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Saturday, 30 April 2011

Pobby and Dingan

Pobby and Dignan

Realism is a bad word. In a sense everything is realistic. I see no line between the imaginary and the real. – Federico Fellini



Newspapers like The Guardian tend to print book reviews during the week a book is released so if you happen to publish something on a week when a few heavyweights have something new out then you’ve probably missed your window of opportunity. You can imagine then Ben Rice’s surprise when in January 2001, in the week when the literary press were reviewing Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, that the Guardian reviewer Robert McCrum chose to write a review of a novella, Pobby and Dingan, by a first time author, that was only available in hardback at the time and had been available since the previous September. In his article McCrum wrote:

Normally, of course, our rule is to look forwards not back, but this little book, the author's first, is so extraordinary, it must be the exception. – Robert McCrum, ‘The smell of the outback’, The Guardian, 14th January 2001

By the end of his review he’s comparing Rice’s debut to Carey’s and saying that “Ben Rice makes a strong claim to be a leader of the new generation of writers.” In 2003 Rice was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists' in which he found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of A L Kennedy, Dan Rhodes, Sarah Waters and Zadie Smith, which certainly adds weight to McCrum’s prediction. Sadly, so far anyway, there appears to be no sign of that happening because the only other things Rice has published as far as I can see are the short stories ‘Specks in the Sky’, which was included in the paperback of Pobby and Dingan which came out in June 2002, and ‘Look at Me, I’m Beautiful’ which appeared in Granta 81.

When you trawl through sites like Amazon, Goodreads and Library Things there are loads of positive reviews of this book by ordinary people and very few allocate it less than four or five stars. People talk about reading it over and over again, of buying multiple copies and handing them out to friends and relatives. Jill S of Powell's City of Books wrote this:

Rarely do I read a book and come away from it feeling like it was a truly magical experience. I may even dare to say that Pobby and Dingan is To Kill a Mockingbird-good — and trust me, this is not a parallel I draw lightly. Suitable for anyone who can read. – Staff Pick, Powell’s Books

Goodreads reviewer Ann Marie reports that it also seems this book is being taught at some of the Chicago Public Schools as a “sort of a replacement for To Kill a Mockingbird on reading lists, although not because of the subject, but because it's a new modern classic.” It was a Chicago Book Club book too.

So what’s this book about and why am I just hearing about it now?

Most dictionaries define ‘imaginary’ as “existing only in the imagination; unreal” and yet is it as simple as that? What’s real? There are millions of people out there who believe in a personal god, who believe that God is a person. None of them were born with that belief but one day, somewhere along the lines, something happened and God became real to them. There will be those who say that God still isn’t real but these individuals only believe him to be real and believing that something is real doesn’t make it real. It’s an old argument.

Kellyanne Pobby and Dingan are real. As far as Ashmol Williamson’s eight-year-old sister Kellyanne is concerned they’re real. Ashmol isn’t so sure. No, he’s sure. He’s sure they’re not real. And so when Kellyanne crawls into his bedroom, her face all puffy and pale and fuzzed-over, and says, “Ashmol, Pobby and Dingan are maybe-dead,” she gets no sympathy:

“Good,” I said. “Perhaps you’ll grow up now and stop being such a fruit loop.”

Tears started sliding down her face. But I wasn’t feeling any sympathy, and neither would you if you’d grown up with Pobby and Dingan.

“Pobby and Dingan aren’t dead,” I said, hiding my anger in a swig from my can of Mello Yello. “They never existed. Things that never existed can’t be dead. Right?”

Kellyanne glared at me through tears the way she did the time I slammed the door of the ute [utility vehicle] in Dingan’s face or the time I walked over to where Pobby was supposed to be sitting and punched the air and kicked the air in the head to show Kellyanne that Pobby was a figment of her imaginings.

So, typical big brother. The book doesn’t say how old Ashmol is but he’s not terribly older than his sister. Ashmol thinks he’s the only sane person in Lightning Ridge, the mining town in New South Wales that his family have moved to. His father has staked a claim and believes in the existence of opals there in much the same way as his daughter believes in the existence of her imaginary friends:

My dad would come back from the opal mines covered in dust, his beard like the back end of a dog that’s shat all over its tail. He would be saying: “Ashmol, I sensed it today! Tomorrow we’ll be on opal, son, and we’ll be bloody millionaires! I can feel those bewdies sitting there in the drives, staring back at me. Checking me out. Waiting.

It might seem a little hypocritical then for him to deride his daughter’s claims but he does: “Aw, sorry princess. Did I tread on your fairy-friends?” Her mother, a homesick pom, is more open-minded – on all counts. She tolerates her daughter’s quirks and her husband’s obsessions; if it wasn’t for her job in the local supermarket they’d probably starve. Her husband has, what Ashmol describes as, “strange eyes – blue and green with a flicker of gold in them.” The boy can read between the lines however when his mum describes them as, “Eyes like opals,” and then with a sigh, “only a little easier to find.” It has been a while since her husband has found anything.

The older, softer sort of folk in Lightning Ridge had sort of taken to Pobby and Dingan [though]. They had totally given up on throwing Kellyanne funny looks and teasing her about them. Now when she walked down Opal Street, some of the old-timers would stop and shout: “G-day, Kellyanne, g-day, Pobby, and how’s Miss Dingan doin’ today?” It made you want to be sick all over the place. Lightning Ridge was full of flaming crackpots as far as I could see. … [O]ne time Ernie Finch let Kellyanne enter Dingan in for the Opal Princess competition because Kellyanne had a cold. I’m not kidding. And the judges voted Dingan third place…

One day as they do things change. The kids’ dad starts to be a bit more respectful of Pobby and Dingan. Ashmol thinks he’s gone off his rocker. After a bit he decides that his dad who was not “a very subtle sort of bloke” was doing it to get back at his wife over something. Whatever his initial motivations he keeps it up:

When Dad left for the claim one morning he volunteered to take Pobby and Dingan with him to get some exercise while Kellyanne was at school. He was trying to separate her from them, I suppose, now I think about it. Kellyanne’s teachers, you see, had complained that she wasn’t concentrating in class and was always talking to herself and hugging the air.

[…]

“Don’t worry, princess!” he shouted. “I’ll look after them while you’re at school and make sure they don’t get up to no mischief. Won’t I, Pobby? Won’t I, Dingan?”

Later that day he returns home and an anxious Kellyanne wants to know where her friends are.

“Hi, princess! Relax now, darl. Pobby and Dingan’s right here sittin’ on the vouch next to Ashmol.”

Kellyanne looked over at the couch. “No, they’re not, Dad,” she said. “They hate Ashmol. Where are they really?”

“Oh no, that’s it,” said my dad, “I completely forgot. They’re out in the back yard watering the plants.”

Kellyanne ran outside. She came back looking pale. “Dad, you forgot all about Pobby and Dingan, didn’t you? You’ve lost them, haven’t you?”

“No, princess,” said my dad. “Calm down, sweetheart. They were in the ute with me when I came back.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Kellyanne, tears growing out of her eyes. “I want you to take me out to the claim to look for them right now.” That was my sister! She was mad as a cut snake

There is no consoling the little girl and so the father bundles the two kids in his ute and they head off to the mine.

Rex and daughter

And this is where things get messy. You see the guy who owned the claim next to Rex Williamson’ was Sid the Grouch:

Old Sid, who lived out there in a camp made out of pieces of corrugated iron, came running out from behind a weeping-wilga tree and stood by the starpicket at the corner of our claim with his arms folded. He had a big grey moustache, and he wore this kind of stupid beanie hat that made him look even meaner and stupider than he was. And believe me that was stupid. The rumour was he ate frill-neck lizards on toast for breakfast.

Old Sid watched as my dad got down on all fours and leant over the hole of Old Sid’s mine shaft and called out, “Pobby and Dingan! You down there?” Sid couldn’t make head or tail of what was going on. He thought my dad was ratting his claim and stealing his opal.

Ratting is “the same thing as murder in Lightning Ridge – only a bit worse.” The police are called and the kids’ dad end up in jail overnight. In the morning everyone knows what Old Sid believes happened. And just as Kellyanne believed her friends were real and really missing so the townsfolk believe that Rex Williamson really was a ratter and so, in their eyes, he became one.

