buy eye-of-newt at the corner shop and the Willing Warlock plies his trade in the classified ads. I expect you’ve spotted the much-touted HP similarities by now. As in HP, not everyone can perform magic, and Cat’s sadly lacking talents in this department are made especially galling by the fact that his sister Gwendolyn (a nasty piece of work) has all th e makings of a very powerful witch. This leads to them both being sent to stay with Chrestomanci, the greatest enchanter in their world, in order to learn magic. Chrestomanci is a wonderfully enigmatic character – a perfect English gentleman who appears whenever his name is mentioned (sometimes wearing an extremely elegant dressing gown), and wields enormous power whilst remaining vague and aloof. Confession : as a young girl I found him incredibly sexy! Of course I’m over all that now. Er-hmm. This book is clever, thrilling, funny, and occasionally downright scary. Wynne-Jones is a very talented and imaginative writer indeed, and I have no idea why her books were allowed to go out of print for such a long time. They have tremendous appeal for a modern audience (maybe because she was always a bit ahead of her time?). 5) The Secret Garden / Frances Hodgson Burnett Spoilt orphan Mary comes to Yorkshire from colonial 1900’s India to Misselthwaite Manor. The Manor holds many secrets. Mr. Craven, the master, keeps a closely-guarded sadness since the death of his wife which has led to the neglect of his son, the bed-ridden and obnoxious Colin, whose existence he can hardly bear to acknowledge. Crucial to the book is Mrs. Craven’s garden, abandoned, sealed and taboo since the accident which caused her death. When Mary discovers and tends the secret garden, she undergoes a complete change of character and becomes herself (with the help of the healing and inspirational forces of nature), the catalyst for change at the Manor. A beautifully idealistic and very spiritual book. 6) His Dark Materials / Philip Pullman Cheating again! This is a trilogy which begins with ‘Northern Lights’. The books have been compared favourably to ‘Lord of the Rings’. The final part was published last year and means I can no longer grumble “they just don’t write ‘em like they used to.” Bah humbug. Lyra is an orphan (are these orphans getting repetitive?) living in the bachelor colleges of Oxford in a world parallel to our own. The most striking feature for me in these novels is the concept of the daemon, something like a witch’s familiar, a physical manifestation of the soul in animal form, attached to a person by an invisible cord. Children’s daemons are changeable in shape, whereas adults’ are fixed. Personally I started to miss my daemon as soon as I read about the idea. Like the other original devices in these books, it just seemed so ‘right’, as if more of a discovery than a literary invention. The philosopher-scientists and the church of Lyra’s world are very concerned with the emerging phenomenon of Dust, a worrying substance that can only be detected with special equipment, and is attracted to people from the time they reach puberty. The three novels take us through a staggeringly original and complex journey as Lyra, with her friend Will (from 'our' Oxford, as the stories encompass several different worlds), has extraordinarily exciting adventures and discovers the truth behind the adults’ scheming and plotting. Sorry for all the superlatives, but these books blew me away. Dare I say it’s a modern epic, truly readable and utterly captivating, a subversive analysis of morality, a book which rewrites classic, and creates new, mythology. Deep and dark and not for the young reader. And with Lyra as the assertive, passionate female protagonist, the perfect foil for all these ‘girly’ books I’m recommending! 7) The Little Prince / Antoine de Saint-Exupery I’ve written about this at length elsewhere on dooyoo, so suffice to say it’s the uplfting yet tear-provoking story of a man, a boy, and a sheep (sorry to be facetious but I thought you might need a joke by now). 8) Comet in Moominlan d / Tove Jansson Moomins are shy and peaceful creatures who live in the beautiful world Tove Jansson has created for them in Moominvalley. They enjoy hobbies such as gardening and baking (Moominmamma), writing memoirs of their (supposedly) debauched youth (Moominpappa), and pear-collecting, path-finding and pearl-diving (Moomintroll). Their house is always open to visitors and the visitors certainly come. In this, my favourite story of the Moomins, Moomintroll and his friend Sniff, the small animal, set out to discover the truth about the rumours they had heard about a comet that will come to destroy the beautiful earth that they love. They meet Snufkin who is the archetypal hippie traveller, the Snork (a rational scientist) and the Snork Maiden, very sweet and who Moomintroll swiftly falls for after saving her from the Terrible Bush. When they reach the Observatory in the Lonely Mountains they are told that a comet will hit the earth on the seventh of October at 8.42pm. Possibly four seconds later. Luckily they have the utmost faith in Moominmamma to deal easily with this sort of nasty occurrence, and the little clan hurry home to her. In my experience, you either like this sort of thing or you don’t. I know several grown men who otherwise seem a bit hard and insensitive, yet have a special place in their heart for the Moomins. Let’s all force our boys to read it and make them forever squishy in the middle…. 9) Autumn Term / Antonia Forest Phew! Another back in print by the skin-of–my-teeth book. If you want to read others in this series, tough luck, as they are all currently being bought for high prices, second-hand, by the many fans of this writer. Hopefully the recent reprint of this, my favourite, means that more are on the way. Nicky and Lawrie are twins and new girls at 1940’s Kingscote School. Hurrah! Another school series for those who love Malory Towers, St C lare’s and the Chalet School etc. But this one has a subtle difference. Forest writes in a much more sophisticated than usual way about the personalities and problems found at a boarding school. This book is a very intelligent study of the feelings and motives behind one term’s happenings at what could be any school. Forest has a light touch when dealing with morality – and a realistic one. Wrong-doers are not instantly punished – if ever. As the series progresses (taking in events at home as well as at school) we come to a greater understanding of why the ‘baddies’ do as they do, but, as in real life, they often suffer only in their heads, if at all, and more often than not we feel a certain sympathy for them. Forest’s ability to get inside someone’s head and convey honestly what she finds there is unusual. I loved, as a child, her refusal to talk down to the reader; whatever the subject, she assumed you would either understand or catch her up, and as I still have a long way to go before I complete my collection of her books, I would say again, please get them back in print. 