Showing posts with label catherine butler. Show all posts
Showing posts with label catherine butler. Show all posts

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

“She Will Remember Being Me, But What She is I Cannot See” – Catherine Butler

Me - a fairly recent sighting

“Look, you middle-aged creep, when are you going to stop pestering me with these pompous letters and get on with your own boring life?”

I’ve never been a big fan of those “Letter to my younger self” articles you sometimes see in the magazines. I’m sure they don’t mean to, but when read through the filter of my resentful teenage self (a filter ever wondrously to hand), they come across as patronising and smug. “Having achieved a state of Bodhisattva-style enlightenment and encompassed all the ambitions that to you are as yet distant dreams, I have taken time out of my day to bestow on you the inestimable benefit of my wisdom and experience. Be happy and rejoice, young one, for one day you will turn into me!”

I’m sure that’s not what the authors have in mind, but to my teenage ears (more mulish even than Bottom’s were asinine), that’s what they seem to say. Had I received such a letter, I imagine that I would have replied very much in the terms sketched out at the top of this post. (Surprisingly few writers have noticed this inter-generational to-and-fro, but I recommend the opening section of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, which features a spirited exchange between the middle-aged narrator and the boy he used to be, as a model of its kind.)

I’ve mellowed a bit over the years, and these days feel far more kindly toward my future self, who by now has become quite elderly. I don’t wish to speak of her harshly, let alone scold her for sending pontificating letters. It’s just her way, I say, sotto voce. Everyone likes to feel useful, after all. Smile, nod and ignore. How I’ve changed!

Thoughts of the past and future are particularly appropriate today, because, after 10 eventful years and about 120 posts, this will be my final (regular) appearance as an ABBA blogger. It’s a wrench, but I’ve just become the editor of an academic journal (Children’s Literature in Education), and that’s a time-consuming occupation for someone who already has a day job. Something had to give. (Oh! Oh! I also have a coruscating book forthcoming: Literary Studies Deconstructed: A Polemic. Do rush out and buy it, if only for old time’s sake.)

I’ll still be blogging, though! Feel free to come and see me on the Livejournal/Dreamwidth blog, “Don’t Eat With Your Mouth Full,” where I go by the name of Steepholm, a tribute to the island that inspired Calypso Dreaming. I’ve been on that blog even longer than this one… And of course, I’ll still be reading and commenting here. So, altogether I don’t feel (as Pepys did in his last entry) that “I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave.” Wring out those hankies and wave them instead!

I’ve been browsing through my past entries and wondering which might constitute a kind of ABBA Top Three to leave you with; but these things are very subjective, so in the end I’ve chosen just one – simply because it’s also a useful resource for any children’s writers who happen to find themselves in the 1960s after a Life on Mars-style time-slip mishap.

Bookmark the Amazing Patented Title Generator: you may need it. 

Sunday, 11 March 2018

No! Time, Thou Shalt Not Boast That I Do Change - Catherine Butler

Children’s books are among the most likely to be “updated” to reflected current social mores. Many of us can probably cite books that have been changed in this way, for example to remove racist language or change words now seen as unacceptable for other reasons. Even Enid Blyton’s unintentionally risqué Dick and Fanny from The Magic Faraway Tree were muted to Rick and Frannie; and poor Titty Walker from Swallows and Amazons was unceremoniously renamed after a root vegetable in the 2016 film version.  It happens.

Other kinds of updating, though, are differently motivated. It sometimes happens that I’ll be reading a modern edition of a book first published in, say, the 1940s or ’50s and clearly set in that period, only to hit my shins on a reference to someone spending “10p” on  a snack. “Why are they using decimal currency in a pre-1971 world?” I wonder, startled by the fictional world’s sudden incoherence, before realising that of course it’s the work of some modern editor, smoothing the path of young readers as assiduously as any sweeper in an Olympic curling squad by ensuring that they never bump into unfamiliar terms or concepts. If a child today were to read a reference to “two shillings” they might not know what it means – and this, apparently, would be a disaster. The thought of children not understanding is strangely unsettling to some publishers; but as Diana Wynne Jones once noted, “children are used to not knowing”. Coming across new information in a book is neither an unusual event for a child, nor something likely to ruin the experience. They might even learn something that way.

Not all inconsistencies of this kind are introduced by publishers, though. What about the ones that come from writers themselves? It happens most often with long-running series. William Brown remained the same age for decades, even as the world around him changed – much like Bart Simpson more recent years. Of course, I understand the reasons – being ten years old is the essence of both characters, but their authors didn’t want their surroundings to look old fashioned to contemporary readers. Still, am I the only one who finds it a little hard to process? Who gets the occasional bout of existential vertigo?

Perhaps we can make a special case for the Williams, Barts and Dennis the Menaces (or Dennises the Menace?) of this world. But what about series that have a real forward movement, in which characters get older, but that still introduce changes of this kind? Take Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe books, which I’ve just been rereading with great pleasure. In the first, The Children of Green Knowe (1954), the protagonist, Tolly, is seven years old. In the second, The Chimneys of Green Knowe (1958), set just a few months later, he is mysteriously nine. Whether other people have noticed this “error” I don’t know, but I think it may have something to do with the four-year gap between the two books: Tolly’s age is running to catch up with that of his readers.

The series was concluded by The Stones of Green Knowe in 1976, some 22 years after it began. In that book Tolly is still a child, but he is described in a way that suggests he is dressed in the 1970s standard of jeans (it’s hard to be sure because the point of view is that of a boy from the house’s Norman past): “He was dressed in tight trousers of something like blue linen but very faded and patched in different colours.” I can see why Boston might have wanted to make the book feel contemporary, but especially in a story about time slips it’s disconcerting to find that we have segued unannounced from the 1950s to the ’70s, but that the main child character has not aged – or, at any rate, not by 20 years.

