Showing posts with label Charlie Butler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Charlie Butler. Show all posts

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

4 - Charlie Butler on privilege

Someone whose posts always make me stop and think,  Charlie - who now writes and posts as Cathy Butler - clearly gave a lot of us food for thought with this, our fourth most viewed post, on how privilege comes in many forms, and can shape both our writing and our world-views without our realising:

Number 3 will be here at 4.00!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

From Corpse to Zombie With a Single Shamble - Charlie Butler

There’s been much talk about e-books lately. Wherever you look, authors are publishing their out-of-print backlists and unplaced books on Kindle and other platforms. Agents and publishers, rowsed from their e-slumber, are trying to catch up, wondering what is a fair percentage for e-book rights - or what they can get away with (which is the same thing, so my free-market friends tell me). According to a powerful post written last month by Kristin Kathryn Rusch, we are witnessing a paradigmatic shift in the way that people think about publishing, and about books themselves. Who needs publishers when the internet lies trembling at our fingertips? In the age of the DIY download, need books ever go out of print again? On the other hand, with no quality control mechanism, some fear that e-literature is destined to be no more than a new recipe for spam.
These aren’t questions I feel qualified to answer, but they were in my mind when I visited Hay-on-Wye with my son the other day. As most UK readers of this blog will know, Hay is a small town on the border of Wales and England, just at the northern tip of the Black Mountains. It is also the home of more than twenty second-hand bookshops, the largest concentration in the UK by far. We were only making a day trip, nothing like long enough to plumb its treasures, but we still made some great discoveries, and it would be a poor soul who could visit Hay without doing so. To be tired of Hay is to be tired of life – or at least of reading.
All the same, when I find a wonderful book that’s been forgotten by all but the cognoscenti (who hug their enthusiasms to their chests like so many racing tips), and especially if that book is going cheap, I feel melancholy as well as triumphant. For Hay is, as well as a great shopping experience, a vast Necropolis. It is a graveyard for out-of-print books – and those of us who stalk its chambers, ripping the jewels from bony necks and fingers, cannot help but feel like tomb raiders – and not in a sexy, Lara Croft kind of way. If we are writers, a trip to Hay is also a plangent reminder of our own mortality, and – perhaps worse! – that of our books. Occasionally I meet one of my own offspring, staring back at me from the dusty shelves like a memento mori. “Buy me!” it seems to beg, in mute appeal. I generally oblige.
We all have our unjustly-forgotten writers, and Hay is a good place to find them. Whatever happened to Nina Beachcroft, for example? Her first three books, Well Met by Witchlight (1972), Cold Christmas and Under the Enchanter (both 1974) are a wonderful debut set, showing mastery of a variety of fantasy genres, from comic supernatural to traditional ghost story to occult tale of possession. But her footprint on the literary foreshore was soon obliterated, and although she produced half a dozen more books (many very good), it’s almost twenty years since a publisher put out an edition of any of them. I can see why they wouldn't do so now: to the omnipotent marketing departments Beachcroft's world of middle-class, largely rural childhood would seem dated. And, although I rate her highly, she's not quite good enough to face down such objections. All the same, I regret her absence from the shelves, and not just for sentimental reasons.
E-publishing may allow such neglect to be put right – and if it does, I’m all for it. I doubt whether Nina Beachcroft’s works will ever storm the bestseller lists, but they deserve a second life. It may be only a zombified half-life, subsisting on electronic downloads rather than good honest paper – but then, perhaps it's better to be a zombie than a corpse?

Monday, 23 May 2011

In Which I Name Ryan Giggs - Charlie Butler

Occasionally people ask me which aspect of my writing I’m most proud of. Is it the flawless characterization? The wonderfully-observed descriptive passages? The dialogue that tangoes off the page? The plots, as artfully constructed as the Daedalian labyrinth? Or some alchemic combination of all the above?
Oddly enough, the stroke I remember with the greatest pride is one that passes most readers by. It occurs in my first published book, The Darkling. The Darkling was published in 1997 (in the same month as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as I like to remind people with a gloomy starward shaking of the fist), but was written some years earlier, and it was in 1992 that I had to face up to the tricky problem of what to call Jamie’s pet gecko.
Jamie was the younger brother of my heroine and narrator, Petra McCoy. His own part in the story is relatively minor, and that of his pet lizard smaller still, but it needed a name, and I knew that (given Jamie’s character) its name was likely to celebrate a Manchester United leftwinger. But which one? At the time, two young players were making headlines for United in that position, both alike in crossing and scoring power, both given to gecko-ish bursts of furious pace. One was Lee Sharpe, who had made the No. 11 shirt his own during the 1990-91 season, notably by scoring a hat-trick against Arsenal in the League Cup. At 21, Sharpe was a talented player who clearly had a long and illustrious career ahead of him. The other contender was even younger, but his coltish legs were bringing him up fast on the rails. This was the teenaged Ryan Giggs.
The choice mattered, because I wanted (as far as possible) to future-proof my book. Future-proofing is a perennial challenge for children’s writers, who generally try as hard as any Nivea ad to fight the signs of aging. Technology (Dial-up internet? Puhleeze!); clothes (Ray-Ban Aviators? Really?); bands and film stars (Kurt Cobain? River Phoenix? You’ve got to be kidding me!); and slang (Could I be any more 1990s?) – all are familiar adversaries. There are several ways around them, more or less effective. For many years children in books could be fitted out in blue jeans in the justified confidence that denim would always be in fashion – or at least not jarringly out. You could invent your own slang or song lyrics. Or you could take the route I did, and bet on longevity.
I almost called that gecko Sharpe instead of Giggs, I really did. Had I done so, perhaps Lee Sharpe’s career would have prospered. In the event, following this proof of my lack of faith it went into a fairly precipitous decline, hastened by illness and injury. Sharpe soon moved from Manchester United to Leeds, then on to Bradford, Grimsby and Exeter City before ending his playing career in 2003 at Grindavik in Iceland. Ryan Giggs, by contrast, has just won his twelfth Premier League title with United, and in 2011 is still a regular on the first team. At the end of January, he was voted the club's greatest ever player.
So, I’m very glad I named the gecko after Giggs, and think it reflects well on me both as a writer and as a pundit. On the other hand, I can’t help feeling more of a kinship with Lee Sharpe. Perhaps I should have named Jamie’s lizard Rowling, after all?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Put Out Fewer Flags - Charlie Butler

