Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Funnily Enough" - Sophie Neville

The thread that took me to this book is quite long and thin. I love the "Swallows and Amazons" books, which led to me discovering as a grown-up Arthur Ransome and Captain Flint's Trunk by Christina Hardyment, and also the film of "Swallows and Amazons". Then I wanted to know what the young Actors in "Swallows and Amazons" did next, and that took me to Sophie Neville's website, where I discovered that there was a book!

Neville has written about a year of her life when, after establishing herself in a career working for the BBC, she found herself suffering from Post-Viral Fatigue / M.E. It's not a book to read if you are looking for great drama, but it is full of perceptive and humorous accounts of gentle (and occasionally not-so-gentle!) domestic life observed by someone who was forced at times to be little more than an observer. Along the way, we also see her wrestling to find any effective treatment, and also trying to understand how to reconcile her Christian faith with the frustrations of her illness. There's also lots of information about otters (! - how's that for a teaser?).

If your life has been affected by M.E., or you want to understand what it's like for somebody, then this is an excellent book. But more than that, if you are interested in a picture of the regular comings and goings of a normal family, then you'll find "Funnily Enough" a delight to read.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

"Swallows and Amazons"

We went to see Swallows and Amazons, the stage version, at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury this week. The Marlowe has apparently been relatively recently refurbished, and is lovely, within easy walking distance of large numbers of car parks (though without its own dedicated parking, I believe), and Canterbury itself feels like a very safe place to be in the evening - a less busy version of York.

As a book, Swallows and Amazons presents itself as being quite "realist" - it's a story of children camping on an island in a lake in the Lake District, and not a lot happens. The people on the children's literature course that I was studying (EA300) who were reading the book for the first time often found it remarkably dull - which was quite shocking to me, to whom the whole series meant a huge amount when I was growing up. So it seems quite incongruous for the play to be presented as it was. For a start, it is a musical - a format which structurally cements a relationship with fantasy (how many people do you know that burst into a lyrically relevant new song to accompany significant events?). And then it has adults acting as the children. And then, rather than trying to use props and sets to realistically portray the events, it merely symbolises them. The picture above (from here) shows the Walker children sailing the boat Swallow. Roger (the ship's boy) is holding the front of the boat; Susan holds up the sail and John holds the back of it. The water is represented by other people in blue coats holding the blue and white ribbons.

This is all ingenious, and in fact demonstrates how powerful the imagination of the audience is. And this is significant because, as we discovered when studying the book, Swallows and Amazons is all about imagination. The children's imaginative play (the Amazons, Nancy and Peggy Blacketts' self-identity as pirates; the Swallows imagination of themselves as a naval commander, a homemaker or Robinson Crusoe) is the real heart of the story. In Peter Pan, James Barrie reluctantly accepts that children have to grow out of their imaginative world if they are to grow up. In Swallows and Amazons, the effect of the children's imaginative play is actually to transform the adult world - Uncle Jim/Captain Flint's book is saved from burglars, and he recovers his soul.

The play is thoroughly engaging. I got a little teary when I realised how it was evoking the story for me, early on. Towards the end, the cast venture more into the audience, and involves them directly with the battle on the houseboat and at the end, during the closing song, models of Swallow and Amazon are passed around the audience. I don't go to the theatre enough, and I love it when I do go, but I've not seen a play which is so capable of showing children the imaginative power of theatre, and indeed the power of imagination. This deserves great praise.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Reflections on "A Week in December"


I've only read one other book by Faulks - not Birdsong, unusually, but Human Traces. That book was remarkable, as a work of historical fiction, as well as the articulation of quite complex ideas. This had elements in common with it. Faulks continues to explore the idea of the voices that humans hear in their heads, this phenomenon which sets us aside from other creatures, now in a present-day context. There were also an abundance of intertextual references. The framework of preparations for a dinner party reminded me of Mrs Dalloway, there were references that I guess were fairly deliberate to Brave New World, and I suspect (though I haven't read it) that The Bonfire of the Vanities was thrown in there as well.

Faulks writes within the book: "Culturally, it had remained impossible for a realistic British novelist to transcend Leicester or Stoke; the place names alone seemed to laugh at the idea." This is, I guess, a postmodern touch (forgive my artlessness, I'm really not fluent in literature yet). Other significant playing was with the character of the narcissistic, bitter critic, R. Tranter, obsessed with wanting to find fame and yet not celebrity by any means. But unusually for a realist book, it seems that most characters found some redemption, even including Tranter.


What literary interest can there be in finance? Why should I care about it? Does it really tell us anything important about the human condition? Of course - it shapes our world. On the basis of The Devil's Casino, and All the Devils are Here, I'd say that Faulks has done a good job of trying to comprehend and then explain what exactly happened - better than the job done in these journalistic accounts, and without breaking the narrative! He highlights the underlying moral vacuum, but where I think Faulks goes wrong is in making his character John Veals, the hugely successful fund manager, so thoroughly unsympathetic. One thing which emerges from the journalists' analysis of the events is that people are people. You can't really have sympathy for the devil - but most times, it seems, he is actually in disguise. Had the banking industry said, "We are going to invent financial instruments that will bring down the economy of the Western world and bankrupt nations," of course everybody would have been appalled. But they didn't: they just promised to look after our savings and our pensions, and provide us with money for houses and the things we wanted.

The exit of the UK from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism should have been a wake-up call - or maybe by then it was already too late. Financial organisations made a killing betting against the wealth of a nation. The "market" by now no longer bore any resemblance to the place to which a farmer would take a cow to sell. It was a ravening beast, capable of devouring anything it felt like, including whole countries. Margaret Thatcher said, "You can't buck the market," apparently a statement of her philosophy, but in truth signifying the capitulation of Western political power to a more powerful force.


It's a brave author who goes into print discussing the Muslim religion, following the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. Faulks has nonetheless done so. He accepts that mainstream Islam, as a religion, provides comfort, structure and identity. But he argues that its roots, like all such religious grounded in revelation, look more like the product of psychosis than something which transcends humanity. Gabriel, the unsuccessful barrister, compares the words of the Koran with those of his schizophrenic brother's delusions.

Unlike with finance, in the context of religion, Faulks' "devils" are in disguise. The driving force for fanaticism isn't the ranting of imams, but calm, gently-spoken and apparently normal people. Hassan, the young Muslim, finds himself in a group planning an appalling atrocity with the word jihad barely mentioned.

It's a stern portrait of the religion. Christians should take little comfort, however. In this "state of the nation" novel, the fact that Faulks has nothing of significance to say about Christianity constitutes a sterner rebuke.