Some school writers keep their characters the same age perpetually: Billy Bunter is always the Fat Owl of the Remove, for example. Others, from Elinor Brent-Dyer to Enid Blyton, made their characters get older, by following them through their school careers. This was also of course the route taken by J. K. Rowling, but Rowling arguably innovated in keeping pace with her target audience in the style of her writing: the first Potter book may be suitable for 11-year-olds, but the last is very much YA. One golden generation at least, born around 1986, was coaeval with Harry Potter and was able to read about him more or less in “real time”. (True, Harry’s seven years at Hogwarts took ten years to appear in print, but let’s not split hairs.) An even more hardcore application of the same technique is Alan Garner’s Boneland (2012), the final book in his Alderley trilogy about siblings Colin and Susan, begun more than half a century earlier with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960). Just as J. K. Rowling made her Harry Potter books grow ‘older’ with the ageing of her protagonist, so Garner too – but to a far more extreme degree – had Colin grow, into a man in late middle age, the protagonist of a book unlikely to enjoyed by anyone but adults. If you were the right age for the Weirdstone when it came out, you may have been the right age for Boneland too, 52 years later. But it’s an extreme solution.

An alternative strategy is to let the calendar run, and to move the story’s focus from one fictional generation of children to the next. For example, Susan Cooper’s The Boggart (1993) and The Boggart and the Monster (1998) told of the eponymous creature’s adventures with a family of Canadian visitors to Scotland. In her recent and very enjoyable The Boggart Fights Back (2018), however, the child protagonists of the earlier books, Emily and Jess Volnik, have grown up, and the adventure introduces a new pair of children, Allie and Jay. The antagonist of The Boggart Fights Back is a vulgar, self-praising American tycoon called Trout, who wants to build a golf resort on the Scottish coast, which makes it feel quite contemporary in ways that for the moment I can’t quite put my finger on… There is no sign that Mr Trout has presidential ambitions, so perhaps after all this book is just a little bit behind the times – but it must have been very cathartic to write!

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Notes from the Cellarage - Catherine Butler

People have been writing histories of children’s literature for many decades, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s only in the last forty years that it has taken off as a subject of literary criticism. The primary reason for the late start is, I suppose, the belief of people before our own enlightened age that children’s books are simple and self-explanatory; in any case, it meant that in 1963, when Frederick Crews decided to write a “casebook” of essays by fictional academics, parodying various critical approaches popular at the time, he was able to choose Winnie-the-Pooh as his central text, confident that the very idea of paying Pooh scholarly attention would warrant a chuckle.

The Pooh Perplex was an instant and deserved satirical classic, and remains a must for anyone who studied English at university, especially if they are of an age to have encountered old-school Leavisites (“Another Book to Cross Off Your List”), classical Marxists (“A Bourgeois Writer’s Proletarian Fables”), Christian humanists (“O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh”) and the rest. What reader of Wayne C. Booth could forget “Paradoxical Persona: The Hierarchy of Heroism in Winnie-the-Pooh”, with its invaluable coinages, the “Milnean Voice” and the “Christophoric Ear”?

The Pooh Perplex had one odd side effect. As the real-life study of children’s literature began in earnest in the decades after its publication, Winnie-the-Pooh itself was oddly neglected. No one wanted to sound like one of Crews’s professors, after all. It was as if The Pooh Perplex had salted the critical earth around the Hundred Acre Wood. One important early critic, John Rowe Townsend, suggested that the book was an appropriate site for parody because there was little to say about it: “for all his rotundity, Pooh … is one-dimensional”. But this is special pleading, surely?

The shadow of Frederick Crews looms over children’s literature criticism to this day. It was much on my mind a few years ago, when I made what seemed – momentarily – an amazing discovery in the opening paragraphs of The Wind in the Willows. Let me remind you how that book begins:

The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!’ till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.
“This is fine!” he said to himself. “This is better than whitewashing!” The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout.

I happened to read this passage shortly after reading Hamlet, and was struck by the fact that both texts use the unusual word “cellarage” – and in connection with moles, too! I’m sure you remember the battlement scene:

Ghost cries under the stage.
Ghost. Swear.
Ham. Aha boy, say’st thou so? Art thou there, truepenny?
Come on! You hear this fellow in the cellarage.
Consent to swear.
Ham. Well said, old mole! Canst work i’ th’ earth so fast?
A worthy pioneer!

I can’t prove it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, when writing about a Mole, the word “cellarage” rose quite naturally to the top of Kenneth Grahame’s well-read mind, thanks to his familiarity with Hamlet. At that point I should no doubt have moved on; but fatally I lingered, and the longer I looked, the more the parallels rained down upon me. For a start, the Ghost of Old Hamlet commands the soldiers to swear; and the first thing we see Grahame’s Mole do is swear: “Bother!”, “O blow!” and “Hang spring-cleaning!”

Coincidence, perhaps? More importantly, spring-cleaning is a powerful metaphor for the torment old Hamlet is going through in Purgatory – a place where souls as black as a mole’s fur are forced to purify (or “whitewash”) themselves in torment, choking on dust and tortured with what Grahame so aptly calls “divine discontent”. As Crews’s C. J. L. Culpepper (author of “O Felix Culpa”) might have put it: ask not, what is the “Something Up Above” that calls to Mole so “imperiously”; ask rather, Who.

At this point I feel I have already made an unanswerable case, but for any stiff-necked readers out there, note what happens when the ghost of old Hamlet emerges onto the battlements of Elsinore. He is immediately questioned by Horatio:

Hor. What art thou that usurp’st this time of night
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee speak!
Mar. It is offended.
Ber. See, it stalks away!
Hor. Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee speak!
Exit Ghost.
Mar. ‘Tis gone and will not answer.

