‘People’ is actually the title of the play we saw last week but it can also serve as a portmanteau for all that’s included here in an attempt to half-way catch up on my cultural consumption. Anyway …
People and the power of story
I loved Patrick Ness‘s A monster comes (Walker Books, 20111). Hard to avoid superlatives; a beautiful emotional piece of book-making all round. The original idea for the story came from Siobhan Dowd, another children’s author, who didn’t live long enough to write it herself. It is wonderfully illustrated by Jim Kay with several dramatic double page spreads that often creep onto – even invade – adjoining pages’ text, while other pages and subtly decorated. It’s done so well I’d say that the publishers producing a text only paperback edition, which they have indeed done, borders on the criminal.
Conor O’Malley is having a tough time dealing with his mother’s battle with cancer. They are a one parent family; his dad is concerned but away with his new family and there’s an uptight grandmother hovering. Conor is also being bullied at secondary school. It’s a sad, sad, conflicted situation. Help, though Conor doesn’t always see it as that, comes from the monster of the book’s title (or is it ‘just’ the elm tree at the back of their house and his unrestrained imagination?). The monster speaks in italics: I have had as many names as there are years of time itself. I am Herne the Hunter! I am Cernunnos! I am the eternal Green Man! There’s a transcendental passage soon after that introduction that has all the power of Kenneth Grahame’s Piper at the gates of dawn (you know, in The wind in the willows).
Ness is a brilliant story-teller, and he places stories at the heart of the tale. The monster says he will tell Conor three stories (Three tales from when I walked before) and then Conor will have to tell his story, his truth. This comes to pass as the action unfolds. Stories are the wildest things of all, the monster warns him. Stories chase and bite and hunt. Again: Stories are wild creatures […] When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak? This does not come easy for Conor:
You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons? the monster said. You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?
I’ll say no more about the moral of the story and what Conor (and not just Conor) takes away from the experience, which is more than just the threat and actuality of bereavement and grief. It strikes me that the value in reading quality ‘Young Adult Fiction’ (to use the book industry category) is in its dealing with life concepts that are new to the combatants, that are not so much reduced to simpler terms but made plainer, are felt more acutely, so that if the characters can engage the older (jaded) reader, then they too will come away reminded and refreshed. A monster calls is unique in having won both of the UK’s premier children’s book awards – chosen by librarians – for both fiction (the Carnegie medal) and illustration (the Greenaway) in 2012. It is a great book, a lot more than just the prime bibliotherapy material it undoubtedly is for those – young and old – involved in its specific sad situation. I haven’t been so moved by a book in a long time.
Poetry people, people’s poets
I’ve been dipping into, working my way through, a couple of slim volumes of poetry for a couple of months now. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to W.H.Auden – I mean, he was there in that ancient red-covered Faber Book of Modern Poetry that served me so well decades ago – but I’m hooked. Nevermind all the limestone (which I now get), I wasn’t prepared for the sheer range and variety of material he put out, its seriousness, its breadth of thought and feeling and its wit. The chronological arrangement of John Fuller’s fine short introductory selection for Faber (published 2000) – one poem for each year from 1927 to his death in 1973 – displays this beautifully. And a lot of it feels contemporary again, the same questions in a different context, the double-edged musings around the notion of The cultural presupposition – as opposed to nature’s creature’s unthinking existence – both bracing and celebratory. And yet, with Since he can start a poem with: “On a mid-December day, / frying sausages / for myself …”
Which I can see Jon Seagrave kicking off from as well. His The sustainable nihilist’s handbook: words by Johnny Fluffypunk (Burning Eye, 2012) lives up to the promise of its title well enough and is hugely enjoyable; not that there’s not a certain seriousness and poignancy lurking beneath its comic surface. “I have not always been the urbane sophisticate,” says the author of Dog shit bin in one of the mytho-autobiographical pieces that pepper the collection. In War on the home front he admits to holding to “a body of political opinion / gleaned from the sleeves / of punk rock records” but as the book progresses (via two pages of Baiku: Poems about bikes / in seventeen syllables? / Let’s call ’em baiku”) he’s delightfully baking, at some length, Bill Blake’s birthday cake “in the oven of my heart’s desire“. Which is followed by the sublime The best poem in the world, which among other things will “make computers weep.” Great fun.
Postmodern poetry postscript: I suppose it was hearing veteran late Scottish rocker Alex Harvey‘s musical take on Roman Wall blues on Soldier on the walls, his last album, that was belatedly the nudge for me to give Auden another go. There are a few visual treatments of it (cue pic of Hadrian’s Wall) on YouTube – here’s one link. Definitely worth a listen. Meanwhile, the final poem in John Fuller’s selection of Auden’s poems is called No, Plato, No. I find it impossible not to read or hear those words in any way other than in the phrasing and timbre of The Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Cooper’s ailing nocturnal cry of “No, Goofy, No” in the episode where Penny has taken him to Disneyland. Incongruous, I know, yet somehow deeply satisfying.
Alan Bennett’s People
We came out of the National Theatre’s touring production of People, Alan Bennett‘s newest play, mightily entertained but wondering what exactly he was trying to say. Two sisters argue over what to do about the crumbling family pile that no-one’s going to inherit. One favours the ultimate victors, the National Trust, the other making a last-ditch go of it or a private sale. It’s a bit of a rag-bag play. Bennett puts his customary wit to work on the poignancy and bad grace of a bright young thing grown old, while generous portions of broad social satire rub shoulders with occasional state of the nation pronouncements. To which must be added – with the filming of a porn movie on the premises – some beautifully executed and extended passages of high farce.
It was a distinguished cast, with Siân Phillips outstanding as the once glamorous sister surviving in the house with her dowdy live-in housemaid/companion, and Selina Cadell as the practical one bringing in the NT. It was only afterwards we realised that the live-in companion (she on the left in the picture) was Brigit Forsyth – only Thelma from Whatever happened to the Likely Lads; their song and dance routine to Downtown (and another couple of ’60s ‘classics’) were delightful interludes. Michael Thomas was good as the NT man, excited over the personal piss-pots of the great and good of the early twentieth century.
Reassuring to hear, too, that Alan Bennett wasn’t that sure what it’s about either:
I could say what 40 years on was about and I could say what History Boys was about. I don’t think I could quite say what Enjoy [about the NT adopting a northern back-to-back terrace] was about, as I can’t say exactly what this is about …
He describes People‘s origin as an itch, but insists there’s not so much a criticism of the National Trust intended as a recognition of the dilemmas of conservation and presentation in the matter of ‘England’:
It was an itch and I still have it. But when I go around country houses, and t’other people, and I think, what is it they’re … What have they come for? – and I think, well, what have I come for? The fact that you can’t, or very rarely can, explain why you’re there or what it is you hope to come away with depresses me really …
I know what he means.