Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Skallagrigg - William Horwood

Skallagrigg is basically a quest story and its reading has been somewhat of a quest for me. Lady Bracknell has mentioned this on Ouch and elsewhere, but perhaps the most powerful recommendation was when our own Marmite Boy had its title tattooed to himself. I ordered it from Amazon but they took three weeks and two attempts to get it to me. Then when it finally arrived, I was into relapse, experiencing various cognitive difficulties etc, so I have been reading very slowly. Plus we are talking about 728 pages here; which is a lot of pages when you can only do a few every day. Obviously some days I’ve managed more than a few or else it would have taken me a full year, but you get the picture.

Okay… Peter doesn’t know who his grandfather is. Peter’s father doesn’t know either and Peter’s grandmother never said much about it. Only the word Skallagrigg which she would spell out in her senility. So when Peter hears of and begins to play the computer game called Skallagrigg, he becomes interested in where it comes from and how it might be connected to his own history.

We then begin to learn about the life of its author Esther Marquand and her quest to find the Skallagrigg – a character who crops up in stories of hope and deliverance passed down among disabled people. Which brings us to one of the many notable aspects of this book; Esther has Cerebral Palsy, and many of the characters are disabled.

Esther, like many CPers before her, initially struggles to demonstrate her personality and intelligence to the wider world, but she happens to be in the right place at the right time as far as developing computer hardware is concerned. With the help of her father’s colleagues in the IT industry she is soon not only able to communicate through an adapted keyboard but developing into a talented programmer.

Meanwhile, she sets out trying to discover whether the characters in these Skallagrigg stories, such as Arthur, a man with CP who features in them all, were real people and what exactly the Skallagrigg is. This interest, which becomes a disruptive obsession, takes her on many adventures as well as the ultimate journey of self-discovery that she was eventually to incorporates into this amazing, life-changing computer game.

Horwood is either writing about subject areas he already knows well or else his research cannot be faulted. He writes in convincing detail on various subjects from the institutionalisation of disabled people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through computer science to wind-surfing. He knows about people with various impairments. Norman, a man with learning difficulties who is compelled to write his mother’s address even years after he has been taken from his home, really struck a chord with me. After my uncle Andrew died this spring, I inherited his 2005 diary, which had little in it, except the address at which he grew up written several times over (though bizarrely he’d sometimes write Safeway instead of Suffolk). Horwood does not shy away from the aspects of impairment which others might find ugly or uncomfortable, and in recording them in a matter-of-fact way, he neutralises any discomfort one could feel about them.

But Horwood is not preaching any kind of political message about disablity. Disability plays an important part of the story, but it is incidental to the central messages. This thing happened and was passed down among this group of people and the thing that connected them just happened to be disability. Most importantly, Horwood validates disabled people as being worth writing about; normal human beings with normally complicated personalities and experience – no more brave or pathetic as the protagonists of any story.

The vast majority of characters, disabled and non-disabled, have this complexity and are totally real. There is only one angel and one devil in all this; Kate is Horwood’s idealised woman, young tall slim silk-stockinged Australian who never frowns or utters a cross word whatever unpleasant or irrational behaviour goes on around and towards her. She also stars in the only sex scene in the book, an honour that ought to have belonged to Esther (see below). Fortunately Horwood demonstrates an ability to write about real women elsewhere, so I guess you can excuse this single, total, self-indulgence.

The devil of the book is Dilke, the sadistic nurse in charge of Arthur and his friends, but this was perhaps necessary, his symbolism being far more important than his reality. However, all the other characters, old, young, male, female, disabled and non-disabled make it through with their strength and weakness, and therefore their credibility, fully intact.

And perhaps as a result, I don’t recall a book that has made me cry as much. I am not a complete rain-cloud and this really did surprise me. When someone says you’ll need a box of tissues, I usually expect to be nauseated. But this really touched me, really moved me a great deal.

Horwood has earned his poetic licence and is prepared to use it. For example, despite some excellent portrayals of cross-generational relationships, the vast majority of characters have been either been orphaned, are or become estranged from their parents. As a narrative device, this frees them to dedicate themselves to their friends without compromising loyalties, but alas, I noticed.