Ashmol Needless to say Kellyanne did not find her friends at the mine. At this time the little girl falls ill. Jack the Quack is called and tells her mum that she’s suffering from a nervous illness or depression and if she continues to refuse food he’ll have to arrange for her to be taken to hospital. She doesn’t get better. Ashmol rises to the challenge though. He decides that the only way his sister would make a full recovery is when Pobby and Dingan are found.

But how do you go looking for imaginary friends? I stayed awake all the bastard-night trying to get my head around the problem. I reckoned that the first thing would be to have as many people as possible looking for them, or pretending to look, so that at least Kellyanne knew people cared, that they believed in her imaginary friends and wanted to help out.

And so he sets about the task with gusto and some success but Pobby and Dingan are nowhere to be found. Even though a number maintain they know where they are Kellyanne can always see through them. In the end she reconciles herself to the fact they must be dead and tasks her brother with the retrieval of their bodies.

So, no pressure.

There are some people in this world “who don’t know what it is to believe in something which is hard to see, or [how] to keep looking for something which is totally hard to find.” Ashmol thinks people like that are fruit loops.

opal dream Pobby and Dingan is a strange story, which resolutely refuses to follow a classic sentimental pattern. Because the narrator is a straight-talking young boy it’s hard not to think of him as an Aussie Holden Caulfield, especially considering how fond he is of his sister despite her quirks, but there’s also a world of difference between them; Holden is a cynic, Ashmol is not. The book has been filmed and the resultant film, renamed (unnecessarily IMHO) Opal Dream, is very much a family film but it also loses some of both its magic and its edginess in the translation; it plays safe and when I watched it I spent all my time pointing out where it deviated from the book not that it’s a bad film but the book is better. Critics of the book call it “saccharine” and I totally get where they’re coming from – they would probably group it with the writings of Mitch Albom – but the book is better than that.

There are plenty of young adults who would be able to read and get this book – it wears its heart on its sleeve a bit – but it was never marketed at a YA novel and I agree with that decision. Just because a book revolves around children does not make it a children’s book. The Catcher in the Rye is not a children’s book.

To a Brit like me Pobby and Dingan comes across as Australian through and through. One Amazon reviewer did make this observation however:

A pity an Australian editor hadn't intervened somewhere to eliminate the howlers such as an Aboriginal woman dancer playing the didgeridoo, or the persistent Americanisms (even though Rice is English), or at least fixing the misspellings of words such as galahs. All this spoils its authenticity, something the author is clearly straining for (and to many succeeding because it's already sold in a dozen countries).

I searched high and low for a review by an Australian journal but couldn’t find any. There were several of the film but that’s another thing entirely. One or two reviewers have questioned the authenticity of the lingo. The question though is: Is it more important that the language spoken in the book be realistic or believable? I would have to go with the latter. This is a small community and has its own idiolect.

The book is not perfect and although it has a lot going for it I’m just a little surprised that Granta would include Rice in its list of hopefuls based on it. It’s a hard book to dislike though. Yes, names like Jack the Quack are a bit groanworthy but he doesn’t overdo it. My one personal gripe was Ashmol’s getting James Bond’s name wrong – he calls him ‘Blond’ – I don’t care how old he is or in what backwater he’s grown up I simply can’t imagine him getting that wrong. Never finding out what was wrong with Kellyanne is a bit unsatisfying too but I’m sure the author kept it vague deliberately. What I did like what that it handled its theme of faith and redemption without coming across as preachy and that’s where it’s nothing like Mitch Albom. There is a world of difference line between bittersweet and saccharine. I personally think Rice pulls it off.

The book has also been adapted for the stage (by Rob Evans in Scotland and Paula Wing in Canada) to great success. The film version is quite watchable. It’s tidier than the book, a little more realistic. In the book Rex is a drunk but in the film he’s not. In the book we see many of the townsfolk out looking for Pobby and Dingan but in the film we do not. In the film the wife is Australian not British and so the character of Granny Pom vanished completely. But the main difference between the two is the ending. The film blurs what happens at the end of the book, at least the cinema release does. When the film was shown on BBC2 the director’s original ending was restored.

You can read an excerpt from the book here, the first three chapters actually, and a poem, ‘Ramone’.

I’ll leave you with the trailer to the film.

video

 

***

ben_rice Ben Rice was born in Tiverton, Devon in 1972, where Dan Rhodes was born as it happens but they never knew each other growing up. He studied English at the universities of Newcastle and Oxford before undertaking a Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He’s travelled widely through Europe, Asia and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and also spent a year in Maine as a child, when his father was an exchange professor. He travelled to Australia on a writing scholarship and visited Lightning Ridge, the opal mining community where his girlfriend grew up. The experience resulted in his novella, Pobby and Dingan which he wrote whilst back in London. It was first published in the Australia edition of Granta: The Magazine of New Writing No. 70 Winter 2000. Now, very much like his creations, he seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. I found several Ben Rices online – one of whom was also born in Devon and is working as a surveyor and another who’s running a fruit and veg shop in London – but no sign of Ben Rice the writer. Not yet anyway.

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Pink Hotel

pink_hotel_big

The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose. – Richard R. Grant



When I first picked up my ARC of the Pink Hotel I can’t say I was enthusiastic it’s probably fair to say. It’s the word ‘pink’. Perhaps a bloke ages with my daughter wouldn’t have any problems with reading a book called The Pink Hotel on the Clydeside Expressway first thing in the morning but I’d probably be hiding mine inside a copy of The Bourne Identity or something. Much to my surprise I found that the book is very much like the one I’ve finished writing. The main difference is the protagonist is seventeen and wandering around Venice Beach whereas mine is fifty and stuck in a flat in Glasgow. But the core is the same. This is a book about identity.

I was never adopted as a child and to be fair neither is the protagonist in this book but she may as well have been. When she was three her mother, Lily Dakin, who would have only been seventeen herself at the time, upped and left and her daughter never saw her again. Her father eventually married but never talked much about his ex. In fact when he gets a phone call telling him that Lily has died he doesn’t even inform his daughter. She only finds out when she answers a second phone call to advise her when the wake is to take place. It turns out it’s in L.A. and she’s in London. So, what does she do? She nicks her stepmother’s credit card, buys a plane ticket and heads off.

I knew a girl once who was adopted and she was quite obsessed about finding out details about her birth mum. She acted as if her character was something temporary, that she couldn’t be her real self until she knew where she came from. It was as if she needed to make contact with this woman to validate her identity; that being who she had turned out to be was who she ought to have turned out to be. Needless to say when she did locate her birth mother it was a bittersweet experience and left her with a very confused sense of self. I dropped Anna an e-mail for her thoughts:

I think that's a really nice way of putting it. I find mother/daughter relationships fascinating: it's the first relationship, primal and unending complicated all at the same time. The girl wants to know what mistakes her mother made and what experiences her mother had, so that she can work out what she wants from life, and who she might turn out to be.

Lily’s daughter is already mixed-up. But then she’s seventeen and who of us wasn’t mixed-up when we were that age? She’s not a bad girl and really the worst thing she’s done in her life is a bit of shoplifting (and once she is finally caught trying to pocket a pair of £1.99 earrings from Woolworths, that is enough to put pay to that). Until, as I’ve said, she swipes her stepmother’s card and heads off to the States.

Lily’s daughter is never named in the book. I wondered why and asked Anna:

RebeccaThe daughter's name isn't mentioned, which is partly a nod to Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca, where the unnamed narrator struggles to find her place inside another woman's world. But it's also … to underline her lack of identity. She imagines herself to be invisible, she wears anonymous clothes, is a thief, a voyeur, and she doesn't ever refer to her own name. 

The book opens with the girl slipping into her late mother’s bedroom which is on the top floor of the eponymous pink hotel. The wake/partying is carrying on in earnest down below. It’s a far cry from her Dad’s café even if she can still smell the place on her skin (anyone who’s ever worked in a chippy will tell you the smell lingers). But that’s not the only thing that smells:

Her bedroom reeked of cigarette ash and stale perfume. Two ashtrays were packed with lipstick-stained filters as if she’d just popped out for another pack. A suspender belt hung from a set of drawers, a mink scarf was curled like road kill at the floor next to her bed.

[…]

Lily stared out at me from framed photographs around the room. In one photograph she was standing beside a motorcycle wearing a leather jacket. In another she was wearing a white T-shirt over a bikini and sitting cross-legged under a tree in the sunshine, laughing for the camera. In a third she was naked apart from vivid red lipstick and a floppy sunhat.