10) The Story of the Treasure Seekers / E.Nesbit Nesbit is a born story writer and has dreamed up many wonderful and magical scenarios for imaginative readers, such as ‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’ and ‘The Story of the Amulet’. However, being a massive fan, I was surprised that, for the purposes of this top 10, the stories I prefer are these relatively down-to-earth ones of the Bastable family seeking to restore their lost fortunes in an ordinary non–magical way. This is the story of the different ways in which they looked for treasure. As Oswald says, “I think when you have read it you will see that we are not lazy about the looking.” They try digging for it, being detectives, publishing their poetry, being bandits, selling sherry, and even divi ning for it. I find it totally hilarious. The situations that they find themselves in, and the lovely interplay between the wide age-range of the Bastable children, make this a very funny and revealing read for families, even though written in the 1900’s. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ I’ve probably learnt more writing this than anybody reading it would, because I realised fairly early on that my choices said a lot about me. No Harry Potter, fair enough. Don’t get me wrong, I love those books and queue up with everyone else because I want to know what’s happening to Harry, Ron and Hermione. Books like Philip Pullman’s, however, blow HP completely out of the water (and out of the top 10, sorry). I was surprised by what I left out and by what I put in. No Oz, no Alice, no Winnie the Pooh. Surely these books deserve to be in there? I tried to be honest and checked the relative delapidation of books that I was thinking of reviewing. These aren't always the best written books, or the most important, just my favourites and the ones I most often return to. I seem to like orphans or children removed from their parents for some reason (suppose it gives the writer a freer hand as the children are able to do what they want without Mummy coming in and spoiling it all), and books from the 1900's to 1950’s, ones that give a very safe view of society and morality. This perturbed me a bit and if I had a psychoanalyst to hand I would no doubt be wasting their time and my money trying to discover why. Thanks to anyone who stuck with it this far and I am sorry it was so long! Any comments are very welcome. P.S. I really, really want to do another one of these, on adult books. Go on dooyoo, let us write more than one top 10 list if we want, pleeeeeeease?
At the simplest level, The Little Prince is the story of a pilot whose plane has crashed in the Sahara Desert. There he meets an "extraordinary small person", the little prince, who shares stories about his travels in the following days they spend in the desert, as the narrator attempts to repair his plane. Like all the best children's books (and I would question if this one is actually intended for children at all), the story deals with deep themes and is ultimately an incredibly moving allegory on friendship, love and death. The narrator begins by explaining how as a child, and later as an adult, he realised that most 'grown-ups' (the scathing term used throughout the book) were too 'concerned with matters of consequence' to understand anything that was beautiful or true. He uses some wonderfully cutting examples to portray the gulf between the day-to-day prosaic matters that adults are focused on, and the magical, spiritual world of the child. The narrator (like all of us?) has learnt to put away childish things and 'bring himself down' to the level of the grown-ups, in order to be accepted by society. When the mysterious prince appears from nowhere, we learn that he comes from another planet, such a tiny one that he can circumnavigate it in only a few steps. This enables him to enjoy his rather melancholy pleasure - watching the sunset - as many times a day as he wishes. He has only to move his chair back a few paces. His main concern is the care and tending of his flower, a rose - to us a rather scheming if vulnerable creature - to him the most important thing in the universe. The narrator recognises a kindred spirit. The question is, has he spent too long among the grown-ups to be able to truly relate to his new friend? As the pilot struggles with his life-and-death effort to mend the plane, the little prince describes his journeys on other planets. The author uses his descriptions of t he characters he meets: a king, a drunk, a businessman etc., and the prince's innocent reactions to them, to further satirise the ultimately pointless preoccupations of humanity. "The grown-ups are certainly very, very odd." Then the prince comes to Earth. He meets the sinister golden snake who talks in riddles, but also promises to solve them all with it's venom. Most shatteringly for the prince, he finds a garden containing thousands of roses. Having believed his rose to be the only one in existence, this discovery shakes him terribly, until he meets the fox (in probably my favourite part of the novel), who asks the little prince to tame him. The fox is something of a philosopher, who understands what makes a friendship special, and what makes a loved-one unique in all the world. The prince is reassured that his flower, however proud, vain or manipulative we may find her, deserves his devotion and love because of the unseen bonds that tie them together. I'll leave it for you to find out, if you want to, whether the little prince returns to his planet, and if the pilot escapes from the desert. Before the book ends, both narrator and reader have been reminded of some important truths we often forget - that work makes pleasures sweeter, that it is the time we waste over things that makes them precious, that terrible things grow from tiny seeds if we are not vigilant to root them out, and that life is too short to bother with 'matters of consequence'. The author's illustrations complement the story perfectly. Very simple and slightly naive, without being mawkish. In a nice piece of self-reference, the little prince pokes fun at them during the book (they are the sketches the narrator has made during their time in the desert). The final illustration consists of only three lines, but manages to have heartbreaking connotations because of the skillful and subtle build-up of feeling the author achieves. I hope I have managed to put across some of the emotion and magic that this story contains. Some of the ideas and images may sound sentimental or twee, and in other hands I'm sure they could be, but the author's lightness of touch and sincerity transport a simple story into something that will stay with you for a long time. I must have read this book about twenty times, and each time find myself moved, gripped, and usually in tears by page 89! This book is now available in the Wordsworth classics series for the sum of **£1**. So no excuses, for the price of a pint you could get this, and a box of tissues too.