When I told a friend that my daughter had been making anti-royal flags for the day of the Middleton-Windsor bash, she reproved me: “Every little girl should fantasize about being a princess!”
I disagreed, of course. I’ve nothing against children fantasizing about being princesses, just as I’ve nothing against them playing at dinosaurs (though I’d jib at either being made compulsory); but the former isn’t really an argument for monarchy any more than the latter is one for turning Britain into Jurassic Park.
I thought no more about the exchange until a couple of days later, when I was catching up with another friend, who writes fantasy fiction for adults. She mentioned that, although she is herself a republican, she is often assumed by her readers to be a monarchist because she writes about medievalesque fantasy worlds featuring kings and queens: “Whereas I spend most of my time showing what’s wrong with monarchies!” The trouble is that if you write about a Bad King in a medievalesque fantasy, people won’t respond by demanding full emancipation under a proportional STV system – they’ll ask for a Good King instead. Every genre comes with its own conventions, built into the DNA of its fictional worlds. It’s hard to mount an internal critique without evoking Dennis, the anarchist peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government!”
Where does the border between fantasy and reality lie in these cases? Oddly, many of the fantasy novels that most enthusiastically recount quests to restore True Heirs to their empty or usurped thrones are written by United States citizens who would reach for their muskets if it were suggested that the same thing should happen in their own country. Monarchist fictions have some kind of appeal for these writers and their readership – but what kind, if not a political one? We can blame the Disney Corporation for ensuring that millions spend their childhoods steeped in a flamingo-pink princess marinade, but that merely shifts the question, to one of why there is such a ready market for this feudal fantasy. (It’s a very selective feudalism, of course: not many children fantasize about being serfs.) One is tempted to summon Freud to account for its appeal, or perhaps Jung with his toolkit of archetypes, but as someone who appears to have missed out on the royalist gene, I’ll leave it others to explain.
If it were only a matter of fantasy, I don’t think this would bother me much. However, when it comes to royalty there is a strange porousness about the boundary between fantasy and reality. There’s my friend, for example, who believes that playing princess is incompatible with being a republican in real life. And the Americans, while they may claim they like royalty only in stories, still spent vast sums covering last week’s event. I think it’s safe to say that many, if not most, of the two billion people who watched the wedding worldwide did so not in order to express their approbation of monarchy as a system, but to indulge a vicarious fantasy about royalty and the associated pomp. (I’m not sure what “pomp” is, but it’s one of those things the royals seem to have bagged for their own use, like swans.)
Having talked to monarchists over the last few weeks, I get the impression that relatively few people really believe that choosing the head of state by means genetic accident is rationally defensible, but they value monarchy for its appeal to something beyond reason, something about identity, continuity and hierarchy that operates at a symbolic level – at the level of fantasy, in fact. And it’s true that we all get through our lives in part by using fantasy to add meaning and significance to drab reality. We all have our rituals, our treasured moments that seem to “mean” more than others, our special people and places. Seeing the ways in which these aspects of our lives intertwine with the quotidian is something I find fascinating as a writer and as a human being. I can well believe that the monarchical fantasy serves some such purpose for those who like it, even though it leaves me cold. (Specifically, this fantasy baffles me because it seems to contradict rather than enhance the positive values I associate with Britishness: for example, I don’t see how a sense of fairness is in any way enriched by a system based on the fetishization of unearned privilege – but, as I said above, I must leave that to others to explain.)
The interesting thing is that, in many ways, monarchy has survived in this country largely by pretending to be a fantasy, by trading on its symbolism and moving itself as far away as possible from the visible levers of power. It uses its glamour in the old-fashioned sense of the word, as a form of legerdemain. For, while the monarch has little direct power by comparison with some of her predecessors, she stands at the apex of a system that has been remarkably (if discreetly) effective in retaining both influence and wealth. In terms of land ownership, Britain remains effectively a feudal country, with two-thirds of the land owned by a mere 160,000 (mostly aristocratic) people – just 0.3% of the population. The honours system keeps politicians and civil servants quiescent, the jewel-encrusted carrot of hope being more effective than a knobbly blackthorn for this purpose. And whilst we fret about which voting system is best for the House of Commons, we seem remarkably unfussed that half our legislature has no democratic component whatsoever. A flash of ermine, a dazzle of diamonds, and we flip into fairy-tale mode. Robes and furred gowns hide all.
This traffic between fantasy and reality also runs in the other direction – at least for me. I don’t much care for books in which True Heirs get restored and it’s the taken-for-granted duty of ordinary people to die in order to achieve this consummation. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1915 Ruritanian novel The Lost Prince may be a little old-fashioned as a real-world adventure story, but its assumptions are in perennial vogue in fantasy.
Historically, however, it’s not a fantasy at all. Today is the 540th anniversary of the Battle of Tewkesbury, at which Edward IV finally defeated Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses, at the cost of some 3,000 lives. A decade earlier, at Towton, he had defeated him less decisively in the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil, leaving some 28,000 dead. Like many of our famous battles from Crecy to Culloden, the Wars of the Roses were primarily a family dispute about who was the True Heir, and the disputants had no hesitation in seeing thousands who had nothing to lose or gain by the outcome hacked to pieces in their cause. It’s a longstanding tradition, but not one I feel like celebrating in fiction, or dressing up with the conventional lie that the True Heir is always a good person, and the Usurper always a pernicious tyrant.
Maybe, in fact, I have more in common with my princess-loving friend than I first thought. Neither of us believes there is an impermeable cordon sanitaire between the games you play, the stories you tell, and the beliefs you hold. The difference is, of course, that her beliefs are Wrong and mine are Right.
Maybe I should simply have said that at the start?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

From The Children's Writers' Songbook - Charlie Butler

[With apologies to Elton John and the Bee Gees]

What I have got to do to stay in fashion?
To keep up with the looks, the trends, the tracks?
One day leopard prints are Gok Wan’s passion,
The next they’re in the sale at T.K.Maxx.