Equally, when Mole emerges from his tunnel, he is at once challenged by a sentry in the form of an elderly rabbit, who demands sixpence for the use of the private road – only to get a very similar brush off:

He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about.

Truly, when two such inexhaustible texts lie down together, litter upon litter of dissertations and conference papers will surely follow. There are the travelling field-mice players, for example, whom the Mole attempts to engage for who knows what ulterior purposes of his own, but suffice it to say that their play is replete with lovers getting themselves to nunneries and misbegotten sea voyages, and is violently interrupted. Shades of “The Mousetrap”, indeed!

“They act plays too, these fellows,” the Mole explained to the Rat. “Make them up all by themselves, and act them afterwards. And very well they do it, too! They gave us a capital one last year, about a field-mouse who was captured at sea by a Barbary corsair, and made to row in a galley; and when he escaped and got home again, his lady-love had gone into a convent. Here, you! You were in it, I remember. Get up and recite a bit.”
The field-mouse addressed got up on his legs, giggled shyly, looked round the room, and remained absolutely tongue-tied. His comrades cheered him on, Mole coaxed and encouraged him, and the Rat went so far as to take him by the shoulders and shake him; but nothing could overcome his stage-fright.

Do I protest too much? Perhaps; but I’d be tempted to work this up into a proper academic article if I didn’t have Frederick Crews’s bevy of fictional academics always at the back of my mind, to fright me from such excursions.

Perhaps, after all, that’s just as well.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair! – Catherine Butler

Shelley’s traveller had his vast and trunkless legs of stone. Today, authors have second-hand bookshops.

It’s always bittersweet to find one’s own books being sold second hand. Nothing puts the ‘Ex” into “Ex Libris” like finding a story into which one poured a good portion of one’s soul on sale for pennies, but when it’s a presentation copy it coats the bitter pill in wormwood icing. I don’t want to say it’s exactly like seeing one’s own child being put up for adoption, but there’s a smack of that.

So anyway, I came across Death of a Ghost (2006) in the local Oxfam, and on opening it got the shock of dull surprise I always feel when I encounter my own handwriting in an unexpected place. There was my friendly dedication to a local school, written – I now remembered – during a visit there some ten years ago. My first instinct was to be a little offended that they had given the book away, but then I looked at the plate where all the library stamps should be, and got snow blindness:

My Badge of Shame

It seemed that no one had taken it out in all its ten years. At least I could comfort myself that it hadn’t been read and found wanting, but not to have been read at all? Is that really better?

I bought it, of course, and hurried it home, certain that every passer-by was looking at me and muttering “unsuccessful author” under their breath.

Ahem. That was all I had to say, really, but, looking at my watch, it seems I still have a few minutes left, so while I’m here, why don’t we lighten the mood by looking at a couple of other inscriptions in my possession?

Here’s one it took me over a year to obtain. This particular book belonged to my great-great-great-great grandfather, Weeden Butler. It is inside a copy of the clergyman William Dodd's Thoughts in Prison, which Weeden (who was Dodd’s amanuensis) helped copy and publish after Dodd was hanged for forging the Earl of Chesterfield’s signature in 1777 – the last person to be hanged for forgery in England. (If you want to know the rather colourful story of Dodd’s fall from grace, I’ve written about it here.) You can see Weeden’s own stamp, and then in pencil some notes made by his great-grandson Gerard in 1894, including these intriguing lines:

On page 8 is the reference to “Butler - midst a million faithful found”, which in the wave of popular revulsion after Dodd’s execution in 1777 made so much difference to Weeden Butler's fortunes.

At some point after Gerard wrote that mysterious note the book left the family, and I was very pleased to get it back into Butler hands, via an American bookseller.

I have no personal connection with my other example, which I bought second-hand for 75p about 35 years ago. It’s a copy of Dante’s Purgatorio, and the inscription is to one R. F. Gore Browne, dated September 1915. Gore Browne was a prisoner-of-war at the time, being held in an officer’s prison camp at Stralsund on the Baltic Coast. I was struck then, and still am, by what an appropriate gift the Purgatorio must have seemed in such circumstances.

Prompted by writing this blog, I’ve tried to find out a little more about the camp, and discovered an account by an American visitor, written earlier in the year (Gore Browne, a second-lieutenant in the artillery, was already a prisoner by that time). It sounds distinctly more comfortable than the conditions many of his comrades were experiencing on the Front:

The British officers live by themselves, occupying two good sized rooms, nine in one and 18 in the other, there being also one French officer in the larger room, which is partitioned off by wardrobes into three sections. All seemed well and in good spirits, and all were in communication with their friends at home. All agreed in saying that there was no discrimination against them, and none had any material complaint to make. Letters and parcels are received more promptly than they had been at Mainz. The commandant promised to consider their wishes in regard to the use of a special field for cricket. Tennis courts are already in use, and there is a large park in which the officers are permitted to walk.

Here's a picture of the place, taken the same year:

Possible Cricket Field?

In my last ABBA blog I talked about Carrie's War, a book set in the Second World War in which there are no bombs or battles. I like that book for showing a quiet corner of the world in a time of global trauma, and in similar vein it pleases me to think of Lt. Gore Browne spending most of the First World War in relative equanimity (after whatever early action resulted in his capture), playing tennis, or cricket if the commandant proved amenable, reading Dante on rainy days, and watching the war go by from his small island on the Baltic Sea.

What became of Gore Browne afterwards? His book, at least, returned to Blighty, where I eventually bought it. As for the man...

But alas, I have reached the end of my allotted blogging time, and must take my pedalo back to the man with the bag of change. Already I see the next blogger waiting impatiently. Still, perhaps it’s a research project for January?

