About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 15 July 2013

"Mr Golightly's holiday" by Salley Vickers

A strange elderly gentleman rents a run-down holiday cottage in the Dartmoor village of Great Calne so he can adapt his one-time best-seller  into a soap opera. There ensues an intricate comedy of characters very much in the Ambridge mould. As some people fall in love and some fall out of love, and as one harbours an escaped convict, the plot folds and refolds until everything has to come together in a single climax.

Mr Golightly agonises about the tragic death of his son and tries to make sense of what is happening. At the same time he himself is able to soothe the many sadnesses around. Gradually, you begin to realise that he is not all he seems. Then, once you have discovered who he is, everything starts to happen.

Vickers, who wrote the wonderful Miss Garnet's Angel, illuminates scene and characters with a warming glow. She writes with love and empathy. She weaves the mystical in with the everyday: Mr Golightly receives odd emails and Ellen Thomas thinks the sheep on the hillside look like runes which she tries to decipher. At the same time a father tries to persuade his daughter to eat prawns with the shells on because these are cheaper than shells-off and Sam Noble names his dog after his wife's still-born twin sister. This is a celebration of the magic that is within our mundane, sometimes frenzied, existences.

"This notion that a creator had influence over the objects of his creation - where on earth did that idea come from? A parent, even a raven parent could tell you it was nonsense."

A fabulous, feel-good read. July 2013; 345 pages

Also by Vickers read The Cleaner of Chartres

Friday, 12 July 2013

"Barnado boy" by John Clarke

John Clarke's mother gave birth to twins out of wedlock. Being only allowed to keep one, she chose the girl; John was taken into care by Barnado's. He spent his first seventeen years with them and was then apprenticed to the in-house printer at the Grosvenor Hotel.

This is the extraordinary rags-to-riches story of a remarkable man. There are a host of wonderful characters, from his mother, who can't resist an attractive man, to his step-father, a brilliant engineer who drinks. His life encompasses soldiering, running and losing his own printing firm, and a battle with mental disease.

The character of the narrator is also interesting. He is highly intelligent though rather diffident and a bit of a goody-goody. . He hates the unions! He is deeply religious, has a wonderful wife and fabulous children and he has an irritating habit of forgiving everyone (including the unions).

This is a classic story. It is slightly spoilt by the rather pompous dialogue which does not aspire to naturalism: it is made of grammatically perfect (including the use of 'whom' on one occasion) set speeches. It is definitely spoilt by the occasional spelling mistakes ('past-time' for pastime is repeated) which might be forgiven in anyone but a man who spent five years as a proof reader.

This fascinating life would make a great basis for a novel but it would need significant scaffolding and a much more fluid prose style. July 2013; 310 pages

Saturday, 6 July 2013

"The seven basic plots" by Christopher Booker

Christopher Booker believes that there are seven archetypal plots: overcoming the monster (eg Perseus and the Gorgon), rags to riches (eg the Ugly Duckling), the quest (eg the Odyssey), voyage and return (eg Robinson Crusoe), comedy (eg the Marriage of Figaro), tragedy (eg Macbeth) and rebierth (eg a Christmas Carol). This is because, he thinks, they reflect deep patterns within our collective unconscious. So fundamental are these patterns that stories that flout these rules, in particular the necessity of 'happily ever after', are in some way failed stories.

His literary criticism that leads him to the seven plots (and later to the two extra ones of rebellion against the one (eg 1984) and mystery (any Poirot) is brilliant and wonderful. When I was half way through the book I was ready to agree even with Michael Gove that this was a 'masterpiece'. He had analysed myth, fairy tales, Shakespeare, Peer Gynt, the Bible, even James Bond, and shown the fundamental structure underlying each. Although it was clear that a storyteller could offer variations around a theme, such as changing the hero for a heroine or intermingling the plots (seen from one point of view Romeo and Juliet is a comedy).

But then he got carried away. Stories that he felt did not conform were "insubstantial"; this was usually due to the personal inadequacies of their creators. He started to rubbish what others consider to be great literature. Whilst Watership Down is "one of the most haunting and successful of recent Quest stories" (p391), Orwell's Coming Up For Air is a "spiritually shrunken world" (p390). This is because it projects "the Quest archetype out into the external world" (p390); but that is what Watership Down does and so does the Odyssey and almost every story projects  an internal psychological drama into the external worlkd because that is what storytellers do!

Basically he rubbishes most stories from the nineteenth and twentieth century. Stendahl's hero Julien Sorel on The Scarlet and the Black is a "cardboard creation" (p 350) because he never undergoes an inner transformation, he is as nasty at the end as at the start; this is apparently because Stendahl was sexually inadequate.  Chekhov has a "limited perspective" (p432). Proust is "a classic case of the 'boy hero who cannot grow up'" (p433); his masterpiece is "the greatest monument to human egotism in the history of story-telling." (p438). Joyce's Ulysses is "meandering" and Leopold Bloom is a "little hero" (p464). Lady Chatterley's Lover has a plot which creaks (p469).

Clearly, many twentieth century stories are pot-boilers with cardboard characters. Here he falls prey to the 'cathedral fallacy'. Some people believe, on the evidence of cathedrals, that builders in the middle ages were much more skilful and much more artistic than they are today. They point to the office blocks and suburban housing developments that suggest modern builders have little soul. But they are not comparing like with like. Most of the buildings from the middle ages fell down or burned down or were pulled down. There is rubbish in every age but the rubbish from old times gets cleared away. Similarly, the only stories to have survived from ancient times are the ones that people have continued to tell. We don't have 'Beowulf meets Godzilla' because that particular pot-boiler wasn't reprinted. Similarly, we might be able to point to the sexual inadequacies of modern authors because we know their biographies. We don't know about Plautus although one would suspect from his fixation on dirty old men that he might have rather fancied young girls in his old age.

It seems that Booker hates modern books partly because they depict sex and partly because they are amoral. Often there is no happy ever after. Often the baddy wins or the hero loses. So he rubbishes the writing. He calls the characters two-dimensional, as if any characters are less rounded that the Ugly Sisters. What modern writers try to do is to re-interpret archetypal stories within real life. Booker hates this and he rubbishes it.

And if the whole of twentieth century literature fails to fit his archetypes then surely his theory must necessarily be wrong.

But not for Booker. Obsessed with his theme, he enters the nightmare stage. He believes that Jung's understanding of the unconscious "was one of the greatest intuitive discoveries of the twentieth century, ranking alongside those of Einstein and other nuclear physicists, or Watson and Crick's double helix" (p554). He starts to reinterpret human psychology and human history through his theory: dark fathers, anima, light heroes and all. Clearly, in Booker's view, industrialisation has been a disaster for the human psyche, divorcing us from an appreciation the the One. Perhaps my biggest concern was the dogmatic way in which Booker wrote, as if a person who understands story structure therefore must be an authority on psychology and history (and Einstein and Watson and Crick). At this point hubris overwhelms Booker and his thesis, like Icarus, tumbles from the air.

The first half of this book is absolutely brilliant. Read it. Then don't read the rest. July 2013; 702 pages