How am I going to get some street smarts,
And write just like the kids speak in the ‘hood?
I’m more at home with hopscotch, hoops and go-carts:
What’s cool these days? I wish I understood.

It’s sad, so sad: it’s a sad, sad generation -
With jocks and dorks and geeks and chavs and nerds.
It’s sad, so sad – why can’t they talk plain English?
It always seems to me,
That YA seems to be the hardest word.

How'm I going to write that casual sex scene,
Or the one where they take drugs or sniff some glue,
When the Bible Belt thinks holding hands is obscene,
And you shouldn’t drink until you’re twenty-two?

What does it take to write a YA classic –
A novel that will last from year to year –
When every word’s immediately Jurassic,
And this week's trash was last week's hot idea?

It’s sad, so sad: it’s a sad, sad generation -
With jocks and dorks and geeks and chavs and nerds.
It’s sad, so sad – why can’t they just talk English?
It always seems to me,
That YA seems to be the hardest word.

When your book's too long
But you're still going strong
It's trilogy!
When your deadline's tight
With no end in sight
It's hard to bear:
Just split it in three parts and no one will care.

When you're almost through
With volume two
That's trilogy!
When there's one big scrap
Right across the map
It's hard to see
How you're going to end it - leave that till part three.

Going round the bend
Tying up loose ends
That's trilogy!
If in any doubt
You can just sign out
With three sure-fire things:
Someone dies or gets hitched or turns out to be king...

Trilogy! That's trilogy! ... [to fade]

You’ve been my agent now for six long years,
You’ve sold my rights from Norway down to Spain,
And the moment you’re back from Bologna
I wanna hear you on the phone again.

You say I’m a cert for the next big prize –
Then it all goes quiet
And I dry my eyes,
And it's me you need to show,
How deep is my book?

How deep is my book?
How deep is my book?
I really need to learn,
'Cause we’re living in a world of Faulks,
Putting us down
When they all should let us be.
There's nothing easy ‘bout the ABC.

I believe in you:
You’ve ten percent of my very soul.
When people ask if I’ll “Write a real book one day”
I just remember your first breathless call.

You may not think I care that much,
But you know deep inside
That I need a crutch.
And it’s me you need to show –
How deep is my book?

How deep is my book?
How deep is my book?
I really need to learn,
'Cause we’re living in a world of Faulks,
Putting us down
When they all should let us be.
There's nothing easy ‘bout the ABC.

La la la laa la la laa la la
La la la laa la la laa la la
Laa laa la la la la laa laa laa la
La la la la la la la laa la la

You tell me to expect some great reviews,
Then it all goes quiet
And I hit the booze.
And it's me you need to show
How deep is my book?

How deep is my book?
How deep is my book?
I really need to learn,
'Cause we’re living in a world of Faulks,
Putting us down
When they all should let us be.
There's nothing easy ‘bout the ABC.

Monday, 31 January 2011

If You Go Down to the Woods - Charlie Butler

I’m not especially generous to charity, but I have a few conscience-lubricating direct debits that go off every month to selected causes. Sometimes, mind, I look at my little list and wonder about my priorities. Next to the cancer charity, and the fund to bring clean water to African villages, the longest-standing of these payments – my monthly contribution to the Woodland Trust – may seem rather trivial. After all, keeping a few broadleaf trees alive isn't quite as morally urgent as stopping a child from contracting cholera, is it?
Indeed not – but neither is morality as a zero-sum game, despite the tendentious arguments of policitians (“Wouldn't you rather we closed your local library than stopped homecare for the elderly? Do you hate old people that much?”). That is a false choice, because understanding and valuing what connects us to nature and to our own history is part of what makes us capable of caring about the other things too. Britain is, historically, an island of forests, and although frighteningly little remains of its ancient woodland, a visceral memory and sense of its importance persists amongst even the most urban of town dwellers. The wild wood, as Alan Garner once put it, is "always at the back of our consciousness. It’s in our dreams and nightmares and fairy tales and folk tales."
It's sometimes said that you can judge a country by the way it treats its prisoners. In children's books, woods and trees can act as a similar touchstone. In C. S. Lewis's The Last Battle, for example, we know things have got really bad when the trees are felled on the order of the False Aslan; while Saruman's willingness to cut down trees to feed his furnaces in The Lord of the Rings is a sure sign of his depravity. By contrast, a love of trees betokens health and moral soundness, whether they grow in Milne's Hundred-Acre Wood, a locus amoenus subject to seasons and weather but never to calendars, clocks or the other impedimenta of downtrodden adulthood; or in the hardier worlds created by Arthur Ransome and BB, whose children find both shelter and challenge under the shade of the greenwood, as Robin Hood did before them. Underlying all these, nestling in the leaf litter, lie our memories of the fairy-tale woods with their witches, wolves and wandering children. Their long roots wind in and out of our dreams, as ineluctably as those of Yggdrassil.
When my father died, I paid the Woodland Trust to protect an acre of woodland in perpetuity. Dad’s patch of earth is in a small wood near Winchester, not far (to bring in a gratuitous children’s literature reference) from the grave of Charlotte Yonge. One autumn day, a few months after his death, our family dedicated his acre by scattering his ashes there, in the furze of a small clearing. The ashes blew about a little (‘Don’t sneeze your grandfather!’ I warned my daughter), but I think the wood accepted our dusty libation. I plan to end up there myself, one day – unless of course it’s been turned into a car park by then. To prevent that happening, either to that acre or to many thousands of others, I urge you to consider signing one or both of these petitions, protesting against the current plans to sell off publicly-owned forest:

