In the days before the internet I was puzzled by a line from Trouble in these fields, a song on one of Nanci Griffiths’ fine early albums – “And if we sell that new john, dear” – until I happened to drive past a John Deere dealership on the road into Carmarthen one day. A minor mondegreen, then. I learnt a lot more about tractors returning to Marina Lewycka‘s very funny comic novel A short history of tractors in Ukrainian (2005) for book group last week.
It’s an easy read but it certainly bears re-reading and I wasn’t alone in appreciating aspects of the book that were missed in that first rush (for it is a book you get a real rush from). For me it was darker the second time around, in particular the back story of the Ukraine under Stalin, then under Hitler, the family’s escape to England. Black humour then, a neat mix of Charles Dickens and Kurt Vonnegut no less. As well as the witty portrayal of waspish sisterly differences, reflected in a broader view of two Englands – “See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries” – we get the agonies and absurdities of old age, loneliness, post-Communist emigration and a whole lot more.
The old man at the centre of the dramas toys with the readers’ sympathies throughout – an old fool but also not without an eccentric occasional valid dignity – “I am not sick … I am poet and engineer” – and the conclusion of the story his marriage to the grotesque money grabbing younger country woman at the heart of the novel is beautifully worked out to one of the more unlikely happy endings I can recall.
Marina Lewycka is a writer with a lovely touch when it comes to the art of picking words. Here the younger daughter (and narrator) is wondering how her dad got himself into this situation:
How does she persuade him? Does she cradle his bony skull between her twin warheads and whisper sweet nothings into his hearing aid?
And I found his book about the history of tractors fascinating too, an interesting parallel history of the first half of the twentieth century.
On falling out with Alison Graham
For a long while I have felt I could trust Alison Graham‘s previews in Radio Times. As a bonus to the wit of her writing, if she said something was rubbish I didn’t bother. Hence I’ve never watched Luther, despite her promise of hidden delights for July 16 – “This is the most unintentionally hilarious hour of the week” – which was followed the next week with:
I’ve decided that the best way to approach Luther is as if it’s a black comedy, where everyone behaves like an idiot and is devoid of even the merest smidgen of common sense.
And then there’s her recent take on The White Queen, which she warmed to, though I couldn’t be bothered. Nevertheless for the August 11 programme I appreciated
The White Queen‘s King Richard III isn’t the foul hunch-back’d toad of Shakespeare – he’s a hunk who bears a passing resemblance to One Direction’s Harry Styles.
followed the next week with, “Give that man a horse.” But lately I have been disturbed by her take on two recent supposed comedies. After watching Count Arthur Strong she says she laughed
so helplessly at this episode that I had to re-apply my mascara, and I was still chortling on my way out of the office and on the train home.
I didn’t, and I wasn’t, and not just because I don’t do mascara. I gave the show more than one chance (Alison likes it) but couldn’t actually bear to see it through to the end, so much did it creak. And I haven’t even said anything yet about one of the worst dubbed laughter tracks I can recall, so bad I wouldn’t be surprised it was done by someone on work experience. There is something badly amiss with BBC1’s comedy output. Still, Alison pleaded for David Walliams’ Big School on August 16:
So please give Big School a chance. It doesn’t ooze sophistication – it’s pretty silly. But it has a great cast and I heard myself laughing out loud in places. […] A sweetly old-fashioned sitcom – in a good way.
I couldn’t last 5 minutes. And Euan Ferguson in the Observer described it as consisting as
too occasional mini-smiles leavening a fast succession of stereotypes, interrupted by a lazy cliché or three, shot through with embarrassing pieces of slapstick.
Oh Alison. What happened?
A few crossword clues …
… that tickled my fancy earlier this year in the Guardian and Observer. Politics, culture, a couple of bad puns and perfect Spoonerisms. Answers under the photo of the frogs. Prepare to groan:
- from the Observers’ Everyman: Vote against party? (6)
- from setter Rufus: A time when the populace is at cross-purposes? (8)
- from Chifonie: Major was once a skilled craftsman (12)
- from Everyman: Which dear French PM? (8)
- from Rufus: Fail to draw positive conclusions from Dante’s work (7)
- from Araucaria: People like Lolita – it’s a difficult thing to do (3,7)
- from Paul: Reproduce artist, say, for the royal issue (8,4)
- another from Paul: Cassius claims Van Gogh’s surgical instrument possibly makes things tidy (6,4)
- from Paul: By the sound of it Richard has overcome King Edward the Tyrant (8)
- from Puck: Pirate can’t do this with mermaid, as some may ‘ave said (11)
- from Pasquale: Spooner’s Sunday clothes? Not what would normally be seen in the pub (5,4)
- from Arachne: Spooner’s to kill writer and collect £200! (4,2)
- from the Observers’ Everyman: Vote against party? (6) Beano (Be a no)
- from setter Rufus: A time when the populace is at cross-purposes? (8) Elections (X)
- from Chifonie: Major was once a skilled craftsman (12) Cabinet maker – (John Major – PM)
- from Everyman: Which dear French PM? (8) Thatcher
- from Rufus: Fail to draw positive conclusions from Dante’s work (7) Inferno
- from Araucaria: People like Lolita – it’s a difficult thing to do (3,7) Sex kittens
- from Paul: Reproduce artist, say, for the royal issue (8,4) Princess Anne (Print Cezanne!)
- another from Paul: Cassius claims Van Gogh’s surgical instrument possibly makes things tidy (6,4) Clears away
- from Paul: By the sound of it Richard has overcome King Edward the Tyrant (8) Dictator
- from Puck: Pirate can’t do this with mermaid, as some may ‘ave said (11) Counterfeit (Count her feet)
- from Pasquale: Spooner’s Sunday clothes? Not what would normally be seen in the pub (5,4) Guest beer (Best gear)
- from Arachne: Spooner’s to kill writer and collect £200! (4,2) Pass go (Gas Poe! – Monopoly)g