Archive for Books

Sons and Lovers

Posted in Books with tags , , on August 4, 2010 by richardblandford

A shit book cover, yesterday.

As part of my lifelong project to become well-read before the end of it, I read Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.  I had not read any Lawrence before, so I thought I perhaps ought to.  In the sixties, what with the Lady Chatterley trial and the Ken Russell film of Women in Love, reading Lawrence was quite the done thing.  These days, you don’t see it happening so much (although I’m sure it still happens behind closed doors), and you can read Cormac McCarthy and people will still think you’re clever.

While Lady Chatterley’s Lover is his most famous work due its one-time illegal naughtiness, I am reliably informed that it’s nowhere near his best.  Sons and Lovers is considered his first masterwork, on the other hand, and so seemed a good place to start.  To be honest, it wasn’t what I was expecting.  Although, like much of his writing, the book does concern itself with sex, Lawrence had yet to achieve the level of frankness he would later become notorious for.  Rude encounters are instead buried halfway through long dense paragraphs, conveyed in the delicate phrasing that getting published in 1913 no doubt required.

The story itself is pretty simple.  Young man Paul Morel grows up in a mining community near Nottingham where no one says anything nice to anybody ever, but finds he cannot give himself fully to one woman because of his feelings of belonging to his mother.  All rather Freudian, obviously, and also a bit Norman Bates, although Morel’s mother at least has the decency to actually be alive.

The work is also rather obviously semi-autobiographical, with the telltale signs of seemingly superfluous details lingered over, and events one would draw attention to if making things up mysteriously skimmed (I, of course, would never lower myself to such a thing).

We get a real sense of the past being a ‘foreign country’, as L.P. Hartley put it.  With its temperance societies and expected church attendance, the turn-of-the-century working-class mining community is a long way away from anything that it’s possible to know in Britain today.  It takes a fantastically long time for Morel to work out he even ought to be having sex, and even longer to realise he’s having it with the wrong person.  A process that takes years then would take a feral fifteen year old a weekend now.

For a landmark work of modernism, I was surprised by how ‘Victorian’ the language at first appeared to be.  Adverbs fly everywhere with abandon, and if it reminded me of anything, it was the writing of Arnold Bennett, who was exactly the sort of author, according to the Official History of Literature, that Lawrence was meant to have overtaken.

The difference between the two, however, is in the psychology.  In a novel such as The Old Wives’ Tale, Bennett shows how the differing temperaments of two sisters take them down separate paths towards different experiences.  In Sons and Lovers, however, experience (notably that of the mother/son relationship) defines temperament.  In Bennett, characters are born.  In Lawrence, they are made (These days, now we’ve replaced Freudian analysis with theories of the mind that actually make some sort of sense, characters are more or less both born and made).

Overall, I found Sons and Lovers admirable in its sense of purpose and thoroughness in exploring its subject.  It is the ultimate Oedipus Complex novel, in the same way you’re not likely to get a book more about what whaling than Moby-Dick.  It is, however, a pretty severe read.  I couldn’t really say that I  have any warm feelings towards it.

But then, it’s not really a novel for now.  Today, we’re all too keenly aware of how we’re connected to things.  Banks screw up, and we feel the pinch in our pockets.  Our government’s foreign policy decisions increase the level of risk at home.  Lawrence intentionally kept the bigger social picture out of Sons and Lovers, choosing instead to concentrate on analysing the purely personal.  You need calmer times for a novel like that.  Maybe I should have read it in the nineties.


The Godlike Genius of Nicholas Fisk

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on May 19, 2010 by richardblandford

Nicholas Fisk, smoking a pipe, ages ago.

After my recent miserable experience reading Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, compounded by the traumatic memory of the time I found myself in a locked room with only a JK Rowling novel for company, I asked myself the question, ‘Why do people like this shit?  Surely everyone’s just being silly and got it wrong.  I remember children’s books being loads better than this when I was young.’

A children’s author I particularly remembered liking was science fiction writer Nicholas Fisk.  His books still haunted me.  Their concepts, as much as I could recall them, seemed pretty mind-blowing even after all this time.

I resolved to re-purchase all the books of his I remembered reading to see if they were indeed as good as I thought they were then.  If so, I would make it my mission to tackle Rowling/Pullman worship at every turn, and erect statues of Nicholas Fisk outside all the branches of Waterstones in the land.