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

My Monoglottal Stop - Charlie Butler

It’s shameful, really. Only 3% of books published in the UK in English are translated from other languages. By contrast, in most European countries the equivalent figure is between 30% and 40% - in Finland, 80%. In my travels around Europe over the last year or so I made a point of looking in on the children’s sections of bookshops, and the penetration of English-language books was very noticeable – and not only with the obvious suspects such as Rowling and Dahl. In the UK, however, while you will find classic writers such as Astrid Lindgren (though only the Pippi Longstocking books), Laurent de Brunhoff, Tove Jansson and Hergé, along with a very light sprinkling of contemporary stars such as Cornelia Funke, that really is about it.
Perhaps none of this would matter much if we were able to read foreign books in their original languages, but the British (and the English particularly) are notoriously bad at learning foreign tongues, so that route too is cut off. I’m no better than anyone else in this regard. At school I studied German for seven years, and French for three, and passed my exams with colours that fluttered bravely, even if they didn’t exactly fly. But within a few years the language learning part of my brain had seized up like a piece of neglected machinery. There are odd sprockets and cogs lying about, and a whole storehouse of disassembled facts, but the thought of being able to read an entire book in either of these languages – let alone reading one for pleasure – is a taunting dream.
I’m not proud of this. I come from, and later married into, a family of multi-linguists, and my deficit has always struck me as rather disgraceful. Moreover, as a writer I’m naturally fascinated by my own language, but English is such a mongrel that to be interested in it is necessarily to want to know about the vocabulary, history and grammar of French, German, Latin, Greek... Yet, although I’ve made occasional self-taught forays into Latin (not taught at my school), Welsh and Esperanto, I’ve never climbed further than the foothills of any of them. Whether this is due to lack of talent or of application is a subject of recurrent debate, but either way I don’t see the situation changing any time soon.
What have I lost thereby? As I suggest above, one thing is access to literature published in foreign languages, the vast majority of which is never translated. But I regret still more the slightly-rearranged view of the world that fluency in another language must afford: the chance to experience a sensibility that evolved out of a different history, in which such fundamental concepts as time and agency undergo a subtle tectonic shift, in which new distinctions appear like mountain ranges (‘“neuf” and “nouveau” both mean “new” in different senses! Who would have thought it?’) and others disappear beneath the surface of consciousness (‘They use “porter” for “carry” and “wear”? How on earth do they manage?’). I envy my father, who told me how, when he was a seventeen-year-old cycling across Europe in late August 1939 – not the best time to choose for a cycling holiday, but that’s another story – he stayed the night in a French farmhouse and dreamed, for the first time, in French. Even fifty years later, his excitement and pleasure were still palpable.
Each language holds up to the world a mirror made with a slightly different curvature. I can think of no better training for an imaginative writer than to walk through this linguistic funhouse, peering at oneself and seeing a cast of familiar strangers staring back. This more than anything else is why I regret the fact that, in the universal lottery, I was dealt the card of monoglottery.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Innocent Until Proven Experienced - Charlie Butler

One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons depicts a nursery worker explaining her establishment’s ethos to a pair of prospective parents. “We teach them that the world can be an unpredictable, dangerous and sometimes frightening place,” she says as toddlers play around her feet, “while being careful not to spoil their lovely innocence. It’s tricky.”
That combination of mutually-exclusive demands – teach our children about the world, while keeping them innocent of the world – is one that children’s writers also face, from parents and others. When I talk to adults about children’s literature one of the qualities mentioned most often is that of “innocence”. Books that represent innocence, and especially books that work to preserve innocence in their young readers, are to be applauded. Books that raise unpleasant subjects, or include taboos such as death, sex, violence and abuse are to be treated with suspicion. For teenagers, maybe – but for young children? At the same time, there is a demand that books should have some kind of educative value, teaching children about the world in which they live and preparing them for adult life.
As a matter of fact – and this may seem an embarrassing admission for a children’s writer to make – I’m not at all sure what innocence is. It’s usually discussed as if it were a positive quality, but the only ways it seems to be commonly defined are in terms of a lack: lack of experience, lack of knowledge, lack of adult responsibility, lack of cynicism, heedlessness, perhaps even heartlessness. Perhaps innocence is like Captain Hook’s “good form”: you’re not allowed into Pop until you can prove that you don’t know you’ve got it.
I think that there are two contending ideas about childhood here, ones that go far beyond children’s literature and early-years education. They can be represented by two Biblical texts:
Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven (Mark 10.14)

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face. (I Cor 13.11)

Jesus and St Paul seem here to be singing from different hymn sheets. What are we to make of it? Is growing up a fall from grace, or a consummation to be wished? It may be relevant to remember that St Paul, who I think rather liked the idea of being able to mix it with the Greek philosophers, was addressing a Greek audience. For Greeks such as Aristotle children were simply incomplete adults. Human development was teleological: it had a direction and a goal, that of being a mature (and preferably male) human being. In that context it makes perfect sense to put away childish things, and to associate children with poor spiritual vision. After all, they’re only half finished.
But this Hellenic vision of childhood seems quite incompatible with the one articulated by Jesus, which reverses the direction of travel and says that one must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven. These opposing visions have coexisted uneasily throughout the last two thousand years. You can watch them contending in all sorts of places. For those of us interested in the history of language, it’s enlightening to see how individual words can become a battle-ground. “Silly,” for example, is now a pejorative – but in Elizabethan English it means something much closer to “inexperienced”, while in older forms yet it means “blessed” or “holy” (as modern German selig still does). That particular word, we might say, has fallen prey to the Pauline vision of childhood. “Innocent” is at the centre of a similar tussle. We like children to be innocent, and in law innocent is the desirable opposite of guilty; but no one wants to be considered an innocent. That would be to be thought ... well, silly.
As the nursery worker said: it’s tricky. But it might help if I had a better idea of what innocence actually was.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Acknowledgements - Charlie Butler