Do you have any interesting inscriptions in books you own?

Monday, 11 December 2017

Putting on the Blitz - Catherine Butler

Carrie's War, first edition jacket

I recently had the pleasure of teaching Nina Bawden's 1973 novel, Carrie's War, the story of a girl who is evacuated to a south-Welsh village during the Second World War (as Bawden was herself). Carrie’s time in Wales is reasonably eventful: she is billeted with the strict Mr Evans and his kindly but downtrodden sister, and often visits the house of their relative, the wealthy Mrs Gotobed, with whom Mr Evans has a feud. There, Carrie learns of a family legend concerning a cursed skull, which becomes a plot point later in the story.

I won’t stray further into spoiler territory, but instead let me tell you what isn’t in the book. There are no air-raids, no mention of Hitler or Churchill, no news from the front, no prisoners-of-war. The blackout and rationing are both in force, but barely feature. A couple of soldiers appear as minor characters, off-duty, with no talk of combat past or future.

Why then is it called Carrie’s War, you may wonder? Is the war a metaphor for some almighty struggle of another kind that Carrie faces? Perhaps – but I prefer to think that it’s simply Bawden’s way of saying, “Many people spent the war in this undramatic way, and their experience was as real as any other.” The jacket of the first edition of Carrie’s War (above) reflects the quiet nature of the story, and shows Carrie and her younger brother Nick on the platform of the station in Wales where they have just been decanted for the duration.

I was surprised, however, on looking at my own more recent copy, to find quite a different scene.

At one point in Carrie’s War Carrie sees a house on fire from a train window – the result of a domestic accident. The cover of my edition appears to show this conflagration, and a girl - Carrie, presumably – looking back at it. But she's not looking from a train window. She's running from the scene, hurried away by an adult couple for whom the reader will search the book in vain. And, hang on – what’s that in the sky? A bat-signal? No, for some reason this rural, air-raid-free part of Wales is being raked by searchlights! Could it be that they're trying to make it look like an air raid? To make it look, in fact, like the Blitz?

Of course. I forgot. The only thing that happened in Britain during the Second World War was the Blitz. When children “do” the war in school, the Blitz looms large; so everything, even rural Welsh valleys, must be Blitzed up. From 1939-45, houses never burned down for any other reason than aerial bombardment.

Naturally I began to look at some of the book's other jackets, and discovered that the same thing had happened before. Here, for example, is a jacket showing Carrie and Nick, with evacuee-style address labels, next to the Hogwarts Express a steam train:

So far, so un-Blitzy; but steam isn’t very exciting, and other editions show that same beret-wearing Carrie moved to another inferno, this time with added bombers to emphasise the Blitziness.

On a third jacket she has fled (still clutching her suitcase) to the safety of a deserted hillside. Alas, the Luftwaffe has apparently decided that she is a prime military target, and is even now streaming across the sky in pursuit!

The good news for Carrie is that Goering’s planes then apparently lost interest, and went off to strafe Mr Tom instead.

There are of course other covers of Carrie’s War. Several portray her looking meditatively at the skull, à la Hamlet; but my favourites are probably the ones in which she is staring from the canonical train window at the blazing house. In the story she is horrified at the sight, but somehow the book jackets manage to give her the look of a telekinetic arsonist reflecting with malicious satisfaction on a job well done.

Carrie’s War was published in 1973. A mere year later, Stephen King got his big break with Carrie.

It was probably a coincidence, but I’m just saying.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Lost Gardens - Catherine Butler

A Pleasure Dome (not necessarily Kubla Khan's)

What does a pleasure dome look like, once it’s been decreed? In “Kubla Khan”, Coleridge suggests that caves of ice may be a prominent feature, which sounds more impressive than comfortable; but he’s on more conventional ground in describing “gardens bright with sinuous rills, / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree” and “forests ancient as the hills, / Enfolding sunny spots of greenery”. Surely, nothing is more pleasing than to wander woods or parkland as a long summer’s day gives reluctant way to night, and to see its canopy jewelled with coloured lanterns. Just a grove or so away, friends laugh and dance to a hurdy-gurdy. It doesn’t happen often enough.

Vauxhaull Gardens in its Prime
Perhaps it used to happen more, though. I first heard of Vauxhall Gardens when I read Vanity Fair as a student (until then, Vauxhall was just a type of car). The idea of a garden that you could wander round elegantly, listening to music and happening upon charms and splendours at every turn, was enchanting. For Thackeray it was nostalgic, too. He was writing in the 1840s, at which time Vauxhall – after more than a century of such splendours – had recently gone bankrupt. It was briefly revived at the time of the novel’s writing, but this turned out to be no more than a post-mortem spasm, and it would close again, this time for ever, within the decade.

Vauxhall wasn’t alone. Robert, the younger boy in E. Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, at one point compares the city of Tyre (which he and his siblings have visited by magic) to Rosherville, on the grounds that “it’s the place to spend a happy day”. By 1906 Kipling had already made Tyre the epitome of a city whose glories were past (“Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!”), and perhaps Nesbit had that melancholy association in mind in evoking Rosherville Gardens.

But what or where is Rosherville? Ah, you make me sad by asking that question. It was another pleasure garden, in some ways the successor to Vauxhall, and Robert’s remark echoes its slogan. I will quote (via Wikipedia) Robert Hiscock’s A History of Gravesend (1976) on Rosherville’s attractions:

Rosherville Gardens
They were a place of surpassing beauty and a favourite resort of Londoners. Adorned with small Greek temples and statuary set in the cliffs, there were terraces, and archery lawn, Bijou theatre, and Baronial Hall for refreshments, and at one time a lake. At night the gardens were illuminated with thousands of coloured lights and there were fireworks displays and dancing.