Now out-of-print, the books popped through my letterbox one at a time as they arrived from various online retailers.  Excitingly, they all had the covers that I remembered them having, and some of them were the same print runs. I was even tempted to renew my membership of the Puffin Club using the coupon at the back.  Anyway, I began to read.

book cover of   Space Hostages   by  Nicholas Fisk

Space Hostages (1967) is the story of a group of kids who are sent into space by a deranged RAF pilot, hoping to save them from nuclear war.  It’s pretty darn exciting stuff, powered along by some excellent characterisation as the brainy kid and the school bully seek to win control of the spacecraft and stop them flying into the sun.  It’s also notable for having a black main character, a rare thing in British kid’s fiction back then.

Trillions (1971) tells a less coherent story, but contains a central idea which is great.  An alien race arrives on Earth that consists of tiny compatible elements.  They fit together and build structures for mysterious purposes.  It’s not often that aliens in kid’s books are truly alien, but they are here.

Grinny (1973) is, I think, Fisk’s most popular book.  In it, an alien robot infiltrates a family in the form of an elderly relative in order to gain information about Earth prior to an invasion.  I’m pretty sure they read this to us in school.  There’s a paragraph about dogs ‘mounting’ that I think they might have skipped over though.

book cover of   Robot Revolt   by  Nicholas Fisk

Robot Revolt (1981) features a charismatic religious cult leader who buys a robot servant that, in league with the leader’s children, ultimately seeks to overthrow him.  The sci-fi aspects are a bit ordinary here, but the sheer scariness of the religion more than makes up for that.

book cover of   On the Flip Side   (Flip Side)   by  Nicholas Fisk

On the Flip Side (1983) is the most interesting for me.  A strange, ambiguous tale of communication with animals and parallel dimensions, it contains some pretty harrowing descriptions of society collapsing as animals go mad and inter-dimensional beings invade.  One paragraph in particular, in which a girl telepathically communicates with her dog has stayed with me over the quarter of a century since I read it:

Yes, Duff could still fill her with loves she never felt of her own accord.  The trouble was that these heartfelt loves became sickly and left a taste.  ‘Fondest mistress, worshipful young mistress – I love you, and you love me.’ Followed, of course, by the inevitable anxious question – ‘You do, don’t you?’

Coming back to them, I can see that Fisk’s books do have notable flaws.  Although he will invariably root the stories in a child’s viewpoint, they will often get too big, and the sympathetic protagonist’s perspective will get lost amongst various scientist and military types (this is perhaps why I remember the earlier chapters the best).  Also, his conclusions sometimes feel arbitrary, and in his earlier books, girls are not presented well, interested only in attention and being like the kids on telly, while younger children are possessed by a strange logic incomprehensible from the outside.

Having said that, the books are imaginative, original, haunting and challenging, encouraging children to think about science and the role it plays in the world they are growing up in.  So, all things considered, is Fisk a better writer than Rowling and Pullman?  For me, yes he is. I am off to erect my first statue in his honour.

The Island

Posted in Books with tags , , on April 14, 2010 by richardblandford

It was a Christmas present.

Despite being an absolutely enormous hit, there’s something about Victoria Hislop’s The Island that no one seems to have noticed. This being, that it’s completely barking bad. This perhaps shouldn’t come as much as a shock, winner as it was by the Richard and Judy Summer Read Competition. After all, their viewers have yet to notice that Richard Madeley is also completely barking mad.

It’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of a book, with the history of the Spinalonga leper colony off of Crete in the middle years of the last century brutally welded on to a family melodrama beach-read involving sibling rivalry, adultery and, oh yes, leprosy. Also thrown into the mix is a bit of World War II and a truly ludicrous framing device in which a twenty-something woman seeks to resolve her romantic dilemma by seeking inspiration through the uncovering of her family’s secret leper past.

There’s a lot wrong with The Island. The plot, which is just about visible if you stand at a distance, often builds to anti-climaxes, such as a rampaging mob who plan to attack the leper colony, only to be talked out of it. They threaten to come back, but don’t. So that’s all right then.