Had I read this very quickly, I probably wouldn’t have noticed this and other unlikely coincidences at all or indeed the neatness with which all the strings were finally tied up. However, his poetic justice was truly poetic so that although I saw the mirrors and the slight of hand, I was still somehow seduced and weeping as those strings were secured. Which demonstrates a very rare talent indeed.

I should also warn that a lot of Horwood’s language seems antiquated – not just his outdated use of terms around disability which we have to forgive, but there are flurries of romanticism which take you by surprise and some of the magic realism is rather Old School - more like Graham Greene than Zadie Smith, and thus perhaps not entirely to modern tastes.

And inevitably over the space of seven hundred pages, there were passages which I felt to be superlative and still other events or details which I felt were unwisely glossed over. For example, we follow Esther through adolescence, with her increasing sexual awareness and the attached fears and fantasies – almost to a tedious extent. Then suddenly her sexual initiation has been and gone without comment. I was far more interested in that, with the fear and excitement, pleasure and pain it perhaps entailed that than inflatable Kate’s al fresco shenanigans.

However, despite my ability to criticise such details, these are mere imperfections. Skallagrigg is a great book. It is a post-Enlightenment Pilgrim’s Progress (Pilgrim’s Progress being the second best-selling book of all time for a very good reason). There is allegory to be found within allegory here; about the journeys we all have to take, about making our way through the Slough of Despond without succumbing to despair, about love in its many shades and flavours and perhaps most of all, about hope.

I certainly feel I gained a lot from this book, apart from the fact that it is an exceptionally well-written book and a very good read. The best book I have read in a long time.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Diary of a Nobody

The Diary of a Nobody (1892) was written by George Grossmith the illustrations were originally drawn by his brother Weedon, who was a cartoonist. George was an actor and journalist.

This is the fictional diary of a nobody. The 'Nobody' in question is Charles Pooter, a clerk living in Holloway, of prison fame. He worked in a office in the city. He is married to Carrie, and has a son, Lupin. Lupin Pooter sounds like the medical name for a heavy drinkers boko to me. Although I have looked it up in Grays and of course it isn't there but on page....... I will come back to Lupin later.

Charles is vain, self-important, gullible, at the constant mercy of insolent tradesmen and impudent junior clerks at work who are obviously much more clever than he is. Even worse, he gets sent insulting Christmas cards. Above all, he has a deplorable taste in excruciating jokes and puns. At a party, he says he hopes it won't be long before he meets Mr Short. His more tiresome acquaintances and neighbours include a Mr Gowing, who always seems to be coming, and a Mr Cumming - who is always going. Gowing not only comes, but is also a hooligan given to chucking food around at the supper table. Mr Pooter tries to remonstrate with him, only to be told that it's no good his trying to look indignant, with his hair full of parsley.

He gets to hear about how good enamel paint is, and buys a tin of red, and paints their flower pots, coal scuttle (for those young 'uns out there, it's where posh people kept their coal.) and the backs of their set of Shakespeare, as the bindings have almost worn out. Then he paints the bath (where my family kept the coal). Some days later he feels unwell, and decides the answer is to have a hot bath. After soaking himself for some time, he takes his hand out of the water and finds his hand bleeding badly. Has he ruptured an artery, and is he about to meet his maker? Nope the bloomin paint ain't dried!

Lupin (what a blooming silly name, blooming? Get it?) hates being seen with his old man who wears strange suits. Dad buys his clobber in the evening, when he can only choose his suiting by gaslight, and discovers the next day how terrible they suddenly look. Lupin seems always to be making the wrong choices with women. He is also out of work a lot.

Somebody wrote If you can remember that far back, or have caught the occasional recent repeat on TV, you might draw parallels between Charles Pooter and Eric Sykes. The latter used to star in as well as write the scripts for a late 60s and early 70s sitcom, as an amiable, slightly accident-prone fool continually worsted by his
more clever twin sister Hattie Jacques and supercilious neighbour Charles Brown (Richard Wattis). Maybe Eric modelled himself in part on the oh-so-ordinary but likeable Charles Pooter.

I have had about three copies of this gently humorous book due to non-returns. I heartily recommend it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

The Country Of The Blind - H. G. Wells

I actually managed to read something from start to finish, so I thought I should write it up. Country of the Blind is a short story, just thirty-four pages and is to be found in a book with two other short stories (published by Penguin, £1.50) or in electronic format here. Lady Bracknell mentioned this book some months ago and so I was keen to read it when another friend offered to lend to it me.