So this was her mother, her residua, effluvia and discardia at least.

If it is possible to feel nostalgia for things you’ve never known, then it was a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity that made me lie down on her sheets and run a bath in a tub scattered with millimetre-long armpit hairs caught on a tide of scum from the last time she or her husband took a bath.

Peeking through the bathroom keyhole she witnesses a confrontation between two men, a red-haired man (who she assumes is Lily’s husband) and a giant of a man, who, until we learn his name is David, she simply refers to as The Giant. David has also sneaked into Lily’s room intent on stealing one of the photos. Her husband, Richard, is not best pleased and throws him out. Both are very drunk and after that encounter Richard collapses on the bed unconscious. At this point the girl decided it might be a good idea not to be there and so she beats a hasty retreat but not without filling a suitcase with some of her mother’s clothes. Richard notices her leave, registers his disapproval, but he’s in no condition to pursue her.

The case when she first found it already contained postcards, letters, photos and even old certificates and evaluation reports from her job, basically all a daughter could ask for by ways of clues to her wayward mother’s life. I suppose it could be argued that it was all too convenient and easy and that the clues are laid out for her and perhaps they are. It’s a niggle but more things happen in TV detective shows that are clearly stamped on the back “necessary-to-move-the-plot-forward” and we let them away with it so let’s just accept this as a fortunate happenstance and move on.

I had hoped to find a picture of Dad or of me among the rubble of memories tucked away in the suitcase, but the pictures were mostly of Lily herself.

[…]

In a side pocket of the suitcase were Christmas and Birthday cards all bundled together along with postcards and letters. Some of the cards were from the man called Teddy from the debonair “Malibu Mansions” photo. The most arresting letters were the ones typed on thin paper and signed off “with love, for ever, for always” rather than with a name.

The next day, feeling a little guilty, she tries to return the case but Richard is refusing to see anyone and a concierge girl tells her that he’s asleep and to call back later. Now, of course, the girl could easily have left the case at the reception but that wouldn’t advance the story very far now would it?

Having time on her hands she delves further into the contents of the case and after discovering “a faded Polaroid, labelled “Lily Dakin marries August Walters, in Jackpot, Idaho” decides to look up people from her mother’s life beginning with August. From here on she starts a journey through her mother’s past which, bit by bit, starts to become her life. In fact it starts with her dressing in the clothes she stole from the wake. Again a little convenient that she’s the same dress and shoe size. But moving on… In her e-mail Anna said:

Lily's daughter wants to find out what fantasy-land and love-affairs she was abandoned in favour of. Lily – for all her faults – turns out to have been loved, greatly, which the daughter has never felt. So there's jealousy there too, and anger. The idea of validating, or discovering, identity is spot on.

gilgameshWhile she’s on her travels, on buses that take three hours to get anywhere or simply waiting around for people, she reads a novel she snatched “from next to Lily’s bed at the Pink Hotel. It was called Enkidu [and] [a]ccording to the back cover, the book was based on some old epic poem about a black-eyed man-beast named Enkidu who grew up among animals.” The poem is, of course, the Epic of Gilgamesh and I had to wonder why Anna chose this. The latter part of the epic focuses on Gilgamesh's distressed reaction to Enkidu's death, which takes the form of a quest for immortality so I suppose there are loose parallels with the girl’s quest to discover herself. The two are also very different characters and yet become firm friends. This is what she had to say:

I saw a version of this, years ago, in a used bookstore and SO wish I'd bought it. I think ideas of immortality and death are definitely important, but it's also (the trashy version in The Pink Hotel, not the original!) a weird bridge in the girl's appreciation of bodies and their possibilities. She's a violent kid – football, violence, enjoys pain – and in many ways, like her mother perhaps, she's a little bit of a masochist. Her mother's physicality interests her.

To go into any more detail would spoil the book but there was a reason I chose the quote by Richard Grant to open this article. This is a life-changing book. It might not change yours or mine but it does change the girl’s and although the subject matter is handled lightly (and maybe a little neatly for my tastes but I really don’t think I’m her target audience) the issues raised are nevertheless serious and thought provoking.

On the cover of the book there’s a quote from Helen Dunmore: “The quality of her writing is remarkable.” I’ve just sat and flicked through the book reading paragraphs at random to see if any bits were worth remarking about. I found two. The first is set in a hospice cafeteria; in a flashback the girl’s waiting with her dad for her grandfather to die when she notices this:

The light from the frosted windows was hitting the curl of the page – [she’s reading Yachting Digest] – in such a way that the photo was almost obscured by a pillar of white glaze, but underneath there was a small white boat, photographed from above, ploughing through water. My throat tightened with the atmosphere, and I glanced up. “Desiderium,” I thought to myself, “a yearning for something that you once had, but is now lost.” It was a lovely word, like “desire” and “delirious” and “dearest” all smudged into one.

Now that is a lovely description and frankly the title I might have gone with for the whole book, Desiderium, rather than The Pink Hotel, but that’s me. Then I found this next description which is remarkable for all the wrong reasons:

I was wearing Lily’s tight black knee-length dress and a vivid smudge of her red lipstick over my mouth this time. Her earrings framed my pale opal face, and her sunglasses kept the hair out of my eyes.

That is just groan-worthy I’m afraid but there aren’t too many examples like that and my copy is only an ARC; that might well have been trimmed before the final print run. Maybe it’s just because I’m a man (although when I read that sentence to my wife she just pulled a face that said everything) but to my tastes there are simply far too many descriptive passages in this book. They don’t feel like padding but they do slow down the pace as far as I’m concerned. Few of them were remarkable enough to keep my interest and I had to work hard not to skim. I guess it’s all matter of preference. In her review of Stothard’s first novel, for example, Geraldine Bedell had this to say:

Stothard's real strength is in the detail of her observations. In London, in summer, old poisons perspire from the bricks; in winter, the city crisps up and 'it looks as if the only liquid in it is bird droppings and spilt petrol'. A headstone is black marble 'with gold embossed words like the front of a thriller book'. – Geraldine Bedell, ‘Young people today…’, The Observer, 6th April 2003

For me on the plus side the story is cleanly told with no subplot. A few flashbacks flesh out the protagonist nicely and I probably enjoyed them the most since they were all set in the UK. I found her protagonist a bit on the young side but then she is young and I found L.A. superficial but then it is. The book certainly isn’t overrun with cardboard (or clichéd) characters and all the supporting cast are reasonably well rounded and have distinct personalities and voices. It’s a quick read and perfect for the beach or a plane ride; 280 pages, 43 chapters – you can do the maths.

Back in 2003 when her first novel which focuses on the incestuous relationship of a teenage brother and sister (invariably bringing comparison with Flowers in the Attic) she was “being touted”, as Marianne Macdonald put in the Evening Standard, “as the Next Big Thing and shows every sign of becoming it.” If memory serves right that is exactly what happened to Virginia Andrews back in 1979. I’ve not read Isabel and Rocco so I’m not sure if I would agree with that based on this second book but frankly statements like that usually do more harm than good and hang round authors’ necks like albatrosses. And considering the fact she’s only in her mid-twenties she has plenty of time ahead of her.

***

anna2Anna was born in London. She lived in Washington DC as a child, but grew up mostly in London with interludes in Beijing and New York. She studied English Literature at Oxford. Her father is former Times editor Peter Stothard and her mother is Sally Emerson, the novelist.

After university she moved to Los Angeles and was awarded a screenwriting scholarship at The American Film Institute. She lived in East Hollywood and spent two years reading LA noir novels, script supervising, painting sets, and getting lost on the labyrinthine public transport system because she refused to buy a car.

Anna loved Los Angeles: the obsession with story, the sprawling geography, even the gloom of failed actresses in Disney costumes on Hollywood Boulevard. She realized she needed to leave the city when there was coroner’s tape around her local liquor store and her first thought wasn’t ‘I hope nobody I know has been hurt’, but ‘I wonder if I can use this murder scene as a plot device.’ She has since moved back to London.

She began writing ‘Teenage Kicks’ a weekly column in the Observer while she was doing her GCSEs and has also written for the Sunday Telegraph, as well as other freelance journalism. Her first novel, Isabel and Rocco, was published in 2004. She is currently writing her third novel.