Hislop, meanwhile, has a tin ear for a beautiful phrase, so we’re confronted with sentences like this (and on page one too), ‘How different that would make it from the ancient palaces and sites she had spent the past few weeks, months – even years – visiting.’ She’s been visiting the sites for years. That’s the information that needs to be conveyed, so why bring weeks and months into it? Oh dear.

The characters are flat, good or bad simply because they are, and what motivations they have are laid out for the reader the moment that they become a factor in the story. I don’t think there’s a single thing inferred, or left open to interpretation in the entire book. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume that Hislop thinks her readers might be a bit thick.

Despite all this, however, the sheer ridiculousness of the exercise means that The Island isn’t an unlikable book. It’s not really a story about characters so much as one about a community, although I’m not sure that it knows this. In a way, it reminded me of John Cowper Powys’s Weymouth Sands, an even stranger book written by a very strange man.

Indeed, I can’t help wishing that rather than being the work of a travel journalist wife of a well-connected media type, The Island was written by a dotty lady resident of a bed and breakfast on Eastbourne seafront. It isn’t, but one can dream.

Help Me With My Evil Plan

Posted in Books, Fiction with tags , , on April 9, 2010 by richardblandford

The other week, presumably in an effort to clear the floor dedicated to housing unsold copies of my books at their Pimlico headquarters, Random House sent me yet another box of the trade paperback edition of my first novel, Hound Dog.

I’m not sure what to do with them. I’ve already got one box in the cellar, and there are only so many copies I can try to force through hamster-resembling Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather’s window. I’m beginning to think she’s not interested. Even though I thoughtfully inscribe each one ‘We Shood B 2Getha’ in my own blood. I mean, what’s a guy got to do these days??!!

Anyway, what I’m going to do with the books (Sarah Teather issue is unresolved) is this. If you email me your address, I will send you a SIGNED copy. If you have not read it already, you have my permission to do so. Then, however, you must redistribute in an interesting manner. But here’s the thing. I want photographic evidence of its re-homing, which I can post here on the blog.

For instance, if you were to give it to The Really Wild Show’s Terry Nutkins, it’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, I gave it to Terry Nutkins’. You have to send a photograph of the book being placed in Terry Nutkins’s hand. Whether or not Terry Nutkins is chained up naked in your spare room when this occurs is entirely up to you.

So, just to reiterate: Step 1. Email me. Step 2. Receive book. Step 3. Read book (optional). Step 4. Re-home book AND photographically document this happening. Step 5. Email me photograph, in full knowledge that I’ll piss all over your copyright and reproduce it here.

Well, what are you waiting for? Hop to it, before they send me another box!

Northern Lights

Posted in Books with tags , , , on April 5, 2010 by richardblandford

Bag o’shite.

As research for something I’m working on that may rear its head relatively soon, or at some far point in the future, or perhaps never at all, I read the first volume in Philip Pullman’s His (‘n’ Hers) Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights.

Because so many people of genuine intelligence rate his work I was presuming that it would turn out to be rather good, and far superior to the clumsy stylings of J.K. Rowling (the latest in a longish line of children’s authors with barely passable literary skills that the general public nevertheless hold dear to their hearts. See also, J.R.R. Tolkien). Upon reading it, however, I found that I did not like it. No, I did not like it one bit.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Pullman is a great ideas man. I won’t go into what it’s all about because you probably know, and if you don’t there are people out there who can tell you with a great deal more enthusiasm than I can, but the parallel universe he creates is full of neat imaginative twists, with the familiar made to feel strange, and vice versa. The problem is that it’s dead on the page. Why?

Because he can’t write characters to save his life. He really doesn’t seem to have any real understanding of how human beings work. And without characters, you don’t have anything that can be accurately described as a novel (unless you’re Olaf Stapledon, who was a genius, which Pullman isn’t).

Take the protagonist, Lyra. Presumably, we’re meant to fall in love with this little girl. Only problem is, her main characteristic is that she lies a bit. That’s not enough to drag me through the novel, at least not without me kicking and screaming.

Often, Lyra simply forgets to react to things. Major changes of fortune, grand revelations, even deaths, are met with an eerie silence from Lyra. Occasionally she’s eventually provided with an oddly delayed reaction, but many times not.