I know from the experience of having written about Acknowledgements elsewhere that most people who read this post are going to disagree with me. So I’ll say it up front: this is just my personal preference, I’m not judging anyone, and I’m happy to contemplate the possibility that I may even be, yes, wrong. Nevertheless, I can’t help clinging to the feeling that I may also be a bit right.
I don’t much care for Acknowledgements pages in novels.
There, I’ve said it.
If I seem a little nervous, it’s because when I mentioned this in another forum some time ago, I was surprised by the visceral ferocity of the reaction. More than one person accused me of wanting to ban the things (which I certainly don’t). Another devoutly hoped that I was joking. Yet another declared my preference “bizarre”. Altogether there was something defensive about the comments I received, as if I were somehow sneering at people who like Acknowledgements.
It’s easy to forget that Acknowledgements pages haven’t always been around, so quickly have they become entrenched. In the old days – by which I mean 15 years ago – novels generally appeared with an author’s name, maybe a dedication, and possibly (if it was a historical, say), a technical note explaining what liberties had been taken with history or geography. By contrast, the full-blown Acknowledgements page will detail all the editors, friends, family and chance acquaintances who may have had a hand in providing inspiration, coffee, good advice, and so on. Often the page will be fleshed out into something like a mini-essay on “The Making of This Book”, in the manner of a DVD extra, replete with reminiscences about the people and incidents that contributed to its writing.
So, why don’t I care for Acknowledgements pages? What could be my problem with such a generous-spirited recognition of the undisputed fact that, with any book, the material doesn't originate entirely within the writer's own head? Why shouldn’t the beta readers and editors and long-suffering spouses have their moment in the sun? There are two main reasons for my preference, one perhaps more respectable than the other. (And let me repeat that this is just an account of how I react, not a model for others to follow.)
The less respectable reason – to get it out of the way – is that, in some hands, Acknowledgements can feel a bit breathless and Oscar-speech-ish. Or they can become a rather cloying round of log-rolling and mutual admiration between members of tight literary coteries. But this doesn’t apply to all, or even most, of them. Most are heartfelt and gracious.
The (arguably) more respectable reason is that Acknowledgements tend to throw me out of the fictional world by reminding me that it’s all made up. Of course I do know this anyway, but I don’t like to be reminded of it the minute I’ve read FINIS. I’m aware that this is not an entirely consistent reaction. I don’t mind at all when actors come on at the end of a play to take a bow, for example – but the “Making of this Book” approach feels more like a magician explaining how the trick he’s just performed was done. As a matter of fact I’d be very interested to know how it was done – just as I’m very interested to know how books are written – but I don’t feel the book itself is the place to do it.

In that case, why don’t I just skip the Acknowledgements altogether? Of course, I’m far too nosy to do so (and I’d certainly stay to hear the magician’s explanation). Also, I feel that if something’s designed by the author to sit in the book, it’s because the author feels that reading it will enhance rather than detract from the experience of that book. I don’t like the idea that some parts of a book are optional extras. As a parallel, imagine that it became standard practice for artists to put up a page of Acknowledgements next to their paintings, explaining how they came by the idea for the picture, where they buy their brushes, how their partner encouraged and criticized them, what other painters they admire, etc. All very interesting: all entirely distracting. And imagine that this page was considered part of the painting, to the extent that wherever the painting was to be displayed the Acknowledgements would be displayed too. Would it really be so bizarre to say that, personally, I’d rather that kind of information, fascinating as it is, was kept to the catalogue or a magazine interview? Or that being told to “just ignore it” didn’t quite answer the case?
Finally, I wonder why Acknowledgements pages have become so widespread in fiction? Are they now in fact de rigeur, so that anyone who doesn’t include them will be seen as an egotistical ingrate? And does this mark some kind of epistemic shift, whereby authors are no longer seen as individual artists (in the way that painters and composers still are) but simply as one player in a collaborative art form, more on the lines of a movie scriptwriter? If so, how did that happen?

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Tom Butler's Schooldays - Charlie Butler