FURTHER READING

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but I did find the following article in The Guardian of interest and the article in The Independent is just a nice autobiographical piece. A lot of the other stuff I found online is about university life and not really relevant to this book.

‘Teenage girls flirt with older men – but only because boys are hideous’The Guardian, 9th February 2003

‘Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Anna Stothard, student and writer’The Independent, 15th May 2003

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Can you believe the hype?

believe the hype

Rabinowitz: What are you reading?
Topper Harley: Great Expectations.
Rabinowitz: Is it any good?
Topper Harley: It's not what I'd hoped for.

Hot Shots: Part Deux




This is going to be a great post. Truly great. I’m telling you, this is the post you have been waiting for. This post will pop your socks. It will rock your world. Tell your friends. Tell them to tell their friends. Make peace with your enemies and tell them too. Tweet about it. Post about it. Text about it. Go out in the street and shout from the rooftops: “Listen! You have got to check out this post. Your lives will be incomplete until you’ve read it. Everyone else is reading it. You don’t want to feel left out. So what are you waiting for? Do it now. Now!”

Hype is not interested in foreplay. Hype doesn’t want to cuddle afterwards. Hype won’t call you in the morning. Hype is selfish. Hype promises much and delivers little if anything, but the worst thing about hype is that it invariably damages the very things it is out to promote because nothing can ever live up to its hype.

Hype is a form of marketing but where’s the difference? In his article, What’s the difference between hype and marketing? Tom Jarvis asks just that:

Is hype talking about something that doesn’t exist yet? That’s maybe the only distinction I can discern. If not, I’m wondering what ratchets marketing up to hype. Is there good hype? Bad hype?

The comments make interesting reading. Most associate hype with hyperbole; excessive, over-the-top claims that cannot be independently verified. I like what Tomas Jogin had to say about it:

Why are people so put off by “hype”? Probably because we know how to deal with marketing since a long time ago, our brains know how to differentiate marketing from “real” recommendations.

All Brian does, further down the page, is leave this quote:

[Partly from hype, a swindle (perhaps from hyper-), and partly from hype(rbole).]

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition

There is a thing called the hype cycle. There’s some question about whether it is actually a cycle but it graphically demonstrates the sequence of events:

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Or, as Mickey Rooney put it, “You always pass failure on the way to success.”

We see this time and time again when it comes to computers and computer gaming – every new product is the ‘solution’ we’ve been waiting for but the simple fact is when they start marketing one product you can be damn well sure they’re already developing its replacement – but you also see it when it comes to books and films. I followed the production of Tim Burton’s first Batman film for years. I read every scrap of information I could about it and the simple truth is that I had built up my expectations so high that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that I wouldn’t be disappointed, which I was. Later I started to see the positive things about the film but it will always feel like a bit of a letdown. Nowadays I’m careful not to read too much or get too excited especially when it comes to sequels. About the only film recently that I feel lived up to its hype was J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek.

imgharry potter and the goblet of fire1Books don’t tend to get hyped. Or even marketed that much if we’re being honest. There are the exceptions. Should J. K. Rowling decide to write another Harry Potter book you can be sure that it will not be long before everyone on the planet will know about it. When, in 2000, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (the fourth novel in the series) came out with an initial print run of five million, Mark Lawson reviewed the book for The Guardian. He gives it quite a favourable review actually. Why I mention this particular review is because of its title: Rowling Survives the Hype. It certainly suggests that hype can be a bad thing. He ends his review like this:

The difficulty is that inflated expectation almost inevitably encourages disappointment and backlash. But the view so far from this household is that, though no writer could justify this hype, Rowling survives it.

What I did find interesting is a comment made by Amanda Craig in her article for The Independent in the lead up to the publication of Rowling’s fifth book:

Perhaps the oddest aspect of Rowling's success is that while the posters and media hype may impress adults, children who adore the books tend to despise the hype and merchandising surrounding them.

By the time the last book (so far, so we’re told) was released, the print run in the USA alone was twelve million copies. With online retailers and major bookstore chains discounting heavily to guarantee big sales independent bookshops were unable to compete and some shops did not even bother to order copies at all which I think is rather sad.

Rowling is the most obvious example of an author who has been affected by hype but she is not alone. As Malcolm Bradbury noted:

The climate of over-promotion, hype and celebrity interview easily obscured all that was serious about the novel. Marketing and advertising shaped the market, the nature of literary reputation; literary prizes became the high-profile face of fictional competition. As D. J. Taylor complained in his After the War: The Novel and England Since 1945, the novel became far less literary: too engaged with the marketplace, the style-scene, generational culture, nepotism, author profiling and hype.

[…]

The nineties were the age of the busy high-street bookstore, the literary festival, the promotion of author and book as commodity. – Malcolm Bradbury, The Modern British Novel, p.517

That last word is the key. A book is not simply a product. At least it shouldn’t be. Let’s consider another author, Arundhati Roy:

[Her] novel The God of Small Things (1997) is most remarkable for the publicity it generated, both as the arrestingly good first novel of a young, little-known and unusually attractive writer and as an example of the star-making industry, the media-driven process by which a writer can be catapulted to a quasi-mythical celebrity status. … For some the marketing of the novel was an object lesson in commodity fetishism, with a carefully managed excitement at the latest ‘discovery’, and some salacious details about the private life of the writer – described by one reviewer, in [an] example of the touchstone effect, as an ‘unsuitable girl’ (Maya Jaggi, Guardian Weekend, 24 May 1997) – thrown into the mix. – Graham Huggan, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins, p.76

The God of Small ThingsWhat, of course, happened is that, after the hype, and the novel becoming a bestseller, reviewers started coming out of the woodwork suggesting that the book was perhaps too reader-friendly (the big dip in the graph). Only now, in the cold light of day, can the actual pedigree of the book be assessed – Huggan says the book “is an accomplished novel, and more sophisticated than it has been given credit” – but what it was not was some kind of talisman, a gift from the “goddess of small things” as Roy has been called (e.g. in The Village Voice.)

I have no opinion about the book. A bit like Rowling, Roy has her fans and her detractors. (Not sure if ‘detractor’ is the opposite of ‘fan’ because people can be fanatical both ways but you know what I mean.) Every book will have those who love it and those who struggle with it. As it should be. Where many people struggle with Roy’s book is when it comes to the way it was promoted; they see that it’s not a bad book but their objection is that is doesn’t live up to the hype. Type "doesn’t live up to the hype" into Google and you’ll get about 3,820,000 hits. I rest my case.

There is a reason the English language has the two words ‘quantity’ and ‘popularity’ . . . because they’re two different things. The problem these days is that too many people assume that quantity = popularity:

Paranormal Activity is the number one film in the country. I know! That means it's great. That means it's great! If it's the number one movie—this is the logic. For example, more people saw Paul Blart Mall Cop than saw The Shawshank Redemption. Therefore, Paul Blart Mall Cop is a better movie than The Shawshank Redemption. Do you see? That's right! More people like it, it means it's better! Don't you understand capitalism?Craig FergusonQuality By Popular Vote

If we can transfer this to literature:

Facts and figures about sales of books and incomes of authors are interesting but not interesting enough, unless they specifically reveal something about the way in which writers and their writings function in a culture. Publishing is relevant to literary history only in so far as it can be seen to be, ultimately, a shaping influence on literature. – K. V. Surendran, Indian English Fiction: New Perspectives, p.137

The bottom line is, has and will always be, the test of time. Fashions come and go.

star_wars_episode_one_the_phantom_menace_ver2What hype is is a tease. And reality loses hands down every time to imagination. Just a few minutes ago the January 2011 issue of SFX popped through my letterbox and, of course, I stopped everything to get my monthly fix. The very last article was entitled ‘Pre-Release Hype’ in which Richard Edwards talks about the expectation that was generated for The Phantom Menance or simply [air quotes] Episode I as it was known for ages. But he also comments on the whole industry’s approach to hype:

A well-constructed trailer is a work of art, something that can push all the right buttons with a few carefully placed edits or a cunningly planned reveal. Throw in a few posters, web campaigns and carefully distributed photographs and I’ll be hooked all the way to release – it’s almost a shame to buy the ticket.

In this respect he’s very critical of the influence of the Web these days and the amount of information that is available pre-release. Thankfull that doesn’t seem to happen with books so much. Unless the author’s someone like Sarah Palin or George W. Bush. Hype will rope in the core demographic but these are the people who were going to buy the game, watch the film or wear the T-shirt anyway. Real success follows when these people start texting their friends and blogging about their experience.