Rosherville was hugely popular in the third quarter of the late nineteenth century, but then went into steady decline, and closed in 1901. As with Vauxhall, it enjoyed a short revival during the time Nesbit was writing her book, and closed for the last time a few years later, in 1911.

Then there’s Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea (1965). Battersea Castle in that book is the location for the annual gift of mince-pies to King James III by the Duke of Battersea, during which trumpeters play the Battersea Fanfare. But this simple ceremony too disguises a reference to a lost pleasure garden. Lost to us, if not to Aiken’s original readers.
Battersea Funfair

You see, Aiken’s Battersea Castle is situated just south of the Thames, next to Chelsea Bridge, the position occupied (in our own world) by Battersea Park. In 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain, a funfair was created in the park, which was hugely popular with Londoners throughout the fifties and sixties. When Aiken wrote her book, I think that many readers would have picked up on the Battersea Fanfare as a punning reference to Battersea Funfair.

Sadly, there was a fatal accident involving the funfair’s Big Dipper in 1972, and it closed a couple of years later. Since then, the existence of the place has slowly faded from the public mind, and it’s now gone the way of Rosherville and Vauxhall, Tyre and Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome. The best pleasure gardens are always in the past.

Gardens are in any case places of ephemerality. Seasons change, fruit grows and rots, buds blossom and blow – and gardens themselves have a natural course.

Great enimy to it, and to all the rest,
  That in the Gardin of Adonis springs,
  Is wicked Tyme, who, with his scyth addrest,
  Does mow the flowring herbes and goodly things,
  And all their glory to the ground downe flings.
  Where they do wither and are fowly mard:
  He flyes about, and with his flaggy winges
Beates downe both leaves and buds without regard.

Melancholy words there from Spenser, but let me bring it back to children’s literature by recommending the party at the end of Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll (1948). Jansson loved parties, and this woodland one is just the kind I’d love to attend.

So, if you’re thinking of holding a party like that any time soon, an invitation would be much appreciated.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Pants, Stinks and Children’s Books - Catherine Butler

Some Celebrities Need Professional Help 
I realise that this topic hasn’t exactly been ignored on ABBA, but here’s my take...

There’s a celebrity version of most things these days, isn’t there? Celebrity Masterchef, Celebrity Mastermind, celebrity diving in Splash!, celebrity ballroom dancing in Strictly – I’m sure you can add to the list.

The celebrity versions of programmes are usually a bit easier because, as everyone concerned recognises, the celebrities aren’t actually professionals. No one would expect the winner of Celebrity Masterchef to win Masterchef itself, let alone the pro version. No celebrity on Splash! expects to represent the country in diving at the next Olympics. Even the questions on celebrity versions of quiz shows are generally pitched lower: after all, being a celebrity doesn’t necessarily mean you’re clever. The celebrities are there to scatter a little stardust, to be good sports and to win money for their favourite charities. In fact, if they were too good it would spoil the fun. Nadiya Hussain became a celebrity as a result of winning Bake Off, but ironically Celebrity Bake Off is the one show to which she will never be invited.

That’s the general rule. Celebrities may have their own expertise – singing, acting, cooking, telling jokes, looking beautiful, or just being famous – but when they make guest appearances outside their own domains it is in a spirit of good-natured amateurism.

However, there are three exceptions: lingerie, perfume and children’s books.

Why these three in particular, I’ve no idea, but for some reason being a celebrity in another field can make you an actual expert in any or all of these. If you’ve ever wondered why there are no celebrity shows called Pants! (“This week our six celebrities compete to design the perfect pair of baggy boxers”) or Stinks! (“Alpine ski slopes are the pine-fresh theme in this edition of the olfactory face-off”), perhaps it’s because it would breach the unwritten rule of amateurism. After all, people like David Beckham, Halle Berry, Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift are actually working late into the night with scissors, sewing machines and test tubes, producing underwear and perfume to a professional standard. That, at least, is what I assume is meant when they are said to have brought out their own range of undies or scents.

What’s that you say? It’s not really their own work? They just put their name to products actually produced by unlauded behind-the-scenes professionals?

Oh, I see.  I do feel a fool.

But children’s books are different, right? Otherwise, I’m sure that the organisers of World Book Day wouldn’t have ignored all the talented children’s authors who have spent years learning their craft, who visit schools and libraries throughout the year, who earn a relative pittance and who could really use the exposure that World Book Day can bring, in favour of a line-up of celebrities such as Clare Balding, Julian Clary, Nadiya Hussain and that bloke from McFly.

It’s true that on the day the list was announced my Facebook page (filled as it is with mid-list children’s authors) emitted an audible groan of exasperation, but I have faith that these sports journalists, comedians, bakers and musicians were children’s writers manqué all along. Otherwise it would be a bit like the Olympic committee trying to promote athletics by choosing Graham Norton to represent Team GB in Tokyo 2020, rather than a talented runner who had trained in all weathers for the last four years.  Or even – in the case of ghost-written books – like paying an athlete to wear a Graham Norton mask while running the 1,500 metres. No one would think that was the best way to get children interested in athletics on World Sport Day. Why would World Book Day be different?

Monday, 11 September 2017

In Which it Turns out that the True Author of Harry Potter is Cardinal Wolsey - Catherine Butler

There can surely be few of us from whom the daily chore of putting on a wristwatch has not at times elicited the melancholy cry, “Oh wretched timepiece! Thus I don the manacle of mortality!”

Alice in Wonderland begins with a White Rabbit looking at his watch and crying “I’m late!”, which I take to be a similar sentiment, and indeed for me it was an early encounter with Alice that led, in a kind of Primal Scene, to the shocking realisation not only that death comes to us all, but that even characters in books are not immune.