I’m not sure if Tom Brown’s Schooldays is much read now. It’s still in print, and I see it in bookshops, but suspect it’s borne along more by the momentum of its own classic status than by any great appetite on the part of readers – at least of child readers. Either way, most people are at least aware of it as the cornerstone of a genre that certainly does remain popular – the school story. (For anyone who thinks the school story’s day died with Angela Brazil, Antonia Forest, Frank Richards and Elinor Brent-Dyer, I invite you to acquaint yourself with the work of J. K. Rowling.) Many of us probably remember too that there is an autobiographical element to the book, Thomas Hughes having attended Dr Arnold’s Rugby just as Tom Brown himself did. Indeed, the first edition was published as being by “an old boy”.
I’ve found my interest in Tom Brown’s Schooldays piqued in recent weeks, as I’ve been reading a rather similar, but in this case wholly autobiographical, text. My great-grandfather, Thomas Butler, first went to the school of Christ’s Hospital as a seven-year-old boy in 1853. (The picture of him above, in the school's Bluecoat uniform, was probably taken a couple of years later.) He stayed until he was fifteen, first at the school for younger boys in Hertford, and afterwards in London. Almost seven decades on, as a retired clergyman, he was asked to record his memories of the place, and this he duly did, in a hefty manuscript. The manuscript was donated to the school in the 1950s, but in return they made a typed copy, running to some 94 pages, and that is the version now on the desk before me, on loan from a kind aunt.
Thomas was not a great stylist, but he had an excellent memory and a strong desire to tell the truth, which are more valuable qualities to anyone wanting to know what life at Christ’s Hospital was really like a 150 years ago. As far as discipline was concerned, it seems to have conformed to every lurid Victorian stereotype. Here, for example, is seven-year-old Thomas on his first day at school, arriving with some other boys at Hertford station:
The journey seemed long. We were met by Mr Ludlow, the Steward of the Hertford School, who spoke as roughly to us as if he had known us for years. From Hertford Station we were marched into the Hall of the Foundation. Several of the lads, to whom discipline was new, were at once caned by Mr Hannum, the head Writing Master, who now entered, to superintend. I was in a terrible funk for I had never seen caning before, and I feared that this ogre would fly upon me. It greatly surprised me that he should wear the same kind of clothes as those worn by my father and family friends, silk hat and frock coat, and it occurred to me that possibly these garments might have a civilizing influence over him and at last conquer his savage nature.
Thomas was soon to learn better:
Dinner was followed by after-meal duty [prayers], and then we were dismissed or occasionally detained to witness a brushing in public. That is a flogging with a birch-rod on the bare back of some sinful boy. The culprit was hung on the back of a beadle, and another beadle furrowed the flesh with the rod. ... During a brushing if the one who was chastised groaned from excessive pain, the boys who witnessed involuntarily cried "shame". The beadle in pity gave less vigorous strokes. Then Mr Ludlow called to him, "Do your duty, Sir," and if the beadle became loath, took the rod out of the beadle's hand and administered the strokes himself.
Mr Hawkins, by way of punishment, gave a great many titches, that is, canings on the seat of the trousers pulled tight over the form [bench]. Occasionally he gave a brushing (birching). Selecting one of the lads, he would cross-examine him upon some trifle in such a manner that the scholar would, through nervousness, unwittingly contradict himself and apparently tell a lie. Then the guilty one was strapped to a form, and brushed for several minutes, Mr Hawkins, throughout the performance, loudly bewailing his hard lot in having so painful a duty to perform.
That’s just a taster. Talking of which, there was also the food...
As to the quality of the bread, unhappily its flavour was not like that of the "luxent" (enjoyable) bread sold in the shops outside. Some of the breads contained cockroaches, and the search for them was not always successful. When not so, one's two middle upper teeth felt something slippery resisting their pressure. This was the thin but strong coat of a cockroach, and the teeth were set on edge. Once, only once, in my experience, a boy found a mouse in his bread. He took it to Mr Ludlow, thinking this the proper thing to do. Mr Ludlow, however, was waxy, and expressing no sorrow on account of the shocking death of late Mr Mouse, nor any pity for the poor hungry child before him, said testily, "I didn't make the bread, what do you come to me for?"
Mr Ludlow, during dinner, walked about the Hall, and if any Nurse or boy wished to speak to him, now was the opportunity. A lad, for example, complained to him that the meat was high. Mr Ludlow tasted it, spat it out of his mouth, and said it was very good.
The poor lads were always hungry. Some would beg for orange peel and even pick it up from the sandy Ward floor, make it clean, and devour it. ... Cold and hunger, caused by want of nourishing food, gave us various complaints. All the tips of my fingers festered, and were full of yellow pus, and a thumbnail came off; my eyelids stuck together in my sleep and when I opened my eyes several lashes came out.
But along with all this there were pleasures, such as the joy of being ill:
The boys were very happy in the Sick Ward, and would have liked to live there always. There was delicious wholesome food, kind nurses, a warm comfortable room, a long table at which I read Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" and some good evangelical tracts. I liked the tracts, and thought that "Pickwick Papers" was a charmingly amusing book. The title page was missing, and I wondered who wrote it.
And much that was frankly bizarre:
Dr Stone once gave me a sudden sharp pain, but I had no doubt that he did so for my own good, and I was interested in his treatment. According to the instruction of my nurse, I lay on my back on the counterpane of my bed with my body bare and near the foot of the bed. I compared myself to a little balloon. Dr Stone, as he passed, gave the front of my body a sudden vigorous smack, and without any pause, continued to walk on to the door of the Ward, and went out.
Mr Keymer occasionally preached a funeral sermon. That was when a boy died. It was called "a jolly sermon" for it pleased the children to hear him speak kind words of the departed. I never heard the word "jolly" used at Christ's Hospital except on this occasion.
Sometimes you must go questing to the Hesperides for the apple of inspiration: sometimes it falls into your lap. It may even, on occasion, be lent by an aunt. What’s to be done with Tom Butler’s Schooldays? I’ve been transcribing some of the highlights from the memoir, which can be read here; and further extracts will follow in the days to come. But I’d love to do something more with the world young Thomas has revealed, the children who inhabited it, and particularly the strange array of teachers, as odd and irascible a bunch as ever stalked the corridors of Greyfriars or Hogwarts.

Monday, 2 August 2010

5 Mythical Hero(in)es - Charlie Butler

There are so many heroes and heroines from myth to choose from that this is a difficult pick to make. I'm not big on muscle-bound types like Hercules, but even ruling those out there's an embarrassment of heroic riches on offer...
1) Theseus was my first big hero, not least because in the version I read he was actually a small hero, a little guy who used his brain to turn his enemies’ strength against them. “Would you be kind enough to show me exactly how you bend a pine?” indeed! They deserved all they got. On mature reflection, mind, I did feel a bit sorry for the Minotaur, and went off Theseus big-time after he caddishly abandoned Ariadne on Naxos. In fact, the latter part of his career was much less glamorous than the beginning. If I were choosing a hero of the crafty type today I’d probably go for Odysseus (not that his behaviour on Greek islands was much better, from the fidelity point of view), but I keep Theseus on this list for old times’ sake. He probably should never have crossed Medea.
2) Medea is the ultimate bad girl of Greek mythology, but I think she’s had a very unfair press. We only ever see her passing through as a player in other people’s stories, but she deserves to have her own told (and it’s one of my long-held ambitions to tell it). She starts off as the daughter of Aeëtes, owner of the Golden Fleece - not an easy man to live with. Then the Argonauts arrive, and she helps Jason, er, fleece him. She's abandoned by Jason for another woman, despite having rejuvenated his father Aeson with a magic bath – the ingrate! Finally she marries Aegeus and becomes queen of Athens, only to be forced to flee yet again by that young upstart Theseus. Okay, the way the stories tell it she’s usually painted as the villain – sacrificing her brother, murdering her children, trying to poison Theseus, etc., but I admire her energy and her never-say-die attitude. Of all the women in Greek myth, Medea is the one with the highest quotient of that Hollywood-beloved quality, feistiness. Last seen flying a dragon-drawn chariot in the general direction of Asia Minor...
3) Gwion Bach/Taliesin. There was a toss-up for this spot between Gwion and Merlin, two rather similar figures, but I decided to plump for the boy from Borth, whose supposed grave is pictured above. I admire Little Gwion for making the best of a very unpromising beginning. As a child he was the servant of the witch Ceridwen, who left him to stir a broth designed to give wisdom to her own oafish son – a richer brew than Solomon ever swam salmon in. Inevitably he imbibed a few drops himself, realized he was in danger from his mistress, and ran away. Thus began a shape-shifting chase which ended with Ceridwen (in the form of a hen) eating Gwion (who’d been foolish enough to take the form of a grain of corn). For most witches’ apprentices that would have been the end. But Gwion managed to be reborn nine months later as Taliesin, in which form he went on to become a famous, if somewhat self-congratulatory, poet. Great stuff there from the boy Gwion.
4) Vasilisa the Beautiful, despite the sappy name, is another of my heroines. Not only did she manage to get on the right side of the Baba Yaga (who gave a her a lantern made from a human skull as a present – sweet!), but she kept house at the hut with chicken legs without having to wear her own fingers to the bone, by leaving the grunt work to a robot doll. Add to that the immolation of her unpleasant step-relations, and you have a heroine who’s more than just a pretty face.
5) Cúchulainn. Well, there’s much to admire about Cúchulainn, “the Irish Achilles”, but I like him best for his goofy aspects, such as the fact that he had to work as a watchdog for a year after he killed someone’s hound; or that the only way to stop him killing his own side when in his battle fury was to send 150 naked women out to meet him. As Lady Gregory describes the scene: “When the boy saw the women coming, there was shame on him, and he leaned down his head into the cushions of the chariot, and hid his face from them. And the wildness went out of him, and his feasting clothes were brought, and water for washing; and there was a great welcome before him.” Embarrassment is such a great way to keep unruly teens in line! Finally, there was the tragic fact that he had two contradictory geasa laid on him: one, never to eat dog, and the other never to refuse any meat offered him by a woman. Of course, the first time he was offered a burger made out of a West Highland terrier he knew he was a dead man. As a former fussy eater myself, I sympathise.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Please Look After this Bear - Charlie Butler

