The princess bride has been on the to read list for a while now. With established cult status, both the novel and the movie make regular appearances on various ‘best of’ lists, so it was a bit of luck it was last month’s Book Group selection; I was looking forward to it. I’ve both read the book and watched the film now, and while I didn’t have a bad time of it – hell, the others at Book Group pretty much hated it, so I was very much appearing for the defence in that court – I have to report a certain disappointment. The book was too long and the movie was too short; much as I enjoyed it, and it certainly has merits of its own – not to mention a cameo appearance from Peter Cook and a modest Mark Knopfler soundtrack – the movie made me appreciate parts of the book more in retrospect. The Cliffs of Insanity were climbed too fast and my imagination did a better job of the Fire Swamp, while the giant Fezzik’s charming appetite for rhyme is hardy indulged in at all.
OK, full title, for those familiar with the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, is The Princess Bride: S.Morgenstern’s classic tale of true love and high adventure. The ‘good parts’ version abridged by William Goldman; it still has the power to fool people. The actual author is a William Goldman, novelist and Hollywood screen writer, responsible for, among many other films, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. He shares many features with the fictionalised author writing the whichever highly entertaining framing introductions you get depending on the edition of the book you’re reading (and who also wrote BC&TSD). Some members of the Book Group thought these introductions (and the subsequent editorial interjections, many explaining the ‘excisions’, in the actual text) were the best bits, but really you have to take it as a whole. It made me laugh from time to time and I admire the conceit.
“This is my favourite book in all the world, though I have never read it” is how the original 1973 introduction to the ‘book’ opens, setting it in the context of Goldman’s entirely fictional family life, how his father read it to him when he was sick, but also containing film industry anecdotage anticipating his much-lauded memoir Adventures in the screen trade (1983). The edition I read was the 25th anniversary edition of 1999, which opens “It’s still my favourite book in all the world. And more than ever I wish I’d written it.” and tells – presumably factually – how the 1987 film came about, in particular the casting and tutoring in role of the rhyming giant of an actual oversized pro wrestler. There’s an appendix too, concerning a sequel which isn’t exactly crucial to the enterprise, though it has some fine stuff about the copyright holders in Florin, where the adventure is set – “Florin, as you may know, is the root vegetable capital of Europe” – wanting to get in on the post-film action. There has subsequently been a 30th anniversary edition but I can’t say if anything else has been added.
There’s a definite touch of Mark Twain about The princess bride, the undercutting of the traditional themes and characters of both the high adventure and fairy tale genres, the text littered with the odd strategic out-of-place word or phrase. Here’s the outcome of a deadly game of wits between Vizzini and the man in black:
You only think I guessed wrong! That’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha, you fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia.”
There’s an anticipatory touch of the Monty Pythons in there too, and I’d guess it was an influence on the whole Shrek phenomenon. Like Twain’s work of similar ilk it can also be found in both adult and children’s sections of public libraries and I’m told children love the movie; I could easily watch it again. I’ve hardly scratched the surface here, haven’t mentioned princess Buttercup, her one true love or the Dread Pirate Roberts (which turns out to be an honorary position) and much else. More than once a moral is drawn, well away from the conventions of the genres. In one of the editorial interjections Goldman’s fictional wife tells him:
“Life isn’t fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it’s a terrible thing to do. It’s not only a lie, it’s a cruel lie. Life is not fair and it never has been, and it’s never going to be.”
Fairness is one of the many themes taken up by Caitlin Moran in her splendidly reasonable and boisterous How to be a woman (Ebury Press, 2011). Like the media’s treatment of women, what even prominent women, have to put up with just because they’re women. She has some delicious things to say about princesses (and extra-regal ones like WAGs too) as role models. How to be a woman is combined memoir, musings and rant. I knew little about Caitlin Moran apart from she got enthusiastic reviews from blokes in a couple of the rock music glossies; I’d given up the inkies – where she got her first job, aged 16, on the MM – long before, and never looked at The Times (especially after the website went down the pay-route). Easy to see why those reviews were so good; here was her generation’s Julie Burchill but with a big difference – a fierce autodidact intelligence, for sure, but without the obnoxiousness. I don’t think it’s cheating to give you her conclusion, belaying the book’s title, that:
All through those stumbling, mortifying, amazing years, I thought that I wanted to be was a woman. […] Finding some way of mastering all the arcane arts of being a female, until I was some witchery paragon of all the things that confused and defeated me at the outset, in my bed, in Wolverhampton, at the age of 13. A princess. A goddess. A muse.