Along the way, Lyra encounters various helpers who she becomes deeply attached to. They also become deeply attached to her. Presumably the reader is meant to get deeply attached to all of them. This is hard, as none of the good guys possess any quality, such as wit, charm or even mysteriousness that you can really hook your affections or at the very least, attention on to. Then, once a friend has been made, Lyra will invariably be separated from them and hardly think of them again until the plot demands it, which renders the alleged earlier affection somewhat suspect.

On a technical level, Pullman’s writing itself ensures that a deep identification with any character is impossible. We drift in and out of Lyra’s perspective and fleetingly into those of other characters. A lot of the time, we’re just hovering uncertainly outside the action, like a shy person at a party. Sometimes, we discover things as Lyra does and have access to her thoughts, but then it’ll turn out that Lyra’s been learning to master the use of a magical compass or something behind our backs, and suddenly knows more about what’s going on than we do. She then has to have a convenient explanatory conversation with someone before we can catch up. These are basic writing errors, and ones that Pullman’s nemesis from beyond the grave, C.S. Lewis, knew not to make (I think. I haven’t read him since I was eleven. I’d check, but it’s a bank holiday and the library’s closed. Maybe he did make them. I’m having a crisis of faith. Like Susan with her makeup in The Last Battle).

Ultimately, I couldn’t care less about any of it. It felt like the literary equivalent of The Phantom Menace, the first part of a saga that stretches out before you like a particularly unwelcome train journey involving multiple changes, because its first few chapters guarantee that at no point will the human element come into play. In fact, I preferred The Phantom Menace, because that, at least, had a Holby City cast member wearing a humorous uniform.

You heard me. I preferred The Phantom Menace. I do not say those words lightly.

Muscle Beach Party

Posted in Books, Film with tags , , on April 5, 2010 by richardblandford

Muscle Beach Party

Over the past year or so, the theme of what sort of books can be successfully be made into films has been touched on several times in this blog.  This begs the obvious counter-question, what sort of films can be made into books?  In order to answer this, I felt compelled to read the novelisation of the 1964 musical surfing comedy Muscle Beach Party starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, as adapted by Elsie Lee (A snip at 50p, actually worth at least £30).

Now, I don’t mind admitting I went in with low expectations.  A lighthearted romp involving sight-gags, musical numbers and characters painted with strokes so broad they may as well have used a roller do not seem like the ideal ingredients for a satisfying read.

How wrong I was.  As well as a gripping story about how a group of surfers stand up to a body-building club while a rich contessa attempts to make a gigolo out of their leader, this book has everything.

Social comment: ‘Her hand caught warmly in Frankie’s, Dee Dee wandered where he led, across the sands and away from the sounds of civilization, If you can call it that, she thought vaguely’.

The weight of history: ‘”Like maybe brains do count for more than brawn?” Dee Dee suggested.  “Like maybe that’s what our pappies were proving against Mr. Hitler?”‘

Existentialism: ‘”Honey, the beach is free,” he said with soft intensity… ‘the surf keeps rolling, rolling, with a rhythm nothing can match – and your life’s your own as long as you keep looking up and riding the curl… Isn’t that enough?”‘

Indeed, I would say that Muscle Beach Party has so much scope, so much depth of insight, it is a candidate for the elusive Great American Novel, if not the best novel of the 20th Century.

I, of course, don’t mean this.  It’s a load of old shit.  It is, however, cheerful shit that wouldn’t utterly wreck your life if you were to read it.

What’s really interesting is the fact that occasionally, Elsie Lee does a little bit more than meet her brief of turning the script into prose.  There’s some genuine characterisation slipped in here and there, with some imagination employed in working out what lies behind the actions of these cardboard characters.  You get a sense that, at least over the weekend she was working on this thing, she actually cared about them.

And it’s what happens in that space between what she had to do and what she did do that you can see, in its most basic form, art occurring.  It’s the literary equivalent of the pretty pattern on an ancient pot, or the little joke sneaked in to a railway station announcement.  It didn’t really need to be there, it seemed, on a practical level.  But someone felt compelled to put it there anyway.  It’s the same urge that ultimately leads to Les Demoiselles D’Avignon and Ulysses.  It’s the reason why something as apparently defined by it’s function as Clifton Suspension Bridge also possesses it’s own peculiar beauty.  It’s art.  It’s hidden in the cheapest, shittest, most cynical products of humankind.  It’s all around us.