A good example of this is how people came to view the book The Road. I think most people would agree that’s it’s a decent book, a bit short but perfectly readable. But will you read it? I found a series of comments following a review of the book on Fyrefly’s Book Blog of interest. In part they say:

Karen: [I]f you compare the novel to the hype that it’s received, then I would agree it is a tad overrated.

Fyrefly: I read this novel a few years ago, when it was a recent Oprah book pick, and the hype seemed much more out of control than it is now. I wonder whether I’d feel differently about it if I’d read it after the hype had died down a little.

Karen: Yes sometimes our opinions are swayed, for or against a book, by how much hype it receives. So it would be interesting, seeing as there is a considerable amount of time between the time that you first read it, to read it again, to see if your opinions on the novel have changed or not.

Christina: I haven’t read this book and don’t know if I plan too. I think that I might be underwhelmed do to all of the hype.

Ladytink_534: I honestly don’t think it will live up to the hype that I’ve heard about it so I haven’t given it a shot.

It’s just as bad as judging a book by its cover, isn’t it?

the road 5The bottom line for me is not to be in a rush to see, read or experience anything in a hurry. I’ve read The Road. Without people writing about it I would never have heard of it but once I’d read enough to pique my interest – and I assure you that was very little – I didn’t read any more. I put the book on my Amazon wish list, my wife’s son bought it for me and I eventually got around to it long after all the fuss had died down. I really only learned about that when I started writing my review and began reading what others had said.

So why don’t we learn? As Samuel Johnson said, “We love to expect, and when expectation is either disappointed or gratified, we want to be again expecting.” It’s all about the chase, the unknown. What do you do when you’ve caught up with what you’ve been chasing? Have sex with it? Kill it and eat it? Toss it back in the river? I guess that all depends on whether you’ve been chasing a woman, a deer or a fish. Let me leave you with this profound thought: There is nothing more exciting than an unknocked door and a woman with her clothes still on on the other side of it.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Ten Pound Pom


Ten Pound Pom

[M]emory resides in the guts and arse as well as the head and heart – Niall Griffiths



Those of you who, for whatever strange reasons, follow my blog on a regular basis will not be surprised to find that I have never read a travel guide before. The main reason for that is that I’ve never been anywhere where I needed a travel guide mainly because I’ve never really had any great desire to go anywhere. That was not always the case. When I was a young boy I developed a fascination and lasting affection for the country of Australia. I have no idea where this originated (it’s not like we had family there), as Australia was not exactly well represented in the media at that time (Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and Rolf Harris for the most part – perhaps I had a wee crush on blue-eyed blonde Liza Goddard), and yet I had a great big map of Australia on my bedroom wall and imagined that when I grew up I would marry a blonde, blue-eyed Australian girl; the hair- and eye-colour were mandatory. (As it happens I’ve ended up with a green-eyed, grey-haired American – what can I say?) Somewhere along the line I lost any active interest in all things antipodean but it was rekindled in the early seventies when one of my school friends shortly after leaving school packed his bags and emigrated to Australia. Some years later I met his mum in the street and she told me that Neil was back home for awhile and I should pop up for a visit but I never did and I’ve felt guilty about that for a good thirty years now.

Thirty years is a long time. But that’s the time period covered by Niall Griffiths’ memoir Ten Pound Pom. Ten Pound Poms is a colloquial term used in Australia to describe British subjects who migrated to Australia after the Second World War under an assisted passage scheme established and operated by the Government of Australia:

emigrateCreated as part of the "Populate or Perish" policy, the scheme was designed to substantially increase the population of Australia and to supply workers for the country's booming industries. In return for subsidising the cost of travelling to Australia — adult migrants were charged only ten pound sterling for the fare (hence the name), and children were allowed to travel for free — the Government promised employment prospects, housing and a generally more optimistic lifestyle. However, on arrival, migrants were placed in basic hostels and the expected job opportunities were not always readily available.

Assisted migrants were generally obliged to remain in Australia for two years after arrival, or alternatively refund the cost of their assisted passage. If they chose to travel back to Britain, the cost of the journey was at least £120, a large sum in those days and one that most could not afford. – Wikipedia

On 4th July 1975 the Griffithses – expectant mother, father, sister and two sons (Niall and his older brother, Tony) – clamber aboard BA flight 940 which was waiting for them at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 3 ready to head off to Brisbane, Australia pausing only for two short pit stops at Doha (the capital city of the state of Qatar in case, like me, you didn’t know) and Singapore. I imagine my mate Neil took a similar trip only he’ll have left from Prestwick or Glasgow most likely. Thirty years later, Niall, now a successful writer (novelist mainly but sometime travel-writer) decides to repeat the journey and Tony tags along for moral support and to watch his back – it needs watching:

Accumulations of sight and sound and taste and touch. A life is made then measured in a million drips and drops.

[…]

Certain events we remember vividly, others through a fog of uncertainty, and the clarity of our recollections has nothing to do with the importance of the incident. And we remember things that might not have happened at all.

This then is, it is fair to say, a very personal “memoir, travelogue, rant, paean, elegy and the closest thing to an autobiography that” we can likely expect from Niall although from the sounds of him I suspect that were he ever to go the whole hog and write an actual autobiography it might prove entertaining reading if this short sojourn into his past is anything to go by. The book’s disclaimer sets the scene:

DISCLAIMER: This book is not a work of fiction, but the reader is advised not to assume that every event recounted herein took place entirely within the confines of the real world.

There are a couple of reason why this might be the case, firstly, the passage of time and the vagaries of human memory, and, secondly, the fact that Niall does enjoy his drink and much of his trip is spent the worse for wear from the previous night’s indulgences. By way of illustrating my point:

I will get drunk tonight, I think. I will drink to dead things, things that rot inside me and the world beyond my flesh, or if not rotting only then also resting under rich soil and pretty flowers, and never to re-awaken in the forms in which I loved them, still love them. […] I feel abandoned and estranged within this skin.

Okay, so this book is not always a riot but what did he expect? As I said, thirty years is a long time. The houses he lived in, schools he attended, places he Britz vanadventured and misbehaved in were not just going to sit around waiting on his return or if they have they’ve been repainted and appropriated for other uses; chippies have become hairdressers, pubs have gone upmarket. But some things haven’t changed, the distance between Brisbane and Perth for example which he, as did his family before him, decides to drive: he in a rented Britz campervan fully kitted out with “a fridge and a stove and a microwave and a sink and a table and two beds and some overhead storage which can be turned into another sleeping space” and along a new road, his parents in a Holden station wagon along what was not much more than a dirt track back in 1976. The bulk of the book is devoted to this trek, a drive of over 2200 miles.

Since the arrival of Neighbours on our TV sets in 1986 we in the UK have become far more interested in Australian culture than we ever were in its cricket team. I think before that and post-Skippy the only things I’d ever seen with an Australian setting were Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) and Ned Kelly (1970) and I might have only seen the trailer to Ned Kelly or a couple of clips on Film 1970. I always understood the Australians considered Ned as their version of Robin Hood but I really knew nothing much about either of them. Beechwood is on the brothers’ way to Perth and so both times, in the past and in the present, the travellers stop to get better acquainted with history:

THEN

There’s something about New Kelly that provokes an emotion in the boy which he can only equate with liking something. He’s been told that Kelly was ‘a crook, a killer, a thief, a bushranger’, but there are things about him… the armour, the last words, the last stand, the bullets pinging off his helmet, even the internally-rhyming name… the boy finds a part of him being drawn to all this, slowly, like a houseplant towards a window. He’s heard the Fonz use the word ‘cool’ on Happy Days and he thinks that word, in the way in which Fonzie uses it, might be applicable to Ned. He thinks. He’s very young.

NOW

I’m older now. I still think there’s something of the Fonz about Ned, even though I realise that the ‘natural’ state of enmity between himself and the law that he frequently mentioned was a consequence of his rustling, and that his appeals to Irish emancipation from repression are deeply undermined by the fact that those whose livestock he stole, and the police officers he shot at Stringybark Creek, were themselves Irish-born or descended. Still, the whole story’s seductive, isn’t it? The armour and that. And, by God, what a turn of phrase the uneducated and supposedly subnormal feller had.