The Country of the Blind referred to is an isolated valley in the Andes. Settlers came here and were cut off from the outside world by a series of landslides. At some point in their history, they experienced some sort of infection or other and over several generations the entire population has become blind.

By the time our story begins, fifteen generations have passed since the last person had sight and indeed, the entire concept of visual experience has faded from memory. When Numez, a moutaineer, falls from a mountain path and finds himself in the Country of the Blind, he assumes that, as they saying goes “In the country of the Blind, the one eyed man is king.”

But it doesn’t quiet work out like that.

H. G. Wells has created a realistic world where blindness is no impairment and indeed, sight is. The community choose to work when it is cool and sleep when it is warm; thus they are working at night, where our hero can but stumble about. None of the buildings have been built with windows and there is no lighting of any kind.

However, the chief way in which sight is an impairment is that the community think Numez is both mad and stupid. He of course uses nonsense words; talks about light and colours which are entirely alien concepts. Rather than assuming authority over them, he finds himself tolerated as an unfortunate eccentric.

Wells is not always convincing when it comes to Numez’s attempts to persuade other people of his sight. It seems unlikely that he would not have found a way to demonstrate some kind of - what was for the natives - extra-sensory perception.

Nor was I entirely happy with some aspects of the community’s mythology and how they explained Numez’s presence in the valley. They didn’t believe in an outside world at all, and yet they fairly quickly accepted that Numez had been magically born out of the rocks. I thought much more could have been made of how people might come to understand the world around them in the absence of sight, how religious beliefs brought by the first settlers may have changed and how language might evolve in the absence of the written word.

The Country of The Blind is not a terribly moving story. I am not an avid reader of short stories generally, but I was not in the least invested in any of the characters, nor did I learn much about them. It was more about expressing something about the human condition as opposed to telling a story about this specific group of people.

But at thirty-four pages, I can't not recommend it.

The other stories in the book are called The Remarkable Case of Davidson's Eyes and The Stolen Bacillus. I ought to have read them as well but I was rather chuffed at my completion of a single story with my current difficulty.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Better Than The Book?

I'm not very well at the moment and starting this blog has coincided with a rare period where I'm not managing to read very much. In his most recent entry on his own blog, Charles spoke about his despair at the various television and film adaptation of classic books.

So my first, rather pathetic contribution to this blog is a list of books which were actually better when messed about with and put on screen.

Interview With The Vampire – Anne Rice
Anne Rice actually wrote the screenplay, but of course the film had none of her (IMHO) rather tedious gothic pastiche prose to pad it out. It is perhaps much easier to watch melodrama than to read it. A picture paints a thousand words and Rice is an author capable of writing a thousand words about the look in someone’s eye.

Trainspotting – Irving Welsh.
God-awful book. I have very strong feelings about this as Marmite and I have discussed. Fantastic film though. The screenwriter who took that book and extracted those words, shifted them about significantly and turned them into that film was an absolute genius.

Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo – Alexander Dumas
I desperately wanted to read and enjoy these books as a child as they are fantastic stories. Unfortunately Dumas just doesn't do it for me at all. And he doesn’t much like women. The two films I would recommend are the 1994 version of The Three Musketeers (Keifer Sutherland, Oliver Platt and Charlie Sheen) and the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo (Jim Caviezel, Guy Pierce and Richard Harris).

However, there’s a book called The Stars’ Tennis Balls by Stephen Fry which I read almost by accident which is an excellent modernisation of the Monte Cristo story. Don’t be put off by the fact it is by Stephen Fry, if indeed this fact would be likely to put you off. It is really rather gruesome in places.

And lastly, dare I say it….

Lord of the Rings – J R Tolkein
But only because I managed to watch all the films and I am still stuck of page eight hundred and something of the book. The films were clearly made by someone who loved the books and the story was edited, chopped about and rearranged in such a way to maintain the essence and skip all that nonsense about what they were having for dinner today and all the songs!

While I’m here, please can Marmite and Charles go onto the posting screen, click “Edit Posts” – you should see a list of posts there. Go into your reviews and add a title (I suggest the book and the author is probably the best orthodoxy on this blog). I could have done this myself, but I think Blogger would reveal the fact I had edited your posts and they would appear collaborative.