As a child I lived near the New Forest, and one day my mother, in lugubrious mood, took me and my brother round Lyndhurst churchyard. There she pointed out a rather grand (but not beautiful) box grave from the 1930s and identified it as that of Alice. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect I channelled Peter from Tom’s Midnight Garden and wailed something like “But that—that's not Alice: that's a grownup woman! (And, by the way, she’s dead!)”

Of course, it was actually the grave of Alice Liddell (later Hargreaves), not Alice herself, but being five years old I was not in the mood for such ontological niceties. There, I think, my instincts were sound.

The grave's a fine and private place,
But none there win the caucus race.

All this came to mind the other day when I made a day trip to Oxford, with a friend who was visiting from abroad. I was trying to show her various interesting places in striking distance of Bristol: we’d already covered Glastonbury, Cheddar Gorge, the Brecon Beacons, Bath, Avebury, and one or two other places, so Oxford was obviously next on the list. Although I’d been to the city on many occasions I’d never crossed the threshold of Christ Church College, where Alice was brought up (her father being Dean), but we thought it might be worth a look at Tom Quad and the Great Hall, even if entry cost us £9 apiece (“Each ticket funds half a glass of Chateau Lafite for the cellar!").

We duly saw statues of Dean Liddell, looking even more historical than his dead daughter, and Thomas Wolsey, the College’s founder, both of whom were gazing down on the more merely mortal mortals from the comfort of their perches high on the college walls.

So, anyway – it’s about time I justified the title of this post. Christ Church is also of the course the place where Harry met Ally, in that it offers a point of contact between Alice and Harry Potter. How so? Well, according to the sign at the porter’s lodge, the Great Hall was "the inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films".

I was surprised to read this, because my impression had always been that the inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films was Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books... But then, I'm biased towards the written word.

Of course, I knew what they meant – namely that a location scout had found in the Great Hall a place that answered well enough to the description in the book to be used as the model for a set. Certainly plenty of Potter fans had found it worth visiting on that basis, and the college shop catered happily to them with cloaks and wands.

But hang on… isn't that a bit like saying that Daniel Radcliffe was the inspiration for Harry Potter himself, because a casting director did something similar? Had our £18 been well spent or not?

I puzzled over this. Perhaps I had misunderstood this inspiration business? I remembered Humpty Dumpty, his words ghost-written by a Christ Church don: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Humpty’s testimony was corroborated by Mr Toad: “The clever men at Oxford know all there is to be knowed.”

Slowly I began to see that my rustic brain had been hopelessly unsubtle. After all, when a film is made of a book, there can be an inspiration feedback effect, especially if the book series is still being written. It's well known that Colin Dexter was influenced by John Thaw's portrayal of Inspector Morse in his later novels (to take another Oxford example). Perhaps Harry Potter was inspired by Radcliffe? Perhaps, too, the Great Hall really did have its part to play in inspiring the books that inspired the films?

If so, I suggest that they should not only be charging a £9 entrance fee but royalties too. Then they really could improve the quality of the wine at high table. And, since the Great Hall was the brainchild of the college’s founder, I look forward to the day when every copy of Harry Potter contains in its fly leaf the line following line:

Friday, 11 August 2017

Of Borrowers and Borrowings - Catherine Butler

In an ABBA post last year the accomplished Clémentine Beauvais wrote about her experience of translating her young-adult novel, Les Petites Reines, into English as Piglettes. (If you haven’t read Piglettes yet, why not? It’s great! In fact, you should go out to the bookshop right now, buy it, read it, then come back and finish this post. You can thank me in the comments.) It was of special interest to me because translation is a subject I think about a lot, though not as a practitioner. In fact, I've spent much of this summer considering similar questions to those with which Dr Beauvais grappled.

You probably know (or know of) the classic 1952 Mary Norton novel The Borrowers, about a family of small people living in secret in the crannies of a large house. Perhaps you’ve also watched Studio Ghibli’s version of the story, Arrietty, named after the girl Borrower at the heart of the story? Naturally, Ghibli’s film was made in Japanese; the studio also moved the story from Bedfordshire to the suburbs of Tokyo. When it was subsequently dubbed into English, two versions were made, one (by Studio Canal) with a British cast and one (by Disney) with Americans – the latter being named The Secret World of Arrietty. Normally Ghibli dubs only exist in American English, something that can make for a strange experience when the original story is set in Britain (I’m looking at you, When Marnie Was There). Arriety's double-dubbing is unique, and it made me wonder what differences there might be between the two versions. So, I went and looked.

Having seen my own early novels Americanised for publication (paper rounds changing silently into a paper routes, a massacre of “u”s in words like “rumour”, an inserted sentence to explain just who Guy Fawkes was, etc.), I expected that the differences would be at this relatively low level. In fact, though, the English-language films diverge far more radically, and in a variety of ways.
  •         The American Arrietty is much sassier. Unlike her British and Japanese counterparts, for example, when her mother tells her to be careful, instead of promising she will she replies by teasing her: "Don’t worry Mother, I’ll get Papa back safely."
  •         Where the UK version follows Ghibli in leaving the ending of the film open, with the Borrowers voyaging to an uncertain new life in the outdoors, Disney adds a voiceover assuring viewers that they are going to be all right.
  •         An environmental speech about extinction was cut from the Disney film entirely, because (as the Disney screenwriter told me in an interview) environmentalism doesn’t play well with American audiences.