Times have changed though, he notes, and Australia’s perception-through-marketing of the whole Ned Kelly myth has changed too:

How different this is to the figure of national shame and embarrassment that Kelly was when I was last here, all those years ago. […] As was his mother, Ellen, a tinker-Irish, bred like a rabbit, Mick harridan carting her clatter of snot-nosed kids up to be thieves and rustlers. Now, according to a leaflet written by Noelene Allen, she’s a ‘woman of sprit and courage’, who, when a child in Antrim, used to love ‘exploring the beautiful rolling hills around her home searching for wild berries, bird’s nests and flowers’, who ‘loved to sing and dance… A free spirit with a strong rebellious streak’.

The town of Glenrowan, Niall notes, would hardly exist were it not for its Kelly connections although he refrains from visiting Ned’s Pizza Parlour, Kelly’s Inn or any of the other establishments trying to claim some connection to the old rogue.

Ned Kelly ArmourOf the neighbouring towns, however, it’s Beechworth that maintains that it is ‘Australia’s Best Preserved Ned Kelly Town’ but these towns are not the only ones wanting to stake a claim to fame: there’s Holbrook – ‘Australia’s Submarine Town’ – with a huge U-boat half-buried in its centre or Meckering – ‘Australia’s Earthquake Centre’ (that must really pull in the tourists) – or Adelaide – ‘Australia’s Murder Capital’ – or Tamworth – ‘Country Music Capital of Australia’ and ‘Tidy Town Winner 1999’ apparently – or Glen Innes – ‘Celtic Capital of Australia’ with its “pan-Celtic theme park, with rings of stones and a mock-up of Excalibur protruding from another stone” – or Kingston‘WINNER 2005 BEST MEDIUM-SIZED TOWN’ – and I have to agree with Niall on this last one: “That’s scraping the barrel till it bleeds.” This, of course, is nothing unique to Australia and it speaks more about how much marketing is now a part of our lives: everyone has something to sell, even those with nothing to sell. Just look at the Scottish towns fighting over which one of them will be the birthplace of Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise.

The things that delighted the young Niall are pretty much the things that delight the adult Niall: Australian flora, fauna and natural features. Essentially these things haven’t changed and, if extinction can be avoided, won’t change much for millennia. Possibly the most magical happens to the young Niall on a “school trip to Early Street Pioneer Village – wells and log cabins and people wearing Victorian attire.” He notices some movement in a tangled bush and can’t resist the urge to investigate:

A dragon is hiding in the leaves. Small dinosaur, a spiked ridge of flesh on its back and a green wattle at its throat. Its claws curl like nail parings and its yellow eyes turn to the boy and a pulse beats lightly in its throat and a heavier one beats in the boy and he slowly removes an Opal Fruit from his packet and offers it to the lizard. Ridged nostrils sniff. A tongue flickers out. Rubber lips open and close and teeth bite. The boy is absolutely absorbed, completely rapt. There is no thought in his thudding skull other than the assimilation of what he’s doing, what is entering his eyes, this lizard chewing on the sweet and the boy takes in the tiny chasms between every scale and the fine mesh of the skin and the silvery claws and the sickle-shaped shadows that mackerel the back and flanks and he wants nothing more in the world, just this.

Other things have changed. The ‘abos’ for a start. At school “[h]e makes friends with an aborigine girl. Two outsiders together.” On his return he is appalled when he comes across her people living as down-and-outs, begging on the street:

These are people in despair. I’ve seen it worldwide; in Arctic Inuits, in native Canadians, even in Celts at home. It never loses its power to perturb, in whatever landscape it takes place.

This is nothing new. It certainly existed when his family were driving across the country. At one point a man at a petrol station warns the father:

One thing to watch out for, the man says, –on the desert. The abos, like. They’ll come running out of the bush towards you, waving for help. What you won’t know is, they’ll have a spear between their toes, dragging it, like. So whatever you do don’t stop.

It happens, just like the man said, and despite his family’s protestations that the man might actually be in trouble, the father doesn’t stop or even slow down.

The boy thinks about this. Ambush. Spear. Robbery on the highway. He’s been warned many times in Oz to look out for the ‘abos’ but he can’t help but find them fascinating. They’re so strange, to him. They have such kind faces.

Niall can’t help but wonder about the mentality of the Australians:

aborigines_5-266x400See, the convict strain seethes deep in the collective Oz psyche; it shouldn’t, really – sons don’t need to pay for the sins of the fathers – but it does. It smoulders in the marrow of the Australian Everyman. It means that he really doesn’t trust others, that he feels anger and shame at not being trusted himself. The shallowness of the available history – an 80-year-old telegraph station is seen as an ancient ruin – is reflected in the general mental attitude, which is happy to accept whatever lies on the surface and has an intense aversion to investigative endeavour. In Oz, history is not what you live; history is something other countries have. The aboriginal historical narrative is closed and removed, unless trampling over their temples such as Uluru can bring in the tourist dollar, and the aboriginals themselves, when encountered in cities and towns, are either doing funny dances in face-paint for small change, or have been reduced to wretched drunks. Australian culture is, largely, at your shoulder, right in front of your nose; it’s all immediate. By and large it has no depth...

Now, before any Australians take too much offense you might want to have a look at my review of The Dreams of Max and Ronnie which I read a few weeks back. Especially in the first piece, Ronnie’s Dream, Niall points the finger at the UK and he does not miss us and hit the wall. Yes, it’s easy as an outsider to take a drive through Australia and criticise it especially returning to it after a thirty-year break and seeing it changed, possibly ruined. I never lived there but after viewing TV programmes like Underbelly and films like Samson and Delilah and some of Jane Campion’s work (like Sweetie) I also feel there’s like trouble in paradise. But then there’s trouble everywhere.

It won’t surprise you to read though that by the end of his journey, once they reach Perth, Niall is more than ready to get on a plane and fly home:

I’m out of Oz. Sick to the gizzard of Oz.

Once home he drives to his parents’ house and the first thing he tells them is: “Thank Christ you brought us back from Oz.”

Between 1947 and 1981, more than a million Britons took advantage of an assisted passage scheme introduced by the Australian Government. […] Some people hated Australia instantly and so intensely that they never left the camp, waiting it out until their two years was up. For the 10-pound Poms, there was a 25 per cent return rate but then half of them went back to Australia, realising it had been better after all. – Annie Brown, ‘Scots families tell how they set off in search of a better life and found their dream in Australia’, Daily Record, 30 January 2010

The Griffiths family last until June 1978; Niall was then twelve and had just discovered the Sex Pistols and knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. (Yes, Niall, didn’t we all?) They survived three years: three years of culture shock, three years of intense heat, of creepy crawlies, of pommie-bashing, of homesickness. On the plus side Niall did experience his first kiss and see a girl’s naked bum but 12,000 miles is a long way to go for that and there’s nothing wrong with the good ol’ British girl’s bum let me tell you. Needless to say Niall never managed to become a rock god:

He spent years moving from one short-term job to another, from sorting mail to stacking machine-guns, the worst being a stint "cleaning closed-tank muckspreaders. You had to climb into the tank, dizzy with methane, and shovel it out". He eventually moved to Aberystwyth to study for a PhD, but dropped out.

The years that followed provided him with plenty of material for novels which would become known for their portrayal of disaffected, marginalised characters living for drink and drugs.

"If you go on these binges sometimes you reach these bright and shining places, where great witticisms roll off people's tongues, but in a sense your life is wasted, because you forget. So I'd go on these binges, and spend a day recovering, then write what I could remember, and gradually the writing became more important than the 'research'. That's where Grits came from.

"I know my parents are proud of my achievements, but I wouldn't actually want them to read my work. When my books are first published, I make sure I send a copy to my mum and dad, but I tell them not to read the contents." – BBC Wales Arts

I enjoyed this book. I’ve only read one other thing by him as I’ve said, The Dreams of Max and Ronnie, but it was because of that that I agreed to have a crack at this one. The style is similar, in your face, confident. It reads more like a blog than most books I’ve read. The language is relaxed, peppered with expletives and honest. His honesty won’t do much to win him antipodean friends but as his publisher says:

Ten Pound Pom promises to attract a lot of attention but’s not likely to win him Australian of the Year or a commendation from the Queensland Tourist board. God Bless Australia?