But as the years went on, I realised that what I really wanted to be, all told, is a human. Just a productive, honest, courteously treated human. One of ‘The Guys’. But with really amazing hair.
It’s an engaging and highly amusing journey, from The worst birthday ever (the book’s Prologue – aged 13, in a big crowded working class family home in Wolverhampton, soon to discover The female eunuch) through puberty, work and play, love and marriage, motherhood and more work. It’s a nicely nuanced egalitarian feminism, enthusiastically proclaimed and defined but free of stridency. If I’d stopped to make notes of quotes it would have taken me three times as long to read, but here’s one typical cracker: “Women who, in a sexist world, pander to sexism to make their fortune are Vichy France with tits.” Caitlin’s self-deluding affair with a self-deluded failing musician is a lovely example of what can happen on the way. The chapter Why you should have children is directly followed by one titled Why you shouldn’t have children, and the chapter Abortion is healthily positive and unrepentant. Her verdict on cosmetic surgical Intervention (such a neat chapter title) is just to accept mortality; and a lot more flows from that. (In passing, she may even have me exploring Lady Gaga’s music if I remember.)
Caitlin Moran shares with Kurt Vonnegut the view that a major step on the path to a better world is for people to just be more polite, seeing political correctness as a cack-handed attempt on the way. If I had daughters of a certain age I’d be happy for them to read this book; sons too.
Days of future past: the stream-lining was removed from William Stanier’s top of the line express locomotives because of its inefficiency in overall running. I’ve always thought it regrettable that many great steam engines were named after dodgy monarchs or their aristocratic chums, relations and residences. The London Midland & Scottish and the Great Western Railway were the worst. Early members of the Princess Coronation class of locos illustrated were named after queens, princesses and duchesses. We had to wait until the nationalised British Railways for Oliver Cromwell to get a look in.
AORTAS at the Old George & Scribal
Another fine evening of music at the Sunday AORTAS open mic at the Old George where – pleading forgiveness for sidelining their (I dare to presume) republican sympathies but nodding to the spurious thematic consistency dumped on this post – two princesses of the MK singer-songwriting community granted us five new songs between them. Two from Naomi Rose, one subtly celebrating the Fire Garden in Campbell Park that was a highlight of the International Festival in MK a couple of years ago; and three – count ’em – from Nicky & Mark’s The Last Quarter. John Meed, back from Cambridge for the night, added more variety. And The Last Quarter did it again opening Tuesday’s Scribal; not with three more new songs, that is, but with the aforementioned songs, now slightly older and wearing well.
Scribal Gathering 2.0 hit the ground running with a bang. Ably compered by storyteller Theresa Kelleher, there were a couple of new poets too, c/o the Poetree Alliance just down the road, and fine short sets from The Box Ticked and the badly named Xanadu, a young dramatic folk-blues guitar, soul vocals duo, who made an impact. Featured act The Broadway Twisters – their normal schtick “Hattori Hanzo-grade Rockabilly”. Quiffs optional! – excelled with a two-man acoustic set of what they called “beat poetic trashabilly“. Though they steered clear of the classics on the night they more than lived up to the promise of their Facebook rubric : “Along with hi-octane 50’s classics and a few ‘off the beaten track’ toons The Broadway Twisters’ incendiary brand of noir-country trash-R&R is evolving into something unique – think Allen Ginsberg meets Link Ray.” When someone rather unfairly objected on FB, “Well I like Link Wray – Ginsberg was a whiney little bitch tho,” guitar man, writer and strong vocalist Adrian Stranik came back with, “Okay then, Rimbaud meets Lux Interior?” – you get the picture? Stand up rockabilly bass – courtesy of Billy J.Mann – is an experience in itself. All this and Probably North 10th Street, a song about a knocking shop – you have to know MK to fully appreciate the title. Great band!