Even visuals are interpreted differently. For example, in the Japanese film (and British dub), Arrietty’s mother asks Arrietty and her father to take a cube of sugar from the house when they go borrowing. She then looks skyward, clasping her hands and anticipating the delicious taste of the drink she plans to make with it. In the American version of the film, this gesture is reframed as a Christian prayer…

"I could make shiso juice it’s delicious in tea." (Ghibli’s script)

"Oh, please God, please help them." (Disney script)

There’s much more to say about Arrietty in all its versions, but space is limited. Instead, I’ll add a tangential postscript and mention that last month in Tokyo I went to see Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the new film by the director of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Like the earlier films, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is based on a British children’s book, Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick (1971). Unlike them, however, its setting has not been transplanted to Japan. Judging by the architecture and landscape, the characters in Mary and the Witch’s Flower are living in England, indeed in Shropshire (the setting of the book). Of course, the characters still speak Japanese, which takes a little getting used to, but when they write things down they write them in English, which somehow seems even odder. Their clothes are plausibly British, too – with one bizarre exception. That’s Mary’s friend Peter, who in the book is the son of the local vicar. In Mary and the Witch’s Flower he wears a backwards baseball cap and a Varsity jacket, as if he had just wandered in from a college campus somewhere near Indianapolis. I really can't imagine why:

Can you?

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Too Good for Adults? - Catherine Butler

"No one understandeth me!"

One of the most irritating ways in which it’s possible to praise a children’s book is by claiming that it is “too good for children”.  Although ostensibly a compliment, this simple phrase manages to insult both children (seen as unworthy of, or least incapable of appreciating, high-quality literature) and children’s literature more broadly, which is implicitly dismissed as the kind of pap suitable for a juvenile underclass. Nevertheless, it’s a tactic frequently encountered, especially when the book under discussion is one that has found popularity among adults. It seems that some adults find the thought of sharing their literary taste with children uncomfortable – perhaps even infantilising – and so, like any playground bully, they not only claim that the books are for them too, but demand exclusive rights.

Well, two can play at that game. If it’s possible to read Northern Lights or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as adult literature, it’s no less so to read many so-called adult classics as YA or children’s literature, and to say, in effect, that they are “too good for adults”.

What do I mean by reading a book as YA literature? I mean reading it using the genre conventions of YA as a template for interpretation. To explain what I mean by that, let me use an example to which I’ve had frequent recourse. It is possible, as James Thurber proved, to read Macbeth as an Agatha-Christie-style murder mystery, finding in it all the things that the Whodunnit genre prescribes: a murder, suspects, clues, etc. Whether such a reading is helpful or not is of course a matter for debate (that’s why the country is crying out for English Literature academics), but it is one possible strategy.

To read something as YA literature, by the same token, means to read with an awareness of YA genre conventions. Thus, you will probably expect to find one or more young-adult protagonists at the text’s centre, or at least protagonists who have the “mind set” of that age group – young people who are engaged in self-discovery and self-fashioning; who are negotiating the tricky territory of the wider world beyond as well as within the family; who are tentatively (or not so tentatively) embarking on romantic and/or sexual relationships; who are not yet as adept at hiding their self-absorption as the more mature characters around them.

Many avowed YA texts fit that description – but what about “adult” texts? The example of Romeo and Juliet will occur to many people, and it has in fact almost been retrospectively canonised as YA by its perennial use as a GCSE text. Sons and Lovers is another shoo-in, as is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, the early twentieth century was in many ways a golden age for YA literature. There’s Le Grand Meaulnes, of course, and The Great Gatsby is another YA classic. Although the main cast are a little old for the demographic, they all (particularly Gatsby) seem unnaturally “young” in their attitudes, their hedonism, their gaucheness, their desperation to impress, their priggishness and their recklessness.

It goes without saying that Hamlet, too, is a YA text – almost the quintessential one. So is Paradise Lost, although arguably Adam and Eve are a bit young to count.

What other so-called adult classics might we claim for the YA or children’s canon?

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Signs of Childness?

An Unsettling Number of Children's Literature Academics

Twenty years ago, Peter Hollindale of the University of York published a book that has provoked and inspired scholars of childhood ever since. Signs of Childness in Children’s Books discussed many things, but its main aim was to identify the qualities that characterise the state of being a child. “Childness” is an unusual word, though it was not Hollindale’s coinage; he wanted something without the heavy connotational baggage of words such as “childlike” (which seems to invite an idealistic view of children) or “childish” (which pictures them as defective). By contrast, “childness” is, semantically speaking, a tabula rasa.

It’s a fascinating question, and one often pondered. Although people talk of childhood innocence, for instance, I’ve never been clear whether innocence is a real quality that for better or worse children eventually lose (but, if so, what does it consist of?), or merely an absence of something else, which (again, for better or worse) experience eventually supplies.

I read Hollindale’s book many years ago, but it was on my mind again last Friday because the sagacious Clémentine Beauvais, ABBA blogger and York academic, organised a one-day conference to mark its anniversary. It was a delightful occasion, with contributions from many of the big names in children’s literature studies in the UK and beyond, including Hollindale himself, who came out of retirement for “one last job”, much like John Rambo. I wish I had time to tell you about all the papers, many of which were excellent, but I’m going to stick the one that was perhaps the most unusual – the attempt of a musicologist, Liam Maloy, to quantify the “childness” of various pieces of music and to supply them with a “Children’s Music Quotient” (or CMQ). He proposed to do this by making lists of qualities that he associated with childness, assigning a score for each one to a candidate piece of music, and combining those scores to create the piece’s CMQ. The qualities were listed under three broad headings: music, lyrics and sonics. For example, major keys were deemed to have more childness than minor ones; full rhymes more than half rhymes; percussion more than strings, and so on.

Literary scholars don’t generally work this way, and it took us some time to decide whether this was brilliance or nonsense. (Perhaps you have an opinion of your own?) I will mention, though, that Maloy confessed himself surprised at how often “adult” themes crept into music written for children, including music that otherwise had very high CMQs. Think of the death and murder meted out in such children’s favourites as Bernard Cribbins’ “Hole in the Ground” (“It's not there now, the ground's all flat/ And beneath it is the bloke in the bowler hat”) or “Right, said Fred” (“half a ton of rubble landed on the top of his dome”), or even the double murder of Alma Cogan’s “Middle of the House” – all delivered in jaunty 4/4 time.