I have to second that. In between the lines though I think there’s more to this book than you might first imagine especially looking at its cover – just what demographic are they aiming at there? – because if you forget about the fact this is set in another country and simply read this as a man looking back on his plooky youth with predictable ambivalence this is a book that most of us grownups-so-called will be able to relate to. That he had to get on a plane and travel to the other side of the planet to visit it whereas most of us can take a train or a bus or just look out the back window adds some significance to the journey and also to his level of expectations: he probably expects the return to be directly proportional to the effort expended and it is not. Left, right and centre he is disappointed and it’s easy to view his disappointment as being with Australia but I think if his family has spent three years in South Dakota he might have written a very similar book considering the number of times he tips the hat to Deadwood.

Great literature this is not. Great entertainment? I was certainly entertained well enough despite the fact it all felt a bit rushed, especially once they actually get to Perth, and another 50 or even 100 pages wouldn’t have done the book any harm. Perhaps though the book simply reflects his growing need to be done trawling through his past like this. I don’t know. I do know I won’t be rushing out to buy his Real Aberystwyth or his Real Liverpool any day soon. That said if you are planning a trip to either place in the near future I think you might do well to consider them. Because if there’s one thing I can say about Niall Griffiths is that he’s real.

***

griffithsctorilbrancherNiall Griffiths was born in Liverpool in 1966, studied English, and now lives and works in Aberystwyth.

His first five novels are: Grits (2000), a tale of addicts and drifters in rural Wales; Sheepshagger (2001) – telling the story of Ianto, a feral mountain boy; Kelly & Victor (2002); Stump (2003), which won two Book of the Year awards, and Runt (2006). Grits was made into a film for television, and Kelly & Victor and Stump are also being made into films.

Niall Griffiths has also written travel pieces, restaurant and book reviews, and radio plays. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novella.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

My life in comics (well some of it)

Sparky

If people aren’t taught the language of sound and images, shouldn’t they be considered as illiterate as if they left college without being able to read or write? – George Lucas



I wasn’t a great reader growing up as a kid. My parents never read and although I wasn’t discouraged I wasn’t really encouraged. My father was more tolerant of non-fiction – we had no less than three sets of encyclopaedias in the house and he had a fondness for self-help books like The Trachtenberg Speed System of Basic Mathematics – but I never saw either of them pick up a novel. How I became a writer is a complete mystery to me.

I did read a lot of comics growing up. British comics are not like their American cousins. They have more in common with the newspaper funnies than superhero comics. In fact they were printed on very poor quality paper and for a long time contained no interior colour at all. Also, whereas American comics would have glossy covers, what we Brits got were simply two strips in full colour on the front and back but on the same paper.

Beano_50When I think of comics the first one that comes to my mind has to be The Beano. It was published by a Scottish firm, D. C. Thomson & Co. Ltd, but it was hugely popular throughout the UK. The 28-page paper was printed on the same letterpress machines which produced the company’s newspapers and 4-colour was restricted to the covers with a few 2-colour pages inside. It was first published on 26th July 1938 and continues to this day. In September 2009 The Beano's 3500th issue was published. Needless to say the comic holds the world record for being the world's longest running weekly comic which is interesting because The Dandy (also published by D C Thomson) actually predated it, being first published on 4th December 1937.

These weren’t the only comics D C Thomson produced. In addition to The Beano and The Dandy it’s best known for producing Oor Wullie, The Broons (two very Scottish titles) and Commando comics. Here's a delightful wee animation someone's done of Wullie reciting 'A Man's a Man for aw that':

I also read The Dandy and occasionally two of its other comics the The Topper and The Beezer. These last two were a bit different in that they were tabloids (twice the size of the other comics on the market) and so felt even more like newspapers. The Topper ran from 7th February 1953 to 15th September 1990, when it merged with The Beezer (which had been on the go since 21st January 1956) and both comics beezernumber1were renamed as Beezer and Topper which ran until 1993. The merging of comics was a common practice in the UK.

In addition to the weekly comics there would also be an annual. These had hard-backed covers and so have lasted well and are quite collectable. Every Christmas you could expect two or three annuals. In addition to the regular annuals in time the most popular characters would get their own books: Dennis the Menace and The Bash Street Kids (Beano), Beryl the Peril (Topper) and Desperate Dan (Dandy).

The British Dennis first appeared on 17th March 1951. Coincidently the US Dennis appeared on 12th March 1951. Dennis Mitchell (US) is a precocious but lovable, freckle-faced five-and-a-half-year-old boy with a blond cowlick and a penchant for mischief; the British Dennis (surname unknown) is 10 years old (though at times he has been portrayed as slightly older again), he has dark spiky hair and an iconic black-and-red horizontal-striped jumper. Unlike the US Dennis, he is more actively malicious than merely mischievous.

1971_Beryl_The_Peril_CoverJust as The Topper had developed a female version of Dennis (Beryl first appeared in print on 7th February 1953) so did The Beano: Minnie the Minx. She first popped up in issue 596, dated 19th December 1953. Like most DC Thomson characters, Minnie's parents are never mentioned by name; and are referred to simply as 'Min's dad' and 'Min's mum'.

Roger the Dodger was probably my personal favourite. He first appeared in The Beano issue 561, dated 18th April 1953, and is still on the go. His appearance is vaguely similar to that of Dennis the Menace: he wears a black and red chequered jumper, black trousers and takes better care of his hair; he also used to have a white tie but it seems to have disappeared over the years. What I liked about Roger was that he was thoughtful. It wasn’t he was any more successful that Dennis and was often caught out but I liked his approach to being bad. Only Roger’s motivation wasn’t so much to be bad as to get out of doing things he didn’t want to do. He would retreat to his room, consult his many books of dodges and come up with a plan.

DC Thomson had a style that remains essentially unchanged right down to today. Before them we had what we would think of as the weekly British adventure comics – story papers which had pages upon pages of text stories with a couple of spot illustrations per story and maybe a couple of pages of comic strip to break up the monotony of the solid text. All that changed with DC Thomson. The humour in all their comics was basic, cartoonish – the fun stemmed from the eccentric and often larger than life characters which were carefully designed to allow readers to relate to and sympathise with them and laugh at the ridiculous scrapes they got themselves into. Authority (generally parental, school or even the police) might be korky the catchallenged in the strips but the establishment invariably won through in the end. Anthropomorphic animals were commonplace: the lead character on The Beano was, for many years, Biffo the Bear; Korky the Cat held the same position on The Dandy.

It was rare for any of strips to involve the real world. A rare exception was Billy the Cat who was something of a Robin character without any Batman. His costume consisted of a black leather cat suit, with black backpack attached by yellow straps. He wore a crash helmet, modified to look like a cat's face, to hide his identity. Later he was joined by his cousin, known as Katie the Cat, who dressed the same way. Each of them utilised a weighted nylon line to lasso things. The end of the line has claws on it for hooking objects at which it is thrown. Not only can it hold the weight of a child without breaking, but it is also strong enough to be used to tie up adult criminals.

I have two clear memories concerning The Beano. Do you remember the day you stopped calling you father ‘Daddy’ and he became ‘Dad’? I do. I had gone out with my Beano and I was reading it on the kerb which is not nearly as comfortable as it looks in the comics. I noticed that Dennis and co called their parents ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ and so I determined to do likewise. My dad noticed when I did – I remember it registering on his face – but he never said a thing and he was ‘Dad’ from that day until the day he died.

hotspurThe second memory was going to the corner shop with my mum and asking if I could have a different comic rather than The Beano. I was growing up. What I asked for (and got, as I recall) was The Victor. The first issue of The Victor appeared on 25th February 1961 and lasted for 1657 issues. It was also published by DC Thomson. The Victor had numerous war and sport related stories. It was quite similar to The Hotspur and The Rover. Not having much interest in fighting or sports I didn’t read these kinds of comics very often but I wanted to show I was growing up.

What I did eventually progress onto was comics based on TV shows, most notably TV Century 21. Finally something by a publisher other that DC Thomson! TV21, as it soon was renamed, as you might expect had a very heavy TV bias. The majority of the strips were based around the various television series produced by Gerry Anderson whose production company was called Century 21 Productions. TV 21 was first published on 23rd January 1965 and ran up until 1968 when it merged with TV Tornado. The comic came into existence at the same time as Anderson’s latest project, Stingray, was broadcast – I remember sitting down to watch that with high expectations having been a great fan of Thunderbirds, Fireball XL5 and Supercar. My tea was fish fingers covered in batter (which was also something new), chips and peas – that’s how clear the tv21-6-07-68-lgmemory is in my head. TV21 included stories covering all Century 21 Productions and so, as the years went by, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. In time there were others added to the mix, most notably Terry Nation’s Daleks, a spinoff from Doctor Who.