Did everybody forget about nannies? There are so many useful opinions here about childminders and nurseries, so I thought it was time to put the case for employing a nanny to care for your children. First of all I must admit a strong bias. I have worked as a nanny myself for several years and loved it! But personal feelings aside, I hope the following provides anyone interested with some useful information. ~~~~What is a nanny?~~~~ Most people's idea of a nanny is either some starchy, Mary Poppins-type old lady, or a 17-year-old from Sweden over here for a year to improve her English. This does not have to be the reality. Nannies are usually trained or experienced people who happen to love working with children. A nanny is a person you employ in your own home to care solely for your children. Someone who can live in your home, or simply turn up for work every morning, ready and willing. ~~~~Why use a nanny?~~~~ Some advantages are pretty obvious from the above description. The nanny has chosen to work with children as a career. It is not someone who has decided that childminding would fit in nicely with caring for their own children. She (or perhaps he, although there is a severe lack of men in this profession, partly due to the bias against male childcare and education workers) is committed to the work and is often thoroughly trained in child development. Nannies care solely for your child(ren). They will be given 100% attention. With the best will in the world, a childminder is unlikely to be able to do this as other children, maybe their own, will be in the house. A nanny can and will plan the whole day around your kid(s) to suit their (and your) needs. You make the rules. Don't want your child to watch TV? Fine. An older child needs to practice the piano, or help with homework? No problem. If the children attend clubs, Brownies, dance lessons or want friends round to pla y, the nanny will take care of it. The nanny works in your home. Your children are cared for in the place that they know best, where they feel safest, surrounded by their own toys and familiar reminders of you. This also means, of course, that you don't have to worry about transporting your kids across town to their childcare every morning. The nanny arrives, you leave for work - simple. Some nannies will also do small household jobs such as ironing or shopping too. No dirty dishes when you get home! ~~~~There must be a drawback~~~~ Well, yes. Money. A nanny will sometimes (but not always), cost you a little bit more. However, nannies can charge as little as £3.50 an hour depending on their experience and the number of hours you need them. Sky-high rates of £7.50 an hour plus perks that I've read about in the media are just not the norm (unless you go through an agency - more on that later!). £5 would be a good rate for an experienced nanny looking after 2 kids. I've personally worked for between £3 and £8 an hour depending on the situation. Now think of your average childminding or nursery fees (and double or triple them if you have more than one child). Isn't it worth a bit more for all the advantages? If you have 2 or more children you could easily end up saving money. ~~~~But I want my child to learn to fit in with other children~~~~ Children at a childminder or nursery certainly gain valuable social skills. However, a good nanny will take your child to coffee mornings or toddler groups regularly, and probably knows a network of people with young children in your area. Anyway, isn't it nice for your child not to have to share *all* the time? ~~~~The best of all worlds~~~~ Employing a good nanny can be a great experience for you and your children. Of course, finding the right person is vital. If you have to advertise for someone, check references tho roughly. Don't go through an agency - they will charge you the earth and often don't carry out as thorough a check as you would assume. I would strongly recommend word-of-mouth s the best way to find a suitable, trustworthy, experienced nanny. So ask your friends, colleagues, local nursery or toddler group if they know of anyone. And when you've found the right one for you, relax knowing your children are in safe hands, being cared for by a dedicated professional person while you get on with your life. In writing this opinion I in no way wish to criticise childminders or nurseries. There are many skilled people working in these areas who do the best possible job within the particular setting. It's just that I feel a nanny is the best of all worlds for working families.