Immigration is a hot political topic at the moment, both here and in the States. In the wake of recent immigration laws in Arizona, which many see as legitimizing racial profiling, the image above gained a certain notoriety. It's shocking because Dora the Explorer, the inquisitive Latina created by Nickelodeon, lives in a world that is not only geographically imprecise (is she Mexican? American? South American? Her makers are careful not to say), but blissfully free of violence, or even significant conflict. For all her exploring, Dora will never have to scale a 14-foot metal fence on the north shore of the Rio Grande. To put her face on a mug shot is thus a grimly-effective way of saying, "This is what 'Homeland Security' really means." Dora may seem out of place here; but she also reminds us that a good many of the immigrants, refugees and displaced persons in the world are children.

The poster works, in fact, by crossing another kind of border - the border between Dora's safe world and the decidedly dangerous one inhabited by many of her viewers. No one goes to Dora the Explorer looking for life at its seamiest; for many, indeed, her adventures may offer welcome escape. This isn't, of course, to make a case for children as innocents whose minds must never be intruded upon by real-life unpleasantnesses. Children's books have frequently taken on difficult topics - and novels such as Gaye Hicyilmaz's Smiling for Strangers, to name just one, deal realistically with the hardship and prejudice faced by children who find themselves living as illegal immigrants.

However, the republic of children's literature has many provinces. Elsewhere, particularly in the regions of the fantastic, different rules have tended to apply. Many fantasy stories involve long quests and journeys between different lands and even worlds; but these journeys are seldom conceived of in terms of immigration, legal or otherwise. Did Lucy Pevensie obtain a visa to enter Narnia? I'm afraid not, even if her brother Edmund got official permission to send for the rest of the family. ("You let one Son of Adam in, and before you know it they're running the country!") Similarly, Frodo Baggins spent a long time finding ways to sneak into Mordor, a very determined immigrant indeed. The Black Gate would have put even the Department of Homeland Security to shame; but Tolkien is unlikely to have seen it in quite those terms.

Closer to our own world, Paddington Bear's adventures often involve minor brushes with officialdom, but on his initial journey from Peru to England an absence of immigration papers doesn't seem to have been a problem. A simple luggage label was sufficient; or perhaps he just gave the immigration officer a Hard Stare? Then again, perhaps Peruvian immigration just wasn't such an issue in 1958. The past, after all, is another country.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Childish Things - Charlie Butler

Exhibit A: One of the more annoying adverts I've seen on buses in the Bristol area was paid for by my own university. A few years ago, they tried to attract students with the slogan "Real life starts here!" The implication, I suppose, being that childhood is merely a kind of marking time, a training on the (literal) nursery slopes for real - that is, adult - life.

Exhibit B: an official sign spotted recently affixed to a local lamppost: "Do not feed the seagulls. They annoy people and children."

What is one to make of it all? That children are but half-formed adults, and childhood meaningful only in so far as it points the way to better things ahead? What could be more calculated to make one march down the street shouting "Children are human beings too!"? This attitude affects children's writers as well, who are notoriously grouchy at being asked when they are going to start writing "real" books - that is, books for real people - that is, for adults.

Prompted by all this, I've been thinking about the ways children's books portray the transition from childhood to adulthood, and I've come up with one of my trademark taxonomies:

1) Avoid it! This subdivides into two categories:

a) The School of Death. From Helen Burns to Leslie Burke, there are heroes and heroines (the latter rather more than the former) who have cheated adulthood by dying before it could get its clammy grey hands on them.

b) Supernatural Solutions. Peter Pan is the obvious example here. But of course, he is a slightly tragic figure, who can stay a child only at the cost of forgetting people and events, and by being excluded for ever from the embrace of a mother. I might mention Pippi Longstocking, too, who at the end of Pippi in the South Seas gives herself, Tommy and Annika a pill that should keep them children for ever. Alas, for jaded adult readers this is clearly a case of whistling to keep her spirits up. The book closes with Pippi blowing out the single candle that sits on the table before her, and we all know what that means.