But did these songs become successful with children despite their violence, or because of it? Playground rhymes are notoriously violent after all, from the parental hacking of “Lizzie Bawden” to the multiple limb losses of “Baby Shark”. Perhaps it’s a mistake to put these things under the “Adult” column, when so many children appear to be fond of them? Might a love of gore be a sign of childness rather than its opposite?

I was recently reminded of one of the Grimm brothers’ tales, called “How Some People Played at Slaughtering”. The plot is simple, if sanguinary. Two brothers see a pig being slaughtered, and decide to imitate the procedure in a game. Unfortunately, the elder brother takes the game too far, and slits the younger brother’s throat. Their mother, attracted by the noise, enters and, seeing what has happened, takes the knife in anger and stabs the killer. However, meanwhile she has left a third brother, a small child, in the bath, and when she returns finds him drowned. In despair, she kills herself. Her husband, returning from work, discovers the melancholy scene and dies of grief.

I’m not sure if the story has a moral, except perhaps “Right, said Fred”’s “You never get nowhere if you’re too hasty”, but there’s an appealing neatness about the way that each death leads domino-fashion to the next. Also, death and pain being pretty frightening things, it may be comforting to be able to take them out and look at them, and perhaps even find them funny, in the safe and structured confines of a tale or cheerful song. This I suppose is why people enjoy watching horror films, too, although that’s a taste I can’t claim to share.

In any case, Wilhelm Grimm removed the story from later editions on the grounds that it was too gruesome. He probably thought he was doing so to avoid scaring child readers. But perhaps it was really for sake of the adults?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Modesty - Catherine Butler

“I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal!”

Do small boys still shout that from the top of any dunghill of which they happen to have made themselves temporary cock? (I say boys, because the rhyme itself is gendered, but of course there may be chatelaines too.) In doing so they would of course only be imitating their elders, but such outright expressions of self-praise and contumely are not generally encouraged by parents or teachers. This is not because we disapprove of ambition, or the wish to excel, qualities praised by politicians across the board, but because in Britain at least we feel that both boasts and insults are more effective, and far more acceptable, when fired at an oblique angle.

The British have a strange relationship with boastfulness. Of course, we do it, and fiercely, but to do so directly is to display a shallow neediness that invites only pity and contempt. This makes some kinds of social interaction, such as job interviews, particularly stressful, since self-praise of a rather direct kind seems called for there, and this is at odds with our ingrained social training. Ideally, we want our interlocutors to feel that they have encountered a person of superlative personal and intellectual qualities, but also that they have discovered this fact for themselves, despite our efforts to disguise it. (Such efforts are, however, invariably a feint, designed to draw the listener on.)

In my day job as an academic I write scholarly articles, and I’ve been advised that it’s important these days to ensure that the first page or two of any article should make bold claims about the importance and “paradigm-shifting” nature of the contents. This is so that it will attract the fickle attention of those working on the periodic Government audit known as the “Research Excellence Framework” (unlovely phrase!), on the basis of which research money is distributed to universities. Such unabashed chest-thumping and feather-shivering seems more suited to an Attenborough documentary or a White House tweet, though, and is hard to square with a proper sense of British obliquity, let alone truth. If I ever succeed in doing it, my success will be tainted with an aftertaste of shame.

Burdened with this heavy garland of inhibitions I’ve sometimes looked in envy at the sheer boastfulness of the ancient inscriptions one finds in Egypt and Mesopotamia, authored in the name of such regal coves as Rameses II or Ashurnasirpal, a monarch otherwise known as “he who has no rival among the princes of the four quarters, marvellous shepherd, fearless in battle, unopposable mighty floodtide, king who subdues those insubordinate to him, he who rules all peoples, strong male who treads upon the necks of his foes”, and so on (according to his inscription in the palace of Nimrud). Such Ozymandian vaunts may appear to be object lessons in vanity (what price Ashurnasirpal now?), but there’s something appealingly direct about them, too – at least, at a distance. Yes, Ashurnasirpal was vulgar in British terms, but were you going to tell him?

In a slightly different category, perhaps, are such self-descriptions as the Song of Amergin, bard of the Milesians, at any rate in Robert Graves’ translation, which begins:

I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?

Amergin clearly has an honest sense of worth, but it is expressed with a disarming “what on earth is he talking about?” slantness. It looks less like Ashurnasirpal’s chest-thumping and more like a riddle, or a spell being cast. Even so, it was Amergin’s way of laying claim to Ireland on behalf of his people, so there’s a political as well as a magical message here.

The “I am that I am” of Exodus is perhaps the best boast of all. Is Yahweh being modest, or the reverse? Is he laying claim to everything, or nothing? Is it profound, or a tautology? In the world of boasting, as of self-deprecation, sometimes less is more. (It probably helps to be a god, too.)

So, do I envy the dunghill boasters their full-throated ease? I am aware that by conflating Ashurnasirpal and his ilk with a small boy’s playground game I am in danger of overlaying history with a crudely developmental model, in which earlier ages are identified with the “childhood” of mankind. This is the kind of thing Chesterton was making fun of when he had a parent excuse her badly behaved child by saying, “I’m sorry, but Timmy’s just going through the French Revolution”, or words to that effect. However, there is no need to look to the distant past to find political leaders who indulge in brazen self-praise; indeed, that style of rhetoric is making a comeback. It’s a world for which my upbringing has quite unfitted me, though. I am destined to advertise my marvelousness, if at all, through the coy arts of irony and repression.

That is my birth right, that my dunghill; and I am cock of it.