In contrast to the earlier TV Comic which ran at the same time and was a traditional strip comic, although with higher production values than DC Thomson’s offerings. TV21 on the other hand was presented as a newspaper for children with a front page of "Stop Press" items and "news" style photographs of their puppet heroes. TV Tornado featured the popular series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Saint. I have no doubt I bought issues of all of the comics over the years.

Unless you lived in the UK in the sixties it’s impossible to appreciate the immense popularity of the Gerry Anderson television shows. Forget the truly awful life action Thunderbirds and go back to the source material. The same goes for Doctor Who. It might be back in favour but that’s only because those kids who watched the shows in the sixties and seventies were so enthralled by it that as soon as they got a bit of power you simply knew it was only a matter of time before it came back.

The other comic I was buying around this time was Lion, another non-DC Thomson comic but a more traditional one as far as its production values went. Lion was brought out to compete with Eagle which I don’t recall ever reading before it was incorporated by Lion in May 1969. Lion I remember for one character, The Spider:

lionspiderIn the summer of 1965 we were introduced to The Spider. Created and written by Superman creator Jerry Siegel and superbly drawn by Reg Bunn. The Spider was a brilliant criminal mastermind who desired to become the uncrowned king of crime. He possessed some amazing gadgetry including his famous steely-web, the helicar and helium gas bubble. The story initially consisted of just two pages, but quickly increased to 4 and sometimes 5 pages. The layout of the frames was different as well. Instead of the usual 4 rows of drawings we had just 3, which meant that each frame was much more detailed thus accounting for those extra pages. The Spider, who looked a little bit like Star Trek's Mr Spock, started his Lion career as a villain. He was ably assisted by Professor Pelham, a crooked scientist, and Roy Ordini an ex-safecracker. As the story went on, the master of crime declared his intention of smashing Crime Incorporated, an organisation of gangsters, and with the help of the Exterminator they set about "tackling the individual gang-bosses, relentlessly pursuing them to wherever they have hidden their loot and taking it from them!" Although the Spider was a bit of a crook you were always willing him to be successful, usually because his foes were even more crooked. – comicsuk.co.uk

American comics were around in the sixties but rare. There was one newsagent in the town centre that stocked them but getting two issues of any comic in a row was rare; luckily most stories were only an issue long and arcs weren’t too common. The first comic I remember buying was Forever People #1 circa February 1971 but I know I’d read Superman and Batman before that. My main source for superhero material was a comic called Smash! Smash! ran for 257 issues, between 5th Smash_No75February 1966 and 3rd April 1971. It was part of Odhams' Power Comics line and was basically an amalgam of the best of Pow!, Fantastic, Wham! and Terrific. (no idea why Fantastic didn’t get an exclamation mark like all the others.) These comics reprinted material from Marvel Comics and DC Comics. The quality would have been considerably inferior to the original issues and the strips would often be in black and white.

Interestingly the one superhero I remember from that time was actually Rubberman. I can still picture a single panel with him squeezing his body into effectively a drainpipe – a tight squeeze even for him – and his brow is covered with beads of sweat; he realises that now he’s committed himself to this he has to succeed or die. Why, I wonder, should that image have stuck all these years when I couldn’t even remember the name of the comic he appeared in?

Times have changed. Boy have they changed. The Dandy has just been revamped (and not for the first time) and reissued. Now, needless to say, there’s a website and everything and the focus has also changed. According to The Drum:

Harry HillThe Dandy will also no longer look to offer cover mounted free gifts and focus more on its characters, including Harry Hill’s Real-Life Adventures in TV-Land running exclusively in the now weekly title.

As well as Harry Hill, other celebrities will make appearances within the pages of comic as it looks to spoof popular culture, while new characters will include Pepperoni Pig, Postman Prat, Clive 5, Bill Oddie-Watch, The ZZZ-Team, The Y-Factor and Bear Thrills.

I’m not a big Harry Hill fan I have to say. But he is hugely popular and I can see why it might be a coup to have a strip actually written by him. I suppose the closest in comedic terms in my day would have been Benny Hill who had a comic strip in Look-In which came out in the early seventies. It was another comic like TV21, slightly higher end featuring strips of the likes of The Tomorrow People, The Six Million Dollar Man, Charlie's Angels, Knight Rider, The A-Team and my personal favourite, Timeslip.

What really shocked me was the news that The Dandy was lowering its cover price to £1.50 from issue #3508. [Cue Yorkshire accent] When I were a lad it cost 2p! That’s an annual increase of 11½ percent every year since then. I had a wee look at the website and downloaded a couple of the free strips. I was appalled at what Danthey’d done with Desperate Dan. He used to be such an imposing figure. Now look at him! And don’t get me started on the new additions, Shao Lin Punks, George vs Dragon and Count Snotula – that last one looks like is was cut and pasted from the pages of Viz which, in case you’ve never heard of it, was an adult comic brought out in 1979 to lampoon comics like The Beano and The Dandy. It specialises in toilet humour. I was not a fan.

The Beano also has a website and you can download a PDF of a sample comic. I have to say that I was relieved to find that Dennis, Minnie, Rodger and the Bash Street Kids all looked pretty much as they did when I left them.

I knew it was only a matter of time before I turned into my father spending more time looking back to an idealised past rather than stand to have to look at the present. I do try not to be nostalgic for its own sake. Things weren’t always better when I were a lad and if you’ve no idea what I’m referencing there it’s Monty Python’s ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch. The big question still stands as to whether comics are good desperate-danfor our kids. I would like to say they didn’t influence me but they clearly did. I let a character in a comic decide how I should refer to my father. I suppose he should just be grateful that we weren’t living at a time when Coneheads had been turned into a comic strip or I might have started calling him a parental unit and I'm not sure I would have got away with that when I was five.

Researchers in the UK in 1994 and 1995 investigated the reading interests of 8000 children. The authors of that report found that:

  • overall, comics were less popular than books amongst 11-14 year olds;
  • in the 10+ age group the percentage of children who bought comics (34.2%) was about the same as that of those buying books (35.9%) although it is possible that this high figure for book buying also includes comics which children have classified as books;
  • boys bought more comics than girls and maintained their interest in them over a longer period of time;
  • older children who had read comics turned their attention to newspapers and magazines; and
  • girls' choice of periodicals followed socio-economic lines while boys' tastes crossed social barriers.

A 1997 survey (a much smaller sampling however) came up with similar figures:

  • 31% of boys and 9% of girls read a comic of some kind;
  • whilst all the girls read magazines or books as well as comics, 6.7% of boys read only comics;
  • most of the boys (25% of the boys surveyed) who read comics chose The Beano and Dandy; and
  • a small number of boys (about 3% of boys surveyed) opted for more violent comics like Judge Dredd.

dreddIt’s the ages that interest me. I would have thought that nowadays by puberty kids wouldn’t be so interested in comics like The Beano and The Dandy. Maybe that’s changed in the last decade since the Internet has tightened its grip. I don’t know. What I do know is that words and images have never been so close.

Kathleen Monnin, Assistant Professor of Literacy at the University of North Florida, likes to point to the central role of comics by invoking today’s all-important goal of “image literacy.” “We find ourselves living during the greatest communication revolution in history, where image-dominant literacies of screen, animation, technology, video game, and picture are starting to share the stage with the traditional print-text literacies.”

[…]

In short, want to show kids how billboards catch your attention in a matter of seconds as you drive along the highway? Study comics. Want to teach the way that the layout of a print ad or a Web page maximizes the impact of the available space through strategic combinations of print and graphics? Ditto. You can teach formal elements such as composition, rhythm, colour, typeface, page navigation, and many more, all by using comics as your springboard. – Peter Gutierrez, ‘Sparking Media Literacy with Comics’, Bookshelf

I have to say I’d never really thought about comics that way. I found life on the Internet easy from the very first day I logged on; I intuitively got it. Maybe the years and years I spent as a kid (and an adult) reading comics had helped prepare me for this new experience and I never knew it. It’s a thought, isn’t it?

Let me leave you with Reservoir Dodge:

And The Beano All Stars:

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