2) Accept it as a painful necessity. This is the Christopher Robin solution. We much prefer childhood, but there's nothing to be done, and so we must reluctantly leave the Hundred Acre Wood behind. Sometimes, we might hint to those still on the near shore of childhood that it's not so bad when it comes to it (Peter Pevensie says something on those lines when explaining to his younger siblings that he'll never be able to return to Narnia) but while we appreciate the thought, we don't believe a word of it.

3) Celebrate it! This approach is appealingly optimistic, but can sail awfully close to the dismissive attitude towards childhood with which I began. Perhaps the classic instance in modern chidren's literature is Philip Pullman's Northern Lights and its sequels, in which the old polarity which saw childhood as an idyllic time likely to be ruined by the onset of puberty was reversed, and Lyra's entrance into sexuality was shown quite literally to save the universe. (Caveat lector: losing your virginity isn't always that cosmically significant.) But I was bothered by an exchange in the first book, in which the "settling" of a person's daemon was explained in terms of discovering "the kind of person you are". The implication that children have shifting, unformed personalities (even feisty Lyra?), and that adults are "settled" from puberty onward in an unchanging and unchangeable form, seems pretty insulting to both parties, and not much like life as I, at any rate, have experienced it.

Which leaves me with my favourite category, which is that of the books whose authors recognize that "growing up" isn't an event, even an extended one, that takes place some in one's teens, or when one leaves for Prep school, or decides one is ready to sleep outside the Nursery. It's a lifelong process, carried out on many different levels, and different rates, and sometimes in different directions. I won't list all the books that do this, because luckily there are quite a few, and they don't tend to be seen as books that are "about growing up " at all. But, because I don't want to leave the category entirely empty, let me just say that hallowed name of Tove Jansson (whether writing for children or for adults) and leave it at that.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Not in Front of the Children? Charlie Butler

So, what’s taboo in children’s books these days? Not sex – at least, not to anything like the same extent as it used to be. Bogeys and farts are virtually de rigeur on some shelves of the bookshop. Even death – which, having been a regular feature of Victorian children’s books was hustled from sight when I was growing up, in both books and life – has more recently been treated with full-frontal honesty in children’s books for all ages, from John Burningham’s Granpa and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia to Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book. What’s left? Drugs? Check. Homelessness? Check. War? The Holocaust? Check. Check. Emotional, sexual and physical abuse? Check, check, check. Very little seems to be out of bounds.
What about party politics? They hardly ever appear in children’s books - but maybe it’s because children find them dull rather than because they’re taboo as such? Oliver Postgate famously marked the General Election of October 1974 with an appropriate episode of The Clangers, but I’m not sure it was as thrilling a coup for his young viewers as it was fun for the grown-ups. William Brown once took part in an election too, designating himself a Conservative – but again, more for the amusement of Crompton’s adult readers than William’s own contemporaries. (I don’t remember the name of the story, though – can anyone help?) Budget Tuesdays, when men in suits sat discussing Income Tax and the IMF right where children’s afternoon television ought to have been, were an annual bane of my childhood during the channel-starved 1970s. The idea of having to read about such things too – and for fun! – would have appalled me.
It's not that politics in a wider sense have no place. There are plenty of books for children (both fiction and non-fiction) that deal, and in quite “messagey” ways, with the politics of the environment, or nuclear war, or race relations. They do get read, and few people seem to object to their existence very fiercely – but I suspect that would change should they declare any explicit alignment with a political party. That does appear to be taboo.
I well remember the outrage from parents when one of my primary school teachers – a keen Liberal, whom we will call Mrs H – “accidentally” scattered political leaflets on all our desks in the run up to that same 1974 election. I think she escaped serious trouble (it was a world with fewer disciplinary procedures than now, and more quiet words) but words were definitely said. I’m glad she got away with it, especially as she later taught me to use an air rifle – a source of much innocent pleasure. But for goodness' sake, what possessed you to do such a thing, Mrs H?
Didn’t you realise we wouldn’t give a monkey's?

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Support Your Local Serif - Charlie Butler

There’s been some behind-the-scenes conversation at ABBA Towers in recent days about the fonts we like to use when writing. Perpetua, Times New Roman, Calibri, Hoefler Text, Kristen ITC, Comic Sans MS, Garamond and even good old Courier have had their champions. Personally I’m still a longhand kid, which means that I favour Biro Scrawl 12pt for my first drafts. When it comes to writing things up I tend to default to Times New Roman, though I’ve been known to flirt with Garamond when TNR was looking the other way.
Does the choice of font matter? Certainly, it can help set the mood. A fun-loving, bouncy font may engender a book with the same qualities. Conversely my Garamondian flings have tended to coincide with attempts at historical writing, appropriate to that time-honoured typeface. If I ever wanted to set a story in the office of a hardboiled L.A. private eye, I’d be seriously tempted to write it in typewriterish Courier. Fonts are useful in editing, too. As Penny Dolan pointed out in a previous ABBA post, a change of font can be an effective distancing technique, helping writers achieve the necessary detachment from their own words.
If fonts matter to writers, they’re no less important to readers. Would the US Declaration of Independence, for example, have been taken as seriously had it been printed in Courier, Boopee or Planet Benson 2? That the answer is "No" I hold to be self-evident. Publishers (with or without the cooperation of authors) spend a good deal of time agonizing over choices of font, just as they do over covers, strap lines and everything else that goes to make a book the memorably sensuous and tactile experience that it is.
This may be changing, however. With the advent of e-books and other new technologies, readers are likely to have more control than before over the appearance and “feel” of the books they read, choosing their own fonts and layouts according to personal comfort and taste. Arguably this is to be celebrated as a democratization of art, a welcome shift in power from producer to consumer. But how far we can push this idea? Does it matter if we prefer Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Photoshopped into a different shade of yellow – or maybe pink? Perhaps we wish to hear Beethoven’s 5th in A minor instead of C minor? Or shall we watch The Battleship Potemkin in colour? Digital technology is there to oblige. This is all very exhilarating, but Van Gogh chose his palette, and Beethoven his key, for reasons that seemed good – and perhaps fundamental – to them. Who is to say which aspects of a work of art are “essential” and which mere “decoration”? When it comes to books, whose is the last word?