(For more on the ‘Beach Party’ films, of which Muscle Beach Party is the second, see this interesting article).


Posted in Books with tags , , on March 14, 2010 by richardblandford

A number of years ago, Martin Amis had some dental work done.  For reasons I’ve never got my head around, this seemed to turn a sizable chunk of the literary establishment against him.  Consequently, being a man incapable of independent thought, I have followed this party line faithfully and never read any of his books, instead walking straight past them in the library, murmuring, ‘fucking straight-toother’ under my breath as I went.

All that changed this month, when I decided to experiment with free will for the first time in my life, and read something by him.  Naturally, I let others choose which one I read, and a straw poll revealed Money, his novel from 1984 to be the firm favourite.

Upon finishing it, I am convinced of three things:

1) Kirk Douglas demanded that Martin Amis write a  scene for him in which he could display his genitals in Saturn 3, a film for which Amis wrote the (rubbish) screenplay.

2) Turgid U2 stadium anthem ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ is inspired by a line from this book (At one point, the protagonist John Self heads for a part of New York ‘where the streets have names’).  All the dates fit.  If it’s a coincidence, I’ll eat my licorice hat.

3) Grossly unfair though it undoubtedly is, it’s virtually impossible to discuss Amis jr. at this stage of his career without mentioning his father, Kingsley (unless you haven’t read any of his father’s books, in which case it’s very easy).

The reason for this is that, at least at first, Money reads like a pumped-up hyper version of precisely the sort of book his father (and J.P. Donleavey, and the young Iris Murdoch) used to write in the 50s.  It’s essentially picaresque, with the overweight and over-sexed John Self meandering his way around a very loose plot as he tries to get a Hollywood film made, all the while experiencing and observing the seemingly magical properties of money.

As the book goes on, however, it reveals itself to be a rather different beast, with ‘Martin Amis’ turning up as a character, and takes a distinctly Post-Modern turn which at first feels like a distraction, but by the end is probably the most interesting thing about it.

Did I like it?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I wasn’t particularly taken with the narrative style, which blends the colloquial English that a real life John Self would use with a bloated vocabulary that he most certainly would not. Also, for quite long periods the book and its main character seemed to be trapped in a cycle of narrative tics (have unlikely sex, observe effect of money, make fun of Hollywood types, have unlikely sex again) that really wore me down, but every so often it would spark into life with some astute observations and the odd good joke.

The problem, I think, is that unlike his father, Amis isn’t a natural wit, or at least doesn’t allow himself to be on paper that often.  Unfortunately, to pull off a meandering picaresque story, you’ve got to charm the reader in order for them to follow your deviations.  But maybe it’s just me, although, well, obviously not just me. In the aftermath of Anna Ford’s slightly weird recent public attack on Amis, in which she accused him of using Christopher Hitchen’s head as a bong in front of her goddaughter or something, it was startling just how many people used it as an opportunity to state they found his work unreadable. Some people such as John Niven here, however, are very much charmed by Amis jr’s style in this book.  But then, different people are charmed by different things.  This is why the world isn’t one great big wife-swapping party.

Also, I found the ease with which Self obtains sex, despite his limitations in the various fields through which men generally manage to obtain it, a stretch of credulity too far.  Although I usually tend to give this sort of novel the benefit of the doubt, and believe that it depicts a sexist world rather than being sexist in and of itself, when you have to revise your understanding of everything you know about the opposite sex in order to accommodate the internal workings of the story, alarm bells tend to ring.  As a very similar argument could perhaps be made of my own novel Hound Dog, however, I shall conveniently stop pursuing this point any further.

In fact, I found that there were numerous similarities to my novel Hound Dog, both in terms of the main character and certain avenues that the plot goes down, which I will not reveal here in case I simultaneously ruin both novels for people who haven’t read them (though really, what are you doing, not having read Hound Dog?  Go and read it this instant!).  Amis and myself must have tapped into the same mythical archetype, although I can’t find any mention of the ‘fat, wanking hero figure’ in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Perhaps he’s the thousandth and first face.

Anyway, Money wasn’t really my kind of book, probably because I’ve already written one a bit like it, but I sort of got something out of it, I guess. Probably. Anyway, there’s a version on telly soon so I’ll watch that I reckon.